A couple weeks ago, Ian Martin and I interviewed Yako and Agata of Melt-Banana before they played a show at O-Nest in Shibuya. The interview was featured in an article Ian did for The Japan Times last week – probably one of the most extensive and informative pieces written on the band ever. Due to limited space in the newspaper, the whole hour and a half interview obviously couldn’t be featured, so I’ve decided to post the full transcript here. We talked about all sorts of things, from their new album, their new lineup, the lack of new Japanese bands touring abroad, and even a bit about idol music and Vocaloid.
Be sure to pick up a copy of their new album, Fetch, which is in stores now. Their North American tour starts October 16th in Vancouver, Canada at The Biltmore Cabaret.
How are you?
Yako: It’s hot. It’s so hot I can’t move.
How was it making the new album? This is a very long gap between your last album and the new one right? Usually like two years or so. It’s been about six years.
Agata: Yeah. The earthquake was in 2011, right? We did Melt-Banana Lite in 2009. We were thinking about Melt-Banana Lite after we did Bambi’s Dilemma, and we didn’t really start thinking about the next album until then. We started making demos after we put out the Lite album, and they were pretty much done in 2011. They were still demos when the earthquake happened. We were like, “Shouldn’t we start hitting the studio?” and then the earthquake came, and we were put off guard for a while afterwards.
Yako: Things just didn’t happen smoothly anymore.
Agata: We had a basic idea of things, but after that we just slogged along, like, “So what should we do?” Then we decided to do things as a duo last year, and we were very slowly moving forward. It was around the beginning of this year or the end of last year… I think it was after we played All Tomorrow’s Parties. That’s when we decided we should continue on like this.
Yako: We just thought, “Let’s just get on with it already!”
Agata: Once we decided, it took about 3 months. The time in between was when things were slow.
Was the Lite album a studio album?
Yako: It was like a studio live, and then we messed with it a little bit.
And that was 2009, right?
So the actual time it took to make the album was about 3 months?
Agata: When we were working, we were thinking we had to finish it, so we were working on it really slowly but… When we were making the demos we were like, “Ok, let’s make some songs,” and we were really focused, but because of the earthquake and the aftershocks — I would be recording and it would start shaking, so I would have to turn the computers off, and I would lose my concentration from watching the news. I knew it wasn’t a good situation, to be half-focused on making music and doing everything slowly. That’s probably why it took such a long time.
Was the album affected a lot by the decision to work as a duo rather than as a band?
Agata: It was kind of in between, right?
Yako: It was when we were in the middle of deciding. When we started working on it, we were thinking of playing the songs live as a four piece, but as we were making it, we decided to be a duo. So it was in the middle of a transitional period. The songs aren’t exclusively made to play as a duo.
So the album is like a document of you deciding to become a duo?
Agata: Now that we’re playing as a duo, if we decided to make an album now, it probably wouldn’t be the same thing.
So you made the album keeping the live show in mind?
Agata: Yeah. When we were making the first demos, we had a live drummer, and we were like, if we played with live bass, it would be this and that. The album is still tied to that a bit.
Now that you’re fixed as playing as a duo, is it starting to change the way that you write songs, now that you’re focusing on playing with electronic beats? Is it changing the way you think about the rhythm and other aspects of the music?
Yako: I think we’re a bit freer now. During Bambi’s Dilemma, we had some rules, like not making so many fast songs. Not all drummers can play blast beats, so we had songs with tempos that any all-round drummer could play. We had fixed tempos because we were thinking about those things. We don’t have to think about those things anymore, so I guess it’s been more freeing.
Agata: That’s a good point.
Yako: Agata likes to use a lot of sounds, like sound effects. Sounds that would be hard to play in time to unless the people we were playing with wore headphones to monitor the samples. We had to think about it when we wanted to put those in, but now we don’t have to.
