Revealing New Facts and Favorite Songs in a Round-Table Discussion
A greatest hits album containing tracks selected by fans to celebrate The Yellow Monkey’s 20th anniversary will be released in July 2013. And to commemorate its release, we’re holding a round-table discussion with four people who have been deeply involved with the band over the years. Many rock fans have continued to support the band even nine years after their breakup, so this discussion will be loaded with new facts and important anecdotes.
Interview and Article: Tomoyuki Mori
Photography: Yousuke Kamiyama
He was the director for all of The Yellow Monkey’s releases on the Nippon Columbia label, from their major label debut to their 1996 single “Spark”. He produced groups such as Red Warriors and Loudness, leading them to their big breaks. He later left Nippon Columbia and joined Warner Music. He’s currently a senior producer at Nippon Crown.
A photographer that travels all over the world. He’s best known for his photography work with The Yellow Monkey, Kiyoshiro Imawano, Kazuya Yoshii, The Rolling Stones, and more. He began photographing The Yellow Monkey with their first concert at Nippon Budokan in 1995. He took charge of their album artwork from the 1996 single “Spark”, and put together a documentary film about them in 2000’s “Spring Tour”. He continues to have an inseparable relationship with Kazuya Yoshii, even after The Yellow Monkey’s breakup.
A music video and film director. He worked on the videos for “Spark”, “Rakuen”, “Love Love Show”, “Burn”, “Kyuukon”, “Hanareru na”, “Sugar Fix”, “My Winding Road”, “So Young”, “Bara iro no Hibi”, “Seinaru Umi to Sunshine”, “Shock Hearts”, and “Brilliant World”. He served as the director for the 1997 concert compilation “Red Tape”, and the movie “trancemission” which acted as the group’s first movie appearance. He’s also been called “the fifth member of the band” by Kazuya Yoshii himself. Takahashi has also worked on videos for Mr. Children, Yuzu, AKB48, and many more.
Former editor for the foreign travel magazine “AB-ROAD”, editor-in-chief of “Ongaku to Hito” magazine, and editor-in-chief of music site “Listen Japan”. Currently she is a freelance editor, music writer, and novelist. She’s known Kazuya Yoshii and Heesey since they were in school, and had interviews with The Yellow Monkey in Ongaku to Hito practically every month during her time with the magazine (1995-1999). She was also involved in the Internet streaming of the January 2001 Tokyo Dome “Mekara Uroko 8” concert when she was with Listen Japan.
The Outskirts of Glam Rock…
I’d like to take a look back on The Yellow Monkey’s career with you all today. Let’s start with how each of you first met them, and what sort of relationship you had with them.
(Munekiyo) Sure. I worked with them from when their first major label album (“The Night Snails And Plastic Boogie”) came out in 1992, but I first met them in 1991. When the president of what would later be their management company (Oomori Tsunemasa) was taking care of their bookings at La.mama (a concert venue in Shibuya), I got a demo tape (yes, they were still cassette tapes back then) from him of their indies album “Bunched Birth”. I mostly just helped promote it, but it was really amazing. After that I told him I wanted to see them perform live, and the first concert I saw was at Oomiya Freaks. I met the members of the band after that concert.
(Ariga) You were already working with Red Warriors and such at that point, so did the band members know that you were in the business of producing cool rock bands? I’m just thinking that if that was the case, it’s no wonder they would have wanted to talk to you.
(Munekiyo) When Heesey asked me “You work with Red Warriors, right?”, I did think that might be a bit of advantage if they were going over to another record company (Laughs)
When you saw them perform live, did you know you wanted to work with them?
(Munekiyo) Basically, yes. I still remember it quite well, so I can tell you that their concert was extremely cool. Though when I look back on the photos from that era in their career and see their makeup and costumes, it really makes me think “Huh?”. They were more of a band that was on the outskirts of glam rock…
(Yuuki) It was like they were performing kabuki! (Laughs)
(Munekiyo) But I really thought that made them cool at that time. Also, they were all pretty tall. The stage at Oomiya Freaks was pretty high up, so I couldn’t really tell exactly how tall they were. But when I met them afterward, I realized they actually were all tall. Yoshii really looked a lot like Yasuaki Honda, an artist I was involved with back then.
(Yasuaki Honda’s “One Night Kids”)
“If you like Bowie and JAPAN, you should see them”
Miss Yuuki, you’ve known some of the members since high school, right?
(Yuuki) I was in bands myself during high school, and back then a band I was in used the same studio as one Heesey was in. His band was called Murbas, and a lot of people would come to see them play. And of course Urgh Police, the band Yoshii was in, was popular too. I think Yoshii was maybe about 17 back then? I believe Heesey was around 21, but anyway everyone was in different bands.
