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

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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.

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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.