5/11/2005

A brief note

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 12:19 am

I’ve never done this before, and I probably shouldn’t be doing it now, but I want to take the opportunity to completely disown the GameSpy Donkey Konga 2 review in its published form. It grew an extra star and a half (or another 30% on the gamerankings scale) from its submitted version, along with several laudatory phrases that I didn’t write and certainly don’t mean. I hated the game. It’s not a 3/5.

UPDATE: As you’ll discover if you try to follow the link above now, the review has been pulled. Thanks to GameSpy editorial for being gracious and understanding about the whole thing; it was resolved pretty quickly after my initial complaint.

4/10/2005

APE 2005

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 2:00 pm

This should be a much longer entry, but the fact is, the date up there is a lie – I post-dated it to make it fit in line roughly when it actually happened, but I’m actually writing this three weeks after the fact. So it’s a little fuzzy in my head by now.

That said, it wouldn’t be that long an entry even if I had composed it immediately upon returning home from the 2005 Alternative Press Expo, cause it didn’t seem quite as cool to me this year as last year’s APE. Part of that is the novelty having worn off – it’s still fun, but wasn’t the brand-new experience I had in 2004. A larger part was a much tighter budget, due to my continued unemployment. In 2004, I bought pretty much everything I wanted to buy, and discovered a lot of great new (and not-so-new) comics. In 2005, I picked up maybe a quarter of what looked interesting, and didn’t have enough left over to splurge on random minicomics.

I also boneheadedly forgot the CF card for my camera, so I didn’t get any pictures from the event. Which is a shame, cause I met a few creators I like a lot. Chief among them was Chynna Clugston, whose Blue Monday and Scooter Girl series I got into a few months back, and Stephen Notley, who said he thought that whoever tore down the apostrophe poster I bought from him at APE 2004 “should be purged.” I also met Shaenon Garrity, creator of Narbonic, as well as Rick Spears and Rob G, the creative team behind Teenagers from Mars. I hadn’t read either of those before, but I’m happy I picked them up.

I also saw Jhonen Vasquez, whose presence alone seemed to be drawing a larger crowd than APE 2004 had attracted. He was the only creator at the con who had a line waiting to get their books signed (not even Los Bros Hernandez had any significant queue over at the Fantagraphics table) and it got so long that eventually the Slave Labor Graphics staff decreed that there would be no sketches, photographs with Vasquez, or more than two books per person signed. Between that and my total blanking out when it finally came my turn – I just shoved the books at him like a jerk, forgetting even to ask that they be made out to their intended recipient – I couldn’t really say I met the guy. But he did seem a lot nicer and more cheerful than he lets on in his comic book portrayals of himself. His panel discussion seemed pretty crowded with goth types, though, so I didn’t attend that. Though I would have been interested to find out how to pronounce his first name, which I still don’t know.

Despite my limited budget, I still came out of it with a respectable amount of comics, most of them signed by the creators. Here’s a listing, with links to pics of the signatures/sketches:

Looking forward to next year’s show, though I hope I have a steadier cash flow by then.

4/6/2005

King of the vagabonds

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 5:02 am

Maybe it’s just sour grapes, maybe weary feet, but after interviewing at Konami on Tuesday I think I may stop looking for a regular job for now. I don’t really know or care how the Konami interview went – I won’t be taking the job even if they offer it to me, as a five-hour round-trip commute each day for a temporary job with no set end date strikes me as a little too desperate when I could be enjoying myself more while still subsisting on the freelance bum life. If something cool like the NIS thing comes up, I’ll give it a shot, but right now I think I’m making the mistake of trying too hard.

But the trip out to Redwood Shores wasn’t entirely wasted, because it was a beautiful day and the (40-minute!) walk from the Caltrain station to the Konami offices was as pretty as ever. I’ve made the trip on foot a couple times before, once to interview Dennis Dyack with Dave and Matt, and once when I was having car trouble during the MGS3 review playthrough. This time, I brought my camera to document the journey – there’s lots of photos, so I’ve put it behind a cut. Before that, though, why don’t you help a freelance bum out by buying his stuff?

(more…)

4/4/2005

Consolation prize

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 10:13 pm

Well, I have another job interview tomorrow. Konami called me today, following up on an application for a (temporary) localization tester that I’d forgotten I submitted. Needless to say, it’s not as cool as the NIS job: rather than actually editing copy, I’ll just be proofreading it – or at least that’s what I think the job involves. I’ll find out more concrete information tomorrow.

Still, despite the temporary nature of the post (again, the exact length of the term is something I don’t know yet) and the less glamorous work, it’d be a job, and thus I’d welcome it. It would also be one formidable commute, but that’s not so bad: the Caltrain is a pretty relaxing place to get some writing done, I find, and if I couldn’t find someone to carpool in with, I can think of worse ways to get to and from a place. Here’s hoping, anyway.

4/2/2005

Two strikes

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 8:22 pm

I’m not having a good weekend.

