I was on tour as a roadie in 2005 with the band Brazil when they played a show at North Six in Brooklyn. The venue was divided into two parts and Brazil played the regular stage. Downstairs, Japanther was playing. I had heard their Wolfenswan album and knew there was some buzz behind them, so I thought it might be fun to check them out. However, North Six in June was unbearably hot and we were all drained from the heat and humidity, so we went back to the drummer’s parents’ house in New Jersey where a fifteen-year-old boy tried to sell us pot. In hindsight, it probably would’ve been better to stay and watch Japanther, but fatigue and the weather beat us that day.
So while I missed my opportunity to see Japanther live, I have listened to them over the years and even did a short interview with them for my blog a few years ago where they answered random questions about their band for me. When I asked Ian Vanek, the drummer and vocalist, how they formed, he responded, “Legend has it an unknown tribal woman mated with a panther one summer under a full moon in the ‘80s and gave birth to a set of twins. The bastards were separated at birth for fear of their joint power.”
Since forming while students at Pratt Institute in New York City in 2001, Japanther has always consisted of two members—Ian Vanek (drums and vocals) and Matt Reilly (bass and vocals)—and they have been prolific in their musical output. The duo has released over two dozen albums, singles, EPs, and DVDs on labels such as Menlo Park, Recess, No Idea, and Plan-it-X. Japanther has admitted to riffing off of the Ramones and the Misfits, which can be seen in their short song lengths and catchy hooks. But in addition, Japanther’s music invites the listener to dance, dance, dance. That upbeat, catchy energy can be heard on all their albums to some degree, but Skuffed Up My Huffy (2007) and Beets, Limes and Rice (2011) are especially good places to start.
While many call the band a punk rock act, Japanther considers themselves an art project. They often collaborate with artists and perform in unique performance spaces (such as the top of the WilliamsburgBridge in New York City), with puppets and marionettes, and alongside synchronized swimmers.
One such exhibit occurred in April 2011 and was titled The Phone Booth Project. It was an art piece that utilized performances by spoken word and visual artists, as well as musicians (including Shellshag). Over the course of the month, Japanther hosted dinners for a few dozen people at a New York City art gallery. The gallery’s walls were covered in posters, flyers, and cards the band had produced over the years. Jenn Su Taohan of California, who specializes in cooking for touring bands, prepared the meals. Along with the performing musicians, the band had set up multimedia presentations about their work, motivation, and video and audio art. The focal point of the exhibit was a public phone booth at the gallery with a two-way recorder in the phone receiver. Guests at the dinner were invited to tell stories into the telephone, and those ended up also being part of the exhibit.
Japanther’s willingness to play in non-traditional spaces and work with various artists is unique; many artists want to have things their way and aren’t open to collaborating with other musicians, let alone other artists. Japanther aren’t like that. They desire to bring people together from different backgrounds in the artistic community for more than just becoming famous or rich.
As Vanek said in an interview in 2014, “I tend not to try to draw very many lines in my life unless it’s on a painting or a drawing. It all comes under the same guise of collective energy and friendship and fun—what interests you as a human being. What interests us is collecting stories, collecting experiences. So I think drawing those lines is something for our management or our booking agents or our record labels. And we go around with our erasers kind of fucking them up.”
–Kurt Morris, 2014
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More than a band, Japanther is two individuals who share a creative outlet. It may seem tricky to grasp the breadth of their work, but the work itself is not hard to understand. Japanther works on many levels. Musically, they’re a two piece—bass and drums—then
add in the tape machine that they play to and write all the music that’s recorded on it, and a whole different take on the band comes about. It’s a project, a project that appears to have become a machine, its own vehicle.
To move like they do and create like they do is amazing and highly inspiring.
Interview by BD Willams and Rawl
Photos by Rudy Olivarez
Ian—drums and vocals
Riley—bass, tape machine, and vocals
Originally ran in Razorcake #34, 2006
BD: Ian, what do you do with the zines you put out?
Ian: I keep them and say I’m tight. Patte la Cooch did some drawings for the last one about how computers work, how an oil refinery works, and how cell phones work. So he did some illustrations and I wrote these articles about how these basic technologies work, because those things run our lives and I think people don’t understand them at all.
BD: So do you understand how cell phones and computers work? Are you mechanically inclined in those ways?
