Most of the music I tend to love falls into some pretty easy-to-predict categories—poppy but not too poppy; vocal-driven; major chords, no blues progressions; rhythmically interesting; melodically dense, even if in subtle ways.

But the music of  Luxembourg-born, Iceland-raised, NYC-residing Úlfur Hansson (who simply goes by Úlfur) is anything but easy to categorize. His just-released sophomore album, Arborescence, is a wonderfully adventurous sonic exploration, one that’s both really interesting and really compelling musically, winding from atmospheric symphonic soundscapes to warmly humming choral pieces.

Given Hansson’s diverse background in the worlds of dance, hardcore, and symphony, his collaborations with black metal drummers and members of múm and Sigur Rós, and the fact that he invented and built some of the instruments used on the new album (such as the electromagnetic harp pictured above), it makes some sense that labels wouldn’t stick well to his work, but we were compelled to find out more about the music of Úlfur and inspiration behind it.

raven + crow: It’s funny—leading up to this interview, I did a quick search in my email for your name to bring up your bio and stumbled across this 2013 newsletter from Other Music in NYC (RIP) with a review of your debut where the writer called the album “a warm studio creation that combines a host of natural field recordings, building percussion from stones dropping into an Icelandic pond, or birds on the wing, coupled with his own subtle instrumentation.” Does that bring you back at all?

Úlfur Hansson: I actually can’t remember that particular review, but it’s definitely an accurate description of what was going on with that album. It’s funny reading about other people’s experiences of my music, since my relationship with it is already so intimate. It’s almost as if I live inside of it—the things i’m building—but it’s impossible for me to see it from the outside, the exterior.

No, that makes a lot of sense. How did recording this follow-up to your debut some four years later differ for you?

White Mountain was recorded while moving around, on tours here and there across the world—written and produced on my laptop; no consistent time in a studio at all. Arborescence, on the other hand, was recorded in a live studio environment, at Figureight in Prospect Heights, NYC. The immediacy of sticking with whatever happens in the moment, making decisions right then and there / no edits! / no alternative takes—Randall is adamant about using the computer as a tape machine, and it really contributes to the studio ghosts, the magic of the recording arts. I am much more focused these days, and I think the two albums couldn’t be more different form each other.

They are very disparate—I feel like you can tell they come from the same artist, but they’re still very different pieces of a whole, it’s true. Can you talk about the inspiration for Arborescence? Does it tell a story or hold together as a larger narrative or is it more a collection of related songs for you?

Despite being composed of very different musical languages and ideas, Arborescence is bound together by an arc that spontaneously arose from a strong sense of intent. I think having visualized the entire weight and body of the album beforehand really contributed to how it all came together in the end. The collaborative side of it too, it all kind of effortlessly “clicked” together then and there, I think in part because of the time I spent on developing vivid intent.

Nicely put. I feel like, in all creative fields, so much of the work comes before pen’s put to paper, so to speak. You’re actually based out of New York now, right?

Yes!

Ah, we miss it still. Though we won’t come February. Those winters. Do you still feel a strong connection—emotionally, musically, culturally—to Iceland though? I know you were born elsewhere, but I think you were primarily raised there, if I’m not mistaken.

My strongest emotional, cultural, and musical connections usually have more ties towards people, individuals; when you resonate with another. I think that plays a bigger part than the actual place in and of itself; BUT, Reykjavík happens to be full of inspiring musicians and artists, it’s very special in that way.

See, I’ve asked this of other Icelandic artists we’ve interviewed, but I’m curious as to your take on why exactly the music and arts scenes in Iceland are so very vibrant and expressive.

It’s so cold and isolated, and homogenic – maybe it’s a reaction to the grimness of monoculture, there are a lot of great world-builders doing art in Iceland.

Yeah, that’s the general consensus. Makes me want to move away from Los Angeles. Speaking of the West Coast, though, I know you studied as a composer out here for a spell. Do you feel that place or ideas of place or home enter your music a lot?

I think what interests me most in music and in sound comes from outer space, but yes, I definitely grew as an artist living and working in the bay area for two years.

We mostly occupy ourselves with music that would fall pretty evenly in the pop realm, even at its most experimental. But you seem to jump back-and-forth from pop to symphonic to what most would term as experimental. I’ll avoid the more banal questioning along the lines of ‘what do you consider your music,’ but I am curious about your process. Are the inspirations or ideas that led to, say, “Arborescence” (the song)—the cinematic opening instrumental title track that begins with a rhythmic cacophony—the same inspirations or ideas that led to the poppier, lyric-driven “Fovea”? Or how do those inspirations relate for you, on this album and past ones?

