“It’s like a cartoon explosion of fun... It’s like Slayer for girls”, says drummer Ian Vanek, describing Japanther at SXSW last month. “It’s like if Old Dirty Bastard’s kid had a teacher whose mom had a kid who played the bass”, adds bassist and co-pilot Matt Reilly. Really, Japanther’s a state of mind. A never-ending party where performance art meets rock ‘n roll, punk rock meets hip-hop and quotes drift in from Futurists to Public Enemy.“You can be 75-years-old and have the spirit of a 10-year-old”, says Vanek. We spent all day at the beach yesterday. I think it was a week day. Yeah, my life’s going fucking great, how’s yours?”
Well... I stayed up all night transcribing this interview. And listening to Japanther’s 'Surfin Coffin', digesting lines like, “To all the corpses, in metal coffins, along the freeway and in the office. To all the corporate, spilling their coffee, we do not copy, the human spirit’s still alive”, makes it even harder to swallow (as I mop up a blotch of coffee I spilt tapping along).
Anyway… here’s what the Brooklyn duo had to say about riots, playing for 84 hours straight, life, death, the New York Post and everything in-between.
How did the two of you meet?
Matt: We met at Pratt, in Brooklyn. Ian: Art college. We went to art college together.
Was it love at first sight?
I: No, it was hate at first sight. We argued a lot.
Your bio describes Japanther as a time-based performance duo. What does that mean?
I: I think a lot of the time, people in bands are fucking douchebags. I can’t say that with enough vehemence. They jerk off over their equipment. They wanna talk about what guitar they have. And they really don’t give much sincerity to any performance they ever give. People like Jerry Lee Lewis. People like Chuck Berry. They were giving time-based performances. We consider ourselves a performance. We work very hard to be a living piece of art.
Okay… do still you have normal band fights?
I: No. We’re like a big family. We’ve actually just opened a restaurant here in Lower Manhattan…
What’s it called?
I: Eat the Butt.
Eat the Butt? How’s business?
I: Booming. We only have three nights so far and they’re all fucking sold out. But there’s no band fights, to answer your question. There’s family arguments, certainly.
I: Security were just being fucking horrible towards women. I confronted the guy and said, ‘If you grab that girl one more time, you’re gonna have me to deal with’. Which turned into a confrontation that our friends Unstoppable Death Machines really didn’t like... It was a case of security trying to put the punks in their place and the punks saying ‘Fuck that shit!’ Essentially, it was sexual harassment. And we do not fucking stand for that! Security were being fucking dicks and we had to react violently.
I: They can fucking suck my cock. I don’t know if you’ve heard Public Enemy, ‘A Letter to the New York Post?’ – “Ain’t worth the paper it’s printed on!” Fox Corporation prints its newspaper and has an opinion about Japanther? I think it’s funny, because we obviously don’t give a fuck what they think ever, ever, ever. We think Fox is lowbrow as shit. M: It really is… I: The New York Post is garbage. I would call them out as the worst newspaper in the world, if I cared to even comment.
And how was South by Southwest?
M: Amazing. I: We saw Wu-Tang Clan, Pill… a bunch of great rap groups. We did a lot of BMX-related stuff. Saw a lot of great concerts. Ran around Austin. It was great. We played for Sexbeat, which is a London party.
Do you both still live in Brooklyn?
I: Yeah. We lived together for years. Now we live kinda far apart. M: It took me, like, 15 minutes to ride from my house to here.
You spent nine months touring in 2009. Was 2010 as intense?
I: I think so. We didn’t have a home in 2009. We were just on the road the entire time. I don’t really remember 2010. I think we travelled for about eight or nine months.
You've been playing the UK quite a bit lately, how have the shows been?
I: Fucking amazing. We love the UK. We love Europe. Really had a good time in France, Italy, Spain… M: Portugal…
Matt, what kind of setup do you use to make your bass sound like a guitar?
M: Just a guitar amp and a Big Muff distortion pedal. I: He uses my brother’s Randall amp. M: I had a guitar amp but it blew up in San Francisco.
