Journalists approach Shutoku Mukai warily. As the leading personality of cult group Number Girl, Mukai cultivated an aura of negative charisma. Onstage, he was all contorted painful energy, round geeky glasses slipping down his nose as he spat out lyrics and drew harsh, ranting chords from his guitar. In interviews, he was often terse, distant and generally ill at ease.
Yet sitting comfortably in the small basement studio of Matsuri, his new indie label, Mukai is clearly more relaxed in his own skin. Dressed neatly in jeans, T-shirt and clean white sneakers, he has the calm air of a satisfied craftsman rather than the frenetic nerviness of a survivor from yet another late-night recording session.
He has just finished recording the second album of his new group, Zazen Boys, and the detritus of long days in the studio is still apparent. Empty cigarette packs and junk-food packaging jostle for room with piles of cords and guitar picks. The walls are bare except for a pre-9/11 poster of the New York skyline that sits directly above the mixing deck.
“It’s like my executive view, you know, the corner office!” says Mukai. “When I am recording, it really does it for me.” A few minutes later, he rummages around the studio and comes back with a plastic Buddha mask and places it carefully on a speaker.
“The urban and the mystical. I think of it as a complete scene,” he says with a wry smile.
Not that the zazen of Zazen Boys has any sort of religious significance.
“It was the two Z’s,” says Mukai with a grin. “Like [the two P's in] Led Zeppelin. In a rock band, you have to pay attention to these things.”
Despite the imminent release of the new album, the group’s second this year, and the related pressure of final mixes, tour schedules and promotional interviews, Mukai is talkative, even friendly. In the course of more than an hour, there has been nary a snarl.
“You record, you do gigs, you rest, you record,” says Mukai explaining the short gap between Zazen Boys’ releases.
“Besides, it’s not that quick. The first and second Led Zeppelin albums were only separated by 10 months.”
Zazen Boys’ first eponymously titled album, released at the beginning of 2004, might not quite reach the legendary heights of Zeppelin’s first record, but Mukai’s current infatuation with Jimmy Page and Co. has more to do with his aspirations for the Zazen Boys than their actual sound.
“I saw the Led Zep live DVD last year and rediscovered them. To have a band like that is really my goal, a band that can make music of such a high standard that only those particular members can do it.”
Zazen Boys’ debut was formidable nevertheless. Mukai and his foursome plundered everything from free jazz to hip-hop to strains of soul and even the music of kabuki, welding them together with a ferocious punk-rock fury.
Fueled by almost nonstop touring since their inception, Zazen Boys have drawn a loyal following that includes everyone from kids whose usual taste runs toward the pop-punk of mellowcore — think Orange Range or HiStandard — to those whose groove might be the rock-inflected hip-hop of Rip Slyme or Rhymster.
Their songs, often eschewing steady tempos or traditional structures of verse and chorus, are even interesting enough to hold their own with the most progressive of rock groups. Their second album, released this month, is called “Zazen Boys II” in another nod to Led Zep and it should only do more to burnish the group’s reputation.
“The first album was the signal to start. It was like putting the tape counter to zero,” says Mukai. “With the second, I feel it is actually the Zazen Boys. It is what we are really capable of.”
Fans of Mukai’s former group, Number Girl, may find the growing eclecticism of Zazen Boys a bit of a surprise.
Number Girl, though also deeply inventive, kept strictly to rock. Indebted to 1980s American postpunk groups such as Big Black (whose leader Steve Albini is both musically and stylistically a model for Mukai) and The Pixies, Number Girl coupled crashing minor-chord rock with dark, alienated lyrics.
From their stupendous live debut outside of hometown Fukuoka in 1999 (at the prestigious South by Southwest music festival in the United States, no less), Number Girl quickly garnered both critical and popular acclaim. For a brief moment, Mukai and his cohorts were lauded as saviors of Japanese rock. Just as quickly, they broke up in 2002.
“Looking back at Number Girl, we were doing a lot of shows, recording a lot and keeping such a high level of tension, that it really took a lot out of us,” says Mukai.
“The bass player wanted to leave to form a different band and that was supposedly the reason we broke up, but I had also thought about it myself. After he quit, we talked about finding a new bass player, but Number Girl was really all about those four specific people.”
After Number Girl’s break-up, Mukai floated around Tokyo’s club scene, occasionally playing gigs with the avant-rock group Panic Smile (also originally from Fukuoka), and allowing his latent taste for musical styles outside of rock to come to the fore.
“My brother, who is 8 years older than me, used to show me Kiss and Prince videos when I wanted to watch anime as a child. At first I didn’t get it, but then I started to dig Prince, and then Sly and the Family Stone and later Public Enemy,” says Mukai.
“But in Number Girl, we always had certain boundaries as a rock band. There was just no way that we could mess with something like Prince. With Zazen Boys, I feel that I can experiment.”
The music may have changed, but the lyrics remain the same. Mukai might be slightly sunnier in person, but lyrically, he continues to mine a dark vein of alienation. Though most of his lyrics are in Japanese, he occasionally drops into English. “Frustration in my brain,” he screams on “Delayed Brain,” from the first album, as if to punctuate his psychic disjunction. On “Transparent Relationship with a Young Girl,” arguably the strongest cut from the first album, Mukai repeatedly screeches “kankei nai (it doesn’t matter)” again and again in a tortured voice that expects no reply.
“The music itself in terms of style has expanded in various directions, but it’s [still] not about having fun,” says Mukai. “I’m trying to accomplish something deeper — happiness, sadness — to reflect what is truly my identity.
“If I could identify one thread [between Number Girl and Zazen Boys], it is that I am a difficult person. My personality hasn’t changed. It has always been thorny.”
During the last Zazen Boys tour, however, Mukai bantered easily with the crowd, clearly more at home in his role as entertainer. Or at least, it seemed like it.
“You may have thought so, but I still feel it is a struggle,” says Mukai.
“There is always a weird relationship between an audience and a performer. There is a singer and the singer says, ‘No war’ and the audience says ‘no war.’ There’s a leader. That is one pattern. The other sort of relationship is a group mentality, with everyone singing along together. But for me, there has always been a wall between me and the audience. I definitely don’t feel any sort of group vibe.”
“I’m very self-absorbed. I’m forcing my feelings, my art, on the audience and I like seeing how they react.” In that vein, one could interpret Mukai’s stage persona — part gracious host, part cranky ojiisan — as an exercise in taking the piss.
During one show on their last tour, Mukai pulled a young girl from the audience ostensibly to sing along for the J-pop chorus of “Kimochi.” Instead, he asked, to her obvious mortification, which member of the band she would most like to sleep with.
“In that whole persona, it’s just me having a good time,” contends Mukai. “It’s not for the audience. It’s selfish, but if anyone looks ridiculous, it’s me. People look at me and say, ‘Oh God, he’s being an ass again.’ “