Melt-Banana are one of the most popular Japanese bands in Europe and the United States, and there’s two reasons for this: 1) They play more shows abroad than any other Japan-based band; and 2) They are one of Japan’s most original-sounding bands, who, although highly experimental, make quality music you can actually listen to. Since they formed 10 years back their legion of admirers has mushroomed worldwide and now they’re more famous than ever. American indie-music gurus Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke have engineered or mixed Melt-Banana albums, legendary BBC DJ John Peel is a massive fan, and they’ve opened shows for Slipknot, The Melvins, Neurosis and a host of other foreign bands touring Japan.
On the eve of a Japan tour opening for the acclaimed but aging art-punkers Wire, vocalist Yako O and guitarist Agata (bassist Rika mm’ doesn’t do interviews; and they currently use hired drummers) unveil some secrets of the alternative musical universe that is Melt-Banana.
How (not) to peg the Melt-Banana sound
Often described as a postpunk band or “noise terrorists,” Melt-Banana also skirt the edge of metal and techno. In other words, it’s impossible to genre-lize them. The unique factors in the sound are Yako’s vocal, which is so fast it sounds like a series of whiplashes, and Agata’s furious guitar playing, in which he rustles so many sounds out of his guitar through a mass of effects pedals that you imagine he’s got two turntables and a computer stuffed down his underpants.
One particular Web site ( www.gnoosic. com ) tries to help music lovers by surveying fans and compiling associative lists. It imagines Melt-Banana as the star of a musical solar system with other bands orbiting around like planets; the idea being that the closer the band to the star the more it sounds like Melt-Banana. I show it to them.
“According to this we sound most like Techno Animal, Dead Milkmen and Bad Brains,” says Agata. “I’ve never heard of the first two, but I like Bad Brains. But I think we’re only like them because we try something different. With them it was mixing reggae and punk.”
Other bands floating a little further way from the core include Captain Beefheart (Agata: “We don’t sound like them, but John Peel said we reminded him of ‘Trout Mask Replica,’ for some reason.”), Minor Threat (Agata: “At least we like them.”), and Fugazi (Agata: “We admire their D.I.Y. ethic.”).
A recent update showed Zeni Geva, Foetus and Merzbow close to the star. But despite the Web site’s best efforts it’s a lost cause. Melt-Banana’s music is from a different universe.
How skateboarders and dolphins help write songs
The current musical trend seems to be about getting back to basics, from the sparseness of Radiohead to the garage-rock phenomenon, but Melt-Banana, as usual, are being contrary, moving in the opposite direction. Their latest album, “cell-scape,” is still noisy and raw, but it’s much smoother and more melodic than their previous stuff.
“We know how to make lo-fi records and we wanted to try something different,” says Agata. “When we made the lo-fi sound before, that was fine, but on the radio our songs sounded muddy compared to the more mainstream bands, who have a richer, fuller sound, and I wanted to do something about that.”
Have any of your older fans accused you of selling out?
“We don’t think about selling records or trying to be mainstream,” says Agata. “We never have a vision of the finished work. We write our songs while we’re recording them. We don’t even rehearse them beforehand.”
But when you’re lying on your futon unable to sleep at night and you get an idea in your head . . .
“That happens, but I take that idea into the studio, we have fun with it and the original idea gets completely mangled. We write songs in a more abstract way than most. Like, I don’t use chords. I don’t go to the studio and say, ‘Right, this is C and D and A.’ ”
Give us a specific example of your abstract songwriting.
“Video games have a big influence on me. ‘Tony Hawks Pro Skater 3’ or ‘Ecco the Dolphin,’ for example. I might be playing the game and things start connecting in my brain. If I get excited about a clever move I’ve made in the game then I might try to interpret that move musically. It’s hard to explain. But if I’m killing a lot of people in a game and there’s a quiet soundtrack to it I might then go to the studio and think of that game and make a noisy blast-beat song and add some quiet pretty sounds to it.”
How George W. Bush influenced the latest album and how the French don’t get it
You told me a few years ago that your lyrics, which are all in English, have no meaning and that you used words based on the intonation only.
“Well, the new album’s lyrics have more meaning. When we were recording the songs I was kind of upset and angry,” says Yako. “I don’t want to talk about politics but I did not like the idea of invading Iraq. It made me angry and that manifested itself in me questioning a lot of personal things around me.”
Was it a cathartic experience?
Yako laughs. “Hardly, because now when I have to sing those songs at shows all those feelings come flooding back. But it’s not too bad. When I sing those words now it’s like opening up an old photo album and remembering things that are now not so much part of your life.”
How about the older songs? For instance, “Mouse is a Biscuit.”
“Hahaha! Well, mice are cute and you eat biscuits, so it’s a kind of kawaii and evil image at the same time, and I find that juxtaposition interesting.”
“You know the song ‘Zoo, No Vacancy?’ ” asks Agata. I pull out their second album, “Scratch & Stitch,” and read out the 11-second-long song’s entire lyrics: “Maybe yes, maybe no/Moody monkeys wearing laced shoes/Shoes squeak ‘Greed.’ (Take off your shoes, they lead you to the wrong way, you know.)”
