Guitar Wolf would really have to suck not to be cool. I mean, hey--a Japanese punk band called Guitar Wolf, whose members grease their hair into pompadours and wear black leather jackets? That's cool by definition, if only because such flagrant individualism so satisfyingly blows away the American stereotype of Japanese youth (unlike Shonen Knife, whose bubblegum punk capitalized on it).
And Guitar Wolf doesn't suck. Guitar Wolf is sloppy and Guitar Wolf is frequently out of tune, but Guitar Wolf still kicks p-rock ass. Three Tokyo cats who play chaotic, fun punk songs about living like they drive--fast. There's lots of feedback and suggestions of surf and rockabilly. Think of American drag rocksters the Mono Men, except noisier.
Guitar Wolf formed in 1987, but other than one track on a 1991 Japanese garage-rock compilation, the band didn't release any material until its full-length (vinyl only) debut Wolf Rock, recorded for the obscure Amerindie label Goner Records. Next, the band cut Run Wolf Run for the Japanese indie Less Than TV. The owner of that label slipped a tape to Matador Records, which was already impressed with Guitar Wolf's full-throttle live show. Last fall, Matador released Missile Me, Guitar Wolf's first wide release in America, and first anywhere on CD.
Just as Cypress Hill raps in a patois of English and barrio Spanish, Guitar Wolf sings in Japanese and fractured English, with song titles like "Kung Fu Ramone Culmination Tactic" and "Can Nana Fever." On "Midnight Violence Rock 'n' Roll" (from Missile Me), lead guitarist and singer Seiji howls a chorus that sounds like Mi-do-nighto, no boryoku Rock 'n' Roll!. Japanglish, if you will.
I asked Japanese underground rock critic and student abroad Yuta Kiyono, who lives in Tempe, to translate. This is what he said: "Um, it means sort of like playing music with violence at midnight. It has little meaning, really. It's just rock 'n' roll."
Guitar Wolf--Seiji, Billy on bass and Toru on drums--has a rabid cult following in America, and the band is a popular name to drop among punk connoisseurs. Articles on Guitar Wolf are rare outside of Japanese and European music press, however, because no one in the band speaks English well enough for an interview to bear fruit. Fortunately, I got Yuta to sub for me on the following Q&A with Seiji.
Now, keep in mind that Yuta conducted the interview in Japanese, then translated both his questions and Seiji's responses back into English. Where it was needed, Yuta tried to explain terms that came through the linguistic wormhole a little fuzzy. He and I did our best.
Okay, Yuta, take it:
New Times: Missile Me has so much a raw, garage sound. What recording technology did you use?
Seiji: Some of the songs were recorded by four-track, and the rest of them were done with just a Walkman and one microphone.
NT: A Walkman? Okay. For the next few questions, I'm gonna ask about live show. Are you guys better on record or live show?
S: Uh . . . I would say live gigs, but our records sound like live show, so . . .
NT: You play guitar so furiously on the record. How often must you tune guitar in live show?
S: Maybe once. I can't do it by myself.
NT: Then who does it?
S: Usually, I pick someone up from the audience, and I'll let him do it.
NT: Audience? Did you say that?
S: Yeah. Or I don't do it at all sometimes. So at the end of gigs, my guitar is often bad tuned. I don't need it to be so precise. I think I care less about it than the audience does.
NT: I see. I've seen the tour schedule for Missile Me, and I wonder--are you okay? 'Cause it looks like you have been in a different city every day.
S: Yeah, I'm totally fine.
NT: Good. Any funny happenings on the road?
S: Well, not on this tour so far. But at our first gig ever in America [the 1993 Garage Shock festival in Bellingham, Washington], we were checking the sound systems on the stage, right? But the audience thought the show had started. So we had to return backstage and come back out for the real one.
NT: This is your seventh time in U.S. Are you more popular in America than Japan?
S: I guess it's the same.
NT: Is punk and garage rock in Japan getting any bigger?
S: Yes, but not in a major music scene. In underground.
NT: What are the big differences between punk rockers in America and Japan?
S: Nothing so special, but American people are just physically bigger than Japanese, so I can see much bigger waves on the floors from the stages in America.
NT: I see. Who are your favorite bands?
S: Joan Jett, Johnny Sanders, and Ramones. And I really like Link Wray.
NT: Any Japanese bands?
S: I liked Carol a lot. [Yuta explains: Carol was a big Japanese rock band in late '70s and early '80s. Like Guitar Wolf, Carol's lead singer had a '50s look. His name was Yazawa. He used to refuse to be in magazines. Now he does commercials on TV.]
NT: Is that it? Any new stuff?
S: My favorite Japanese band now is Teengenerate. They have also toured in America many times. Also, I like those young idol girls (laughing). [Yuta: "Idol girls" are cute pop singers with fashion clothes who are popular for one or two songs and then no one remembers them. Like Paula Abdul in America.]
NT: Any British bands? Like the Jam or the Pistols?
S: Yeah, I like all those punk bands like the Sex Pistols and the Damned.
NT: What do you think of Cibo Matto and Shonen Knife?
S: I've been to Shonen Knife's concert in Japan before, but the music wasn't my type. And I've never heard Cibo Matto's music. I've just heard of the name.
NT: Okay, you don't need to answer this if you're already sick of it. But I have to ask this. Are you always wearing the leather jacket?
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S: Yeah, pretty much.
NT: Since when?
S: Since I was a high school student. But the leather jackets don't mean anything. We just like them.
NT: Do you mind if I ask your age?
S: Age . . . we stopped growing at age 17 (laughing).
--David Holthouse and Yuta Kiyono
Guitar Wolf is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, March 18, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Fells, and the Weird Lovemakers. Showtime is 8 p.m.