Emma and Annie were in Killer May.
(Yuuki) That’s right. And Yoshii played bass in Urgh Police. Awhile after that when OMMY (Oumiya Souichirou, who would later play in Heesey With Dudes) told me “If you like Bowie and JAPAN, you should see The Yellow Monkey. Lovin’s their singer”, I was surprised. But I went to see them play, and there he was singing. He was wearing fishnet stockings too, and I was surprised at how good his legs looked! (Laughs) That was at Oomiya Freaks too, but there were just no other bands around that were as cool as them.
Were you still playing in bands at that point?
(Yuuki) I’d quit by that point! (Laughs) I was already working as an editor. Then I wasn’t working for music magazines yet, but later on I’d join “Ongaku to Hito” and I got Yoshii and Heesey on the front cover for the release of their 4th album “Smile”. So that was the first time I’d seen them in quite awhile. When I came into the photography studio they asked me “Hey, what are you doing?” (Laughs) After that I set them up with interviews in the magazine practically every month for awhile.
Their First Budokan Live Was “The Worst Place For Taking Photos”
Mr. Ariga, you photographed the band during their first concert at the Budokan in April 1995, right?
(Ariga) That’s right, I think I met them at the best possible time. I did see them on TV before that though: The video for “Avant Garde de Ikou yo” was played on a late night program called “Utau Tenki Youhou” (“Singing Weather Forecast”) during a segment that introduces new artists, and it blew me away. I thought “What an amazing band this is!”, and I was really happy to learn later on that Emma and Annie were members. I took a lot of photos of Killer May back when I was first getting started.
(Munekiyo) I remember when you were photographing them at the Budokan pretty well, it was very impactful. There wasn’t much light in front during that concert, so it must have been the worst place for taking photos. And you kind of flipped out about it after it was all over.
(Ariga) Well, like you said…you can’t really take good photos in those lighting conditions (Laughs)
(Munekiyo) All I could think was “Oh god, I’ve made this world famous photographer angry”. No matter what I said in response, I was talking to the official camera man of The Rolling Stones. I was really nervous and thought for sure you’d say you’d never photograph the band again, but luckily you kept on doing it.
(Ariga) That’s because about six months later I got a call from Mr. Oomori saying that they’d improved the lighting, and asking me to come to another concert. I figured maybe it was a bit early in the relationship to be quite so unforgiving.
Talking About UFOs For the Entire First Meeting
Mr. Takahashi, “Spark” was the first music video that you directed?
(Takahashi) That’s right. It was released in July 1996, but I got the call to work on the video in April or May. I guess there were other directors that they were considering as well.
(Munekiyo) The band members really liked you a lot. Though you didn’t talk concrete ideas at the time, the image that you were talking about having for the video is really what you delivered. And Yoshii really liked that pose with the fingers in front of the face! (Laughs) They all thought you really came through.
(The music video for “Spark”)
(Takahashi) I don’t remember our first meeting too well, but I think I recall just talking about UFOs the entire time! (Laughs) I think maybe our being basically the same age had something to do with how well we got along.
What sort of impressions did you have of The Yellow Monkey back then?
(Takahashi) I actually didn’t have too much of an opinion of them at first, one way or the other. I didn’t know whether they were cool or not in general, but I thought it was interesting that they had an old J-Pop side to them. Though I wasn’t sure if they were doing that on purpose or if it just came naturally. I thought that they would probably be hip in a lot of different ways, in a very narrow sense though. That’s why I remember experiencing a bit of culture shock when I met them: I remember Yoshii using some very old fashioned words. Like he said “A really western style video would be good” (“batakusai video ga ii”, “batakusai” being an old fashioned word for “Western” or “Exotic”) (Laughs) I’d only seen the word “batakusai” in books! (Laughs)
“At This Rate They’ll Be Lucky To Sell One Million”
I see. The Yellow Monkey made their major label debut in 1992 with “The Night Snails And Plastic Boogie”. During their second (Experience Movie” in 1993) and third (“Jaguar Hard Pain” in 1994) albums, the amount of people coming to see them live was growing but that wasn’t translating to greater album sales. How did you perceive that whole situation, Mr. Munekiyo?
(Munekiyo) Their record contract was only for two years, so when those two years passed I was kind of sweating it as we were coming up on the contract renewal. But things weren’t like they are today where you had to produce within two years, you were able to renew your contract even if you hadn’t yet. But I thought that if things continued on like that, it was a losing battle. Yoshii and I had some arguments during Jaguar Hard Pain: When I’d tell him he should be going in a more commercial direction, he told me that he wanted to make a concept album just once before doing anything else.
(Yuuki) Shouldn’t you tell them about the conversation at that cafe in Nagano?