“When I first heard these lyrics I thought the monkey meant human,” explains Agata as Yako rolls around in laughter on the sofa. “A human might just be a monkey but by putting on the shoes he becomes human and becomes materialistic, so he takes the shoes off. That’s what I thought, but Yako always tells interviewers the lyrics don’t mean much. But I felt I knew the meaning of it, so I particularly liked those lyrics.”
So it seems Melt-Banana’s lyrics can encourage philosophical debate.
“In France we played this festival and they wanted members of each band to join this debate and discuss what they were trying to express,” says Agata. “We told them we didn’t want to do it, but they said in France people expect artists to explain and if we didn’t do it then they might think we’re fake. I thought that was strange. It’s like a teacher telling you in school how to enjoy this music and how to feel when you hear it and at this point in the song you should start jumping up and down. That’s stupid. People should make their own mind up.”
How to get popular in England
After 10 years together Melt-Banana seem to be more successful than ever. “In England maybe,” says Yako.
Is that down to John Peel’s support?
“Maybe, because we’re not on a major label and don’t have that many people promoting us there, but he constantly plays our records on the radio,” says Yako. “We were actually shocked at how many people came to our shows in Britain last year. When we toured Europe three years ago we would get a few hundred at shows and we thought maybe that was our peak, but last year we got even more people so who knows what’s going to happen next time. When we played in London a thousand people packed out this one venue!”
Did you meet John Peel last time?
“He hosted the show we played in Brighton,” says Yako. “When I see him I feel like I’m standing in front of my grandpa and he is very sweet. He bought three T-shirts off us — for himself, his grandson and his friend or something. We tried to give them to him for free but he insisted on paying.”
How to become the hardest-touring band in show business
Next April, Melt-Banana tour the States with Fantomas, playing a 26-date tour. But that’s nothing. Last year they played 38 shows in the States and 42 in Europe. In 2002 they played 46 shows in 54 days in the States. But in 1999 they were constantly in motion: 115 shows in the States and Europe in just 18 weeks! And none of that includes their many Japan shows.
“In the States we rent a van for a few months and order enough merchandise to sell,” says Agata. “We used to buy most of our equipment — apart from our guitars and amps — when we got there because it’s too expensive to fly over. But now we’ve got equipment stored at friends’ places in Europe and the U.S. so it’s much cheaper to do the tours.”
How a deer almost wrecked last year’s U.S. tour
“We’d finished a show at Rochester and were heading toward Cleveland when we hit this deer and it wrecked the van’s engine,” says Agata.
“The deer was running fast across the road so I slowed down to let it pass and it suddenly stopped because of the headlights,” says Yako. “I slammed on the brakes and I just remember the deer looking me in the eye and then I hit it. I drove on and then there was this smell like burned steak or something. I stopped the van and went to check the engine and it was smoking and covered in bits of fried deer.”
How Agata’s dangerous blood disorder leads to a free gift for one lucky Japan Times reader
Why do you always wear a surgical mask during shows?
“I’ve had this bone disease since I was about 5 or 6,” explains Agata. “My nose can suddenly start bleeding and go on for 24 hours. I started wearing the masks on stage because I had to push tissue up my nostrils to stop the flow of blood so I hid this fact by wearing the mask. Now I’m kind of OK, but it’s like having a bomb inside my body and I’m not sure when that bomb’s going to explode again.”
The masks seem to have become a fashion accessory.
“If you want to put it like that. Now I have a friend working at a hospital so I get this free supply of real surgical masks. Sometimes fans come up to me after shows and ask for my mask. So I sell them off. No, that’s a joke.”
How about this? The first fan to present you with a copy of this article after the next show gets an autographed mask from you.
“Yeah, OK. It’s a deal.”
Melt-Banana plays Shimokitazawa Shelter, Feb. 21 ( 3466-7430); Shinsaibashi Quattro, with Wire, Feb. 28, and Shibuya Club Quattro, with Wire, Feb. 29 (Smash:  3444-6751). For more info check www.parkcity.ne.jp/~mltbanan/
Simon Bartz’ Web site on Japanese music is at www.badbee.net
The desert island M-B
“Speak, Squeak, Creak”
The first and rawest of their five studio albums. Engineered by Steve Albini its 25 tracks speed in at 32.22 minutes.
Yako: “It’s where we started so it’s the core of our music.”
Agata: “When we made this our ideas were good, but not so many people understood it, so we wanted to evolve.” “Charlie”
The track number is trimmed down to a mere 14 on the third album.
Agata: “People used to call Sonic Youth a noise band, but it’s just the same melodic stuff distorted. Other bands were too extreme with no rhythym. With “Charlie” we bridged this gap. By adding melody we made music we love, and which others can love.”
Their fifth and latest album is their most accessible yet with 10 tracks coming in at 37.10 minutes. It even has a track that rips off The Chemical Brothers.
Agata: “We’ve never made long songs so we thought we’d just try it. And, yeh, the drumming is like The Chemicals on one track. But only the drumming.”
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