The Japanese have been turning out blistering punk bands as regularly as they once churned out Godzilla flicks. But for every relatively well known J-punk band such as Guitar Wolf, Thee Michelle Gun Elephant and Teengenerate, there are hundreds more bubbling under the crust, groups like the Havenots, Invisible Man's Deathbed, 54 Nude Honeys, and the Minnesota Voodoo Men. Not to be confused with the Voodoo Men, Minneapolis-based Sweet J.A.P. and its punch-drunk electroshock punk rock looks to be moving out of the shadows of the "bubbling under" group.
Sweet J.A.P.'s live shows are quickly becoming the stuff of legend. The Minneapolis Star Tribune named it the best live act of 2002, topping more well-known and critically acclaimed bands such as the Dillinger Four. Musicians also can't get enough of them. "Even though they compact it all into 20, 25 minutes, it's super-dynamite," says Twin Cities scene vet and Soviettes drummer Danny "Rock Bottom" Henry. "You're always guaranteed a good fuckin' show. It's hardcore punk rock or whatever you want to call it, but everybody's smiling, everybody having a really good time. I think that's a really important thing. Anyone can get up there and be mad, but that tends to put people off."
Mike Weibe, front man for Denton's Riverboat Gamblers, goes further. "Their show," he says, "is one of the best two shows I've seen in my whole life." Coming from a guy whose band is known for putting on concerts that leave a trail of blood, medical bills, broken glass and blown PAs in its wake, that's a pretty strong endorsement.
Sweet J.A.P. rhythm guitarist Hideo -- who like the rest of his band goes by his first name only -- is more modest. He once told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that his was the best Japanese punk band in the Twin Cities. But how did this band from the Land of the Rising Sun end up in the environs of Lake Wobegon? Well, they weren't a band, or even much into punk -- especially the stuff from their homeland -- when they arrived in Minnesota on student visas. Oddly, they discovered their own country's volcanic punk scene while living thousands of miles away.
"I came here when I was in high school and I was listening to punk stuff, but I didn't know anything underground," explains Hideo over the phone from his apartment in Minneapolis. "My [American] high school friend introduced me to the Dead Kennedys and Sex Pistols, then I started going to shows. I didn't know who they were, but my friend told me the New Bomb Turks were playing and Teengenerate was opening. Teengenerate's show was surprising, and then I started to became aware of the scene in Japan."
Inspired, Hideo formed Sweet J.A.P. in 2000 with singer Sho, bassist Takashi and drummer Hideyo. A few months later the band added a token white guy, whom they rechristened Tsutomu, on the bass, while Takashi switched to lead guitar. Yuichiro replaced Hideyo on drums in 2001.
Sho came up with the band name. "Local people tell us we're nice off the stage but on stage we go wild and crazy, so the name represents our style," says Hideo. "Sweet is soft and J.A.P. is hard. When our CD came out, the DJ was saying J-A-P, but we were saying Jap. It's kind of like a joke since it stands for Sweet Japanese-American princesses, but there are no girls in the band."
Sweet J.A.P. is touring on its self-titled debut on Big Neck Records, Hideo's own tiny indie label. While there are some parallels in their sound with the cream of Japanese punk bands, including the ferocity with which the music is delivered, they don't share the lo-fi, recorded-in-a-car-trunk sound of so many of their countrymen's efforts. Which is not to say it's slick or overproduced. Without sacrificing any rawness, the clear mix allows the listener to distinguish the individual instruments and some of the (mostly shouted) vocals, which are in English. The set intermingles unrelenting short blasts of punk fury with poppier cuts like "Shake It Up All Night" and "Oh My Pretty Face," which recall Supersnazz at its best, while the head-spinning freak-out of "Punk Vibe" borders on hardcore.
It wouldn't be a Japanese punk record without a few cuts with nonsense titles, represented here by "Denki Meand" and opening tirade "Den de Den." Their unique sound renders comparisons difficult, but the originality works in their favor. Their fist-pumping "whoa whoa" choruses, coupled with concise, guitar-mangling leads, win you over at first listen.
As do so many of the bands from Japan. Why is that? Why do Japanese punk bands consistently wipe out their American competition? Hideo has a theory.
"In Japan, especially in Tokyo, if you want to play a show, you have to sell so many tickets, and if you don't sell enough you have to pay for it," he says. "There bands play together five years and put out maybe a seven-inch. So it seems like all the Japanese recordings sound so good because the bands have already been together five, ten years. Here a band gets together and records right away. Also, there are so many bands in Tokyo, if you want to become well known you have to put on a great show."
The high energy of Sweet J.A.P.'s shows proves they've learned the harsh lessons of their demanding home country's scene, even if they don't live there anymore. Catching them play in your backyard not only saves on airfare to Tokyo or Minneapolis, but also proves that these "princesses" deserved to be called punk rock royalty.
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