Well, the title track “Arborescence” was originally written for the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra, and “Fovea” was written on guitar. I’m interested in every possible approach to express myself through sound. That’s the whole idea behind the album, and defines the meaning of the title. Weightlessness sounds like a metal riff to me, but i wrote it with a Midi sequencer on my computer, so it’s computer music; although the sound itself is coming from an orchestral sized church organ that I could patch my computer into to control it. I took the bellows apart and restricted airflow to the 6000+ pipes in the instrument, the sound of which informed how I continued to develop my metal riff, on my computer, to create an electro-acoustic piece. It’s that kind of recursive, reiterative process I like to pursue. It’s arborescent, all the different means to create music that have been influential and meaningful to me growing out of myself, like a tree.

That reminds me—I really need to start working that word into conversations. How about that percussive intro in the title track—was that Greg Fox? I read he played on the album in places.

Greg is a phenomenal musician. I had been wanting to work with him since I played at this festival in 2011, where Liturgy where sharing the stage with us. He is a good friend and continues to impress and inspire, I feel lucky to have become part of such a great scene of musicians in Brooklyn.

Yeah, I love his work with JDFR. An all-time favorite band of mine was Rachel’s, who were out of Louisville, KY and brought this independent sensibility and driving rhythm to what little I knew at the time of modern symphonic music. Just wondering if you have any bands or composers who are pushing music that’s traditionally considered classical or symphony-based into the popular realm well.

I like Rachel’s, I remember this one album A Ritual Loop, by one of their members—it’s an amazing album, so good. There is a lot of good music out there, especially in terms of crossing borders. There are many examples. For instance, Monoliths & Dimensions is a phenomenal record that binds very different elements into a singular behemoth of sound. From the top of my mind, you’ll also hear things like “four ethers” by serpentwithfeet on the radio, which is Hector Berlioz seamlessly integrated with an R&B anthem. I also love what Anna Von Hausswolff does with the pipe organ.

Per Mission was the band—mainly Jason Noble, I think, but Rachel was on there too. Yeah, awesome stuff. We’re starting to veer into my dear post-punk southern 90’s though. Back to now, are you touring the album at all?

Yes!! I’ll have more info on that soon, I’ll be sure to keep you posted!

I’m excited to see what your live show will look like. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk, Úlfur.

You can listen to Úlfur’s new album, Arborescence, above and on his BandCamp page, where you can also buy digital and physical versions of the album. Water/arm photo of Úlfur by Elísabet Davíðsdóttir.

We love a good party. And what better reason to celebrate and come together with friends and family than a wedding?

Friends and collaborators Paul and Mary reached out to us a while back about having us create a non-traditional wedding invitation for their equally non-traditional wedding reception. The result was this screen-printed 13×19 poster, themed—as was the reception—along the lines of an old-timey circus. The party itself, held on an old ranch in the mountains of Malibu, boasted traditional carts for popcorn, pretzel, and cotton candy vendors, a tuk tsk (Indian auto rickshaw) the couple rode in on accompanied by a hybrid jazz-Indian baraat, and an actual Ferris wheel, so, needless to say, the invitation to this celebration needed to communicate its epic, carnival-like nature.

Mary + Paul asked us to include illustrations of circus/carnival imagery such as clowns, elephants, lions (“Singh” is Sanskrit for “lion”), and the starburst pattern often used in posters like this, but also wanted to include traditional Indian themes and some of the elements present at the reception itself (Ferris wheel + tuk tuk) and their dog, Michael Corleone.

We took all of this inspiration and content and translated it into a cohesive look by giving everything an engraving feel before sending the files off to a Los Angeles-based screen-printer. The final three-color print included a pass of gold ink with metallic flecks for that extra touch of flare.

You can see more of our wedding and event invitation work in our design portfolio. And, as we always tell our clients, it’s not 100% necessary to invite us to the parties and events we design for, but, again, we do love a good party.

Mazel tov, Mary + Paul!

Bringing you a spookily good mixtape this October with tracks from largely new or new-to-us artists, all of whom we’re really excited about, starting off with Leila Gharib’s Sequoyah Tiger of Verona, Italy, an artist whose debut full-length on favorite More Music shows her trekking back and forth between experimental vocal-forward pop and stripped-down retro-weird electronic music of the best kind. We’d highly recommend giving the just-released album, Parabolabandit, a listen through. Following that, we’ve got a known favorite and top contender for album-of-the-year, SZA, with one of her poppier songs, “Prom” (PS—check out her site if you haven’t already; pretty awesome interactive concept). Then we’re featuring a slew of artists and tracks we discovered recently, largely through random Soundcloud exploration, including the excellent Melbourne-born, Stockholm-based electronic artist VILDE (née Thomas Vilde); Amsterdam’s duo Cut_; beautifully sombre electronic pop from England’s Art School Girlfriend; and the polar opposite—upbeat, R+B-tinged pop from Seattle trio The Flavr Blue.

Bordeaux, France’s Pendentif return with their trademark laid-back lounge pop; then we’ve got some great, rolling, breezy pop from Milwaukee’s GGOOLLDD, a hooky track from the all-too-aptly-named Los Angeles duo Smoke Season, and an awesome song from Melbourne duo ALTA that’s almost entirely percussion and vox. Seriously, the scene in Melbourne is insane lately.

