Unlike American bands, the Japanese Melt Banana’s organic version of punk—squeaky, start-and-stop rap-vocals, jackhammering bass lines, arrhythmic melodies, bit-crushed guitar work coupled with fun pop hooks— needs no fauxhawks, ripped clothes, or giant bike chains to legitimize it. Made up of vocalist Yasuko Onuki, guitarist Ichirou Agata and bassist Rika Hamamoto, Melt Banana explores various aspects of noise and melody without being pigeonholed to a genre, language or culture.
The loud noise Melt Banana produces is so arresting it’s drawn fans like Mike Patton of Mr. Bungle/Peeping Tom/Tomahawk, Steve Albini and avant garde saxophonist John Zorn. In an e-mail interview, vocalist Onuki attributes their string/percussion-heavy sound to their origins: “In the beginning, there was no drummer. So we tried to create rhythm using just bass and guitar, like bass for kick drum and guitar for snare and hi-hat. That was kind of how the basic idea of this band was born.”
In the 18 years since Melt Banana formed, they’ve released 10 full-length albums and 23 EPs (mostly split releases with other bands). In 1997, they formed A-Zap, a recording company that re-issued most of their early albums. Since 1991, Onuki says, musical equipment has improved and their recordings are now digital. They recorded a song for Adult Swim’s Perfect Hair Forever called “Hair-Cat (Cause the Wolf Is a Cat!).” Last month, they released a live album called MELT-BANANA Lite LIVE:ver.0.0.
Other than gear, Onuki says not much has changed since they played their first show in 1993. They still write from patterns that emerge from guitar or bass riffs, although these days, if they need a kick drum, they can use a computer or a drum machine. Sometimes, they write songs starting from drum patterns or words.
“The basic part, like playing together with other members or the way of writing songs, has not changed much.” Touring is easier, she says; it’s changed with navigational tools and email. “Europe is now [the European Union] and there are less borders; that made touring easier, too.”
The trio is currently touring America, and devotees talk non-stop about Melt Banana’s energy, volume and speed live. Like their songs, the live show involves some quirkiness: Onuki wears metallic costumes, Agata wears a surgical mask attached with duct tape.
The chaotic business of tour has inspired Onuki: “There are so many things to do on the road. After this tour, I’m thinking of writing songs for Melt-Banana and Melt-Banana-lite.”
Onuki says Melt Banana is more popular in the West than it is in her native country. “Most Japanese do not know that there is music which is much different from pop music. If I tell my relatives that I play music, then they will ask me why I’m not on TV or the radio.” As noise-rock purveyors, Melt Banana was always ahead of its time. (To which Onuki says, “I feel good if you say our music is ahead of its time rather than behind its time!”)
So why are there so many seminal noise punk and rock bands originating from Japan? Onuki tried to explain it: “Most Japanese in big cities like Tokyo or Osaka live in narrow houses. There are electric cables everywhere above street. Trains on the way to school or work are full of people. So they are frustrated and feel good if you make loud noise.”
Melt Banana w/Tera Melos, All Leather, Tygers of Wrath at The Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us, www.myspace.com/azap. Tues, Dec. 15. Doors open 7PM. $10 advance, $12 door.