Melt-Banana: Being ‘stupid’ isn’t so bad when it comes to touring

by Ian Martin

Special To The Japan Times

“We’d be playing someone’s basement in America …”

“And we only had five or six people there …”

“We had some nights where the audience was zero.”

As Yasuko “Yako” Onuki and Ichiro Agata prepare for a gruelling, 29-city North American tour to promote new album “Fetch,” they reminisce about their early experiences playing abroad as bubblegum hardcore punks Melt-Banana.

At the time, the band made a bright, fierce splash across the consciousness of music fans in the 1990s, being loudly championed by legendary BBC radio DJ John Peel and taken on tour by avant-garde musicians such as Mike Patton and Jim O’Rourke. But in the 20 years since, it’s hard to find another Japanese band who have made a similar impact.

“Someone else said something similar to me,” Agata says. “There was this one person who had been seeing bands since a bit before we started touring. She said something like, fewer people seem to be excited about a Japanese band coming through town now. You don’t see so many people wearing the T-shirts of Japanese bands anymore.”

While part of the reason for this could be that the novelty of Japan’s underground music scene overseas is fading, Agata also thinks there’s a difference in attitude between the more reckless ’90s generation of musicians and the well-organized, business-savvy crop of acts around today.

“When we went to Europe one time,” he says, “we played a show in Germany with this one (Japanese) band. We met up with them (later), and were like, ‘Hey! How’s the tour?’ The singer was dead asleep, and the guitarist was like, ‘It sucks. We want to go home. We only have five or six people at our shows. I don’t even know what we’re doing anymore.’ ”

Yako agrees, contrasting it with her own experience: “Even when we didn’t have anyone come (to our shows) it wasn’t like there weren’t any people in the club. The owner was there, the people in the other bands were there. So it’s wasn’t pointless to play. Even when we had only four people come to a show, those four people were standing in front of the stage waiting. We felt like we had to play because those people came out to see us.”

For many bands nowadays, the expense of touring and the compromises they need to make with their day jobs are just too much to justify the time and cost of going overseas.

“I guess people our age were a bit more … stupid?” suggests Agata, before concluding, “I sometimes think it’s better not to know that much.”

For Melt-Banana, the flip side of popularity overseas is that it is often regarded as a band who has never really lived up to its potential at home. Part of this is a false equivalence, with live audiences for underground music in Japan smaller across the board, but there’s certainly a sense that while Melt-Banana is well-liked and respected at home, the members aren’t part of the indie community in quite the same way as other acts.

“There are two types of bands,” Agata suggests. “There are bands who do events and create a community and try hard that way, and then there are bands like us who will come and play if you invite us, but we’re not going to go out of our way and send gifts so someone will ask us to play.”

Talking to Yako and Agata, it’s clear they have a cheerful obliviousness with regards to a lot of what’s going on with the Japanese underground scene and this reinforces a sense of disconnect, as if the two of them are a self-contained unit, a pair of ghostly entities floating somewhere just on the fringes of the party and apt to disappear across the ocean for months at a time to take part in impossibly glamorous activities.

The slimming down of the band from a four-piece to the current duo only emphasizes this sense of the two living in a world of their own. Performing in the middle of a kind of fortress of towering monitor speakers, Melt-Banana delivers its familiar hyperkinetic rants and tornadoes of feedback and effects against a backdrop of programmed beats.

“There are different types of people,” Agata explains about the decision to do the new album and tour without a live drummer. “Some people are really good at copying songs note for note, and there are others who are like, ‘This sounds better,’ and change things up, and we can say, ‘Yeah, that’s good’ and use it. So when I go, ‘I think this would be a cool effect to put in,’ I’m not a drummer, so I don’t understand how a drummer would feel. If there was a drummer who I could communicate that to, and who could play that live well, I think we would have done it live. I think we just happened to not run into anyone like that.”

The decision to leave out long-term support bassist Rika Hamamoto followed on naturally.

“We weren’t sure about having a real bass player playing along with samples,” Yako says. “It just felt too much like they were just playing along.”

“It’s weird, when we’re looking for drummers we can’t find any, but as soon as we decided to play as a two-piece we got so many offers,” Agata adds. “Same with bassists. We would wonder what it would be like if we had so-and-so on bass, but then it would seem more like a different band if we had some huge American guy on bass instead of this tiny girl.”

Yako and Agata already had experience in playing as a duo through the guitar-less Melt-Banana Lite noise project, but the shift to playing actual Melt-Banana songs as a duo wasn’t without its problems and they struggled to recreate the visceral effect that they had grown accustomed to onstage.

“It was only when I started holding a guitar, it felt like, ‘I’m just … playing along to these drums,’ ” Agata says. “It didn’t feel like I was playing with drums, but it felt more like the drums were God and I was bowing down, playing along. When it was noise, it felt more organic, but as soon as I started playing guitar it felt really weird.”

They had also grown used to the raw power of a live rhythm section pummelling them from the back of the stage.

“That’s why we bought those huge monitors,” Yako says with a laugh. “If the sound behind is lackluster, we were like, ‘Is this just karaoke?’ That’s the kiss of death; when you start thinking that, you can’t play live anymore.”

The accompanying album, “Fetch,” is Melt-Banana’s first new material since “Bambi’s Dilemma” in 2007 (although Melt-Banana Lite released an album in 2009), and it faced a number of delays, not least because of the effect that the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011 had on the process.

“When we were making the demos we were really focused,” Agata says. “But because of the earthquake and the aftershocks, I would be recording and it would start shaking, so I would have to turn the computers off, and I would lose my concentration from watching the news.”

“Things just didn’t happen smoothly anymore,” Yako adds.

When they did finally get over the distraction of the earthquake and touring, however, the album only took about three months to put together. “Fetch” is in many ways a document of Melt-Banana’s transition to becoming a duo, with the opening “Candy Gun” starting out defiantly rock in its structure, albeit drenched in feedback and effects, before degenerating into a glorious chaos of messed-up beats.

“When we were making the first demos,” Agata points out, “we had a live drummer, and we were thinking that if we played with live bass it would be this and that. The album is still tied to that a bit.”

The duo has clearly been freed up to go way further than before with the beats and effects, but “Fetch” is also still easily recognizable as Melt-Banana, notwithstanding the curveball thrown by disarmingly poppy dance number “Zero” at the album’s close.

The resulting record is fierce and uncompromising, shot through with a sense of fun and a clear love of some kind of distorted, abstract vision of pop music. With the band finally getting comfortable with their new setup, their forthcoming tour is set to be a whirlwind in more ways than one.

Melt-Banana’s “Fetch” is in stores now.