While we’re on the topic of insanity, the new full-length from Norwegian musical child prodigy and ex-doom metal band member Hanne Hukkelberg is testing the limits of both what our sane minds can comprehend and how much we can enjoy music—it’s truly a magical album and another top contender this year. We follow a favorite track of Hukkelberg’s with a favorite from the (rightly) highly lauded French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi, written after a 16-year-old Lisa-Kaindé of the duo was wrongfully arrested by the French police.

Ending the mixtape, we’ve got a really lovely new song we can’t stop listening to from Bristol-based Elder Island, a beautiful and poppier track from Icelandic/NYC-based composer and musician Úlfur, and, to finish things out, a slightly psychedelic, math-y track from Leeds band The Golden Age of TV.

Enjoy and, as always, support the bands you like here and local record stores alike—they all keep life beautiful.

Around this time last year, we received an invitation to a friend’s pickling party. We fully realize there are many on the vinegar-averse side of the pickle spectrum in the world, but we both fall heavily on whatever the opposite end of that spectrum might be—vinegar-obsessed; brine-dependant; pickledicted? Whatever you’d like to call, we dig pickles of many and most kinds, across many and most culinary spheres. (If you’ve never had any of the varieties of the very intense and craveable Indian pickle, we’d highly recommend giving them a try.)

So needless to say, we were stoked to be invited to a pickle party (not to be confused with a sausage fest).

Actually, this wasn’t just any pickle party, this was, as our friend and fellow pickle-enthusiest put it, “an afternoon of pickling and sitting around in the backyard being unproductive, colloquially referred to as the Just The Tip Pickle-a-thon.”

We’re very much a high-low culture kind of group.

What followed, though, was a lovely, relatively refined afternoon of laid-back pickling on a massive level, complimented by good company, cocktails, and a nice view of Los Angeles from our friend’s back yard in Altadena. We thought the whole thing worth both documentation and potential replication for anyone interested, especially as we near non-peak-produce season for much of the country.

 

Key to the success of the party was making the whole thing as easy to participate in as possible.

Pickling’s something that can seem intimidating to anyone who hasn’t done it before, especially for those only familiar with traditional canning and the arduous sterilization of jars involved. But, unless you’re a homesteader looking to feed yourself through a long, harsh winter, quick-pickling will likely get the job done for you and knock down some mental barriers that could keep you from delicious homemade pickles. (Instructions abound on the web, but Eating Well has a nice, un-daunting how-to that we like on the non-canning version of pickling.)

With the goal in-mind of making pickling easy, our friend and her roommates generously provided snacks, drinks, a wealth of sealable glass mason jars, and a huge stockpot full of brine. All they asked attendees to bring were “food items you’d like to preserve in a salty brine for all eternity” and any additional drinks or snacks anyone might like.

True, putting down for spices and mason jars is a bit of an investment, but it went a long way to easing the buy-in for us party-goers. Plus, in this case, they kept the brine very simple, multiplying this recipe from Epicurious (the above-linked quick-pickle instructions list good basic sweet brines and sour brines too), and mason jars are made to be bought in bulk at pretty reasonable prices, online and in most larger grocery stores. If the finances are still a barrier though, it’s easy enough to ask everyone to chip in a couple bucks for the whole thing.

At the end of a long, lazy day of catching up with friends and sharing a glass or two of pickle-friendly cocktails, we ended up with a nice array of pickled vegetables that we enjoyed both on their own as happy hour snacks and as complimentary toppers on meals in the months to come (I for one enjoy a sliced pickled radish on just about any Asian dish).

So next time you’re looking for an excuse to hang out with friends and running low on briney condiments, consider a pickling party.

 

It’s hard to say for sure where I first heard the band Lali Puna. It could have been a friend’s recommendation in the 90s or the ever-influential Other Music newsletter (RIP), where I got so many of my musical finds in those days. Regardless though, the German band struck a chord with me on first listen and demonstrated a depth and organic, layered approach that I didn’t know could exist in electronic music. After seven years of inactivity, Lali Puna recently returned to the scene with an album full of new material, Two Windows, that sounds at the same time true-to-form and explorative. I recently got the chance to speak with Lali Puna frontwoman Valerie Trebeljahr about the new album, art, and—as is so on the minds of late—the state of the world. Also, Katy Perry. Read on and give a listen to album excerpts below.

raven + crow: Alright, I’m afraid I have to start with straight-up unadulterated praise and fanboy-dom—basically, your band and Björk are responsible for my longstanding love of electronic music and the realization in the late 90s that it could be much more than vocal-less house music thumpers (not that there’s anything wrong with those). So, first, thank you. Can you take us back, say, 19 years and talk a little bit about Lali Puna forming and what the scene was like then?

Valerie Trebeljahr: Oh, thanks a lot!! Björk was really important for me too. But I guess she was for everyone. 

