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Friday, June 1, 2007
On the lamb in Amsterdam
By SIMON BARTZ
The band plays. And they rock. They've got two guitarists — that's not new. And two drummers, which is pretty cool.
But on top of all that they've got a sheep in the band. Yes, a sheep. As in, "baa, baa." I am serious.
It's a first for rock 'n' roll and her name is Marby. The sheep bounces on stage, totters at the front near the crowd, raises itself on its rear hooves and is promptly dragged into the moshpit by a bunch of beery longhaired lunatics. But Marby is not ripped apart as part of some heavy-metal sacrifice — later she's even spotted cradling a beer at the aftershow party.
After all, she is an official member of this band. The Happy Mondays had (the human) Bez dancing away with them. Tokyo's Marble Sheep have Marby. And she's just as enthusiastic about dancing as Bez was — although I'm not sure if she downs as many party pills as he did.
"Sometimes Marby is dragged down from the stage by the audience," says Marble Sheep frontman Ken Matsutani. "They just want to dance with her, not attack her. But sometimes Marby gets damaged by the audience."
Well, Marby would love it in Amsterdam. And that's where I am, and it all seems rather appropriate. Sheep love nothing better than to chew on grass all day long and Amsterdam is famous for its greenery. You can even purchase it in coffee shops.
I'm in a bar called Gollem near the red-light district, having forgotten (easy to do in Amsterdam) about the Marble Sheep story I am supposed to be writing. Then I look out of the window and see a sign that tells me this bar is on a street called Raamsteeg. I remember what I am supposed to be doing. Then I look at the wall next to me and there's a sign that reads "Bar-Bar beer served here." OK! OK! I'll write the damn thing.
I pull out a notebook and Ken's answers to my questions. And then I pass the bartender Marble Sheep's mind-meltingly brilliant new album "Message From Oarfish," and he sticks it on the stereo. I finish my Karmeliet Tripel (an 8 percent Belgian beer, not a tab of LSD), order a Bar-Bar . . . and get to work.
First track "Tears" kicks in and it's one of the best tracks I have heard from a Japanese band in the 10 years I've been in Japan. The way it builds into a tsunami of noise with ecstatic waves of warped, synth-sounding guitar reminds me of The Chemical Brothers — when they still took pharmaceuticals and hooked up with Mercury Rev to deliver a storming ending to their album "Dig Your Own Hole" with the track "Private Psychedelic Reel." Except "Tears" is better. It also sounds like Led Zep wrote it, and then got The Stooges to play it and make it sound more dangerous.
"It's a wall of sound," says the barman. I nod and order another bottle of Bar-Bar to concentrate my mind on the Sheep at issue. I asked Ken why his band is called Marble Sheep. After all, lamb is rarely on the menu in Japan.
"Sheep means man," says Ken, mysteriously. "Marble means . . . yeah . . . a colorful psychedelic stone. Can you imagine a psychedelic light show bouncing off marble?"
Depends what you're on Ken, you old hippie. Here in Amsterdam, anything is possible!
Marble Sheep have six members — bassist Rie, guitarist Tak, drummers Sawada and Iwamotor (yes he sure does that, at 100 mph), dancer Marby and, of course, Ken, who is a legend in Japan's underground scene. Not only does he sing and play guitar in Marble Sheep, who this year celebrate their 20th anniversary, but he also runs Captain Trip, the coolest record company in Japan. And to (literally) top it all off, he's got the silliest rock 'n' roll haircut in the history of Japanese rock music. Ken's got more hair than Marby has fleece. I heard a rumor it takes him 3 hours and 45 minutes using a garden rake and enough hair spray to raise global temperatures by one degree C to frizz his hair. Others say it takes just 15 seconds when he fumbles the hair dryer in the bath and it lands in the water and electrifies him.
