Folks, this is a band I don’t know much about and I’ve never seen them live. Nakagami-san gave showed me this interview he did with them and after watching everything Sister Paul on YT, I’m a convert. I added some vids to the interview so you can see what they’re like… wow…
Sister Paul has been toiling away in the Tokyo underground rock scene since 1992. After a number of personnel changes, the band is now a two-piece consisting of Susumu (bass, vocals) and Mackii (drums, vocals).
Their music is simple and stripped down at the outset, but listen and you’ll hear that it has great complexity and a unique kind of allure that has gained the band an intense and loyal following. Sister Paul is what you’d call a “cult band.” Among its rabid fans is playwright and director Kankuro Kudo, who used their song “My Silver Raincoat” for the opening theme of his play, “Haruko Book Center.”
Sister Paul’s long out-of-print 2nd album “The Edge of the World” (2000) and 3rd album “Howl! Howl!” (2001) are being reissued with paper jackets and I interviewed them to commemorate the occasion.
Here’s the original interview.
──You started out in 1992 but the band’s personnel was totally different, right?
Susumu: Originally there were five members; bass, drums and three guitars. I was one of the guitarists and I was the one who sucked the most, so I volunteered to play “folk guitar.” The others did double leads.
──I remember 1992 as a time where there were all kinds of genres mixed together in the Tokyo scene like garage punk and hardcore. Where did Sister Paul fit in to all of that?
Susumu: We didn’t. We just started a band and didn’t really think about that. We started in July of ’92 and by the end of the year we’d already broken up. We wanted to make a tape to take to clubs and get shows with, so in September we started working on songs. That led to all kinds of problem and musical differences and that’s why we broke up. We weren’t involved in any “scene” or anything like that. We took a break and I kind of wandered around a bit, and after we came back, I guess you could say we joined some kind of scene. That was 1994. Before that I don’t know what was going on really. I went to see shows occasionally but that’s about it.
──What kinds of bands did you like at first?
Susumu: Well, I was kind of mature for my age. I was a teenager in the 80s, but I was already starting bands when I was in 5th grade. I had an older brother, so he was a big influence on me. There were rock and roll records around the house and I listened to a lot of 70s rock, so that was the basis of what I played. Of course, there was punk then, and reggae and ska, and I wasn’t one to stick to just one style of music. So I was into 70s rock, but I got into a lot of other stuff too. From the early days in ’92 to now, there have been a lot of personnel changes but we haven’t really changed our basic style. From the beginning, it was the two of us singing. I played folk guitar and my voice is really high, so me and Mackii sang harmonies with the bass player.
──Would you say you have a pretty orthodox approach to rock and roll? In the way you look, I sense the influence of Auto-Mod, but musically, it seems like you’re influenced by “Transformer”-era Lou Reed or Velvet Underground.
Susumu: I love Lou Reed… Half of me wants to just do whatever I want to do, but the other half of me wants to pay respects and be faithful to the musical roots that informed me. So, I guess the half of me that wants to be faithful and follow in the footsteps of my influences, yeah, you could say that’s the orthodox side.
──The music seems to follow orthodox rock and roll but once you add Mackii’s voice it sounds like something really new and unusual.
Susumu: We pretty much came up with our sound out of nothing. It just came out of all the things we listened to. I want to pay tribute to the music I love, but I never want to just copy anybody. I’m not into that (laughs).
──Your lyrics have a sense of fun, like seeing the world through a child’s eyes or the perspective of a girl. Is there any special meaning or intention behind that?
Susumu: I don’t know but when Mackii first joined the band, she looked like a boy wearing makeup. She looked like a kid. She was 22 but she had short hair and her makeup was done really nicely. I thought that was so cool. And our second guitarist, Foxx, joined after me and the first guitarist. So, the drummer quit and Mackii joined and then there were three guitarists… Sorry, what were we talking about?
Mackii: (laughs) Susumu writes all the lyrics, so they depict Susumu’s world.
Susumu: Originally, me and the first guitarist sang but he quit and Foxx joined. I tried singing with Foxx and in about an hour we realized it wasn’t going to work, so I asked Mackii if she’s give it a try. Her singing voice is completely different from her speaking voice and it really works. On the recordings, it’s different from when we play live because she’s not playing drums and singing at the same time. When she plays and sings at the same time, it strains and that sounds really cool.