I started to record as Lali Puna after my all-girl-group L.B.Page dissolved. I couldn’t play a real instrument like guitar or whatever. I just had a few years of piano lessons as a child. So I had a Korg Delta, which is a really nice old synthesizer, a drumcomputer (lent to me by my flat-mate) and a four-track. It was this DIY-time, everybody was in a band or had a label. So the first four songs I’d ever written were pressed on vinyl.

Man, now I have to try to find some L.B. Page archives somewhere. So, your last album—Our Inventions—was in 2010, I think; was there a deliberate or formal band break-up of sorts afterwards or did things just move in different directions in life for everyone?

We didn’t really talk about it in the band. But there was a point when I decided that I would stop making music and do what everybody expected me to do: Take care of the family, do a real job.

Well then what brought about the return with this new album some seven years later? Whose idea was that and what made now feel like the right time for it?

We got this invitation to play in Korea. And as I was born there (I am adopted), I always wanted to visit Korea. So we did this project. And I found out that I really missed making music. Markus and me then seperated and I thought I really have to do this, I want to record an album. So I slept less and wrote songs.

Where does the name of the album, Two Windows, come from?

The title Two Windows refers to a childrens’ book from the seventies by Maurice Sendak. It’s about Jennie, a dog, who leaves home. The plant says: You got two windows. I just have one. You have everything. But Jennie leaves home to be what she wants to be. It’s a strange and really great book—not really a childrens book. Some critic wrote it’s about a dog with a midlife crisis. I think it’s about empancipation. Maybe it’s both!

Oh, I’d never heard of that book. Big fan of Where the Wild Things Are, though…again, like Björk, who isn’t? And who did the art for the album?

The cover art was done by Catrin Sonnabend. I absolutely love the cover she’s done, because it is so very clear and focused. The photo was taken by my friend Patrick Morarescu. I had done photos with him for Scary World Theory. We tested a lot of things and buggered around, it was really fun doing these photos. He had this slide with the two colours, red and blue, and we used it as a projection. So Catrin and Patrick are resonsible for this cover.

Nice. Just took a look at Catrin’s portfolio via her site—really like her stuff. Patrick’s too.

I was happy to read in Two Windows’ press release something along the lines of ‘Yes, Lali Puna’s sound has changed; how could it not have when the world’s changed so much’ (to paraphrase). I think that gave light to something I believe but have never verbalized properly—that, when these bands reunite or just come back on the scene after so much time and sound exactly the same, I personally find myself strangely disappointed or just not into it, regardless of how much I loved that exact sound, say, ten years ago; My Bloody Valentine, the Pixies, American Football, so many bands for me. Was your music’s evolution intentional and planned or was the resulting sound so many years later more naturally arrived at than that?

Oh, today I read a review saying “Lali Puna sound exactly the same like seven years ago!” And believe me, I tried my best not to. But I also didn’t want to make an experimental noise-album or imitate Katy Perry. I think in the end it’s about credibility. Maybe this album doesn’t sound like it, but for me it’s such a major step in gaining self-confidence. This is the first album where everything is exactly the way I wanted it to be. I am so very happy I could do this album.

That’s really awesome to hear and, honestly, it does sound so different to me—in a great way though. I do have to say, I would love to hear your take on Katy Perry nonetheless.

I know you personally have done a lot of collaborative work in the past, singing on other artists’ tracks, but this is the first time I’ve seen numerous artists featured as collaborations on a proper Lali Puna album. Was that just something that made this new project seem more fun or do-able at this stage?

I am not good in working alone. In the beginning you think: Wow, I can do whatever I want. But after a time I need someone to talk about the song, I need other input. Maybe I am too limited, I don’t know. So I thought it would be great to do a collaboration album. I started to ask friends or people I liked to send me stuff. And I was always on top of the world when I got something. But, a collaboration album takes YEARS. So I wrote the rest of the songs alone. And then Taison (Christian Heiß) and me sat a long, long time in the studio and worked everything out and Caspar (Christoph Brandner) played some drums. So Lali Puna is still a band although I often just talk of myself—that’s a bit embarrasing.

Funny. Yeah, I’d personally never had much of a read on Lali Puna as a band vs more of a solo project. Sounds like it’s a bit of both.

So, lyrically, I feel like there’s exploration of the world in more cultural or societal or even political terms than I’m used to from you all—first, would you say that’s accurate and, if so, is that a product of these times and what’s going in the world?

I don’t know. It’s very personal at the same time, it’s just that I tried to combine that with a sort of a political sense. Or the other way round. I think one of the topics that is really important to me is that nothing is really private anymore. You think it’s your Facebook account. But of course it isn’t. It’s owned by Facebook. You get the right advertisement. Etc etc. Most of the people don’t care, big data whatever. But after Twitter-Trump we see: We better watch out.

Yeah, no kidding. I know I’m not alone in looking to our artists for insight into larger ideas or trends in the world—do you have any sage words to help put things in perspective? There seems to be so much violence and hate in the world and it seems so much more “allowed” than it used to be, in my lifetime, at least. Do you think art and artists have a responsibility to address these kind of issues?

