Tokyo’s Melt-Banana has been airing their newfound status as a two-piece for the first time in North America for about a week now with about three more weeks to go. It’s been a tumultuous term for vocalist Yasuko “Yako” Onuki and guitarist Ichiro Agata that’s seen them embrace life as a duo (and almost break up in the process), work the success of their Melt-Banana Lite alter ego into their lives and deal with nature putting a big ol’ crack through their home nation while they worked on album number seven, Fetch. The following was done via email with both Yako and Agata where they catch us up on what’s been going on in their world.
I have a couple friends who have spent time in Japan as English teachers and whatnot and they have told me that Melt-Banana isn’t as big or popular in Japan as some people might think. Is this true and if so, why do you think it’s more difficult for the band to connect with a fan base at home? Is Japan’s lack of understanding what you do the motivation to tour other parts of the world as you have for so many years?
Yako: Compared with the USA, we are not popular and the numbers in the audience at each show is a lot less. I think it is because the independent music scene in Japan is not big as the scene in USA and absolute number of fans is less. Also, we don’t do much promotion in Japan and there are not too many magazines or media who pick up independent bands.
Agata: I have no idea about the numbers of fans in Japan or other places. I think at least we are one of the happiest and luckiest bands because we can play not only in our own country but also in other countries in the world.
Are the rumours about Rika no longer being in the band true? If so, what happened? How do you plan to pull off the music without a bass player or will you be using a session musician?
Agata: Yeah, she is not playing with us. We just didn’t offer her any more shows. And we are not playing with any more session musicians, either. We are playing using a computer.
Yako: Since last summer, we have been playing shows as a two-piece, so we don’t have a bass player and a drummer. Rika had been playing with us for a long time, so many people must be thinking that she had been a principal member of the band, but actually she had been a support member for shows, same as support drummers. Like, when we practice a new song for playing live, we’d give her a mp3 and a score of the song.
It’s been almost seven years since Bambi’s Dilemma. Aside from the Melt-Banana Lite album, what have you been doing? On that note, what do you do away from the band? I know Tokyo is an expensive place to live, are you able to live solely off of playing music or are you still juggling the band and label with “real jobs”?
Yako: It is hard to live only with music, but we are able to live with music and we don’t have any other jobs. We can not live like celebrities and we are not rich, but enough to live and we are happy to live with what we like to do.
Agata: Living in Tokyo is expensive, but both of us manage it somehow playing music and running our own label.
When did you start writing Fetch and how long did you work on putting the album together? How old are some of the songs on the new album?
Yako: It was 2010, after putting out the Melt-Banana Lite album.
Agata: We started writing demos around the end of 2010 and the demo version was almost done by March of the next year. But after the earthquake, we couldn’t concentrate recording. Afterquakes were very frustrating, since we had to stop recording every time they happened and the news about Fukushima was very annoying, too. We live in Tokyo, so our situation was a lot better than people in Tohoku, but it was still hard to be normal like before the earthquake. We were also touring USA in 2011. The tour was booked for new album, but we could not finish recording in time, so we did it without a new release. It was a very good tour for us, though. Yako brought a big Neko (cat) costume and could communicate with people at the show directly wearing it and we could meet many friends who we have known for a long time and we could forget about Japan during we’re in USA. After the tour, we played some shows in Japan and then we made a biggest decision about Melt-Banana last summer. And we still needed time to find out a good way to play with a computer. We came back to the studio last winter and finished everything around April or May, I forgot exactly when we finished, because after sending master tracks, we still have many things to do, like checking mastering results, doing artwork, checking vinyl test pressings, etc.
What do you think you learned in the time since Bambi’s Dilemma that you were able to apply to the new album?
Yako: After Bambi we had many good experiences, and we got very good influences so far.
Agata: The biggest experiences after Bambi’s release were the Tool tour, Lou Reed and Melt-Banana Lite. I’m sure all ideas we learned from these three are in our new album. We opened for Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Melvins before and we were very much influenced by all of them. Tool tour was the same. We got influenced in many ways by them. It was not only music but also about lighting, videos, how to manage bands, etc. I think we learned about things that we would never accomplish no matter how hard we work and at the same time we knew what we really wanted to do. Playing with Lou Reed at Sydney Opera House was also a big thing for us. When I saw he was playing a Metal Machine Music set, I thought I should do what I really want to do no matter what other people think or say. If we had not done Melt-Banana Lite, Fetch wouldn’t exist.
What were some of the good and bad things about having such a long break between albums?
Yako: Actually, I don’t feel we had such a long time. We were doing Melt-Banana Lite live shows, touring in USA and Europe, going to Australia and Asian countries, etc. And also we started to play as a two-piece and established this format. So we have been pretty busy.
Agata: A good thing is that nobody rushed us. We could spend as much time as we wanted to. I’m not sure about bad things, though.
For years, it was rumoured that your albums were recorded in yours and Agata’s apartments using a drum machine. Is this still the case or have you moved to recording with a drummer in an actual studio? What was the recording process like for Fetch?
Yako: We usually record music by ourselves. Agata programs drums and bass with a computer. As for vocal and guitar, we go to a studio and record our own parts. And then, we bring the sounds back to home and mix them.
