This is no place for the weak. With their matching suits and high-energy stage shows, the members of Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra have spent the past three decades dispensing a relentlessly upbeat gospel, with barely a pause for breath.
“Everyone is playing like their lives depend on it,” says drummer Kin-ichi Motegi — who, after 20 years of performing with the band popularly known as “Skapara,” is still a comparative rookie. “You sweat like crazy. When we do a headlining show, I’ll lose a couple of kilos.”
Atsushi Yanaka, the band’s debonair baritone saxophonist, lyricist and sometime vocalist, chuckles to hear his group’s regime described as “spartan.” But it’s hard to think of a better description for the ensemble’s unstinting devotion to keeping the good times rolling. With the exception of guitarist Takashi Kato — a veritable whippersnapper at 48 — the members are now all in their 50s, yet they’re showing no signs of easing up.
“I want to keep myself on my toes,” says Yanaka. “When you try something new, you feel a sense of pressure, and I think that’s how you stop yourself getting bored and stay motivated. We try to keep pushing ourselves by playing in new places, committing to impossible schedules or impossible new songs.”
At this point, what kind of song would they consider impossible?
“We recorded one recently that’s the fastest thing we’ve done since Kin-chan joined the band,” Yanaka says, referring to Motegi. “Rather than slow down as we get older, we’re speeding up.”
This year, Skapara has been marking the 30th anniversary of its debut release with tours and a new, as-yet untitled double album, due in November. Later this month, the group heads to the Tecate Coordenada festival in Mexico, followed by a show at Sony Hall in New York. Then they’re off on another victory lap around Japan, with a tour that runs from November until March next year, taking in public halls in 23 of the country’s prefectures.
The band’s timeline coincides neatly with the Heisei Era, which started in 1989 and finished earlier this year. Though Skapara probably isn’t the first name that springs to mind when defining the sound of Heisei, the group managed to maintain a consistent profile while many bigger artists faded from view.
In some ways, it symbolizes a breed of band that flourished during the era: perfectly suited to music festival stages and highly exportable. X Japan and Perfume may have gained attention for recent appearances at Coachella, but Skapara got there first.
“Ska has this inclusive power,” says Yanaka of the group’s international appeal. “It’s like becoming best friends the first time you meet. There aren’t many forms of music that can do that.”
Ska has always been at the core of the band’s sound, placing it on a lineage that extends from Jamaican originators like The Skatalites through to British two-tone acts such as The Specials. Skapara’s discography has been remarkably consistent, though with more variety than detractors would care to admit, encompassing everything from jazz to J-pop, surf rock to samba.
For festival audiences, it’s like catnip. When the group performed at France’s Les Eurockeennes festival in 2003, it started its set playing to a crowd of a hundred people, and ended up with a whole field’s worth of new fans.
“The more places we go, the more we feel that we should do things at our own pace,” says Yanaka. “I don’t think it makes sense to try to adapt what you’re doing to the place you’re playing in. The fact that it’s different is what makes it interesting.”
Being different has been part of the plan since the very beginning, when percussionist Hirokazu “Asa-Chang” Asakura formed the group with the aim of “bringing ska into people’s living rooms.”
“We had a counterculture spirit,” Yanaka says. “When we started out, we had a sense that if we did something different from everyone else, it would get attention.”
There weren’t any mainstream Japanese bands playing ska at the time, let alone doing it with a full horn section and outfits worthy of a 1960s lounge orchestra. Motegi, who hadn’t yet joined at that point, remembers the effect it had.
“If you were watching one of those music shows where people sang the latest hits, when Skapara came on, it was a real shock,” he says. “There was a hint of mischief, of danger.”
Coming after a self-titled debut EP in 1989, the group’s first album, 1990’s “Skapara Tojo” (which translates as “Enter Skapara”), quickly netted the band a larger following. The year after it was released, the band had already graduated to playing at the prestigious Nippon Budokan. It was more than Asa-Chang had bargained for — he left in 1993.
“He seemed to think things had gotten too big for him to control and he proposed we break up the band,” Yanaka says. “But the other members didn’t want to do that, so he ended up leaving instead.”
Since then, the group has functioned without a leader, preferring the messiness of communal decision-making to letting one person call the shots. While Yanaka handles the lyrics for their vocal numbers, the members share songwriting duties.
“If someone has an idea, we’ll try it out, and we won’t move on to the next step until everyone is satisfied,” says Motegi. “It takes a long time, but that’s the way we do it.”
“Ultimately, if it’s a good idea then things go smoothly,” says Yanaka. “It’s like when lots of people say, ‘Hey, this food is really tasty!’ I don’t fully understand how you go about finding common ground like that — but I think with music, too, there are some things that everyone can agree on.”
Aside from Asa-Chang, there are other members from the early days who haven’t made it to this year’s anniversary celebrations. Frontman Eiji Sugimura (aka Cleanhead Gimura) succumbed to brain cancer in 1995 at the age of 32. Alto saxophonist Tatsuyuki Hiyamuta retired in 2008, having struggled to recover from a leg injury he’d suffered over a decade earlier. But perhaps the toughest point came in 1999, when drummer Tatsuyuki Aoki died after being struck by a train, in what police deemed was likely a suicide.
“When Aoki died, it was just before Skapara was due to go on tour, and I remember thinking they would call it off,” says Motegi. “But all the members got together, and even though they didn’t have time to rehearse, they decided they couldn’t stop now. It was like, ‘We’ve got to go ahead with this tour, even if we have to use a drum machine.’ They were no longer doing it for themselves — it was something different.”
In the end, the group recruited Blankey Jet City drummer Tatsuya Nakamura to fill in. Motegi — who, at that time, was still recovering from the unexpected death of his own bandmate, Fishmans frontman Shinji Sato — joined later in the year, and became an official member in 2001.
“I think it was the right decision not to stop,” says Yanaka. “But I think it’s best to keep going in most other cases, too. That may be why we come across as a bit spartan, but for us it’s just normal.”
The way the band talks about it, this determination to keep pushing on sounds like an act of altruism. Even AC/DC has taken a few breaks over the decades.
“For people who are trying hard in their own lives, and maybe having a rough time of it, if they see that Skapara are trying to cheer them up through our music and performances, I think it’ll make them want to carry on,” says Motegi.
“Joao Gilberto is gone; David Bowie is gone — all these people who meant so much to me,” says Yanaka. “They were big stars, right? But at the same time as those stars are going out, we’re like a sun that’s fostering a new generation. So while we owe a lot to those stars, we need to be going out there and making the world shine ourselves, and encouraging young people to do the same. I think that for all of us who are making music now, if we don’t have that kind of spirit, we’re doing it wrong.”
Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra plays Mexico’s Tecate Coordenada festival on Oct. 19 and New York’s Sony Hall on Oct. 22. The band will then embark on a tour of Japan from Nov. 21 through March 1. For more information, visit www.tokyoska.net.