I regulary work as a journalist for a small cultural and political radiomagazine. And I often walked home and felt so bad, like I nearly fainted. But what I came to understand after two years of being sort of “down and out” is that we have no other choice than to start to believe that things will get better. I was such a pessimist my whole life—it’s so easy. It’s so easy to say to all the activists, you are naive. But you probably need a bit naivity to make things better.

I don’t know if artists have a political responsibility. I like a lot of “unpolitical” music. But when I read an interview I always want to sort of learn something. How she or he did stuff, handled problems, sees the world. So artists have at least the responsibiliy to not talk shit, haha.

Fair enough! How are things in Germany these days? We get alternating impressions of a liberal paradise under Merkel and a nation that’s not so foreign to us in terms of societal tensions on the rise.

Politics can be really strange: Almost nobody—except the Greeks—will remember that everybody hated Merkel, at leat in the European Union. That was before Trump, before Brexit, before the refugee crisis, before the series of terrorist attacks in Europe. Now she seems like a solid rock, but what we shouldn’t forget is that the social gap is rising—and Merkel does not care.

Thats sounds all too familiar, sadly. Back to the music though—are there any new or lesser known bands in Germany or elsewhere that you’re liking a lot of late?

Well, the bad thing about doing a record is that you listen to your own stuff a lot. So that didn’t give me much time to search for new music. A few months ago I saw a DJ-set from Helena Hauff and that was fascinating. I also like what she does on recordings. She comes from Hamburg, which is where the other artist I also liked very much in the last months comes from: Sophia Kennedy. But they are both well known, so that doesn’t answer your question properly!

Shows what I know—I hadn’t heard of either! Finally, though, I know you’re touring to support the album in Europe; any plans to come to the States?

We would love to…But it’s really difficult for european bands to tour in the US, because Visa and flights are extremly expensive. We would have to become enormously famous, right now I can’t see that!

Damn Visas! We’ll just have to work on the enormous fame then!

You can listen to excerpts from Lali Puna’s new album, Two Windows, above; you can download the album or order it via the band’s BandCamp page and by way of your favorite physical or digital record store.

Feature photo by Patrick Morarescu; band photo below by Bernd Bergmann.

This month’s mixtape again dances on the line that divides somber and celebratory, easing into the whole thing with a beautiful new track by Los Angeles-based producer Nosaj Thing and his track “Way We Were”, featuring NYU Clive Davis grad Zuri Marley (granddaughter of that Marley). We’re following that with another Angeleno, Lawrence Rothman, and his addictive, 80s-tinged break-out “Wolves Still Cry”. The video for the track is a dreamy dancing ode to LA that’s worth a watch; we’re excited for this multi-faceted (literally; check his site) artist’s full album too, out October 13th. And keeping things local, we follow that with a great, brand new track from Los Angeles songstress VIAA.

Moving across the pond, we’ve got the unstoppable just-out single from a little artist named Banks; a wonderfully washed out song from Vancouver’s The Belle Game; a hook-filled track from Milwaukee duo Reyna; a new single from a favorite, Nordic band Liima (who had one of our favorite albums last year and who’s currently supporting Grizzly Bear in Europe); new wave R+B from Savannah’s BOSCO; a couple compellingly glitchy tracks from Melbourne’s Life is Better Blonde and Chicago’s Glances; a really nice song from Sydney’s Annie Bass (Sydney and Melbourne’s respective music scenes are so on fire these days); and not-so-new but can’t-get-it-out-of-heads one from Khalid (who’s so cool his middle name is actually ‘Legend’ and he doesn’t even use it).

We’re finishing up with Danish band CHINAH, another one from New Zealand’s ives. (who we featured in last September’s mix), and British duo Mount Kimbie featuring longtime favorite experimental artist Micachu.

Enjoy! And, speaking of cool videos, the one for The Belle Game’s “Spirit” is pretty stellar—it features India’s last remaining female “Well of Death” rider; check it out below.

Earlier this year, Katie + I took our first trip to Japan. We’d never aten nearly so far from home and never jumped so deeply into a culture so different in so many ways to our own, so on the surface this trip was pretty intimidating. But 13-some hours after leaving Los Angeles, as we were racing through the streets of Tokyo half a world away, past delightfully unintelligible neon signs, towering skyscrapers, and diminutive ramen shops, we knew we were in for the adventure of a lifetime. Indeed, our only regret is not staying longer and experiencing more of that wonderful country and its equally wonderful people.

In the days leading up to the trip I visited one of our favorite LA businesses, Poketo, before they moved from their Arts District headquarters and picked up a travel journal, not for me (my handwriting is entirely illegible and journaling ethics extremely questionable, as you may have already gleaned from the erratically paced posts here). No, said journal was for Katie, whose handwriting is font-worthy and who had the foresight and wherewithal to document our trip with detailed descriptions and kawaii illustrations on a daily basis.

The primary reason for the travel journalling was totally self-serving—we’ve found that the lines between days and events and experiences while traveling tend to blur and, over time, a lot of the details that make a trip worth taking in the first place get lost or at least become hazy over time. Or maybe we’ve both got early onset Alzheimer’s.