(Munekiyo) It was in Honancho, but yes! (Laughs) Oomori asked them as well to come and meet to talk about all this. I told them that even if we renew their contract, they’re not going to sell anything this way. They had to change the way they think about things, and change the way they write songs. This ties in with what Mr. Ariga was saying earlier, but I essentially told them “I know you guys want to try a lot of different things, but do that after you’re selling albums!”. When you do that sort of thing before you’re selling anything, your way of thinking is the only thing that’s changing and you’re seen from the outside as just some crazy brand. Keeping in mind times were different then, I told them that at this rate they’ll be lucky to sell one million copies of anything.
(Yuuki) One million would be a huge hit nowadays! (Laughs)
(Munekiyo) Right. Anyway, when I asked them “Do you guys want to sell no more than one million copies of something, or do you want to get number one on the Oricon charts?”. They answered they wanted number one on the Oricon charts. So then I told them their current approach just wouldn’t work for that. And right then and there I came up with a rough outline of their trajectory for their third year. And I told Yoshii in particular very clearly “If you agree with this, then I want you to not screw around and do it”. Their first release after that was “Nettaiya” (the group’s 4th single in July of 1994). I can’t remember where on the charts that placed…
It was number 59 on the Oricon charts.
(Munekiyo) That was pretty amazing considering the band’s situation at the time. They got a single at number 59 even though they hadn’t even charted up until then. But the band members didn’t see it that way. It was a single they’d written intending to break into the top 10, so they were really shocked when it didn’t. And I was shocked to see how shocked they were! I told them if it was that easy to sell records, no one would have any trouble! (Laughs) And I also told them that doing this got them more popular, so all they had to do was keep it up. Their songs themselves were changing: Their single before that, “Kanashiki Asian Boy”, was really catchy but had parts that were difficult to understand the meanings of. But from “Nettaiya” on, the lyrics became fairly easy to understand.
Putting it All on the Line With “Love Communication” and “Smile”
Going into 1995, sales gradually began to increase. Their 4th album “Smile”, which followed their 5th single “Love Communication”, came in at number 4 on the Oricon charts. Wasn’t that showing good results?
(Munekiyo) I can see why you’d have that impression now, but that actually wasn’t the case. Love Communication wasn’t that big of a hit, and “smile” didn’t just suddenly sell 100,000 copies: It stalled out at around 40,000 at first. But since they were a band that we were never sure would even get to 10,000 at that point, it was a big hit for them. Even Love Communication was a song that was just barely released: Yoshii wanted to release “Eden no Yoru ni” as a single, so Love Communication didn’t even exist until the recording for the album was over. There was no way that “Eden no Yoru ni” would have worked as a single, so I told him to write a song that was more like Kanashiki Asian Boy. Yoshii’s reaction was “But we’ve already done that, and you saw how it turned out. We want to go in a different direction”, but I persuaded him that something more like Kanashiki Asian Boy was the path that they’d succeed on. And I was amazed at what Yoshii came up with! He bought me a demo that was exactly what I had in mind, so we hurriedly recorded it.
(Yuuki) Even when he’s at his wit’s end, Yoshii is always writing. He was even writing in the studio, I think his ability to concentrate is amazing.
(Munekiyo) I was always telling him that’s no good, he has to do at home and bring it in with him. He wrote lyrics right there in the studio and immediately recorded them quite a bit, but they were hard to use since they were hand written on a sheet (Laughs) I know it was tough for him, but the songs were getting written. And as far as lyrics go, he wasn’t the type to just churn them out with no resistance.
Miss Yuuki, when you saw The Yellow Monkey around the time of “Smile”, did you feel like they were about to get their big break?
(Yuuki) To be honest, because I’d known them for a long time and liked much of what they did, so I knew that “smile” wasn’t going to cut it. I just remember thinking that it was extremely catchy, and being shocked by hearing lyrics like “bonjour Japon” (lyrics from Mary ni Kuchizuke) since Yoshii absolutely hadn’t sung anything like that up until that point. I realized that they were putting it all on the line.
Having the Feeling That “This Could Reach Number One” During Recording
The next album “Four Seasons” was released just nine months after “Smile”. And this one got number one on the charts.
(Munekiyo) I think that Four Seasons was huge for them. They were in London recording the album right around when “Tsuioku no Mermaid” went on sale (their 7th single, released 07/1995), and there was a real feeling that this could be the album that reaches number one. The feeling of “this should sell” that we had during “Smile” had no real basis (Laughs), but there was a much better response for Four Seasons.
(Ariga) Their performances were great too. They were in the groove, and they weren’t being stingy with it.
