Punk, Munk, and Junkyards – An Interview with Inside Neon
Jiyugaoka is a plush and labyrinthine little town where Dalmatians are walked along streets lined with innumerable home furnishing and trinket stores. Shiny cars purr along the narrow streets and there seems to be a train track to be traversed wherever you go. Tucked away amidst these confines is the rehearsal studio where Inside Neon have invited me to join them this Sunday evening in October. Singer, guitarist, and fellow Brit, Rich Loffman meets me at the train station and guides me on a bewildering meander through backstreets to the studio. We enter the lobby of the Noah Sound Studio to a soundtrack of classic high-speed metal which squeals furiously yet unobtrusively in the background. Bassist Nat turns up next, sporting an Arch Enemy t-shirt and a new bass guitar, which the band spend a great deal of time admiring over the course of the evening. Hailing from Ireland, Nat not only demonstrates good taste in t-shirts, he is also “a nice dancer when he’s drunk”. This little snippet of information comes courtesy of guitarist Teru, the next band member to arrive. Teru himself is a former bass player, borrowed by Inside Neon from a blues band. Last to arrive is Australian drummer, Chris, who is introduced by Rich as not only a huge lover of metal, but also a superbly good cook.
“I cook my brains every time we play,” he quips in response.
It’s Inside Neon’s first rehearsal since August when they wrapped up promoting their new album “If You’re Not With Us, You’re Against Us”. Moving into the rehearsal room, watching the band play it’s quite evident that their two-month hiatus has had little effect on their playing. Sitting in an enclosed space crushed up together with instruments and amps actually gives a great idea of what Inside Neon sound like live – a much more thunderous and rangy sound than the clearer production on their CD would lead you to expect.
Inside Neon’s most recent release opens with electronic “Cosmonaut”, an anthemic instrumental song, leading nicely into the more ambient rock of “Soviets”. The album veers between the electronic, the melodic and the punkier, heavier side of things and from start to finish each song is a little bit different from the others – a bit like rock Jelly Beans, but without the dodgy blue-flavoured ones.
I ask Inside Neon about the progression from their earlier sound back in 2009, when they dubbed their style “Munk” – the “raucous punky metal sound” as Nat describes it.
“It started off with a song called ‘Dog Gods’,” says Rich. “It was the first or second time we’d played, and someone came up to us and said, `You sound like a punk band trying to play metal`.”
“The thing with “Dog Gods”, is that the lyrics are punk but the music is metal,” adds Chris.
“I think at the time we started, I didn’t have the ability to play metal, but I wanted to play more metally stuff,” continues the singer.
“You’ve developed your singing,” Chris says to Rich. “You were going for stuff more like Radiohead and The Cure. Symphonic metal is a bit more conducive to that sort of stuff. Punk is more like putting on a Northern English accent and talking about killing people and stuff.” There’s a brief pause before everyone cracks up laughing.
“Punk definitely suited me better,” continues Rich. “Kurt Cobain was a big influence, with that more rhythmic guitar sound. Teru understands that, because some of the riffs I ask him to play, he doesn’t play the same way, ‘cause he doesn’t have the same rhythmic style.”
“You definitely write more with your voice,” says Chris. “You used to write with your guitar.”
So, what’s the difference with their most recent release, I ask.
“I think the big difference was getting a second guitarist,” says Rich.
“Yeah, getting a second guitarist was a big, big jump,” continues Nat. “The last album was very electronic, as well, which is very different to what we usually do.”
“I’d call it Industrial Grunge Rock,” adds the drummer.
“ ‘Cold Sunshine’ is a good example of that. Those eerie backing tracks. ”
“A fine example of the progression we’ve got into is ‘Soviets’,” says Nat. It’s almost jazzy – it’s kinda rock, but with that jazz element, which is very different for us.”
“I remember telling Teru,” adds Rich, “that I wanted slide guitar in it, and he looked shocked. Teru is a much better guitarist than me, so I give him a basic idea of what I want a solo to sound like, and he’ll play it how I think it should sound. We have a nice conflict between our two styles. Teru has a very blues-rock style…”
“Very licky,” chimes in Chris.
“Yup,” agrees Rich, “whereas, I’m more indie.”
With Rich being the creator of most of the songs, I ask him about his writing.
“I tend to write them off the top of my head,” he begins. “I write two kinds of songs – political and a-political. The a-political ones are kinda personal. Jane Austen said write about what you know, so I always think about my relationships. Experiences of living in Japan come into play a lot.
“The political ones…? I have an obsession with Communism and Socialism, which is a theme I explored with the last album. I’m interested in anything to do with political freedom – the idea of going against the grain, of fighting the system in some way.
“I’ll make a basic demo of the song and I’ll present it to the guys. “Go Kitano” started as a rough demo, and I let these guys free with it. So the slow half-beat at the beginning, that was Chris’s idea, and the slidey bass in the break is Nat’s.”
“Go Kitano”, for me, is one of the stand out tracks on “If you’re not with us, you’re against us”. It begins with a sludgy guitar riff that momentarily had me thinking I was listening to Mastodon, before the song takes on the half-beat of Chris’s drums, developing into a dark and rolling rock number.
As so much of our talk this evening had been littered with band names, and I’ve already heard Rich break into The Cult’s “She Sells Sanctuary” between songs, I asked the guys about their influences.
“The album’s been reviewed a lot online, and every reviewer has seen a different influence,” says Rich. “Some of the bands we’ve never heard of. For me, a big influence is alternative rock, 80s, 90s. Everything from Joy Division, Foo Fighters and Linkin Park. There’s a whole range.
