Explosive, magnetic, and as off-kilter as they were unself-conscious, Sweet J.A.P. had all the goods to be one of the great Twin Cities bands of the 21st century. They toured extensively, released a slew of 7-inch singles, and performed the occasional set under their alter ego pseudonym, Whiskey Screaming Drink Me, Drink Me. And then, naturally, they broke up. The good news is that they might have had the goods to be four great Twin Cities bands. It's too soon to say for sure, but it looks like they're on the right track. After the September 2004 breakup, singer Sho Nikaido joined the ever-climbing number of local two-pieces when he formed Mute Era with Jessica Driscoll. Likewise, guitarist Hideo Takahashi and drummer Yuichiro Matthew Kazama became the Birthday Suits. Bassist Ben Crew mixed music and marriage in the Divebomb Honey. And guitarist Takashi Obu took advantage of the split to expand his sideline gig with the Fuck Yeahs. Conveniently, the Birthday Suits' CD-release show for their just-issued debut album, Cherry Blue, is also an unofficial showcase of post-Sweet J.A.P. bands. Here's to a family reunion and its promising litter of baby bands.
Contrary to whattheir name suggests, the Birthday Suits show up for the interview fully clothed. It's probably for the best, since late October isn't known for its sunbathing weather--that and we're meeting at the south Minneapolis coffee shop Caffetto. Uptown's not that progressive. A common misconception for those unfamiliar with Sweet J.A.P. is that all of its foreign-born members had some sort of shared past. In fact, they were just a bunch of Japanese dudes who happened to be in the Twin Cities at the same time. Takahashi emigrated from Tokyo as an exchange student in 1991 and never left. Kazama, who was born in Hawaii, lived in Japan until 1997 when he moved to Minneapolis to work in his uncle's restaurant. When Sweet J.A.P. finished, they both took last winter off, but didn't rest for long. In the eight months since forming the Birthday Suits, they've played gigs all over the Midwest and recorded their debut with local producer Jacques Wait. It helps that the pair's transition to a smaller band was relatively painless. "We know how each other works," says Kazama.
"[But] we have to do more to be a full band," says Takahashi. While the chaos of Sweet J.A.P.'s shows has been toned down, playing on a less crowded stage has definite perks. "It's more fun for me," says Kazama. "I get more attention."
"There used to be four people blocking him," explains Takahashi.
Listening to the thunderous CD, it's hard to imagine it's only one musician standing in the way of Kazama's spotlight. Cherry Blue delivers crunchy guitars and powerful beats that fill audio space in a way most duos can't. Takahashi's lyrics are as skewed as one might expect from a nonnative speaker and, at times, as indecipherable as those of any self-respecting rock singer with a preference for intensity over clarity. On "Rochester Moon in Toledo," he sings, "I think I'm gonna kill you/Rochester, Rochester/Every time I'm missing you/Rochester, Rochester." Before you can say, "eat that, greater Minnesota," the metro area gets knocked down a peg in "Twin Cities Bridge Is Falling Down." Operating under the brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit-and-punk ethos, the album has 8 tracks, but dispenses with them in less than 17 minutes. "Slowly Motion," which, at a relatively epic 2 minutes and 42 seconds is one of the disc's longest songs, has four distinct sections including one that juxtaposes Kazama's insane fireworks-on-the-Fourth drum fills with the duo's calm a cappella singing of wordless syllables.
The duo is releasing the album on Takahashi's label, Nice & Neat Records, which also recently put out Secret Recipe from the Far East, a compilation of Japanese garage rock and power-pop bands. A dedication to maintaining strong ties, whether globally or locally, is what prompted the Birthday Suits to invite their old bandmates to help them celebrate the new album.
"We're trying to keep the family together," says Takahashi.
Seven hours later,I find myself in the same coffee shop, meeting Sweet J.A.P.'s other two-piece progeny--Nikaido and his current bandmate, Driscoll. Mute Era formed two years ago, around the same time that
Driscoll decided to drop a college class and take drum lessons instead.
"I'd always wanted to play music," she says. "I don't know why it's taken me this long, because I love music. I think I was getting bored going to shows. I was like, 'I want to play what I think a good show should be.'"
Though Nikaido had been the lead vocalist in Sweet J.A.P. for years, picking up an instrument for the new band made him a novice as well. "I couldn't tune my guitar two years ago," he says. Although Mute Era's first incarnation was a quartet, half of its members have moved away, and Nikaido and Driscoll have been content to play as a duo ever since. "I wanted to play something different and it was natural for me to play with Jess. I know what she likes and she knows what I like," says Nikaido.