First, I found out Friday evening that I didn’t get the job in L.A. In some ways, I guess it’s a good thing, because getting the job would have meant buying a new car and paying double rent for a few months until our current lease runs out, and the fact that I didn’t get it means that’s a tough choice that’s now out of my hands. On the other hand, the job was pretty awesome (it was for NIS America’s localization editor) and getting rejected for yet another job hurts, no matter what it was. Every failure makes me feel more and more like I can’t do anything, and am not suited for any work.

Worse, that lingering bout of self-doubt and frustration carried over to today’s weekend practice at the dojo. Jeremy sometimes talks about my classes as if I get to let out any irritation by hitting drums, but in truth it can often be the opposite: doing a taiko piece right is very technical and precise, with the player having to be careful not only of the rhythm, but also the placement of his hands and feet at all times. It has to look good, not just sound good, and if it doesn’t, you might be in for a severe reprimand from the instructor.

So that’s what happened for about two straight hours today. Unusually, almost no one showed up, so it was practically a private lesson with me and the weekend monitor, who also happens to be my regular instructor in Tuesday classes. I proceeded to discover how sloppy and incorrect I was even in the simplest drills – one that I thought I was pretty good at, we ended up repeating six times before I had fixed enough mistakes to move on. In the context of the Tuesday class, I do look good, but only in comparison to people who’ve been there one or two months, and the instructor could never focus on all my flaws before because she was busy getting the whole class up to a certain level of acceptibility.

The result was kind of like a kid who takes his fanart of Wolverine or, nowadays, Naruto, to a convention and lucks into having an established professional critique his drawing. Maybe his friends told him he was good, and probably he really could draw better than any of them, but the swelled head wouldn’t make it any easier when he got his thorough, in-depth list of areas to work on from the pro. That’s what it felt like today: I got to take my taiko to a pro, and found out that despite being one of the higher sempai in my Tuesday classes, I’m actually very bad at it.

The practice spiraled downward from there, as I felt honestly depressed for the first time in a while. The instructor decided to work on Yodan, a really difficult piece I haven’t done in months and months, and my rendition was spectacularly awful every time. I was so flustered that I could barely even stay in the right stance, let alone … well, there’s no point in describing it all here to readers who won’t know what I’m talking about, but suffice to say I had several different major problems in every phrase of the piece.

I came back afterward, took a nap, and was feeling a little bit better until I wrote all this up and can see in black-and-white how completely I’ve failed this weekend. Ugh.

3/31/2005

Tlentifini maarhaysu

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 2:07 pm

Since I’ve been remiss in posting for the last month or so, I thought I’d throw together some links for those who want to read my stuff but don’t know where.

- Crucial Classics: Resident Evil (1UP)
- PSP Line Blogging (1UP)
- GDC 2005: Serious Games Summit: Advergaming for Private and Public Interests (Gamasutra, free reg. required)
- GDC 2005: Casual Games Summit: Web & Downloadable Panel (Gamasutra, free reg. required)
- GDC 2005: Academic Experts on Mobile Game Design (Gamasutra, free reg. required)
- GDC 2005: The Consolidation and Specialization of the Mobile Game Industry (Gamasutra, free reg. required)

And, just posted today:

- Digital Devil Saga review (1UP)

I’ll apparently find out tomorrow about the job in L.A. Nothing like anticipation to help you focus on all the other tasks at hand!

3/29/2005

The feet of the ninja

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 11:20 pm

Taiko class tonight, as per usual on Tuesdays. Today I was “lucky” to catch a cable car right as I stepped outside, and then a SFO/Daly City train right as I stepped off the station escalator. Which meant I got there an entire hour before class began, and 45 minutes before Hideko-san came to unlock the dojo door.

Tonight was noteworthy for a couple of things: first, Tanaka-sensei called me by name. This is a big deal, because he usually doesn’t bother to remember students’ names in the Tuesday classes – Garth, for instance, still has to answer to “big guy.” Between that, getting patted on the back once or twice, and him saying now and then that I’m a “master” at Hiryu, means I’m pretty sure I’ll get to move up to the next level after the Cherry Blossom Festival in mid-April … assuming I’m still in San Francisco. (This is one major reason why I’m ambivalent about the job prospect vaguely alluded to earlier; though L.A. has its own taiko circle, it wouldn’t be the same. The SF Taiko Dojo is pretty much the Harvard of American taiko groups.)

Second, in preparation for said Cherry Blossom Festival (April 16-17 and 23-24! Come on out! Tell your friends) I got myself a pair of tabi shoes. Yes, the split-toed ninja shoes. It wasn’t easy, because my regular shoe size is a 13, which made the proprietor of the taiko shop at the Kintetsu Mall cover her mouth in amused astonishment. They had to special order tabi shoes large enough to fit my oddly gargantuan feet (the ones that fit me are 30cm long) and I had to pay an extra five bucks for them. But it’s worth it, because now I own ninja shoes. Yes.

3/28/2005

Elevator music

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 9:44 pm

… would be an appropriate theme for my life right now, since I feel like I’m on hold again. Haven’t really felt this way since June 2003, when I knew the then-unnamed 1UP would probably be requiring my services any day now, but not really being sure.

