August 1, 2012
From A to ZZZ’s
The other night I stopped in for a beer at Lone Wolf, a bar out in Bushwick, Brooklyn. There were only a few people there. The only other time I had been in Lone Wolf was to see ZZZ’s and some other bands. Then it was crowded. I took my beer and walked back into the rear area where the bands had played. The Lone Wolf stage has a slanted red and black checkerboard background, and I tried to picture ZZZ’s up there and playing. I could almost do it, and I remembered the excited crowd the minute they took the stage. ZZZ’s are three attractive young Japanese women. The crowd was enthralled before they even played a note, and their dark, edgy rocking started up some moshing that night. As I thought about the show, and the crowd cheering them on, I remembered a conversation I had overheard on another night at Otto’s Shrunken Head, a popular tiki bar on 14th St. ZZZ’s had just finished playing a very tasty set. A young man was telling his friends how great he thought Youkaku, the guitarist, was, and that the other two ZZZ’s could be easily replaced. His friend nodded wisely and said, “That’s what’s great about ZZZ’s. Each one of them has a completely different style. Every guy who sees them becomes fascinated by a different member of the band.”
ZZZ’s were originally the musicians, guitar, bass, and drums, of Hystoic Vein, a Japanese, all-female band. They released two CDs as Hystoic Vein, and came to SXSW two years in a row. Both times they took part in the Japan Nite tour after SXSW, which is run by Audrey Kimura. The first year they only did the west coast part of that tour, but the second year they did the full tour, and finally came to New York, which is the first time I was able to see them. I was impressed enough that I wrote an article about them which you can read here at Anusaya.com. Roughly half a year after that, Hystoic Vein’s lead singer, Inko, left the band, and it was announced that the band had broken up, but that wasn’t quite true. The rest of the band decided to stick together. They changed their name to ZZZ’s, and Youkaku, the guitarist, and Yukary, the bassist, took over the vocals. They quickly started working up new material, and aimed at creating a darker sound than Hystoic Vein had explored. Then they got the idea that they would like to move to New York for a couple of months, and started investigating how that could be done.
As I understand it, some of the influences of their new sound came from the post-punk of New York bands, and they hoped that they would be able to soak up some of that sound and get a taste of those influences by being part of the New York scene. They wanted to play in the New York clubs, and hear some of the current New York bands, while they were still in the formative stage of their new band. If they were going to create a new sound, they wanted some new influences and new experiences, so, though they quickly set off on a short Japanese tour, they set their sights on New York, and arrived about a month before SXSW 2012. They had been told that to get gigs in New York they would have to do some recording, which they hadn’t planned on, but they quickly went into a studio and came out with a demo of a few of their new songs. Before they arrived in New York they’d only been able to book one show. “New York is tough!” Youkaku told me on our first meeting after they arrived. The band got cracking, though. Not only did they begin checking out clubs to see other bands, but they began looking for gigs for April, when they would return after SXSW and the Japan Nite tour which they would join again this year. That one gig they’d been able to book from Japan was at Bowery Electric, and by the time they played that gig they already had a self-made CD package and a very sharp looking T-shirt for sale. This is one hard-working band! They also managed to book a number of gigs for April, were enjoying their New York experience, and had been practicing a good deal and working up some new material.
It was the first time I’d been downstairs at the Bowery Electric club, a small place with a reasonably good sound system. ZZZ’s were the opening band and scheduled to go on at 5PM. They played a short set that night to a small audience, but I, for one, was impressed at what this band had put together in a very short span of time. I knew beforehand it was a technically gifted band, but the material they were playing had been created in just the last few months, and some of it they still seemed to be developing as they played. Yes, even at this point, each song had a structure, but a lot of ZZZ’s playing seems inspired and improvisational. This band has been playing together for four plus years now, and each member of the band plays off the other members, enjoying the musical interactions as they create their songs. Lyn, the drummer, dictates a good number of the changes, adding a portion of her drumming at a time. Sections often start out quietly, or simply, and then build as they continue. In this way ZZZ’s fluctuate the intensity, building waves of sound into their songs and their set. As a song builds, the drum parts become more active, and Youkaku, on guitar, using riffs and various boxes, plays off them, allowing her sound to grow, spiraling up into beautiful monstrosities that bring her down to her knees, where she can better reach her boxes. Yukary, on bass, plays off what Youkaku is creating, and grounds it into Lyn’s beat, with flurries of her own that comment on the progress of these musical concoctions. What I saw was impressive for a band who were still in the act of creating their sound. There were a few people who had arrived early for the other bands, and then there were the few of us who were there to see ZZZ’s. The majority of the latter very much enjoyed ZZZ’s set, and would return regularly to see them when they played New York again in April. Plus, ZZZ’s impressed Bowery Electric enough that they were booked to reappear there in April as a headlining band.