(Munekiyo) That’s true. Recording went really quickly for this. Before this I’d often have to push them to not fall behind, and I’d often get annoyed when it came time for Yoshii to record the vocals. It all went really smoothly with Four Seasons though. Before it would be like “Oh, the guitar part’s recorded already? Alright, let’s record the vocals then? What do you mean the lyrics aren’t done?!”
(Yuuki) So it was a good atmosphere then.
(Munekiyo) It was, and all of the members were there in the studio the whole time. Annie wouldn’t have anything to do when he finished recording the drum parts, right? But he was still there in the studio the whole time.
And their singles started hitting big with “Tsuioku no Mermaid” and “Taiyou ga Moeteiru” (Their 8th single, released 09/1995).
(Ariga) Yeah, but didn’t “Tsuioku no Mermaid” feel kind of like a typical pop song? Why was that?
(Munekiyo) That was the only song during their time at Columbia that they worked with an outside producer on. The background is that it was meant to be a tie-up song. Having a song in Joyeux Couture Maki’s “Camellia Diamond” line of commercials was something of a launch pad for bands back then, so if we got this song in one of those it would definitely sell.
(An example of a Camellia Diamond commercial, this one featuring a song from TM Network)
(Ariga) Ahh, the band Ziggy did the same thing.
(It’s not the actual commercial, but this is the Ziggy song “Jealousy” that was referred to above)
(Munekiyo) Right. Back then there was a lot of talk about the chances of one of the band’s songs being used in these commercials being pretty high. We thought bringing in an outside producer might make the chances even higher, and the members themselves were very conscious of all this too. Even the title of the song would fit well in a diamond commercial, right? But consequently it didn’t have very much of a rock feeling to it.
“Jam” Gave Rise to Many Stories
How did “Jam”, one of the band’s most well known songs, come to be?
(Yuuki) There are some stories behind that song.
(Munekiyo) Yeah. Right around “Jam” was when we were arguing the most.
(Ariga) Oh really?
(Munekiyo) “Taiyou ga Moeteiru” sold well, and “Four Seasons” got to number one on the Oricon charts. Not just me, but also Columbia’s marketing and sales departments were expecting another “Taiyou ga Moeteiru” for the next single. Something that was catchy and pop-y, but still a rock song. The media was expecting it as well, and the band had just really begun appearing on TV too. But despite all that, Yoshii wanted the next single to be “Jam”. Of course then I asked him what I was supposed to do with a song like this.
Because it was the opposite of something pop-y and catchy: It was a very serious ballad.
(Munekiyo) Yoshii had Mott The Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes” in mind with this song. David Bowie wrote that song, and Yoshii told me that he wanted to write Japan’s version of it.
(Ariga) I see.
(Munekiyo) We had a lot of conversations about it, and in the end it resulted in just letting him give it a try. But there was a big meeting about it at the record company. Columbia’s marketing department was really against it at first. They said things to me like “Are you trying to ruin everything we’ve worked toward in marketing?”, “They’ll never get on TV shows with a song like this”, and “It’s too early to put everything on the line with a ballad”. The Triad (the affiliated record label that the band was in) side was all in support of it though, so the best I could tell them was “I talked to the band members about this, and they won’t change their minds. Please do the best with this that you can”. It didn’t feel like it was going to be a huge hit during recording either. I remember very well when Yoshii was getting ready to record the vocals, Mr. Oomori asked me where I thought this single was going to chart. When I answered “Maybe somewhere in the top 30…?” he said “You think it’ll get that high, huh?” (Laughs)
(Munekiyo) Then “Ongaku to Hito” got involved and and printed a story that said “Their record company is opposed to this song going on sale”.
(Yuuki) That wasn’t something that happened very often with singles, was it?
(Munekiyo) They were opposed on the grounds that it wouldn’t sell. It was all very problematic.
(Yuuki) We ran that interview on the cover. Back then Triad thought “Jam” was a very important song. They put a lot of promotional effort behind it.
(Munekiyo) They were thinking that from a marketing perspective, they needed to put the effort in to create as much hype around the song as possible.
(Yuuki) I felt a lot of love for it from their side. They all told me the stories of Columbia asking why this should be a single.
A Band That Was Quick to Change
It was quite a different song from their other singles, but it got them on Music Station.
(Ariga) Mr. Nakahara really worked hard to make that happen, didn’t he?
(Yuuki) Yeah, he was a legendary promoter. He even made it so that they got to sing the full chorus on the show.
(Munekiyo) I think when The Yellow Monkey first got signed, he was still a part-timer. He really gave it his all, but he tragically passed away in his 30s. When The Yellow Monkey changed labels, he said “I’m absolutely going to beat them!” and put all his efforts into promoting Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. But then he suddenly passed away…
(Ariga) It was during a band contest in Kyuushuu. When they played “Jam” during their last live at Tokyo Dome, Yoshii talked about Mr. Nakahara.