I was in Lafayette at the time, so every day felt like filler until I could relocate to the bay area. Right now, things aren’t quite that bad – even if I don’t have a “job” as such, I am working every day, so I feel less like I’m spinning my wheels. But I am in a similar situation: I may have a job, and it’s a cool job, but it would mean moving out of San Francisco altogether … and not just to the east bay, either.

The situation, being as vague as possible: the company wanted to hire someone I know, but he was happy where he was, so he recommended me to them. He passed along my resume, but by the time it reached them, the head of the company had found another candidate independently from the HR guy. So as I understand things now, the HR guy (who I’ve met before, and worked with on a few things) is strongly pushing for me to get the position, but there is a bit of competition for it. I’ll probably get an update on what’s going on sometime this week, or I hope so anyway.

Anyway, the point is I keep having to stop myself from making even mid-term plans, like whether or not to get tickets to a show next month, because for all I know I won’t be here then. There’s a certain element of frustration in that (to go along with the creeping anxiety of scraping together enough money for a relocation), but it might be worth it if I get this job.

Japan Girls Nite

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 3:31 am

Tonight I went to what will, until the day I die, be the greatest concert I ever see to in terms of value for money. Nothing can possibly come close to seeing six bands – two of which weren’t half bad, three of which were amazing, and one of which was The Pillows – play for five hours, for $11. It was so ridiculously wonderful for a tightly-budgeted freelance bum like me that I now have to carry the guilt of knowing that I and everyone else in that building took the promoters for a ride

The proper name for the event was Japan Girls Nite 2005, a touring show put on by Sister Records in Japan – they seem to be a subgroup of the Benten label, known for their Japanese punk acts. As the name implies, the lineup was mostly focused on female Japanese bands, whose sounds were pretty varied while still remaining in rock, except for Petty Booka. Non-female bands on the bill were headliners the Pillows, whom most anyone reading this will know from the FLCL soundtrack, and the Emeralds, the first act in the show.

The Emeralds are a trio of guys who played straight-ahead, no-frills rock; their only really unique touches were the occasional super-fast spoken Japanese passages in each song, and their outlandish shirts, which figured into the one bit of English stage patter they had memorized for the night. (Singer to crowd: “How about my shirt?” Bassist: “How about my shirt?” Drummer: “Hey … what about my shirt?” If it sounds lame, it really was, but in a touching way.) They were all right, and played some high-energy songs, but I wasn’t really getting into them for some reason. Possibly because I was there to see girl bands and the Pillows, and they were neither, and I couldn’t help but wish they’d let the real show start. On a different bill, I might have been more forgiving.

The first all-female trio, the Noodles, came on next, and if pressed I would admit that they weren’t a lot better than the Emeralds; in fact, David picked them after the show as his least favorite act. However, they were a rare slower-paced break in the otherwise blistering night, and they looked uncannily like a Japanese version of Sleater-Kinney, who are one of my favorite bands in the world. The singer looked like a Japanese Corin Tucker, the bassist looked like a Japanese Carrie Brownstein, and the drummer … well, actually, the drummer sort of resembled a distaff Che Chou, which was weird for other reasons. I’m pretty sure they played good songs, but it’s kind of hard to remember after what came next.

Because once the Titan Go-Kings bounded onstage, the show really started. The way to sum them up was “perky,” and they had the highest energy level of anyone in the show, including the Pillows. They absolutely beamed through every single song – even during the ostensibly angry “Mr. Yoneda,” about a reckless driver who’d done a hit-and-run on the lead singer, the glee of performing shone through their attempted punk scowls. I knew I wanted to get some merchandise to support the indie bands playing, but when watching the Emeralds and Noodles I thought, “nah.” Watching the Titan Go-Kings, I thought “YES!” and now have their first album.

(The CDs, by the way, also made me feel like I was stealing money directly from someone’s pocket. Japanese albums are higher-priced than American ones even when you’re buying them in a Japanese record store instead of importing, but all the albums at the merchandise table were $10.)

If the Noodles were the cool girl trio, and the Titan Go-Kings were the chipper ones, Tsushimamire were the intense ones. All three of the Tsushimamire members were dressed in full kimonos, which made me wonder throughout their set how hot they must be under the stage lights. Their dress and their name already gave a kind of ancient-Japan vibe, which extended to their playing style, which made you feel like you were in the presence of otherworldly spirits which manifested themselves by possessing the band members. The bassist jumped around and moved more dramatically than anyone David had seen, and as he noted, “I’ve seen Motorhead live.”

In my opinion, the singer had the real pull: she was able to switch in the blink of an eye from high-spirited whimsy to a guttural growl that would have done any Western metal singer proud. Come to that, it was a trick the whole band could pull off: I counted how many songs each group performed during their allotted time, but Tsushimamire changed things up so much even within one song that I couldn’t tell when one number had ended and another begun. I got their CD, too, although I can’t tell how much I’ll like it yet … the songs were perfectly good, but they had such an incredible stage presence that I’m not sure how well any of their stuff will work in album form. We’ll see, I guess, when I get around to listening to the LP.

