thou shalt not waver – smallspeaker’s Otsuki talks rock and roll

I’m going to write the intro to this one in the style of Otsuki’s blog posts:

You can buy “No.5” here.

Unfortunately, kickass bands get ignored by the press in this cultureless era in which we find ourselves, so here’s an interview from 2010 around the time of their second album. Original here.

By the way, “No.5” roars.

smallspeaker

smallspeaker

 

Text by Kiyofumi Tsuneto

I’m all for facing reality head-on, but I’m sick as hell of hearing how nobody goes to shows, nobody buys music, rock is on the way out, blah blah blah. Moping around and crying in your beer doesn’t change the shitty situation lovers of true rock and roll face today.

Amid this steaming shit heap, there’s one guy out there like a lone rider cruising on his bike through some smoldering apocalypse scene, proving that all the “rock is dead” decriers are wrong. His name is Hiroshi Otsuki and he’s the fearless leader of Smallspeaker.

When Brightliner split up, Otsuki rechristened himself Smallspeaker and recorded the band’s first album all by himself. As soon as it was done, he started work on the second album, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Rider.” Like a rock and roll Mad Max, he was giving the debris of today’s rock and roll the asskicking it so desperately needed.

A title like that could sound cliché, like the title of some lame waste of vinyl by a dinosaur hard rock band, but as soon as the record starts to spin and your needle settles into its grooves, you get it. He’s taken out that old worn and tarnished phrase “rock and roll” that’s been dragged endlessly through the muck and given it a whole new coat of paint.

The record has everything from tunes that harken to his days with Brightliner to Ramonesy rave-ups. Each tune hurtles past you and stops on a dime. Every song delivers from start to finish.

I got Otsuki to talk about the new album, as well as dish some dirt on the breakup of Brightliner and his plans from here on out.

—Before we talk about the second album, I want to go back to the first.

Otsuki: Okay.

—I guess I shouldn’t really say “go back” since it was released just last April (laughs).

Otsuki: Yeah, right. For the first album, it wasn’t so thought out. I just kind of bashed it out, as a sort of test run. I tried to stuff my whole musical world into a handful of songs. It was pretty cathartic.

—Originally, wasn’t there a plan to put out a Brightliner album? It seems like you took those songs and arranged them the way you really wanted them to be, like, “Here’s how they ought to be played.”

Otsuki: No, it wasn’t like that at all. I mean, yeah, Brightliner’s arrangements and my parts were all set so I couldn’t play them the way I wanted. Then, for my own record, I did them how I liked. But I wasn’t trying to prove anything to anybody. That’s a big difference.

—Oh, I see. I thought it was kind of a “fuck you” to Brightliner.

Otsuki: It was more like, “If I’m gonna do it myself, here’s how I’ll do it.” I took out one song and recorded the rest.

—I know that some people were kind of critical of how it sounds.

Otsuki: Well, it doesn’t hit you in the gut physically, but more in the brain. You have to really listen, I guess. So people who are ready to not like it before they even listen to it aren’t gonna get it. They already decided. Anyway, fuck it, I’m past the point of caring about pleasing people.

—Well, I definitely get it.

Otsuki: There are some people who are like, “Why did you do it that way?” and I say, fine then, put out your own record. It’s different when you’re with a band. That was actually a solo album. Well, Onuma helped with some of the decision making, but it was basically just me.

—You said that the first was more mental than physical, but the second is much more physical, I think.

Otsuki: Yeah, I think so. I wanted a beat that was more viseral, one you could really get into. I thought about it and came up with a straight four on the floor. That’s a really physical beat. It’s like a disco beat but with a different tempo.

—Right

Otsuki: I thought it’d be good to put a little four on the floor with an eight or sixteen beat pattern on the hi-hat.

—It worked. You can really get into those rhythms.

Otsuki: So on first listen, it might sound like punk rock but it’s actually based on dance music.

—Right! I guess you could call it dance music disguised as punk. The way the songs come one right after the other with short spaces in between also gives it this sense.

Otsuki: When I was making the first, I pretty much had the second’s concept, song order, recording method, and rhythms already decided. I’d written all of that in a notebook. Everything starting with the number of tracks. At the end, I wrote “THOU SHALT NOT WAVER!” (laughs)

—(laughs)

Otsuki: Of course, from then on there was some wavering and waffling involved, but basically that was all extra added to the original blueprint.

—As far as sound goes, what kind of blueprint was that?

Otsuki: First off, cut back on tracks, and then of course, the limiter sound I love so much. I really wanted to use a compressor to get that limiter sound. I think it turned out pretty well, or at least it played a part in the album sounding so good. Beyond that, I scaled back some of the bells and whistles of the first album, like the noise guitar and intricate stuff. Actually, I really love all of that stuff, but I scaled it back for this one. When you record an album by yourself, it’s hard to keep that in check.