Ian: No. I just think it’s important to try and know something about it. I don’t claim to know shit. I think the smartest guys will tell you they don’t really know shit. They’re like, “We’ll try it, but we’ll probably break it in the process.”
BD: Why are you Japanther?
Ian: Why you lookin’ at me?
Riley: To express ourselves.
Ian: It’s a creative flag. Like a branding or a flag that we fly.
Riley: It’s our creative spirit animal. It’s our collective creative spirit animal.
BD: Just between the two of you?
Ian: There are several other people.
Riley: Many, many other people.
Ian: Our friend Mark that puts out our albums is a part of our family. Our friend Devin, who makes our artwork and has recorded us, is a part of our family. A bunch of people have collaborated on our albums.
Rawl: I’ve seen you guys live with a guitar player.
Ian: Right. Our friend Egyptian Power plays guitar. Our friend Claudia plays guitar. Our friend Don sings in our band sometimes. It’s a collective creative spirit animal.
Riley: The more people, the more powerful the animal. The happier the animal.
Ian: It’s part of the different moods the animal has.
Riley: It’s like any other creature.
Ian: We are Japanther to eat food. We go on tour to try and eat some food.
BD: Like almond pancakes?
Ian: Cosmic almond pancakes.
BD: Why not Japancakes?
Ian: They’re from Houston.
Riley: They’re already a band, man.
Ian: Japanties, I’ve heard that one before.
Riley: Jah Jahpanther.
Ian: My friend Megan and her best friend had a band that opened for us and they had a band call Jahpanther. They had weed leafs painted on their foreheads, rainbow head bands, and they were super-cute girls and they were awesome. It was genius.
BD: Why do you sing about River Phoenix?
Riley: Because I read a book called The Fast Times and Short Life of River Phoenix. I don’t know. I just read the book and it was an interesting case where…I don’t know. The song was actually “River Romantics” and then we figured…
Ian: The River Romantics are a group of guys who live next to a river in Miami and they have it going on. They have a shopping cart with a boom box and then if you flip the shopping cart on its side they have a stove kind of set-up. They’re fishing next to this river all day and cooking fish at night and listening to the boom box.
Riley: It’s like a contemporary covered wagon.
Ian: Yeah. They would rally their wagons at night.
Riley: And eat fish out of the river. And they had a dirty dog.
Ian: It was December and it was snowing in New York and we were in Miami for two weeks. I don’t know how long we were there—a while—and we would see them everyday when we walked to work and be like, “Damn, the River Romantics.” They’re tight. That’s why that song was originally written and then Riley read that book about River Phoenix. You have to popularize things, you know, to let other people understand them. So for us it’s actually the “River Romantics.”
BD: There’s another song… is it “Rise Above Your Opportunity”?
Riley: “Challenge and Opportunity.”
Ian: To rise above the smoke and debris.
Riley: And that was interpreted from an old school hip hop song that inspired me. It’s kind of a reflection on New York present and past. It also kind of encompasses living in any place and, hopefully, has a universal theme of “even though it’s hard, you can do it.”
BD: What were the lyrics you had when we walked down to the beach?
Riley: When I rapped it?
Riley: “Look past the garbage, over the trains, under the ruins, through the remains, around the crime and pollution, and tell me where I fit in. South Bronx, New York, that’s where I dwell, and to a lot of people it’s a living hell, full of frustration and poverty, but, wait, that’s not how it looks to me. It’s a challenge, an opportunity to rise above the smoke and debris. Got to start with nothing and then you build, you got to follow your dreams until it’s fulfilled.” [laughter and yeahs] And that shit was super-inspiring to me. I was watching Style Wars by myself in New York really stoned and I had deep, deep moments, and then I went and wrote a song and figured, “Hey, why try and come up with all this new material when there’s so much good stuff out there?”
BD: What’s the story behind the tape machine?
Ian: We have a drum machine at our house and we dump it onto tape because I’ve always made tapes in my life and I thought it’s really cool to try and get them as close to each other as possible. It’s possible to do cooler shit with tape than with digital things ‘cause there’s this kind of mystique and you’re dealing with magnets. It’s not an exact science. It’s almost like a chemistry—where digital is exact—and it’s bits instead of analogue, so when we let go on a tape and hit play, that’s like releasing our spirit animal in a big way. You hear this large tape hiss that starts up, and then [drum sounds] and the drum machine is recorded on there in the way that we want, so we can kind of mix. Matt plays Casio keyboard and writes our melodies, and we’ll put whatever samples I want to throw on there—or he wants to throw on there, or do things to the beat, and think about. Well, it’s going to be coming out at a show in stereo for us. And we’ll know what’s gonna sound good and what’s not—but when you press play on that tape, shit doesn’t stop after that’s rolling, so it’s a way of having an element of chance, an element of precision, an element of lo-fi.
