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Friday, May 22, 2009
Hard rockers Detroit7 return with dirty tales
After touring Europe, a new album rolls out the doors
Special to The Japan Times
'In Croatia, we played in a huge club and we were the only band, but around 200 people came along to see us and went totally crazy. Everybody there loves alcohol, and so the toilets were filthy!" laughs Miyoko Yamaguchi, drummer with garage-rock band Detroit7. "The toilets around Europe were all dirty. I think if we're talking about Europe, the toilets will come up a lot . . . "
Detroit7 formed in 2001 and quickly rose through the live-house ranks, thanks to their hard rhythms, aggressive guitar riffs and phenomenal stage presence. They release "Black & White" this week, their third full album (along with several minialbums and EPs), on the heels of their first ever United States release. But we'll come to that later.
Not content with being one of the few Japanese bands to tour the U.S. and actually get a stateside record deal out of it, Detroit7 have now set their sights on Europe. Having caught the tour bug at a one-off show in Italy in 2008, the band recently undertook a 13-date tour that took in shows in Germany, France, Spain, and the lesser-trod paths of Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary.
"We met people in various countries who could speak Japanese," says Tomomi Nabana, the band's frontwoman, whose snarling vocals, solid guitar chops and barefoot stage antics regularly turn audiences into rabid moshpits. "They'd come to practice on us Japanese people."
"Visual-kei is popular in Europe," observes bassist Nobuaki Kotajima, referring to the Gothlike genre of Japanese rock that is finding surprising success abroad. "That's why some people have learned to speak a little Japanese. I had no idea it was so popular there.
While the members of Detroit7 are so mad about Japanese food that they take packets of miso soup on tour with them, they still found a soft spot for the European menu.
"We ate a lot of potatoes, and the bread was delicious," says Yamaguchi. "The bread would always come out first, and I'd eat so much of that that I couldn't eat the main course.
"In Europe, it was impossible to tell which bottles of water were carbonated and which weren't," complains Kotajima. "No matter how much I looked at it, I couldn't figure it out.
"I always made sure to ask for the nonfizzy water on stage," adds Nabana. "The fizzy stuff would result in some serious burping!"
They had to contend not only with a change in language, diet and standard of toilet cleanliness, but also the relaxed organization that characterizes Europe's live circuit. Far from the rigid scheduling of Japan (their U.S. tours were also arranged by a Japanese agency, Japan Nite), the band took some time to acclimatize to the more laid-back approach of their European promoters.
"We never knew what was going on," says Nabana. " 'What time's the soundcheck?' 'What time are we on stage?' If we didn't ask, we didn't know. At first it was really frustrating. But we got used to it by the end, and just focused on playing a fun show."
While some shows were sold-out successes, the fact that the band were playing their first tour in the less-traveled parts of Central and Eastern Europe, and without the instant fanbase afforded by the well-established Japan Nite tours in the U.S., meant that some nights were not so well attended. And indeed, the shows were not without incident.
"We played at a festival in Paris called Printemps de Bourges," recalls Nabana. "During the show, all the sound suddenly cut out. And then this alarm started going off — 'wee-waw, wee-waw.' We had no idea what was going on."
"The lights were still working, but all you could hear was the acoustic sound of the drums," continues Yamaguchi, who continued pounding her drum kit while Nabana and Kotajima danced around the stage. "Then we were told that the power to the stage had gone and it would take three minutes to fix. Since it was a festival, we were worried that people would wander off to watch something else, so we decided to just carry on regardless. And just as those two picked up their instruments, the alarm suddenly stopped, the power came back on, and we just exploded with energy. So in the end, we were glad it happened."
Detroit7 are now safely back in Japan to release "Black & White." Recorded last October in an Okinawa studio owned by hardcore band Bleach (whose bassist provides back-up shouts on lead track "Why?"), and helmed by Grammy- nominated engineer Stan Katayama (Rage Against The Machine, REM, Puffy), "Black & White" hits harder than a bucket of bombs. Impressively, the whole thing came together in just a week.
"Electric Eel Shock used the same studio after us, and they were even quicker." laughs Yamaguchi. "We recorded the instrument parts for roughly two songs a day, and then spent a day on the vocals. Stan speaks English, so he helped Nabana (with her English lyrics)."
"If my pronunciation wasn't right, he'd say, 'If you sing it like that, no one will understand.' " laughs Nabana. " 'Sing it more like this instead.' "
"The theme for this album was garage- disco," says Yamaguchi. "For two years, we've been trying to mix Nabana's guitar with danceable music. We feel like we've cracked it this time."
Revealing the meaning behind the album's title, Nabana explains, "People often ask me in interviews, 'What is rock 'n' roll?' I think the answer is anything that combines two distinctly opposite sides. Like black and white, cool and hot, beautiful and dirty. That's rock 'n' roll. So this time I really pushed to encapsulate that in my lyrics and in the way we worked."
For example, the song "24Hours" has Nabana repeatedly spitting the lyrics "Boring days," her voice dripping frustration. But behind the negative sentiment is a positive message.
"That's one of the songs that has two opposing meanings," says Nabana. "The song is about making the most of every day. Although one day might be boring and pointless, there's a part of me that realizes it's important."
The album is released by Victor Entertainment, representing something of a triumph for the band. When their deal with Toshiba-EMI turned sour after just one album (2006's "Great Romantic"), they found themselves without a label, eventually self-releasing 2008's minialbum "Third Star From The Earth" before landing the Victor deal.
"We didn't release anything at all in 2007," says Nabana. "But we were still writing songs and it felt like a sort of preproduction period for us."
"Maybe as a result of not having a label for that period, we became a stronger unit," considers Yamaguchi. "Our feeling for our own music became stronger. When I think about it now, I'm really glad for that year of inactivity. I think at the time we were probably quite anxious, but without that year in the wilderness, we wouldn't be where we are now."
Where Toshiba-EMI had branded its release of "Great Romantic" as Detroit7's debut — despite the band having already released an album on an indie label — the jacket of the Victor release eschews the band's usual gritty image for a barely recognizable high-contrast portrait of Nabana.
Mentioning this in the interview provokes manic laughter from Kotajima, who then apologizes to his bandleader.
"It's me!" says Nabana defensively of the highly styled photo. "With just a little makeup, I can look like that you know."
"She can just peel it off like a mask," jokes Yamaguchi.
"We have loads of spares at our management office," adds Kotajima.
Detroit7 also recently released a self-titled album on U.S. label Daruma, a collection of songs culled from "Black & White" and "Third Star" that Yamaguchi describes as "a calling card that says 'We are Detroit7' " From now on, she says, they will release their albums in America shortly after each release in Japan. The band are already working toward their next album, and gearing up for a Japan tour followed by a few summer festivals. Nabana says that live shows are essential to the band, and that seeing them live is "the only way to ever understand us completely."