Monday 27 March 2017

Tropical Death "Thunder Island" interview

This interview was carried out on a Sunday evening in October 2016, at Tropical Death Guitarist Eugene Roussin’s apartment in Tokyo. Bassist Shingo Nakagawa, Drummer Sean McGee and guitarist “Tete” are also there, as is Ian from Call And Response Records, who’s doing the interview. The Thunder Island cassette EP had just been released on Cassette Store Day, the band were fresh from a rehearsal and already a few beers ahead of Ian. Barack Obama was still president of the United States of America, and no one seriously believed Donald Trump was going to win the upcoming election for his successor.

[As Ian arrives, Eugene and Shingo are already deep in discussion, trying to agree on an official history of the band]

EUGENE: Our show at (the event) Hot Freaks was the last one with Yoyo (Ryotaro Aoki, now of Looprider) in it, right?

SHINGO: So when did the band start?

IAN: You sound like criminals trying to get your story straight before a court appearance.

[All members go outside to smoke. Ten minutes passes.]

[We start listening to Looprider’s forthcoming album Umi]

IAN: So shall we start by talking shit about your ex-guitarist?

TETE: This is cool.

EUGENE: Shut up, Tete!

TETE: This sounds like Luna Sea.

SHINGO: It was 2014, April, that I met Sean for the first time. Yoyo introduced us and he gave me a card that just said “Sean, Drummer”. Yoyo wanted jam, so that might have been the first time the band started to exist in its earliest stages.

EUGENE: Before that, me and Shingo used to hang out and get wasted and make stupid music. I lived in this party house and we used to just go to the studio and do absolutely nothing.

SEAN: So we decided to jam and Shingo brought in Eugene. We were just jamming, then at the end of the session, Shingo was like, “When are we rehearsing again?” and we were like, “‘Rehearsing’? So are we a band then?” and we sort of followed along.

EUGENE: The first time we really became a band was when we wrote the skeleton for Commence, and there’s a bit of audio in recording we made in the studio where Shingo’s saying, “That’s like tropical death metal!"

SHINGO: At that time, I’d been out of The Mornings for a while and I wanted a real band. We started doing it and we all felt it was cool, that it worked.

IAN: The way you talk about it sounds a bit like describing a sexual encounter.

EUGENE: He just grabbed us by the pussy! I was playing in Human Wife at the time, and our drummer was leaving so I needed a new band. It was pure selfishness.

SEAN: And we started writing songs.

IAN: So how did Tete come into the picture?

SEAN: Yo, Shingo, tell him how you brought him in.

SHINGO: Well, there’s this convenience store in Kunitachi that I always go in to buy booze, and I started to recognise him. He just looked like he was either on drugs or he was a musician.

TETE: I’ve never seen Shingo come into that convenience store sober.

SEAN: He was like, “Are you a guitarist?” and he said “Yeah,” so we recruited him.

EUGENE: The first time I saw him, I thought he wasn’t a real guitarist. I was still looking for someone who’d be a replacement for Yoyo, but it’s actually worked out better and he suits the band.

TETE: You thought I was shitty at first?

SEAN: No, we were just worried!

IAN: So he helped you become yourselves as a band?

SHINGO: It balanced us out.

SEAN: For me, the first thing was that he had to do Yoyo’s part so we could play the songs for the shows. Then, when we started writing new material with Tete, the new material was different but just as good.

EUGENE: Yoyo has a lot of things he wants to do with a band, and he’s already doing that with Looprider. There was a gulf between that and what we would necessarily be able to write now. You Fucking Changed, Man is a very Yoyo song — I love it, but we couldn’t write that now.

SEAN: Tete’s very creative in a different way though.

SHINGO: We talked about a lot of 80s bands like Ippu-do, Strawberry Switchblade, Cocteau Twins…

SEAN: Luna Sea

EUGENE: But at the same time he needs to finish post-hardcore University.

SEAN: But he’s finished his thesis now. He came up with this killer post-hardcore riff in rehearsal today and Eugene graduated him top of his class.

SEAN: But the reason we recorded the EP was because Yoyo was leaving.

SHINGO: We wanted a document to help us pass on to the next stage.

EUGENE: There was also a full year where we did fuck all because we couldn’t find a guitarist.

SEAN: It set a fire.

IAN: And Tete “kept the fire burning”?


[We start listening to Fugazi Repeater]

EUGENE: During that period, Shingo freaked out a bit because he felt the band wasn’t serious enough.

SHINGO: Looprider was kicking off so Yoyo was really busy, but I wanted a serious band of my own.

SEAN: We had to organise ourselves and realise it was worth doing, even if it’s not always fun.

EUGENE: When Yoyo left, I lost confidence in our ability to get things going and we lost a lot of momentum.

SHINGO: I was talking about quitting for a while.

EUGENE: So when did you feel we really had something and it was worth continuing?

TETE: At the start, I was doing my own version of the songs, and at some point I felt I needed to just learn the songs properly.

EUGENE: For me, it was when we played Shingo’s wedding and I thought, “We can do this!”

