Twenty-five years is a long time. Some things change, adapt and alter. Others stay reassuringly familiar. Japanese sonic alchemists Melt-Banana have straddled the two concepts over the decades, never staying exactly the same, but always forging their own unique path.
Their Steve Albini-produced debut Speak Squeak Creak – an uncompromising noise-punk barrage – exploded our of our speakers a quarter of a century ago. The album’s most notable moment was perhaps its final, untitled tune, where every song on the album was simply played simultaneously.
The six albums which followed have hopped between hardcore, grindcore, electro-pop, 8-bit electronic and melodic pop in a manner that has never compromised and never entirely made sense.
Certainly, as Louder stands side of the stage in Nottingham's Bodega social witnessing the maelstrom of noise bounding from the stage, we're perplexed. It's part hardcore, part techno, part broken Nintendo Gameboy and part classic rock (with everything in between), all merging into a sonic juggernaut.
This is what makes Melt-Banana one of the best bands in existence. A duo since 2013’s skronky melodic album Fetch, Yako (vocals) and Agata (guitar and other noises) are currently laying waste to UK venues once again.
Breaking the language barrier, our email exchange a few days before the Nottingham gig delved into their 25-year career their relationship with the UK and their standout memories from an astonishing career.
But when so many, more accessible acts have fallen by the wayside, how has a band as challenging and unique as Melt-Banana survived?
“I have no idea”, admits Yako.
“I am not that surprised, because I've not had other things to do. I guess, playing music became a part of my life. For example, you have a dog and you live with him for over 25 years, it would not be a surprising thing, but a natural thing."
“I’m not sure a dog can live 25 years,” questions Agata before offering his take. "I feel life is really fast. I feel like we are doing this only 10 years or so."
His perception of their career reflects the band’s kinetic, mash-up sound. It’s over before you realise, but leaves a long-lasting legacy. The band has been in existence since 1991, dropping that incendiary debut just three years later.
Taken under the wing of guitarist K.K.Null from cult Japanese noise rock outfit Zeni Geva, he put out their first two records and opened the doors to the USA, the UK and Europe.
A further connection with the band Discordance Axis, in particular, singer Jon Chang, got the band thinking about bringing in other influences (computer games, anime, movies, food) into the Melt-Banana mix. That band's drummer Dave Witte, who drummed in Europe and the US for the band and now plays for thrash jesters Municipal Waste, also had a huge influence on the band's overall sound.
Melt-Banana’s history is one of joining the dots of collaborators and supporters to paint an overall sonic picture.
The band’s standing in the UK, like so many legendary underground bands who found a wider audience, can be connected directly to one man – DJ John Peel.
"Around the late '90s, we suddenly started receiving letters and faxes from many countries," says Agata. "It was all because John Peel was playing our music and many people not only the UK but also other countries were listening to his program and knew about us."
Their 1999 session with the DJ was our first real exposure to the band. It was a sonic epiphany. The duo is open about the profound effect Mr Peel’s patronage has had on their career and how they see themselves.
"When we met him, he was always nice to us, and I thought he looked like Santa Claus,” says Yako adding, “I only knew the name John Peel when I was young and before starting Melt-Banana. I often saw “Peel Session” LP records at record stores, and most of all bands were good ones that I liked. At that time I couldn’t get much information about John Peel and his session in Japan, so it was kind of mystery for me.”
Solving the mystery still resonates with the band even now, as Agata explains, “I always think about him when we finish writing a song, what he would think of it if he listened. It is quite difficult for me to explain how important he was to our career. He spread our music to so many people and I always feel very happy when someone talks to me saying they knew about Melt-Banana from his radio show.”
Peel is the key that opened the up the UK (and beyond) to a band that should perplex British sensibilities, but Melt-Banana connect naturally with UK audiences. Having never understood where such a sound could come from, we're intrigued as to what influences their music-making process.
“I think mostly we are inspired by bands we played with in the past,” says Agata, "Especially bands who we toured with including support tour. Also, we both like playing video games, maybe we are also inspired by video games. And sounds in Tokyo. Tokyo is quite a noisy city if you walk in a busy area like Shibuya or Shinjuku or Akihabara or Harajuku, or somewhere like that. It's a natural thing for Japanese people but it might be one of the inspirations we get.”
Despite absorbing their surroundings, their music doesn't sound like a soundtrack to anything on Earth. "[It's a] soundtrack for a story about a girl who can't differentiate between reality and unreality," claims Yako.
“I feel our music fits more to some kind of battle in virtual space,” adds Agata. After all that the source of this music is a perplexing conundrum. One that makes it a huge surprise as to the massive tour supports and collaborations the band have garnered over their career.
The band have worked with luminaries of the experimental world including Merzbow, John Zorn and Mike Patton and supported bands like Tool, Melvins, Napalm Death, Fantomas, Mr Bungle and Jim Rourke on tour. The great and the good recognise the power of Melt Banana.
As well as memories of playing to huge crowds, stepping out into the world with these other twisted creative minds have left some lasting memories and strange tales.
“I played a card game with Maynard Keenan several times on stage during other Tool members were improvising,” explains Yako. “It was fun and unusual collaboration.”
Agata adds his memories to the mix, “Another thing that I remember about collaboration was with Fantomas. Mike Patton invited both of us on stage and did improv and when Yako started imitating cat sound, he started dog sound. I liked that moment very much.”
A Melt Banana live show is a collage of surreal moments, an explosion. Visceral, demanding, optimistic, relentless, vital. Part Bad Brains, part Atari Teenage Riot, part classic rock riffs, part 8-bit Nintendo blips. All-powerful. No band is like them and they are like no other band. At least, as the Nottingham show shimmers to a halt in a hail of feedback, following an unfathomable cover of the Damned’s ‘Neat Neat Neat’, that is what runs through our mind.
This is punk in its purest form, but no “punk” that any originator of the genre ever imagined. And it’s not over yet, as the duo are working on a follow-up to 2013’s brilliant Fetch album.
In typical Melt Banana fashion, this new release will be more of the same but different as Agata says, “The basic element will be the same like past albums, but we are trying to put new ideas for us into new songs.”
The fact is that 25 years in, this band still have no peers and maintain a relentless passion for forging new paths within their sonic universe. What does the future look like?
“I have no idea because I am not good at making a plan. But we will keep making records,” states Agata.
That’s all anybody could want.