Sex, drugs and sitars

by David Hickey

Blame Julian Cope.

Nine months ago, the eccentric pop star of the 1980s turned author published “Japrocksampler,” his essential guide to postwar Japanese rock ‘n’ roll, and declared Flower Travellin’ Band’s 1971 lysergic head-banging classic “Satori” as his joint-favorite “Japrock” album of all time. “(They) managed to distill all the best moves of their Western counterparts — Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, The Who — without once sounding like copyists,” Cope declared.

Twenty years ahead of its time, “Satori” blazed a trail being explored over the last decade or so by latter-day tripped-out experimentalists from Japan such as Boris and Acid Mothers Temple. So it’s only right that Flower Travellin’ Band are back — rehearsing songs for an album of new material, readying themselves for a first live performance in 35 years at this summer’s Fuji Rock Festival and celebrating the reissue last week of “Satori.” (Sadly, there’s no word on an official release for the “From Pussies to Death in 10,000 Years of Freakout” bootleg album of early material.)

“The idea with restarting the group,” says FTB guitarist Hideki Ishima, “is to make a fuss once again.” Sat in an Akihabara coffee shop and taking measured sips from a bottle of Budweiser, 64-year-old Ishima — attired in jeans, collarless shirt, suit jacket and tinted round glasses — could pass for 10 years younger. A beanie hat hides the fact that he is no longer the cosmic longhair of the early ’70s; a tightly cropped white beard hides any wrinkles that might lie around the lips. But Ishima is battle-hardened, and beneath the outwardly elliptical veneer there lurks a determination to capitalize on the renewed interest in FTB and reach a new audience.

“We never actually announced the breakup of the band — not officially,” says the Hokkaido native, still beaming after coming straight from his band’s Akihabara rehearsal space and enthusiastically taking up the story of FTB’s miraculous 2008 reincarnation. “We’d had a number of talks before about getting the band going again, but the people suggesting we do it wanted it to be rooted in the past. It would have been about nostalgia. I don’t even own a copy of ‘Satori.’ I don’t have any of the music that I was involved with in the past. I don’t really want to look back. But last year, our producer suggested we write some new material and incorporate that with some of the old stuff, and that we should see how that goes for a three-year period. And they were pretty damn serious about the idea.”

Serious enough to persuade Ishima and his original FTB cohorts — vocalist Joe Yamanaka, bassist Jun Kobayashi and drummer George Wada, plus new addition Nobuhiko Shinohara (keyboards) — to ditch their day jobs and take the bait. So how are the rehearsals going?

“We’re still working on the arrangements and the lyrics. We’re just being ourselves, and from there something unique and original will come,” says Ishima confidently. “We’re rehearsing about 12 songs. It’s crucial that we as members find the songs fun to do. We want to say, ‘We’re enjoying this music, and we hope you do too.’ The thing is, we’re no longer going after anyone — we’re not competing with any other musicians any more.”

For Ishima, only after fully assimilating Western music — he cites The Kinks, King Crimson and B.B. King, among many more — was FTB able to transcend those influences and create something new. “On those early albums, we had learned a lot from American and European rock. We copied their music and tried to catch up with them. And we managed to do that. We could play their music in exactly the same way that they played. Once you reach that level, there’s nothing else beyond that — you’re free to go anywhere, and we could become ourselves and create our own musical identity. That’s as free as you can get.”

It’s a trait you wish the slavish imitators in today’s Japanese rock scene would take on board, and Ishima says there’s a message for the kids on the new album.

“The theme is, ‘If you really mean it, you can will it.’ I guess that’s our message for young people. But the sound will be a continuation of the old days. Joe’s voice hasn’t changed, and our groove is still the same.”

Ishima looks back on FTB’s commercial peak fondly, when the band moved to Toronto for 15 months at the end of 1972 shortly before the release of “Satori” (recorded in just two days) on Atlantic Records. They soon found themselves playing to 30,000 people at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, sharing the bill with local heroes Lighthouse, and also touring with Emerson, Lake and Palmer. The gigging paid off when FTB scored a Top 10 hit in Canada with the single “Satori, Pt. 2.” At the height of his band’s fame, Ishima remembers missing out on the chance of groupie sex with some ELP fans — asked backstage by a group of girls if he knew the members of ELP, he demurred and the girls scampered on — and a run-in with the local police.

“The four of us were walking down the street and a police car stopped us and asked us for our passports,” he recalls. “One of them opened the trunk of their car and there was shotgun inside. That shocked us. We’d been having a smoke. But fortunately the other cop recognized who we were and they left us alone.”

He also recalls walking down Toronto’s main drag, Yonge Street, and hearing his own spidery guitar motif from “Satori, Pt. 2” blaring from a shop radio; Ishima’s guitar has always been FTB’s driving force. A late starter to the instrument (he took it up age 19, “forced into it” by a friend who wanted to form a band), Ishima’s playing alternates between leviathan planet-quaking riffs — so dirty they should come with a complimentary bar of industrial-strength soap — and bluesy licks inspired by classical Indian scales, which give FTB its otherworldly, mystical edge. But for the new album, Ishima suggests that he’ll be leaving his Les Paul in its case and instead playing with his own custom-made instrument, the hollow-bodied, semi-acoustic “sitarla.”

“Ten years ago they treated me like I was a lunatic when I came to them with this idea of the sitarla,” says Ishima. “Only two in the world exist. The guy making it, this artisan in Nagano, is currently making the third. It’s half-guitar, half-sitar, in concept if not in sound. What I wanted to do was to play the guitar in a way that’s as close as possible to the human voice, which I believe is the best instrument in the world. With the guitar, the notes are segmented in half steps, but on the sitarla, you can get those ‘in-between’ notes. It sounds a bit like an electric guitar, but a little different, a little weird.”

Ishima’s fascination with traditional Indian music goes back 40 years to his pre-FTB days, after he became disillusioned playing in the Group Sounds-era band Beavers. (“I had the mushroom haircut and a ribbon in a bow down my front,” recalls Ishima. “We were kind of like the equivalent of Johnny’s Jimusho idols today.”)

“I bought my first sitar after I left Beavers. I thought it was going to be easy, but it was an extremely difficult instrument to play. A while later, Ravi Shankar’s autobiography came out. It was in English, so I looked up the words to find out how to play. But I still hadn’t met my guru. Then, 10 years ago, my favorite musician, sitar master Manilal Nag, came to Japan. He gave me a 40-minute lesson. Eventually I got to learn under his Japanese apprentice.”

This hunger for new experiences — Ishima dubs himself “Mr. Curiosity” — is what drives him to collaborate with musicians half his age, most recently Tokyo psych-folk band Ghost, and to play to crowds young enough to be his grandchildren.

For FTB’s Fuji Rock performance, Ishima will only say the band is planning something “special.” Whatever happens, it’s likely that nostalgia will be left at the gates of Naeba and that Ishima will let his undimmed curiosity get the better of him.

“In my 20s, before I was in FTB, I was contemplating the meaning of life and asking myself all those big, naive questions. I would go to Enryaku-ji Temple on Mount Hie (near Kyoto) and try to figure things out,” he says. “I realized then that carrying around your music from the past is a weight that holds you down. It keeps you from being free. The most important thing is what goes on now and what’s happens in the future. I’m so much more interested in that than the past.”

Flower Travellin’ Band’s “Satori,” “Made in Japan” and “Make Up” are out now on Strange Days Records. FTB’s new album is scheduled for release in July. Fuji Rock Festival ’08 takes place July 25-27 at Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata Prefecture. Three-day tickets ¥39,800; one-day ticket ¥16,800;