Back to the night – an interview with First Alert

This is an interview with Kyoto’s First Alert that was first published in the zine “Shaky City.” I came long too late to see First Alert but some of the boys (most of them I think) now play in Liquid Screen, who I have seen. But sometime last year I picked up FA’s record “Thrills and Spills of 48 Hours” and man, it is fantastic. This isn’t really an interview but more like an article based on an interview where you have no idea who’s talking. I didn’t realize that until I was halfway through translating it, wondering, “When does the motherfucker start?” It’s by Target Earth’s Masao Nakagami and you can find the Japanese here.

I’ve said this a million times, but the interpretation of what is punk is really, really broad. The phrase “punk fan” refers to a whole spectrum of different styles and tastes. You’ve got your jock meatheads, you’ve got the power pop nerd-punks, there are arty punks, etc. Just wanted to put that out there…

Some people say techno or hip-hop is the 90s version of punk. Or they say somebody plays in a punk rock spirit, or some other bullshit like that. But come on, punk rock is punk rock and nothing else. We gotta draw the line somewhere.

Pete Shelley doing electropop is NOT punk. Sure, attitude plays a part in what is punk, but it’s a style of music. Otherwise, what is punk? Is Bob Dylan punk? How about the Rolling Stones?

And anybody who says punk is old hat or passé or they’re sick of punk definitely ISN’T punk. I mean, I listen to a lot of music that isn’t punk, but I couldn’t live without listening to punk as well. I got too much love for it.

alert

First Alert’s first album “Thrills and Spills of 48 Hours” is exactly what I consider punk rock to be. I think it’s a masterpiece. It shakes and trembles with the ferocious energy of mischievous teenagers daring each other to try something for the first time, and never lets up from beginning to end. This is the energy that’s essential for great punk rock.

Of course, I’m no teenager and it’s not like a throwback to my youth or something. I have no idea what I would’ve thought of this record if I’d heard it in my teens. It probably would’ve hit me like that first Jam record. What the hell is a band like this doing coming from Kyoto, Japan, at the end of the 90s!? I met the band on February 14 in Shibuya for an informal interview that forms the basis of this article.

The member of First Alert started their first band Blow One’s Cool in their teens probably around 1986 as an opportunity to fuck around and have fun. When drummer Zung joined in 1992, this created the current lineup, together with original members vocalist Shintaro, guitarist Imai and bassist Inoue.

They played the “melodic hardcore” that was popular in the underground punk scene at the time.

“We came from punk rock but we were also really influenced by what was going on in the scene at the time.”

“Plus, we really didn’t know how to play any other kind of style.”

“It’s not so much that we were into it but just that it’s what everybody was doing. That was what we thought a band was. Running the bass through distortion and all of that. We had no idea what we were doing.”

That’s what they say, but they had a lot of respect in the scene and opened for bands from Tokyo and overseas. Time Bomb Records put out a CD called “Evil Nipple Session” of some of the music they made at this time, so check it out if you’re interested. I never saw them at the time so I’ve only heard the CD, but you can already hear their sense of melody coming out. They cover a Times song and you can see them moving in a neo-mod direction.

In 1995, Blue One’s Cool called it a day. They say that things were going well as far as playing shows and stuff, but that new songs just weren’t coming. I also think it was because this was the time when melodic hardcore got really huge and they came across bands like Registrators who were going back to 70s punk.

They didn’t play for a while and then decided to start up again, now calling themselves First Alert and with a 70s punk and 80s mod revival sound.

“In Blow One’s Cool, we took in a lot of influences and mixed up the styles quite a bit. But when it came to writing songs as First Alert, we would trim away all the fat.”

“We didn’t purposely go in a UK or mod direction. It was just what we were really into at the time.”

“We listened to anything that was punk, didn’t matter what country.”

“We just weren’t really that into rock and roll.”

The band appeared on the 1996 Chloroform comp on Mangrove Label. Alongside punk rock ragers by bands from Tokyo like the Registrators, First Alert’s songs offered the intricate vocals of “Dear My Sweet Radio” and the big oi-like singalong chorus of “I Wanna No More Lies.” These two songs stood out with their poppiness and etched the name First Alert in my mind.

In 1997 they put out their first single “T.V. Masturbation,” also on Mangrove. The B-side “This Is A Man” shows the way they have with melodies. This song also appeared in the US on the “Japan Punk Kills You” comp put out by Dave Parasite of the Parasites. The band started doing more shows in Tokyo, but stylistically kept its distance from the Tokyo punk sound.

