Japan's Must-Read Magazine

Get Your Semi-on

Two Canadians, a Brit, an Australian and a Japanese fellow walk into a bar… and start making music together. While most ex-pats living in Japan form bands to escape the daily teaching grind, others form entire communities around them. Semi-on play music as eclectic as their cultures, influences and instruments, and between them they have experience playing trombone, fiddle, French horn and tin cans. But the dynamic fivesome aren’t just content with making music among themselves: they’ve also given locals a chance to perform alongside them at their increasingly packed open-mic night at the Plastic Factory. Between staging creative events and making babies, Semi-on’s Coleen had a chat with us about cicadas, chance encounters in parks, and… cowboys?!

JZ: So, why did you choose to name yourselves after the Japanese word for cicada, one of the most annoyingly noisy insects on the planet, when the music you create is rather listenable?

Coleen: I think by "annoyingly noisy" you mean "vexatiously trancey"! We really didn’t realize that we were the only ones who loved them as much as we do. Seriously, we thought everyone was blown away by them. If you relax under the trees and just listen for five minutes, focusing on the harmonious cacophony of it all, the movements in their songs will blow your mind. We’re all about crescendos and harmonious cacophony, too. Anyway, the on of Semi-on is short for ongaku (music). 

JZ: Well, I’ll stick to listening to your cacophony for the time being, instead! How did you all meet up and discover you’d like to hang out and play music together?

Coleen: John and Bryony used to play small live houses as a duo, and they were practising some of their songs in Shirakawa Park one day when Kazuya rode up on his bike with his snare on his back, asked "Drum… OK?", and John and Bry said "OK!" Leslie and I were playing for a Canada Day event in Shooters a week later with Fatblueman, and John and Bry were there. They asked if I would like to jam on a Gram Parsons’ tune they were working on. Les sheepishly asked if they’d like some bass too, and a band was formed.

JZ: Semi-on has played live so many times in and around Nagoya, but where do you enjoy playing the most? Had any really bizarre live experiences?

Coleen: We’ve had the kindness of so many club owners and festival organizers on our side, it’s been really amazing. It’s pretty impossible to pick a favorite venue, but in terms of ambience and sound (and Switzerland), Plastic Factory has the best system around. K-onn in Kasugai has a lovely cruisiness to it, and we are always happy to head up to Hakuba to play at Tracks Bar. Festivals such as Rainbow Benton in Hamamatsu and Jam-Off in Hakuba have been great outdoor experiences – nothing like getting out of your tent to go and play onstage. We recently played at Higashiyama Zoo for its spring festival. But I don’t know if anything can top the time we played in Yokkaichi for a room full of Japanese cowboys and line dancers, gun enthusiasts with quick-draw contests and name tags such as ‘Billy Bob’ and ‘Jimmy’. You sure don’t see that everyday.

JZ: One of the things that struck me about Semi-on is that you’re all really involved in the creative community in Nagoya and have a great rapport with the locals. Did you imagine that starting a monthly open mic event would end up being THE way to spend the last Sunday of every month?

Coleen: We actually never really meant to start this event, it just kind of happened. One Sunday, Bry’s parents were in town, and we wanted a place to play together. John called up Heinz at Plastic Factory, and as he was closed that night he kindly invited us to call up some friends and use the club for a little private party. From then, we decided that we needed to do that kind of thing way more often. Bry and Kaz are artists as well as musicians, and because Plastic Factory has an amazing art space upstairs, it felt natural to expand the event into a space for Nagoya’s creative community, incorporating visual and performance artists. We’ve said "any medium, any motive" – and have had everything from stand-up comedy to flamenco, sitar to impromptu jams with the most obscure instruments on the stage downstairs and, of course, brilliant exhibitions in the gallery upstairs. Plastic Factory is the only place where this type of event – collaborating music and art – can work as beautifully as it does.

JZ: Getting back to Semi-on’s personal endeavors, you’ve just put out an EP, too, right?

Coleen: Yes! Very happy times for us. It’s called The perils of having too much fun and is available at our shows as well as on CDbaby and iTunes. It’s a 5-song disc and is about 30 minutes long – we know not how to write short songs. We put a lot of love into the design of the jacket itself and are really happy with the way it turned out.

JZ: What are your plans now that the Semi-on collective is set to recruit another member in Bryony and John’s impending bub?

Coleen: Our first roadie! Semi-chan will have burst onto the scene by the time this goes to print. Boy or girl, we don’t know yet! With the help of some fantastic friends, we will continue to host Harmonium Parlour, and we’ll still play, with a noticeable lean towards male-lead songs. Our next gig as a fivesome is at noon on May 24th at Tsurumai Park, for the Nagoya Walkathon. Bry’s mum will be taking care of the baby! As for all else musical, we’re going to take this time to write some new songs, work on the ones we’ve got, and continue to pursue all that this moment has to offer us. We’re a lucky bunch.

You can grab Semi-on’s album at any of their gigs, download it digitally via iTunes or CDbaby or send them an email to get a hard copy of their very pretty album. Catch Semi-on playing every last Sunday of every month at Harmonium Parlour at Plastic Factory in Imaike. ¥500, non-smoking. Also have a listen to their MySpace page.