That was ZZZ’s first gig in the U.S. This new band obviously had their musical fingers on a pulse. They had an interesting look, a strong performance style, and their fluid approach to their songs displayed the confidence they felt in their abilities, and allowed them to toy with the new songs as they performed them. Just about the only person in the band who talked to the audience during the performance was Lyn, the drummer, the one who didn’t sing. Her best speech was when she suggested that there was merchandise for sale and you should buy some, or she would kill you. Youkaku, on guitar, and Yukary, on bass, sometimes would retune during Lyn’s short speeches, and would only speak to introduce a song or announce that there were only two songs left to play. The musicianship of all three women is technically strong. For me, though, the claw that grabs your attention is Youkaku. Not only does she use her boxes to create a variety of unique sounds with her guitar, but she bends, jerks, and convulses her body as if in an attempt to wrench out another sound from that guitar that won’t quite come. That, or she would raise her guitar over her head and play it back behind her neck. She has an impressive variety of moves, and for me it’s the hook of the band. Yukary does some dance steps as she plays, and sometimes raises her arms above her head, reaching into the sky, and Lyn is an expressive drummer, who rarely manages to keep her hat on for an entire set, so the other band members are working hard, too, but Youkaku’s moves have an edginess that beckons your attention.
ZZZ’s had a look, too. My guess is it was only a slight derivation of what they wore in Hystoic Vein. From a short conversation I had with Youkaku, she mentioned she was wearing some of the same stage clothing she had been wearing in the Hystoic Vein days. Unfortunately, there were some tears in it by now. Yukary seemed to stick to a large white T-shirt with “Zz” written across it, and stockings. Lyn wore a suit that matched her blue cap, which resembled that of a marching band with an “X” embroidered into the top in gold thread. Until their very last two New York shows they wore these outfits for every performance. That was fine. They were going for a consistency in their stage presentation, and a memorable look, and it seemed to be working. It was a recognizable statement of who ZZZ’s was, and it did leave an impression.
They pounded the streets of New York, Brooklyn, and even Queens, sight-seeing, checking out bands, clubs, and looking for dates for April. They had their CDs and T-shirts together to sell at that first Bowery Electric gig, at SXSW, and on their Japan Nite tour. SXSW and the Japan Nite tour were next on their agenda. On many nights of the Japan Nite tour they were the headlining act, and deservedly so. When I saw them at the New York date of that tour they surprised me again! They had been playing regularly in Texas, and they took the stage of Public Assembly, a Brooklyn club, with authority. They seemed happy to be back in New York, and were looking to leave an impression for when they came back again in April. Youkaku was strutting. When she wasn’t singing, she would often come out to the edge of the stage and swing the neck of her guitar out over the audience’s heads, often staring them down as she strummed away. She did a good deal of playing the guitar with her teeth, and playing it behind her neck, but toward the end of the set she did her primo stage maneuver. Playing her guitar, she leaned over backwards, and kept leaning backwards until her body was an arch on the stage, supported by her head and feet. Best of all, she was still rocking away at that guitar! It’s a magnificent move, and one I’ve never seen anyone but her do. She does a number of other great moves, which mostly seem to be emotionally improvised twists of her body, writhing as she strums away at her guitar, but seeing her go over backwards, landing on her head, and still driving away at that guitar is a classic rock ‘n’ roll move, and if they hadn’t already had that audience totally behind them by that point, I believe that would have done it. Actually, though, they had that audience in the palm of their hand a couple of songs into that show. If their stage presence hadn’t done it, their musicianship surely would have. Lyn had a stage move for us that night, too, which I never saw her do again. At a point where the band had brought a song down from a dramatic high, Lyn grabbed a tambourine, and stepped out from behind her drums. While Youkaku and Yukary kept things going, rather eerily, Lyn stepped out and patrolled the front of the stage, banging away at her tambourine, encouraging the audience to get behind this fine band and show them some love. This was a band that was ready to be noticed. Ah, but they still held something back. At the end of their set, they had just finished playing a rousing song, and were getting a good amount of applause, when I noticed Youkaku signal to Yukary, a finger across her neck, that it was over, and they packed up their instruments. My guess is that, though the audience would have loved to see more, Youkaku judged that they had reached their peak for the night, and had decided to stop at a high point.
