It may be tough to tell from both acts’ music and sense of style, but without the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Saitama funk sextet Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro would be a very different band.
Although it sounds nothing like the alt-rock heavyweights, Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro first learned about funk through the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And its unusual moniker came from being fans of the Chilis too.
“The Red Hot Chili Peppers were a big influence,” says guitarist Naokazu “Bobsan” Kobayashi. “When we were choosing a name, we wanted something that was hard to remember, and a bit of a tongue twister — like their name. Since they went with chili peppers, we decided to go with coffee.”
Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro’s members used to play predominantly hard rock and heavy metal covers. After getting into the Chilis in the early noughties, they dug deeper into the group’s back catalog and discovered cover versions of tracks by funk legends Sly and the Family Stone and The Meters. And from there Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro became enamored with the funk genre.
“Funk music is very minimal in a sense, but the groove is really heavy and strong,” says Bobsan. “It really opened up the way we listen to music. I think it’s the approach to rhythm, and the fact that the drums and bass come forward. Each instrument plays a vital role in the completion of the groove. They all have to be there.”
Wanting to develop a playful, vintage image to complement their new-found sound, initially Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro’s members wore bell bottoms and colorful shirts, and Bobsan even had an afro. But after seeing videos of James Brown’s backing band, The J.B.’s, looking sharp and hip in matching suits, they began sporting similarly dapper attire.
“Looking professional and handsome on stage makes our shows more visually appealing and keeps us on our toes,” says Bobsan.
“I think that in Japan, funk or anything funky is often seen as just ‘fun’ and comical. But we wanted to make our music smart and cool. We wanted to show that funk is not just novelty party music. That’s why we changed our outfits.”
The act made its recorded debut in 2008 with an eponymous full-length of well-crafted, 1970s-inspired instrumental funk. A few weeks before the release of its sophomore effort, 2010’s loungey “Uhuru Peak,” Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro embarked on its first international tour, with festival and club gigs in Australia. Re-embracing its hard-rock-loving past, the group even trashed a hotel room during the trek. Well, sort of.
“We were staying in an apartment hotel, and Bobsan got up early and wanted to take a bath,” says trumpet player Naohito “Temjin” Yomoda. “But while the tub was filling with water, he went upstairs and fell asleep on the couch. By the time he awoke again, the tub had overflowed and the whole downstairs area was drenched. We spent the entire morning trying to dry out the carpet, but we still got charged a lot of money for the damage.”
“Flooding a hotel room — what a rock ‘n’ roll experience,” laughs organist/keyboardist Yuki “Mzo” Mizoguchi.
Aside from that soggy mishap, the Australian trip was a success. Taken aback by the energetic responses crowds had to its music, Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro returned to the land down under for more live dates this past December and January, many of which were headline concerts.
At the beginning of July, Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro issued its third long-player, “Perfect Times.” Since “Uhuru Peak,” the band has parted ways with bassist Yusuke “Ginger” Kondo, and tenor saxophonist Kunimitsu “Carlos” Ohashi has taken a leave of absence for family reasons. Carlos played on parts of “Perfect Times,” and touring bassist Jun Nihongi and saxophonist Takeshi Kurihara contributed to the album, too.
The lineup changes made things more challenging in the studio, but have helped make the excellent disc a more varied affair. While “Uhuru Peak” was soulful and jazzy, with “Perfect Times” Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro incorporated elements of classic rock and a touch of psychedelic music to create a more upbeat offering.
“It’s a weird, twisted album in that it changes things around and sidesteps into a whole new experience,” says Mzo. “It’s not a typical funk album, that’s for sure, and we love that. There’s a lot of blurring of genres, and it’s probably our most emotional piece of work to date. There’s a lot of imperfection in there, but it sounds perfect to us.”
The group will showcase material from “Perfect Times” during its Fuji Rock appearance this month. This will be its third time at the event: In 2008, it played a late-night set in the Crystal Palace Tent, and in 2010 it did a daytime gig at Field of Heaven.
So when is a better time to perform — in the afternoon for relaxed daytime festivalgoers or at night for tipsy, riled-up revelers?
“People at Fuji Rock are pretty drunk during the day as well,” laughs drummer Satoshi “Tiger” Okano. “We’re happy to play at any time. Fuji Rock always brings out a special energy in us. There’s a really cool vibe at the fest. We’re going to add to it by creating an explosion of funky grooves onstage.”
Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro plays July 28 at the Fuji Rock Festival, Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture. Three-day tickets ¥42,800; one-day tickets ¥17,800. For more info, visit www.smash-uk.com/frf12.