At the Tokyo office of Bad Music Co., Ltd. the walls are covered in skulls and crossbones of various designs and a man in black is sitting at a table smoking strong cigarettes.
He looks really cool in his sleek black gear and silver accessories, and sitting down next to him in my sweat-stained red T-shirt I feel like a bashed-up Datsun pulling into a parking lot next to a swanky Cadillac.
I click my 100 yen plastic lighter, but it’s out of gas, and he reaches across, his fur-clad Zippo blazing like the Olympic torch.
His name is Yusuke Chiba, the singer of Thee Michelle Gun Elephant, the only Japanese rock ‘n’ roll band that’s broken into the mainstream and you can claim is cool while keeping a straight face. And with a band name like that, that’s even more impressive.
The trademark of TMGE’s sound might be Chiba’s unique craggy growl, but it is the tanklike bass rumble of Koji Ueno and the blitzkrieg stickwork of pintsize drummer Kazuyuki Kuhara (renowned as “The Soapland King”) that drives the songs along at breakneck pace. Guitarist Futoshi Abe embellishes it all with insanely angular bluesy riffing and vicious guitar solos that dispense more attitude than Billy the Kid wielding a souped-up Kalashnikov.
The devastating sonic assault of the new album, “Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter,” is the direction we’d all love mainstream Japanese rock music to go, so how come TMGE, apart from the limited success of Guitar Wolf, are the only garage rockers to muscle out of the underground and take the mainstream charts by storm?
“We did the tours and we put out the records,” Chiba explains. And it’s as simple as that — hard work.
TMGE’s output is amazing. The band has released five more studio albums since its 1996 debut, “Cult Grass Stars,” and have toured incessantly.
Last year’s “Casanova Snake” album has shifted 600,000 copies, and by the time TMGE completes their biggest Japan tour to date at the 9,000-capacity Makuhari Messe Exhibition Hall in November, it would be no surprise if “Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter” topped the 1 million sales mark.
Considering the TMGE guys have a reputation as beer-guzzling lunatics, I found it strange that the interview was taking place at 11 a.m. on a Saturday, of all mornings. When I find Chiba looking brilliantly pretty and insanely healthy and am told the reason for this ludicrously un-rock ‘n’ roll time is because he has to jet off to Sapporo in two hours for “promotional activities,” I’m more than a little suspicious.
I begin to wonder whether these sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll rumors are part of a record-company campaign to cast TMGE as romantic outsiders, the kind of iconoclastic heroes who tap into our dark rebellious side — whereas they might actually drink Perrier, chew lentils and always be in bed (alone) before midnight.
In what way, maybe even a small way, I ask Chiba, have you sold out since becoming famous?
“We’d never sell out just to be famous,” says Chiba. “Once our company said we had to do a particular TV show and we said we didn’t want to do it and there was this problem.”
So did they appear on the show?
“We did,” he admits, “and I guess appearing on that show was against our principles, but . . . the thing is, we completely trust in our promoter [record label Bad Music], so they rarely ask us to do something we don’t like. That one time we had a big fight and our promoter ended up begging us so we relented.”
And while “Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter” might be packed with grenade-like tunes (Chiba’s list of influences: “The Who, The Clash, The Stooges and Thee Headcoats”), looking at the glossy jacket, you’d think it was a J-pop album.
“It depends on the individual’s taste,” says Chiba.
Of course, but what is this flock of birds all about, superimposed above your finely chiseled and well made-up features?
“I don’t know,” he says. “The designer did it like that. And I like it.”
Is being in Thee Michelle Gun Elephant all about music or is there also a desire to be famous or wealthy, too? What’s the percentage breakdown?
“We do what we want to do,” he says, and then looking a little perturbed and picking up the new album from the table before him, he says: “By the way, do you think the cover is really bad? Our covers used to be like that [points at the skulls and crossbones on the walls].”
Chiba might not be too good at delivering wisecrack-packed interviews — asked how they came up with “Cult Grass Stars” as an album title, he says, “I’m sorry. It’s difficult to answer” — but he does have one old story up his thin, black sleeve: The band began with a mispronunciation.
“Our first bass player came over to my house and saw The Damned album ‘Machine Gun Etiquette,’ and he said: ‘What the hell is this Michelle Gun Elephant?’ When I heard him I laughed and thought, ‘Yeah, that’s it, that’s the name of our band.’ ”
And, after sobering up, you never regretted the name?
The bassist was soon fired, but Chiba has said that was because he was “clumsy.” And that’s a word banned from the TMGE universe: The live shows are as tight as the immaculate mod-yakuza gear the guys are so fond of wearing. That’s why they attracted 25,000 kids to a free gig at Yoyogi Park last month, creating one of the fiercest mosh pits in Japan since, well, since they headlined last year at the Fuji Rock Festival.
Japan might have been won, but this looks like just the beginning. Over the last few years TMGE have been making inroads in the U.S. and British markets. Their fourth album, “Gear Blues,” was given four out of five stars by Rolling Stone, eight out of 10 by Britain’s NME and hailed as “ultra-cool kung-fu garage punk” by Mojo magazine. They played a bunch of shows across America, including New York’s legendary CBGBs, and also toured Europe.
“Britain was good,” Chiba says. “At first the audience didn’t know our music so well, but as we played they got more and more excited and were finally screaming for more. We got a great reception. The promoter over there is telling us to come back, but I feel more comfortable playing in Japan.”
Why? Because of the food? Language?
“Well, my family is here, I mean my wife.”
That’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
He laughs. “Well, if I had a girlfriend in London, I might go there more often.”
That’s much better, but I hope your wife doesn’t read this article.
“Is this article going to be in English?”
“That’s OK then, my wife isn’t going to read it anyway.”
There are other hints that TMGE is not quite ready to sell their souls to the mainstream. When asked if there are any rules on tour, Chiba says: “To drink as much beer as possible. It keeps us going. The beer gives us energy night after night.”
And is it true that drummer Kazuyuki really is the “Soapland King?”
Chiba doubles up with laughter: “Did Billy [Guitar Wolf’s bassist] tell you that?”
No, it was Yuri (54 Nude Honeys singer).
“Yuri!? Hahahaha! Yeah, she’s right, but it’s only the drummer. As long as his money lasts, he goes there.”
While TMGE might be cruising in a different stratosphere of success from their garage-punk peers, they refuse to turn their backs on their humble origins. They might not be driving their own tour bus anymore, but they do still occasionally play tiny live houses. Have they had to adapt their sound to play the big arenas? “Not at all,” says Chiba. “We just play as loud as we can all the time.”
Last Sunday, after the second of two ear-shattering, mind-blowing sold-out shows at Akasaka Blitz, I was ushered backstage and looking forward to sharing a beer or two with Chiba and the lads.
In the dressing room, Chiba says, “Did you like the show?” I wipe mosh-pit blood and sweat from my eyes. “Kind of,” I reply and he laughs.
“I want to introduce you to some people,” he says, and I turn, expecting his three beer-cradling cohorts to emerge from the shadows. “This is my father and my mother, and this is my wife,” he announces. I cough, splutter a little, but gather myself enough for a flurry of cordial bows. I decide it’s best not to hang round in the hope of a beer. But strolling to a nearby bar I think that Chiba’s got a firmer grip on his roots than I ever imagined.
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