Japanther's Ian Vanek on the DIY scene, 'zines and the authenticity of handmade objects

Japanther (due tomorrow night at Glob) was started by a pair of art school students who wanted a way to create art beyond the confines of a specific medium or traditional methods. The resulting New York duo has been just as involved in the art world and performance art as it has been in writing raw yet catchy pop songs. All aspects of Japanther's creative expressions are interrelated in both concept and execution.

But even if you don't appreciate the underlying art principles and ideas that form the foundation of Japanther, the band is heck of a lot of fun live, the epitome of what punk should be. We recently spoke with Ian Vanek, the band's drummer/vocalist/co-art provocateur about the band's concept, its connections with the national DIY music scene and its more well-known performances.

Westword: In 2001, what was your concept behind doing a project like Japanther?

Ian Vanek: We both came out of art school in New York. I guess Brooklyn now is known for having a lot good bands, but, at the time, there weren't a lot of good bands coming out of New York, especially performance-oriented bands. I grew up seeing bands like the Mummies and Nirvana that would really have a stage show, and they would break shit up and try and be interesting visually, as well as having an interesting sound.

We were inspired by listening to a lot of those records and talking about the Ramones a lot and conceptualizing the Ramones -- probably talking too much about the Ramones and the Misfits. The Misfits were a horror movie come to life, and the Ramones were supposed to be these Spanish brothers from Queens. Conceptually, we thought that was a very beautiful thing that contributed to how they sounded. So part of that inspired us. We were also spray painting a lot together and riding bikes around. That's kind of where the name comes from.

So having something that could function in several facets of your life rather than just being in a very boring band where you're not allowed to be creative, that's where the duo lent us a lot of power. Because if we say one night that we're going to spray paint "Japanther" really big on a building or a bridge, that's what we went and did. That was really fun and an expression of our "project."

Black Dice definitely inspired us because they were a group at the time doing something very similar. When they started, they were really violent, and the music sounded like they looked -- totally brutal and beautiful. I think that's where we were coming from in looking at some of the past at things we considered to be a little bit more visual than just musical. Taking inspiration from that and fitting into that lineage and inspire people to do something similar. I think we've been lucky enough to have some people see what we've been doing and taking it even further and being part of that lineage as well.

You put out a split with the Pharmacy a while back. How did you meet them and why did you want to do a split with that band in particular?

The Pharmacy is a really wonderful band from Seattle, Washington. I guess we met them playing at an all-ages space called S.S. Marie Antoinette. That was kind of a legendary DIY space. They opened for us, and our friend Oliver was a big proponent of theirs. He really loved them and kind of pushed them on us and told us we would love them. We ended up doing a tour with them in 2006. And we're going to do a tour with them down the West Coast after we play in Denver down to L.A.

They've just become really close friends. At one time, we lived out in Seattle at their house, and they've lived in New York at our house. They're just kindred spirits who want to make drawings and make pictures and silkscreen shirts. We feel really lucky to know them. We met them like many of our friends at a DIY venue somewhere years ago. We've kept in touch with them particularly. Doing that split on that Austrian label is something they proposed and it worked out well.

You also do 'zines, right?

Definitely. I just finished a new 'zine. I gave my 'zine to Dave Chappelle this morning. That was a pretty proud moment. In this little town in Ohio, where he lives, right in the center of town...He's just a very normal dude that stands out on the street and drinks coffee and talks to you. We've met a few times, and he's a friendly, super normal guy that wants to be normal.

He's like a skateboarder into punk and really into hip-hop, a very sweet person. We've only played in that town and he was out of town on tour. A different time, in Oakland, he was supposed to come and see us, and they couldn't find the venue or something like that. We have a few friends in common, like the Coup from Oakland. We just did a song with them.

Your 'zine is called 99mm?

