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Friday, Oct. 17, 2008
Meet a band 35,000 years in the making
By SIMON BARTZ
When The Cro-Magnons played at this year's Fuji Rock Festival, you could have sworn the Big Quake had hit, with its epicenter at the main Green Stage. The ground shook, minor tsunami were recorded in the streams running through the site and squirrels fell unconscious from trees as about 15,000 punters jumped in unison to one of Japan's most popular rock 'n' roll bands belting out one fiery pop-punk gem after another.
This was no real surprise, as singer Hiroto Komoto and guitarist Masatoshi Mashima have a history of causing the ground to shake and open up beneath their feet.
"Once, The High-Lows (their previous band) played at a school festival, but the stage wasn't built for a rock band and the floor collapsed beneath us," said Hiroto at their record company BMG's office in Shibuya, Tokyo.
"We have a history of breaking floors," pipes in Mashi.
"It's happened many, many times," Hiroto adds.
They'll probably be breaking a floor near you soon, as The Cro-Magnons (with bassist Masaru Kobayashi and drummer Katsuji Kirita) embark on a mammoth three-month nationwide tour starting in Osaka on Oct. 29 and ending in Nagoya on Feb. 13. It's in support of their third studio album, "Fire Age," released this week.
Hiroto, who speaks with a whispery croak like he's chewing a wad of sandpaper, and Mashi, always arms folded and wearing his trademark red head scarf, are up there with Carol, RC Succession and Thee Michelle Gun Elephant as bona-fide Japanese rock 'n' roll legends — enjoying mainstream success while also appealing to the more discerning underground scenesters because they haven't watered down their sound in order to make it big.
Hiroto and Mashi have been playing together since they formed The Blue Hearts — their most famous band — in 1985. But why change the name from The Blue Hearts to High-Lows and now The Cro-Magnons? It's not like the music of each band is radically different. Why not just be The Blue Hearts, like the Stones are the Stones?
"It's not like we just change the name for the sake of it," says Hiroto. "We actually stopped The Blue Hearts and we stopped The High-Lows. We split up. We think we'll never reunite, but then we both come up with new ideas and before you know it we're in the studio again."
They are extraordinarily prolific, releasing three Cro-Magnons albums in three years — "Fire Age" coming hot on the heels of last year's "Cave Party" and 2006's self-titled debut.
I tell them that I love good cheese, but if I ate it all the time I wouldn't appreciate it so much. Wouldn't it be better to keep the fans waiting a little longer for each release, to get them salivating and begging for more?
"I understand your point and agree with it," says Hiroto. "But we are addicted to making music. We just cannot take a day off."
The Cro-Magnons might be one-trick ponies blasting out high-energy rock tunes, but there are so many infectious melodies and killer guitar lines, it really doesn't matter that they refuse to expand their musical territory. Saying that, while they're not exactly about to do a Radiohead, excellent new single "Speed and Knife" is very different. Somehow the bass line seems familiar. I ask them what song they stole it from.
"At first it was in our normal tempo, but we wanted to try something totally different — like putting it in eight-beat. And then it sounded like Motown and we liked that. That's probably why you think we stole it," explains Hiroto.
What did you listen to when you woke up this morning?
"Bob Dylan's first album," says Hiroto.
"Robert Johnson, the old bluesman," says Mashi. "He was a great songwriter and also he was very good at stealing other men's women, so some guy poisoned him."
Has anybody ever tried to kill you guys?
"No, but I did almost die once," says Hiroto, playing, as he is prone to do, with his big silver finger ring. "I was really drunk and I fell asleep on the ground in (Tokyo district) Shimokitazawa, and when I woke up I was buried in snow with only my face popping out. An old guard from a parking lot found me. He picked up a can next to me and started pouring its contents down my throat to try and revive me. I don't know what was in the can but it made me feel more sick."
"I fell asleep in the bathtub once and almost drowned," chuckles Mashi. "I woke up and I was swallowing dirty bath water and I puked up and then had to take another bath."
I was hoping it would be something as mental as getting electrocuted on stage, but Hiroto and Mashi are more the Laurel and Hardy of rock 'n' roll than a Jagger-Richards combo; and there's nothing wrong with a little humor, even if no one else can understand.
"We can bullshit to each other, making stupid jokes, all night long," says Hiroto. "The jokes are so mundane and crap that nobody else can understand what we are talking about. It's like our own secret language."
Is there anything these conjoined musical twins hate about each other? There's a long silence . . . silver rings are fondled, arms unfolded and refolded, there's umming and ahhing . . . and then:
"He smells," says Mashi.
"No I don't. Well, not anymore, anyway. That was in the early days when I was a poor punk," says Hiroto, defensively.
I heard a rumor that you only took one bath a month, Hiroto.
"That's old info and it used to be true. I admit it," he says. "But I realized it is not good for a band member to stink. It's not fair to the other members. Once we were on an airplane and Mashi was puking up because I smelled so bad."
It's not a good idea: Hiroto might have been kicked out of the band, or even worse, out of the airplane. Maybe his stench was of noodles: I wonder if he misses the pre-Blue Hearts days when he worked at a ramen shop.
"No," he says decisively.
Did it teach you anything about life?
"It taught me how to steal food," says Hiroto. "When I had to deliver a plate of big shrimp in chili sauce I would pick one of the shrimp out with my finger, but then there would be a hole left, so I had to rearrange all the shrimp to make sure the customer didn't notice."
If I cut off your tongue, Hiroto, and you couldn't sing anymore, what food shop would you open?
"I'd open a sushi shop," says Hiroto. "I want to create something new that no one else has ever seen. Chocolate sushi!"
And Mashi, if I cut off your arms so you couldn't play guitar anymore, what would you do?
"I can't cook, so I'd open an instant ramen shop," replies Mashi. "But that would still be difficult if I had no arms. My handicap is much worse than his. It's not fair!" he complains with a laugh.
I haven't cut off your legs, and you can talk. It's not that bad!
"Well, OK, er, I would draw — painting by holding the brush in my mouth."
Well, folks, it seems Hiroto and Mashi have their futures sorted out even if "Fire Age" bombs — which, of course, it won't.
"Fire Age" is out now. The Cro-Magnons tour nationwide for more than three months from Oct. 29 — see www.cro-magnons.net for dates.