Riley: The tape could get eaten, or the tapes get… I’ve erased tapes…
BD: Do you have back up tapes with you?
Ian: No. We just write other songs if that shit happens. Like, that’s a bummer. Peace. It’s a rest in peace thing, man. This band has helped me to understand how to let shit go a little better, ‘cause I hold onto grudges and all that type of shit real bad, and when shit gets erased or you lose all these files, or something gets broken, you got to let it go. You got no choice but to try and move on.
BD: Ian, why must we save the whales?
Ian: Why are you asking me all these questions? Save the whales? Fuck man, ‘cause a lot of humans come from fish and not apes, you know. There’s large gaps in our prehistoric history where we only look back. Say the earth is 3,000,000 years old—but I don’t believe that—and I think a lot of people come from fish. And I think the ocean is far more vast than we understand, and man is trying to act like they know everything, but whales might be the most intelligent creature on earth. And here we are fucking them up by over-fishing them and doing stupid shit like that. I come from the Pacific Northwest where that’s a big issue, where the Japanese are whaling right there.
BD: Tell me about Tapes Records.
Ian: I started it to put out this band Black Dice that I thought was the best band in New York at the time—just a fuckin’ raging spirit blood animal craziness band. Now they’re super-popular and doing something totally different. That’s super-rad to me, to see my friends doing bands and then doing what you can to be a part of the legacy of a band, just because you like it. That’s really fun for me. That’s something my brother taught me. My brother runs a label called Wantage U.S.A. and that’s why I do a record label. It’s that same old deal where everyone wants to be like their older brother. I’m not good at it or nothing. I mean, there’s sick bands on that label like Bent Outta Shape and xbxrx. So many rad bands, but I’m not good at doing a record label.
BD: What does it take to do a good record label?
Ian: A lot of hard work. You got to stay home all the time, and we’re just traveling all the time like lunatics. You got to be there to send the faxes and I don’t even have a fax machine.
BD: You talked about the Black Dice and how they got bigger and changed. Do you think there’s a point at which things change for bands?
Riley: I don’t want to talk about it.
Ian: Yeah, he hates…
Riley: I hate talking about bands, first of all.
BD: I’m talking about yourselves, primarily. Is there a point at which your playing becomes something different?
Riley: Sure. Every time we play we become something different.
BD: Not play something different.
Riley: Every time we play it is something different.
Ian: It’s wholly the feeling, that’s what he’s trying to talk about.
BD: I’m talking about getting more attention and things like that.
Riley: I don’t want to talk about it.
BD: Nothing to say about it?
Riley: It affects everyone in different ways.
Ian: I like playing all different types of shows and playing for lots of people sometimes is fun ‘cause you can open peoples’ minds. Like, you play a song for someone who’s in a bad spot or someone who’s really young and then they end up hearing you for whatever reason, just ‘cause they were there to go see Mogwai or something, but they hear your song and get psyched by it. Whatever, it’s funny. That’s it. Bands are boring, though. This is an art project. Bands are fuckin’ nerds.
Riley: I hate musicians.
Ian: We’re not musicians. That shit’s for nerd-o’s. We’re doing performance art right here.
Riley: It’s just expression, and I think it’s as natural as drawing and as natural as anything. People put this connotation on it (music) like it’s something that people with talent can do. I hate all those differences where people are all like, “I could never draw. I could never be in a band. I could never sing.” God, get over it. I don’t know that’s such a problem with society… like even the concept of singing…
Ian: It’s glorified to such a problem that we now have Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears. Everyone was so scared that they were just allowed to market and change everyone’s opinion’s about music, that there’s no good music left, no good popular music left. We’re lucky when we get thrown a bone like Jet or something, and you’re like, “Oh, it kind of rocks.” That shit sucks my ass.
Riley: But I can listen to it.
Ian: But compared to if Bent Outta Shape and Toys That Kill were on popular radio, people would be like, “Fuck yeah. I love that song. That’s my favorite song!” It’s inspiring me to do something with my life, or do something crazy, or do something weird, and realize that depression is okay and just express yourself to get through it.
