Interview Exclusive

Interview with The Shamisenists

10/08/2022 2022-08-10 15:00:00 JaME Author: Jasy

Interview with The Shamisenists

JACK, leader of alternative shamisen rock band The Shamisenists, took JaME's questions on the group's origins, latest single and other topics.

© The Shamisenists. All rights reserved.
Alternative shamisen rock band The Shamisenists released their latest single SAKURA in March 2022. JaME took the opportunity to ask some questions to JACK, leader of the instrumental trio, regarding their most recent release, the band's origins, their upcoming plans and plenty more besides.

Since this is our first interview with you, could you please introduce yourself?

JACK: Konnichiwa, JaME readers! I am JACK, leader of a Tokyo-based alternative shamisen rock band called The Shamisenists. The Shamisenists consists of three members: YUJI on bass shamisen, KYOHEI on drums, and myself on lead shamisen. Today, I will be speaking on behalf of the band.

First of all, I would like to thank JaME for the continual support I received when I was playing with the band KAO=S. And I'm even more grateful for such a wonderful opportunity for this interview with my current band The Shamisenists.

Let's go back into the past and look into the band’s origins. How did you all meet, and what can you tell us about the formation of The Shamisenists?

JACK: At first, I met YUJI on the social media site called Mixi about 12 years ago. He sent me a video of him playing shamisen at some local music festival in Fukui. I thought he was very assertive because he messaged me with that video: “How is my shamisen performance? Why don’t you play with me!?“ I couldn’t give an immediate answer for the second question. As for the first one, I actually thought his performance was a bit rough but had a lot of young energy and I was drawn to it. So I messaged him: “You have a bunch of talent! Why don’t we meet in the near future!“

After a few years, he moved to Tokyo from his hometown Fukui and I asked him “Why don’t you play with me?” And we turned out to be a unit. From that point on, almost every weekend we kept playing on the streets of Koenji, which is a famous town for alternative youth culture in Tokyo, and that was where we used to live.

You know, busking is not so simple. We’ve experienced so many things through it, but one day, an event organizer told us that he wanted us to play at his event at a famous live venue in Shibuya. I was like “Thanks God!” but at the same time, I realized that we needed to find a super cool drummer to compete against other bands with our “shamisen rock’n roll!”

At that precise moment, very luckily, I was able to meet KYOHEI through a mutual friend. At the beginning, YUJI and me planned to hire him as a support drummer, but his drumming at the show blew us away and was so cool that we invited him to be a regular member. Our activity as a “band” started from there. Sorry for this lengthy story...

Is there any special meaning behind your band name?

JACK: Actually, “shamisenist” is the word I created when I started shamisen, to describe the shamisen style the way I want to do, because I felt that the term “shamisen player” is too normal for me. Sometime later, the word "shamisenist" gradually gained popularity on the internet, so I suggested to YUJI when we became a unit "Why don’t we name ourselves THE SYAMISENIST?" (we later changed the name to The Shamisenists in 2021) and he said "Let’s go with it!"

You refer to yourselves as an "alternative shamisen rock band". Could you please explain this a bit further?

JACK: Back in 2020, when we released [re:tokyo], I somehow felt that the word “alternative rock” would help to describe our music a bit easier because the album had a wide variety of styles like funk, punk, post-rock, drum’n'bass, techno, and so on, and I guess the same goes for our albums going forward. Additionally, "shamisen" is obviously one of our important identities, and that’s why we call our genre “Alternative Shamisen Rock.” However, we haven't really figured out how to accurately describe the genre that we play because it’s kind of an unprecedented music style, so we would like to know your opinions. How would you guys describe our music? Please let us know!

You and YUJI both play the shamisen, in lead and bass roles respectively. How much does your playing vary between the different roles?

JACK: There was not much difference between my playing and YUJI’s in the early days, but from our second album LAWLESS, he has been playing bass shamisen and our sound became much more powerful. He used to create such lower sounds by using only an octaver effect pedal, but nowadays, he has changed the instrument to four-stringed shamisen (which is his original) so that he gets more into his role as a bass shamisenist. After that, we became more defined as a shamisen duo like we are now, as lead and bass.

Do the different basic tunings - honchoushi, niagari and sansagari* - still play an important role in your playing, or do you play in more individualized tunings?

JACK: That’s JaME for you! I really appreciate that you're knowledgeable about shamisen tunings! Sugoi! Our music also incorporates these three basic tunings that you mentioned. Actually, the tuning we use most is niagari. Niagari fits in very well with rock music because I think it can sound very similar to a guitar’s power chord. However, I sometimes create unusual tunings so that I can break out of a rut when I'm writing music. Especially with some of the music on our second album LAWLESS, you can hear our unique mode which is rarely heard in general. My recommendation is Tsuki-no-kakera. Kiite kudasai! ("Please listen to it!").

*The basic tunings are as follows: For honchoushi the strings are tuned to C-F-C, for niagari to C-G-C and for sansagari to C-F-B.

What is the band’s writing process like in general? Does every member bring in ideas, or is the music composed only by you?

JACK: Basically, I write music, and then I bring the songs to rehearsals and we complete them together as we jam. Occasionally, YUJI also writes music such as LOTUS, which is included in [re:tokyo]. I believe in his flair for compositions, so I want him to write a lot more! It would be great for the band, you know.

What influences you when you are writing music for The Shamisenists?

