The Sweet Thereafter
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 what their 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.
Kazama cites Melt Banana, White Zombie, and Metallica as role models, as well as "a little bit of Sweet J.A.P." Can you be influenced by yourself? "Yes!" Kazama and Takahashi reply.
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.
In their slimmed-down form, Mute Era recorded a three-song self-titled disc. The lo-fi recording is a great DIY sample of sparse post-punk with only a little layering supplementing Nikaido and Driscoll's handiwork. Whereas the Birthday Suits build a wall of sound around and over the vocals, Mute Era puts Nikaido's bilingual singing front and center.
"Sweet J.A.P. was so loud and I don't even know if people could hear my voice or not," says Nikaido. "But with this band if I make a mistake, people can hear it."
"There's more emphasis on the vocals as an instrument. It makes it a 3D sound," says Driscoll.
"Sweet J.A.P. was very 2D, very linear, so easy," says Nikaido.
Having anticipated a question about their influences, both members pull out scraps of paper crammed with the names of their favorite groups. Bands they can agree on: Gang of Four, ESG, Liars, and Blonde Redhead. And when performing as a pair seems tough, they look to their friends and fellow duos Clipd Beaks and Chromatics for inspiration.
"I think it's hard to be in a two-piece. It takes a lot of guts," says Driscoll.
"It's more naked," says Nikaido. "That vulnerability is more than Sweet J.A.P.'s violence."
Like his friends in the Birthday Suits, the guitarist has fond memories of his old band's fierce sets. Still, Nikaido, who moved to the U.S. in 1992 to attend the University of Minnesota, admits his former group's rehearsals must have been a little difficult for Sweet J.A.P.'s sole pale-skinned member.
"We felt bad that we speak Japanese, but sometimes things get heated up and [it just happens]. He was so patient," says Nikaido.
"Poor Ben," Driscoll says with a smile.
The Divebomb Honey are playing the Triple Rock's Halloween show as the Toxic Avengers, in which they play songs by San Francisco punk band the Avengers while screening the classic Troma flick The Toxic Avenger. Very high concept and very loud. Crew, dressed as Toxie, starts the set by launching a mop, javelin-style, into the audience. Meanwhile, Sheela Namakkal, former Goochers vocalist and Crew's wife, mixes up the original punks' three-chord songs, sings the wrong words ("They all kind of sound the same," she says. "Let's be honest."), and threatens anyone who hasn't bought her a birthday shot yet. At the end of the set, Crew pulls off chunks of his mask and flings them into the audience. He still has flakes of fake skin clinging to his face when he and Namakkal hang out in her Volkswagen Beetle, talking about their beginnings as a band and a couple.
"I'm not a very traditional dude," says Crew. "I don't believe that much in the institution of marriage. I thought it'd be more exciting to start a band together."
But after collaborating with his girlfriend on their first 7-inch, Crew changed his mind about conventional coupling. He soon had big plans for the Divebomb Honey's third-ever public performance. "I was going to propose and have [Divebomb Honey keyboardist Ollie Stench] marry us," he says. "I was going to invite all our friends and relatives--without letting her know."
"But I found out," says Namakkal. "And before I found out, I kind of knew."
The couple were married last year at the Turf Club, the same venue where they'd first met at a Sweet J.A.P. show. Refreshments at the reception consisted of cupcakes and tacos.
Crew's role as the self-proclaimed "white boy in the Japanese band" began after seeing Takahashi play a Real Estate Fraud show near St. Olaf College. After Crew acted as that group's replacement bassist, Takahashi invited him to join his new band, Sweet J.A.P. With the Divebomb Honey, Crew has switched over to guitar but still plays punk, this time with some stylish new-wave flair, like predecessors Devo and X-Ray Spex. (The band considered masquerading as the B-52s for Halloween, before realizing just how difficult "Rock Lobster" is to play.) The four songs on the group's vinyl debut pit Crew's distorted snarls against Namakkal's gutsy alto pipes. The 7-inch is the group's only output so far, but they're currently readying another single, to be released on their own Exploding Toe Records, a label named in honor of the time their bassist dropped a computer monitor on her foot.
Despite the pressures of his new role as bandleader, Crew says that communication has been easier since starting a group where everyone speaks the same language. When asked why Sweet J.A.P. broke up, he says, "I don't know. It was all in Japanese." Still, the Land of the Rising Sun continues to have an influence on his latest band.
"I was driving to work one day listening to [Japanese punk band] Guitar Wolf," says Crew, "and I don't know what he was saying but it sounded like, "It's the Divebomb Honey!"
"People say it's a great name," says Namakkal. "But it's really just more random Japanese craziness."
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