Mackii：That’s because I can’t really sing.
Susumu: It’s not that you can’t sing. I mean, we’re not trying to be super-technical musicians or anything like that. Your singing is good enough. Sorry, “good enough” isn’t the way I meant to put it. I mean Mackii sings perfectly for the music we play… Oh yeah, lyrics… (laughs)
──Like, for example, you refer to yourself as “boku” in your lyrics.
Susumu: I don’t know the exact percentage but probably something like 70% of my lyrics use “boku.” I think I just sing whatever I feel. That’s the only way I can sing, with my own feelings in it. At shows, I put those feelings out there and I think people get it. If I sent out something fake, they wouldn’t. So, first and foremost, I write what I’m feeling and I guess that’s not how adults express themselves. Probably most of those songs you’re talking about that are childlike, I wrote those in my 20s. I’m 51 now and I still play a lot of those songs, and I can still feel them. I guess I’m still like a kid in some ways (laughs). When I wrote those songs, I was recording my feelings then but I guess they haven’t changed that much. My life hasn’t changed much and neither has what I feel. It’s all about communication and if you want to communicate, you will. If you don’t, you won’t. The reason I said yeah about the reissue is that those two records are out of print and it doesn’t cost that much. The new jacket costs a little, but there aren’t any other major expenses, so we don’t have to sell that many. That’s always a problem, but it’s not a problem with these reissues. I’ll keep playing as long as I’m alive, so we should be able to sell enough of them. I don’t know how much more I have in me though… (laughs)
──Sister Paul is what you might call a “cult band.” The people who like Sister Paul really like Sister Paul. Do you want to see more of those people?
Susumu: I wonder if people will find out about us. Lately it’s like I’m going door to door knocking. It becomes like your life’s work. But that’s the only way to do it. I mean, how many people do you meet in a lifetime? But that’s all there is… We never had the chance to be on the radio or TV or anything, so it’s just beating the streets. If we play in front of ten people who don’t know us and we win one person over, that’s enough. Then, it’s on to the next ten. You just keep getting out there and doing that as much as possible. I love it when we play in front of new people and we win over a new fan. Sometimes it’s another musician or artist or something and then it’s like we’re showing each other what we do. We go and check out what they’re doing. There’s a lot of communication going on.
──Recently, you’ve been playing some with Okazaemon (The mascot of Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture). How did that come about?
Susumu: Okazaemon is a good guy. At the very beginning, there was a kind of Okazaemon group put together. It was like a group of artists from around there, the Tokai region. It was like a group for promoting each other and making their work more widely known. So, one member of that group just happened to see us play in Nagoya. It turns out he was the editor of a local community magazine. The next time we played he came to see us again and brought a friend, and then they invited us to play in Okazaki. About two years ago we connected on Facebook and when I looked at his page, it was all Okazaemon stuff. Nothing but Okazaemon. He was promoting Okazaemon. And as I looked at all that Okazaemon stuff, I gradually started falling in love (laugh). He’s like Hattori-kun. He’s cute. So, I was kind of taken with him and I decided to do a song about him. I sent a rough version and asked if it was okay and they said yes. That’s how we got connected and then after that, Okazaemon came to one of our shows in Nagoya. So I thought if he’s come all the way to see us, why not get him up on stage? But he’s in suit so he can’t really move his hands (laughs). He was actually a musician but he couldn’t play anything in that suit so we just set up a synthesizer on the stage so he could just play noise or single notes here and there. He did a really great job. We recorded the show off the PA and put it on a CD and released it. We still play with him sometimes when he comes to Tokyo.
──I want to talk about the albums you’re reissuing. This one has Foxx on guitar, right? I saw you back when Foxx was in the band, but it’s been a pretty long time since he left, hasn’t it?
Susumu: Yeah, more than ten years.
──How did it happen that you’re a two-piece now but you’re reissuing an album where you are a 3-piece?