(Munekiyo) That’s right, he did. At any rate, “Jam” was definitely a turning point for the group. Yoshii was pretty confident that they could make it with that song. It also sounded different from their usual band sound, and was missing their usual older J-pop style melodies. The ideals found in its lyrics had an impact, and I suspect he felt a sense of achievement at actually creating Japan’s version of “All The Young Dudes”.
“Jam” was released as a double A-side single with “Tactics”, a track from the “Four Seasons” album.
(Munekiyo) That’s because “Tactics” was an ending theme song to the anime “Rurouni Kenshin”.
(Ariga) When I hear “Tactics” I remember their awesome performance of it during the Four Seasons “Yasei no Shoumei” (“Proof of Wildness”) tour in 1996. They gave off the aura of a band that was gradually getting more and more popular, and you could really feel the enthusiasm from the fans. They were kind of like an idol group back then, and I mean that in a good way. The Stones were sort of idols themselves, after all.
(The above mentioned performance of “Tactics”)
(Takahashi) They were already playing “Tengoku Ryokou” on that tour, right?
(Ariga) Yeah, they were.
That wouldn’t be recorded until their next album, “Sicks” (released 01/1997).
(Yuuki) It was them strategically preparing for the next album.
(Ariga) They were saying “This is what we’re going to be next”. The Yellow Monkey was a band that was really quick to change. They were completely different from what they were just six months ago, and you could say that continued happening. Yoshii himself was always thinking ahead about what their next progression would be.
The Feeling of Hitting it Big With “Spark”
The last single they released with Columbia was “Spark”, and it placed 3rd on the Oricon charts.
(Yuuki) There was definitely a feeling that they’d finally hit it big when “Spark” came out.
(Ariga) “Spark” was the first release that I took shots for the jacket of. During out first meeting about it, you weren’t sure whether “Spark” or “Moonlight Drive” (the B-side on the “Spark” single) should be the A-side, Mr. Munekiyo.
(Yuuki) “Moonlight Drive” is a really good song too.
(Ariga) Sometimes I think about how things would have been different if you’d made “Moonlight Drive” the A-side. It’s got a real boogie to it.
(Munekiyo) I was planning to go with “Spark” myself, but then the band members tried to talk me into it being the other way around. I couldn’t decide in the moment, so I think we just put it off for a bit.
(Yuuki) (Laughs) Did you always disagree with them?
(Munekiyo) We didn’t disagree very much at all on the first three albums. But I started being more rough on them once we had the conversation about them not being able to continue on like they were.
(Yuuki) How many times did you butt heads when you gave them your opinion on “Spark”?
(Munekiyo) I’m not really sure, but that was when the issue of them switching labels came up. So we didn’t have much more recording time left together…
The Mystery of Trying New and Different Things in the Middle of a Music Career
You started filming with the band from the “Spark” video on, Mr. Takahashi. What was the mood among the band members at that time?
(Takahashi) I was only involved with them in a filming capacity then, so I think our relationship was a bit different. I wasn’t having conversations with them about rock like Mr. Ariga, or anything like that. We were all around the same age, so we talked a lot about things from our generation. This is more of a “looking back on it now” kind of thing, but as a person who’s just suddenly coming into these conflicts from the Columbia era, I had it pretty easy in comparison. Filming videos is an area were you certainly have a good number of conflicts. The band members and I never had any serious conversations when it came to the creative side, and I guess I’m grateful for that.
It sounds like you may have had a more friendly relationship with them.
(Takahashi) They were pretty awe-inspiring, so I don’t know if I could call it a friendship. But I definitely got the impression that they were very casual with me. The members liked weird things, and they seemed like they wanted to try things that were new and different. And that all suited me very well. I was also in the middle of my own career, searching for some means of escape! (Laughs) So it was very mysterious for a band that was in the middle of their music career and hitting it so big to just want to do something so different.
The world building you did on the videos that you worked on is very deep.
(Takahashi) Of the videos that I worked on for them, the chain of “Spark”, “Rakuen”, “Love Love Show”, “Burn”, and “Kyuukon” are the gold standard. Or maybe I should say I didn’t surpass them in terms of artistry. They have a feeling of all being connected.
(Yuuki) That type of world building might be viewed as unacceptable in a music video today.
There was more of a budget put into videos back then.
(Takahashi) No, I didn’t really have that big of a budget (Laughs) But I had a degree of freedom that made up for that. Their management company and the record company were barely overseeing these at all, and I was talking to and making decisions directly with the band members. But since this was a pre-Internet era, there weren’t many re-dos. We’d talk about doing something, film it, I’d show the finished product to the members, and they’d OK it. If they didn’t like it, I re-did it myself. That’s the level of freedom I had.