We in the crowd got a much-needed cooldown to let our ears and throats heal up a little when Petty Booka came on. They were pretty different from the rest of the night: as David remarked during their equipment setup, “I’ve never seen anyone plug an amp into a ukelele before.” Petty and Booka (presumably not their real names) are a ukelele-playing duo who put their own highly distinctive spin on mostly cover songs. They performed in cowgirl getup, the kind you’d maybe see the love interest wear in Spaghetti westerns, and sang a lot of Hawaiian songs … when they weren’t covering the Ramones. I liked them, and it was pretty neat to see them live just to confirm that they actually do exist, but I don’t think I’d buy their albums or listen to them for fun.

After that lull, the main attraction for most of the crowd kicked in when the Pillows took the stage. The Pillows are easily my favorite Japanese band, and they’ve been getting more attention in the U.S. thanks to the success of the anime FLCL, which has a soundtrack composed almost entirely of their songs. I saw the same FLCL shirt on at least five people in the club, so it would have been obvious even if the other five bands weren’t complete unknowns that this is what everyone was waiting for.

This was the first U.S. tour for the group; they were signed on for a couple of nights with the Japan Girls Nite tour in between playing one-off gigs at festivals like Austin’s SXSW. That was one of the best parts about their performance: in their native Japan, they’re a pretty big deal, and probably would have warranted an arena with seating rows and whatnot. Here in the U.S., I got to see them at a tiny club, one of the smallest I’ve ever been to, where they were only a few feet away.

Anyway, they were smart enough to know their audience and play up the FLCL crowd by doing a set composed entirely of numbers from the soundtrack. I have a couple of their non-FLCL albums, and I know they have a pretty sizable discography, but they were here tonight to give the fans what they wanted, which suited me fine, since all the FLCL songs are fantastic. They started off with “I Think I Can,” which was an interesting opener inasmuch as it marks the end of the anime, but it was a good choice nonetheless: from the first flamenco-style riff that introduces the piece, the crowd was going crazy.

It’s hard to remember the order of what came afterward, but generally if it was a FLCL song with vocals and a quick tempo, they played it. “Carnival,” “Hybrid Rainbow,” “Crazy Sunshine,” and “Ride On Shooting Star” all got outings, as did particular bright spots: the vocal version of “Advice,” and “Last Dinosaur,” which is not only my favorite Pillows song, but one of my favorite songs of all time. They also did “Little Busters” for a short, one-song encore – I suppose with six bands on one bill, time was at a premium even for the Pillows. Naturally, I would have been up for a longer set, but they hit everything I wanted to hear, so I was very happy with it.

I had wanted to watch the drummer during “Advice,” because it has a pretty unorthodox pattern in the opening measures before settling down to something tighter, but it was hard to take one’s eyes off lead singer Sawao Yamanaka. He had more presence than anyone else in the entire concert except maybe that Tsushimamire singer; his borderline arrogant demeanor was so powerful that the rest of the band hardly had to do anything except play their instruments, confident in Yamanaka to give the people a good show. He was also well-versed in American concert rituals; he seemed dismayed that a mosh pit hadn’t formed yet, and twice needled the crowd for being less enthusiastic and energetic than their Japanese fans, which I highly doubted. He also ran back from the encore right into a stage-dive, which I was close enough to the front to help push him back up onstage. I also got to high-five him after he finished the encore, which concludes the braggart portion of this entry.

Now it’s a little after 3 in the morning, but fortunately, I don’t have a job to go to in the morning. Hooray for unemployment! Hooray for the Pillows! Hooray for Japan Girls Nite!

3/3/2005

RedOctane

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 10:57 am

I was kind of down on Taiko no Tatsujin when it first came out for PS2, partly because I didn’t like the music (though it’s since gotten better) and partly because I didn’t like the home drum. (When I finally got to Japan last year and tried out the arcade version, I was pleased to discover that it was an entirely different matter.) It didn’t feel very responsive and seemed not to detect a lot of hits, particularly ones on the rim. That plus its tendency to slide around from being hit were annoying enough, but the worst part for me was how incredibly loud it was. The cheap hollow plastic sticks hitting the drum make this amplified “clack” noise when it should be more of a “thump” or “thud.” (The exception is the rim hits, which should clack, and I suppose they do, but it loses something when they sound exactly like the face hits.)

So I shelved it – or, rather, I shelved Jeremy’s copy, since I never bought a unit of my own – because I worried that the noise would waft up to our upstairs neighbors and cause complaints. Recently, though, I’d heard that RedOctane, a company known for their high-quality Dance Dance Revolution pads, had put out their own third-party drum to capitalize on Taiko Drum Master’s American release. Supposedly, it was an improvement on the problems I had with Namco’s own drum – it was supposed to be quieter, less slip-prone, and more sensitive. I wanted to get one and try it for myself, but haven’t had the discretionary cash these last few weeks to do it.

