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Friday, Nov. 14, 2008

Getting scrappy with jazz-punks Midori


Staff writer

"I don't really listen to punk or know too much about what constitutes Japanese punk," declares Mariko Goto. "That said, if we're going to categorize ourselves, I'd say we're a punk band. But the sort of punk we make is nostalgic and lonely. It's like a four-tatami room with just one door and one window; a very old, small, seedy apartment. And there's a bald, old guy sitting in there alone, screaming and screaming. That's punk to me."

News photo
Shorn of the dead: Midori (left to right: Hajime Kato, Keigo Iwami, Mariko Goto, Yoshitaka Kozeni) and some feline friends hide their claws, while Goto reveals her face for once.

It's safe to say that Goto, vocalist and guitarist with Tokyo four-piece Midori, is no shrinking violet. She's more the sort of woman you should greet wearing a construction helmet and groin box, with a pair of ear defenders ready for when her band gets on stage. If ferocious jazz-punk is your thing, look no further. If it's not, well, it will be after you've seen Midori.

If Goto's not beating seven shades out of an unwary audience member, she's scaling a speaker stack or crawling over heads in the crowd, the short skirt of her serafuku school uniform flapping about to display her knickers for all to see. Hajime Kato, meanwhile, is crashing blue violence out of his keyboard, Keigo Iwami (not present for the interview) is walloping his double bass and Yoshitaka Kozeni is beating a hard, controlled rhythm from his drum kit.

"I don't know where all that aggression comes from," says Goto. "All I remember of our performances is still-frame pictures, not a moving image. I don't remember what I was thinking during any gig."

The band was formed in Osaka in 2003 by Goto, Kozeni and a now-departed bassist, who had originally got together to play covers of kayokyoku (late Showa Era [1926-1989] pop) songs. After deciding that they "weren't good enough" to cover other people's music, they started writing their own, cementing a now-excellent level of musicianship and going through various lineup permutations along the way. Kato joined in 2004 ("I was a fan of the band already; I was worried they'd kick me out, but I've survived four years!"), and Iwami joined in January this year.

The band's influences are a disparate mix. Kozeni started out playing wadaiko (Japanese percussion), and his favorite band is taiko-drum troupe Kodo. Kato is a fan of extreme metal, jazz-fueled Italian prog and J-pop. And Goto's influences range from '90s J-pop giants Judy & Mary to Janis Joplin. They say they never made any conscious decision to blend jazz and punk; it just came naturally. "We're not that clever," remarks Goto.

Crucially, their sound has a pop edge that makes it all palatable, and the band have released five albums and minialbums, the last three of which are on Sony.

"I've digested so much pop music, it just comes out," explains Goto. "Mind you, really commercial pop, like Ayumi Hamasaki or whatever, I can't understand that at all."

"That sort of music doesn't even enter my head," adds Kozeni.

"We don't care whether we find that level of mainstream success or we stay in the margins," says Goto. "It's something we can't decide ourselves; only the listeners can decide. It's not our job to make plans; it's our job to make music."

When a band operate with integrity, the chances are they will succeed, one way or another. Indeed, Midori joined such pop stalwarts as Yuki (one-time Judy & Mary vocalist), Tommy february6 (of Brilliant Green) and Kahimi Karie on the soundtrack to the movie adaptation of "Detroit Metal City," a 2005 manga that has a zealous fan base. The movie, in which a young pop musician joins a heavy-metal band despite hating the genre, was released amid a flurry of promotion in August, no doubt bringing the band a raft of new fans.

"I'm a big fan of the manga," enthuses Kato. "It's very funny. But the manga is kind of taking the piss out of metal, so some of my friends are annoyed that we did the soundtrack, haha. All the artists on the CD did metal songs, although I think if a hardcore metal fan heard the CD, they wouldn't call it metal."

"Yuki's song is kind of hard rock," says Goto. "Kahimi Karie's is cool — very noisy."

Some of the frenzy of Midori's live shows is captured on their new CD, "Live!!," recorded when the band played at Hibiya Yagai Ongakudo, an outdoor theater in Tokyo, in June.

"It was raining so hard! My mic was soaking wet," recalls Goto, before adding (with an apparent tinge of disappointment), "but I didn't get an electric shock."

"That show wasn't even mic'd up properly," says Kozeni. "It was just taped on a little portable recorder."

While the band are happy with the live CD, they say that anyone forced to choose between spending their cash on the new release or on a ticket to a Midori gig should opt for the latter. (Kato jokingly offers to give anyone that poor a discount so that they can afford both.)

"The CD is just the sound," explains Goto. "At a live show, you can see us, you can share an experience with us, you can feel us. It's always different."

That much is true. Whether Goto is flattening the mesh on her microphone by bashing it repeatedly into her forehead, Kozeni is hammering some toms arranged as wadaiko drums or Kato is falling off his piano stool with abandon, the only thing that is guaranteed at a Midori gig is that you will leave sweaty and happy. Of course, if you're really lucky, Goto might break a finger, as she did falling off stage in Osaka a couple of years ago.

The band head out on tour this month with 9mm Parabellum Bullet, a much-hyped young emo-esque hardcore band with whom Midori are friends. For the record, Kato is a fan of their music, though Goto thinks they're "so-so." Kozeni says Midori also feel affinity for enka-surf-rockers GO!GO!7188, Osaka noise mentalists Oshiripenpenz, indie buzz band Mass of the Fermenting Dregs and Okinawa hardcore trio Bleach.

As for bands they really hate, Goto says, "There are two, but I don't even care about them enough to remember their names."

Despite Midori's embrace of chaos, there are areas in which they exercise control. Fans are forbidden from taking photos at Midori gigs. ("I hate that," growls Goto. "A live show is not a photo shoot.") And Goto's not wearing that serafuku without purpose. ("If someone walks out on stage in a short skirt, everyone looks," she reasons. "Simple as that.")

But in the photos that adorn Midori's CDs, Goto's face is often covered up by her hand, ink scrawls, pixel mosaic or the chin-length hair that she recently shaved off. (It's grown to schoolboy length since the photo on this page was taken.) It seems odd that a woman who flashes her underwear to a crowd night after night would be so controlling over her image in photos.

"I cover my face because I'm embarrassed and because photos are permanent," counters Goto. "Whereas on stage, it's just for the moment, so I can expose whatever I like. We don't always have reasons for doing what we do. I shaved off my hair because I was in a bad mood. The bottom line is that we want to do whatever we feel like."

"Live!!" is out now. Midori play with 9mm Parabellum Bullet on Nov. 19 at Club Junk Box, Sendai; Nov. 21 at Quarter, Aomori; and Nov. 22 at Club Change Wave, Morioka. They also play Nov. 24 at Shibuya O-West, Tokyo; Dec. 5 at Daikanyama Unit, Tokyo; and Dec. 28 at Countdown Japan 08/09, Makuhari Messe, Chiba. Visit www.midori072.com for information in English and Japanese.

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