“What’s that smell in here?” I ask The Harpy’s in the dressing room of the livehouse Motion, which lies at the butt end of the sleazy Kabukicho entertainment area in Tokyo’s central Shinjuku district.
“It’s the smell of roses,” says bassist Maki Sato, her of the raven hair that’s so long it tickles her thighs.
“It’s coming from her armpits,” guitarist Satomi Yamazaki says, jerking her thumb toward transvestite drummer Tomo Yamaguchi, who sits between them.
And what do your armpits smell of Satomi?
“Alcohol, of course. You want to take a sniff? Or maybe drink it? I’m so hot and sweaty.”
We’re dripping in salty water despite it being a freezing Saturday night last week because postpunk trio The Harpy’s (inspired by the 1980s Riot Grrrl movement and bands such as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney) sank their talons into the audience and dumped them into a volcanic pit of dark, jagged melodic punk with stop-start musical teasing and some call-and-response vocals from all three members.
Satomi and Maki used to form half of the quartet Falsies on Heat (interviewed in this column, Sept. 11, 2005), and when Falsies split in 2008, Maki actually did time in my bands Factotums and Yojimbo before coming to her senses, reuniting with Satomi, hiring Tomo (who’s only a “girl” at shows), and giving us Falsies on Heat 2 starting last March. Well, not quite.
“The essence of the music hasn’t changed so much, so some people might think it’s Falsies Part 2,” says Satomi. “But we have reduced the band by one member (a guitarist), which gives us more space to do exactly what we want. The music is now less dense. It’s more airy; a more trendy and fashionable sound.”
The song “Tut” is one of their best, tanking along on the rumble of bass and drums while Satomi fires lethal hooks from her guitar that Yeah, Yeah, Yeah’s wouldn’t say “no” to. It reminds me of my favorite postpunk band — the obscure but brilliant Fire Engines. The excellent “Tut” video is on their Myspace site and sees Maki flicking her hair back seductively while fingering her fretboard. I wonder aloud whether she’s the dark beauty of the band while Satomi is the voluptuous and playful cutie who’s always game for a laugh. “Simon, f–k off! You know I’m not the sexy girlie type,” says Maki, laughing. “That’s just acting.”
“Tut” is one of three songs on their self-titled debut CD, which they recorded last July — impressively brisk work as the band was just a three-month-old baby. “I don’t waste time. I do things,” states Satomi.
Is it important you construct the song precisely before recording?
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Maki. “The most important thing is to get it down. If you wait until it’s perfect it would never happen and you’d end up with nothing.”
“The songs are always evolving anyway,” adds Tomo, still in drag. “At this show, for example, I played different drum arrangements.”
“We play lots of shows so we get sick of the songs and change them a bit to freshen the sound,” explains Maki.
Often, when I see shows, like when I saw Harpy’s last December, each band gets 25 minutes, but some bands spend 15 minutes joking to the audience. What I like about you girls, I tell them, is you just get out there and play, letting your music do the talking.
“I agree. I hate trying to connect with the audience through talking. It’s not my way,” says Satomi.
“When we have a live show we have huge speakers and amps,” says Maki. “And if you’ve got the chance to use them, then use them. You can sit around talking at home!”
Tomo, how did you manage to grow your breasts so big?
“Good training!” he replies, instantly.
Maybe in the future?
“If it’s required for this band then I will do it!” he states emphatically. “At one show I was changing my clothes and another band pointed out that my nipples are a beautiful pink.”
Can I see? “OK,” he says and slips his hand into his dress to pull out a couple of breast pads.
You’re wearing pads. I didn’t know. Anyway, I can confirm to readers that Tomo has extraordinarily nice pink nipples. This new guy is a good girl, I tell Satomi and Maki. Tomo, you can put your pads back in now. The interview’s over.
“New guy,” says Satomi.
“New gay,” jokes Maki.
“New girl,” insists Tomo.
“That’s a great album title!” says Maki. “New guy, new gay, new girl!”
“Let’s take it!” says Satomi.
Everyone who plays Gypsy jazz is influenced by Django Reinhardt and Sous son Nuage even wave the flag of screaming adoration — the band are named after the Reinhardt song “Nuages.”
I found Sous by accident: I wandered into one of my local bars, Petticoat Lane, in Sendagi, Bunkyo Ward, one night to see an audience mesmerized and only snapping out of a trance to explode with rapturous applause after each song. Tokyo-born Masayoshi Tomioka, 35, the leader of Sous son Nuage (“Under his Cloud” in French), says of the moniker: “The name implies we are his children, but as well as playing his songs, we also play the standard songs of Gypsy jazz, traditional Gypsy songs, chanson, and some of my original compositions.”
Tomioka first picked up the guitar as a junior high-school student and practiced Japanese rock, The Beatles, Ry Cooder and Duane Allman songs in his bedroom.
“My parents had a lot of records so I just played along. It’s how most teens start,” says Tomioka. “But one day I heard Django Reinhardt on the radio by accident and within seconds I was fascinated with his playing! I learned this kind of music by myself, but I wasn’t satisfied with my skill, so I made several short trips to Paris as a teen to learn more technical skills, and luckily a Japanese guitarist introduced me to this French guy who played Gypsy jazz.”
Tomioka started playing with a jazz band in Tokyo in 1995, but two years later he decided he’d have to live and study in Paris to nail the Gypsy-jazz style.
“Real Gypsy jazz still did not exist in Japan in those days,” he claims. “So finally I spent time with Gypsies in Paris for two years. That was a valuable experience for me and when I returned to Japan I joined Kiyoshi Kobayashi (not to be confused with the great actor of the same name) in the group Gypsy Swing Gang.”
It was another lucky break for Tomioka, as guitarist and ukelele-player Kobayashi is one of the pioneers of Gypsy jazz in Japan. In 2007, Tomioka quit Kobayashi’s band to start Sous son Nuage and the current lineup is filled out by guitarist Nao Kobayashi (Kiyoshi’s son), clarinetist Heisuke Kato (Tomioka’s day-job coworker), contrabassist Kyouhei Abe (who also plays with Kiyoshi) and violinist Mizuyo Kawamata (who Tomioka spotted playing at a show, and who also plays with Kiyoshi). “So mostly it’s the same members in my group and in Kiyoshi Kobayashi’s. That’s family for you!” he says.
Tomioka says his aim is to help spread the sound of Gypsy jazz in Japan, and the band are planning to release their debut album this year. I ask him if he’s willing to go the whole hog to get closer to his hero Reinhardt’s playing. The legend injured his hands in a fire and ending up playing with just the index and second finger of his left hand. Maybe you could become a yakuza and get a few fingers chopped off, I suggest.
“No way!” says Tomioka. “The number of fingers doesn’t matter with this kind music. I just need more passion! Passion like Django Reinhardt.”
The Harpy’s play Koenji’s Club Liner in Tokyo on Jan. 27; visit www.myspace.com/theharpys Sous son Nuage play Sendagi’s Petticoat Lane in Tokyo on Jan. 23; visit www.myspace.com/soussonnuage Simon Bartz’s Web site is at www.myspace.com/yojimbotokyo