Mixing music and politics is always tricky. While it sometimes results in great art (e.g. Bob Dylan’s pacifist tirade “Masters of War”), often the music is ruined by too much didacticism (John Lennon’s “Some Time in New York City” is a prime example).
But a new band with the unlikely name of the Japonesian Balls Foundation has managed to strike a balance between agitprop and entertainment. The group’s debut album, “Azadi” (due out May 22 on Tokyo-based independent label Respect Record), is full of great rock ‘n’ roll songs with a satirical bite. Take “Japonesian Diary” (based on Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”):
“Worrisome neighbor, weird neighbor, patrons at the bank, strangers in the park/Politicians, medical board, moneylenders, kabuki dancers and sokaiya, scholars, the mafia and the homeless/Military fanatics and brand-worshippers, brown-haired girls who won’t play with us/We’re surfing buddies with Christian and Shinto priests, wow, even though we take note of all religions.”
The two guiding spirits of JBF are Takashi Nakagawa, longtime frontman of the band Soul Flower Union, and Hiroshi Yamaguchi, leader of folk-rock band Heat Wave. They first met in 1993 and hit it off musically, jointly composing the song “Mangetsu no Yube (A Full Moon Evening).”
Since then, Nakagawa and Yamaguchi have crossed paths on various occasions. Together they recorded with Irish musician Donal Lunny, for example, and last year Yamaguchi took part in SFU’s nationwide tour. It was their work together on this last tour that led them to form the new band with former Heat Wave bassist Keiichi Watanabe and SFU drummer Koki.
The name came later.
“I was trying to think of a really cool band name,” explains Yamaguchi in a recent interview. “One day, around midnight, a fax came from Nakagawa with the name ‘Japonesian Balls Foundation.’ “
Nakagawa cuts in and adds helpfully: “It means ‘Japanese archipelago kintama [testicles] foundation.’ “
Last November, the nascent band did seven live shows up and down the country and received very positive reviews.
Nakagawa and Yamaguchi together form a classic Lennon/McCartney-style combination, with the former in the angry rocker mode and the latter more melodic and romantic. “It’s an interesting project because my guitar and Yamaguchi’s guitar are so different,” Nakagawa says. The two take turns singing lead vocals with Watanabe, adding extra dimensions to the band’s sound.
“Azadi,” the title of the album, is a word from Pashtun (one of the main languages of Afghanistan) meaning freedom, autonomy or independence. JBF chose it because to them it summed up the whole vibe of the album, the very positive, life-affirming philosophy that underlies both the overtly political tunes and the straight rock ‘n’ roll numbers, such as Lou Reed’s “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together.”
Nakagawa jokingly says the JBF project will continue “as long as we don’t fight with each other.”
So is JBF a political band?
“No, no, no!” exclaims Nakagawa with a giveaway grin on his face. Backing him up, the somewhat more reserved Yamaguchi explains that the band is all about “love and romance.”
But The Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor” (Track 2 on the album) hardly qualifies as a love song.
“Really?” asks Nakagawa with mock surprise.
“Nakagawa and I write songs together while drinking,” says Yamaguchi, which prompts Nakagawa to explain that Watanabe and Koki couldn’t take part in the interview because they’re probably busy dating girls.
Perhaps Nakagawa is referring to the two scantily clad individuals posing provocatively with the band in the JBF publicity handout. Funny how even politically right-on bands can’t seem to shake that locker-room mentality . . .