This is the part where I tell you how great Tokyo's Melt-Banana are, and where I back up my claim with examples like "40-plus recordings in the past five years!" or "paid lip service by none other than Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs!" Of course I do think they're great—one of the planet's best live bands, even—but I can appreciate the sound of a mean-eyed preschooler shouting everything in a phonics textbook at Hanna-Barbera's sound-effects team. This interview was conducted via e-mail, and consequently it contains no genuine human interaction whatsoever.
AARON: How difficult is it for Melt-Banana to write a new song? I would imagine that it is a very painstaking process.
YASUKO ONUKI, VOCALS: Sometimes it is easy and fast. Sometimes it took us a long, long time. It depends on the idea of the song. We start writing songs with ideas—like one of us, mostly I or Agata [Ichiro, guitar], bring the idea of song. It could be just noise—like Agata says, "I want to use this sound"; it could be a bass riff, some kind of rhythm or vocal, etc.; and we put together and all of us add arrangement. We are picky about songs—especially Yasuko. To decide one part of song, if we can not be satisfied, we keep trying to find out the best one. All of us have different taste of music, so there are fights and arguments.
What sort of preparation do you do before you go onstage? Do you need to become angry to perform Melt-Banana music?
We don't need to become angry. We sometimes do the image training, like simulation, before the show.
How do you choose words for your lyrics? Are you attempting to tell little stories through your lyrics?
I read dictionary and pick words from pronunciation, and also meaning. Like the word "spathic," which I used for a song on Charlie, I thought it is good to use. Actually no American friends knew this word, but I used. "Spathic" means "glossy," like glass, something like that, and I thought the meaning is neat, too. About my lyrics: My style of lyrics has been changing. At the time of Speak Squeak Creak, more like it comes from the inside of my mind. And on Scratch or Stitch, it seems like lyrics started to speak out to outside. And now, on Charlie, it became like more hyper—all things are now together, including the past and future and present dimensions. Well, it is hard to explain, but I say now my style of lyrics is heading to the outer space.
What led you to decide on the name Charlie for the last record?
I took Charlie from the name of a movie in '70s. It was a story about a retarded guy becoming a genius by a surgical operation. But after all the treatment was just for temporary, and he became back to retarded. I guess it is very famous story; I don't know the title in English, but Flowers for Algernon or something like this. When I saw this movie, I moved very much. And during recording third album, I decided to use Charlie for our third album. I thought it would be great if people call our album Charlie, not like "third one" or "album with head photo." And now, I myself, I am attached to Charlie a lot!
Some Americans believe that Japanese extreme musicians or noise artists are very successful. Is it possible in Japan for a band like Melt-Banana to earn a living through its music?
I don't think so. Well, maybe famous noise artists like Merzbow can earn a living through music, but not all musicians. Actually, Akita from Merzbow also writes books, so he can earn a living as artist. Especially for bands, like a band with four or five people, it is very difficult. I guess it is the same as Americans. Japan is very difficult country to earn a living through music, especially if the bands are in independent scene.
If I were to judge you solely on the number of recordings you've released, I would say that you are an incredibly busy band. How would you describe the Melt-Banana work ethic?
Sorry, but I don't understand the question. But we can say we do what we want. The number of recordings are one of the result of our activity.
What do you like to do when you are being lazy?
Eating snacks, playing video games, watching TV and sleep.
Have you ever tasted Melt-Banana ice cream? What does it taste like?
I have tasted banana ice cream, but not Melt-Banana ice cream yet. Maybe we should make one and start ice-cream business!
I have seen Agata perform in what appears to be a surgical mask. Is it true that he was born with a potentially fatal blood condition that requires him to wear this mask? Could you please tell me more about this?
He was not born with that disease. When he was 3—5? I'm not sure—years old, he suddenly got that disease. His bone marrow is not good; it can not make good-conditioned blood. Inferior blood. Unfortunately, any treatment of this disease has not been found yet. Anyway, he has disease, and I guess one of the reasons he wears mask is from disease. But I also heard that during playing the guitar on the stage, he can leave his mouth lazy if he wears the mask.
What other precautions must Agata take while Melt-Banana is on the road?
He needs to rest a lot because his body takes a longer time to recover from tiredness. And he need to stay away from getting cold. If he got fever, he can hardly move because of exhaustion. Well, to say with one words, stay healthy.