Agata: I kinda like it when it’s not in perfect time when we play live…
Yako: Sorry… (laughs) But we’ve been able to put in synth bass parts too now.
Agata: Yeah. I have to be careful so I don’t seem too much like a sempai… (laughs)
No, it’s totally fine (laughs).
Yako: You’re not really bothered by it anymore, right?
Agata: Yeah. Rather than have a drummer listen to a click during a live performance, I like it when the effects and drums organically meld together. I guess I just couldn’t find a drummer who could do that well and exchange ideas with. We’ve tried a lot of things but…
Yako: It’s difficult.
Agata: Well, there’s a lot of things (laughs). There are different types of people. Some people are really good at copying songs note for note, and there are others who might say, “This sounds better,” and change things up, and we think, “Yeah, that’s good,” and use it. There are a lot of different types. So when I go, “I think this would be a cool effect to put in,” I’m not a drummer, so I don’t understand how a drummer would feel. If there was a drummer who I could communicate that to, and who could play that live well, I think we would have done it live. I think we just happened to not run into anyone like that, so that’s why we’ve ended up like this.
Have there been any problems that have come out of it? Has it caused any difficulties for you, making this transition?
Agata: We’ve had a lot of things. When we first started it, it felt like we were playing karaoke. We were still playing with two channels then I think. Or were we using parallel?
Yako: We were using two when we did Lite, but we were like, “We should be in parallel.”
Agata: So it was already like that then.
Yako: Since we were playing live for such a long time, when we don’t feel the live-ness on stage, we’re not satisfied, so it was really hard trying to overcome that. That’s why we bought those huge monitors (laughs).
So you weren’t satisfied with the sound?
Yako: Yeah. If the sound behind is lackluster, we were like, “Is this just karaoke?” That’s the kiss of death; when you start thinking that, you can’t play live anymore. So it was hard establishing that.
Did people in the audience say that it felt like karaoke? Or was it something you just felt yourselves?
Agata: When we did Melt-Banana Lite, it was just noise and samples and vocals, but it didn’t feel weird to us then.
Yako: Yeah, it didn’t.
Agata: It was only when I started holding a guitar, it was like, “I’m just… playing along to these drums.” It didn’t feel like I was playing with drums, it felt more like the drums were God and I was bowing down, playing along to it. When it was noise, it felt more organic, but as soon as I started playing guitar, it felt really weird. So it was weird at first. But we’ve changed how we approach it lately. She controls the rhythms with her controller, so now we can adjust the timing, so it feels different every show. I don’t really feel uncomfortable lately.
I was looking at some websites and comments that people in America were saying about the upcoming tour. People are starting to pick up on that this is a different Melt- Banana that’s coming this time. But very few people seem to be mentioning about the drums. Lots of people seemed to be saying, “Where’s the bass player gone?” People got used to the drummer changing but they got used to Rika I think.
Agata: She was there since the beginning. She was in the band for about twenty years I think.
Yako: It’s the same case with the drummers, but the bass player was a supporting musician, so when we decided to be a duo we just didn’t ask for her help. That’s it. We weren’t sure about having a real bass player playing along with samples. It just felt too much like they were just playing along. If that was the case, we figured that we would be able to move forward by just playing the two of us. So it seemed easier and more freeing just to have the entire rhythm section programmed, so the two of us could just do whatever we wanted.
Agata: And having a female bassist, who’s short. That’s pretty distinctive. So I felt that it would be hard on anyone who would take her place. Like, “There’s a totally different bass player and they’re playing to pre-programmed samples!” We did get some e-mails from bassists in some American bands who offered to play for us though.
Yako: And drummers too!
Agata: It’s weird: when we’re looking for drummers, we can’t find any, but as soon as we decided to play as a two-piece, we got so many offers. Same with bassists. We would wonder what it would be like if we had so-and-so on bass, but then it started to seem like it would be difficult. We would seem more like a different band if we had some huge American guy on bass instead of this tiny girl. We figured we might as well play as a duo instead of that. So that’s part of it.
