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Friday, June 6, 2008
Ed Woods and Bo-Peep take no prisoners
By SIMON BARTZ
Explosion, the livehouse in Kagurazaka, central Tokyo, must have been named with nights like this in mind. Billy Trash, who's covered in blood, has discarded his double bass and stripped to his tiny, gonad-garroting Batman underpants. He charges into the crowd, pouring water over his head, then smothers himself in shampoo. The mixture of suds and blood turns him into the Pink Goo Monster from Planet Rock. He then dives to the rough concrete floor, and on his well-soaped chest slides torpedolike from one side of the venue to the other as fans hop out of his way. When the music stops, he briefly flashes his penis to the crowd and exits stage right.
"This entertainment business can be painful," Billy says after the show, wincing as he displays a mosaic of nasty red welts on his torso, some of which ooze blood. "If I had lots of cash, I'd decapitate myself on stage like Alice Cooper, and it probably wouldn't hurt as much."
Ed Woods are named as a nod to one of their heroes — the B-movie director who gave the world cringeworthy "classics" such as "Glen or Glenda" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space," and who was played by Johnny Depp in 1994's brilliant bio-pic "Ed Wood." Billy, guitarist Johnny Trash (his brother), and drummer Jet Trash have been raising hell at live venues throughout Japan for a decade, and have four albums under their belts — from their 2000 debut "Galaxy Attack" to last year's "Monster Trash." Now they are about to play a series of Tokyo dates.
The night before the gig, I catch up with them at a rehearsal studio near Gotanda Station, where they run through one of my favorite songs, "Ji-goku (Hell) Car Chase." It's a typically mental Ed Woods track; Billy's two-note bass hook holds the song together as Johnny detonates guitar riffs and the brothers share screaming duties. Like most Ed Woods songs, its ferocious psychobilly edge rips the guts out of a melodic pop underbelly. The song speeds down dirty musical alleyways, rummages through punk-rock dustbins, kills a few cats and finally hits a wall of feedback before coming to a shuddering, glorious halt after two minutes.
"We love rockabilly, blues, hard rock and metal, and I think all these influences show up in the songs," says Billy. "Most Japanese bands try hard to fit into a genre. If it's hardcore, then it has to be pure hardcore. If it's punk, it has to be pure punk. We stick a finger up to boundaries and just do what the hell we want."
Billy hasn't always been so manic on stage and describes his initial style as kakkotsuke (putting on airs). "With rockabilly it's usually people standing still trying to look cool, and I like that and used to do that. But I got bored of being restrained, and I loved Kiss and Twisted Sister and all that heavy metal makeup and extravagant performance style."
The X-rated Ed Woods shows feature gallons of fake blood, plenty of the real stuff, the water-and-soap floor sliding, horror flicks playing in the background, and they have also included "Clockwork Orange"-style uniforms and a wind-blower that Billy filled with glitter so he could machinegun the audience and cover them in gold and silver.
But why the seemingly gratuitous nudity? Is Billy proud of his penis?
All three bandmates burst out laughing. "No way am I proud of it!" he says. "It just all links in to gratuitous horror movies, really. The cheaper and nastier the better — like 'Toxic Avenger' (in which the hideously disfigured hero has rampant sex with an ultra-cute blind girl who's fallen in love with him) and 'Evil Dead' (where everyone meets a gory end, in the sickest — and funniest — ways possible). It's gross but really funny — just like our shows, I guess."
Billy's on-stage madness must be a kind of therapy for him: an escape route from a society where the nail that sticks up is banged down.
"I think that's true," he says. "The things that we like aren't really accepted in Japanese society — the kind of music I like (his favorite is psychobilly band Reverend Horton Heat), the movies I love that rarely get runs in theaters here. So there's this unsettled feeling in me. I don't like working, but I work really hard delivering newspapers to shops. I have to because I need the money to finance the band. After paying the rent, I usually have the option of eating an evening meal or renting a horror movie. I mostly choose the latter. That's why I'm so skinny. I don't eat."
Do they ever have to pay the music venues money for cleaning up after trashing the place?
"Jet works in building maintenance and Johnny is a laborer, so we are pretty good at cleaning up ourselves," says Billy, grinning. "But some of the live houses offer to do it for us so we flee into the night before they turn on the lights, see the mess and change their minds."
The band identify a mini-tour of the United States — playing shows in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York's CBGBs in 2005 as part of a Japanese night with bands including Peelander-Z and The Spunks — as a career highlight.
"The New Jersey gig was weird as the venue was full of old ladies and old men. We couldn't believe they'd all come to see us, and we were really excited," says Billy. "But when we started playing, they all left. They were just hanging out at the bar until Bruce Springsteen started playing across the road. But then one of the old guys came back in and shouted, 'You guys kick Springsteen's ass.I'm gonna watch you tonight!' "
"Also at that show, one of the members of the other bands stripped naked and the bar owner was furious, so when we played I couldn't get my penis out and felt straight-jacketed," says Billy. "He was stood at the front with his arms crossed with a really serious face staring at me, just ready to drag me off stage or punch me."
"The ironic thing," adds Jet, "is that we later found out it used to be a strip joint — so it shouldn't have been a problem!"
Ed Woods play Shinjuku Club Doctor on June 22, Shinjuku Jam on July 12, and Sangenjaya Heaven's Door on July 27. Ticket prices are around ¥2,000.
Last year, Bo-Peep snared what almost all underground Japanese bands crave — a spot at the Fuji Rock Festival. OK, it was on the tiny Rookie A Go-Go stage in the Palace of Wonder free area just outside the festival gates, but Bo-Peep, with their stirring brew of punk-metal, drew one of the biggest crowds for that stage over the weekend, and the punters were all down the front headbanging away.
"After the thrill of playing there, I can imagine playing on a really big stage now," drummer Ryoko Nakano says at an izakaya (Japanese pub) in Ebisu. "I want to fascinate people around the world."
Ryoko, singer/guitarist Mika Yoshimura and bassist Junko Himei are doing their best to do just that. Kimono-clad Ryoko and Mika brandish fireworks on the cover of new album "Sick Orange Television," which includes the track "We Are Bo-Peep" as a way of introduction. And although the lyrics ("We are crazy monkeys, loud babies, geisha soldiers, evil queens and broken speakers, pinball, merry-go-round, candy girls") will never win a poetry contest, they do just about sum up what Bo-Peep are all about: noisy go-lucky girls who adore speaker-blowing guitars, rampaging drumming, bansheelike vocals and not making much sense. And that's what the best rock 'n' roll is all about.
Ryoko and Mika, plus bassist Yoshinori Arie (filling in for Junko, who's taking a break from the band), have just returned from a seven-date spring tour of England, their third trip to Britain.
"When we imagined how we would appear to British people, we thought of those lyrics, as we are kind of representing Japanese girl bands abroad," says Mika.
It seems like a lot of Japanese underground bands have to be together for at least a decade before they build up a big enough following or make enough contacts to get foreign tours and a half-decent deal with a record company. Gaining respect takes time in Japan, and you rarely see record company scouts checking out bands at toilet venues, which happens in Britain.
"We've been together 13 years," says Mika. "So we now feel like we are totally on the same wavelength making music, and perhaps that helps us make better songs and get more attention. But it's not easy to become famous, and if that doesn't happen, we are quite happy continuing the band from day to day. Nothing will stop us rockin' — ever!"
Bo-Peep's launch party for "Sick Orange Television" is at Sangenjaya Heaven's Door on July 6 (¥2,000, 7 p.m. start).