a li’l sweet rock’n roll with Beat Caravan

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Beat Caravan crafts pop masterpieces that are like tasty stews made with ingredients culled from the vinyl of record-collector maniacs. Liberally used ingreeds include NRBQ, Alex Chilton, Beach Boys, and old R&B and roots rock,  all seasoned with a nice splash of punk rock sloppery. Their second full-length, “Odd Harmony” was just released by Spain’s Sunny Day Records and P-Vine put out the Japanese CD release. It’s currently at the top of the list of things I rave about. This is an interview by Target Earth’s Masao Nakagami that appeared on music review site Mikiki Jan. 8.

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――First, what’s the story on Sunny Day Records putting it out in Spain on LP first?

BobGuitar/vocalI think we started talking about doing this around 2011.

MattDrums, backing vocals, pianoWe put out the previous album, “On Parade,” in 2010.

Mihobass/vocalsThe folks from Sunny Day heard the songs we had on Bandcamp from “On Parade.” They approached us with the offer to put out a release in Europe.

Matt They’d only put out records by bands in Spain so this was their first release by a band outside of the country.

――Did you know about Sunny Day before that?

Matt Never heard of ’em.

Bob When I mentioned Sunny Day to Shibasaki-kun from P-Vine, he said something about Los Impossibles and some release or other that was produced by Peter Holsapple from the dB’s and we got real excited… but then it turned out to be another “Los” band, Los Valednas.

ShoogeGuitar/vocalWe were super happy. We were like, “Yeah, we’ll do it!”

Matt We’d just put out our record in 2010 and we had no idea what we were gonna do next. So, when the offer came through we were like, time to write some songs.

Bob They offered us a record but at first we were like, “How about a single?”

Shooge They said anything was okay. We told them to wait and we’d give them an LP.

――The record was supposed to come out in 2015, right? What took so long?

Matt First of all, it took us quite a bit of time to get songs together and start recording. It was really nice of them to wait. And it probably took more time than it should’ve just emailing back and forth. We and the label are both pretty slow-paced about things.

――What do you think it was that Sunny Day liked about Beat Caravan originally?

Miho We recorded a demo before we started the actual recording and sent that, and the two label owners emailed us back saying they really liked it.

Shooge I dunno, most of the stuff they put out is organ-heavy garage rock. There’s a ton of that in Japan, but for some reason they wanted to put us out. That was really cool of them.

――How did the Japan version of “Odd Harmony” come about?

ShibasakiP-VineI heard that they were putting something out on an overseas label and heard the songs on Bandcamp and I thought they were great. Nobody was putting it out domestically, so I asked them if they’d like to put it out on P-Vine.

――Did you know each other before?

Shibasaki I went to college with Bob. The other members are older than me but they all went to my university too and were involved in music there.

――Did you guys know engineer Kousuke Nakamura (AKA Kangaroo Paw) from way back too?

Miho Yeah, he was my classmate in my first year of college.

Matt He worked with us on “On Parade” and we asked him to do this one too. He did a great job with “On Parade” so we didn’t even think about asking anybody else.

――Did you start working on songs after the offer from Sunny Day? Or did you have some of the songs started already?

Matt We had some song overstock.

Bob I dunno, I don’t think we really had much of anything, did we?

Matt Yeah, actually we went into a blink panic and started writing. That’s what became the summer 2013 demo. This is the first time Beat Caravan has ever produced songs to  order. Before, we always had some songs lying around and if we got an opportunity for a record or something, we could pick and choose. This time the album came first, and then we were like, it would be cool if it had this or that kind of song.

――Having said that, would you say the album is conceptual?

Matt Ah…no. Completely not.

Miho But there’s a story to the album. We chose the name before the songs were written.

――What’s the story behind the title?

Matt Our previous album was called “On Parade,” so we wanted something that kind of went with that first title. Plus, it has the image of something a little crooked our outta whack.

Miho Really it’s because our harmonies are all over the place, so it’s like an odd harmony.

――I think the title somehow fits.

Matt It does, right? The title is what we fussed over most (laughs). By the way, the CD has two bonus tracks.

――They really feel like bonus tracks, don’t they?

Miho Yeah, they definitely do.

Matt They feel like a deviation from the “story.”

――This album has Bob singing more songs.

Matt Definitely. The first album had just one and this one has four. Live, too, Shooge is the main vocalist but Bob is increasingly singing more and more, so it’s only natural that the album should have him singing more. And since this one was set for a vinyl release primarily, we designed it with the two sides in mind, each with six songs for a grand total of 12 songs and 30 minutes. If you put out a CD with 15+ songs they get hard to remember. You get sick of listening to it halfway through. I think with the vinyl, you get to let each song shine on its own a bit more. Plus, like the Band, the Incredible Casuals, NRBQ or the Beatles now that I think of it, there are three people out front singing all bringing their own voice to the mix. That’s 12 songs at 4 songs per singer.