It would be difficult to replace a tiny Japanese woman with a massive American guy.
Yako: Americans are so huge.
Agata: More than you imagine. So that was a big part of it.
OK, I’m not going to ask any more questions about this topic after this one. I wondered if you’ve had any feedback from your recent shows in Japan.
Agata: We’ve gotten used to it.
Yako: People are less bothered by it than we expected.
Agata: It seemed to be a bit distressing at the beginning though.
Yako: But people have told us that it’s like we have an actual drummer on stage (laughs).
Agata: It’s better when we play at venues where you can’t see the stage.
Yako: Yeah, it seems to be more effective when you can’t see the stage very well.
Agata: People who are expecting four people look at the stage and seem to be a bit surprised. We’ve had some friends say that.
Yako: That it seems a bit desolate.
Agata: Some people said it was a bit lonely, yeah. But it’s really loud (laughs). But I guess the stage looks a little empty.
Yako: I guess lately people have gotten used to it. No one really says anything.
Agata: The people who come to our shows frequently have gotten used to it, and the people we talk to, some of them have never seen us before. So to them our setup now is normal. So if we do this for about ten years, it’ll become normal for us (laughs).
And journalists will stop asking the same boring questions about this.
Agata: It’s been the biggest change for us, the way we’ve changed how we go about doing things. It was a big decision to decide to keep going as a duo.
Yako: I don’t even remember how we decided anymore.
Agata: We were thinking about it separately. I was looking for a bassist and a drummer at the beginning. I was playing a lot of sessions with a bunch of different people at one point, and all the drummers were really good, and the bassists too. Like the bass player from Wrench, who are playing today. I was really impressed by everyone. When I was playing with these people, I was thinking if there are so many good people out there, we don’t really need to make a decision immediately. Instead, I wondered if we could do it more as a two-piece. So I was starting to think about that, when Yako was like, “You know what, we should just play as a duo!” And I was like, “You know, I was just thinking about the exact same thing”. You don’t remember that? I remember thinking that it was a little hard for me to bring up, so I was relieved that you were thinking the same thing. Not that anyone asked about the how and why…
Yako: It sounds like an excuse (laughs)
So then it was just Agata and a bassist?
Agata: I was invited to these sessions for some reason. Like three sessions during that period.
Yako: It was like these improv shows.
Agata: The organizer was like, we’ll get together about five guys. People like the drummer from Hi-Standard, and the girl on bass from 385. I thinking, well if we had that girl in the band it wouldn’t be too weird. It wasn’t like a session to look for musicians, but it just happened at a time when we didn’t have anyone.
Yako: He was invited as a solo-act a few times too.
Agata: The organizer of that event got a drummer for me too, and I would play with him. We were suddenly just the two of us in June, and I was invited to about three of these events in July, and I thought it was a sign that we should look for someone. But instead I felt that, since all these people were so good, if we really needed someone, they’ll be some good people around.
You’re going to America in October. When you talk about Melt-Banana to people in Japan, one of the first things people always say is, “Oh they’re really popular in America, but no one knows them here.”
Agata: We had some good turnouts about twenty years ago.
Agata: No, a lot of people really did come out. I don’t know if they’re still around anymore, but there was this kind of major label called Meldac, and some writers there would write stuff about us. We were in a situation where we could get some attention, but we started own label, and we don’t do much promotion. So it’s just been like that. In America we have a company that supports our distribution and our label, and when we put a record out, they tell people and we do interviews, so… I don’t know why. I wonder why.
I guess it’s not something you consciously do?
Yako: Well, we’re not that popular in America. We don’t play at a thousand or two thousand capacity venues or anything. It’s just that the indie scene in America is really huge, so if you tour a lot…
Agata: That’s definitely a part of it.
