A longtime friend in Japan emailed me a few months ago out of the blue and set off one of the more unexpected turns in my life. The email came on behalf of the U.K. Project, a Japanese music distributor, and was inquiring on behalf of the by-now-legendary band the Ging Nang Boyz. They rose out of the ashes of Weezer-inspired punk band Going Steady seven years earlier and released two debut albums on the same day and grew into one of the most unlikely crossover success stories in Japanese music.
Their recordings were abrasive, spiked with extreme confrontational sexuality and less-than-orthodox marketing techniques (their first music video played the song on a faint boombox during only four of its twelve surreal minutes). Yet, the Ging Nang Boyz managed to draw legions of fans. These were capital “F” Fans, so dedicated they shed actual tears at shows (I witnessed this at least once), lost the ability to speak, and went completely cross-eyed starstuck over the sighting of any of the band’s members.
In a sense, they are the Green Day of Japan: a scrappy punk band that inexplicably rose to national success. The difference is that, in their ascension to the top, Green Day tempered their sound to a wider audience and went that extra step into making a Broadway musical (arguably the most bourgeois medium available in America). Meanwhile, the Ging Nang Boyz are arrested for public nudity, sing about prostitutes, and put out combative records with melodies buried under layers of feedback and screaming. While Green Day’s sound increasingly bears the marks of a band trying to reach more people, the Ging Nang Boyz have remained alien, their sudden and instant success feeling like some cosmic accident.
And then, just as unexpectedly as their meteoric rise, the band went nearly silent. Frontman Mineta Kazunobu has been working on various projects since 2006 (starring in the dramas Iden & Tity and Boys on the Run, among other things). There were also rumors of projects by other band members: drummer Murai was said to have been working on a zombie film. Otherwise, there was a large period of silence. Little new material arose besides three lackluster CD singles. The band played nothing but a handful of festival dates that became increasingly rare. Months of inactivity stretched into years. The band appeared effectively dead.
And then came the email.
“I got a call yesterday,” my friend wrote, “from U.K. Project.”
The email went on to say the band was almost done with their new album and wanted to get in touch with Jesse Michaels to ask for permission to use an Operation Ivy sample in one of the songs. The email also included a short clip of the proposed song’s beginning and end (each clip only about five seconds long). I was excited and very much surprised by the news. Even more so, I was excited by the fact that clips of the song were included. New Ging Nang Boyz material was akin to a spotted owl. As soon as I got home I listened to both clips a couple of times and found them to be far stranger than I had expected.
For anyone who hasn’t heard either of their first two albums, 2006’s Door and Kimi To Boku No Daisanji Sekai Taisen Teki Ren-Ai K you can glean a lot from the album art. The simplistically titled Door features a profoundly messy, Dookie-inspired cover, with nearly all available space taken up by cutout drawings of people, animals, rainbows, and excrement. It is both objectively ugly and something of an achievement: instantly memorable, especially juxtaposed against the remarkably simple, semiotically open title “Door.” Conversely, the exhaustively named Kimi To Boku No Daisanji Sekai Taisen Teki Ren-Ai K (roughly, Our Third Worldwide Great War Romantic Love Revolution, though Google Translate turns it into Love K—Whoops Apocalypse Basis Ream of You and I) is only rivaled by Fiona Apple for title length. It features a simple manga-inspired image of a smiling girl. It is almost comically simple juxtaposed against the seemingly never-ending title.
In a way, these covers almost seem switched, like one image should have been on the other’s cover, matching simplicity with simplicity and bat-shit crazy with bat-shit crazy. But the hopeless intersection of these lines is really the defining feature of their music. Transcendent melodies get buried under truly hideous feedback. An extremely memorable and jubilant chorus, translated, turns out to be “I want to kill your dad.” Throughout both albums, songs by other bands are inserted momentarily at the end of originals, almost as if they were just tried out and then given up on (notably The Jam’s “In the City” and the Pixies’ “Debaser”). The band falls in and out of time, trades barking sections in “Inu Ningen” (Dog People), assaults the listener with some of the most piercing feedback ever recorded in the apparent Bob Marley nod, “No Future, No Cry,” and then has the gall to include numerous ballads and acoustic tracks.