――Why did you decide to re-record “Blowing Away” (which appeared on the 2004 mini-album).

Matt We had another song for Miho to sing but once we started working in the studio, it just didn’t come together. So, we got rid of that song and we didn’t have anything else for her to sing, so we decided to re-do “Blowing Away.” But we wanted to record it again anyway. The version on “Odd Harmony” is different from the one on “Volume 2” (ed.: the mini-album). And we re-recorded “Back to the Sweethearts” from “Volume 2” for “On Parade,” so we thought why not do it again this time. We thought it’d be good promotion and maybe sell a few copies of “Volume 2.” (*”Volume 2″ is on interviewer Nakagami-san’s Target Earth label)… Okay, that’s a lie. (laughs)

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――For those who don’t know Beat Caravan, let’s go back a bit. When did you first get together?

Miho We figured this out a little while ago, didn’t we? (laughs)

Bob On the “Odd Harmony” obi it says “late 90s.”

Matt When we did our 10th anniversary show we decided it was 1998.

――Shooge and Miho are the original members, right? You were a three piece?

Shooge No, there was one other guitarist. At first, there were four of us and we covered Teengenerate songs.

――Oh yeah, I heard that before. Shooge was Fink?

Shooge Kinda embarrassing to admit it now but… yeah. (laughs)

Miho You had a white flying V. (laughs)

Shooge A friend gave it to me. It was all I had. (laughs)

――Were you a three-piece when you started doing originals?

Shooge Yeah, that sounds about right.

――During that era bands made cassettes and sent them around different places. Did Beat Caravan do that?

Miho Yeah, we did. We put ten of them at Base 10 years ago and they said they sold all of them but we never got the money. (laughs) (*Base is a punk record shop in Koenji)

Shooge We put some at Psych Up and the old owner, Pinky Aoki from the Phantom Gift really pushed them on customers. (*Psych Up is a record shop in Nishi-Shinjuku)

Miho We didn’t really send them to labels and stuff like that.

――Recently cassette tape culture is making a comeback. Are you guys into that at all?

Matt It’s be cool to put out “Odd Harmony” on cassette as well.

Bob Recently new tapes are a high-priced item, like new vinyl.

――After that, Matt joined and you put out a 7″ on Pop Ball. How did that come about? (*Pop Ball is an Osaka-based label run by Hirocky from pop punk band the Wimpy’s)

Miho I loved the Wimpy’s so I took our cassette to their show at Gig-Antic. Shooge came with me. (*Gig-Antic is a rock club in Shibuya)

Matt You gave it to them?

Shooge No, it wasn’t at that show. I spent a lot of time dubbing copies of the tape to give out to everybody at that show and for some reason they were all blank.

Miho It was an all-night show, right? We went by car and decided to have a listen on the way and the tapes were all blank. (laughs)

Shooge So, we must’ve given it to the Wimpy’s some other time. They loved it so much they called me. I was so surprised.

――Good thing you didn’t give them a blank cassette.

Shooge Really. They’d think we were some avant garde John Cage or Yoko Ono thing.(laughs)

――Around that time, Beat Caravan was more pop punk, right? When did you make the change to more like the sound you have now?

Shooge It was after Matt joined.

Matt Shooge and I were going to do another band before I joined Beat Caravan. We were working on stuff like “Back To The Sweethearts.”

Shooge That band was kind of like punk meets the Eagles.

Matt That’s all we could do. (laughs) We wanted to do something soft like the Eagles but we didn’t have the technique so it came out sounding all raw and sloppy. So, I joined Beat Caravan and we continued in that vein. Even though everybody in Beat Caravan was a songwriter, once I joined it was only me writing songs. (laughs).

Miho We were off the hook. (laughs)

Bob It was about a year after Matt joined that I started to go and see them. They were doing stuff like “Take It Easy” but all sloppy and too fast. I was like, “What the fuck is this?” (laughs) It was totally different from the pop punk sound that was on that single.

Matt There was also the influence of Common Bill. I loved how they mixed country with alt-rock intensity. (*Common Bill was a country rock band led by alt-rock band Hipgello’s Hirotaka Tamagawa, who now does enka rock band Akai Yuhi and plays in the Tweezers)

――Was there quite a bit of time between then and when you put out “Volume 2”?

Matt The 7-inch was 2002 and “Volume 2” was 2004. I remember telling you to put it out for us.