It's just something I've done since I was a teenage kid, like fourteen or fifteen, at a time and place where you can get free photocopies or get some printed up and get fifty or sixty copies of ten or fifteen pages of record reviews and some sort of graffiti and reviews of baseball games and restaurants or whatever. I'd mail them around to various people I know that also make 'zines and we collect each other's 'zines. It's not an ambitious operation. It's just kind of a practice.

Why do you continue to do 'zines?

I actually spoke on a panel recently in New York about "DIY and 'Zine Culture in the Digital Age" or something like that. I think it's really important to have these very small expressions. It's not going to be on the internet or on a blog where you can count exactly how many people consume it. I like the idea of small things being in a very private public sphere and have it get passed around to, at most, a hundred fifty people see it.

Then you move to the next one and you don't have to continue to beat the same idea into the ground. I think that that sort of expression rings very true among a certain type of person. They want to see things that are made in that manner. They want to be told about things in that manner because they don't necessarily scour the internet looking for pictures of graffiti. They want to be handed a small, curated, printed piece that will show them.

On the panel I spoke about the authenticity of handmade objects. That's definitely what I grew up on. And again just to enter that legacy of making 'zines that I see as good as or even better than the ones that I grew up getting and handing those out to kids that will be inspired to get into some of the things we're into or not. But if my life is any litmus test, I got really inspired by seeing some of these different small 'zines that people would make when I was a young kid.

In that 'zine you did a few years ago with that Matt & Kim interview, you quote Penny Rimbaud and Harold Pinter. Why did you quote those two guys?

Penny Rimbaud is a friend that we've worked with a bunch really randomly. We met him in Germany in a castle, and we became fast friends because Matt [Reilly] were both reading the same book that we discussed with him. We've stayed at his house many times in England and made recordings with him. We put him on our records, and he's put us on his records.

He's an incredible inspiration. For people that don't know, he was in a group called the Crass Collective. They were very much dialed into the same trip of being an all-encompassing lifestyle art project that these friends form art school were really intensely crafting. Gee Vaucher and Penny -- Gee is an incredible woman as well. We got to know her through Penny.

That quote is from one of the songs we wrote together: "I am the extinguisher, I am the fire." I thought that was a beautiful quote. You can be the catalyst and the stop to kind of anything at any time. I thought that was one of the most beautiful things he's written that we've had the pleasure of hearing a billion times. It's from a song called "I the Indigene," which kind of deals with Europeans traveling through Africa and dealing with indigenous people in Africa versus Westernized cultures.

It's a topic a lot of people want to get into with punk, but Penny is definitely someone who can speak from that position. We just did another song with him based on Midsummer Night's Dream that's really cool, that we're really proud of. He released it on his Existential label.

Harold Pinter is an amazing writer. He was one of the first people to paint in a very American way. He's someone that a mutual friend of Penny and I turned me onto. She explained why she liked him, and that quote in particular ["It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place."] makes a lot of sense to me.

It's about visibility and invisibility in the public sphere. Like what we were talking about 'zines, too, and remaining not disgusted but elusive with your expression in order to let it have its own life. He was brilliant enough to put that into words so I stole it. It's from an art piece, a print I made, and I ended up putting it into the 'zine.

What about graffiti culture has a resonance with your own creativity?

I find it interesting that people are telling their own stories by any means necessary. That's always kind of interested and excited me. I like markings. I like the culture of freight trains. My grandfather worked on freight trains, and I've always had a fascination with them, I guess, somewhat, because of him, but also because they're big, beautiful behemoths that move across America. There's a lot of writing on those.

When you're kind of a teenager and you don't exactly know what's happening, you get excited about a culture just for the reason to be involved in something. When you get to know it better, you realize how beautiful it is when someone from Denver can write their name with a grease marker on a train and it can show up in New York City three days later.

And then someone in New York City and it can be back in Los Angeles within a week. That's a pretty interesting canvas to me rather than a really staunch, cold environment you can find in a museum and how hard it is to get into that world. It's not that I would reject that world. We were at the museum in Cincinnati today. That's kind of what excited me about graffiti and markings and taggings.