Susumu: Because they asked us. It wasn’t me that wanted to put it out. I’ve been friends with Kamachi-san from Sazanami since the Goggle-A’s days. He started doing the label and then contacted me about three months ago asking me if we’d put something out. I showed him these bonus tracks we’d shelved. I told him they were unreleased and he thought they were good. At that time, I hadn’t listened to them for so long I had totally forgotten about them. But it took us a year to record them. The whole process of writing them took probably five years. I thought these tracks were probably pretty good and I sent them to him without listening to them and he liked them. But it wasn’t me that wanted to put them out. I’m really happy now that we have the chance, though. It’s wonderful for us that there are people now who want to listen to this stuff again.
──They were mastered by Soichiro Nakamura, right?
Susumu: Yes, he mastered the bonus tracks as well. We recorded them ourselves by MTR at Peace Music. Mixing and everything after was done by Nakamura-san and he also remastered them for the reissue.
──It has a nice analog sound that suits you well.
Susumu: I think it really helps that Nakamura-san likes Sister Paul, so he really understands what we want. So if we think something’s alright or we want to go back and change it, he gets it and he’ll go back and make as many changes as we want. I don’t think he’s like that with every band he works with. There may be other bands he works with that way, but we really appreciate it. You can feel the love. He’s also around the same age. We’ve known him for a long time.
──Why did you decide not to replace your guitarist and instead continue as a 2-piece?
Susumu: That’s tough to pin down but I guess I’d say I had a premonition. After he first left, we played four or five shows without him and it was an absolute train wreck (laughs). Okay, maybe not a train wreck, but losing the guitar really changed the sound. The guitar is the middle range, so when you remove that, the sound becomes harsher. Maybe too harsh. And when you take out the guitar, you can hear things you couldn’t hear before. The rhythm becomes more pronounced. Like, if the guitar were clothing, you remove the clothing and now you can see skin and bones. Exposed like that, it makes your hair stand on end (laughs). So, that was part of it. I guess what I mean by “premonition” is that now we could do something more experimental, something nobody was doing. I was excited to try different things. At first, I ran my bass through a guitar amp, but it still didn’t sound like a guitar. But I added some effectors and put it through a guitar amp, and then it worked. It’s like AC/DC or something, the guitar and bass are playing the same riff, right? So, you don’t need both. And then I would stumble upon something like the pedals of an Electone somewhere, and I’d connect it with the MIDI. Of course, it weighed about 10 kg (laughs), so it wasn’t a really practical idea. I got some pedals that were lighter and easier to lug around but I broke them stomping on them. That sucked, actually. I spent quite a bit of money on those pedals.
──Tell me about playing with Richard Strange (Doctors of Madness) in 2003 and 4. How did that happen?
Susumu: I gave him a love call… I love him. I wanted to invite him but I got cold feet at first because apparently the Doctors of Madness sold quite a few records in Japan in the 70s and it seemed like he’d say no. But then a friend of mine who is a rock writer reached out to him and he said okay really quickly. It was going to cost a lot of money with the guarantee, the plane ticket, the hotel, and all of that, so we asked him to come by himself. He said he was cool with that but just wanted to bring this violin player he’s been playing with recently, David Coulter, who used to play with the Pogues. So, Sister Paul was his backup band (with Foxx then). It was such a great experience for me and so fun, although it was tough too. We trained hard for about half-a-year. He didn’t say what songs we were going to do so we just learned them all. That’s three albums of songs (laughs). We had no idea what was going to happen but we were going to play with Richard Strange, so it was all good .We brought him to Japan two years in a row. We wanted to keep bringing him but we ran out of money. We were all working our asses off at part-time jobs to get him here (laughs). We paid everything and even cajoled Foxx’s girlfriend to pitch in. But we just couldn’t come up with the money for the third year. It was fun, though.
──Do you like pre-punk UK underground stuff like Hawkwind and Pink Fairies?
Susumu: Yeah, I like the era before punk. I like popular stuff from that era, but more than that I like stuff that’s unique. I loved Stevie Wonder and Willie Nelson and stuff like that, but it was stuff like Hawkwind and Doctors of Madness that was really exciting to me because they were so unique. And Jobriath, I was really into Jobriath.
──You’re coming more from the UK underground that came out of glam rock?
Susumu: I don’t know where it all started exactly for me. Like I said, I listened to popular stuff like Willie Nelson but that’s not really where it started for me. I really liked it. But I was all about Marc Bolan and New York Dolls. That was the music that really hooked me and I got really attached to. I loved Willie Nelson but there’s no Willie Nelson in what I’m doing now (laughs).