――I don’t really remember that. (laughs)

Miho The first demo was kind of pop punk, so we didn’t get much reaction from the power pop scene. But I remember you saying you thought it was great and really encouraging us. (laughs)

Matt I was a fan of Beat Caravan before I joined the band and I often saw them live. Of course, I could hear the pop punk side, but then again they also had songs that sounded like the Zeros or something like that. That’s why I liked them.

――From around that time you guys started playing stuff that sounded like the Modernettes’ “Rebel Kind.”

Matt I think we started playing that song after I was in the band. But there was that kind of a feeling from the beginning.

――You could say that “Rebel Kind” kind of bridged the gap between country rock and punk rock.

Matt Exactly. I always thought Buck Cherry (leader of the Modernettes) was a genius. He was really into Gram Parsons and stuff like that.

――After that in 2006, you guys opened for the Incredible Casuals. (*Incredible Casuals are a rock and roll band with Johnny Spampinato of NRBQ)

Shooge Yeah. That was amazing.

――What was that like?

Bob I’m sure everybody else in the band feels this way too, but I don’t remember anything at all about playing. (laughs)

Shooge That’s right. The Incredible Casuals were so great that looking back now, I don’t care if we’d played at all. (laughs)

Matt Before they came to Japan, I’d only heard their recordings, which I loved. Just before they came to Japan, they put out a live record called “Yearbook ’04: Live! At Da ‘Coma.”

Shooge That’s right they did. It was so rockin.

Matt I was surprised by how rockin’ the live record sounded, but that’s exactly how they actually sounded when they played live here. It was awesome. That was a really big thing for us as a band.

――Isn’t there a song on “Odd Harmony” that’s about the Casuals?

Bob There’s a song called “At Da ‘Coma,” which is inspired by their home turf, a bar in Cape Cod called the Beachcomber. We’ve never been there (laughs) but that’s a song we couldn’t have written if we hadn’t seen them play.

Miho Johnny (Spampinato) said, ‘You can come and see us play there any time.’

――You guys must be huge NRBQ fans.

Matt Uh… yeah.

Miho I think that’s pretty widely known.

――How did you get into stuff like NRBQ or, like you mentioned earlier, the Eagles?

Matt I liked stuff like the Eagles and NRBQ from pretty early on. But we never thought we could play stuff like that. So, I guess we just listened to stuff like that so much that we got the essence of it. We’ve done a lot of Q covers too. In fact, we’ve played shows that were all Q covers.

Miho That was pretty rough (laughs)

Matt Yeah, well, we had a good time at least (laughs). It was like a Christmas Party or something.

――Did Bob join Beat Caravan before or after the Casuals gig?

Bob I played my first show right after the release of “Volume 2.” That was in 2004, opening for Rubber City Rebels at Another Dream in Osaka.

Shooge Your first show was in Osaka (laughs).

――After that, you put out “On Parade” in 2010 on Power Elephant. How did you end up connecting with Yada-kun (Power Elephant owner).

Shooge The first time we met Yada-san was when we invited him to play at one of our shows. After we put out “Volume 2,” we were putting on a show a month or so at Koenji Penguin House. We were looking for bands that people knew to play with, so we found Mod Lung on the internet. (laughs)

Bob After we talked to them later it turned out they’d seen us somewhere like maybe Less Than TV.

Matt We had Mod Lung and Saddles play. Then, later on Beat Caravan and Saddles both had records put out by Power Elephant.

――When Yada-kun started Power Elephant, he wanted to put out what he called “Tokyo Americana,” like Saddles. What did you think about that?

Bob When Yada-san put out “On Parade,” there was talk of making a compilation CD of “Americana”-style bands. I didn’t really know if we fit the bill or not but in the end, we appeared on the “Tokyo Americana” comp in 2010.

Matt In Japan just like in the US, there was a trend several years ago of emo and hardcore bands getting back to roots music. We were never an emo or hardcore band so we’re not one of those bands. It was just a chance for us to put something out.

――But didn’t that trend help you sell some copies of your record? At a certain Shibuya record store and stuff like that?

Matt Yeah, it looks that way! They played Beat Caravan a lot at that shop. That’s the best way for us to sell records.

――You guys always mention that Big Star and Alex Chilton are at the top of your list, plus I know you like the Memphis rock around Ardent Records. Do you guys try to create that sound?

Matt Not really.

――But you’ve done covers, like “Bangkok” by Alex Chilton.

Shooge Yeah, as well as covering Alex Chilton’s covers.

――“Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette).”

Matt We play that one just like the Alex Chilton version. It was through Alex Chilton that I started listening to country, rockabilly and stuff like Allen Toussaint. All of that’s a huge influence on us.

――How did you first hear about Alex Chilton?