A turning point came for the band when they met the Drones. The Drones are a Manchester punk band active in the 70s who came to Japan in December 1997 and took First Alert on tour with them. Then, in July 1998, First Alert was invited to play the UK’s Holidays In The Sun punk festival.

“The Drones sound like a simple punk band but underneath that simplicity, there’s so much going on.”

“We took lessons from them on things like how to put guitar lines together.”

“After that, we started writing 70s-style punk songs without even being aware of it.”

“I guess we learned out to write good, simple songs.”

“It was all about songs.”

“It doesn’t matter how good a band is, if you can’t write good songs, it’s meaningless.”

So from this time on, the band really buckled down and focused on its songwriting. They also apparently learned from the Drones that heavy drinking and laughter are important elements of a band. If it’s not fun, why bother? First Alert was a band that left you in stitches every time you talked to them and they could definitely put away the booze.

In 1998, they put out their second single on Laboratory Records and their third on Licence Records at the same time. Each had one song from the album and one unreleased, and the limited runs of 500 each sold out quickly. Their first LP came out on January 30, 1999. A limited run of 1,000 with a bonus track, Tokyo record stores sold out of it within two or three days.

“To be honest, I never really cared that much whether the record sold.”

“We just love music and wanted to make the kind of record we wanted to listen to. But then again, it would suck if nobody bought it.”

“It’s cool with me if the record doesn’t sell, just as long as the people who do buy it enjoy it.”

“It’d suck to get really popular all of the sudden and then everybody forgets about you.”

“We really loved the Damned, so you could say we were trying to follow in their footsteps.”

“The bonus track was a stupid idea. Nobody bought the CD (laughs).”

“That’s a band’s ultimate goal, right? To make a record. So the record was like the culmination of everything we’d done up to that point.”

But there are few albums in the punk rock canon where every single song is great in its own right. They all could’ve been singles.

“Yeah, but we had a huge advantage. The founders of punk rock were making their music in a vacuum starting from zero. We had all kinds of kickass shit to listen to. That’s what’s different about being a band in the 90s.”

“But because it was an album, we put some throw-away songs there.”

“We had Zung write some stuff. Is it shitty of me to call those throwaway songs (laughs)?”

“But we didn’t write any songs TO BE throwaway songs (laughs).”

“There were some reggae songs we didn’t put on the album. First off, none of us know a fucking thing about reggae, so I guess kind of pseudo-reggae. Maybe kind of dub influenced.”

“We weren’t ready for reggae.”

“There were a lot of songs that were shoved back in the closet, probably about as many as we put on the album.”

First Alert was big in Tokyo at the time, which had been experiencing a rare punk boom for several years, but what about in their hometown of Kyoto?

“In Tokyo, there are lots of kids who are into the kind of music we play. In Kyoto there are… our friends.”

“In Kyoto and Osaka what’s popular is this kind of mix between heavy metal and hip-hop.”

“I guess the reaction to us changed a little after we put out the album.”

“We’re figuring we’d better got to work writing songs. If we sit on our asses, everybody will forget about us in a few months.”

Bassist Imai asked me, “Don’t you like the big bands?”

At first, I didn’t know what he was talking about. But what he meant was that big punk bands like the Damned and Buzzcocks are a given. You loved them back in the day but you still listen to them now. But today’s young kids (that’s right, now us anymore) don’t so much. They’re such punk maniacs, hunting through the record stores for rare punk 45s and such, that they totally miss out on the big punk bands.

“The kids today, man, they know all of this obscure shit that I’ve never heard of.”

“It’s like, ‘Do you know Eater?’ and they’re like, ‘Nah, dunno.’ ‘Do you like the Buzzcocks?’ ‘Nah, not really.’ But they’re like, ‘Hey, I just picked up a Starshooter single…'”

“There’s a big difference between the big bands and the rare ones.”

“If you really get into the Jam or the Buzzcocks, you don’t need to go hunting all that obscure stuff. It’s all there.”

“Of course there are lots of great bands besides the ones everybody knows and you gotta seek those out.”

“Yeah, I like Top Rank!”

The guys in First Alert are serious punk fans, so whether you’re talking about bands everybody knows about or obscure rarities, the talk never ends. It seems like they enjoy talking about other records much more than their own. That was the bulk of our conversation. But that’s why they’re so good. Their love of music and obsessive fandom comes through. That’s where the high quality of their songs comes from. First, listen to this album, “Thrills and Spills of 48 Hours.” All of it is stuffed in there. Then, catch them when the place somewhere near you*.

*In case ye forgot, this is an old interview and the band no longer exists, although you can see Liquid Screen which is 3/4 (?) of First Alert.

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