Well, while visiting the EGM offices yesterday to scrounge up work, I noticed there was a RedOctane drum sitting around, and Shane graciously let me borrow it for trial purposes. (Though I doubt anyone would have noticed if I kept it permanently … if I didn’t mention it again here in my blog, that is.) It turns out to be a good thing I didn’t spend my money on it, because it’s a near-exact replica of the official drum: just as slippery, just as insensitive, and just as loud. I played the same four songs (in Jeremy’s copy of Taiko no Tatsujin 2) with the official drum and RedOctane’s, and the only difference I detected was that RedOctane’s seemed a bit better at detecting my left-hand rim hits.

There is a good reason to buy RedOctane’s drum: though pricey at $39.99, at the moment it’s the only way to buy a second drum for two-player games, since Namco hasn’t released a standalone device yet and no one really wants to buy two copies of the game. It may be that RedOctane is simply seizing the market opportunity with a clone drum for now, and they may very well devote their energies to improving on Namco’s model when and if an official standalone drum comes along. For now, though, if you’ve been waiting for something better, I suggest you keep waiting.

2/22/2005

It’s the sun

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 1:15 pm

The sun came out today after a week of rain, and it’s gorgeous weather. It’s even nice and warm to the point where you don’t have to wear a jacket, in the middle (well, the tail end) of February. Shame I’m stuck inside doing news.

Hm, that didn’t take long. Well, to make up for a content-light update, here is a picture of a statue I received from Insomniac. Presumably it was sent to me because I gave Ratchet & Clank 3 1UP’s first 10/10, which makes it my first serious bit of playola. It’s a great sculpt and made of high-quality materials, but I don’t think I have the space to keep it. On the other hand, though it would undoubtedly fetch a pretty high price, eBaying it would be rather gauche, since it was sent personally to me, not just to 1UP in general, and came with a short little note from Ted Price. I think the thing to do will just be to send it back to Insomniac with an apology, and request that it go to any modeler or animator who didn’t get one. Either them, or the person who wrote Courtney Gears’ song in the game. That man is a genius.

2/18/2005

The gig

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 12:00 am

I know I said I would report back after the gig, but I was too exhausted – not only did I have the performance, but taiko class again that night. And in between the two, to avoid a pointless trip back to the city and then turning around to come back down south, I kicked back at a classmate’s house and watched the DVD of November’s Zellerbach festival. Lotta taiko that day. I think the donuts I had in the morning was the only non-taiko-related moment. (By the way, halfway through writing this, I have to admit it might get a little boring and a lot long to those who don’t know much about taiko, which is … most people. But it seems important enough to write about at length in my journal.)

After that nutritous breakfast, I headed on down to the Kintetsu Mall’s parking garage, where the dojo stores its performing equipment. I got there a little early, so Gary and I waited around while he told me about some of the more ridiculous corporate gigs he’d either been to or heard about. The craziest was a sales meeting where the taiko group was brought in to, essentially, disrupt the meeting – to the extent that one of the members was a ringer disguised as a new sales associate, with a fake backstory and everything. She tapped her pencil during the meeting, then started getting into it and tapping two pencils, before getting up and going totally crazy before the actual taiko group came in. I’m not sure what kind of point the firm was trying to impress upon its potential clients, but I wish I could have been there to see their faces.

Once Ryuma, Tanaka-sensei’s son, showed up with the van, we started loading stuff in. Robin, the show’s concertmaster got there not long afterward, and once all the drums, stands, costumes, and miscellaneous stuff was in the van, we headed off. The show turned out to be at Google, down in Mountain View, so we had plenty of time on the way there. Robin spent the trip working out the set list; we talked about what I knew and could contribute to, and decided I would play hiryu/isami and matsuri, but would sit out opening theme and (sadly, after I spent a while learning it) hachijo.

Truth to tell, I probably wouldn’t have played anything if it wasn’t such a small group: Robin, Gary, and Wendy were the veterans there, while Hiroko and I were from the Tuesday class. Wendy couldn’t even stay for the whole show – she had to leave after the second of three sets – so for the last of it, there were only four drummers on stage. Fortunately, Robin was aware of Hiroko’s and my inexperience, and noted that this would be a good learning experience in how to handle ourselves in front of a large crowd.

A note about Google before going on to the concert proper: the show, it turned out, was barely even anything special by their standards. We were their weekly lunch entertainment; Chef Charlie, the head chef at the Googleplex cafeteria, organizes about 50 lunch shows a year, so above one a week. We were there the same day as Martin Yan, who was just sitting at a table in the other corner signing a huge supply of books that still managed to nearly disappear by the time we were done. (There were tons of people rotating in and out of the giant eating area throughout our three sets; I’d estimate at least 500.) Working for Google means you got to go to lunch, take in some free taiko, grab a free signed cookbook, eat your free lunch and wash it down with free drinks before going back to work, which they pay you to do. I kind of want to see if I can get a job there now.

Backstage, we got dressed in our hachimaki, happi coats, and tekko, as well as tabi shoes for those who had some. (I didn’t – the dojo shop didn’t have them in my size 13 feet when I tried to pick up a pair a few days beforehand.) Robin worked out the first setlist; we’d play three shows of about 30 minutes each, with a break in between. The disadvantage of writing this up two days after the fact is that it’s hard to remember how exactly the first one went now, since Robin, Wendy, and Gary played a couple songs in the middle that I didn’t know the names of – I was just back with Hiroko on the shime, keeping time. Of the ones I can remember (i.e. the ones I had some involvement with), I’m pretty sure we started off with Hiryu/Isami, then later did Shi Shi Mai, before finishing with Tsunami 2.

