Creation Myths, Cowbells and Atomic Explosions with Icon Girl Pistols
I’m perching on the steps outside a rehearsal studio interviewing Icon Girl Pistols on a warm, drizzly evening in July – it’s the quietest place we can find among the frenetic aural assault of Shibuya. So, half-standing half-sitting as the evening dims and the rain slowly builds in intensity, I begin what turns out to be a pretty epic interview with one of Tokyo’s most effervescent indie-rock bands.
Icon Girl Pistols have become a staple and much-loved part of the Tokyo music scene with their avant-garde brand of indie-rock, lyrical prowess and on-stage personality. The live shows I’ve been to have always been packed, and with such infectious energy by the end of their set the crowd are always dancing and leaping around.
In preparation for interviewing the band, I had read around previous magazine coverage, and kept coming across different versions of the band’s creation; variations including international porn-stars (singer and guitarist Shinnosuke Shirakura) meeting down-and-out drummers (Ken Fukuda) on the streets of Tokyo, and daring prison escapes resulting in a three-piece band – all of which is in keeping with the narrative style many of their songs take. So, rather than asking for the more traditional rendition of Icon’s expansion to a five-member band, I ask for a new creation myth instead, and bassist Christopher David O’Reilly obliges with the following:
“Kanemitsu (Akinobu Kanemitsu, aka Goldflash – keys, vocals and cowbell) and Stuart Hodgson (guitar) were in a cover band of the guys who did the “Macarena”. The three of us were down in Osaka and they opened for us – and everyone was doing the “Macarena”. Halfway through, Goldflash pulls out a cowbell, and the wrist action on that cowbell blew us away. So we had to get him in the band immediately. We managed to break him free from his contract – he was signed to the guy who manages AKB48 – and now Kanemitsu is the Latin soul of the band we were lacking before.
“Stu brings up our average height. Before, with Ken, we were a very short band and we needed someone to bring the average back to normal… So, he was mainly just for the height.”
Icon are admirably prolific, as the past three years can attest to with a plethora of released material – 2009’s album “New Currency” and the 2011 “Goodbye Donuts (Hey, Statue of Liberty)”; two EPs, interspersed with a whole year of monthly single releases in 2010. For Stu and Goldflash, picking up 30+ songs must have proven to be quite the challenge.
The avant-garde element of Icon has always been something I’ve found it a challenge to put my finger on – was it sound, image, or attitude? In listening to the band, it had occurred to me that, though hardly a new concept, much of the writing contained a more poetic and literary style than a strictly “lyrical” one. I asked Shinnosuke about this and he acknowledged Jeff Buckley, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits as influences. A more literary influence he refers to is his great-grandfather, a well-known Japanese writer:
“I don’t really like his work very much,” Shinnosuke says, “but my great-grandfather’s character has had some effect, be it hereditary or not.”
Goldflash seconds the literary and storytelling aspects to Shinnosuke’s writing, citing Japanese folk-singer Inoue Yosue’s lyrics as having a similar narrative style:
“Inoue’s storytelling is similar to Shinnosuke’s, by contributing to the range of Japanese language – the ways Japanese language can be manipulated.”
“How about your keyboard?” Shinnosuke asks, steering the conversation away from himself. Goldflash says that famous J-Pop
songwriter Komoru Tetsuya is one of his favourite musicians. Chris meanwhile, says that the Flea played a big part in his musical background, but that currently his favourite musician is punk rock outfit Eastern Youth’s Tomokazu Ninomiya. Stu, whilst acknowledging a teenage dalliance in nu-metal, goes for the bluesier Hendrix and Pearl Jam.
“I spent a couple of years only playing Flight of the Conchords, which was a slight detour, but a fantastic time of my life. I was very happy,” he adds.
With all the different influences, I ask how the addition of Goldflash and Stu has affected the band, both in terms of live performance and song writing.
“Live, the height is definitely better,” says Chris, before becoming a little more serious. “The extra guitar gives Shinnosuke a lot more freedom to be a frontman…to focus on his singing. So the vocals have benefitted. And having a second vocalist in Goldflash. The keys add more versatility.” That freedom was evidenced recently, when at the end of a live show in Akasaka, Shinnosuke put down his guitar and sang and writhed away on stage with only a microphone – something I don’t think we’d have witnessed as a 3-piece band.
Shinnosuke talks further about the song-writing process: “In the past I would have a song in my head which was very complicated, which we couldn’t accomplish with a 3-piece. So having extra members means that we can do those songs that, perhaps, wouldn’t have made the cut.”
On the topic of songs, I was interested in how the band would give one-line summaries of them, after hearing “Riju” summarized as “ a song about a pigeon who eats cancer”, which brought to mind all kinds of uncomfortable images of beaten-up, legless and unkempt London pigeons with an even more unsavoury diet than their dull-scrawny bodies would lead you to think.