(Yuuki) Wow, I didn’t know that. That’s huge.
(Takahashi) It was. Our relationship ever since our first meeting was not very concrete, or maybe a bit jumbled up. Even though they were young, I’d present ideas to them, like Ultraman going into the sunset in “Kaette kita Ultraman” (Laughs) They’d laugh and say that they liked it, and that’s how I’d shoot it. That’s how the video for “Burn” was done. I remember thinking to myself “Should an established band do a video like this?”. Originally I was thinking of something with a darker atmosphere. Them having videos of this scope right in the middle of already being established was a very rare thing in the Japanese music scene, thinking about it now.
(The music video for “Burn”)
“Sicks” Was a Very Happy Time
“Sicks” was the band’s first album on the Fun House (formerly Ariola Japan) label, but what did you think of it Mr. Munekiyo?
(Munekiyo) Well, I was in complete denial about it at the time. I thought “This will never sell!” (Laughs)
(Yuuki) You were maybe a bit jealous, huh? (Laughs)
(Munekiyo) There was that too. The songs had a bit of a different feeling from back during “Kanashiki Asian Boy” and “Love Communication”. I mentioned earlier how the band members wanted to make “Eden no Yoru ni” a single, and I guess they really did want to do that. This album had a dark atmosphere and sort of an unhealthy feeling to it, so I guess this was them saying “We’ve been held back up until now, but this is our real appeal”. Maybe it also had a bit of a feeling of retaliation in it too.
(Ariga) I really picked up on those same feelings too.
(Munekiyo) Right. And well, that album sure did sell! (Laughs)
(Yuuki) “Sicks” is such a good album. Mr. Ariga, you did the photography for the jacket, right?
(Ariga) Yeah. That was a really amazing time. Mr. Takahashi talks about this now and then, but I think that “Sicks” was a very happy time.
(Takahashi) It was. The feelings of darkness from the band’s early days were back and scaled-up. It made you realize that this is just how they were the entire time.
(Munekiyo) Looking at it objectively, if not for “Sicks” they might have faded away as nothing but a pop band. I think that they’re such a well loved band because of that period, and it may relate more to Yoshii’s current solo career than most people think. Come to think it, Yoshii said “”Rakuen” got rejected by the director at our previous record company” in some interview or another. Even though I have no recollection of that happening! (Laughs)
(Takahashi) We filmed the video for “Rakuen” in London, and they were recording for “Sicks” at the same time. When I went to hang out in the studio, they were just starting to record “Tengoku Ryokou”. I thought about how amazing this was going to be, and the band members looked like they were really having fun. They’d just gone out and bought some weird clothes, and were putting them on and laughing (Laughs) Even though the music they were playing had a very heavy feeling to it.
Having Made it This Far, What Comes Next Will Be Exhausting
In 1997 they went out on their first arena tour: “Fix The Sicks”. It was a period where they were growing in scale as a band, but also still trying new things.
(Yuuki) That’s right. Mr. Munekiyo was talking about this earlier, but up until now the band was sort of under his care, in a sense. Switching labels was not exactly the same thing as leaving the nest, but I feel like there was more of a sense of “We can do this ourselves!” about them.
(Takahashi) Yeah, they probably did feel that way.
(Yuuki) And they also grew to finally feel like people would understand their songs, even if they were complex. “Kyuukon” is a pretty difficult song to get, right? They had the confidence to try things that they hadn’t done before.
“Kyuukon” was their first single to reach number one in the weekly single rankings, and afterward they released their 7th album “Punch Drunkard” in 03/1998. I think that album was a turning point in many ways, but how did you perceive it?
(Munekiyo) I happened to get a sample CD of it when I was in England once, and I thought it was an amazing album from front to back. They’d finally reached the point that Japanese rock bands strive for: A blending of western and Japanese music.
(Takahashi) So you liked it then?
(Munekiyo) I love it, and it’s very close to being a perfect album.
(Yuuki) It really gave a good overview of them as a band.
(Munekiyo) Yeah. But at the same time I thought that having made it this far, what comes next will be exhausting. It didn’t feel like they were playing around at all on this album, any feeling of them being amateurish had gone. They still had a bit of an amateurish feeling to them when they were at Columbia, but I thought “Eh, whatever!” (Laughs)
The “Punch Drunkard” Era Wore Everyone Down
(Takahashi) I think it had to do with getting older, but I got the impression that everyone was more worn down around “Punch Drunkard”. Everyone, including Mr. Ariga and I, were in much lower spirits. One thing I remember pretty well is filming the video for “Kyuukon” in London, and Mr. Ariga asking me “I’m not sure if this is them in their natural state or not, but what do you think of it?” and handing me demo tape for Punch Drunkard. Then I took it back to my hotel room and listened to it.