Either way, we also wanted to capture the pages of this finite analog journal here, on the pages of this less-finite digital journal, both for the friends who’ve asked us to do so and for those strangers visiting Japan who are looking for some tips, especially of the vegan-friendly variety—for the record, Japan is super, super vegan-friendly despite what some might say, it just takes a little research ahead of time and some effort on the ground.

Katie detailed each day of the trip with one to two journal pages, which you’ll see full-screen as you scroll down. Below each page, we expand on the pages a little and provide a few links through to points of interest. Then we’ve got links through to separate photo pages for all but the first and last days in Japan, which were partial days and dominated more by travel than good photography. Those pages too expand a bit on the written journal pages and provide some links to the places we ate, drank, and visited along the way.

Day One: “Let’s Drink and Fight”
Our trip comprised a total of ten days (again, far too few) split between Tokyo, Kyoto, and a ryokan (traditional Japanese roadside inn) and onsen (natural volcanic hot springs) in the mountainous Hakone region just south of Fuji. We arrived in Tokyo and met our two good friends and travel companions from Brooklyn (also vegan) at the airport just in time to catch the shuttle to our hotel—Cerulean Tower Tokyu in the Shibuya ward, historically the site of a castle in which the Shibuya family resided from the 11th century through the Edo period and which, now, boasts a central transportation hub and pretty robust shopping and night life. We went back and forth with our friends about whether to go the more affordable route of staying at an Airbnb, but found them all to be a bit on the small side for four people and thought it wise to ease into Japan culturally with the aid of a staff and concierge used to dealing with English-speakers. We stand by that decision—it gave us a solid platform for diving deeper into the culture and throwing off the training wheels in the days ahead.

Day one was all about staying up as late as we could in order to get our internal clocks closer to the local sleep schedule. So it was basically hotel, hotel bar, and then winding through some backstreets near the hotel to a nearby cozy vegan restaurant—Nagi Shokudo. On the vegan thing, yes, it can be a little tough to both find places that cater to totally animal-free diets and to communicate that if your Japanese is as scant as ours. Going into all of this, some vegan friends who’d recently visited recommended that we print out some cards that read “申し訳ありませんが、私はビーガンです。 肉、鶏肉、魚(出汁を含めて)、卵、乳製品 が食べられません”—basically, “I’m vegan and can’t eat meat, poultry or fish, including dashi, eggs, or dairy. Thank you for your understanding.” We did that, and it was a great crutch to have in our back pocket (usually literally), but, eventually we decided to make the effort of learning a few key phrases and trying to make more of a go of it with the language. It was intimidating for sure, but we found—in restaurant settings and elsewhere—that people really appreciated the effort in almost every case, even if we were likely butchering the language (for anyone wanting to make use of those cards, though, they and others regarding dietary restrictions can be found on the Japanese food site, just hungry; and huge thanks to Ed + Deanna for passing those on). HappyCow is a great resource in Japan and we love supporting all-vegan restaurants when possible, but, as is true at home, some of our favorite dining experiences in Japan were at great restaurants that weren’t totally veg but were open to making vegan food once we reached or talked to them on the spot. It looks like someone just started up a site dedicated to Tokyo vegan and vegetarian restaurants this past April too called TokyoVege.com.

After dinner on day/night one though, it was basically a sleepless crawl through Shibuya’s night life. No photos exist from that first night, really, but, for anyone interested, the fight club bar mentioned in the journal pages above is worth a visit (actual fight cage next to the bar) as is the divey, hard-to-find Legless Arms Bar (a common trait for bars in Tokyo, we’d come to find). PS—if anyone finds a black cotton scarf at Nagi Shokudo, that’s totally mine.

Day Two: Cats, Shrines, Ramen, Whiskey, Repeat
Waking to proper Tokyo sunlight, our first full day in Japan was a marathon of activities that started with a gigantic multi-floor Tower Records filled with endless listening stations of local music (J-Pop + indie bands), walking on to the massive Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine within, and then exploring nearby neighborhoods. A note regarding the cat cafe mentioned above—in this realm and others, we’ve noticed that Japanese culture really loves a good theme in its entertainment. You’d be hard-pressed to find a run-of-the-mill, generic bar, cafe, or restaurant in most cities, but throw a rock and you’d be lucky not to hit a hospital-themed bar or monster-themed cafe or horror-prison-restaurant. A specific sub-genre of cafe that’s common in Japan is the animal cafe. Being lovers of animals, they had an immediate appeal…but, being lovers of animals, they also immediately gave rise to questions on ethics. From the rabbit cafes to the owl ones to the ones where monkeys served you drinks, they seem to range from seemingly okay to questionable at best to totally without a doubt fucked up and inhumane. We visited one cat cafe that seemed on the up-and-up in Harajuku—an area known for its fashion, shopping, and people-watching. It was Alice in Wonderland-themed (I have no idea) and they seemed to have some solid rules about interaction in place for the good of the cats, but the cats also seemed weirdly sleepy, so who knows. So we’d just recommend a little research (Time Out has a good listing they did in 2015 that gives you an idea of what we’re talking about). Dinner that night was at a vegan-friendly Japanese restaurant, Sumi-Bio.

