BBQ Chickens keep new album ‘Broken Bubbles’ short and sweet

by Shawn Despres

Special To The Japan Times

When making music, Tokyo punk/metal hybrid act BBQ Chickens like to keep things short. The quartet have yet to craft a song that lasts two minutes. A handful of their cuts don’t even break the 10-second mark.

The band will tour across the country this month in support of their new album, “Broken Bubbles.” According to guitarist Ken Yokoyama, BBQ Chickens’ upcoming shows will be about 90 minutes long — which is pretty much the combined running time of their four albums and 2003 covers disc, “Fine Songs, Playing Sucks.” But don’t expect to hear the band performing their entire discography.

“The longer our set time, the more we talk,” Yokoyama says. “We’re probably going to do about 30 songs a night. But if we only play those songs, the shows will be done in like 30 minutes. So that’s why we talk so much during performances.

“We ramble on about pretty much everything from jokes about d-cks and p-ssy to politics. Our crowds are pretty rough, though. They boo us a lot while we’re talking, and talk a lot of sh-t especially to our singer and bassist. It’s pretty funny — well, for me at least!”

One of Japan’s best-known punk figures, Yokoyama is also the guitarist for local punk legends Hi-Standard and has a successful solo career. In addition, he founded the popular indie imprint Pizza of Death Records. Yokoyama started BBQ Chickens in 2000. He recruited Hatano from Hawaiian 6 to drum and invited childhood pals Hongolian to handle vocals and I.S.O to play bass. All three of them only go by one name.

“I wanted to play with Hongolian and I.S.O because they had never experienced being in a band,” Yokoyama says. “They didn’t have any musical talent at all — and they still don’t!

“But one of the best parts of being in a band with them is that they are amateurs. That makes this band more interesting and fun. I play in other bands with lots of professional musicians. So I figured, why do I always have to be in a band with professionals?”

Despite working with “amateurs,” things have still gone very well for BBQ Chickens and their breakneck anthems. Their debut disc, 2001′s “Indie Rock Strikes Back,” reached No. 16 on the Oricon album sales chart. Each of their subsequent releases have cracked the Top 30 on the chart as well.

The band followed up “Indie Rock Strikes Back” with 2002′s “Good Bye to Your Punk Rock” and 2003′s “Fine Songs, Playing Sucks.” But then things got pretty quiet. Aside from releasing a pair of new songs online, the group basically went on hiatus for eight years until they put out “Crossover and Over” in 2011. When BBQ Chickens regrouped for “Crossover and Over,” they did so with new drummer Andrew Foulds, who also plays in local acts F-ck You Heroes and Full Scratch.

“I guess Hatano wanted to concentrate on Hawaiian 6, or maybe he just wanted to get away from me!” Yokoyama jokes. “Andrew is a longtime friend of mine. His drumming is more aggressive than Hatano’s. I don’t know who is a better drummer, but I think Andrew matches better with this band.”

BBQ Chickens released their fourth full-length effort, “Broken Bubbles,” on Oct. 9. Clocking in at 22 minutes, it’s their longest recording to date. It includes 15 original songs and three covers of tracks by heavy metal legends Motorhead, hardcore heroes Black Flag, and street punk pioneers GBH.

“I love rock classics,” Yokoyama says. “The original idea was to just play ‘Ace of Spades’ by Motorhead. But then I thought, ‘Wait, I know more cool songs with riffs that are kind of similar!’ So we decided to do more covers.”

Recorded over the course of a week in June, the music on “Broken Bubbles” mixes classic metal sounds with bits of punk and hardcore. Relentless and powerful, the excellent effort follows a similar path as its heavy predecessor — something fully intended by the band.

“I thought we did well with ‘Crossover and Over’ and wanted to make our new album an extension of that,” Yokoyama says. “Bands don’t usually think this way, but I think it’s a tragedy to always make something that exceeds your previous work. So I thought, ‘Okay, let’s stop growing musically.’ I think we were able to make a great album because of that.”

Because of their short length, the “Broken Bubbles” tracks “Blue Blood in Your Heart” and “Nippon” were combined to make BBQ Chickens’ latest music video. The video begins with the group smoking a joint. Then an animated sequence starts that shows a boy holding a vibrator while riding a flying dragon that is also puffing a joint. With Japan’s strict drug laws, I had to wonder if that really was marijuana.

“I don’t know,” says Yokoyama coyly. “The video was my idea. And no one can tell what we were smoking so it’s fine. I know the law is the law. We’re living our lives under the law and have our rights protected by it. But at the same time, I know the law strangles us sometimes.”

And while Yokoyama and his BBQ Chickens bandmates may show off their mischievous sides with onstage jokes about genitalia and music videos that may be about smoking dope, they are conscientious rockers at heart.

Prior to starting their “Broken Bubbles” tour, BBQ Chickens will be playing a free gig in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, a city that was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

“There’s no big meaning behind playing there,” Yokoyama says. “We’re just trying to bring a few happy hours to those living in that area.”

But despite his downplaying the gesture, Yokoyama has been trying to help those in the stricken Tohoku region through his different bands and record label since the disaster. He’s taken supplies to the area and has put on a number of free gigs as well.

“We’ve taken anything we can — food, water, snacks, toys and books for kids, blankets, and other stuff,” Yokoyama says. “Touring those areas is an important opportunity to get to talk with the people there. Lots of them tell me about their daily lives. The people in those areas still live in confusion and they can’t go back to their normal lives. For many of those people, the day when they can go back to their hometown will never come. Many families still have to live separated, too. Nothing has been started (to help them get their lives back). Nothing has changed. It’s totally lame.”

Motivated by what they’ve seen and experienced — and having a strong punk heritage helps — Yokoyama, his BBQ Chickens’ bandmates, and other acts on Pizza of Death Records aren’t shy on speaking out about the current situation in Tohoku.

“Is the role of popular musicians just to make and play music? I don’t think so. If you are in the position to attract attention from people, you have to give positive advice about politics and how to make things right.

“That’s what I’m doing. We can’t let people forget about the earthquake tragedy or the nuclear power problems, so I speak about those issues whenever I can. Some music fans don’t want to hear about it. They don’t like this kind of behavior … but I don’t give a f-ck.”

BBQ Chickens play a free show at Onepark in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on Oct. 13. As part of the “Broken Bubbles” tour, BBQ Chickens play Macana in Sendai on Oct. 14 (022-262-5454); Image in Okayama on Oct. 18 (086-236-0032); Salon Kitty in Matsuyama on Oct. 19 (089-945-0020); Beat Station in Fukuoka on Oct. 21 (092-738-1761); Back Beat in Hiroshima on Oct. 22 (082-247-0074); Club Quattro in Osaka on Oct. 24 (06-6311-8111); Club Quattro in Nagoya on Oct. 25 (052-264-8211); Club Citta in Kawasaki on Oct. 29 (044-246-8888). All shows start at 7 p.m. The Club Citta concert is ¥2,800 in advance. All other gigs are ¥2,500 in advance. For more information, visit www.pizzaofdeath.com.