Hiryu/Isami was interesting because I was playing a part of it that I usually didn’t go over in class. It’s ideally dividied into two teams on opposite sides of the stage, who do complementary moves during certain passages. In theory, I know both sets, but in practice, I had only gone over the one of them enough to get it drilled into my head. We were keeping both parts, but since there were only three of us doing the song (Robin was back on the shime keeping time, and Hiroko didn’t know Isami well enough to participate), the center person did the “A” part while the outside members did the “B” part. What made it really fun was that I knew the “A” part for Hiryu really well, but I was stronger with the “B” part for Isami. So whichever part I ended up on, I was going to screw up somewhere, and indeed I did … but not too badly, all things considered. The important thing was that I not stop and get flustered when I made a mistake, not even to blink or frown, but to power on right through as if I meant to do whatever I happened to be doing. Those who know me well will be more impressed that I was able to do achieve anything like this.

Shi Shi Mai was a lot of fun. The piece is a little different from everything else we did – Ryuma would wear a Japanese theatrical lion costume and do a little dance on stage as Gary and Robin played a complex shime piece. After a minute or two, Ryuma would leave the stage to weave in and out of the lunch lines and dining tables before eventually going back up to finish his dance at the end of the song. So what were the rest of us doing? Cheerleading! I got to combine maracas and taiko as Wendy, Hiroko, and I danced in a line behind Ryuma as he snaked through the crowd, doing little improvised dancing, shouts, and instrument-shaking. Since there was nothing prearranged to screw up, it was fun to put all my energy into shaking my maracas with vigor and dancing in public without looking like an idiot.

The last number of the first set was Tsunami 2. This is something I hadn’t planned on doing, as much as I’m perfectly capable of performing it in theory. The part of Tsunami 2 you actually play from memory is only four or five simple phrases, depending on how you count them. It’s the solos in between that made me a little nervous; Hiroko was going to keep time, so I would be improvising my own taiko solo in the middle of the three other extremely experienced players. I think I acquitted myself pretty well for a beginner, though – it didn’t have the graceful, sweeping gestures and pauses of the other guys, and so what if I DID try to adapt Zelda LttP’s Lost Woods theme on the spur of the moment – but I remained confident, driven, and in good form throughout, and I think that’s what counts. I put on as good a solo as I possibly could have.

That was it for the first set, and the second was pretty much the same songs, just in a different order. (For me, anyway. The vets did switch things up with a scaled-down version of Yodan for just two people, which was interesting to watch, and a properly done rendition of opening theme that made me glad I opted out of even trying.) The exception was rotating out Tsunami 2 in favor of opening the set with Matsuri-daiko, which was interesting if only because it stuck Hiroko and I, the two with the least experience, up as the main performers while the three veterans kept time. My Matsuri performance would have been highly strange for anyone who knew what they were looking at, and for all I know looked a little weird to those who didn’t. It’s a very short piece, and we ran through it about ten times before stopping – of those, I did it perfectly four times, lost the plot for an entire run-through and delivered a bizarre mutant version with all the beats in the right place but hitting the wrong parts of the drum every time, then righted myself for another exemplary five passes. Strange. Again, though, the important thing was that I played my one mistake-riddled rendition as if every hit was in the right place, never losing my smile. (Those who know me really well probably think I’m just making the whole thing up after that last bit, and that I never went to Google in the first place, and I don’t blame them.)

Wendy left for set three, so I was onstage for every song … including Hachijo! To my surprise and probably Robin’s too, I did much better than I thought I’d be able to do, doing better justice to it than I’d managed with Isami, a song I thought I had absolutely down. After Matsuri and Hachijo, we did our Shi Shi Mai thing again. (Poor Ryuma had to parade around the cafeteria in the heavy, hot costume during every one of the three sets.) We ended the whole show with Tsunami, the proper song version of it – which still ends in a round of solos that I got to participate in again, so I was up there doing the closing scream along with the rest of the group.

I can’t vouch for how my whole performance looked, but it felt really, really good. I’ve been on stage before, mostly in school, for debates, plays, thesis defenses, and so on, and usually the crippling self-consciousness that is my normal state of being just gets amplified. Out there at the taiko gig, though, I felt great, with not even the slightest anxiety – even back in the places where I said I was nervous, it was mainly the parts before and after the actual performances that the nervousness set in. But playing taiko, actually getting up there and doing it, was easy, and wonderfully fun. I felt so good about it that the damage sustained to my hands didn’t matter, and neither did having to play taiko for another two and a half hours later that night. The rhythms and the kuchishoga echoed all the way into my dreams, and I slept very well.

2/14/2005

Shaping up

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 12:16 pm

My first Taiko gig is on Tuesday. I’ve done narimono (which is essentially cheerleading with little bells or maracas; fun, but a far cry from playing) at last year’s Obon Festival, but this’ll be the first time I’m actually up there playing songs in front of a crowd. What crowd? Where’s the gig? How am I getting there? I … don’t know. Supposedly I’ll hear something tomorrow.

