When I first decided to get into the Japanese music scene, it was with the intention of improving my language skills. But I have to admit I was leery of the entire experience. Actually I was frightened into a fetal-position like cowardice. My first concern was that I wouldn’t understand a word anyone was saying. Fair enough, I thought. Secondly, and more importantly, I dreaded listening to anime song after anime song. There is nothing wrong with anime. In fact, I love it and believe it is a beautiful art form with some of the most creative stories I have ever encountered. However, to my Rock-Loving-Ears the majority of anime PV’s leave something to be desired. This desire is rooted in the need for originality and the fear of boredom. Too many anime songs sound like they were squeezed from a tube of preprocessed, flavorless, ready to eat, made-for-tv-music. I’m always left wondering, “Where is the heart and soul?” Although I love some PV’s, like Asian Kung Fu Generations title track for Fooly Cooly, I couldn’t bet my sustained language engagement on a few outliers. Luckily the Japanese Music scene has a taste for every sound and a sound for every taste.
Somehow, I don’t remember exactly, I came across this band with the strange name; “Thee Michelle Gun Elephant”. Thanks to these fellows my fears subsided and the rest is history. I own two of their albums, Gear Blues (1998) and Rodeo Tandem Beat Specter (2001), which I still listen to on a regular basis. When I researched the band I realized how lucky I was to have found them. As prolific musicians each member has participated in a number of other projects.
- ROSSO (Vocals, Guitar and Songwriting on all releases)
- The Birthday (Vocals, Guitars and Songwriting on all releases)
- The Midwest Vikings (Vocals, Guitars and Songwriting under the alias ‘LACOSTE’)
- Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra (Vocals on one song on the album ‘Stompin’ On Down Beat Alley’)
- Bugy Craxone
- Midnight Bankrobbers
- ROSSO (Drums on some live appearances)
- The Birthday (Drums on all releases)
- The Midwest Vikings (Drums and Pianica under the alias ‘HANG TEN’)
- Yoko Utsumi‘s YOKOLOCO BAND (Drums on later releases)
- Shigeki Hamabe (Drums on first two albums)
- M.J.Q (drums on all releases)
- KOOLOGI (Guitar on first album)
- Strawberry Jean (Guitar – This was Futoshi Abe’s pre-TMGE band – their one album is sometimes available via Japanese online auctions)
Of all of these ROSSO is my favorite followed closely by The Birthday, Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, and The Midwest Vikings. These prjects span the full spectrum of musical styles and genres. Listening to these bands you will hear resemblances to the Dropkick Murphys, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, The Ramones, The Clash, James Thorogood, The Rolling Stones, and a host of other bands that are heavily blues influenced. Despite their influences, these bands have a sound that is 100% their own.
In the way that Bruce Springsteen’s voice signifies an Americana sound, Yusuke Chiba’s vocals are a mysteriously rough, smokey, soulful, and powerfully passionate representation of Japan. His voice, almost an ancient primordial echo of times past, seems to encapsulate the spirit of Nihon. Perhaps this is why my favorite groups are the ones in which he is singing. If you had to make a comparison to an American musician I would say that Yusuke Chiba is the Japanese Dave Grohl. Everything they touch seems to turn into musical gold.
Rosso – シャロン My personal favorite.