Riley: I think that’s a reflection of a repressive nature, where they don’t really want people to use their imaginations that much. That’s the problem with television and kids growing up; they’re not forced to be creative. Creativity is one of the most important parts of functioning, because it’s your soul’s outlet, kind of. And when you don’t create anything with your life, you really don’t have a good life. Even if it’s on the smallest level—and that’s why people have kids—’cause it’s this very strong sense of creation, and I can identify with that.
Ian: That’s a lot of people’s only creative expression their entire life.
Riley: And that’s sad, but then you see these people like fifty and sixty when they start getting creative at that age, and you’re like, “Well, why did you have to wait until you were fifty?”
Ian: My dad started getting creative right now at about fifty or sixty and he’s going off welding shit. He rode his bicycle across the country at sixty. What’s up, dad? He’s the best dude ever. I think his parents kind of pushed him into what he should do with his life. His sister told him, “You should be a lawyer” and he was smart enough to do it so he was like, “I don’t know what else to do so I’m gonna do what she says.” You show up at the office on Monday morning, you get the forms, and you fill them out. You don’t know what the fuck you’re doing. You just don’t want your mom and your sister to be dissin’ you the whole time you’re at your house. So we took [it] into our own hands. This is what we want to be doing, except for we’re still not even achieving what we want to be doing. We want to be doing shit like making our own sets and shows and making them really special and wild and fuckin’ crazy, like shows you’ve never seen before. Because we have a sense of rock history and we know about all those bands, but, you know, I love records, but I’m not very excited about very many bands.
Riley: I hated singing. I used to intentionally get kicked out of chorus and music class, ‘cause I was like, “I will not fuckin’ sing. Fuck that!” I would not fuckin’ sing.
BD: Why wouldn’t you sing?
Riley: I thought it was lame. I was such a hater. I was a big hater. My whole childhood was spent hating on anything. I was just upset and that was the only way I knew how to react. Being a hater. But also that was because I felt a little bit repressed and I couldn’t express myself. A lot of people express themselves through negativity.
Rawl: A lot of that’s very popular, too.
Riley: Yeah it’s super-popular. There’s a general tone to life, to everything. The tone in the ‘60s was very much influenced by the Beatles or whatever, and you saw how it filtered throughout all of society to where there’s these bright colors, and things that penetrated into every aspect of society that created those kind of movements. The energy that existed then—if you look at the tone now where it’s slowly kind of lost its contrast, almost, where now it’s very minimal beats, and small inklings of tone popping up through, I think that’s probably a good metaphor for where society is at. Where there’s this driving beat, but the actual tone is very repressed. Then there’s a lot of negativity thrown on top of it.
Rawl: Where does your love for letters come from?
Riley: We just grew up kind of training on graffiti and subsequently got into lettering.
Rawl: So were you writing graffiti when you were a negative kid?
Riley: Yeah. I started writing graffiti when I was pretty young. There was skateboard graffiti…
Ian: I was always into cool logos.
Ian: And graffiti is like disguised logos.
Riley: Yeah, personal logos.
Ian: And for our band we really wanted it to have good design ‘cause I love record covers.
Rawl: So you guys do all of your own design?
Ian: Yeah. We came from an art school in New York—that’s where we met—and practiced in the computer lab and could use the photocopiers whenever we wanted. We had a dope logo right when we didn’t really have songs. Our songs were so shitty, so bad, that it was awesome. I was having fun. We used to have access to all this good stuff to work on artwork and silk screen shirts with, and we’d do everything because we were just going to school and pretty much bored of it.
There was no good music in New York at a certain point. Where everyone says this and that about New York, I still thought there were not very many good bands. Like Bent Outta Shape and the Good Good are two bands I really think are doing something interesting, and more long-lasting that what the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are doing.
Riley: It was like they came up and then just faded away. You hear all that initial hype and then you’re like, “Where did they go?”
Ian: I think it’s not really their fault ‘cause that is a good band. The drummer is dope and the guitar player is dope. I like that stuff. But you reach like a second level and then you become… I don’t know. They were big as fuck. But you get to a point where people are like, “I know you now.” Like, “I can define you and you are this. I have you thumbed down, so I’m moving on right now. I’ve got to go find some other shit.”