Japanese noise rock duo Melt-Banana belong to a niche scene that’s awfully small but super devoted—especially in America. Maybe it’s because they’re like a hurricane, their acid-bubblegum sound and Elmo vocals blow out venue speakers and fans leave the place a wreck, not a single person stopping in the frenetic chaos to catch their breath. Melt-Banana rarely cross the pond, so when vocalist Yasuko “Yako” Onuki and guitarist Ichirou Agata stop at an intimate venue like Great Scott, things get kind of crazy in terms of enthusiasm and diversity.
“Mainstream music and underground music are separated in Japan very much compared to USA,” Yako tells the Dig. Indeed, around these parts, it’s popular to like underground music, as any self-respecting hipster can tell you (if they’re not too busy feigning disinterest). “It is very nice to see a varied audience come out to see our show. Like, not only young people, but also aging old people from punk to metal,” says Yako. For them, interacting with the crowd overseas is a reminder to keep going. Even though they can call big names like Steve Albini, Lou Reed, and Jim O’Rourke their friends, Melt-Banana are still surprised by the sheer number of Americans interested in their work. “A few days ago at the venue, I talked with the guy who is going to be 70 year’s old in September,” Agata adds. “It was interesting to talk with him about Torche and some other Japanese noise bands. His age made him that much cooler.”
Since they’re close friends, I ask if the two of them have listened to Shellac or O’Rourke’s new albums yet, but they’ve only had the chance to spin the first so far. “We’ve run into Jim only once in Tokyo,” says Agata. “But we met Steve a few times in Europe when we played with Shellac,” Yako quickly follows up. “We’re big fans of Shellac from their first record and our show with them at a comedy club in Chicago is one of the most unforgettable shows for us.” It makes sense for the latter given they both put the emphasis on blistering guitar – and Albini’s hand in producing their debut LP, Speak Squeak Creak.
Wall-shaking noise rock like theirs hasn’t always been the result of two people. From their formation in 1992 up until a few years ago, Melt-Banana toured with a tiny, spunky bassist and a rotating live drummer. The evolution of technology stepped in to save the day; both old members were replaced with pre-programmed backing tracks, giving the two twice the room onstage to thrash. Shaking off the feeling of doing live karaoke took a while. “When we decided to play as a two piece, we worried about it, but now I feel happy with what we do, especially after Yako started using wireless control device,” says Agata. “The most difficult thing is to find a drummer,” he adds, laughing. With stacks of monitors onstage and the addition of a Numark Orbit DJ controller and a wireless MIDI controller, they have been able to create the feeling of a full band being onstage with them again. If you’re worried they won’t be doing cover songs anymore, don’t fret. Yako confirmed they’re breaking some out, but there’s no word yet if it’s one from their split with locals ska punks Big D and the Kids Table.
Financially, Melt-Banana are poor. They make just enough money to cut even when touring and recording are taken in to account. To save on expenses, they write the basic parts of their records at home and then bring them to the studio get that gut-busting volume. “Once I went to Karaoke Box to record vocal tracks since its rent was very cheap — and if I get hungry, I also can order food there,” recalls Yako. “But after a while, there was a guy in the next room who kept singing in a very loud voice and he was so loud that I could not record my vocals. Since then, I quit going.”
It’s easy to write songs using chords, but most of Melt-Banana’s records stray from that baseline methodology, especially compared to the vocaloid and animation songs dominating their hometown’s charts. Instead, the duo tends to keep things out of tune. “We haven’t learned music theory, so maybe that’s the reason,” says Agata. Even if they were Berklee grads though, their work would still sound twisted from the computer and pedal effects through which their guitars are funneled.
At this point, Melt-Banana have been screeching melodies for in excess of two decades. In that time their sound, style, and attitude have shifted some, but neither member sees it. “I feel we haven’t changed much,” says Agata. “I guess it’s the world that has changed.”
Whatever the case, their operation’s lasted this long, and in discussing Boston plans, they already have things planned out to a T. “Our friend we’re staying with has many computers, synthesizers, video games, and good pancakes,” Yako says excitedly. It seems they know their way around America’s complex lifestyle, or at least around the complexities of life in general. In order to stay relevant enough to make intercontinental trips in a micro-genre that requires endless intensity, you kind of have to.