Yako: Why are you talking about what happened twenty years ago? (laughs)
Agata: “We were really awesome back in the day you know!” I sound like one of those sempai types…
In Japan, it feels like the way a lot of bands keep themselves popular is through how they network with other bands. For example, when Melt-Banana started, you were picked up by Zeni Geva. And the bands that keep getting quite big audiences are the ones that are part of a little social group of a bunch of other bands. That seems to be the way to do it here. Basically the popular bands are the kinds of bands that go out drinking after the shows a lot with the other bands. Did going alone and starting your own label, and then going off and touring America, Europe a lot by yourselves, isolate you a bit from the Japanese music scene?
Agata: I’m not sure. We’ve always been the band that doesn’t go to the parties after the shows. It’s like, “The show’s over so we’re going home.”
Yako: We used to go a long time ago.
Agata: Yeah, a really long time ago.
Is that because you just don’t feel like it? You don’t enjoy that kind of thing?
Agata: I like to think of the live show as the after party. You have fun playing the show and go home, so why do you need to go drinking after the show? Also, I’d rather go out for some sushi if I have to pay ¥2,000 or ¥3,000 for drinks.
Yako: That’s more of the reason. We don’t really drink. We’d rather go out and eat something nice if we’re going to pay ¥2,000 for a drinking party…
Agata: ¥2000 isn’t that much though…
Yako: …I guess that’s a part of it. And the reason we were able to go to America was because Zeni Geva took us under their wing. I think scenes like that are really important. And our worldview has expanded after getting to know a bunch of fastcore bands, especially in regard to those events. I think it’s important to be asked to play those events, but the music comes first. I don’t think bands can get popular just because they’re friends with some other band.
Agata: We don’t want to be friends with someone just because they might get more audience for us.
Yako: Yeah, exactly.
Agata: We like being friends with bands that we like. I’m not saying that people who do that are like that though.
Yako: It’s not really about those people.
Agata: There are two types of bands. There are bands who do events and create a community and try hard that way, and then there are bands like us who will come and play if you invite us, but we’re not going to go out of our way and send gifts so someone will ask us to play.
Isn’t it just that your network is elsewhere? A lot of your network is in Europe and America.
Agata: No, we don’t have a network. At first we were being released by this label called Skin Graft Records. Whenever we went somewhere, like Chicago, the network of bands around Skin Graft would help us with promotion and things, and everyone really tried to make it a good show. But we’ve moved away from Skin Graft, so we don’t have a thing where we have a network in every city we go to. It’s just personal connections we have with people.
I think that’s what a network is….
Yako: I guess we do have a lot of friends though.
Agata: Like in San Diego there’s this label called 31G Records, and they’re really good friends, despite the fact that we’ve never released anything through them. They let us stay at their houses whenever we go there. But we don’t know anyone else in that network. It’s weird. I don’t really know.
So you’re just connected as friends.
Agata: And those friends have their own networks. They’ll say, “Hey, some friends of mine are coming so let’s have a party for them,” kind of thing. I guess that’s what a network is.
Yako: In that sense, we have a lot of bands we’re friends with in Japan, so if that’s considered a network I guess then we do have one. But when we see bands we’re friends with who have a lot of friends — a lot of bands that sound similar — we start thinking that our “network” isn’t really much of a network. Like, their networks seems more “networky”.
Agata: They can contact their friends and they’ll all come to their shows, but if we did that to the people in our network, they would all just sort of shrug and not do anything.
Yako: You make it sound like people don’t like us…
Agata: But everyone’s really nice. The people we know have those networks, and the reason we can play shows is because of those people.
Also, talking about touring abroad, it seems that maybe twenty years ago, there were few bands from Japan that were getting a lot of attention abroad. A lot of attention in Europe and the States. Recently, it seems like fewer and fewer bands have been able to follow afterwards. What do you think of that, and if there’s any reasons.