SEAN: For me, it was when we were working on new songs with Tete, and I suddenly thought, “This is great. This kid’s good. We sound different, but we still sound like TD!” Plus we had an EP coming out, and I like it when bands actually do shit and get stuff out. And Eugene’s very sexy.

EUGENE: Who has a very small penis.

IAN: Small hands?

EUGENE: I said penis and I meant penis. But for me, the moment it came together was the second practice with Tete, when he plugged a Strat into a Marshall amp. I’m very small-minded like that.

SEAN: OK, if we’re being honest, I never lost confidence in the band and felt like I wanted to quit, but I did have one day where we were playing Commence and I didn’t like what Tete was doing with the intro, and I thought, “Well, we’ll probably get another guitarist." Then the second rehearsal he nailed it and I thought, “Oh, we’re good!” When we started doing new songs, I was like, “Yeah, now that’s it!”

TETE: With Commence at first I was doing my own thing, but now I’m doing what the original does.

SHINGO: Now I think we’re in a balance.

[Eugene’s girlfriend Anna comes into the room]

EUGENE: Who’s even interested in the minutiae of TD’s history anyway. Even Anna doesn’t care.

ANNA: I already know it!

[Everyone goes outside to smoke. Ten minutes passes.]

IAN: I’ve interviewed Yoyo a couple of times now, with the last two Looprider releases, and it seems his way of handling a band is quite different to yours. With him, the vision seemed to come first, and then he got musicians together to help him realise it. With you guys, it feels like the band comes first, and then then the music sort of emerges organically from that combination of people.

EUGENE: Well, the way we make the music is usually that I’ll come up with riffs. I’ll be like, "Here’s basic idea," but I don’t want to finish it myself, so I bring it in, then you guys take it, work with it, filter it through your own thing, and the result is songs that I’d never have been able to come up with myself.

SEAN: Yeah. That’s what I like about TD.

EUGENE: In my old band, I wrote all the songs myself, and now everything I write myself sounds like that and I hate it. Now, we all work on it and it comes out much better.

SHINGO: With me, a lot of it is that I just don’t like people telling me what to do.

SEAN: It’s not just that, it’s the organic process of all of us working together.

EUGENE: There’s no example I can think of where a solo artist was better than the band. The Beatles? Paul’s solo stuff is good, John’s is good, but none of it’s as good. You could say Neil Young, but I Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Deja Vu is better than anything Neil Young’s done solo.

[Long pause]

SHINGO: Bjork? Cornelius?

SEAN: Is that a solo project or is that something else entirely?

EUGENE: I’m taking back my Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young comment then, since Neil Young was never the main thing in that.

SHINGO: Namie Amuro? She’s better than Super Monkeys.

SEAN: Kyosuke Himuro’s better than Boowy! No, just as good. Don’t write he’s better, but he’s just as good.

EUGENE: Morrissey and The Smiths.

IAN: Go stand in the corner. Maybe Julian Cope though. His solo career’s longer, deeper and richer than The Teardrop Explodes, and I think that can add up to something better once you take it as a whole.

EUGENE: Anyway, a band should be about collaboration. You’re not session musicians. If you just want guys who play everything you tell them to, you’re not a band.

SHINGO: That’s why I quit The Mornings. They started making music on a machine and I couldn’t do it.

[Blondie, Parallel Lines comes on]

EUGENE: Can we write a song like this?

IAN: What you’re saying about music needing to be something everyone’s creatively invested in, isn’t that partly a function of the way no one makes any money from playing in a band? Like, why would you do it if you’re not getting some creative satisfaction out of it?

SEAN: Yeah.

EUGENE: I’m not going to even say that. I’m just not going to play in a band where I’ve told them what to play. Because if I trust them, it’s going to be better than if I do it all myself.

SEAN: Totally.

EUGENE: I’m not saying that way’s right or wrong. It’s just that I don’t have that image in my head. I envy people who have that fully-formed image in their head, but I have 25% of the image in my head and I need people to fill it out with their own thing.

IAN: Just to be clear, you’re not talking about Ryotaro, right?

SEAN: We’re not talking about Yoyo! We love Yoyo! I love playing in a band with Yoyo!

SHINGO: Do not write this up as if we’re slagging off Yoyo! 

[Everyone goes outside to smoke. Ten minutes passes.]

[Blondie, Picture This comes on]

EUGENE: Can we write a song like this?

IAN: So, Tete, the EP was already recorded when you joined the band. What was your route into it? What was your impression of it? What did you like, or what did it remind you of?

TETE: The first song I heard was the Mir cover, 100nengo (from the compilation album Small Lights - A Tribute to Mir). There was a lot of things going on and a big difference between, say, New Age and Murder in the Streets. They’re not a hardheaded band: they’re open to a lot of different things.

IAN: Was there anything in your own background that you found could help you get into what they do?

TETE: With Murder, I liked that Eugene wasn’t playing guitar: he was playing keytar. I realised that they’re not a pure guitar band. I didn’t want to be in a band that had a very specific kind of music, who wanted a very specific kind of guitarist. The fact they did all kinds of music made me feel, “Oh, I don’t have to be this kind of guitarist.” I felt that had a freedom to have my own voice, free from too much expectation of how I should be as a musician.”

