“I like Japanese spoken by foreign people. I […] think it’s cool and hope that people feel the same way about Yako’s English as I do for a foreigner’s Japanese.”
What better way for the notoriously harsh, spastic, acid-bubblegum chaos-punk band Melt-Banana to come back swinging than with a record like Fetch. The breakneck Japanese noisemakers ended their six-year album drought earlier this month with this half-hour rocket fuel injection of furious joy.
Part of this delay was due to normal creative exploration, but, tragically, much of it had to do with complications resulting from Japan’s 2011 earthquake disaster. Melt-Banana’s Yasuko Onuki and guitarist Ichirou Agata sound determined to come back strong, however, and are clearly as excited as ever to work together. Although they’ve been making vicious racket for more than 20 years, the pair sound as vibrant as a couple of teenagers.
Tiny Mix Tapes recently spoke with Melt-Banana about Fetch, the Higashi Nihon earthquake, noise music, and language.
Fetch will be the first Melt-Banana studio album since 2007. Why has it taken so long between records?
Agata: We usually record a new album every two or three years and we were planning to put out a new one in 2011. Then the earthquake hit Tokyo and it made it hard for us to concentrate on recording.
Yako: I guess that earthquake was one of the reasons, and also I was the one who was slow.
Can you tell me a bit more about how the Fukushima earthquake affected you personally and professionally?
Y: It is not called the “Fukushima earthquake,” but the “Higashi Nihon earthquake” (East Japan earthquake). After it happened, I felt something had been changed in my mind even though the area where I live was not damaged much except for radioactivity.
A: It’s a difficult question to explain. Life in Tokyo was not much changed except for right after the earthquake. Compared to the people in Tohoku, I suffered nothing. We were playing shows as usual and I didn’t have any problem playing music. But I could not concentrate writing music in the same manner I used to. After the earthquake, many people and bands started talking about helping people affected by the disaster and about nuclear energy. I usually don’t put straight messages in Melt-Banana’s music, and actually I wouldn’t be able to do it even if I tried.
How does a Melt-Banana song come together?
A: [In the beginning,] Yako wrote scores of her own. She explained how to play the drum, bass, and guitar parts in the studio when we were writing songs for the first album and some songs on the second album. Later, I started bringing demos to Yako. I think many bands are like this. At the beginning there is one person who is serious and works so hard and other members are just listening to him/her. But once the band starts going well, other members start saying their opinions. Anyway, I started bringing demos and the band played some songs which Yako said “OK” to. It was very hard to make Yako say “OK” at the beginning.
In the beginning, it was like I brought 100 ideas and Yako picked 10 of those. Gradually, Yako approved more ideas than before. Those ideas are always without a vocal part and she adds her own vocals. Then I change the arrangement to fit the vocals, Yako changes some vocals again, and I change the arrangement again. After doing this process several times, we complete the song when we feel there is nothing to change or add.
I like Japanese spoken by foreign people. It is always a little different from native Japanese, with unique pronunciation. It sounds comfortable and I think it sounds cool, too. I… hope that people feel the same way about Yako’s English as I do for a foreigner’s Japanese.
You two have been the creative force behind Melt-Banana for many years. How has your relationship evolved and developed over that time? Do you find yourselves able to relate on a deeper level because you’ve made music together for so long?
A: First of all, I trust Yako’s taste in music. It’s very simple and clear. So it’s very helpful for me because I often care about detailed things and forget to take a look at the big picture. At the beginning, I tried to figure out the way Yako wanted to do things. After a while, I tried to put in my ideas and asked her to use it in the band. Meanwhile, I started guessing what she wants to do.
Y: Agata always brings up many ideas and sounds which give me inspiration and fun. Sometimes he goes too far and we do not have the same vision; we have an argument. But after all is said and done, we reach a goal with which we are both satisfied.
What do you see as the role of technology within Melt-Banana? For example, Agata has been noted for his extensive use of guitar effects and sound-processing devices.
A: If somebody gave me an acoustic guitar and asked me to play something, I couldn’t play anything. I’d probably try to imitate Derek Bailey and I can’t do it well.
Y: Technology is one of most important things for our music. We are using a computer onstage but it’s not just sending the stereo mix to the sound board. We are sending drums, bass, a second guitar, synth and sound effects to different speakers onstage. That way, I can hear drums from the center and bass from behind. It was impossible to do this 10 years ago.
What are your thoughts on the noise genre? Melt-Banana’s music has tended to be generally unclassifiable, but I still often see you mentioned in the same group as Japanese noise artists like Merzbow. Do you feel any artistic community with more full-on “noise” acts from your country?
Y: I like noise music and we’ve got many influences from Japanese noise bands. When I first went to Merzbow show, it was super-great. I felt like I was taking a shower of noise and it felt good. As you say, we are not purely a noise band, but I understand people sometimes mention us as a noise band because we are from Japan and our music contains some noisy parts. Compared with straight rock band, we are classified as noise.
Speaking of countries, I’ve read many interviews with you over the years and it’s sounded like you’ve toured the United States perhaps more than any other country, including your own.
Y: We like touring in USA and also we like playing in other countries, such as in Europe and the UK. There are still many countries in the world where we have never played.
A: The U.S. is the first place where we actually did a real tour and we learned how to do it from an American guy. At first, we didn’t know how to tour. An American friend’s band drove us and we borrowed their equipment. When we toured with Mr. Bungle, we rented a car and drove by ourselves but still borrowed their equipment. When we started touring the US as a headliner, our manager at the time taught us everything about touring. So now we feel more comfortable touring the U.S. compared to Japan or Europe.
Compared to the people in Tohoku, I suffered nothing. We were playing shows as usual and I didn’t have any problem playing music. But I could not concentrate writing music in the same manner I used to.
Yako, what influenced you to sing in English? How does writing lyrics in a non-native language affect your creative process?
Y: Unfortunately, my English is not good… When I first started singing in a band, I was singing in Japanese. After a while, I started to feel that English would be a better fit for my style of singing. Of course, it is sometimes hard for me to write lyrics in a non-native language. I need to look words up in dictionaries a lot. But at the same time, it is fun to read dictionaries to pick words which sound interesting for me and fit for the songs. I often start from the images of sounds and pronunciation.
A: I like Japanese spoken by foreign people. It is always a little different from native Japanese, with unique pronunciation. It sounds comfortable and I think it sounds cool, too. I understand some people who haven’t learned another language or haven’t spent time where people can’t understand their language say bad things about the difference they hear in a foreigner’s pronunciation, but I still think it’s cool and hope that people feel the same way about Yako’s English as I do for a foreigner’s Japanese.
Over the years, what has the reaction of your friends and family to your music been?
Y: When I first started the band, my family was not happy because they wanted me to have stable life. But these days they seem to understand what I want to do with my life.
A: I don’t know if my parents understand my music, but they supported me from the beginning. My father always told me to do what I really liked to do, and I’m doing so, so I think they are alright with what I’m doing.
What do you do with your time outside of Melt-Banana?
Y: This year, I started a small aquarium tank in my room. Now there are some waterweeds with fresh-water atyidaes. I thought small atyidaes would be interesting to watch, but after I put them in the tank, I found out that they look like insects in a way.
A: I have nothing much to do except this band. Playing games, cooking, reading books… I’m a little interested in taking photos and movies but, in the end, making noise is the most fun thing for me.