Matt The first thing I ever heard was “Bangkok.” I heard it on that Rhino comp and then went out and bought an Alex Chilton record and I didn’t like any of it. I expected it to all sound like “Bangkok.” It took like 7 or 8 years before I saw the light. The first for me was that purple best-of (“19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton” from 1991).

Bob That’s a great collection.

Shooge That version of “Free Again” that kicks off that comp is so good. That shout at the end…

Matt It still sounds great to me now, but when I first heart it, it made a huge impression on me. Everybody else felt that way too, right? I also bought “High Priest” when I was 19 or 20 and I totally didn’t get it at first. “A Man Called Destruction” came out in ’95 right when I was wondering if I was going to get through college and that’s when I started to really get Alex Chilton.

――Big Star has really become widely known now, especially because of Teenage Fanclub.

Matt That’s right. They mention Big Star, Neil Young and the Byrds a lot in interviews and I also listened to all of that stuff.

――But I don’t feel like it extends to stuff like Alex Chilton solo, Van Duren or Scruffs.

Matt And around Memphis, stuff like Tommy Hoehn or Prix. There was a time when they were reissuing a lot of that stuff. I used to just buy whatever I could get my hands on, and all of that was a big influence.

――That’s impossible now. (laughs)

Matt I was really into stuff like that way back when I was in More Fun. There’s something really fascinating about it to me. (*More Fun is his previous power pop band)

――On the other hand, I know you guys really love the Beach Boys. What’s the connection there?

Matt It’s from the Box Tops. They even did Beach Boys covers.

Bob Beat Caravan used to do “Darlin” when they were a trio.

――Early Beach Boys had a heavy Chuck Berry feel but that’s from the same period as “Pet Sounds.” Which are you more into?

Bob I like everything, even “Kokomo.”

Matt Even the early stuff, their harmonies are really distinctive, and there’s something about it that’s like the Four Freshmen. I like stuff like that. But I like all of their stuff too.

――Nowadays, there are bands sort of flying the flag of NRBQ like She & Him. Is there some connection between your new album and that?

Shooge I have no idea but I’m sure that some people have put She & Him on Billboard Live’s request survey for who they want to come to Japan.

Matt They’re really popular in the US right now, aren’t they?

Shibasaki Yeah, they’re huge. Not so much in Japan, but “Volume Two” was a smash hit (P-Vine released it in Japan). M. Ward is getting more popular and Zooey Deschanel’s movie “500 Days of Summer” is really big.

Miho Zooey is also a fashion model.

Bob I feel like the mainstream trend used to be these great singers who played complex chords and were musically really precise and into jazz and pop, but it seems like there are more bands now that like stuff like Q and play simpler, more teenage-based rough rock and roll influenced by the 60s.

――So, has the time come Beat Caravan?

Shooge I hope so.

Matt It’s like we’re running so far behind everyone’s lapped us and now we’re at the front again. (laughs)

――On “Odd Harmony’s” obi, it uses the phrase “sweet rock’n’roll.”

Shibasaki Well, if we just say “rock and roll” it sounds like some hard rockin’ stuff, right?

――When I think of “sweet” and Q, Joey comes to mind. There’s that Lovin’ Spoonful thing with him. I guess you could say Terry Adams brought the jazz influence.

Matt With a bit of avant garde thrown in there for balance.

――Then there’s the influence of Tom Ardolino.

Shooge He was a real music freak.

Matt Yeah, really broad-minded. He put a little of everything in there.

Shooge You can see the sweet side of Joey even more in Spampinato Brothers.

――What’s the balance of Beat Caravan like?

Matt Well, whenever we get stuck on making a decision or something, we always turn to Bob.

――You mean he can be objective?

Miho He really knows his music.

Matt He knows what he’s doing. We pretty much leave the guitar arrangements up to Bob. He comes up with really unique arrangements for the whole band. We’re a band that doesn’t like getting elaborate with arrangements, so he comes up with stuff that we would never think of.

Shooge Yeah, from the beginning we were never good at arranging.

Matt Beat Caravan writes songs not by going “I wanna do this” or “This is good,” but by going “This sucks” or “I don’t like that.” We just try to avoid embarrassing ourselves.

Miho It’s like, “Let’s not do that.” (laughs)

――But isn’t playing in a band kind of about embarrassing yourself? (laughs)

Matt Yes (laughs). Especially interviews like this one. And record release shows and things like that.

Miho It’s embarrassing just getting up on stage.

Matt But whenever people tell us the record or a song is good or they come out to see is, that makes it all worthwhile. That’s why you do it, right? Even if there’s just one person who likes what we do, that’s enough. That’s what it’s all about.

 

 

 

 

 

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