[Blondie, Pretty Baby comes on]

EUGENE: Can we write a song like this?

IAN: You’re saying that a lot.

EUGENE: This is pretty much the ideal band that I would like to be in.

IAN: You changed your name from Tropical Death Metal to just Tropical Death.

EUGENE: So obviously we knew about Eagles of Death Metal at the time, and there was that similarity hanging over us the whole time. Also, all our friends hated it — well you did and Graeme (Graeme Mick, engineer who recorded and mixed Thunder Island) did. It’s not a real band’s name: it sounds like a joke. The catalyst for changing it was the Bataclan attack. The first mail I saw that morning was Graeme who just wrote “Bataclan Death Metal”. Next, there was one from somebody replying to our Craigslist ad for a guitarist saying, “Are you serious?”

SEAN: And I remember at the time, I thought, “Man, I don’t want to end up having to explain this in an interview…" which is what I’m now doing anyway!

EUGENE: The crazy thing is the way the news cycle works, no one would even think that anymore. They’re all about Donald Trump. We’re in the same situation now now: I wrote this song Summer of Sin earlier this year that talks Donald Trump sexually molesting girls, and now it turns out it’s actually true and it sounds like we’re trying to get on that bandwagon. I was actually thinking about Brexit and the whole tribalist thing, and because I’m American my mind naturally turned to Trump.

SHINGO: So are we a political band?

EUGENE: What I like about Black Flag is that they’re also funny though. The lyrics I write aren’t overly political. There are lots of horrible things in the world and I’m not confident that people are going to be able to overcome them. So what do you do when things are depressing? You have fun! But I also want to show the emptiness of that approach to dealing with the world. I don’t want to be overly political — I couldn’t help it with Donald, but there are lots of things in the world — capitalism has become just vultures picking on bones, marketing and the means of manipulating people has become so refined. People don’t give a fuck, they can’t concentrate on anything anymore, and in that context we have all these problems cropping up and being taken advantage of by governments and corporations, and people can’t even comprehend that anymore because of a hundred years of the refinement of this machine. I’m an economics major and I used to think we we could control it, but I think it’s beyond that now. It’s just taking something, using it up and then throwing it away, and that’s all there is now. Even looking at it from a pure economics theory perspective, it’s just opportunism and there’s no externalities built into the model. Tropical Secrets is a jokey song about a bunch of dudes going to Southeast Asia, but at the same time, the point of it is about exploitation of resources in Third World countries, so what’s the most extreme version of that? Selling your people.

SEAN: I’d rather lyrics have meaning than just be about nothing.

EUGENE: I don’t want to make overtly didactic political statements because I’m not doing anything about it — I can’t change anything. I just feel kind of hopeless about a lot of things and that’s my way of expressing it.

IAN: The tape jacket, with a picture of a dude’s crotch with sexy swimming trunks, was that political?

EUGENE: That was Shinya, the designer, who does this thing called “Tough Guy Attack”. One of the first designs he made was a girl in a bikini, but Anna was like, “Why does it have to be a girl? Why can’t it be a dude?” So that was down to her, and her hyper-feminism.

[The Tropical Death EP comes on, starting with Murder in the Streets]

SHINGO: How did we write this?

EUGENE: We were just jamming.

SHINGO: I was really into disco-punk at this time.

SEAN: How did this heavy breakdown happen then?

EUGENE: That was me. I said, “Make it sound like Envy!”

SEAN: Well I fucked that up for you then!

EUGENE: This was round the time Ferguson happened. The lyrics of this song are way over the top though, because I wanted to have a song about a dystopian future that had a keytar in it.

[Commence commences]

EUGENE: I like the way that with this one you guys came up with it and I just came in and added something rather than me taking the lead.

SHINGO: This song is one where if you listen to the original session, it was all there right from the start, but then later we did the octaves.

SEAN: We talked about just being an instrumental band for a while.

SHINGO: I still think that could be cool.

IAN: That’s a terrible idea.

EUGENE: I think the vocals should be there to add another texture.

TETE: I like the mini-shoegazer part in the middle here.

SEAN: It’s a little too fast. We don’t play it this fast when we play live, because I don’t want it to.

IAN: And you’re the drummer so you get to decide how fast everyone plays.

[New Age comes on]

SEAN (to Eugene): This was your song.

SHINGO: It’s Yoyo’s favourite.

EUGENE: I can’t just write a song though, I have to wait for it. I don’t know where it comes from.

SEAN: It sounds really big.

EUGENE: It has to, because it’s called New Age! It’s a straightforward song.

SHINGO: I hardly do anything in this song. I remember an interview with Kim Deal, where she’s saying about musicians who don’t have the confidence to just play something simple and not make it complicated.

IAN: I think this is the song where someone listening to this album thinks, “Oh, this band can write a proper song”.

[You Fucking Changed, Man plays]

[Everyone sits in silence for a while and just listens. Eventually Sean speaks.]

SE: This was the problem child, but it turned out right.

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