JACK: Enthusiasm of listeners wanting to hear new music they have never heard before drives my motivation to compose. When I write music, I always visualize the image of three of us playing on the stage and our audience getting excited on the floor. It’s very important for me when writing The Shamisenists music.

Do you write the music in regular notes or in bunkafu* notation?

JACK: I would say the former. There may be times that I scribble notes roughly in bunkafu notation as a temporary memo, like while I am on the train, but basically I write music in regular notation because I want to share my music with many great musicians, not only “wagakki” musicians.

*The bunkafu notation is the tablature notation for shamisen.

In an interview with KAO=S a few years back, you told us about the specialties of yomisen, a four-stringed shamisen. Do you use this special instrument for The Shamisenists’ music as well? If so, which songs would listeners be able to hear it in?

JACK: Actually, I haven’t been playing yomisen since I left KAO=S. Right now, I would rather like to strive to get my shamisen performance better because I now know shamisen is an instrument with very high potential. If I find a chance in the near future, I'll think of restarting yomisen because yomisen is the one and only instrument in the world I created! So, please look forward to that day!

On your last album, [re:tokyo], one can hear small vocal parts on the tracks ISOLA REMOTA and [re:tokyo]. Was this specifically part of the concept for that album, or is it something you might explore in other releases as well?

JACK: That's a good question. In the album [re:tokyo], actually I had a specific concept of what I wanted to convey to the world, which is dissatisfaction against Tokyo. I assume a lot of people overseas have longed to visit Tokyo and I am thankful for that, but in fact, I thought "Real Tokyo" is a bit far from an ideal one. I won’t get into the details of it now, but I put several meanings into the word "[re:tokyo]", such as "reconstruction", "revival", "restart", and so on. That's why I felt I needed to raise my voice. Although we recorded [re:tokyo] right before the pandemic, right now, our world is pressing for reform, as everyone knows. We would like to keep raising our voice in our own way.

You experimented with adding keyboards to your sound for SAKURA. What was that experience like for you, and what was the reaction like from your fans?

JACK: At the beginning of this year, we decided to add a keyboardist as a support member. That made us very happy because until he came in, YUJI and I have been playing chords with the instruments with only three strings, but now, thanks to him, we can pull out more shamisen-ish phrases and sounds into our music instead of playing chords! I think you can feel a more shamisen-ish mood on SAKURA compared to our past music. We've played SAKURA with keyboards at our shows over ten times and the feedback from the audience has been so far so good!

What did you want to express with SAKURA? Is there a story behind the song?

JACK: To be honest, I sometimes feel sorry for sakura (cherry trees) as they're praised only when they're in full blossom, as if they don’t exist in other seasons. We must appreciate sakura more because all of us who live in Japan have received a lot of energy and courage from sakura in our lives. So I wanted to express my gratitude to sakura through composing and playing. That’s why I expressed various aspects of sakura, not only its bright side, as if it's like a human’s life. Additionally, we had a Japanese tour in spring this year and we named it the "SAKURA" tour. The concept of the tour was that we would sow sakura seeds all over Japan through our music, although the tour was rather limited due to the pandemic. We believe in music that has a positive power to light up the Earth.

It was mentioned that Walking On The Moon was inspired by a track from The Police. What else can you tell us about this song?

JACK: The other day, when I was practicing in a studio alone, I jammed with my loop pedal and came up with the main riff. Originally, I was thinking of this music for my solo project but the other members got so excited and liked it when they listened, so I decided to record and release it with The Shamisenists as a B-side of SAKURA. This music was kind of a big challenge for us because we tried to make it like 'Shamisen-EDM'. We would be so happy if you dance to the song at our shows.

Recently, you started a crowdfunding campaign for a new album. Please tell us a bit more about the campaign. Is there is a concept for the new album you are planning to create from it?

JACK: The Shamisenists have also been having a difficult time during this pandemic. There was this big audition called “The Color Red Challenge” and the winner was supposed to be invited to record a new full album in Denver, Colorado where this music company Color Red is headquartered, for global distribution. The Shamisenists won the prize, but because of the pandemic, the project has been put on hold.

However, as you know, we would like to share our new music with fans while it's still hot off the press. So, we eventually decided to make an album in Japan instead of waiting for the recording opportunity in the United States. We needed funding to make the album and we decided to go for crowdfunding. We've had a lot of support way beyond our original expectations. At this time, we would like to express our gratitude to you, all our supporters! We promise you that it is going to be another masterpiece!

What other plans do you have for the future?

JACK: We're very happy to announce that we're planning to go to France in August! Back in 2020, YUJI and I were invited to Brittany in France as guest musicians at a local music festival Roue Waroch. We played with Plantec - a Breton Celtic band we met in Tokyo back in 2016 - and it was really lively and exciting! Thankfully, Plantec has invited us this time again! We will bring KYOHEI this time! I am so stoked to be there finally as The Shamisenists! We'll announce the full details of the tour as soon as we can.

Thank you very much for the interview. Do you have a parting message for our readers?

JACK: Thank you very much to all the readers for taking the time to read this interview! Arigato! I would love to keep in touch with you guys so please follow us on Instagram, Spotify, YouTube, and things like that, and feel free to drop us a line anytime! Thank you again!

JaME would like to thank JACK, The Shamisenists and Tomoko Davies-Tanaka for making this interview possible.

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