But to be sure the culture of it is kind of an ugly, lame one, and I'd do a disservice if I didn't mention that it's become a commodified, ugly shell of itself in the same way that skateboarding was a rebellious, individual activity that they found a way to sell successfully, and now the people who would have been initially interested in it aren't interested in it because of the involvement of big, huge corporations and the people who are marketing it like The X Games and World Industries and things like that. We see all that in graffiti as well.

I wouldn't say it's killed the things I love about it because I've figured out exactly how I want to do it and how as a group of friends how we do it. But I know that if I was a young person getting into it, I might see it as a little bit corny and ugly because of the involvement of people like Banksy or all these artists who have a high degree of visibility and what their involvement has done, as far as money getting involved and the rebel spirit being sucked out of it. But that's just one aspect of it. I think I'm attracted to it because of the ideas of the American spirit or rebel spirit of telling your story by any means necessary.

It's one of those activities that transcends time and culture. Graffiti was found in the ruins of Pompeii when archaeologists excavated the city in the 20th century after it was buried by the volcano in the First Century C.E.

It certainly is. My friend told me a story about [Joseph] Kyselak, who was in Austria in [the 1800s]. He made a bet with his friends that he could become famous in the entire Austrian Empire within three years. His friend was like, "No way you can do that; you're just a peasant." He said, "Watch, I can be famous within this entire empire." Within two years he was contacted by the emperor who said, "I want to have an audience with Kyselak. Who is this? We see this everywhere. What does this mean? What is this?"

The rumor is that he took the audience with Kyselak, and the emperor got there late, of course, and made him wait. When they left, they realized he had carved "Kyselak" in the chair while he was waiting for them. So he was famous within the entire empire within two years, and he won the bet with his friend. That's what the emperor asked, "Why are you doing this?" "I have a bet with my friend."

So that definitely transcends time. Thinking about it with that pair of eyes instead of a hip-hop pair of eyes, which is kind of ridiculous, it's losing localism in a major way in all aspects of the culture. Philadelphia used to have this very distinct tag, and still does, Philadelphia still holds true to its localism, but New York is mixed in with San Francisco now, which is mixed in with Los Angeles.

It's harder to say, "Oh this young person is from Los Angeles, probably from the eastern part of Los Angeles because of the way the 'K' goes down at the top. I can tell you that." Or "This person's from Philly. They're from the north side because there's a certain type of "E" on the bottom where there's an arrow on the bottom, not on the top." We're losing that, which is kind of a scary, sad thing that happened with the Internet. But we'll just see what happens next. I'm excited for what happens next. I try and stay focused on that rather than be negative.

You have those dates coming up at Disjecta in Portland?

Yeah. That's really exciting for us. We've come up with a shadow performance with our friends who have a puppet collective that's really good. They are super talented and they made a video for us called "Lil Taste." Jason [Thibodeaux] and Sarah [Frechette] work in a studio in Portland called Laika. It's an animation studio and they make a bunch of films. So, basically, we get the best of the best from that amazing institution. They all want to chip in and work on fun projects and Jason and Sarah are great at orchestrating the best miniature painter to make a miniature drum set. Then we have scene painters to make a brick wall for us. They're completely incredible.

Last September we did a performance for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. It was a shadow show, but we only got to perform it one night, but it got better. After that night, we kept working on it, so we want to re-stage it so it's four nights. It's exciting with a short film with a live soundtrack. We're lit up as we perform. They transform us into wolves and other amazing tricks, because we're behind a white screen, and they can project our shadows and do some really cool stuff with what you're able to see.

They use a flashlight as a film camera, basically. They're really talented and cutting edge. We're performing the music live and we worked with them on developing a visual storyline. They definitely have input on which music goes in from our body of our work and talk about what would work and what wouldn't.