—The guitar solos and stuff are really awesome.

Otsuki: The guitar solos were just tossed off, along with the effects. I also think the bass playing improved a lot from the first to the second (laughs).

Rock’N’Roll Rider

—With the new one, there seems to be a clear concept for the whole thing.

Otsuki: Yeah, that was planned.

—There’s a definite motorcycle and rock and roll theme going through the songs but it’s not the typical mods and rockers or Harley and leather jacket thing.

I like your sense when it comes to that, like the motorcycle and rock thing isn’t just a pose. Leather and motorcycles can be used in a really cool way that’s cutting edge and not cliché, like Jesus and Mary Chain does, or Primal Scream using “Vanishing Point” as a motif.

Otsuki: A long time ago I used to have a Vespa but I’d ride it around wearing like Seditionaries (*Japanese punk rock influenced clothing brand). Now I ride an old Japanese-made 2-stroke bike and sometimes I wear a leather jacket. I’m really into stuff like Lewis Leathers and Bell Staff. But I wouldn’t ride something English wearing Lewis. That’d just be wrong.

—You’re probably gonna get mad at me for saying this but I think there are a lot of people who’d say it doesn’t matter what you wear outside, it’s what’s inside that counts. They might find it hard to swallow an album called “Rock N’ Roll Rider.”

Otsuki: Yeah, maybe (laughs). But I actually ride my bike every day. You could say that “Rock ‘N Roll Rider” is a worn-out cliché, but people who really know me would say the name suits. It’s not a put-on or some fantasy or something.

—Is the rock and motorcycle connection a thing for you?

Otsuki: It was a thing for this album but next time it’ll probably be something else. It’s just what I feel like right now I guess. Way back when I was a kid, “Kamen Rider”
was at its peak. I liked Riderman and I only realized later that my bike is the same one that Riderman rode. It must’ve been really imprinted on my subconscious or something. (*”Kamen Rider” or “Masked Rider,” a TV series and manga about motorcycle riding superheroes that aired in early 70s. Riderman is one of the characters)

—It seems somehow fitting that you’d like Riderman. What originally got you into bikes?

Otsuki: I don’t know. Since my teens I was always more attracted to bikes than cars. I have a driver’s license, but I like that special inconvenience a bike offers.

—What do you mean by a “special inconvenience?”

Otsuki: There’s no starter so if you don’t kick start it, the engine won’t start, so sometimes you have to kick the shit out of it for a while and it finally turns over. There’s a kind of ritual and if you don’t perform that ritual, your machine goes nowhere. That’s one of those special inconveniences that make life more interesting.

—Do you feel the same way about the machines you record on too?

Otsuka: No, your recording gear needs to run good or you’re fucked.

But then again, yeah, I’d love to record with tape again or something like that. But for me, garage rock or Mercy beat bands that get all this vintage gear together and record on tape, that’s a bit too much. I want to use what’s available now and make a present-day recording. But I do like stuff that produces a little bit of an older sound. I don’t know if the real vintage freaks would call what I call “old” vintage or not, though.

—I think when it comes to your guitar, just like your sunglasses or boots, you have a certain type you like and nothing else will do.

Otsuki: Yeah, I guess I really care about clothes. I like Reats Tailor Zazou from a little while ago, and Under Cover from a long time ago and Marc Jacobs. I really want more stuff like that. I’d like to care more about clothes, but that gets expensive.

—I don’t mean for this to sound weird, but you seem to be on your guard.

Otsuki: What? No, I’m a totally open person.

—See? Right there, when you said that, you seemed on your guard. It’s like now you’re trying to act like you’re more open. (laughs)

Otsuki: Hahaha, whatever.

—There is a lot of openness in Smallspeaker’s music, but I feel like you’re not very open personally. You said you scrawled “thou shalt not waver” in your notebook, but if you’re buying new gear, buying new clothes, or listening to new music, it seems like it’s easy to stray from the course, especially when you’re doing it by yourself. But on this record, the rhythms, the shorter songs, and the overall sound are really cohesive.

Otsuki: They are pretty short, yeah. They’ve got guitar solos and stuff but somehow I kept them short. That’s how it is with punk rock, four minutes is a long song. A long time ago, I did songs that were like over 10 minutes, but who’s wants to listen to that, right? That’s ego. That’s just somebody who wants to play, it’s not for the audience. I guess that means I’ve gotten past that ego stuff. Definitely the sweet spot for good rock or punk is three or four minutes, then you’re done. Same with pop.

—I agree. How do you feel about the word “rock and roll?”

Otsuki: Aw, I fuckin’ hate it.

—You hate it?

