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Friday, Feb. 24, 2006
SATURNS / MAMA GUITAR
Wanna holiday in the sun?
By SIMON BARTZ
I am lying on a bed and this guy is sticking a needle in my arm. It doesn't hurt much 'cos I'm still drunk from last night. His name is Isao, he's wearing World War II German insignia (Iron Cross necklace, etc.), and is covered in tattoos. Not the yakuza kind of stuff beloved by so many rockers in Japan, where you don't pattern your neck or hands so you can play the innocent salaryman role by day. Isao's got tattoos everywhere, like a rock 'n' rollin', rapin' and pillagin', rot-gut chuggin' pirate.
This isn't fashion. It's full-on don't-give-a-toss punk rock.
He's friends with hoodlum rockers Guitar Wolf, and also with Texaco Leatherman, who are named after the psycho killer in "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and whose singer wields a sword on stage.
And now he's mopping blood from my arm while a girl gives me iced tea to stop me from passing out. We're at his apartment near the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, and while he sticks the needle in my arm I keep my eyes on the eyes of a black cat, seated upon a sofa nearby. It looks at me nonchalantly. "Life is life," it says, as cats do. "Don't get overexcited." And the pain descends to a dull thud.
Isao, the singer/guitarist of Saturns, and a tattoo artist, is now swabbing a little more blood from my arm after drilling the kanji for kubikarizoku into it. Kubikarizoku means "headhunters" and is the name of a Kyoto band I love.
Saturns are the most punk band in Japan since Kubikarizoku, and the most punk anywhere since The Sex Pistols.
Saturns play 10- to 15-minute sets, which sound like Satan pouring gasoline over Chuck Berry and setting him on fire for the pleasure of hearing him scream while My Bloody Valentine play on amped-up fuzz-guitars in the next room.
My relationship with Saturns started about a year back when I was drinking with Isao before a gig at Shinjuku's Red Cloth. We were both pretty wasted before the show and I asked him how many songs they were gonna play. He told me three, so after the third I kicked over all the mikes on stage.
Immediately I was grabbed by one of their fans -- who resembled a K-1 wrestler -- and dragged out of the club punching and kicking. Luckily Isao, plus bassist Sachio, guitarist Marky and drummer Pearl came to rescue me, saying, "He always comes to our shows. He's OK."
I ask if I'm forgiven, because it's the most stupid thing I've ever done at a show, despite my knowledge that after three songs the gig was over and, errr . . . it felt like a good idea at the time to up the chaos.
"You added to the atmosphere. You bought us beer afterward. You're here now."
Isao doesn't talk while he's tattoing me, just during short cigarette breaks now and again. Saturns' moshpits can be the most violent in Japan, and I ask if that is good or bad?
"I don't know if it's good or bad," he says. "But if you want to fight in the pit, then it's not my business. The people in the pit have to handle themselves. If you get down in the front and go mad at a Saturns' gig you might get injured. At the next Saturns' show maybe I will get injured. Who knows what will happen?"
He then tells me how Saturns started off.
"A guy organizing live events for Mad 3 and The 18.104.22.168's started Saturns," says Isao. "I didn't even have a band, but he told me to get one sorted out. I thought, 'OK,' and then we played a show."
Saturns used to be kind of phantoms in the Japanese underground scene -- suddenly emerging from nowhere and playing a gig, and then vanishing for months. Now they play more regularly.
"Now we do more gigs than before and they are slightly longer gigs," says Isao. "In the old days we just played one song and then walked off. But we still don't do eight or 10 songs like other bands 'cos it's tiring."
I'm tell him it's a shame they never release any music.
"We've had offers to release the music, but we're all so unreliable so it's never happened. I hope to do it sometime, though. We hardly ever rehearse and we did make some merchandise to sell, but we just gave it all away to our friends so we didn't make any money."
Finally I ask him the obvious question: "With the German Iron Crosses hanging from your neck, and the terrorist-like black face stockings, and the WWII German helmets, are you a bunch of Hitler-loving fascists?"
"Not quite," says Isao. "When the band started we didn't have musical technique so we needed something to make a big impact. That's why we wear the Nazi helmets. It's like Sid [Vicious], and when you think about it, a uniform is a uniform, whether it's worn by Nazis or baseball teams."
If you want to see how Saturns hit punk-rock home runs, the schedule is below. But if you go to a gig I advise you to wear a helmet -- the front of the pit really is trench warfare and you can expect some shrapnel and elbows to be flying about.
Whereas Saturns take you to a fiery musical hell, Mama Guitar are good girls that will take you on an altogether different trip. If you can't afford the time off to jump on a plane to Hawaii, then spin the band's new seven-track mini-album "Mama Guitar's Holiday," close your eyes, and let your mind travel to a place where work is a long-forgotten scar on the beauty of life, and you're not carrying any baggage.
The mellow surf guitars, upbeat lyrics and playful 1960s-style girl-band harmonies that infuse insanely feel-good songs such as "When We Put Bikinis On" and "All Those Summer Days" have made Mama Guitar one of the most popular bands in Tokyo's underground garage-rock scene. If you got a hangover, go to their gig. It's an instant cure.
I met up with the girls last Saturday -- after they'd just played a set at a friend's wedding party nearby. They attempted to be "bad" after I told them they were the "good" band in an article of two garage bands at different extremes of the musical spectrum. (Mama Guitar gigs are perfectly safe, though you might get knocked by a handbag by one of the girls dancing their hearts out at the front). Mama Guitar then named their own "bad" bands -- before pleading with me not to write up the list, 'cos the last thing these girls want to do is stir up any trouble.
"The album is exactly what the title, 'Mama Guitar's Holiday,' is about," says front woman and drummer Yoko (hobbies: "imagination," "scribbling"), who I spoke to with bassist/vocalist Iris (hobby: "cooking.")
"Jun [guitarist/vocalist who is shy and didn't come; she's probably in the park, as "strolling" is her hobby] wrote the songs," adds Yoko. "She's the Japanese girl version of Brian Wilson [BeachBoys' genius songwriter]. I hope Brian gets a hold of the new record."
Brian, if you're reading this, send us your address and I'll get Yoko to send you a copy.
Saturns play Shinjuku Loft, March 4; Shinjuku Doctor, March 26. For info on Mama Guitar shows check their Web site at www.mamaguitar.jp/ For live reviews, livehouse links, maps and more info check the bilingual Web site Simon Bartz edits on Japanese music at www.badbee.net