Peeling Back The Skin: Who Are The Real Melt-Banana?
“Our music is like a chimera.”
This is how vocalist Yako describes Melt-Banana; the shape-shifting, genre-defying Japanese noise band who formed in the early ‘90s. Now a two-piece, Yasuko Onuki (Yako) and guitarist Agata produce fast, electronic-led grindcore and they’re set to tour the UK for the eleventh time this October.
It was the late, renowned BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel who first introduced their sound to a wider audience, calling them “one of the most astonishing bands on Earth,” which is no overstatement. The noise that vocalist Yako can produce is incredible, while Agata’s guitar work is almost beyond comprehension.
Yako is tiny. Agata wears a mask because of a “blood condition” that causes nosebleeds. There is no drummer. Riffs are inspired by video games. They are unlike any other band anywhere in the world.
“We don’t care much about so-called genre definitions,” says Yako, who sings in English. “Maybe because we don’t write music according to genre. Some people say ‘rock’, some people say ‘pop’, some people say ‘punk, noise, metal’, etc. ‘Loud music’ fits for music like ours, but we also have some tender songs. It’s difficult.”
Tender is what the uninitiated would expect from someone of Yako’s size. But this is not always the case as her voice is loud, piercing and unexpectedly authoritative. She commands the stage like a warrior and Agata backs it up with his brutal guitar attacks. Seeing Melt-Banana live is an inspiring experience as Yako shows just how accessible the fringes of rock music can be. About a decade ago at University College London they played a spell-bindingly powerful gig, showing people of Asian heritage (like this writer) that hard-rock gigs are not only places we can feel comfortable in, they are areas we can conquer.
“It is good to hear that the gig made you feel like that,” Yako says. “I am honoured. Once when we toured the U.S., a long time ago, we asked a friend of ours to take us to a hip-hop show, but he hesitated and we didn’t go. He was a white guy and he said we would all feel uncomfortable being at the show.
“Everyone should feel fine and feel free to enjoy being at any kind of show. So that people can enjoy music more and discover new things.”
Melt-Banana certainly take live crowds on journeys of discovery. Not content with performing alongside similar Japanese grindcore bands, they have shared bills (and stages) with a range of different acts – from Napalm Death to MGMT. In 2010, they even joined Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Trio onstage at the Sydney Opera House.
You wouldn’t be surprised if they announced a Las Vegas residency someday, but instead they’ll be playing it relatively traditional on their upcoming UK tour, which will feature songs from Return Of 13 Hedgehogs – a noughties singles compilation with an average track length of less than two minutes.
Revisiting the past seems odd for such a forward-looking band, but their futuristic sound has deep roots. It was the 1980s and ‘90s that proved to be the most inspirational time for them; Agata loved Japanese noise bands, such as Masonna and Violent Onsen Geisha. But Yako wasn’t a natural performer at a young age.
“When I was a kid, I was pretty shy and weepy and always holding a stuffed animal,” she admits, going on to reveal a stubborn drive common to all trailblazers. “When I started a band my parents didn’t care much, they thought it was just a hobby. When I quit work for the band, they got upset, but I didn’t care.”
Yako’s parents have still never seen her perform, but only because they fear they would make her nervous. It’s hard to imagine Yako ever being put off by anyone in the audience – she didn’t even get scared playing stadiums with Tool in 2007. But would they be nervous if they started out as newbies now, when everyone in the crowd has a smartphone primed to record their mistakes?
“If this band was formed now, we would use synth more than guitar or bass,” Agata says. “And we will use electric drum sounds. We wouldn’t tour to play a show. Instead we would try to do online shows. [In reality, now] we are working on a new album. We are going to play some new songs during the UK tour, but the release will be next year.”
This will be their 12th album. Their last studio album, 2013’s Fetch, came six years after Bambi’s Dilemma. These gaps in output have given each album a fresh and distinct flavour. Bambi… flirted with the mainstream compared to Fetch, which signalled a divorce from that poppy style, deftly mixing Agata’s love of loop pedals with computer-style thrash riffs.
“When we started the band, we were quick to write songs, but these days it takes us a long time to finish one,” Agata says.
“Agata always tries to make something new and we need to be satisfied with what we make,” Yako adds. “We are kind of picky; sometimes we need to cut stuff and try again and again on one song.”
“We often fight when we write music. I mean, we fight in a good way,” Agata laughs.
It’s easy to see that the band’s longevity is down to the resilient relationship that has withstood three decades of international touring. They’re also here today because of the influence John Peel had on their fledging careers, picking them for three BBC sessions early on.
“It is hard for me to choose the right words to express my thanks to him,” she says. “He introduced our music to an enormous amount of people and it made big changes to our career, and above all, we were happy that he loved our music.
“We wish he could have heard more.”
Peel helped earn them with a following in the UK, but Melt-Banana know they have to keep adding left turns to their sound to retain these fans. Luckily, the band love a twist or two. Not only does Yako refuse to publicly reveal her age, she questions the entire Wikipedia entry for her band. Then Agata admits that his surgeon’s mask might not be quite what it seems…
“Actually, these days, my blood condition isn’t so bad, so I wear the mask just for fun,” he admits.
Which is pure Melt-Banana. A band that loves to playfully shock.
Melt-Banana are touring across the UK later this year. Get your tickets now.
Melt-Banana UK tour 2019
16 Dingwalls, London
18 The Caves, Edinburgh
19 Stereo, Glasgow
20 The Cluny, Newcastle
21 Gorilla, Manchester
23 Brudenell Social Club, Leeds
24 Cavern, Exeter
25 Exchange, Bristol
27 Wheatsheaf, Oxford
28 Hare and Hounds, Birmingham
29 Bodega, Nottingham
30 The Parish, Huddersfield
31 Portland Arms, Cambridge
01 The Haunt, Brighton
02 Music Room, Ramsgate
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