For more than 20 years now, Panicsmile has been an unsung hero in Japanese rock.
In fact along with “unsung” we can perhaps add “un-singing,” with group founder Hajime Yoshida’s particular atonal, ranting vocal delivery one of the stylistic elements that helped define the sound of his generation, bridging the gap between 1970s punk-rock pioneers such as Friction and the rhythmically complex, jazz-influenced sounds of the post-millennial underground.
In fact, Panicsmile has over the years seen its influence — firsthand, secondhand and thirdhand — seep into the fabric of Japan’s grotty clubs and dives to the point where you could almost forget that it had ever existed as something other than a distant, well-respected uncle of the music scene. “Don’t follow your panic smile!” urged Yoshida on 2004’s “Miniatures,” yet the band had accrued enough followers over the years that you could almost forget it even made music.
It’s with a sense of surprise then that “Informed Consent,” the band’s eighth studio album (ninth if we include the 1995 self-released cassette “1/72”), emerges this summer with all the energy, anger and joy of a band starting fresh.
In a way, that was exactly what happened, explains Yoshida, by email from his home in Fukuoka.
“(Drummer) Eiko Ishibashi, (guitarist) Jason Shalton, and (bassist) Kenichi Yasuda left the band after our last album, (2009’s ‘A Girl Supernova’), but I’d been thinking about making changes for a while, so I started new sessions from April 2010,” he says.
The influence of obscenely talented multi-instrumentalist Ishibashi and professionally trained jazz musician Shalton, encouraged by the ever-contrarian Yoshida, had seen the band mutate into a dizzying whirlwind of complex, Captain Beefheartian rhythmical and melodic experimentation, and upon their departure, Yoshida decided to rebuild from the ground up. Yasuda returned, this time in his original ’90s role as guitarist, pseudonymous beginner bassist “DJ Mistake” and Yoshida’s cousin, drummer Geru Matsuishi, completed the new lineup.
“We started out the new sessions with a real back-to-basics concept,” explains Yoshida. “We made loads of really orthodox rock ‘n’ roll tracks.”
Yoshida’s urge to mess things up couldn’t be suppressed for long though, and 20 songs were scrapped. The period seems to have helped in clearing out the ghosts of Ishibashi and Shalton’s era though, and has clearly left some of its rawness and vigor on the new material, onto which the new members have gradually imposed their own identities.
“DJ Mistake is almost a beginner, but she’s really active in sessions,” says Yoshida, “while Matsuishi’s background is jazz and R&B, so he brought some funk to the sound. Yasuda played guitar back in ’93 so that was a return to basics. Any session with me and Yasuda is going to come out weird, but the rhythm section helped put everything together.”
Another influence on “Informed Consent” was the upheaval and reflection that came out of both the Great East Japan Earthquake. The title is a medical term, describing the need to make sure a patient fully understands a procedure, but it also functions as a sharp analogy to the issue of nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan — something reflected in the lyrics of the title track and the song “Nuclear Power Days.”
“It’s a medical term, but you can see this both in the political world and in your daily life,” Yoshida says. “It’s like, ‘I’ve explained that to you!’ It comes down to you, whether you get ripped off shopping, you fail at work or even if a nuclear power station has an accident.”
Rather than preaching at people, Yoshida drew these feelings from the realization that he should have been paying more attention on both the wider scale, as with Fukushima, and in the narrow field of vision that results from the daily pressures of profit and loss, time and money.
“Rather than thinking about the disaster itself,” he says, “I got a terrible sense of regret, like, ‘I guess I kind of knew, but I still didn’t do anything.’ “
While this regret and self-reproach might seem at odds with the vibrancy of “Informed Consent,” Yoshida insists that it comes from a positive place.
“Maybe it’s something like desire and despair: These things come from an attachment to life,” he says. “There’s negativity and darkness in the lyrics, but there’s a bit of irony in there. Anger is what you feel when you have a strong desire to live.”
“Informed Consent” is in stores now.