──Back to talking about the album, Sister Paul does lots of covers of famous songs by artists like Bay City Rollers, Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Kiss, etc. How do you choose songs to cover?
Susumu: That depends on the show. For a live set, you’ve got 30 minutes. There are four or five bands. Of course, we can easily fill 30 minutes with our own songs, but if it’s a show where most of the people, like more than half the people, haven’t seen us, we’ll do covers. For them, it’s like, “Oh, I know this song!” It brings them in and they get into it. I’m the same when I see a band I don’t know. But we don’t just copy the songs and play them the same way as the original.
──I know what you’re talking about when a band starts playing and you’re like, “Wait a minute, what is this??”
Susumu: Right. But we demolish it, play it totally differently. I really respect the artist of course; like, Lou Reed. If he heard our cover, he’d probably be pissed (laughs). But anyway, he’s never going to hear it so who cares. It’s fun to play covers. We’re going to do a Beatles cover again and we’re working on that right now in the studio.
──Also because you do covers your own way, they fit in well on your albums.
Susumu: Yeah. I think it works the same way on an album, if there’s one song people know.
──About where Sister Paul is at now, would you consider yourself an underground band?
──Do you think you’ll always be an underground band? Is that your intention?
Susumu: That’s a tough question. No, it’s not like we decided to always stay underground. But the opposite, “overground” I guess, would mean getting famous, getting lots of people to your shows, being loved by lots people and all that, right? In some other line of work, they make products based on what people like, or on what they’ll use. We don’t do that. We’ve never done that at any era of Sister Paul. We always just did whatever we wanted and we still do it that way. Whatever you like, that’s what you should do. We don’t really care about underground or “overground.”
But that doesn’t mean “overground” is getting popular, getting lots of people at your shows, being liked by lots of people, etc. I mean, in some other business, people make products based on what people will buy and like and use, right? We don’t do that. We’ve never done that, no matter who was in the band, we always just did whatever we wanted and we continue to do it that way. Whatever you like, that’s what you should do. We don’t have any strong feeling about whether we’re underground or we want to go overground.
──Judging by your Facebook page, it looks like you’re really focusing on Sister Paul.
Susumu: There’s nothing else I want to do (laughs). I don’t know what I’d do if we quit playing together. Okay, I’m exaggerating. I’m sure I’d find something else to do, but I can’t give up on it now. I’m the type who gets really into whatever he does. When I want to do something, I get really devoted to it.
──Playing in a band for years and years wears thin and people burn out on it, so I think it’s pretty amazing that you’re still so into playing.
Susumu: Well, sometimes, yeah, it feels like I’m burning out. I feel frustrated or fed up with everything. That happens sometimes. But I think that happens to everybody. Sometimes during a show or wherever there’s that kind of thought that pops into your head, but then you look at the big picture and it’s easy to forget that little nagging thought you had (laughs). You get the hang of it and then you can easily put things like that aside.
──The blurb says “gay rockers.” Is that something you came up with yourself?
Susumu: Yeah, I’ll own up to that (laughs). Fifteen years ago when this album came out, it wasn’t something people really talked openly about. But some people saw us and they got it. Going back and listening to this record, I feel like calling it that makes it easy to understand. So, now we use that phrase. This is a long story, but my ear is fucked up. For a year and a half it’s been ringing constantly. I can hear alright, but it’s tough to hear really high or low tones. There’s one sweet spot which is probably a little low for most people, but when I listen to music it changes the melody. It’s like it’s getting pulled up or down. No matter how I jam earplugs in there it doesn’t help. Sometimes I jam in so much that I can’t hear a thing. Anyway, I’m not really sure how much longer we’re going to be able to play, so there isn’t time for this slow permeation of our message or ideas. We need to get straight to the point. So, we’re doing the Gay Rockers event for the first time.
──That’s pretty profound.
Susumu: I said before that I love Lou Reed. Well, I feel like there’s always somebody whispering in my ear, “Hey you, walk on the wild side.” That’s an influence too. “Hey you, do something crazy, be you.” It’s always saying that. It’s a naughty voice.