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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
Worst Taste: as stupid as they wanna be
By IAN MARTIN
Special to The Japan Times
"I like bands that are energetic and stupid. And with no sense of fashion. We hate fashionable bands whose music is no good."
Kaita Tanaka — singer, guitarist and main talker in Tokyo-based underground rock band Worst Taste — is trying to explain how he and his cohorts, bassist and keyboard player Naoto Kojima and drummer Mao Katou, came up with the dizzy mixture of catchy hooks and eccentric postpunk songwriting on their new album "Dance de Kimete!" ("Kill Your Dance!").
The band started in 2001, when Tanaka placed an ad in a Saitama guitar-shop window looking for bandmates who were into The Damned, The Clash and Guitar Wolf. Kojima, also a student at the time, responded and the pair immediately embarked on what sometimes seems like a quest to accumulate as many ex-drummers as possible.
"They keep leaving because they don't like me," says Tanaka, ruefully. "Actually, the main problem is that they keep getting married, and life stuff gets in the way of touring. A marriage is just two people."
"Absolutely. Two people," says Kojima, in ironic reference to his and Tanaka's odd-couple pairing as the sole constant in the band's lineup over the years. He quickly qualifies his comment, "And we're both husbands."
They were introduced to Katou, the band's fifth drummer, by Esuhiro Kashima, booking manager of the venue Club Goodman in Akihabara, which has become a meeting point for many Tokyo rock bands with experimental leanings. Katou was attracted to Worst Taste's music because of its originality.
"I'd never heard anything like it before," explains Katou. "The first time I heard them, it was hard to tell whether they were making mistakes or whether they actually meant to do that."
It's easy to understand Katou's initial confusion. On stage, Worst Taste are a whirlwind of stop-start postpunk rhythms and garage-rock riffs, with Tanaka's shouted vocals and insolently trilled "r"s forming a kind of goofy call-and-response with Kojima's often nonsensical backing-vocal yelps. One moment Kojima is frantically and tunelessly mashing his keyboard with both hands, the next all members have stopped and switched rhythms in perfect synchronization as they embark on a new, poppier phase of the song.
"It wasn't a deliberate decision to make music like that," explains Tanaka. "But just by trying to do what we wanted, it naturally ended up in this place. First and foremost, we just want to feel good by playing music."
The band cite cult 1980s/'90s Japanese band Tama as an influence, alongside punk-era bands such as The Stranglers, Pere Ubu, XTC and The Pop Group. According to Tanaka, the band started out as a "grungy, Sonic Youth-type outfit with a bit of postrock," but have since developed what he calls "our coolest sound — like The Damned for the 21st century."
One thing about which the band are all adamant is that their music should be fun, and they are eager not to fall into the trap of taking themselves too seriously.
"Our music is pop," says Tanaka. "But it's not commercial. It's not like you can sing it in karaoke; but the music itself is pop."
Tanaka finds it hard to summon up enthusiasm for a lot of the more widely trailed indie hitmakers of the last few years, citing U.S. math-rock band Battles as an example of a band who get the balance wrong.
"There's nothing stupid about them," suggests Tanaka.
"They're too measured," chimes in Kojima, before Tanaka concludes, "They think too much and they're just not physical enough."
Disdainful of capricious fashion, Worst Taste seek out the meeting place between clever and stupid.
"I want something that's like, 'Ban-tada- ban-ban-ban! Oh, yeah!' " explains Tanaka — drumming on the table, shaking his head around and dancing in his seat (unfashionably, of course) to illustrate his point — but, as Kojima interjects, "On its own, that's not enough."
Kojima has just finished his postgraduate thesis on American postmodern author Thomas Pynchon at Tokyo University, and there is something of Pynchon's playful intersection of trashy pop culture and experimental style and structure in Worst Taste's music.
"We're into a lot of progressive rock as well," says Tanaka, citing King Crimson and Gong as examples. "The proper way of putting a song together, like verse- chorus-verse-chorus, is pretty boring. We want to mess around with it; stick bits together in the wrong places. But we construct the songs the way we do because it's more fun like that. You push that sort of thing too far and it just gets boring again, just as it does if you play something that's too straightforward."
When asked about the high point of their career to date, Tanaka gets a fierce glint in his eye.
"Now!" he states, with firm certainty. "We've reached a point where we're able to make music that sounds and feels the way we want it to."
For the future, however, they remain aware of the challenges faced by bands in their position, and say their main goal is just to keep going.
"Many good bands in the underground scene split up," says Kojima. "Money and life always get in the way."
Tanaka adds, "Unless you're on a major label, there's no way to make money from making music. But to quit is to lose. The way to win is by keeping on playing music for the rest of our lives."
Having promoted and financed their career by themselves, Worst Taste embody a lot of punk's DIY tradition, but they have no time for musicians who wear the label as a badge of credibility. According to Worst Taste, do-it-yourself is a product of necessity rather than the romantic musical philosophy it is often portrayed as being.
"We're a DIY band because we have to be," says Tanaka. "I don't think bands who make a big deal out of their DIY credentials are really DIY at all. If Sony music came to us and said, 'We'll pay for everything and let you have all the rights to your own music,' we'd say 'Yes — right away.' "
Kojima agrees: "We'd take their money, yeah."
Back in the real world, Worst Taste continue building their support from the ground up, linking up with their idols Melt-Banana and Moools for a release party at Shimokitazawa Shelter in March before embarking on a tour to spread their mangled pop message far and wide across Japan.
"We want people to listen to our CD a thousand times back to back and then break it in half," announces Tanaka. "If they do that, we'll give them another one for free."
"Dance de Kimete!" is released Feb. 28. Worst Taste play March 5 at Shelter, Shimokitazawa, Tokyo (6:30 p.m.; ¥2,000 advance, ¥2,500 at the door;  3466-7430); March 15 at Freaky Show, Shizuoka (time and price TBA;  273-8699); March 28 at Club Edits, Nagoya (time TBA; ¥2,000 advance, ¥2,500 at the door;  241-3772); March 29 at Club Metro, Kyoto (time TBA; ¥1,800 advance, ¥2,100 at the door;  752-4765); April 19 at Blue Forest, Kumagaya (time and price TBA;  527-2466); and April 26 at Hard Rain, Osaka (time and price TBA;  6363-5557).