When Melt-Banana started, in 1992, it was already part of a rich tradition of unusual music in Japan, including some of the most challenging and influential experimental bands in the world, like Boredoms, Fushitsusha and Zeni Geva. Singer Yasuko Onuki and guitarist Ichirou Agata had already been introduced to avant music by their sisters when they were kids. And it was fortunate that Onuki and Agata had siblings to cut through the haze of pop music that dominates virtually all musical programming on television and radio in Japan to this day. Even with this lucky break of having siblings clued in to the more interesting music of Japan, Melt-Banana had an early champion in KK Null, of the legendary noise-rock band Zeni Geva.
“We learned a lot of things from him,” reveals Agata. “Not only musically, but also how to manage the band. We feel that he gave us everything he had when he put out our first two records.”
“He also likes cute stuff,” adds Onuki. “We always enjoy being with him. On stage, he looks like a serious person, but actually, he is very charming.”
Null introduced Melt-Banana to his friends in America and paved the way for the group to break into an underground rock world hungry for something different and innovative. And with its ferocious stage presence, Melt-Banana delivered music that was equal parts grindcore, noise rock, outright noise and experimental electronic music, yet pop-like in the construction of the songs. Sure, at times Melt-Banana's intense beat-making can make your heart skip, but the band's output is never just noise for the sake of noise; there's an agenda, and one element seems to be to make accessible music that also challenges notions of what that can sound like.
In its early days, like any Japanese band, Melt-Banana didn't have a series of bars and clubs to play or much in the way of warehouses and DIY spaces, as have existed in America for decades. Yet elements of the act's early experiences will sound familiar to American bands starting out.
“You could play shows at the place called Live House,” recalls Agata. “You would bring a demo of your band, and if they thought it was okay, you could play there. But you had to buy tickets and sell them yourself.”
Since those humble beginnings, Melt-Banana has gone through multiple incarnations and tried out many methods and musical ideas without really compromising its essential vision. America is just now acknowledging its gaming culture, but in Japan, that has been part of mainstream society for several years, and Agata has drawn inspiration from the feelings of triumph, excitement and peril he experiences through various video games for his truly unique and often manic guitar riffs. He doesn't play newer games at the moment, but Shadow of the Colossus and Demon's Souls are two that have served as inspiration for his guitar work.
For the past three years, Melt-Banana has been a two-piece, with electronics taking the place of drums and bass. This setup also makes it easier to tour and be compact when crossing the International Date Line.
“At first we thought that if we could play shows using a computer, we could play more shows when drummers were not available,” explains Onuki about the shift toward a duo.
“We were invited by the All Tomorrow's Parties festival, curated by Shellac, and they told us that we could play as a two-piece,” relates Agata. “That was a good opportunity to start playing as a two-piece. It was a big decision for us. At first, we were playing along with mixed tracks, and that made us feel like we were doing karaoke or something. But now Yasuko controls drums, bass etc., and I'm very comfortable playing with it now.”
Not shy about borrowing techniques to make its operations easier without compromising the impact of the music, the two musicians took some cues from their friends in another band.
“All Leather,” states Onuki simply about who provided an example of how to streamline a band.
“Yeah, when we toured with them, they were bringing PA speakers for electric drums, and we thought it was very cool,” adds Agata.
“We use only what we really need,” concludes Onuki.
If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.