<<DAY TWO PHOTOS>>

Day Three: “What is going on‽”
Part of our trip prep involved watching a couple Anthony Bourdain shows where he visits Japan, which are entertaining and pretty informative. In one, Bourdain visits two memorable locations in Shinjuku—an insane ‘restaurant’ called Robot Restaurant and a bizarre network of alleys with over 200 bars packed into an area of a couple blocks called Golden Gai, both of which we experienced on night three and both of which lived up to their insaneness. Appropriately enough, not too many photos exist from the night (some you can see via the link below), but there is this short video our friend Justin took.

<<DAY THREE PHOTOS>>

Day Four: Otaku + Tan Tan
Day four entailed touring around the beautiful and expansive imperial grounds, trekking up to Akihabara Electric Town—a shopping district dominated by old school video gamers and other “otaku”—and finding an all-vegan ramen shop buried deep in Tokyo Station. Ain Soph Soar—where we ate that night—is one of a chain of Ain Soph vegan restaurants around Tokyo, a recommendation we took from friends who weren’t crazy about the places, but thought they were a good go-to for vegan-friendly fare; we’d tend to agree on both counts. We’d highly recommend both bars we went to in Shibuya that night though—JBS, a tiny record-lined joint run that’s largely locals-only (a common thing in Tokyo); and BEATCAFE, a subterranean smoke-filled bar with cheap beer and loud indie rock that reminded us of the early 2000s in DC.

<<DAY FOUR PHOTOS>>

Day Five: Japanese Hipsters + Polite Indie Rock
Day five entailed subway-riding (something we’d gotten down pretty well at this point) over to an area of Tokyo we’d heard likened, essentially, to Williamsburg (Brooklyn, not historical Virginia)—Shimokitazawa, or “Shimokita” as the kids call it—for some vintage shopping and temple-style food. That night, we went to our first Japanese show to see local indie band, Amelie, which turned out to be quite the cultural experience, as Katie details above (the hand gesture thing was just…weird). They were good though; very 90s pop-punk.  Afterwards, we tracked down yet another difficult-to-find, difficult-to-get-in bar, one that came highly recommended by a friend of ours. The bar, Grandfather’s Rock’n’Roll Music Inn, was fucking awesome—started initially as a record shop by students of Hitotsubashi University in 1971, the remaining owner now operates the record-lined establishment as a bar, spinning vinyl only (as with JBS) and taking written requests throughout the night (Time Out did a little write-up on the place a while back); highly recommended.

<<DAY FIVE PHOTOS>>

Day Six: Kyoto, City of Shrines
Day six—our last proper day in Tokyo, sadly. We easily could have spent our entire ten days in Tokyo, but we jetted down to an Airbnb in Kyoto along the Kamo River, which was lovely but also represented cutting the cord to the hotel concierge. Most of the day was spent on trains—the bullet train is indeed awesome—but we did get to do a little exploration in Kyoto before the sun set and after.

<<DAY SIX PHOTOS>>

Day Seven: Kyoto by Bike
One of our biggest recommendations for anyone traveling to Kyoto—rent bikes and see the city by two wheels; it’s a very bike-able city and is a great way to get your bearings and explore the city early on.

<<DAY SEVEN PHOTOS>>

Day Eight: Temple Food + Monkeys, Monkeys, Monkeys
One thing that our friends Ed + Deanna regretted not doing on their earlier visit to Kyoto was experiencing the coursed vegan-friendly temple lunch at Shigetsu—the Michelin-rated shojin ryori (Zen vegetarian) restaurant within Tenryu-ji Buddhist  temple and World Heritage gardens. It was indeed quite a wonderful,  one-of-a-kind experience. As was Iwatayama Monkey Park, home to over 170 macaque monkeys.

<<DAY EIGHT PHOTOS>>

Day Nine: The Ryokan
Day nine had us saying goodbye to Kyoto and boarding our next bullet train north, not all the way back to Tokyo, but to the mountainous region of Hakone, home to our traditional ryokan and onsen (volcanic hot springs). The ryokan Kansuiro—comes highly, highly recommended. Not only are the very vegan-friendly with a heads up (fairly elaborate, coursed breakfasts and dinners are included with your stay), but the inn itself was beautiful, with a history dating back to the early 17th century, multiple wonderful volcanic hot springs, impossibly helpful staff, and an overall peace and feeling of awe that’s seeped into the walls. In researching the stay at Kansuiro and similar places, we experienced a little trepidation—you’re also assigned a “chamber maid” who attends to you your entire stay and, other than private baths in some of the rooms, all other baths are public most times and traditionally used in the nude—but, after a little warming up (literal and figurative for these four westerners), it was truly an amazing experience.

