School’s out

Two of the best young bands in Japan


Matilda isn’t waltzing. She’s sprinting toward me outside Shinsaibashi Station in Osaka with the speed of a Jamaican Olympian chewing cheetah gonads. A meter from me she screams “Simon!” and takes a flying leap, so I instinctively reach out and I’m holding this tiny 18-year-old in my arms like she’s a newborn baby.

Matilda’s band, Heisei Josei, are 1-year-old and are one of the most beautiful baby bands in Japan. The thing is, I hardly know Matilda. I’ve only met her once, last July, when I accidentally came across Heisei Josei (Heisei Girls) while waiting for a mate’s band to play at the Osaka live house Fandango. I was gobsmacked by superb melodies dancing on speedy lo-fi rock and the band enjoying unbuttoned revelry. Just imagine the legendary Shonen Knife recording in a toilet cubicle before that bands’ “balls” had dropped and you’ll get the picture.

Osaka folks are more outgoing than Tokyoites, but things seem to be getting out of hand when — at a nearby cafe — I ask her what she does: school or work?

“I work in a snack bar. I work there tonight. You should come,” she says.

The Japan Times doesn’t pay any expenses for my trips, I say, and even if it did, I doubt whether it would stretch to a so-called snack bar. And I’m cashless.

“You’d need at least ¥10,000. My big sister also works there. She’s beautiful and has got big boobs and she’s quitting, so tonight’s her last night, and if you don’t come, you’ll miss a great opportunity.”

Not all men like big boobs, I say.

She pats my hand and says, “My boobs are small; they’re still growing,” and then places her hands on her chest.

Yes, Matilda is quite, um, let’s say “lively,” but I finally steer the talk on to the music. Matilda started the band because she loves singing (“in the bath, in the street, anywhere”) and asked schoolfriend and guitarist Keico, 17, to join. Later, jobless drummer Yurei, 20, made up the unlikely trio. The gangly sticksman (he’s probably taller than Matilda and Keico put together) says: “I used to see Matilda on the live scene, but I didn’t say ‘hello’ because she’s too scary. But finally we met.”

Keico says the first CD she bought was by Hikaru Utada, “but I don’t like her anymore,” and she grew up listening to Metallica because her dad wouldn’t stop playing it. “He’s in a hard-rock copy band. It’s embarrassing; I don’t want to talk about it.” Matilda name-checks singer-songwriters Miyuki Nakajima and Tsuyoshi Nagabuchi, and The Ventures; while Yurei adores T.Rex and garage-punkers King Brothers.

The trio didn’t decide on a genre and just jammed. This is probably why they sound so unique and unrestrained, with the rawness a result of their lack of technical ability.

In the last year they’ve played an astonishing 50-odd gigs and have burned a 11-track self-titled album.

“We don’t have computers, so we burned copies at an Internet cafe,” says Keico, chuckling.

With a record company sniffing around them, the future looks bright. Let’s just hope that Matilda, who chose that moniker because she loved Natalie Portman’s character in “Leon,” can keep her feet on the ground and not go so mad that she ends up chained to a bed in a loony bin.

Nah, do what you do baby. You do it just great!

T he only thing Tokyo-based band Hadashi no Terrorist (Barefoot Terrorist) have in common with Heisei Josei are that they’re the two most exciting new bands I heard last year. (And also that this is the first time either of them has been interviewed). I met them on a bus to 2008’s Fuji Rock Festival. Guitarist Junnosuke Kikawa looked me up and down and asked, “Are you in a band?” I told him I was, and he said he was too. We exchanged numbers, and when a band pulled out of an event I was organizing, I called them up — even though I’d never heard their music — and put them bottom of the bill, fearing the worst. But they are a guttural Stooges viciously raping the melodic punk of Eastern Youth, with the rasping lamentations of singer Kosuke Hori sounding like Hiroji Miyamoto of Elephant Kashimashi before that band sold out. Basically, astounding.

I take Junnosuke, 21, singer/guitarist Kosuke, 22, and bassist Keisuke Okada, 23, (they have no permanent drummer) to my local yakitoriya (chicken joint) in Nippori, in north-central Tokyo. They hand me their demo CD, of which three tracks are ferocious punk; and the final one (the ballad “Taiyo ga Sizundara,” or “After the Sun Sets”) sounds like the elder statesman of Japanese rock Kiyoshiro Imawano being torn apart by a pride of lions.

I tell Kosuke that when I saw him staggering in the street toward my event — bespectacled, clad in normal gear, and with wild, staring eyes — he looked anything but a rock star. I didn’t even recognize him and thought he was whacked out on downers or was mentally ill.

“When I was a junior high school student, my mother passed away, and I was abused by an older person. I experienced that kind of abuse, so maybe I have a negative personality and seem strange,” Kosuke says straight-up.

“Actually, Kosuke does look like he has a major mental problem, and also at shows he goes crazy, releasing all the frustration and it turns out to be good psycho stuff,” says Junnosuke, putting a positive spin on a tragic story that I won’t dwell on.

“Our stage antics hopefully appeal to the audience,” adds Keisuke, “because the people watching no doubt have their own frustrations too.”

And there’s Kosuke jumping off the stage and writhing around on the floor as if he’s having an epileptic fit.

“That’s because I love ’70s punk rock. I’ve watched DVDs of crazy shows and am influenced by them,” says Kosuke. “And when we started the band, none of us could play, just like The Ramones and other punk bands of that era.”

I ask them what was the first song they remember hearing in their lives and the last song they want to hear before they die.

“The Folk Crusaders’ ‘Ano Subarashi Ai wo Moichido’ (‘That Wonderful Love One More Time’),” replies Junnosuke. “I heard this first when the school music teacher played it on guitar and I thought it was cool. The last song would be ‘Whatever’ by Oasis, because that’s what made me want to be in a band.”

Kosuke says, “I first fell in love with ‘Koyoi no Tsuki no You ni’ (‘Like a Moon Tonight’) by Elephant Kashimashi. The last song is Blankey Jet City’s ‘Come On,’ because this song has kept me going so many times when I’ve felt down.”

Keisuke chips in with “Odoru Pompokorin” (“Dancing Pompokorin”) by B.B. Queens, a huge hit from the anime “Chibi Maruko” (“Little Maruko”) “And at the end The Who, ‘My Generation.’ “

Che Guevara appears on the TV in the yakitoriya, so I ask who their icons are.

“John Lennon and Kurt Cobain,” says Junnosuke, and I stifle a yawn.

For Keisuke, it’s Thee Michelle Gun Elephant’s bassist Koji Ueno.

Writer Kenji Ohtsuki is Kosuke’s. “When I’m depressed, I read his autobiography, ‘Linda Linda Rubber Sole,’ and the stuff there is similar to things that happened to me. Especially when he says only music could change his life.”

Heisei Josei play Jan. 17 at Tsukamoto Elevate, Osaka; Jan. 21 at Bears in Namba, Osaka; Jan 23 at Mersey Beat, Kobe. x82.peps.jp/haysayjosay Hadashi no Terrorist play Feb. 16 and 20 at Shinjuku Jam, Tokyo. ip.tosp.co.jp/i.asp?i=sillycluster Japanese bands can send demos to Simon Bartz, The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 108-8071. Or mail simon.bartz888@japantimes.co.jp