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Friday, April 27, 2007
Melt-Banana take aim again
Not in it for the money, but they don't mind a little pop
By SIMON BARTZ
'It was my first time to kill so it affected me a lot," says Melt-Banana's vocalist Yako, before breaking into a cackle befitting a Shakespearean witch. "But it wasn't a cute bambi. It was a big deer. You told us about (the Sex Pistols song) 'Who Killed Bambi.' It's you who made us keep thinking about the bambi incident."
Damn, and looking at your new album "Bambi's Dilemma" I see I don't even get a credit. That pisses me off!
Melt-Banana don't drink. Don't smoke. Don't take drugs. Their only vice seems to be mowing down animals at 100 kph in their tour bus. Yako was driving the bus to Cleveland during their mammoth 2003 U.S. tour and a deer stepped into the road and the next thing they knew they had a barbecue on their engine.
"But anyway, last year I spent a lot of time listening to The Sex Pistols again and it's kept the bambi thing going in my head," says Yako.
And it seems like listening to the retro punk-pop of The Pistols might have influenced Melt-Banana's direction with their brilliant new album, which, just like the last one, 2004's "cell-scape," does have its mainstream "pop" moments -- "Cracked Plaster Cast" has a guitar motif that could have been ripped from a U2 track and album-closer "Last Target on the Last Day" sees Yako ditching her screechy rap and opting to sing. It seems that Melt-Banana are realizing that it's not only frenzied live shows that burn into your frontal lobe and leave you with a feeling of "I don't know what hit me, but it was f**king great," but that to make a career out of it you've got to make a record that people can play when they get home from a hard day at the office/prison. A record that won't wind them up so much that they'd headbutt the cat before disemboweling themselves on their balcony. So on "Bambi's Dilemma," Melt-Banana are compromising -- slightly.
"Usually we put all the new songs on an album, but this time I'd written about 50 or 60 songs and we couldn't use all of them so then I had the dilemma of what songs we would use. We couldn't put out a 3-CD set!" says guitarist Agata. "Yako said she didn't like some songs and if she says 'no,' it's 'no,' so we deleted them. Yako basically chose the rock songs -- the ones where there was a distinct guitar, bass, drum, vocal. So it's a basic rock 'n' roll sound. A punk-rock sound."
And the other songs?
"It's a secret. They're for the next album," says Agata.
So Melt-Banana are moving in a different direction. Perhaps country and western?
"Hahaha! No! But from the very beginning we were thinking of making a record without guitars and bass. We felt we could make more accessible songs using this idea."
Accessibility is not what Melt-Banana is all about. Intensity is. When I watch a Melt-Banana live show or listen to their records I often think of human spontaneous combustion. These guys are so loud, so manic, so explosive that you almost expect them to go up in flames at any moment and burn the livehouse down. And I have never ever felt like that watching any other "hard" band, including Slipknot, Atari Teenage Riot and Japan's Incapacitants.
But whereas on stage Melt-Banana roar like lions taking a knee to the groin, offstage they are pussycats stoned on catnip. When Yako and Agata (bassist Rika doesn't do interviews) turn up at my apartment in Ebisu -- I've known them for 10 years now so we're on more-than-nodding terms -- I don't even bother offering them beer, and instead put on the kettle and ask them if they want milk and/or sugar.
Melt-Banana have knocked out six studio albums in 15 years. They play tons of shows abroad and that's why, along with the likes of Guitar Wolf, they are much more famous elsewhere than they are in Japan. In 2003 they played 83 shows in Europe and the States, in 1999 115 shows in the States and Europe in just 18 weeks, and in May this year they embark on another two-month U.S. tour, most of the way supporting the band Tool.
Are they angry that they're still a small underground band in Japan, but one of Japan's biggest musical exports in America and Europe? It must feel like being rejected by your family when you play in front of just 100 people in Shinjuku and then 1,000 people in Brighton, England.
"We've given up on that," says Agata. "I think the number of people in Japan who really listen to this kind of music is low."
With these constant sanity-sapping tours have they ever thought of jacking it in?
"I never thought like that," they both say immediately.
"We have a friend called Mike Watt of a band called Minutemen who plays bass for Iggy Pop and he also has his own bands," says Agata. "He's in his 60s (actually, on Wikipedia he's just 49). When he's touring with Iggy, I don't think he's driving or carrying T-shirts, but when he tours by himself he's doing the same things that we do in the U.S."
"For us that is really normal. We are not as old as him but when we are then we can do the same thing. If he does it and other people do it, then we can do it until the day we die," says Yako.
I have to admit that I agree and I feel a bit dumb for asking Melt-Banana the question in the first place. Struggling to ask them things I haven't asked them in the last 10 years (it's all on The Japan Times Web site) I end up asking them what's been their happiest moment ever in the band?
"Maybe when (the late British radio DJ) John Peel told us we can do anything we want for 30 minutes live on the BBC," says Agata.
"John Peel was doing his radio show in the next room and he was introducing us, saying 'Here's Melt-Banana' and we were supposed to play immediately but I wasn't sure if I should start as soon as he finished talking or wait a little. So I didn't say anything for a few seconds. In the next room through the glass was the staff and producer and all these people and they looked really pissed off. Hahahaha."
And so what's been the biggest mistake they've ever made?
"It's not a mistake but it's a kind of mistake," says Yako. "It's when we asked Natsume to play drums on the second album. He was too good for us. After that album I felt like we had to have drums as good as his. It was great for us to play with him, but a kind of curse. We still suffer from that."
"It's not only Natsume. We also played with David Witte (credited on half the tracks on 'Bambi's Dilemma' for 'drum ideas'), who plays really good, fast drums. It's really hard for a drummer to play those kind of fast drums, but we still end up asking drummers to play hard and skillful like that. It is a problem because not many drummers can do that," says Agata.
What advice would you give to Japanese bands wanting to make an impression in Europe or America?
"The first thing I would tell them is forget about the money," says Agata. "I was asked by this young band about how well we do financially when we tour America. But the thing is, when we first wanted to play outside of Japan, the reason was we just wanted to play to as many people as possible. We were wondering what American and European audiences would think about Melt-Banana and found that interesting. I had no idea about money at that point, it didn't matter."
"We don't think too much about the money," says Yako.
"It's all passion," says Agata, and he laughs out loud.
Melt-Banana's new album "Bambi's Dilemma" is out now. Melt-Banana play Pink Noise in Futago-Tamagawa, Tokyo, April 28; Nagoya Huck Finn, April 29; Akihabara Goodman, May 1; Shibuya Club Asia May 3. The U.S. tour starts in Sacramento, Calif., on May 16 and takes in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Seattle and a helluva lot of other places. For details, check www1.parkcity.ne.jp/mltbanan/ Simon Bartz edits a Web site on Japanese music at www.badbee.net