Agata: We use several places. Once I tried to record my guitar at my apartment using my usual equipment with full volume. And I stopped it right after I played maybe 0.1 second. It was so loud and I felt the building was shaken and dust was falling from ceiling.
After a couple of quick listens, it seems this new album has taken the blueprint of Bambi’s Dilemma and added extra layers of effects and sounds that play a bigger role in the songs. Does this sound like an interpretation of the new music that you might agree with? What were you trying to accomplish? Do differently? Mistakes you were trying to avoid?
Agata: Bambi was like two albums put together: usual Melt-Banana songs and Melt-Banana Lite-type songs. And I think you are saying about usual ones. I used guitar at first for most of those usual songs on the Bambi album and it was opposite to Cell-Scape. I wrote bass or drums at first for the most of the songs when I wrote tracks for Cell-Scape. And for Fetch, there were layers of effects and sounds at first, by which I mean a lot of small guitar sound pieces. And then, I tried to find sound that I wanted in there, listening to them carefully and recording or programming them. I’m not a type of person who makes a plan at first and accomplishes it. I do things more randomly. But there was one thing in mind. It was that I wanted parts to repeat three times before going to another part. That’s the only thing I had in mind. I write demos, but I or Yako always change them during the recording and we never know the result ’til we finish recording.
Yako: I just try to do what I feel the best when I do vocals. If I think too much, it makes it difficult to decide what to do.
Ironically, the first track “Candy Gun” is a title that to me as a long time fan succinctly sums up the Melt-Banana sound, especially the last two or three albums: aggressive and noisy, but still melodic and almost sugary and poppy sounding in spots. What is that song about and have you found yourself focusing in on a particular lyrical theme on Fetch?
Yako: The song is about a girl trying to defeat the shitty things that make her irritated in the world, and she shoots with her gun and the bullets are candies. She thinks that candies are good enough to beat them because they are just shitty things. Cute and violent can be on the same line and they are close.
What is the meaning or story behind the title of the new album?
Yako: I wanted to name the album with a good word starting with “f”, and Fetch fit my taste and feeling.
Agata: The word did not come from Mean Girls.
How would you characterise the new album when compared to the other albums in your discography?
Agata: For me, it’s an album which has a lot of repeated small pieces.
Yako: As the title shows, we did what we thought was fetch.
Do you think you’re the only band in the universe that still uses a geocities site to host their website?
Yako: Hahaha! I am not sure, but I don’t think so. We have the address “www.melt-banana.net”, but for some system reason, address part of the browser changes to the geocities address even after you put melt-banana.net to access to our web page and I am a little too lazy to fix it.
After doing the band for as long as you have what are the challenges that keep playing in Melt-Banana exciting for you? Have been able to balance the ideas of being musicians with life in a culture that values professional/occupational conservatism?
Yako: We are still into music and Melt-Banana and we feel happy to live with music. I guess there are still many things to do so that we don’t get tired or bored. It is sometimes hard to live off music, but I usually think that it is what we chose to live and it is what we are to do in our lives.
Agata: Melt-Banana played more than 1,300 shows as a four-piece and, to tell the truth, we were thinking about halting the band last summer. But we changed our minds when Melt-Banana was invited by Shellac for the ATP festival in the UK. At the time, we had no drummer or bass player who we wanted to ask to help us, but they told us that Melt-Banana could play as a two-piece. We started rehearsal playing live with a computer to see if it would work. It took some time, but Yako and I feel like we got something very different and exciting. Right now, playing as a two-piece is actually a fun and exciting challenge for us. Some people may not like our live sets without a tiny Japanese girl bass player and very skilled drummer, but this is what is right for us now. And I believe if we are really satisfied with our music or live sets, it has some values to someone in the world.
2013-10-24 Milwaukee at The Cactus Club (WI, USA)
2013-10-25 Grand Rapids at The Pyramid Scheme (MI, USA)
2013-10-26 Cleveland at Grog Shop (OH, USA)
2013-10-27 Chicago at Double Door (IL, USA)
2013-10-28 Pontiac at The Crofoot Ballroom (MI, USA)
2013-10-29 Toronto at Lee’s Palace (CANADA)
2013-10-30 Buffalo at The Tralf (NY, USA)
2013-10-31 Philadelphia at Union Transfer (PA, USA)
2013-11-01 Brooklyn at Saint Vitus (NY, USA)
2013-11-02 Providence at AS220 (RI, USA)
2013-11-03 Boston at The Sinclair (MA, USA)
2013-11-04 Washington, D.C. at Black Cat – Backstage (DC, USA)
2013-11-05 Chapel Hill at Local 506 (NC, USA)
2013-11-06 Atlanta at 529 (GA, USA)
2013-11-08 Dallas at Club Dada (TX, USA)
2013-11-09 Austin at Fun Fun Fun Festival (TX, USA)
2013-11-11 Albuquerque at Launchpad (NM, USA)
2013-11-12 Phoenix at Last Exit (AZ. USA)
2013-11-13 Los Angeles at The Troubadour (CA, USA)
2013-11-14 San Deigo at The Casbah (CA, USA)
2013-11-15 Pomona at The Glasshouse (CA, USA)
2013-11-16 Oakland at The Oakland Metro Operahouse (CA, USA)