Like countless groups before it, Denver's Electric Summer formed on a university campus. But there's a difference between the average college combo and this punk-rock quartet. You see, the school in question is Teikyo Loretto Heights University, a southwest Denver institution that's primarily populated by students who are natives of Japan. Like, for instance, the members of Electric Summer.
Drummer Kazushige Takaku, vocalist Toshihiro Yuda, guitarist Makito Fukuda and bassist Takakumi Toyoshima, all 21, have encountered significant cultural barriers since putting together their band. But such obstacles have not stopped these musicians, who've found a second home on the local scene thanks to music that's as sunny and shocking as their band's name.
The players' command of English is, to put it mildly, imperfect. Conversations in that tongue tend to be peppered with Japanese as the musicians translate for each other--and even then, misunderstandings are frequent. (When a fan compliments them by saying "You guys cranked," Takaku asks in a deliberate way, "What is cranked?") But when they perform, their music makes it clear that they have a firm grasp of at least part of the American musical lexicon. Live, the band delivers bratty, bone-crunching fury distinguished by feedback, fun, stomp and swirl. The blissful, distortion-laden sound (a joyous, careening brand of raunch and roll that can turn on a yen) calls to mind the bluesy crunch of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers stir-fried with a dash of Hootenanny-era Replacements--neither of which anyone in Electric Summer has ever heard of. Couple this blistering sonic assault with the group's enthusiastic stage show, and the result is a delightful, raw-boned tonic that's free from the pretensions and posturings that sink many a similarly aggressive outfit. The conclusion of a recent Bluebird Theater turn underlines this point: As the smoke cleared from a song punctuated by toppled mike stands and Toyoshima slamming his rig to the floor, Yuda bowed and graciously said to the audience, "Thank you. Thank you very much."
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As for the other words in Electric Summer's set, most of them are in English--in a manner of speaking. The kinetic Yuda spits out the lyrics to fast-paced Electric Summer originals like "Golden Dogs" in a manner that renders them largely unintelligible. And even when the performers slow down, as they do during the introductory passage to "Shock," the story's much the same. Lines like "Shock, I'm a panda/Shock, I'm a picture" are fairly cryptic--and the fact that "picture" winds up sounding like "pizza" doesn't help matters much.
Fortunately, these phrases aren't brimming with deep messages. "The song has no meaning," acknowledges Fukuda, whose street-tough exterior is contradicted by a quiet, gentle demeanor. "I'm just interested in melody. With melody, I will push the heart of people when they listen to the music."
"When we first listen to American music," Toyoshima says in a deep voice that seems to come from beneath his sneakered feet, "almost all of it, we cannot understand the words. So when we make a song, the words are not that important."
"It's like the John Lennon song," Yuda contends seconds before softly singing a passage from "I Am the Walrus." In this view, "the words have no meaning, but I still feel the beautiful image from them." He concedes that his strongly accented shouting may confuse some listeners--"My pronunciation is so bad that they probably can't understand me." But he feels that his group's chosen style helps to ease any bewilderment. "I can say"--he whispers--"'I love you,' or I can say"--he hollers--"'I LOVE YOU!' I just shout. But that's powerful and easy to understand, and beautiful. It's straight, and punk rock is straight music."
And most of the people who attend Teikyo Loretto Heights are straightlaced--so much so that, according to Takaku, "We are not popular here. We are too wild, too crazy." So why did these boisterous boys of Summer choose to move into such a staid environment rather than attend a more liberal U.S. school? The question seems to baffle the men for a moment, but after a brief consultation, Toyoshima, his lips a vibrant blue from a Blowpop he's been enjoying, breaks the silence. "We are here because we don't have too much up here," he says, gesturing at his head with the neon-hued sucker. "If we go to other university, maybe we fail every class."
After Toyoshima and his mates recover from an enthusiastic fit of laughter, Takaku elaborates: "This school is pretty easy. But it's a good place to play music...and get credit."
And start a band. Electric Summer was formed approximately two years ago at a Teikyo-sponsored music club. Originally a five-piece, the group was winnowed down to Takaku, Fukuda and Toyoshima when a pair of members left school. "We didn't have a drummer, bassist or singer, because we were all guitarists," Takaku recalls. To remedy this situation, he took up the drums, Toyoshima moved to bass and Yuda was recruited to sing after stopping by an Electric Summer rehearsal.
"He was our friend," Takaku says of the constantly smiling, exceedingly polite Yuda. "I asked him, 'Let's sing,' and he was so powerful and crazy. We loved it."
The band's first show, at Teikyo, was less well-received. "It was a violent show," Takaku admits. "Some people were excited, some people were confused."
The mixed response didn't inspire changes, however. These rockers liked their chaotic presentation and loose-ended sound. Even now, Toyoshima says, "We can't copy. We don't have the technique. But we only want to play our own songs."
Adds Yuda, "We are not good enough on our instruments to play great. But it's like when you see the last runner in a marathon race. It's beautiful, right? That kind of beauty is similar to our music. I can't sing a song very well, but I can make effort to pursue the heart."
This approach seems to have hit the mark with a growing number of their Colorado peers. Much to the musicians' pleasure, various Mile High acts have adopted them and have helped to keep their calendar full. "Many, many famous bands call Electric Summer and say, 'Let's play a show together,'" Toyoshima says. "For example, Boss 302 asked us to do a show--they made a show up just for us. We are honored to play with Denver local bands."
"We are glad to everyone who listens to our music," Yuda states. "Especially young punk rockers. They accept us and our music. At first we worried about that--that they would think more about us being Japanese. We were nervous. But they really liked us."
So, too, did the folks in Fort Collins, where Electric Summer performed not too long ago. "Many punks there," comments Toyoshima, raising his hands over his head in an attempt to convey a Mohawk haircut. The bandmates are also looking forward to their first show in Wyoming, a place with which Toyoshima is somewhat familiar. "Many, many cows," he notes.
Plans for future touring and for the production of an Electric Summer CD don't mean that these guys have lofty dreams of show-biz stardom. "We don't want to make money," Takaku claims. "We appreciate just playing music. We are students and have money to live on. We just want to play and get our music to the audience.
"American people are so outgoing and friendly, and playing music helps us to make contact with Americans," he goes on. "Because most students at Teikyo are Japanese, it's hard for us to make American friends. But after we started playing outside, we got many of them."
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"When I am on the streets," Toyoshima interjects, "I meet someone and they say, 'You are in Electric Summer--you are very good. You rock!'"
How long the band will continue to do so in America is an open question. After graduation, the U.S. Immigration Service will begin exerting pressure on the foursome to return to their homeland, where their parents are less than enthusiastic about their sideline. "Last night my mother called to me," Takaku says, "and she asked, 'What's going on?' I told her I was just studying and playing music and that someone was coming to our campus to do an interview with my band. But all she said was, 'So what? So what?'" He gazes around his modestly furnished room, in which a television, a stereo and a rack of CDs share space with a stack of drums, a two-tone Les Paul and a practice amp, before remarking, "She doesn't want to recognize what I'm doing. She thinks I just want to be famous. She only wants me to come back home and get a good job in Japan."
That thought sends chills down Takaku's spine. "I just want to stay in the United States after I graduate," he declares. "I want to stay here all of my life."
Many Denver music lovers would be glad if he did.