You also play tapes. What does that mean?
I: It’s like an analogue hiss, or analogue glue. Like a stereo cassette player. It has some loops. It has some samples. It has different things that add to the backdrop.
And where did the telephone mics come from?
I: I used to be the singer and not play drums. And I was just smashing everything. I was able to beat the telephones on things. They’re also free all around New York City – we’re into recycling. It’s an art piece and a compression tone. So we get a sound, a visual and a free, indestructible device.
The restaurant you’re running also involves some kind of phone?
I: We got a phone booth from 1974 and installed our own telephone and mp3 recorder. When you pick up the receiver it starts recording. When you hang up, it pauses. The idea is you trade your best story for a meal – we have these delicious vegan meals. It’s a modern confession booth, if you will. Which is moving towards the idea of a recording sculpture. Which is very exciting to us.
I: We keep that stuff a little more private. We recently did a performance in Vienna for the TBA 21 Gallery. We performed for 84 hours straight with no food or sleep on a rotating stage. The piece was called ‘It Never Seems to End’. It was in honour of our friend Christoph Schlingensief, who passed away in 2010. We’ve done all kinds of fucked up art shows around the world.
I was wondering, do you ever hear from office-dwelling Japanther fans, desperate to quit their day jobs?
M: Tons. They play it in their offices. I: Twenty people came to the show in Chicago. I think it’s an insurance office. Maybe they sell real estate. I feel bad. I wanna say what’s up to those guys. To have that feedback from any fan is the real payback. That’s the million dollar cheque right there.
Ian, how old were you when you got your first tattoo?
I: God, I don’t know – 13 or 14? I don’t keep track of that shit. I think I started being bad when I was six or seven. I started playing drums when I was five. Try things you’re not supposed to fucking try. Fall on your face. Do things you know you definitely should not do. Bad things have benefits and good things have side effects. I didn’t come up with that. That’s The Grouch.
Matt, have you got any tattoos?
M: Yeah, I’ve got one tattoo. I: A little ass tattoo.
Ian, I read an interview with you that casually mentions you seeing a friend commit suicide. Matt, you talk about being in a more positive place in another interview. So... is there a darker side to Japanther, behind all the catchy good times?
M: We’ve all seen shit in our lives, but you’ve got to try and manifest that and move forward or you’re just going to dwell in the past. And that’s not a good place to be. I: Everyone has a darker side, but who the fuck wants to talk about that? People that want to focus on that are looking for attention. We want to be a positive light. The human spirit will reclaim humanity from Fox News Corp, the New York Post (fuck you)… things like that.
Is ‘What the Fuck Is the Internet?’ a response to anything in particular?
M: It’s more of a joke… I: It’s about people who think their opinion online matters. The internet’s filled with shit talkers. I would encourage you to get in a fistfight and see how your shit talking goes.
So it’s like Jay and Silent Bob, chasing down the bloggers?
M: It’s similar… I: That’s where the title comes from, “Dude, what the fuck is the internet?” It comes from hanging with Ninjasonik – a great rap group from New York. People just wanted to hate on them. We were like, “Don’t listen to them. Look at all the people jumping up and down at the show. Ninjasonik rocks, Japanther rocks, fuck the Internet”. When I see my tag painted up on the wall – and it’s in a hot spot, and I remember how sketchy it was hiding – that shit’s real. That tagline you put on your Facebook photo is not fucking real you toy clown motherfucker. Ha ha, that’s my shit…
So you guys have been doing all those Japanther tags on your Facebook? I: No, we don’t endorse vandals. M: We’ve never put paint to surface. Ha ha… I: We didn’t have a bunch of bottles of wine at some free restaurant the other night and run down Canal Street. We just have fun, man. It’s New York City...
What’s going down tonight?
I: Silk-screening. M: New stickers. I: I can’t remember what we’re supposed to do. M: Riding bikes around. New York’s a very spontaneous place. You get the call… I: Might go see the Mets play. Something really fun’s going to happen tonight. I’ll text you later and let you know.