The only information I did get on it is that it’s in Mountain View, and that I will probably (but not definitely, so this may not actually be my first gig!) be playing. I asked on Friday if there was any piece in particular I should know, and was told “Oh, just the usual stuff: hiryu and isami, hachijo, and the opening theme.”

I don’t know Isami-goma. I don’t know Hachijo. I don’t know the opening theme.

Or, at least I didn’t on Friday. After the INTENSE TRAINING MONTAGE of the weekend, I’ve got Hachijo and Isami down cold, and I can at least fake the opening theme with enthusiasm. (Which counts for a lot more than you think it would.) I went to both practice sessions over the weekend and begged the instructor to teach those songs, and I think it paid off. Obviously, I’d like another round of practice before I’m completely sure, but since the next class is Tuesday night, after the gig … I’m not going to get it. Which makes me a little tense, but in a good way. Looking forward to it, and I’ll post about how it went on Tuesday night. (For the record, I am posting this on the evening of Sunday the 13th, not midday on the 14th. My timestamp is messed up in such a way that when I try to fix it, it doesn’t show the latest post anymore. Working on that.)

2/10/2005

Psychotic reactions

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 12:41 pm

I first encountered Lester Bangs as a fictional character. He was the voice of reason in Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous, and even in that form – played by an actor who was not, in fact, Lester Bangs, and with about 10 minutes of screen time – he made an impression.

I couldn’t say why it took five years to get around to actually reading Bangs’ work, but over the past week, I’ve been working through Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a collection of his Creem and Rolling Stone writings posthumously edited by Greil Marcus – Bangs died in 1983 before ever getting together any of the various book projects he was working on, which included compilations and original material. (By the way, remember when I listed about a dozen books and lamented my inability to start any of them? Yeah, so I went out and bought ANOTHER BOOK. At least I’m reading again …)

What I was surprised to discover was how talented an author was. His early stuff is kind of sloppy, which you can (and he later did) attribute to the amount of drugs he was on at the time. Drugs and the free admission of taking them permeate his work up until his 1977 obituary for Peter Laughner, included here, after which he swore them off. But it wasn’t kicking the speed that made him a better writer, though he certainly continued to improve even up to his death – if anything, the way he rid himself of addiction just seemed like one of the final steps in his betterment as a person, which you can actually see happening in his writing.

That would be an odd thing to observe in most critics, but Bangs doesn’t always seem like a critic as much as a gifted essayist. Like E.B. White, whose essays I was reading last year, he can take an isolated and small event – a concert, an interview, the release of a new album – and wring from it something large and important. His piece on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is surprisingly moving as he passes from talking about the music and Morrison’s mannerisms as a performer, to the lyrical content and its subject, to the way it made him feel about the world after listening.

He did that a lot, and the remarkable thing about Bangs was that he never let that worldview settle down too much. Compare his lonely, isolated reaction to “Madam George” off Astral Weeks and his writing on the aftermath of his interview with Richard Hell of the Voidoids, and it’s really interesting to see how he grew from celebrating the self-destructive Lou Reed (with whom he has an incredibly surreal interview in the middle of the book – I couldn’t imagine anyone in any branch of entertainment journalism conducting anything like it today, which is one reason Bangs is so compelling) to admiring Bob Seger and the Clash’s insistence and passion on standing for something against nothing.

Plus, the writing is phenomenal. If there’s one thing I’m coming to dislike about my own writing, it’s that it’s increasingly formal. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like I’m getting more rigid and formulaic as I go – likely the product of spending so much time in school writing essays for grades. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I picked up Bangs; I was hoping to get something from him that would act as a corrective to my calcifying style. We’ll see if that works out or not, but if it doesn’t, it’ll certainly be my fault and not his. His writing reminds me of Hunter Thompson’s, but different in a lot of vital ways. He’s got the same blunt directness and the same way of inserting himself into whatever he’s writing about, which are hallmarks of the Gonzo style, but none of Thompson’s grim paranoia and frequent descents into incoherence. He’s an essentially more cheerful person: even when he’s bemoaning the death of rock ‘n’ roll and the end of human emotion, you can tell he’s not letting it bother him that much because he’s still got his Iggy Pop and Count Five records.

Anyway, there’s a whole lot more about the book that set me to thinking about a variety of different things, and if I got nothing else out of it, the music recommendations would have been enough on their own. (Astral Weeks is every bit as good as he says.) This may, I suspect, end up being the most important book I’ll read all year.

2/4/2005

Great Teacher Maragos

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 1:50 pm

Well, that was interesting. Taiko class was a couple nights ago (would have written it up sooner, but I ws busy), and since it was the first of the month, it looked like it was back to basics. Sure enough, we went right back to Renshuu after teaching the new students the basic stance and form, and it looked like another typical day.