Do you feel that performance is connected in some way to Wayang?

I know Jason and Sarah are both students of a lot of styles. We met them because they were working on a piece we did called "Don't Trust Anyone Over Thirty" and the puppeteer was Phillip Huber, who did Being John Malkovich and all this amazing stuff. So they were studying under him about how to do marionettes better. I know that shadow puppetry is something Sarah excels in. I wouldn't say it's directly related but it's certainly influenced by more ancient shadow shows.

You guys have done "illegal" shows. Did you perform out of the back of a truck like maybe Cabaret Voltaire used to do?

Not driving, though. My friend had an art opening at a big gallery in SoHo that's not there anymore, the Deitch Projects, and she really wanted us to perform, but the gallerist is famously uptight, this guy Jeffrey Deitch, and they didn't want us to perform because of the reactions the crowds gave us. So she put a Ryder truck on her credit card and said, "You'll just perform out front since he'll have nothing to do with it."

So we got our friend's generator and drove over there, and it was kind of like the Trojan Horse, where it was parked outside and we were inside, and we couldn't go out of it for fear of people seeing what was inside -- or more stupidly for fear of the art gallery people seeing it. When she finished, she came and gave us the okay and threw open doors and we played a bunch of songs.

At least for half an hour, forty minutes, no one could drive down the street, and it was a very classic takeover. We've done it a few times. We've done it with our friends the Black Label Bike Club and do jousting in the streets, and we've played live a few times there.

There's certainly a lot of opportunity in New York. A lot of people would kind of thumb their nose at the current New York and how it's not as wild as it may have been at one time, but there are a lot of opportunities to do interventions or however you want to call it. We've performed up on the Williamsburg Bridge a couple of times. We got really good reactions and really good crowds up there just because it's a free concert in a place where you've never been to a concert before.

A lot of that stuff comes from a great band called Friends Forever from Denver. They're incredible. I've seen them a bunch of times. I saw them Olympia, Washington, and I saw them in New York maybe three times. They were one of the best live concerts going in the entire world. They were incredible for a long time. Josh [Taylor] and Nate [Hayden] were really inspiring for that same idea of like, "Well this is sound, and it's in public, and it's beautiful because it's a performance that doesn't have to be what you have to know as a performance."

Their documentary film talked a lot about their philosophy. I wouldn't say we are known for doing a lot of outdoor, illegal shows, but we definitely like doing that stuff, and we have a sound system and will continue to do that into the future for as long as possible. We played in Detroit the other day right on the street, and that was really fun. The kinds were spanning the middle of the street, blocking cars and the cars would slowly cruise by, not knowing what to make of all these people being silly.

It's a way of bringing your expression again and telling it by any means necessary and letting ideas flow rather than, "We have to go put our stuff on that stage over there behind this thing, and they're going to charge money." No, we're going to play on the street and still get paid by the venue. Sometimes you can do that, and sometimes it turns into a fight. You can do interesting things with your life. You don't necessarily have to do it the ["right" way].

Did you get to play at Monkey Mania?

We got to play there before it was done. I don't think they do shows there anymore. We played at Rhinoceropolis last time -- this time at Glob.

How did you prepare for "It Never Seems To End," and why did you want to do something like that?

For people that don't know, we did an 84 hour performance -- three and a half days on a rotating stage with no food or sleep. It's a funny thing, but we were invited by our friend Christoph Schlingensief, an incredible performance artist and musician. "It Never Seems to End" was a direct quote lifted from his art.

What we were really interested in was trying to denigrate the performer or downplay the human existence in performance and play up the spiritual side of performance. We made a ritual involving emotion and numbers. We were fasting and drinking vegetable juice and really just trying to get to another plane of spiritual thinking.

It was strange but also really fortunate that someone would ask you to do that after your friend dies -- to dedicate something to them. We knew that his artwork involved this rotating stage at one point and that they would have to rent it in order to show the piece. We said, "Why don't you rent it a week early. We have an idea for a piece. We want to play for three and a half days straight. We want to try and essentially kill ourselves, kill our spirit and try to come to place where there's a real need for spirituality."

