When I am today – the story of Back To Basics

Here’s an interview with Shintaro (ex-First Alert) about his current band Back To Basics. Oops, did I say “current”? Well, okay, 2009. The interview was done by Target Earth’s Masao Nakagami, who graciously provided it to yours truly…

Back To Basics

-When First Alert split up, were you thinking about going solo or starting a new band or anything?

Shintaro: I definitely wanted to do something as a band. Originally, I planned to play solo with a back-up band and call it “Back To Basics.” But I found it a lot harder than I thought to put together a band so I just played solo.

-First Alert broke up in 2002, right? That would mean it took you about five years to put together the new band.

S: Yeah, that sounds about right.

-Were you playing solo during that time?

S: Yeah, some. But the whole time I was looking for band members. Actually, it started when I was still playing in First Alert. I didn’t have a name yet but I was doing some solo stuff and I’d go into the studio sometimes with people like the drummer of Psychotic Reaction, bassist Shinya from Radiates, or keyboardist Yumi, also from Psychotic Reaction. We still play some of the songs from that time.

That’s the real beginning of BTB. I decided to do it for real and that we should start with a demo. Sneeze broke up and I asked Takashi if he’d play with us and he said yeah. We were looking for a guitarist and right then Refugees were taking a break, so we got Kosuke on guitar and the drummer. We didn’t play any shows with that lineup but after we got Kento on drums (he plays in Joy Stax now), we played our first show at Rockbottom’s record release party (Aug.17, 2003 at Shinjuku Jam). I wanted another guitarist and got the guitarist of Joy Stax and then it occurred to me that if they’re just my backup band, I have to do everything myself. So, why not just call it a band with those members plus Takashi or something like that. Masa said, “Let’s call it the Astral Travelers” (laughs).

So we were going into the studio like that but everybody was doing double duty with their other bands. It was only me and Takashi who were doing it as our main band, but things were kinda rough between us, so I was thinking, let’s go back to the fucking drawing board and I’ll start forming the band from scratch again.

-For a bit, you were thinking about lugging your amp around Billy Bragg-style and playing solo, weren’t you?

S: Yeah, but I really just wanted a band.

-How did the current lineup come together?

S: Well, first of all, I met bassist Naoko on Mixi. She sent me an email totally out of the blue saying she happened to play bass. She was playing in a band and I went to see them once and really liked her bass playing and look. There weren’t really any bands that had one female member at that time. So I asked her if she wanted to play with me.

Right when I was thinking about who would play guitar, Refugees broke up and I reached out to Kosuke and he said he’d do it. Then, Naoko introduced me to Takuto and there you have the band.

-Everybody in the band is younger than you. Was that something you sort of planned?

S: I dunno. I mean, it’s cool if everybody’s younger because that means you’ll have younger fans, right? But no, I totally didn’t think about it at the time (laughs). I didn’t really care so much about where they came from. It was more like I thought they’d grow and mature in the band. Like, afterwards, they’d go on to do something new and different.

-It didn’t bother you that every member had their own background?

S: No. I thought if everybody has a different background, they’ll all contribute something different to the band. Anyway, I’m the one who’s writing the songs, so there’s consistency there.

-A lot of bands now are really stuck in their own genre, so I think that’s a refreshing thing about BTB.

S: Yeah, I’m trying to get away from that. I think it’s a lot more interesting to be casual about genre than to be really fanatical about this one thing you’re doing. Just like the name “Back To Basics.” It’s like I’m just coming back to myself and everything I’m into. Back to the good times. But it seems like younger bands today are… I dunno… there aren’t a whole lot of good ones around.

-You mean it’s cool if everybody’s ideas clash a bit.

S: Yeah, because if you some disagreement, that’s where the really good stuff comes from. But also I have to take care of them a bit. Our ages are different so sometimes I have to be careful what I say. I don’t want to make them feel bad. And sometimes they won’t say something maybe because of the age difference. But we’ve been together now about a year so we’re getting it figured out.

-Do they also kind of see you as “Shintaro from First Alert?” Especially Kosuke?

S: Yeah, there is, but I’m using it to my advantage. Kosuke does his own thing and anyway, I definitely don’t want him to play like Imai* (*ex-guitarist of First Alert).

I mean this in the best way possible, but Kosuke is definitely an odd one. I really don’t want him to play like Imai.

-I’ve listened to everything you’ve done since Blow One’s Cool** and I like how for each thing you put out, you could feel the spirit of that time. We won’t know until later, but I wonder if what you’re doing now will sound that way in the future too. (**First Alert’s pre-First Alert band)

S: I think these days bands are too caught up in their cliques and little scenes. It’s like, if we play shows together, we’re buddies now, we’re in our little in-group. I think that needs to go. It’s much better for bands to just do their own thing and not get all cliquey about it.

-I think bands form into little groups naturally but it also happens where they try to force it. Are you saying you’re turned off by that?

S: Yeah, maybe because there aren’t any young people going to shows. I want more young people to go to shows, but unfortunately there aren’t any really good bands to go and see.