I first ask about the rather opaque “Elephant’s Tail” – “You are just like a baby, whip of the elephant’s tail” – which no one seems to be quite sure about. Moving on, Chris describes “Neon Glass Pledge” as “ a medieval fairytale with atomic explosions.” This is all a precursor to asking about one of my favorite live songs, “ママ僕の服はもう買わないで- Mama, don’t buy my clothes anymore” – a song with an exuberant verse, feeding into a riotous chorus (and a highly-danceable crowd favourite) in which I can detect the co-victim of parental fashion-sense. I ask the band for details of any childhood trauma.
“As a child, I spent most of my time naked, so I have absolutely no idea,” says Stu. “Though there are pictures of me in a bunny suit.”
“I wasn’t given anything weird,” begins Shinnosuke, “just very uncool.” He goes on to describe a long-sleeved top whose seams were on the outside. “It was grey with red pockets.”
“How old were you?” asks Chris.
“Maybe high school or university,” replies Shinnosuke. “It was a souvenir from China.” Perhaps not as damaging as one would have hoped, but that grey sweater did make an appearance in my dreams that night, so clearly it aims to not be so easily forgotten.
Having mentioned the poetic quality of Icon’s songs, somewhat uniquely in the Tokyo ex-pat scene, the vast majority of them are sung in Japanese. Given the upbeat and catchy nature of Icon’s sound, the lyrics are easily memorized and voiced by the crowd, but I wondered if this has ever posed a problem.
“The lyrics are really important but 50% of the people who listen to us don’t understand them,” says Chris. “I’d love it if someone who liked us as a live band went home, did a bit of studying, read the lyrics…and then went back and said `Ah! That`s what that`s about!` Our songs can sound pretty poppy at times, but some of them are really dark, lyrically.”
“I’ve fallen into that trap,” adds Stu. “I thought one of our new songs “Sky Blue Paint” was a happy, summery song. But then I read the lyrics and thought: `Can I smile to this song anymore?`”
With a recent appearance in Japanzine’s “Bands of Japan” issue, Icon manage to do something that not all bands manage in their straddling of the seemingly disparate Japanese and “gaijin” (foreign) scenes.
“It’s so much more fun [to play in the gaijin scene],” says Chris. “ The audiences are there from the beginning of the evening until the end – they want to see all the music. They listen, and if they like it they tell you they like it. Whereas, at a lot of traditional live house gigs we end up playing to our wives and girlfriends.”
“Our best fan in the audience was this guy,” Chris continues, gesturing at Stu, “and we made him a fucking band member. We lost our best dancer!”
“I don’t really like the Tokyo live scene much,” says Shinnosuke, before going on to elaborate: “Probably everyone talk about this, but
you have to pay a lot of money to play in a live house for a short time. You have to invite a lot of people but people are only interested in the band they go to see and not in anyone else. So, places like Gamuso (an art bar and live space in Asagaya) are very special. There are not many places like that in Tokyo, which is not great for bands.”
“I come from a place where we only had two live venues – Cardiff – and I think one of those has closed down now,” says Chris. “For me growing up, playing the Barfly was like a dream. To play there you had to be shit-hot, but in Tokyo you can play anywhere you want, so long as you’re willing to pay up.
“I do think there are a lot of good bands in this city,” he continues, “who no one is listening to. In Japan it’s much more difficult to stand out. You either have to do something very different, which isn’t really popular, or you need to be lucky, I guess.”
“I agree,” says Stu. “In England you can get to play decent live houses without having to fork out a lot of money. It’s very hard to play somewhere decent in Japan.”
The band echo what has previously been mentioned by the Mootekkis – live houses have great sound and equipment – but that the expense of that system “chokes creativity”.
“It’s an exciting city to be in a band,” counters Chris, finally. “ I’d rather be here than playing in Cardiff every week.”
Now that Goldflash and Stu have settled into the band, I ask Icon what their plans hold for this year.
“What’s the plan, Boss?” Stu asks Shinnosuke.
“We’ll try to make an album,” the boss replies. “We need to get known by more Japanese people, whilst still enjoying the foreign scene we’ve become a part of.”
“This guy writes prolifically,” says Chris of Shinnosuke, “so we’re going to boil them [the songs] down and be a bit pretentious and make a concept record. With stuff we’ve recorded in the past, we’ve never thought this is the best we can do. There’s always room for improvement. Now our first goal is to workout how to capture these songs in the best possible way. But hopefully an album with the year?”
“Hopefully,” says Ken at last.
Check out the Icon Girl Pistols website
See more photos in the slideshow:
All black and white photos were taken at Nob in Shibuya.
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And finally – many thanks to Christopher David O’Reilly for help with translating!