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Friday, Nov. 30, 2007

In touch with his inner Tommy Lee


Special to The Japan Times

"It wasn't so much the style of music as the attitude toward performing and doing shows. That's what we wanted to bring back from America to Japan," says Yasuaki Sakai, reminiscing about his immersion in America's Pacific Northwest music scene that began nearly a decade ago as the singer/guitarist of Tokyo indie-rock band Moools.

News photo
Moools (from left: Mitsuhiro Ariizumi, Masato Uchino and Yasuaki Sakai); frontman Sakai at a Moools live show earlier this year at Shimokitazawa Shelter. AKIO SAITO (below)/DAVID HICKEY PHOTOS
News photo

Lounging in a Shibuya cafe next to his label (7 e.p.) boss and translator, Koji Saito, that is otherwise entirely populated by serious-looking businessmen, Sakai, with his wild shock of hair, is the living embodiment of the word "easygoing." He's also one of the most charming and engaging frontmen in Japanese rock. But it could have been otherwise.

"I started playing guitar from junior high, but I switched to drums for a while because I wanted to be like Motley Crue's Tommy Lee," he muses of his early life in northern Japan's Sendai City, where he grew up. "But once I saw their drum scores, I gave up. If I'd picked an easier band, I might have ended up as a drummer."

Deciding that his destiny lay as a guitar-slinging frontman, he spiked his hair and formed a punk band but found his voice when he looked to bands closer to home for inspiration. Sakai cites cult 1970s Japanese favorites such as Murahachibu and Zuno Keisatsu as early influences.

It wasn't until he went to university in Tokyo that he met up with drummer Masato Uchino and bassist Mitsuhiro Ariizumi, with whom he would form Moools in 1997 (the name is a corruption of the English word "morse.")

From their early days, Moools — who have been described by Seattle musician John Atkins as sounding like a "blend of early Talking Heads and Meat Puppets" — had their fate tied up with the Northwest scene, starting with their first record label, Rebel Beat Factory.

"I liked Modest Mouse, and the label Rebel Beat Factory had released their EP in Japan," says Sakai, "so I sent a demo tape to the label's boss Nissie (who also plays in the band Loud Machine), along with a Modest Mouse fan letter."

Sakai's plan worked, and in 1999 Nissie invited Moools to accompany him as Loud Machine's backing band at the Yo Yo a Go Go festival in Olympia, Washington. The trip proved to be an epiphany for the band, as when they arrived, they weren't well-schooled in the Pacific Northwest scene.

"They stayed at Calvin Johnson's place along with Ian MacKaye (from Fugazi)," says Saito, who Sakai refers to as his "hard disk" on account of his photographic memory. "Only Yasu knew who Ian MacKaye was, but the other band members didn't have a clue."

The contrast between the approach of American bands and musicians back in Tokyo strongly hit Sakai and the band.

"My own music is in the authentic guitar-band style, and bands like us have a lot of restrictions in Japan," says Sakai. "We felt a kind of frustration with the live house and label system. So when we went to Olympia and saw so many bands, we were really impressed by the way they played, the way members would switch gear between songs, the DIY way of releasing things, the kinds of venues they played."

In contrast to the situation in Tokyo, where rock bands marched through a routine of pay-to-play live venues followed by a search for a manager, after which they courted major labels, this seemed a fresh approach. In the United States, Moools feel that such an easygoing attitude is much more deeply ingrained in the indie-rock culture, encompassing labels, bands, venues and fans alike. An example comes from their West Coast tour last month with K Label's Mt. Eerie.

"We drove 500 miles from Portland, Oregon to Arcata in North California, where we were supposed to play a house party, but our van hit a car while we were going through the city," says Sakai.

Shaken, the band figured they'd have to cancel the show. It didn't turn out that way though, as Saito takes up the story.

"Phil from Mt. Eerie called the party, but there were a lot of people who really wanted to see them. So one hour after the accident, they had to play," he says. "Phil told the story about the accident and asked the audience, 'We need a substitute car for one week, so does anyone have a spare one?' and we actually found one!"

Both bands drove a borrowed truck all the way to San Diego and then to the airport in Los Angeles.

Good vibes seem to follow the band around. Anyone who has been to a "Moools Matsuri (Festival)" will know that they have a communal atmosphere all of their own, with Uchino cooking okonomiyaki (meat-and-vegetable pancakes) for guests when he's not behind his drum kit.

The tradition has rubbed off on other bands as well. When they invited Sapporo rockers Bloodthirsty Butchers to play, they supplied their own stew, and Tokyo indie-punks Gellers provided something called "Gerramen" — Gellers Ramen. Unfortunately, Uchio has hung up his chef's hat, deciding that the combination of playing with Moools as well as his other bands, Swarm's Arm and Toddle, was too much to handle if his duties also included cooking.

It's not just Uchino who is busy though. 7 e.p is releasing a double-CD of Moools' early Rebel Beat Factory recordings on Dec. 8; Sakai, meanwhile, has a book of poetry out next year and a solo career under the name Signkai. And in his and Ariizumi's other band, Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi Kabaddi, he even gets to live out his childhood Tommy Lee fantasy by playing the drums. Evidently his easy-going nature is having a pervasive effect on the Japanese indie scene.

Moools will play 7 e.p.'s fifth anniversary party on Dec. 14 at Shibuya O-Nest (6:30 p.m.) with Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Shugo Tokumaru and Ogre You Asshole. Advance tickets are ¥2,500. Signkai plays Dec. 23 at Shibuya Lush (5:30 p.m.; ¥2,500). For details, visit www.myspace.com/moools


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