-You want cooler young people coming to your shows (laughs)?

S: Yeah. I mean, there aren’t any good young bands, so that’s why no young people go see shows. I guess that makes our bass player especially precious for us.

-I’m sure you feel things have changed a lot since you came to Tokyo 5 or 6 years ago. Do you feel like things have changed since you started BTB last year?

S: This is totally just my own observation but I feel like only us old farts are really trying. Not that the other bands around are particularly young or anything. I just mean that bands in their forties are the ones really kicking ass. It’s something about the energy and the spirit. Maybe their style or their approach to music. Definitely it’s also because they have a sense of humor about what they do. They’re fun to watch. That’s a huge difference.

-Yeah, but if we start saying things like that, everybody goes, “Oh, give it a break with that talk of the old days already!”

S: No, this isn’t just me waxing nostalgic about the good old days. I’m talking about how it is right now. It’s the same with records. Nowadays, everything is 16-beat. That’s great for one song but, like, does every song have to be 16-beat? It wears you out listening to it. It’s like nobody’s really trying anything different. I mean, we all like older music but there’s not enough of people trying something new, and this includes me.

-A while ago I was looking at old “Doll”*** articles and what struck me was that a lot of the labels that started in the 90s are still going. The reason why I think is that everybody started their labels in their 20s and it was that daring to do something new that urged them on. I feel like now it’s sort of the order of the day that people try to just fit in. Of course, not everybody but…(***”Doll” is a Japanese punk rock magazine”)

S: I think so. Even if your fans aren’t ready, you have to move on to something new, right? I think bands today put on shows for an in-group. It’s like, if they get this band, these people will come, etc. Of course, they do that to get a bigger audience or whatever, I get that.

 -Nowadays, there aren’t many people putting on shows and many of those that are are in bands. It’s not so much the show itself, but it’s all about putting together bands that will draw. Of course, I feel like that’s important too. But what happens is that you have a long running event that’s different each time. There’s no continuity to the event. It never becomes its own event, the kind of even where you know it’s always going to be good.

S: But it’s not all like that. Somebody who always comes to Chloroform events will start a band and naturally they wanna do stuff like that. Then, those people are going to invite us because we play music that’s in a similar vein. I think that’s cool and I want to support that. We’re putting on a show with Baby Blue and after that, I want to bring back Feel The Vibe, a series we did in Kyoto. So, I want to take the same people we’ve been doing shows with for years but do something new with them that we’re all into.

-How did you end up getting something put out by Fine Tuning?

S: At first, it was going to be put out by Mangrove, but I happened to meet Okubo from Fine Tuning at a show. Mangrove was talking to us about doing a record for, I dunno, four years or so, and I was wondering when it was going to happen. So, I said something to Okubo like, “If you want to put out our 7-inch, that’d be cool with us.” He instantly said, “Done!” I thought, if somebody has a label and they’re gonna say “done” just like that, why not? The label is I guess what you’d call indie rock. They put out stuff like SST or something like that, the kind of stuff that came after Less Than TV (*Japanese label), so I thought we’d be something a little different. I thought that’d be fun. I wanted to take a slightly different approach. I didn’t know if it’d sell or not though.

-Was it your decision to make it a 7-inch?

S: Yeah, definitely. If you’re going to through the trouble to put together a band, you should at least put out some vinyl. We put out a 4-song EP but next time I’d like to put out a 2-song EP.

-Are there any other offers?

S: Nah. It’s a sign of the times (bitter laugh). Originally, we were thinking of putting it out ourselves but then we got the offer, and we thought we were lucky. I’d seen Okubo around but it was the first time I met him, so it was good timing.

-Nowadays there are lots of labels but not many of them put out 7-inches. I do, because I like the format so much.

S: Surely there are some labels that care about format. Fine Tuning is that kind of label, I think. They really do what the band wants. That’s more important than whether or not they’ll sell a bunch of records or not. Although, Fine Tuning can do that as well.

-What was the idea behind the live recording?

S: Originally we were going to just record it in the studio as usual but I like hardcore and hardcore bands record in clubs, so I thought wouldn’t it be cool to do that with Back To Basics? I wanted to try it. Basically, the way you record is the same but things like how you manage the drums are totally different, so it was really cool. But listening to the finished product, it’s not so different (laughs) so I guess it was just something I wanted to try.

-Do you have any idea of what you want to do from now on?

S: Yeah, I want to put out an album. This year our schedule’s full of live shows but next year I’d like to slow down the pace a little, play like once every two or three months. During that time I want to be writing songs.

-Are you thinking of touring or anything like that?

S: If somebody asks us to play. I don’t know if anybody will. I just want to do things at our own pace. I don’t want to push it. I just want to keep on keeping on, I don’t really care if there are crowds of people coming to see us or not. I wanna do what we can do right now. And when the 7-inch comes out, I’d like to head overseas. Yeah, I have a lot I wanna do, but I want to enjoy every part along the way.


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