Otsuki: Yeah, but even so I use it a lot. But what I mean by rock and roll is probably different than what other people mean when they say it. I’m interpreting it my own way. Like, I want people to hear it THIS way. Having said that, I don’t think people who use words like rock and roll and punk these days know what the fuck they’re talking about. I feel like that’s lots of people. I don’t mean to say I’m challenging them or anything. It’s just like, this is what I think rock and roll is.

—The phrase “rock and roll” appears in the title of the first album as well, so you could kind of call it a trilogy.

Otsuki: Three records using that phrase, the fourth doesn’t need it. (laughs)

—Personally, I think something has to be pretty trimmed down and refined to be rock and roll.

Otsuki: Yeah, and it’s definitely the same with punk.

—Right. But there is all kinds of stuff that’s not like that, so I’m happy that people are listening to rock and roll that’s really refined. Your record is like that.

Otsuki: Yeah? I feel like it’s pretty rough.

—I guess so, but it’s not like you’re trying to sound rough. It’s different than what most people probably consider rock and roll. The way you use the phrase “rock and roll” is like how bands like Jesus and Mary Chain or Oasis use it.

Otsuki: That’s right. Jesus and Mary Chain had a lot of stuff like “I Hate Rock’n’Roll” and “I Love Rock’n’Roll.” Oasis had “Rock ‘N’ Roll Star.” I really like that song. It’s like, don’t be an idiot thinking you’re the top of the Tokyo rock scene. That’s something Liam forgot I guess, or so his brother said. I think like that too. I’m pretty sure they wrote that song before they became rock stars. I can really understand that feeling of having a big ego or putting on a big show.

—How do you feel about punk?

Otsuki: My old band Registrators was punk. That was when I was in my twenties. I’m completely different now than I was then. Now I’m almost forty and I guess when I think of “punk,” I think it sounds like this. Calling it “Rock ‘N’ Roll Rider,” I guess I feel like this is the kind of punk rock I’m feeling nowadays.

—Right.

Otsuki: I haven’t forgotten my punk roots. I don’t know if I should say “forgotten,” I mean I think what I’m doing now is still punk. That’s what I mean by not wavering. Punk goes totally against that rock and roll star bullshit we’re talking about. I love punk music and I love punk fashion. Not just Seditionaries, but I like the style of other punk bands as well. Of course, I don’t like everything “punk.” I mean, most people are lame.

—Hahahaha.

Otsuki: Somebody’s gonna get mad at me for saying that. Okay, you can look at my words and my music and my fashion and laugh at me, go ahead. But at least I’m not lame as fuck like you. I’m not meaning to say that I’m the shit or anything.

—I don’t want to get too personal, but seeing a lot of bands these days, I’ve come to the realization that I really don’t like power pop that much after all.

Otsuki: Oh yeah, I’m totally the same. I like pop. But what is this stuff they’re calling power pop now? I mean, is it American power pop? I don’t really listen to that stuff. I think punk is power pop. Everybody calls UK bands like First Steps and Starjets power pop, but for me that’s punk. The more laid back American stuff doesn’t grab ahold of me at all.

—But I think by this point, you know what it is you want to do.

Otsuki: Yeah, but even so, if has to be “right now.” Not yesterday or ten years ago, but now. What I feel like about most bands is that they’re somehow behind. It starts to feel like you’re watching a sketch by Dorifu (*Dorifu Daibakusho was a comedy variety show from the 80s, maybe he means predictable like 80’s SNL). They go to the B melody and throw in a minor chord… Intro, A melody, pre-chorus and then it’s time for the big chorus. Jeez, enough already.

—Back to wavering or not wavering, I feel like there’s no way Smallspeaker could possibly waver. How would you?

Otsuki: I have no idea. There’s pretty much zero possibility of a Registrators reunion, but I’m thinking of having Smallspeaker play some old Registrators tunes and Brightliner stuff, along with anything we write in the future. We don’t have to but that’s just what I’m thinking about now. It’s like no matter what New Order does, they’re still doing New Order. That’s how I want Smallspeaker to be.

—Yeah, that’s pretty much not wavering.

Otsuki: And… what else? The only other thing I guess is I’m thinking of singing in Japanese.

—That seems fitting for Smallspeaker. But if you’re doing it for the audience’s response, that’s kind of wavering.

Otsuki: Yeah, right. I guess it’s just sometimes I feel like I want to sing in Japanese. But I’ve never written songs in Japanese so I don’t feel like I’d know how to do it.

—You’ve never thought about singing in Japanese before?

Otsuki: Nope. It’s too boring. First off, there’s the image thing. English just sounds much cooler to me. Then, if you sing in Japanese, there’s nothing for you to imagine when you’re listening. I don’t like explaining things too much, making them too clear. You know, nowadays there’s too much information everywhere. I don’t want to give everything away. (laughs)

Before Punk, After Punk

—We talked about making the first album, but I didn’t ask you how you went from the breakup of Brightliner to the formation of Smallspeaker. Can you tell me about that?