And these records are fucking loud. The loudest thing you’ve ever heard. They’re mastered so that everything is on top of everything else, and everything feeds back. They’re disorienting, filled equally with piss stains and little heart emoticons. And they break every rule imaginable, including the ones that iconoclasts live by. Truth be told, these are two of the punkest records ever recorded. So when I say the recordings of the new song were stranger than I had expected, it takes all of this into account.
When I first listened to the clip, I searched for anything that had a familiar Ging Nang Boyz sound to me. But instead of the hallmark blown-out bass, shrieked vocals, feedback stabs, or overdriven drums, the track begins with a washy dance beat every bit as disorienting as the things I had expected. The one thing that was immediately recognizable was that it sounded like it had been turned up as loud as it could go. The beat went on for a few seconds and then, like a suddenly materialized ghost, the unmistakable sound of Jesse’s voice comes in with the archetypical toast, “Pick it up.” And that was it.
In the context of their music, this sounded pretty much nothing like anything that had come before it. It turned out this was the tip of the iceberg. When everything had eventually been worked out with the rights to the recording and the album went to print, the final product that came out once again resembled hardly anything out there, previous Ging Nang Boyz albums included.
The work of exposing this band to American audiences is largely due to one man: Bob Vielma. Not only did he do the crucial research and discover them in the first place, he also put out their only American release (a four-song 12” EP), and got them to play their first and only shows in American (one at Gilman, one at a practice space in San Jose). Bob and I went to high school together and bonded over music and KQED. Bob was inexplicably tapped into Japanese punk music and was every bit a connoisseur. Through him I found out about Going Steady, School Jackets, the Blue Hearts, Fruity, Sugarhill Downtown Orchestra, Sambomaster, and countless others. Years after Shinobu became a band, Bob decided we should cover a Going Steady song, which then led us down a windy path that eventually led to some kind of friendship with the Ging Nang Boyz.
A few months before the new albums were released, Mike Park received an email from guitarist Chin, and read it out loud to Bob, who works at Asian Man.
“I’ve quit the Ging Nang Boyz,” it said. “Don’t tell Bob.”
More news came out over the next few weeks. Abiko, who had played bass with Mineta since Going Steady, had also left the band. That left Mineta and other Going Steady alum, Murai, on drums. Murai left a few weeks later. In an extremely short period of time the band went from seemingly permanent hiatus, to suddenly very active, to dead on arrival. The splash images on their website, started to reflect their dwindling numbers, going from full shots, to shots of the three remaining members, to shots of just Murai and Mineta. After Murai left, the splash images started to include shots of the drummer by himself, usually smoking, sometimes profoundly bearded. The images alone seemed to reflect a band that had gone through some kind of collective trauma.
Shortly after the final possible lineup change, a new music video was added to their website. The video is for the song “Tokyo,” originally recorded on Our Third Worldwide Great War…
The new version was from one of their (again) two new albums, this time appearing on BEACH, a (no joke) live remix album. The video is extremely intense, including (but not limited to) scenes of a painfully exposed failing relationship, sexual perversion, a long shot of Mineta being repeatedly punched in the face, kidnapping, tasing, beheading, and eerie night vision shots of small Tokyo streets, seen through the eyes of a gangster’s mobile torture wagon. The whole thing plays out like the part in Boogie Nights when everyone’s life is simultaneously falling apart. The song starts around the 27:00 minute mark of the 43:00 minute music video.