When they returned to New York in April, I was able to see them at XPO 929, Lit Lounge, Lone Wolf, Lakeside Lounge, Bowery Electric, Otto’s Shrunken Head, and I missed a couple of other shows in Brooklyn. I saw them over and over again in many different settings, and what became clear in my mind was that this band was taking every gig they could get, and winning over every audience they played to. Interestingly, as they played gig after gig, and attracted a number of loyal followers, there were changes going on. For one thing, they were occasionally adding new songs to their repertoire, but the set never got longer. As the shows continued, at some point Lyn stopped talking to the audience. She no longer said anything between songs or during tune-ups. Youkaku seemed to put herself in check, as well. She did a lot less of the guitar tricks, picking with her teeth, or playing it behind her neck, and I don’t believe I ever saw her do the arch trick again. She still moved with that guitar like she was feeling it, and now and then went down on her knees with it, as if those things were not stage moves so much as natural expressions of how she plays guitar. The band seemed to be searching for a new identity. What I noticed as they curbed their stage performance, was the darkness of the music. It had certainly been there before, but as their stage show became more reserved, the darkness of the music came into the foreground. They were singing songs about “Dystopia”, “Suicide”, and “I Hate You” (Cut It Out). Talking with them before or after the show, they’re friendly young women, but on stage they had become dark, and sullen. Their musicianship continued to be very strong, and could easily just about make any music intriguing and exciting, but as they seemed to be curbing their performance, and the darkness of their music moved to the forefront, I began to wonder where these changes were leading them.
Kengo (of Peelander-Z—a New York/Japanese band who put on one of the best stage shows you’re ever likely to see) goes by the moniker Peelander-Yellow, and began helping ZZZ’s in a variety of ways, as well as introducing them to other members of the New York/Japanese rock community. One group of people who I believe they met through him, did a photo shoot with ZZZ’s that became a revamping of their image. The last two ZZZ’s shows in New York, at Fontana’s and Pianos, showed off this new image. It’s still tough, but it’s a more feminine and sultry image. Lyn had traded in her marching band hat for a black hat with a large brim, which still tends to fall off after a few songs. Yukary, rather than the “Zz” T-shirt, was now wearing a long evening dress, a bow in her hair, and her hair in a bun. Youkaku had discarded some of her punkier clothing, and added a bodice with a see-through lace material below the neckline and down the arms, along with shoulder-protectors, which resemble Terminator shoulder-pads. This new look may have been designed to temper the edgy darkness of the music, or just to present them with a new flourish for when they returned to Japan. It certainly gave them a more majestic and stylish appearance than they had had before.
Those last two performances were not elegant in any way. The darkness of the music continues to flourish, and the change of image did not change the band or their music. These are still the charming women who enjoy talking with their fans, before and after the show, and who want to play as often as they get the chance. I was able to talk with Lyn outside of Otto’s Shrunken Head, the last gig before their new image came into play, and I asked her, “Are you glad to be returning to Japan?” “No!” she replied firmly. “We love New York! In Japan we can only play maybe three shows a month. Here there are so many places to play, we can play many shows!” Hey, it’s nice to meet someone who enjoys their work! From what I’ve seen of their itinerary since they’ve returned to Japan, it hasn’t slowed down much from the hectic schedule they were keeping in New York. Good for them! This is a band worth watching, and I’ll look forward to seeing what new sounds and songs they’ll come up with to show off both their musicianship and their edgy flash. It will be intriguing to see what new directions this skilled and charmingly magnetic band pursues as they battle their dark dreams in the spotlights of the rock ‘n’ roll stage.
—Paul Wheeler (former webmaster, writer and photographer of RockOfJapan.com)