“How about your bass Nat?”
“In terms of inspiration, Billy Gould from Faith No More. Grunge, stoner rock, Queens of the Stone Age, Nirvana, Soundgarden…”
“Blues,” Teru says. “Stevie Ray Vaughn, Thin Lizzy. I like 70s music, punk, metal. Everything. Before I joined Inside Neon I was in a completely different band…but I love both, so I ended up staying with these guys.”
When I ask Chris about his influences, he takes a deep breath and begins a veritable torrent of band names: “Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Deep Purple, Led Zepplin, King Crimson, Slayer, Rush, Pink Floyd, Malevolent Creation, Iron Maiden, Annihilator, Helloween, Metallica, Megadeth, Sepultura. Anything brutal which can literally kill a small puppy-dog just by listening to it.”
Chris also lets us in on a secret. “The music I listen to the most is videogame music.” There’s another silence as we all digest this. Having just ploughed through a list of intense and heavy influences, the thought of adding Chip music to the mix seems…odd.
“Wow,” muses Rich.
“It’s not like I load them up and just listen to the music,” Chris clarifies. “I find real music distracts me from the game. I play videogames to still my ever-busy mind.”
“Yeah,” Rich comments, “I never listen to music before I play a gig. Nat’ll come to the studio with his headphones on, but I find it distracting. I’m too easily influenced by other people.”
The theme of individuality and independence with Inside Neon is something that comes up again when I bring up the subject of Nitrogen Music, the label on which Inside Neon releases their music. I ask the band why they chose to create their own record label.
“When I was a teenager, I was in a lot of bands,” begins Rich. “The idea was that you got signed to the record label – that was the way forward, right? But with the internet now, and digital sales, people don’t buy music in the same way they used to. Major labels don’t sign indie acts anymore, and even indie labels are very reluctant to sign bands. And the idea of having a record label behind you is kinda redundant these days. You can release your music online, digitally. There are so many options.”
Clocking in at the time of writing at #13 in Reverb Nation’s top Japan acts, and with the notable position of being the only band made up of different nationalities in that top 13, it’s interesting to see how an internet-savvy approach pays off. With numerous reviews easily accessible on the internet, a good-looking website and their presence on Soundcloud as well, it’s much easier to find out about Inside Neon and what they’re up to, than other bands. Rich only mentions one downside:
“Having a label affords you marketing potential and that’s what we’re missing now – the ability to get through to a wider audience.”
The wider audience is something we come onto a bit later in our chat when talking about the Tokyo rock scene. I ask them their thoughts.
“The whole gaijin rock scene is really, really great. I really enjoy it,” says Rich. “We try to get a few Japanese bands playing with us as well, `cause they bring a different audience.”
When I ask which bands on the scene they enjoy playing with, I’m granted another long list of bands and musicians: DieByForty,
Melted, Sorcha and the Sinners, Sawas Fool, Mana Hardcore, Martin LeRoux, The Watanabes, Tits, Tats and Whiskers, Sunset Drive…the list goes on and on. What is evident from all this though, is how thriving the gaijin rock scene is at the moment, with all these bands moving around town playing live and keeping things fresh.
So how about venues, and the dreaded noruma system?
“The free places tend to have very run-down drum-kits,” Chris says, “but it means when you get on a good drum-kit, like when you’re recording, it’s really inspiring. I could moan for hours about how shitty the drum-kits are. I had to cart my drum-kit around with me in Australia, though, so it all balances out.”
“We haven’t played any pay-to-play shows this year and last year,” adds Rich. “We play Crawfish, Pink Cow, Golden Egg, Gamuso…”
“The worst thing about the scene is for the punters,” Chris says. “Most gigs are ￥1500-2000 to get in, but in Australia it would be ￥500. Here, you’ve really got to encourage people to come. You can never guarantee the numbers.”
When I ask the band their favourite venues they mention Shibuya’s Star Lounge, Design Festa, Akasaka’s Crawfish, Yokohama’s Club Sensation and Golden Egg in Shinjuku.
“It’s a shit-hole basically,” says Rich, “but we always have good shows there.”
“Golden Egg is one of my favourite places,” agrees Teru.
“It’s got good acoustics,” adds Chris. “It’s like playing in a junkyard, but the sound is good.”
“No inhibitions there,” Nat says. “We just let loose, and always seem to rock it. We’re fearless when we play there.”
Finally, I ask the band about their future plans.
“I’ve been working on some new tracks,” says Rich. “Nat’s heard them. We’re going to continue on in the same vein, but in a more…what would you say, Nat?”
“I think there’s a lot more progression,” the bassist replies.
“It’s going to be melodic, it’s going to be heavy. So maybe next year an EP. And, we’re going to produce it ourselves. We’ve all got the skills between us to do it ourselves.”
And live shows?
“Probably fewer gigs next year. We played nine shows in five months and it was a strain on us financially and as a band. We were getting to the point where nobody was coming to our shows because they’d been two weeks before. A lot of bands in the Tokyo scene play too many live shows. So we’ll play fewer shows but make them bigger events”.
After rehearsal, I take the band outside to shoot them against a convenient concrete wall, encouraging them to put on more serious expressions than I’ve seen all evening. My impression of the band is that they are solid group of 4 guys determined and passionate about what they do. With Inside Neon building up to playing and recording again, 2013 looks like it could be a year that sees Inside Neon progressing further down the heavy route and stepping up to bigger things.
Check out Inside Neon at www.insideneon.com