What unique habits do the other members of Melt-Banana have while on the road?
Yasuko plays with teddy bear by herself. (Melt-Banana has a bear doll who is always with us on the tour. So far he has been with us two U.S. tours and two Japan tours!) Agata brushes his teeth every time. Rika [Mm', bass] can sleep in three seconds. [Drummer] Watchma does Pokémon.
What American customs or habits do you find to be most bizarre?
Halloween! We Japanese don't celebrate Halloween. We were in Austin, Texas, on Halloween day, and it was bizarre!
What is the most frightening experience you've had while on tour in America?
When we were heading to Rochester, New York, our van became very bad condition. Inside of the van we smelled rubber—burning smell—and the van slowed down to about 10-15 mph and moved like bumper car at amusement park with "bang! bang!" sounds from the muffler. We drove the van under this condition for about an hour, and we could get to the club. But at that time I felt like the van would be exploded. Well, actually it was strange and felt funny because the van never stopped under that bad condition.
Many American bands claim to have seen flying saucers, or UFOs, while on the road in their vans. Has Melt-Banana ever seen a UFO? Please describe your experience.
Unfortunately I have not seen one yet. Agata and Rika have seen ones. Agata said that many many shining balls were flying like shooting stars, and gone. Rika said that rainbow-colored thing suddenly appeared in the sky just in front of her, very near, and move several times, vertically and horizontally, and then suddenly disappeared.
What music does each of you listen to for pleasure?
Yasuko listen to rap music a lot, and French chansons. These days I listen to Cypress Hill, Gravediggaz, Public Enemy. Agata listen to Locust, DJ Def Eddy, and many tapes that we got on the tour. Rika listen to Mr. Bungle, Charles Mingus that she bought in San Francisco, and Devo. Watchma listen to Steve Reich and My Bloody Valentine.
What is your earliest memory of making music?
When I was 4 years old, my mom took me many places by station wagon. (She has a shop, and she needed to buy in for the shop.) During driving, I was always singing, and one day I made a song like, "Too long dress, no strange person please..." Something like this. I remember this song totally, but I'm too embarrassed to sing it for you.
How does your activity in Melt-Banana relate to the rest of your life?
For me, Melt-Banana activity = life. Everything relates to Melt-Banana, and Melt-Banana relates to everything in my life.
When will you be returning to America to tour?
This year [in 1999].
Do you have plans to release Merz-Banana material? [Merz-Banana is a live collaboration between Melt-Banana and Merzbow.]
We really hope to release Merz-Banana recording, but unfortunately there is not any plan now. There was an offer once from a label in Tokyo, but at that time both of us, Melt-Banana and Merzbow, were busy, and we could not do it. Someday we release something.
I've heard that someone will be releasing a Melt-Banana singles compilation this year. Could you tell me more about this?
[The Melt-Banana-run record label] A-Zap wants to release Melt-Banana singles, but not this year. Later.
What other A-Zap releases besides Charlie can we expect in the future?
We want to release Melt-Banana early works. And also we want to release good bands from Japan, and also from Asia. We are not still familiar with Asian music scene besides Japan, though. We really don't stick to genre; we hope to release good ones.
Was the recording of Charlie more difficult than that of previous records? How much time did you spend making the record?
It was very different compared with previous records. This time we recorded by ourselves, and also some of the songs we recorded writing songs. It worked out very good, especially for guitar, because we could record right away when Agata got ideas for arrangement. Recording by ourselves was hard. We needed to study many things, from microphone to mixing equipment. But doing by ourselves is good because we can get enough time. Writing songs, recording and mixing, we took about six months.
Tell me about the recording sessions you recently did with John Zorn. Did you record all-new material? Will you be releasing this as your next album?
We recorded in New Jersey, and it is live album—our live set of U.S. tour in 1998. Songs are from first, second, third albums, and some from EPs, and one cover song, "Surfin' USA." This album will be out from Tzadik [this] year. [Note: The album in question, MxBx1998/13,000 Miles at Light Velocity, was released in early 1999.]
Finally, you've worked with group as far-ranging as Discordance Axis and Violent Onsen Geisha. Which artist or band would you most like to collaborate with next, and why?
Mr. John Zorn. On tour 1998, we recorded live album for Tzadik. But still we hope to collaborate with him. Because we like his works, and also we think that saxophone will be good on Melt-Banana!