Mario Cuzic used a video camera to face the question that keeps many expat English teachers up at night: What am I going to do before I head back home? His answer, “Garage Rockin’ Craze,” is a documentary on the history of Japan’s underground garage rock scene that has nurtured internationally renowned bands including The 126.96.36.199’s, Guitar Wolf and Teengenerate.
A Canadian national of Croatian descent, 43-year-old Cuzic came to Japan to teach English in 1999. Following a brief bout documenting Croatian MMA fighters for his ancestral homeland, he met Cyril Roy, one of the stars of Gaspar Noe’s psychedelic 2009 film “Enter the Void.” Roy pushed Cuzic into the underground garage rock music scene and a year later the two made “The Swap,” a short feature focusing on local bands, and from that point Cuzic was hooked.
In 2010 he started filming live music videos — there are more than 80 on his YouTube channel — and then he met B.B. Clarke, a 29-year-old American whose knowledge of the scene and Japanese language chops helped give story and structure to Cuzic’s passion project.
Over the next five years the pair shot dozens of interviews and hundreds of hours of concert footage to distil into 90 minutes of pure rock ‘n’ roll, the ultimate mixtape of more than 20 bands curated by the scene’s godfather, an impish figure known only as Daddy-O-Nov, who has been an event organizer since the late 1980s.
Cuzic’s feature follows Daddy-O and his handpicked lineup of acts that range from punk to glam to surf and everything in between. There’s the Tokyo Cramps, who revel in Ed Wood-style horror kitsch and theatrics; The Saturns, who are only interested in breaking their equipment along with the audience’s eardrums; or you have virtuosos like MAD3 that handle their instruments with equal parts violence and precision. But a common thread ties them together.
“Like punk rock, it’s not the sound, it’s the ethos, the DIY ethos that if you don’t make it, nobody else will,” Clarke says.
Nobody embodies this do-it-yourself spirit more than Daddy-O. The scene grew from his Back From the Grave events — a name cribbed from a compilation series of 1960s garage rock produced by Tim Warren — that he started in 1989 to force together the conflicting sounds of his favorite bands, neo-group sounds act Great3 and the buzz-saw rock of Texaco Leatherman. The barely contained chaos led to bands being banned from spaces, and as Daddy-O moved between venues the performers followed him like disciples.
Some acts have bummed around with Daddy-O for nearly 30 years. They’re not getting signed to a major label anytime soon. Why keep at it? Cuzik thinks it’s the creative element.
“When art is your job you lose freedom,” he says. “I don’t see people chasing fame. They value freedom, even if it means working a second job. They don’t need a producer telling them how to make sales and grow a fan base.”
“It’s an outlet,” Clarke offers. As a former in-house translator for Fujifilm, he knows about the need to escape the daily grind. “This is their chance to get everything out. Even if there’s only 10 people in the audience the band will play like it’s the Budokan. It’s not about the fame, they want their 15 minutes of fun.”
Filming the scene proved to be a way out of the daily grind for the filmmakers, too. Funded by money they earned moonlighting as weekend wedding priests-for-hire, it emboldened Clarke to leave his office job to turn freelance and provided Cuzik a cornerstone for his resume when he returns to Canada later this year.
Near the end of “Garage Rockin’ Craze” we are treated to the most insightful of Cuzik’s fly-on-the-wall style interviews, one between Maki Ishikawa, organ player of Machinacalis, and her daughter Yakumo, drummer for Toko Black. Their banter about mutual band friends reveals that the music scene is more than that, it’s an extended family whose membership only requires that you can hold an instrument or, at the very least, a bottle of beer.
“The scene isn’t going anywhere soon,” Cuzik says. “This isn’t mainstream music. You have to be dedicated to want to put in the effort. Through the film I wanted to show young people that they don’t have to be intimidated. Their audience is waiting for them.”
“Garage Rockin’ Craze” will be screened with English subtitles at Shibuya Humax Cinema in Tokyo from Jan. 14 to 27. For more information, visit www.garage-rockin-craze.net or check out Mario Cuzik’s YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/zengyo.
Daddy-O to DJ garage delights at upcoming gig
‘I’m a 1 percenter and I hate the other 99 percent,” 57-year-old concert promoter Daddy-O-Nov says with a laugh, his eyes more mischievous than mean. He’s not siding with the wolves of Wall Street but with outlaw motorcycle clubs who embrace their outsider status to delineate themselves from the law-abiding majority.
He lives with musicians and fellow miscreants in the Fussa neighborhood of American-style ranch houses bordering Yokota Air Base that, until the 1970s, were inhabited by United Air States Air Force officers. Imagine big lawns, porches and front yard barbecues.
“Fussa is paradise. Everyday you get to drink with friends. But paradise can’t last forever. Somebody has to make money,” he says.
So Daddy-O works as an assistant plumber installing combination bathrooms to finance his events and record label, Radio Underground Records, that specializes in undiscovered acts.
“I only want to get that first track out there. After that, I lose interest,” he says before reflecting for a moment. “Honestly, a band doesn’t need a label. They can make more money self-publishing. Sometimes I think I’ve lost my passion to put out records. But then I find another act that grabs me.”
I can’t see Daddy-O retiring anytime soon. A natural born scene kid, he obsessed over Elvis in junior high and was the only one in his social circle who understood rock ’n’ roll until, years later, he was scouted by a Specials fan club for his 2-Tone skinhead fashion. By his early 20s he was famous for being “that old guy” among a high school crowd, hence the “Daddy-O” moniker. In 1981 he organized Emotional Market, a weekly lineup of hardcore bands, that morphed into the ongoing Back From The Grave garage rock showcase held at Tokyo’s UFO Club and elsewhere.
In fact, Daddy-O will be DJing a Back From the Grave event on Friday the 13th. Ask him to do his worst and he’ll spin you something you’ve never heard — but wish you had.
Back From The Grave – Returns takes place at UFO Club in Suginami-ku, Tokyo on Jan. 13 (¥2,000 at the door; 7 p.m. start; 03-5306-0240). For more details, visit www.ufoclub.jp.