“Rock ‘n’ roll is scary. Rock ‘n’ roll can make a person die.
Rock ‘n’ roll may kill,” says Seiji, aka Guitar Wolf, last Sunday. And
he knows all about that.
The last time I interviewed Guitar Wolf for this newspaper,
in September 2004, I kicked off with this: “The worst [read best] rock
‘n’ roll animals never grow up. They act like idiots and we let them get
away with it because they make great music. In rock ‘n’ roll it’s always
better to burn out than fade away into “maturity” — i.e. making tame
and crappy music. But some of these animals seem indestructible. Think
Iggy Pop, Keith Richards and the rockers I’m meeting today, Japan’s
toughest and most hardcore hoodlum band — Guitar Wolf.”
Better to burn out than fade away. Indestructible. Those
words often return to haunt me. Six months after penning that story,
Guitar Wolf’s bassist Billy, a good friend of mine, was dead. He upped
the rock ‘n’ roll ante a little too high and aged 38 his body packed
Guitar Wolf’s new album, their first without Billy and with
new bassist UG, is called “Dead Rock.” It’s their eighth studio album,
and it sounds just like you’d expect a Guitar Wolf album to sound —
clashing power chords and manic riffing with Seiji screaming over the
top and Toru’s solid drumming holding it all together. It’s not their
best album (that’ll be “Planet of the Wolves” or “Jet Generation”), but
it’s not their worst. The most important thing about it is that it’s
Billy’s album, even though he’s not playing on it. “Dead Rock” is an
exercise in rock ‘n’ roll exorcism.
Billy was the life and soul of every party — a mad guy, but
a cool guy, and it was always fun to hang out with him. In the old days,
whenever I met Guitar Wolf, and especially with Billy, we’d be rolling
around the floor mock fighting, puking up in bathrooms, drinking the
beer machine in their office dry, talking dirty.
These days things have changed in the Guitar Wolf camp. The
music is as hard as ever, the shows are arguably as exciting as ever,
but on a personal level after Billy’s demise they have sobered up.
Tonight, Seiji meets me outside Yoga Station, a few stops
from Shibuya, and as we walk off I ask him if they’ve still got a beer
machine at Guitar Wolf’s nearby office. He says they do, but adds that
we’re not going to their office today because their art designer is
working there and doesn’t want to be disturbed. Instead, Seiji escorts
me to a nearby Jonathan’s family restaurant. I order beer. He orders a
green vegetable juice. And the first thing Seiji says to me is, “Can we
finish this in one hour?”
As soon as we sit down Seiji talks constantly of Billy.
“Billy lived a hard life,” the guitarist says. “He used hard
Did you ever think to advise him to calm down a bit, to warn
him he was living life precariously close to the edge?
“I wasn’t thinking that Billy was going to die. But when he
did, well, then I realized that, yeah, it wasn’t such a surprise. He
made attempts to get his health back, but it was too late. The last
three days before he died, when we were in the States on tour, he was on
the edge, fighting between life and death. The name of the weapon was
rock ‘n’ roll. And it can be used to give life and to lose
When Billy died, weren’t there a few weeks when you thought
about continuing the band or not?
“I knew I would not stop. I had no doubt Guitar Wolf would
You told me at a memorial live show for Billy that you did
have doubts and didn’t know what to do.
“I knew what to do, but there was so much loudness around me
that I just kept my own counsel. A lot of people thought I was going to
quit, even Toru [Guitar Wolf’s drummer], but Billy is probably the only
one who knew that I would never ever give this up.”
You were such a tightknit band. It must have been strange to
lose such a strong personality as Billy and then have another person,
UG, come into the equation.
“After two months of rehearsing with UG, we had our first
live. It was already OK. Anyone can learn to play an instrument, but the
most important thing is the looks, the attitude, the atmosphere — and
UG, even if he couldn’t play guitar, had that,” says Seiji.
“It was just the same as the beginning of Guitar Wolf. It was
a new Guitar Wolf. Thinking back to the first Guitar Wolf, we’d have
problems with Billy not coming to practice and things, and me going to
Billy’s place and screaming at him to come. And then he would
I try — and fail — to get off the subject of Billy by going
through the songs on the new album, first “Kenka Rock.” Does Seiji ever
indulge in kenka (fighting)?
“I do get angry but not to the extent that I want to attack
someone. But two years ago in Texas or maybe Atlanta a can was thrown at
me during a show. I thought it was a joke but then another one was
thrown at me so I jumped into the audience and hit the guy. And I was
doing a show south of Seattle and someone tried to rip my sunglasses
off, so I punched him.
“But I wrote ‘Kenka Rock’ after Billy died in order to
breathe life into the new Guitar Wolf. When Billy was alive we always
had this fighting spirit. Us against everyone else. The general fight of
life. Not fighting in the street or bars or anything.”
Seiji explains the tracks “Red Me” and “Red Situation” convey
a similar message.
“Red stands for the spirit of fire and my heart exploding,”
he says. “After Billy died I wanted my heart to burn red like the sun,
like fire. I needed to explode!
“But I can’t continue my life living in the shadow of Billy.
Now, I sometimes think of Billy but not in a Guitar Wolf sense. UG is
growing up as a bassist and there is no need to compare them. They are
Talking about the song “Wild Bikini Girls” we finally get off
the Billy subject. It’s a song Seiji wrote 20 years ago and which tells
of him selling his soul for the blues.
“I was sick with the blues,” he says. “I was at a crossroads,
like Robert Johnson [legend has it Johnson sold his soul to the devil in
order to play a mean guitar — Blues History Ed]. The white woman was
the devil, the delta blues was beyond. I felt like I was fake. Visions
of these women in bikinis was a distraction. I told myself to stay away
from temptations. And to go into the blues.”
As we walk out of the restaurant two hours later Seiji adds:
“With this album I had two new experiences. One, Billy had died. And
two, UG came into Guitar Wolf. Those are two fresh things that came into
my head and those two things are what this album is all about. I would
say every album is the best album, of course, but ‘Dead Rock,’ under
these circumstances, is something special.”