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Destined: Japanther

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Joel Calahan profiles eccentric genre-benders Japanther.

Destined: Japanther

The generational wave has crested once again, and the lo-fi anti-pop of the late 80s/early 90s is now being handled by that generation’s students. The original bands themselves are legendary: Beat Happening, Mr. Quintron, Sebadoh, the Frogs, Leslie Q, Mecca Normal. All shared some part of the spectrum of self-produced, violent, destructively wholesome bedroom/living room/basement blasting pop; they redefined a generation of kids stuck grounded in their rooms by parents swept away by the conservative wave in the early 80s that made being an adult and a square acceptable. For these kids, artists who not only crossed lines politically and musically, but destroyed those lines with rage, distortion, and noise, noise NOISE, were gods. Every generation has its punk rock, and Japanther, comes as the second wave of anti-pop musicians who own a sound that, because of its influence and re-representation of those early artists, could be called second generation lo-fi. Bring on the noise.

Japanther is a self-proclaimed "bedroom pop blast" band out of Brooklyn, NY. Its two core members, Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly, formed the band in 2001 for a seven-minute opening set for Lightning Bolt and Pink & Brown, an opening gig that promised big things, but their own history as musicians was thrust along by fortune and circumstance just as much as by talent.

At the tender age of twelve, Vanek formed a garage-lo-fi-punk attack called Howardian with his brother Matt and a friend, Adam Hoffman. The trio combined lack of virtuosity with relentless energy, as Vanek recalls, "demolishing our instruments and having fun just playing sloppy garage." The three ran away from home to tour with Leslie Q, and Vanek cites a collaboration with avant-lo-fi musician and visual artist Leslie Q as one of the entry points into being a real musician (as well as the fact that his parents were "super pissed" that the boys took to the road surreptitiously).

For an ambitious lo-fi band in the Upper Northwest, the next logical step is running into Calvin Johnson, right? At thirteen Vanek just happened to live down the street from the man himself, and the two met when Vanek filled in for Scott Jernigan for a show. Vanek views their relationship as extremely influential to his musical direction: "Calvin Johnson lived in the same alley as we did, as luck would have it. He turned me on to the Gories, Quintron, and other lo fi heroes." Johnson also included a Howardian track on the K compilation Selector Dub Narcotic with lo-fi legends like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Mecca Normal, and an early Beck. "To this day I owe him such a debt," Vanek reminisces. "I love that guy. I guess I would say try and be that guy to a kid if you can. I still have the mike he gave me. I was lucky to meet Calvin Johnson and a lot of other lo fi heroes when I was growing up and I was always excited to be a part of such an obviously important thing."

After meeting Matt in art school, the talk started about forming a band. To align themselves more closely with what they see as the vital art scene, Vanek and Reilly referred to their project as an "art project." "The East Coast is cold and sometimes negative," Vanek claims, "But the art scene is amazing and the music comes through every so often. To us, Japanther remains an art project."

After the Lightning Bolt of divine help in 2001 and Japanther’s first show as a band under that name, the duo was immediately signed for a demo recording session and had been booked for a first tour. They wasted no time in branding their exploits on record, and in spreading the mayhem and destruction of a live set across the greater part of our nation. The first tour and infancy of Japanther drummer Ian Vanek describes as naively energetic (a perfect formula for underground punk, naturally): "We were dead convinced we had the best punk band. It turns out we mainly just blasted beats off a tape player and fell down and screamed a lot." After taking off as a force to be reckoned with on three tours, Ian’s brother Matt, the one and the same from Howardian, fronted some cash for a recording session at Invisible City in Cleveland, where they put five songs down on tape. This first studio (ad)venture was released in June 2002, and was titled, "South of Northport," a frenzy of riffs in the vein of X and the Melvins with the sonic fallibility of Quintron and Temple of Bon Matin. Japanther lived.

After the third tour, they stopped off in San Antonio, TX long enough to record their first full-length long-player, Leather Wings, which widened the scope of the boys’ recordings to the comprehensiveness of an album and displayed not only a knack for the "bedroom soul" sound that they shot up on their debut EP, but developed the essential quality of the found samples. With earnings from tours, Japanther invested in an 8 track recorder in 2002, and most of what appears on Dump the Body in Rikki Lake was recorded in Ian and Matt’s Brooklyn apartment with said recorder, and added the help of Claudia Meza playing the guitar. Rikki Lake maintains a surprising continuity with Leather Wings and Japanther’s other studio work, since they release material recorded at various times within the last two years from studios and non-studios across the country.

Japanther’s creative energy is also focused into their own record label, Tapes Records, which will release their own twelve-inch this winter called "The Operating Manual for Life on Earth." Tapes has released seven inches and LPs by Black Dice, Federation X, XBXRX, Plastik Caskit, 25 Suaves, and they promise the debut of Tunnel of Love in short order. The selection of bands that have released projects on the label shows Vanek and Reilly’s sensitivity to their own mantra as "lo fi heroes": "Do what you feel." Tapes’ mission statement focuses on the common mentality of all the bands that have been release, proclaiming, "Musically speaking they've all blown up and started again, pushing music in the precise direction they believed most suitable, rather than playing someone else’s music with no passion."

And Vanek echoes the mission statement. "Seeing the Black Dice rip the face off confrontation music and tame it into what they have blew my mind," he discloses enthusiastically. "I strive to do half what all these amazing people have done with sound. That’s why Tapes Records was started, to document the sound of rebirth in music by real people, not bankers or teenie boppers. I want to help kids with cheap instruments and whatever resources they may have around them making the best of it and ripping the soundscape with new motions. That’s what Beat Happening was doing in 1986, that’s what Minor Threat was doing in 1982, and that’s what I'm trying to do in 2004." The goal of the label converges with Japanther’s own ambitions in this point, for Vanek: "If doing what we feel means recording a releasing our own shit, so be it. I'm not waiting for anyone when it comes to booking tours or recording a record."

Reilly wrote this manifesto for Japanther’s website: "In a city like New York that is constantly reinventing new levels of the slogan "Do what you feel!", we asked ourselves where our place was, and where it could be. Aware of what was going on in our society, Japanther decided to take it upon themselves to dictate how people perceived them. With much faltering Japanther has tried to do what they felt, and hopefully it was right thing. To affect people in a positive way is one goal. To show people that if you have an idea and stick to it there are no real boundaries is another. We built a house from cardboard and bubblegum and have just been trying to keep the roof from caving in."

Check out Japanther’s inimitable live show, coming this winter to an "art gallery, bedroom, bathroom, or ballroom" near you. In two years Vanek and Reilly have circuited the country or parts of it a relentless eight times; the new tour is called "Dump Japanther in Rikki Lake," and promises to the be the most ambitious yet. Claudia Meza will join the boys for most of the tour as guitarist and third mayhem purveyor, as will Texans The Sneeze, and Northern Arizonans The Ponies. And if you miss them, don’t worry, they’ll be touring again, I’d guess. The people are moving; the airwaves are humming. The nation is ready again to learn the lessons of bedroom soul, and Japanther is summoning all the lo-fi heroes to their aid in bringing this anti-pop music to life once again.

By Joel Calahan

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