Otsuki: This is just my side of the story but I think naturally conflicts started to arise with the other members. Toward the end there I think they didn’t really respect me as a songwriter. I thought that from the beginning actually but I really wanted to play in a band so bad, I guess I didn’t let it bother me. They were also taking my songs and arranging them differently from what I had in mind. Of course that happens in a band so I feel like, whatever, it’s a natural thing.

—Right.

Otsuki: Things were stagnant, you couldn’t deny it. But then we were going to make an album? I was like, what the fuck? It could’ve been my fault, I dunno, but there were definite differences in the direction we wanted to go. They know I didn’t like their ideas and that things couldn’t really go any further. They were complaining to me about things and I said fuck it, I quit.

—You could’ve started a new band but you didn’t do that. Why did you decide to just do it yourself?

Otsuki: Because it was tough… In the end, doing it myself was all that made sense. I also wanted to go solo, but I felt like it was hasty. You do that when you’re older.

—People tend to think that playing music equals playing in a band, and playing in a band equals playing shows.

Otsuki: Yeah, I probably wanted to go against that idea as well. That was maybe the seed that started the idea.

—I can kind of feel that.

Otsuki: That was there for the first one, but with this one I don’t have an axe to grind. It’s more systematic and controlled. The first album exorcised me of that. For the second, I was free to just write it.

—But that’s not to say it’s dull or any less wild. There’s an edge to it. I picture this apocalyptic scene where civilization has crumbled and there’s just one guy cruising along on a motorcycle or something. I also like the cover.

Otsuki: The cover’s nice, huh? I’ve worked with the designer, Konno-kun, for a long time. I really trust him. If I give him some vague idea of what I want, he can totally nail it. I played some of the record for him and he went and made the cover straight away. I’m really happy with it.

—-That’s a good partner to have.

Otsuki: Yeah. Well, we both like Koji Kikkawa (laughs). (*Koji Kikkawa is a Japanese musician, here’s his English Wikipedia page). Actually, somebody just ordered the record and wrote in the comments form, “I love Kikkawa and I can’t wait to hear Smallspeaker.” I hope he isn’t disappointed.

—Hahahaha, maybe they’re looking for something like Koji Kikkawa. But I guess if they’re the same age as you, they probably know better than that.

Otsuki: I was an 80s kid. When the 90s hit, I went in a complete punk direction, but I think what I listened to before that change is really important. What made me what I am today is kind of before punk and after punk. It’s like going back to junior high school. Playing with the band I have today, it feels like that.

—It’s like you’re free.

Otsuki: Yeah.

—The other day when I snuck into your practice to watch, it definitely seemed like a lot of fun. It was really cool.

Otsuki: It’s two guys helping me.

—The bass player is Abe from Back To Basics (*Now Masanori Nakajima) and the drummer is Matsuo from Keen Monkey Work, right? I thought Smallspeaker would be the type of band that had different members for each show, but I realized that no matter what year, you guys always have the same lineup.

Otsuki: Of course, when Keen Monkey Work or Back To Basics are busy, they’re committed to that. But I definitely think I picked the right guys.

—They’re both really good players.

Otsuki: They’re great. They basically prop me up.

—Will the third album also be recorded as a band?

Otsuki: The songs have already been chosen. From this week’s practice, we’ll be working on new songs little by little. Recording it as a band means it’ll take more time than if I did it solo, but I’m hoping to release it around March or April.

—You don’t waste time (laughs). You don’t run out of ideas. It seems like you keep forging ahead.

Otsuki: Sales of the second album haven’t been good and I can’t help that that bothers me. But I feel like there’s nothing you can do but soldier on. I just want to keep making records and whenever one’s finished, let it plop out. Keep going until there’s nothing left.

—That’s great.

Otsuki: I’m thinking maybe I’ll just keep going, even after there’s nothing left (laughs). I’m pretty much at that point. I’m the type that’s pretty consistent with what I do, but then again sometimes capable of some pretty radical change. So maybe for the third album, I’ll put some synthesizers in there. Let’s lift the ban.

—Are there already plans for the fourth?

Otsuki: There is but first I’m thinking of doing a “self-cover album” where I take songs from my old bands and the first two Smallspeaker albums and do them with the band.

—Wow, I wanna hear that! You’ve got a lot of plans. Did working in the studio on this album make you want to do that?

Otsuki: Yeah, it did. It sounds like a fun project.

—I’m looking forward to that and your live shows. Okay, please leave a message for our readers.

Otsuki: The first didn’t make much impact and the second isn’t selling, but I don’t give a fuck. The music I’m making now is me. From Registrators on, it was always something different. So… I guess… I dunno… Give it a lissen.

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