Japanther Talk Politics, Eating Healthy, Art Research + More
Noisey punk duo Japanther is undoubtedly more about the live experience than your typical rock band. While some groups rely on smoke and mirrors onstage, bandmates Matt Reilly (bass, keyboard, vocals) and Ian Vanek (drums, vocals), who met at art school in Brooklyn, would rather play atop New York City bridges (and almost get arrested for it) or enlist synchronized swimmers to do the work of traditional backup dancers. They even played a 84-hour marathon set on a spinning platform for a piece called 'It Never Seems to End.'
Chatting with Diffuser.fm, Vanek talked about finding visual inspiration for their art-rock shows and the complicated politics behind Japanther's brand-new album, 'Eat Like Lisa, Act Like Bart.'
What was your mindset going into this album?
We did a performance art piece at EMPAC, which is the Experimental Media Performance Art Center, on these 40-foot scaffolding towers where we were separated from each other on these vertical stages. We wouldn’t actually see each other when we were writing these songs because we were performing on these towers, so most of these song came out of that experience.
I guess our mindset though was slightly political because the performance was about prison and housing structures in and around New York City. We believe strongly that the state is abusing their powers to jail people, and the court system is very out of whack in our city. We have some friends who are currently residing upstate against their wills, and we wanted to show our solidarity with them. Same goes for housing rights, where it can be pretty twisted. In a city like this, people are getting taken advantage, and there's very little they can do.
Have you planned any performances yet?
Right now, we're still in that phase, but we're excited to start planning new performances and work in new spaces. We're lucky to have these different residencies and work in these massive studio spaces. To just get to discuss the writing and melodies as a performance-art band, and work on poetry and music and art at the same time -- not a lot of bands get to have that.
It helps that your band is probably seen more as a performance-art experience than a band anyway.
Yeah, and I think there that are bands that I grew up with that were even more so an experience than we are. There’s this group Crash Worship comes to mind, which was an acid, psychedelic-freakout drumcore from San Diego. Babyland was a really intense industrial band. The Dwarves, Mudhoney, the Ramones, the Misfits: All these groups were cartoons of themselves and cartoons of the sound. They were the perfect symbiosis of people who weren’t trying to represent just the music, but something more.
Speaking of cartoons, you make a pretty obvious ‘Simpsons’ reference in the album title. Do you want people to think about health with Lisa and behavior with Bart?
That’s the hope. Without telling people that vegetarianism is a likely savior for your health problems, we just want to tell people in a very joking way to be joyous in the kitchen. While we’re not strict vegetarians or vegans, we certainly have a lot of friends who are.
We’ve done a few pop-up restaurants in the past few years. We did one in a gallery called Eat the Butt, where you picked up a phone and it recorded your voice, and you were basically trading your story for a meal. And then this year, we did a 69-cent automat restaurant, which was a 1930s-era style restaurant in New York where you put in a coin and a door would open, like a proto-vending machine. They had things like hot gravy, soup, tomatoes, coffee, apples and things like that.
The health thing has come up a lot because it’s something we’re interested in. You know, we wanted to start a restaurant, but we’re in a band. It’s like, “Don’t you guys have a show to go play?” And we'd say, “But we’re not done making the soup!” It’s fun for us to try to strike that balance. The automat would not have been possible without the staff of Thank You For Coming, which was the residence space we were in for that in L.A. And again we had another month to write new music while doing that.
Restaurants and health are big things for us. We want people to reclaim their health by choosing macrobiotic and fresh produce, so not all the prepackaged food.
And even food is so political.
Exactly. I live in downtown Brooklyn, but I could go through so many neighborhoods were people would look at me and say, “Well, what are kale chips?” When to me, in Downtown Brooklyn, there are kale chips; they’re in aisle three. They don’t make good produce readily available to everyone, and these aren’t discussions we’re having with our kids. These are things that are up to the president and people like the First Lady so that we can have better nutrition in our schools.
So do you think something like Mayor Bloomberg’s attempted soda ban was an appropriate action?
It’s interesting, because as soon as you tell someone not to do something, they’re going to want to do it. It’s just human nature. So the minute you tell someone not to drink 16 ounces of soda, they’re going to want to go and buy it. And getting even a little more political, there such a disconnect between the state and federal governments, which is ultimately going to make the states less powerful. Looking across those state and city lines, there's something completely different going on. Young people in New York City can be all about the soda ban, but they can afford something different, they have a different lifestyle.
So how do you find inspiration from other visual artists?
Right now we’re really looking into surrealism. We’re doing the research right now, so we're looking into some operas and some visuals. We’re doing a performance this November that’s surrealist-inspired. And taking a broad topic like that and narrowing it down into what interests you the most has always been our approach. That’s something I learned from other visual artists. I worked with this woman named Aïda Ruilova, who is an incredible artist and taught me so much about the world. She was a musician, but that wasn’t enough for her, so now she’s an amazing filmmaker.
But what Aïda really taught me was to get the research started and let the idea come to you. Don’t feel like just because you’re a painter, you have to paint. She showed me was this way of working, where I would think about what I like about the Rolling Stones, and get a picture of it. What I like about the Rolling Stones is Charlie Watts, the drummer. So then I would remember that I like his high-hat on his drums. I don’t play the hi-hat, so then I have to think about how I would get this idea of Charlie Watts and his hi-hat into my idea about surrealism. How would a surrealist approach it? After a month or two of research, you have a huge folder full of your ideas about surrealism, or whatever it is you’re studying, so you have a jumping-off point for a new piece of art , and how those your ideas inspire you and force you to think in new ways.
So we certainly look up to Aida, and also Gelitin, this group from Vienna, Austria. We’re learning a ton about them and how they run their studio, and it was a huge honor to get to play with them at the Venice Biennale a few years ago. We hope to go live and work in their studio for a bit with any luck. Our friend Christoph Schlingensief was another amazing performance artists from Germany who passed away, but he directly contributed to one of our performances. We did an 84-hour performance in Vienna for his memorial in 2010. He was hated by the government for forming a political party of all the homeless people in Germany. As their first act as a political party, he took all these people all to piss in the lake by where the chancellor was staying. The idea was get the lake to rise so he would have more lake to look at. [laughs]
So many people have inspired us throughout the years. We're so lucky that we've gotten to work with some really incredible people, and we've learned some much about how they think and their techniques.
You don’t really think of art as researched-based, so it’s interesting that you guys have such a scholastic approach.
It’s exhausting, but it's almost the most rewarding thing. We really live for those human connections we make with all these other artists and musicians. We'll go through a lot of s--- to make those human connections.