Man With A Mission and Buzz The Bears keep punk’s spirit alive at Punkspring

by Ryotaro Aoki

Special To The Japan Times

It’s not every day you get to exchange thoughts on punk rock with a talking wolf.

“When people talk about punk, they talk about being rebellious and being frustrated with society,” says Jean-Ken Johnny, guitarist for wolf-headed alternative rock band Man With A Mission. He speaks to The Japan Times in character after a show at Shibuya AX. Despite his sharp fangs and deep, intimidating gaze (his yellow eyes didn’t blink once during the whole interview) he is polite and articulate. “The impression I get from punk is more about the energy that comes out from within, the way people unleash music freely.”

Johnny and his bandmates, vocalist Tokyo Tanaka, bassist Kamikaze Boy, DJ Santa Monica and drummer Spear Rib, have taken Japan’s rock scene by storm with a musical cocktail of punk, heavy metal and electronica, gaining notoriety for their wolf-masks (though the band adamantly insists that these are their actual faces — I was too afraid to pinch Johnny’s cheeks to find out) and out-of-this-world back story (they were created in a laboratory by Jimi Hendrix and left frozen in Antarctica for many years before coming onto the scene).

Man With A Mission’s high-octane tracks, such as “Distance” and a modernized cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” have earned the band slots at summer festivals in Japan and shows at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles and the Highline Ballroom in New York. The band recently released its third studio album, “Tales of Purefly,” and an all-English best-of compilation for the American market.

Man With A Mission is scheduled to perform at the Punkspring 2014 festival this Saturday. This will be its second time performing at the festival, the first having been in 2013. The annual event focuses on melodic hardcore and pop punk.

“It’s an amazing event with a lot of bands with momentum from Japan and overseas,” Johnny says of the festival. “Last year, I just loved the atmosphere. I felt like I was a cub again.”

Johnny says his band’s music is a mixture of styles, but that his love for punk runs deep.

“I love the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, Toy Dolls,” he says when asked about his favorite punk bands. “And of course the more recent West Coast bands such as Green Day and Face To Face have all been very influential. We also like Japanese hardcore bands like Gauze. I think they’re an example of the rebellious nature I was talking about, and they were punks from the core. I think there were a lot of cool bands in Japan.”

When asked who he’s excited to see the most at Punkspring, Johnny immediately responds: “Bad Religion, hands down. We love them so much that we use them for our intro music at shows. My favorite album by them is ‘Recipe for Hate.’ I listened to that CD so much that it got holes in it. I mean that figuratively because CDs already have holes (laughs).”

Despite showcasing a specific subgenre of punk over the years, the lineup for this year’s Punkspring appears to be opening up to new genres, with Swedish garage rockers The Hives, Scottish indie rock band The Fratellis and Japanese throwback R&B band The Bawdies all taking part. This could be a reflection of the ever-changing definition of punk, but it’s more likely an attempt to appeal to a broader audience.

Also on the roster, opening act Buzz The Bears seem to be one of the acts who fit Punkspring’s traditional aesthetic with their lightning-fast tempos, buzz-saw guitars and introspective lyrics.

Formed in 2002 in Osaka by singer/guitarist Kenta Ochi, bassist Daisuke Ikeda and drummer Satoshi Kuwabara, Buzz The Bears started up in the middle of the pop-punk boom of the early 2000s, when bands such as Mongol 800 and 175R were all over music television.

“Compared to when we started, it feels like there aren’t any bands like them on TV or in the charts,” Ochi says. “I think the number of bands has become smaller. When we first started, Mongol 800 were really huge and there were a lot of people who started up bands after being influenced by them. Now there doesn’t seem to be as many of those people.”

This will be the first time Buzz The Bears perform at Punkspring. The band members attended the festival as fans only two years ago.

“We walked in just as (melodic hardcore act) Total Fat were playing,” Kuwabara says. “They left a lasting impression and made me want to play on that stage some day. Now we’re finally playing and they’ve sort of taken us under their wing.”

The band thinks this year’s diverse lineup works in its favor in terms of reaching a broader audience.

“We don’t want to have shows where the same people keep coming, or people keep seeing the same bands,” Ochi says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we want to reach a wider audience and engage people who are into other kinds of music.”

As idol pop continues to commandeer the ears of many Japanese music fans, genres such as pop-punk and hard rock have fallen out of favor among the mainstream. But genre-specific events such as Punkspring offer opportunities for die-hard fans and bands to gather and celebrate the music, which is what Man With A Mission’s Johnny aspires to do.

“I’m sure that depending on the era, certain styles of music are mainstream and some styles are not, but the flame never goes out,” he says. “Even if the music isn’t in the charts or on TV, there are still festivals and the flame of that music is still burning. It’s about taking what we love and making it more accessible, showing people that there’s stuff like this out there, and to continue on with the process of spreading our music.”

After Punkspring, Man With A Mission is set to bring its hybrid rock overseas, as the group prepares for its first official U.S. release from Epic Records.

“Our situation in Japan now took three or four years to build up, so we realize that things aren’t going to happen overnight,” says Johnny behind his wolfish grin. “We still have a lot to work on, but we want to show all the stuff we can do now when we go to the U.S. The process of seeing where our music stands within a global context itself is fun and challenging.”

Punkspring takes place at Makuhari Messe in Chiba on March 29 (12 p.m. start; ¥8,800); Kobe World Memorial Hall on March 30 (1 p.m. start; ¥7,800); and Zepp Nagoya on March 31 and April 1 (5 p.m. start; ¥6,500 for one day, ¥10,500 for two days). Participating bands differ depending on the city. For more information, visit www.punkspring.com