The Shadow Puppets

I’m staring at my little collection of New Years cards from the kiddies, written to me during their Christmas Day Winter Seminar (inhumane), and I just noticed that every one features the phrase “A Happy New Year!” rather than “Happy New Year!” Obviously drilled into them as part of the lesson, but kind of an odd error. Maybe the teacher learned this from the “We wish you a Merry Christmas” carol. Oh well, on the other hand, some of the kids’ grammar is quite excellent. I’ve read all the messages at least 3 times each, and combed through them carefully to pair down to the 10 I had room to display. I think I’ve maybe kept every single note or sticker the kids have ever given me. I even peeled off the “Tokyo Tower” sticker (given me by one of my music club kids last year, I think in an impulsive, bold gesture, as a Christmas present) from my last year’s agenda and re-stuck it onto my new agenda at the turn of the school year. I do really think the kids like me (although this is often mixed with a little fear of me), but it gives me this weird sense of self-satisfaction when I think about the fact that, regardless of their level of affection for me, they’ll never be able to match how much I love them, and this victory makes me feel strangely arrogant…

My friends and I like to say that one consistency we can always depend on is how wonderful the students are. And it’s nice to have such an important consistency amidst a whirlwind of inconsistencies. Another inconsistency, on the more macro scale, is the disparities between my school life (meaning work life) and the rest of my Tokyo life. In fact, these two worlds are so thoroughly disjointed that I tend to forget the existence of one as soon as I’m immersed in the other, which can be pretty dangerous in either direction. Anyway, I suppose all of this is a kind of incoherent segue into introducing one of my new and favorite rest-of-Tokyo-life pastimes, and that is DJing at the Ruby Room.

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Ruby Room DJ booth

One of my friends who works at the Ruby Room as a bartender and event promoter randomly invited me and my friend to DJ the Ruby Room’s Halloween Party, one of the biggest events of the year, a few months back. And since then I think we’ve had like 4 other gigs (all at ruby). A couple of disclaimers though—by “gigs” I mean one or two 40 or 50-minute sets per event, and it goes without saying that our only payment for this is free event entry, a drink ticket, and a shot. I was pretty nervous the first time, so I sort of harassed my friend into agreeing to give me a one-hour tutorial before the Halloween sound check. It turns out it’s not that complicated, but, as my DJ partner termed it, “ a lot of moving parts.” A few of my friends have asked me what exactly DJing entails (you know, for us amateurs at least who aren’t doing anything remotely fancy). I think the majority of them have an image of us plugging in an iPhone and hitting our playlist, and while this honestly isn’t that far from the real picture, there are a few other pieces I might as well explain. I can’t vouch for the supreme accuracy of any of this—this is purely from my own head as I picture the Ruby Room DJ deck and the controls I touch.

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The Ruby Room DJ deck has 2 mounted CD changers and a sound deck with 5 inputs. We use 3 inputs during our sets—1 for each CD player and 1 for an iPhone input. No idea how the other 2 inputs could or should be put to use. Before playing a song, you’ll always check how it sounds with headphones. If you hit the “cue” button for the given input (on the sound deck), it sends the track to the headphones. You’ll hit this button but keep the fader switch on the input all the way down; this way, nothing is sent to the house speakers. On the CD changer you can pretty easily skip forward in a given song to the point where you want to begin. Once you think you’ve found that point, you pause it. There’s a “cue” button on the CD player too, which, while you’re holding it down, plays the track from the point where you paused it, and when you release it, immediately returns the needle to that point. This way, you can listen to the start that you’ve chosen without having to worry about finding your place again. You’ll also want to check the song with headphones before sending it to the speakers in order to check the volume level. Sometimes a track has a much lower volume for whatever reason, so we’ll turn the gain way up on the input for that song. You can also adjust the gain on the high/middle/low frequencies if you want to get fancier and if the track sounds a little unbalanced. Honestly, we’re still learning this little trade ourselves and making up most of what we do as we go along.

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I think by far the trickiest part is just transitioning between songs. Last weekend, we DJed the ruby’s 90s themed party, which was amazingly fun, throwing out all the classics like Mambo No. 5, Baby Got Back, Wannabe, Blue, My Own Worst Enemy, Allstar, Bad Touch, etc. And while I think we were a big hit, we honestly didn’t do so great on matching up the tempos of adjacent songs, or finding the right point to transition. Basically, while one of your songs is winding down, you’ll have your next cued up (on either the other CD player input or on the iPhone input), and in the last 10-15 seconds of one song, you’ll raise the fader on your next song, so that they’re overlapping for a bit, and then you’ll slowly take down the first song’s fader and raise the new song’s fader to max. Finding the right point to do this is a bit tricky sometimes. Last Friday, we sort of experimented (or actually my DJ partner experimented) with a few other controls, like upping the tempo on “Allstar” a bit to keep the kids dancing lively. But basically we stick to this pretty standard group of controls.

It’s just such incredible fun—I can’t say that enough. Dancing up at that booth with my DJ cohort, sipping our drinks on the sly, puppeteering the energy of the room—it’s hard to find something as purely enjoyable.

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View from the booth

The last description finally crystallizes for me the true meaning behind our elaborately layered DJ alias—the Shadow Puppets…I mean I guess technically, while stashed away in the back of the bar, we’re not so much in the shadows as in the brightly highlighted DJ booth, and I guess if we really want to split hairs we should maybe be the shadow puppeteers…but you know. Next step is to take this duo out to the real Tokyo clubs and solidify our new careers as world famous DJs.

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