Yasuko Onuki could be Disney’s adorable Bitch Princess of Bedlam. Her secret power is nuanced screeching and variations on the screaming scold. And she’s got the magic forest wardrobe: Imagine ninja threads from a post-apocalyptic House of Versace.
The band Onuki started in 1991 while in college in Tokyo found traction as Melt-Banana when guitar-beast and effects-warrior Ichirou Agata signed on soon after. The duo began touring the States with a revolving cast of drummers, bassists and electronics, and soon attracted droves of hardcore punk fans.
But they also captivated some of the brightest stars in the avant-garde firmament, including internationally recognized classical and jazz innovator John Zorn and the underground’s free jazz/experimental-rock lynchpin Jim O’Rourke, best known to fans as a member of Sonic Youth. Other Japanese noise rockers of the era mostly wound up also-rans in the drive for U.S. attention.
By 1996, MxBx, as they style themselves, also had attracted respected noise rock label Skin Graft to produce a record with O’Rourke and Steve Albini, whose lengthy credit list includes Nirvana, Liz Phair and The Pixies.
Those heady early days are mostly documented, at least musically, in a 1999 compilation 13 Hedgehogs [Mxbx Singles 1994-1999]. Singles and split singles are MxBx’s release mode of choice, and 2015’s Return of 13 Hedgehogs: MXBX Singles 2000-2009 brings us up to date.
Intervening studio albums have been hits with critics and underground fans, both, especially 2000’s Teeny Shiny (five stars in Allmusic), and 2013’s Fetch (4.5 stars). Production and touring of the latter were stalled by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that led to a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, but the lag made for a triumphant rebound.
Seeing MxBx live has something like the impact of seeing Picasso’s “Guernica” in full scale for the first time, if you could hear it instead of see it. Their music is violent, although not warlike, in its intensely impenetrable, enigmatic outcry. Their performance art could work as well at MOCA as Club Congress.
But the band’s work rocks harder in the subterranean-like dark and semi-anonymity of a club. Perhaps you don’t want much light on your catharsis, entitled as you are to it in the dank of our current political, social and economic dysfunction.
Protip: bring earplugs for everyone in your party in case friends want to mitigate their experience.
What with all the commotion, fans often don’t realize that Onuki composes all the band’s songs in English. “I have written lyrics in English from the beginning of the Melt-Banana,” she explains in an email. The band’s management requested that we conduct our interview via email because of the language barrier. “Many people ask me if I am singing in Japanese, but actually I am singing in English. I always put all of the lyrics in album booklets.”
Return of 13 Hedgehogs offers no such libretto. The six panels of its soft case are filled instead with exhaustive archival details of the singles it compiles—recording dates and locations, guest artists and packaging details. Some notes benefit from a little more research, such as the one-liner about a split 7-inch made in Italy in 2001 that features a cover of “Tintarella Di Luna” (translation: Happy Mood) a hit for ‘60s Italian pop star Mina. Look up her version on YouTube for a treat, and also to be able to discern the melody in Melt-Banana’s version in case they perform it at their Club Congress show.
Lyrics for the album “Fetch” read like crooked poetry, as by a non-native speaker, but they can feel like a dagger. Onuki knows how to use what English she knows. “Candy Gun,” for instance, features the line, “I see posers more like liars out there/Hiding something good or bad?/But I don’t care/Cause I’ve got my candy gun.” From “Then Red Eyed,” there’s, “Scattering gift looks like trash/Why do I keep it still/Clearly wasting, voiceless/Cureless, It’s a tiny risk.”
This dark fury became part of the problem when Melt-Banana’s output was stymied in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown. “Right after the earthquake,” Agata writes, “I felt that our kind of music cannot be of help to anyone, that it was useless in this kind situation and it made me think about why I need to (compose) this kind of music. But after awhile, I -- and I think Yako, also – started thinking: We just do what we can do and want to do.” Understandably so. Otherwise, the tsunami wins.
MxBx is most agile as a duo, not least in their ability to improvise. Near-exponential advances in technology have only made their lives easier and their noise-range more diverse.
“We played with a drum machine a few times in the ‘90s, too,” Agata writes. “It was almost the same concept as what we are doing right now, but back then we needed to bring a lot more equipment along and we couldn’t manipulate the rhythms like Yako can with the equipment we have now.
“I know how we connect up the controller and how the tracks are layered in the music application, but sometimes I’m not sure how she’s manipulating the tracks during our performances. It’s getting better and better and more fun to play with.”
The duo report that advances in social media have been a boon, too, but the current tour underscores the pitfalls of depending on them, and offers a cautionary tale for globe-hoppers in general.
“Our Facebook account was blocked and we haven’t been able to log in to the page and update our information,” Agata reports.
Onuki says, “We usually log in from Japan and once this tour started, I tried to log in from the U.S.A. Facebook asked me to confirm the code they sent to my cell phone, but my regular cell phone is in Japan.”
A friend helped them set up what turned out to be a substantially inferior solution on the Ushahidi app, and they still use Twitter, so, Onuki says, “Now we don’t have to lug a tour book the size of a fat dictionary like we used to in the ‘90s.”
So far, they write, the current tour is leaving them with fond memories. They took time around a stop in Phoenix to visit Meteor Crater. MxBx, fixated as they are on the dark side, have actually been looking up, some. Onuki writes, “We saw rainbows three times so far in our two weeks of touring in the USA.” Agata adds, “One rainbow was very big and perfect. It looked great!”
And how is she keeping her voice in shape through night after night of shredding it? “Haribo and candy!”