(Ariga) I was trying to figure out if this was the ultimate realization of The Yellow Monkey’s greatness, with Yoshii having talked about the sense of defeat he felt with what happened at Fuji Rock in 1997 and all.
(Yuuki) That’s right.
(Ariga) They got as far as they could with “Sicks”, and had a very good time with it. But afterward “Punch Drunkard” gave me the impression that the gear-change they were going into afterward didn’t go so well. Just when they thought they were standing at the top, they became aware of bands like Rage Against The Machine that had a very impactful sound. I think that’s what they were looking to achieve next, but I suspect getting 100% support on a decision like that was a difficult thing. Besides, there were objectives like getting 1,000,000 sales and other subjects that might have just been a bit too lofty for that. Them just being in their natural state may not have been possible…it’s an idea I can’t really put it into words that well.
(Munekiyo) I understand what you’re saying. The band members were getting older, and I think it would have been really rough for them to continue on like that. It’s the fatigue that comes with continuing to be a pop star.
Happy Memories Mixed With Painful Ones
The 1998 Punch Drunkard Tour made quite an impression.
(Ariga) It was 113 dates.
(Yuuki) And no matter which one you saw, they were mostly great shows. But I think a tour that big must have been physically and emotionally exhausting.
(Munekiyo) The band members would talk about this themselves later on, but they were definitely exhausted, even when it came to their private lives. But they had to do it. Saying “Let’s take a break” wasn’t really a choice.
(Ariga) It was definitely an ordeal for them.
(Takahashi) It was happy memories mixed in with painful ones. “Punch Drunkard” had both “Love Love Show” and “Burn”, so it ended up being the album I listened to the most.
(Yuuki) I really like it too.
Trying All Sorts of New Things With “8”
What do you think of “8”, which was released in July of 2000?
(Ariga) “8” is awesome. I guess there are people who don’t like it and say “It’s basically just a Yoshii solo album”, but I think the performances are full of The Yellow Monkey-isms. If I were asked whether I thought it was hot or cool, I’d say it feels like a cool album.
(Takahashi) I think it’s awesome too.
(Ariga) And to this day Yoshii even sometimes says to me “Wasn’t Spring Tour really great?” (Spring Tour was the arena tour that took place before the release of “8”, in the spring of 2000). After struggling so much during “Punch Drunkard”, I think that tour resulted in a new image for The Yellow Monkey. If you were to ask me why they didn’t continue on as a band long after that, I haven’t really found an answer to that yet.
It was a period where they collaborated with a lot of outside producers, like Hirofumi Asamoto, Toshiyuki Mori, and Masanori Sasaji.
(Yuuki) They were trying all sorts of new things, but there wasn’t as big of a change as they thought there would be. I got the impression that they were spinning their wheels a bit.
(Munekiyo) I think they probably had a change in perception. Everything they’d seen up through Four Seasons was fresh and new, but as they sold more albums they just became everyday things, right? When that happens it kind of messes with your senses, in both good and bad ways. I think it happens with bands all over the world.
(Takahashi) You think that they changed that much?
(Munekiyo) Their natures didn’t, but everything around them was changing: The size of their concerts, the amount of money they were costing, and the expectations of those around them. And they were working with first-rate people, so it was just a different scope in terms of business too.
(Yuuki) Everything just came together for them when things were going well. They’d do what they wanted to do, thought that’s what people wanted to hear, and people came to the concerts. I think the staff working with them liked their songs, and magazines said that they were of a very high quality. But when just one thing fell out of place somewhere, they just weren’t sure how to get it back. Bands have difficult aspects to them like that.
Yoshii’s Lyrics Are Deepening With Age and Experience
What did everyone think of their last concerts in January 2001, at the Osaka Dome and Tokyo Dome?
(Yuuki) I was at Listen Japan during their Tokyo Dome concert, and I helped get the internet stream of that concert setup.
(Ariga) 2001 was way before Internet streaming as we know it today.
(Yuuki) It was probably the first time that it happened in Japan. We all talked about making it a great concert because of that, but it had a very different atmosphere from any of their concerts up until then. It’s almost like there was this hazy feeling of heartache. They hadn’t yet said they were going to break-up, but they faded out just saying they were going to take a break.
(Munekiyo) I went to the Tokyo Dome concert too. They played “Pearl Light of Revolution” and “Jam”.
(Yuuki) Right, it was jam packed full of songs everyone wanted to hear. The concert itself was just amazing.
It may have been the best version of The Yellow Monkey at the end there. I think that sense of amazement is why young fans continue to discover them today.
(Yuuki) I think a lot of guys in their 30s sing “Spark” at karaoke. There are a lot of people who got into The Yellow Monkey through Yoshii’s solo career too.