There were times when you were begging for it to end. You really didn't want to be playing the drums anymore. And then there were times when everyone was there, and it was fun. Some really great stuff came out of that, and we wrote some really great music. We're really proud of some of the stuff we did there. I should credit TB a21, which is essentially a collection of art in a gallery in Vienna, Austria run by these wonderful, beautiful people that really believe in some of the things we've done.

I feel lucky to know them, and that's one of the things that sets Japanther apart -- being able be involved in some of these projects with Cristoph, PBA and Gelatin, another collective in Vienna we're in love with. These ideas have really kept us excited and interested in crafting more ideas and stay alive, essentially, rather than being on a path that a lot of bands might be.

If we're not selling festival tickets, and if we're not selling out these places, then we're not successful. I think humans are successful when they have another idea -- when you're talented, and you're using your talent, and you're out doing something. That's where painting comes into things. Of course people call it graffiti and tagging, but I call it going out and doing something with my day with my friends. So making a 'zine, making an art project, making an 84 hour performance all just stem from a real want to be using my body potential every day.

I guess we prepared for it by...I was running a lot. I like to run and think. When you're nervous about doing a large scale thing, there's a lot of running that's involved. So I was running around in circles in Austria. There's a big ring that goes around the entire city, and late at night, I was just running around the entire city. We try to eat healthy, but, other than that, there wasn't much preparation. It just kind of started. That was kind of the point--of being pretty scared of it and not knowing if you're going to be successful with anything.

Right now we're editing the film down, and it's a seven day film. Three and a half days backwards and three and a half days forward. It's an inconsumable piece of cinema. They have it in their collection now and it's up to us now to make sure it's something interesting to have in an art collection.

Your band has been fairly prolific. How have you sustained your enthusiasm for what you've done over the years?

This may sound stupid or trite, but the music I'm most excited about is the newest material we've written. I feel like if I'm going to be in a band, it should be my favorite band. I don't wear my band's shirts all the time, but I would. Your band should be something you should enjoy listening to exercising or hanging out with your friends. It should be something you feel good about putting on.

That being said, our new stuff is something that I'm really excited about. It's seamless and effortless because we made it in a state of complete trance. Some songs don't get performed a lot but others get performed and get better and better. We try to make a record every year, which is maybe a little bit crazy. Stuff gets recorded all the time, and we refine things and make it better. We practice on stage quite often, and if it works with an audience or not is a good litmus test with us.

It's a funny way to do it, but we've come into finding our own schedule, and we have a producer, Michael Blum in Los Angeles, we like to work with. He's worked with Madonna, Michael Jackson and all these amazing people, but he's the most humble, down to earth person. Our manager also manages him, and he said we should meet him because he liked our music. He charges us next to nothing because he enjoys our company.

I never knew what it was to have a producer until we had an experienced producer, and Michael has been working with sound since the late '70s and early '80s. He has all the platinum records hanging on his walls, but he's the most down to earth and humble person. You can sit with him and laugh and make jokes, and he can get really serious and work until midnight if he has to. We feel lucky to work with him.

He recorded Beets, Limes and Rice with you, and that sounds like your most sonically cohesive record to date.

That one definitely feels more cohesive than Rock 'n' Roll Ice Cream, and I think the next one will feel even better. Even still, some of the album was recorded in his studio because we had no idea what to do with certain songs. He would talk us into working really hard on it and be happy with it by the end of the day or throw it out at the end of the day. He has a real knack for bringing something good out of us. I guess that's what a producer does--provides cohesion and the focus.

Japanther, with Dirty Few, Night of Joy and School Knights, 8 p.m., Tuesday, June 5, Glob, 3551 Brighton Boulevard, $8, All Ages

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.