I don’t know. It just feels like it. Twenty years ago, Shonen Knife, Boredoms, Melt- Banana, Zeni Geva, Acid Mothers Temple — there were quite a lot of bands, most of them from the Kansai area, and there were labels putting out their stuff. And those bands are still going back there. For example, I remember going into a record store in Berlin and seeing what sort of Japanese music they had, and all the Japanese music was the same bands who had been there twenty years ago. There were no new bands in there. And I get that impression a lot. Just like, people don’t really know about any new Japanese bands, and you don’t really see — well, Nisennenmondai kind of do. I can’t think of that many though.
Agata: Someone else said something similar to me. There was this one person who had been seeing bands since a bit before we started touring. She said something like, less people seem to be excited about a Japanese band coming through town now. Some woman in New York. We have people who wear our old t-shirts and buy new ones whenever we play because the ones they have are just so old and dirty, but she said that you don’t see so many t-shirts from Japanese bands any more.
Yako: Are there no good bands lately?
Agata: No way, there’s got to be a ton of good bands.
Yako: I guess a lot of them can’t make it over there.
Agata: I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that a lot of young people these days, they think about money too much. People in our generation kept touring even if they lost money, because it wasn’t really about the money, we just wanted to do it. Kids these days are really organized. They want to do the record properly, planning the budget and everything. If they want to do an event, they organize everything and do presentations and things. So if they’re like that, when they do a tour abroad, after just one tour maybe they’ll see that it’s unprofitable and find themselves asking if there’s any point in doing it.
It’s impossible to do a US tour and have a job in Japan, isn’t it?
Yako: It depends on the job of course, but yeah, I guess it’s pretty hard.
Agata: There are a lot of people in nursing care jobs who are able to do it. And working at a warehouse. They’re always looking for people to carry things, so even if you don’t go to work for a month, by the time you get back home they call you up and ask if you can come to work. If you pick a job like that. I guess that’s the crux. It’s hard to have a good job and then want to tour for a month. You can’t have both.
Yako: One of the things I’ve learned from being in a band for such a long time, is that you can’t have everything (laughs).
Agata: Yeah. When we went to Europe one time, we played a show in Germany with this one band. We met up with them, and were like, “Hey! How’s the tour?” The singer was dead asleep, and the guitarist was like, “It sucks. We want to go home”. We were like, “What? The people here really take care of us, it’s great!” But they were like, “We only have five, six people at our shows. I don’t even know what we’re doing anymore.” But we were like at when we first went over.
Yako: We would play in someone’s basement in America.
Agata: And we only had about five, six people then…
Yako: We had some nights where we had zero people!
Agata: Even if we didn’t have any people, it didn’t really bother us…
Yako: Yeah it did.
Agata: Well we were a bit disappointed. But we never felt like, “We want to go home”, or “What did we come all the way to America for?”
Yako: And even when we didn’t have anyone come, it wasn’t like there weren’t any people in the club. The owner was there, the people in the other bands were there. So it’s wasn’t pointless to play. Even when we had only four people come to a show, those four people were standing in front of the stage, waiting. We felt like we had to play because these people came out to see us.
Agata: I guess people our age are bit more… stupid?
Yako: Kids these days are a lot smarter (laughs).
Agata: We never really thought about trying to balance our actions with something. We just did it by instinct. So that’s different. But I think kids these days have a real sense of composure. Like, things about gas money and stuff. And they know so much more than we do. I some times think it’s better not to know too much.
Do you guys ever think about how Melt-Banana’s music fits into Japanese music as a whole? Like, do you treat it like “Japanese music” or J-Pop? Or does it not really matter? Do you ever think about that stuff?
Yako: Not really. But does anyone think about that? Like, a band is Japanese so the music is like this?
Do you guys listen to J-Pop?
Agata: Not too much. If it’s on I’ll hear it. It’s not on much anywhere these days though.
There’s a thing in J-Pop lately where they ask underground musicians and bands if they’ll provide music for idols.