(Ariga) Yeah, there are a lot of them. All of the other band members are still active in music too. The Yellow Monkey’s vitality is really amazing: They were a band that kept on going at full speed as they continued to re-invent themselves so many times, and it’s really deep and interesting to look back on.
(Munekiyo) I go to Yoshii’s concerts every now and then since he started his solo career, and there are all different types of fans there.
(Yuuki) That’s true. His sex appeal has really exploded since he hit his mid-40s.
(Munekiyo) And then there’s his lyrics, of course. When I went drinking with Yoshii in Koenjikita for the last time after he’d decided to switch labels, this is what I told him: “I don’t think I can give you any advice when it comes to music. You’re a genius when it comes to melody, and you have the ability to write hit songs. But if you intend to get the band more popular, work a little bit harder with your lyrics”. There aren’t any particularly deep ideas being expressed in “Tsuioku no Mermaid” or “Taiyou ga Moeteiru”, right? But his lyrics from “Jam” onward stick with me, even as I get older.
(Munekiyo) And I think he still has lyrics to write because he’s someone who can sell albums. If he hadn’t realized there were so many people in the world that listen to his music, he wouldn’t be able to write like this.
(Ariga) I wonder why he hasn’t second guessed if what he does will sell though?
(Munekiyo) That’s because he’s so genuine, right? He knows that his words have an influence on people, and that’s why he goes to ideologically deep places. His lyrics have deepened with age and experience. I thought his debut solo single “Tali” (released 10/2003) was amazing. I wanted to hear him do that song with The Yellow Monkey! (Laughs)
A Reunion Isn’t As Simple As Just Saying It’s Going to Happen
Does everyone want to see The Yellow Monkey reunite?
(Munekiyo) I’ve told them this so many times: “This is your last chance, so just do it!”. I’ve always pretended like I was drunk when I said it, but I’ve told them they’re giving themselves all sorts of reasons not to.
(Yuuki) There have been several occasions where the timing would have been right, but it’s a difficult thing to do…even though I’d like to see it myself. I’m curious how they’d arrange some of their old songs now.
(Munekiyo) But even if they do reunite, I assume they’d write new songs too. When you think about it in terms of expending energy, it’s not so simple as just saying that it’s going to happen.
(Yuuki) Don’t you think the band members probably go back and forth on it all the time? Thinking they want to try it again, and then deciding against it.
(Ariga) They’re very popular right now, so I have to think that them reuniting would be something that happens on a pretty big scale. I wonder if they’re thinking that they want to do it a bit more casually before it turns into a big thing.
(Takahashi) Yeah, I suspect they want to do it in a more lighthearted way.
Everyone’s Favorite Song
On July 31st, a greatest hits album is being released with tracks voted on by the fans. So lastly I’d like to ask you all what your favorite song of theirs is.
(Takahashi) Picking just one song is tough, but I think it has to be “Tengoku Ryokou” for me. I can only talk about it based on my own experience, but the impact of them playing it in the studio in London has stuck with me all this time. And their performance of it at Nishinomiya Stadium in 1997 was amazing too. These streamers were flying that looked like the ones at Nebuta Matsuri (a nighttime festival in Aomori), and I couldn’t help but think if they should be doing songs like this in the middle of their music career. I find a lot I can relate to in that song, generationally speaking. I’m flashing back to it right now, I have so many memories.
(Yuuki) I’ve always said that it was “Chelsea Girl” (from “Night Snails And Plastic Boogie”), but the band members all grew to dislike that song(Laughs) So for this I’ll say “Hana Fubuki” (from “Sicks”). The sort of blending of western and eastern styles that takes place in that song is something only The Yellow Monkey can do. You get a strong feeling of Japan’s beauty, and the Japanese lyrics sound out in an amazing way. But the performance is in more of a 70s classic rock style. The way they performed it live really left an impression on me.
(Munekiyo) For me it’s “Taiyou ga Moeteiru”. I think their best album is “Four Seasons”, and “Taiyou ga Moeteiru” is a very important song for that album. When I’m talking with new artists about song writing, I use that song as an example. And when I mention “This is the secret of why this sold so well” in talking about songs I was involved with, there’s a lot of persuasive power in that.
(Ariga) I think it might be “Kanariya” (from “8”) for me. This might be presumptuous, but I’ve been involved with Yoshii ever since he started his solo career. And I think “Kanariya” is a bridge between The Yellow Monkey and that solo career. I’d say that they showed us how flexible they can be with their performance of it at their last concert, which is a thing I like about them. This is how I think about getting through hard times to the lighthearted and refreshing things on the other side of them. It’s a sad song that still has hope in the lyrics, and I like it a lot.
(The original article can be found here)