Thin Lizzy and AC/DC
"Message From Oarfish" reminds me of (in order): Thin Lizzy, AC/DC, Hawkwind, The Grateful Dead and The Stooges. Ken earlier sent a press release with a clip attached from a review by Stonerrock.com that described Marble Sheep's sound as: "A bass like bubbling lava, drums sounding like a horde of mammoths, guitars like the cries of a flock of ichthyosaurus." I've been known to indulge in absurd metaphors, but I won't even attempt to match that because it encapsulates Marble Sheep perfectly.
As I finish off the Bar-Bar and the barman empties my ashtray, a flock of mating ichthyosauruses pass by and it does sound a little like track four, "Skull Cool," where Marble Sheep do no-frills punk and you get an almost "oi!"-ish chant of "Where do we go?!" The ichthyosauruses plummet into a canal. It's the album's watershed moment.
From there "Message From Oarfish" gets really weird: "Egyptian Queen" is a catchy prog-pop song about a mummy coming back looking for a sacrifice. This undead darling carouses with you like a skilled courtesan before seducing you and sucking you dry . . . by sinking her fangs into your neck and ripping your heart out.
"This time we made a conscious effort to interweave many kinds of '60s and '70s music, from the golden age of rock 'n' roll," says Ken.
Although his favorite artists are Fluxus member Joe Jones, T. Rex and The New York Dolls, he adds:"The bigger influences were from the encounters at our successful first European tour [in 2003]; the avant-garde festival when we collaborated with Faust; the stoner rock festival we played near Berlin; and when we performed at a psychedelic rock festival in Munich."
Big in Germany
Marble Sheep play to bigger audiences in Germany than in Japan. "We've been there three times," says Ken. "At first we were invited to the Finkenbach-Festival by Mani Neumeier from [prog rockers] Guru Guru in 2002. The festival was a big turning point for us because three great things came of it. The first were the cheers of joy that we heard from the audience that filled up the foot of the mountain; the second was the record label Fuenfundvierzig, which distributes our records in Germany; the third thing was the deluge of beer we were under. After that festival performance, we could get sponsors and find tour managers and we started our 'career' in Germany for real."
Europeans as a whole, not just the Germans, are more appreciative of independent music than the Japanese. How are German fans different from the Japanese?
"The biggest difference is the number of fans," says Ken. "It might be because, as a band, we've been rooted for a long time in the overseas music scene and counterculture." And counterculture is frowned upon in conservative Japan. Lots of great bands have rocked the boat and never got a decent record deal, or received little coverage in the media.
The release date of "Message From Oarfish" is June 27 — Rie's birthday. But what is the message from the fish? "It's said that oarfish always act alone," says Ken. "Isn't this the same as our [band's] situation in Japan?"
That said, Ken's not quite the black sheep of the Tokyo underground. He's got his fingers — and probably wayward strands of hair — in many pies. And nobody's complaining. Just check the roster of Captain Trip Records, which Ken started in 1992 in order to quietly release Marble Sheep's debut album "without bothering anyone else." Since then it has released stuff by underground acts such as sadistic punkers Anadorei, garage-poppers Mama Guitar and Lou Reed-soundalikes Davidtio. In terms of highest sales, their most successful band has been Yura Yura Teikoku. Their latest release is "Rokudenashi Kagyo" by Zi:LiE-YA. "They're fronted by Kiku, of '70s rock band Sonhouse. He turns 60 this year," says Ken.
I love the Japanese-style pub rock 'n' roll of Sonhouse, and the psychedelic pop-rock of Yura Yura Teikoku is equally edifying. Marble Sheep inhabit the same pantheon of rock 'n' roll gods as those bands. And, though I don't want to ram the point home (ahem!), Marble Sheep could mean something to ewe (ouch!).
Blimey, I'll go get my Afghan coat.
Marble Sheep's 20th-anniversary "one-man" live show is June 6 at Shimokitazawa Shelter, 8 p.m. Tickets are 1,800 yen (2,300 yen at the door). For details, visit www.marby.or.tv/index-e.htm Simon Bartz edits the Japanese music Web site www.badbee.net