Yako: Are you talking about BiS-Kaidan? Like BiS-Kaidan, and BiS-Hatsune Miku, and Hijo-Hatsune Miku.
Agata: Oh, and Narasaki’s thing. What was it? Babymetal? We saw them live. They were cool.
Yako: We don’t really go out of the way to listen to J-Pop, but Babymetal were cute. It was more cute than cool. Just seeing these cute girls trying really hard. It made me smile. I guess people who are interested in that sort of thing can go out and do it.
Have you two ever been asked?
Agata: We haven’t, right?
Would you, if you were?
Agata: I guess if they weren’t too strict about things…
Agata: Yeah, sure. It seems fun!
Yako: I guess… maybe… yeah! I guess we would…
Agata: If they gave us total freedom.
What if someone came up and was like, “So we have this group, and here’s the budget. Go do whatever you want.” Would you do it?
Agata: Whatever we want… that’s difficult too.
Yako: It seems like such a pain though. If they just wanted us to write a song, then that would be fine, but if they asked us to say how to sing it, or produce it, I think it would be a major pain.
Agata: Yeah, we wouldn’t do that. If they just gave us the vocals and told us to put music to it, we could do it.
Somebody I was speaking to said that they had been asked and had just told them to get lost.
Yako: I can get why someone would say no.
That seems to be the trend now. Some people from the subculture end of J-Pop are starting to link up more and more with idols.
Agata: I might get uncomfortable if something in the underground became just an ingredient in the mainstream. Like, when people listen to underground music and go, “Hey, that sounds like Babymetal”. I think that’s a bit dangerous.
Yako: Even like “Senbonzakura”. AKB48 fans got furious for letting Vocaloid sing an “AKB48 song” even though it’s actually a Hatsune Miku song…
Agata: If that’s the way things are going, then it’s fine. I just hope it doesn’t get boring. Like blast beats. Slipknot did them and it started showing up in the mainstream, but basically it’s something that people who are a bit extreme enjoy. So when it shows up in a pop song sung by an idol, and my parents hear it on the radio and think it’s weird, I just hope people don’t think it’s funny or ridiculous when they see an indie band doing it for real.
Good point. I agree.
Agata: It’s difficult though. Because nowadays you can just be like, “Oh, that’s interesting”, and use an idea so easily. And you can have the girls to get people in through the door and have normal songs, and it’s easy to throw in those interesting ideas into the arrangement. I think it’ll be interesting to see how this all goes down though.
A lot of underground music seems to very easily cuddle up close to idol music. You have events like Borofesta that book BiS and Dempa Gumi, Inc. every year now. It’s kind of cool in a way that indie people aren’t taking themselves too seriously, but it’s going to get to a point where they just start taking idol music way too seriously, and people can’t see the different between what Yako is doing and what an idol is doing… that’s the point I’m worried about. You said that part of it is that nowadays indie musicians are more organized and more businesslike, and maybe they see working with idols as a path to becoming professionals.
Agata: Yeah. Vocaloid is the same way too.
Do you like Vocaloid?
Agata: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. You really like it, right?
Yako: I love it.
Agata: She even bought a DVD.
The one on the A-Zap site?
Yako: Yeah. That DVD is so good.
Who’s your favorite character?
I like Luka.
Yako: You like Luka? (laughs) Megurine Luka. I was looking at Vocaloid videos about five years ago on Nico Nico. It was really easy finding songs that I liked, but lately there’s just so much stuff out there, and a lot of it is just totally different from my tastes. There’s so much pop stuff now, so it’s a lot harder to find interesting songs. I’ve sort of lost my appetite for it.
Would you lend your voice to Vocaloid?
Yako: That’s a hard one… maybe not. I don’t think so. I wonder how Hatsune Miku’s voice actress feels. Hatsune Miku gets more audience than any of her own live shows, right? I wonder if she’s ever like, “But we have the same voice!” I wonder how it feels.