I guess Tanaka-sensei was bored of it too, though, because when he came in at 8:30, he decided that the best thing for the new students to do on their first day in the dojo would be to learn Hiryu San Dan Gaeshi. It’s not the hardest or the longest song, but it is a pretty big step up from simple old Renshuu, and to expect students to do it on their first lesson is aiming pretty high. Making matters even tougher, Tanaka-sensei wasn’t going to teach it to them. That was going to be my job.

All right, so I’m being a bit dramatic – what he really did was divided the class in two, and delegated teaching duties to three of the more experienced students. I lucked out and got put in the group with another teacher, so I’d have a partner, and better yet she’s an actual schoolteacher as a profession. Between my greater knowledge of the song and her greater ability to get the message across to our group ("Okay, Nich, show them again, but this time do it slower. So they can see.” “Oh, right."), our performance of Hiryu when the half-hour was up was still a little rickety, but much better than the other half of the class. Go us! Though I’m kind of glad he’ll be gone for the next few weeks … it gets a little nerve-racking having him show up for every single lesson.

2/2/2005

Satan rejected my soul

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 3:56 pm

That’s kind of what it felt like yesterday (tip of the hat to Morrissey) when Gamepro – Gamepro, of all magazines! – looked up, cast a baleful eye, and decided I didn’t meet their standards. It kinda hurt, and coming right on top of the so-close-but-so-far Gamasutra position and the grandfathering in of a new 1UP.com staff, I wasn’t in the best mood for the rest of the day.

Now, though, things are looking a little better. One perversely good thing about my current situation is that I have, essentially, hit bottom in the game writing business. No one’s going to hire me. Most outlets aren’t hiring at all, and the ones that are have said no thanks. Ever since I was laid off, I knew that there would come a time when 1UP would staff up again, and so since August I’ve believed in the back of my mind that this freelancing thing was only temporary. Now, though, I feel like an island castaway who finally realizes that whatever rescue craft they’ve sent has come and gone, and it’s time to build a real shelter.

So I’m getting my freelancing business in order like I never bothered to before, setting a schedule of writing throughout the day that lets me tackle bigger articles as well as the regular 1:00-5:00 Gamasutra news beat. I’m compiling a list of feature ideas for sites that will take them, and pursuing new opportunities, including one that would be incredibly awesome if it worked out – but I don’t want to say more about that until it happens. (You’ll forgive me if I’m feeling easily spooked these days.) If I play my cards right, I might have time to do even more than that – do things that maybe I was meant to do instead of wasting my time feeding tapioca to Gamepro’s subscriber base. We’ll see.

2/1/2005

At least I can spell

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 5:01 am

Gamepro is “persuing other candidates with more relavent job experience.”

1/29/2005

book clubbed

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 5:06 pm

In the past month or two, I have bought, borrowed, or otherwise acquired the following books:

* Hyperion, by Dan Simmons
* The Sweet Science, by A.J. Liebling
* Absolute Friends, by John le Carre
* Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami
* Cash: The Autobiography of Johnny Cash, by Johnny Cash
* The Polysyllabic Spree, by Nick Hornby
* The More Than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
* The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser
* Da Capo’s Best Music Writing of 2004, by various
* Superworst, by Ben Greenman

How many of these have I read? NONE OF THEM! (Well, except some of the Hitchhiker’s, but that doesn’t count – I’d read all of those before.) I think some of my new free time spent from not wasting so much time on the web will be sunk into this backlog soon, before I become hopelessly, pathetically pretentious. (Shhh.)

1/28/2005

Feed me

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 9:58 am

I switched email clients from Outlook to Thunderbird yesterday – I figured that since I was already using Firefox rather than Internet Explorer, and since T-Bird’s spam filters are way better, I might as well go ahead. (Not that I’ve been getting a lot of spam since moving over to the maragos.org address … but you never know.)

One of the neatest things about Thunderbird, though, is the RSS subscription capabilities. I waste a lot of time on the web – probably too much time – checking sites like Websnark or Vfen, seeing if they’ve updated recently, that sort of thing. What Thunderbird does is let you subscribe to RSS feeds directly within the email browser, so that you get a notification sound whenever a new update for a site pops up and can then read the update directly from the email client, as if it was an email sent to you. With that enabled, I can probably stop screwing around so much waiting for sites to update. I’ll just know from now on.

1/26/2005

By the numbers

Filed under: — Nich Maragos @ 3:51 pm

Well, I knew it couldn’t last forever, and tonight’s taiko lesson was nothing but drills for the first time since moving to the dojo class. Got prodded again by Tanaka-sensei for a poor form – this time I was getting the pose at the end of a drill a bit wrong. Needed to elevate my elbow, extend my right knee less, turn my center further in toward the drum. But he did compliment my technique during the rest of the drill, so I did okay.

As some of you might have noticed after the syndication feed dumped five entries at once onto you, the tetsuboushi LJ feed is active again and pointing toward this site. So if you defriended it after the old site went defunct, might as well add it back to your friends list.

My first round of auctions is finished as I type this on the BART, so I’ll have a busy day of mailing stuff out tomorrow, assuming most people send PayPal rather than money orders. The second round will go up when I’m a little less tired. Still available for the next three days: the Suikoden III LE set! C’mon, someone bid …

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