A few days after I watched this video, my dad called to tell me that a package had arrived from Japan at my parent’s house. This was now close to a year after I acted as the go-between for the band and Jesse, helping to clear the rights to the miniscule Operation Ivy sample. In the time between, I had almost forgotten that they had offered to send free copies of the new records in exchange for the help. Coupled with the band’s lengthy inactivity and then sudden implosion, I was pretty sure these albums would never actually exist at all, let alone be sent to me. But, then, there they were.
Again, they came in a pair. And again they seemed to reflect the many contradictions of this band. The “proper” new album feels almost like a solo record, with the vocals ratcheted way up above the music, almost as though it were mixed for karaoke. The previous GNB albums included many reworked songs from Going Steady, and now this album included even more reimaginings of previous songs, both from Going Steady and from Ging Nang Boyz, as well as the song “Boys on the Run,” which Mineta wrote for the film of the same name. With so many new versions of previous songs, and such an unrecognizable result, it feels like the product of a man trying to exorcise himself of the past, or trying to shift its meaning into something that fits a changing world.
Perhaps the best example is the new version of “I Don’t Wanna Die,” this time titled, “I Don’t Wanna Die Forever.” The original version (which was later covered by Jeff Rosenstock on his I Look Like Shit EP) was one of the more pure pop songs in the GNB canon, a dancey punk song that name-checks both Weezer and Green Day, and mixes their anxious energy with a fantastic vocal melody. But this version feels like it has taken the concept of pop to an almost perverse extreme. Two samples define the new recording. One is a massively fuzzed-out guitar sounding almost like a chainsaw. The other is an almost comically pop-star-esque women crooning “yeeeeesssss.” The entire song feels like it has been run through Dance Dance Revolution. That sample of the guitar is particularly notable because it is the only guitar on the recording. All of the other musical parts have been replaced by electronics, forming a hyper-Japanized version of electronic dance music, incessantly bouncy despite its obsession with death and finitude. In the context of the Ging Nang Boyz’s material, it is baffling, almost assaulting, and it ends with a glitchy double-time part that spins the whole thing out of control.
While the rest of the album is less immediately striking, it maintains the feeling of a man tackling his back catalog alone, ranting over it, tearing it apart bit by bit. Mineta’s singing has become more dramatic, showing a clear nod to the style of traditional Japanese ballads. Conversely, BEACH, their live remix album, feels like a testament to the raw power this band had when playing together. Every piece is close to breaking all the time, both because of the performances, as well as because of the alarming moments when the “remixing” shows up (if you’ve ever heard a Dancehall mix on Youtube, it’s something like that).
Most people who I’ve spoken to about BEACH consider it to be unlistenable. This is certainly not a controversial position to take. The album features all of the abrasion of their earlier albums and condenses it down to an assaulting sixty-eight minutes of pure restless energy, spit, and screams. But the recording also forms an amazing mix of band/audience/studio in a way that truly feels original. The screams of the crowd blend in with the wash of the cymbals, the off-mic shrieks of Chin and Abiko, and the digitally layered explosions and white noise that seem to have no analog equivalent. The record does exactly what most punk bands have always wanted their albums to do: act as a document to their energy and transformative power over an audience. It is, frankly, amazing. Totally unique and a guaranteed anomaly in any band’s catalog.
It, of course, comes at a time when the band functionally no longer exists that we get a document like this. Death is freeing, and in their living state of death the Ging Nang Boyz released their most live (literally and figuratively) album yet. It’s one that unites every conflicting aspect of the band and presents them in a radically new way. While I am a pacifist and wish death on no one, the aesthete in me can see a functional use for death if it results in art like this.
So what is next for this bizarre band? Where do you go after you’ve broken so much new ground with so little activity? This may be it, given the dramatic unfolding of the band. And if it is, I can’t think of a more triumphant way to go out. But if they do somehow manage to crawl back to their feet, who knows what the next thing will look like. At this stage one thing is clear: whatever the Ging Nang Boyz do next will not be what we expect—even if it is cobbled together out of echoes from the past.