<<DAY NINE PHOTOS>>

Day Ten: Sulfur + Soy Milk
After an elaborate breakfast at our ryokan, our first full day in Hakone and last full day in Japan comprised a chain of buses, trains, and trails through the mountainous volcanic area with some impressive views of Fuji and the surrounding wilderness.

<<DAY TEN PHOTOS>>

Day Eleven: Jaa Ne Japan
Our final day in Japan involved another elaborate breakfast at the ryokan followed by a quick goodbye to all the fine staff there, after which we bussed over to the train station and hopped over a couple stops to our final bullet train back to Tokyo. We made time for one final stop at T’s Tan Tan in the Tokyo Station and then made our ways to our planes.

This trip was many firsts for us—our first time in Asia ever, our first time in a non-western culture, our first time attempting to communicate in a language with no common roots to the Germanic or Romantics. But our hope is that it’s far from the last in any of those terms. There’s an idiom in Japan—期一会 or Ichi-go ichi-e—basically, “one life, one meeting”. I think it’s meant to remind us to cherish the moments in life, especially the encounters with other people, because they may never happen again. It’s a challenge and a daunting task to consider, stretching oneself and deliberately placing oneself so far out of one’s comfort zone. But doing so is rewarding in ways that are hard to communicate.

Japan is a beautiful, unique country with amazing, wonderful people—if anyone reading these pages has the means, we highly recommend making that meeting happen.

 

So. Summer’s over. But August never seems to get the memo. Or chooses to ignore it. Most places in the US, it’s hot, balmy, stormy, and/or generally gross and uncomfortable. And, though many places will be on the gentle, breeze-filled slide down into proper autumnal weather, Los Angeles has a strange tendency (we’ve learned) to hold onto that summer heat well into October. So we’re walking the thin line between warm weather bangers here and more somber, introspective songs with this month’s mixtape.

To start, we’ve got some lo-ish-fi-ish dreamy bedroom pop from mysterious masked New Jersey musician Blood Cultures—we’re assuming he’s either horribly disfigured or a Jersey Shore cast member. Then we’re moving on to one of the aforementioned bangers from Copenhagen’s SIBA and one of our favorite tracks from the soon-to-be-released fourth album from NYC’s The Pains of Being Pure at Heart (the cool kids used to just call ’em Pains, but I’m far from up on my NYC local indie scene slang). That album, The Echo of Pleasure (maybe let’s call it Echo) is out Friday and, for the record, we like it a lot—welcome back, kids!

The we’ve got the first of three songs pulled straight from recommendations by our new friend Tessa of Amsterdam band Luwten. We interviewed her a bit back and asked in the process for new independent music we may not have heard before; she responded by putting together a really wonderful playlist for us that included, among others, songs by Sue the Night (AKA Suus de Groot), Kim Janssen, and Eefje de Visser, all included on this mix and all also from the Netherlands. PS—we totally dig the concept, art, and site for Eefje de Visser; worthy of a click. Then we’ve got a beautiful, catchy-as-hell new song from New Zealand’s Yumi Zouma; some really trippy, glitchy shit from Woodstock’s Photay featuring Madison McFerrin; a new one from Mercury Prize-winning Scottish band Young Fathers featuring Leith Congregational Choir; Long Beach’s Satica with an ode to honey whiskey; a song about getting famous in Los Angeles from Portland, Oregon’s Liyv (“I make songs for sad people who like bright colors”); some Siouxsie-esque crooning from Los Angeles’ own Happy Hollows; much more laid back crooning from Montreal’s Tops (it IS I hear); and one more from an Angeleno—the formerly enigmatic, now-non-mask-wearing Elohim. Then we’re wrapping it all up with some  driving, post-emo pop from Atlanta’s Ayo River.

Enjoy and keep cool, kids.

We’re currently at work on our next monthly mixtape; in the meantime though, please enjoy this fucking awesome new song from Los Angeles’ own Phoebe Bridgers.

We’d featured Bridgers’ hauntingly beautiful “Smoke Signals” with January’s mixtape and called her out as an act to catch at this year’s SXSW, but, due tour own self-imposed rules (specifically, rule no. 1, “No artist repeat for one year”), this track can’t appear on this next mixtape, so enjoy.

Bridges’ Stranger In The Alps comes out Sept. 22 via Dead Oceans.

I’ll be totally honest here; we mainly wanted to create today’s post to see this GIF—which we stole from KCRW, who grabbed it from GIPHY, who seem to have originally obtained it from…Article Cats?—in this big, bold new full-width format. Pretty cool, eh?

We are excited about said eclipse—set to hit the west coast Monday morning—but, as most know, it’s only a partial eclipse here locally. And we’re not nearly as excited as American scientists, seeing as how this is the first time since 1776 that an eclipse’s entire path of totality stays within the United States; Trump IS making America great again, guys!!! The NSO has an entire site dedicated to Monday’s festivities and a nice interactive map that tells you how close you are to the eclipse path.

Let’s get syzygy with it, America.