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Friday, Feb. 2, 2007
This one's for Billy
By SIMON BARTZ
"Rock 'n' roll is scary. Rock 'n' roll can make a person die. Rock 'n' roll may kill," says Seiji, aka Guitar Wolf, last Sunday. And he knows all about that.
The last time I interviewed Guitar Wolf for this newspaper, in September 2004, I kicked off with this: "The worst [read best] rock 'n' roll animals never grow up. They act like idiots and we let them get away with it because they make great music. In rock 'n' roll it's always better to burn out than fade away into "maturity" -- i.e. making tame and crappy music. But some of these animals seem indestructible. Think Iggy Pop, Keith Richards and the rockers I'm meeting today, Japan's toughest and most hardcore hoodlum band -- Guitar Wolf."
Better to burn out than fade away. Indestructible. Those words often return to haunt me. Six months after penning that story, Guitar Wolf's bassist Billy, a good friend of mine, was dead. He upped the rock 'n' roll ante a little too high and aged 38 his body packed in.
Guitar Wolf's new album, their first without Billy and with new bassist UG, is called "Dead Rock." It's their eighth studio album, and it sounds just like you'd expect a Guitar Wolf album to sound -- clashing power chords and manic riffing with Seiji screaming over the top and Toru's solid drumming holding it all together. It's not their best album (that'll be "Planet of the Wolves" or "Jet Generation"), but it's not their worst. The most important thing about it is that it's Billy's album, even though he's not playing on it. "Dead Rock" is an exercise in rock 'n' roll exorcism.
Billy was the life and soul of every party -- a mad guy, but a cool guy, and it was always fun to hang out with him. In the old days, whenever I met Guitar Wolf, and especially with Billy, we'd be rolling around the floor mock fighting, puking up in bathrooms, drinking the beer machine in their office dry, talking dirty.
These days things have changed in the Guitar Wolf camp. The music is as hard as ever, the shows are arguably as exciting as ever, but on a personal level after Billy's demise they have sobered up.
Tonight, Seiji meets me outside Yoga Station, a few stops from Shibuya, and as we walk off I ask him if they've still got a beer machine at Guitar Wolf's nearby office. He says they do, but adds that we're not going to their office today because their art designer is working there and doesn't want to be disturbed. Instead, Seiji escorts me to a nearby Jonathan's family restaurant. I order beer. He orders a green vegetable juice. And the first thing Seiji says to me is, "Can we finish this in one hour?"
As soon as we sit down Seiji talks constantly of Billy. "Billy lived a hard life," the guitarist says. "He used hard energy."
Did you ever think to advise him to calm down a bit, to warn him he was living life precariously close to the edge?
"I wasn't thinking that Billy was going to die. But when he did, well, then I realized that, yeah, it wasn't such a surprise. He made attempts to get his health back, but it was too late. The last three days before he died, when we were in the States on tour, he was on the edge, fighting between life and death. The name of the weapon was rock 'n' roll. And it can be used to give life and to lose life."
When Billy died, weren't there a few weeks when you thought about continuing the band or not?
"I knew I would not stop. I had no doubt Guitar Wolf would continue."
You told me at a memorial live show for Billy that you did have doubts and didn't know what to do.
"I knew what to do, but there was so much loudness around me that I just kept my own counsel. A lot of people thought I was going to quit, even Toru [Guitar Wolf's drummer], but Billy is probably the only one who knew that I would never ever give this up."
You were such a tightknit band. It must have been strange to lose such a strong personality as Billy and then have another person, UG, come into the equation.
"After two months of rehearsing with UG, we had our first live. It was already OK. Anyone can learn to play an instrument, but the most important thing is the looks, the attitude, the atmosphere -- and UG, even if he couldn't play guitar, had that," says Seiji.
"It was just the same as the beginning of Guitar Wolf. It was a new Guitar Wolf. Thinking back to the first Guitar Wolf, we'd have problems with Billy not coming to practice and things, and me going to Billy's place and screaming at him to come. And then he would come."
I try -- and fail -- to get off the subject of Billy by going through the songs on the new album, first "Kenka Rock." Does Seiji ever indulge in kenka (fighting)?
"I do get angry but not to the extent that I want to attack someone. But two years ago in Texas or maybe Atlanta a can was thrown at me during a show. I thought it was a joke but then another one was thrown at me so I jumped into the audience and hit the guy. And I was doing a show south of Seattle and someone tried to rip my sunglasses off, so I punched him.
"But I wrote 'Kenka Rock' after Billy died in order to breathe life into the new Guitar Wolf. When Billy was alive we always had this fighting spirit. Us against everyone else. The general fight of life. Not fighting in the street or bars or anything."
Seiji explains the tracks "Red Me" and "Red Situation" convey a similar message.
"Red stands for the spirit of fire and my heart exploding," he says. "After Billy died I wanted my heart to burn red like the sun, like fire. I needed to explode!
"But I can't continue my life living in the shadow of Billy. Now, I sometimes think of Billy but not in a Guitar Wolf sense. UG is growing up as a bassist and there is no need to compare them. They are different people."
Talking about the song "Wild Bikini Girls" we finally get off the Billy subject. It's a song Seiji wrote 20 years ago and which tells of him selling his soul for the blues.
"I was sick with the blues," he says. "I was at a crossroads, like Robert Johnson [legend has it Johnson sold his soul to the devil in order to play a mean guitar -- Blues History Ed]. The white woman was the devil, the delta blues was beyond. I felt like I was fake. Visions of these women in bikinis was a distraction. I told myself to stay away from temptations. And to go into the blues."
As we walk out of the restaurant two hours later Seiji adds: "With this album I had two new experiences. One, Billy had died. And two, UG came into Guitar Wolf. Those are two fresh things that came into my head and those two things are what this album is all about. I would say every album is the best album, of course, but 'Dead Rock,' under these circumstances, is something special."
"Dead Rock" is out now on Ki/oon. Guitar Wolf have just started a 35-date nationwide tour of Japan which finishes at Ebisu Liquid Room, Tokyo, on Mar. 30 (tel.  5720-9999). For the complete tour schedule, visit www.guitarwolf.net To read previous interviews with Guitar Wolf and Billy check the Web site on Japanese music that Simon Bartz edits at www.badbee.net