“Instead of being a Japanese band who use the Tsugaru-shamisen [as a traditional instrument], what we wanted to do was respect the music we played, and then we added the shamisen to give it an extra punch,” ROA drummer, and founding member, Akaba says as he talks about his group ROA with MyM Buzz at Hyper Japan. “It wasn’t like we were trying to say: ‘we’re a Japanese band’, it’s more ‘we’re a rock band’ with a shamisen in that band.”
Akaba’s claim certainly makes sense, given that their music -even with two shamisen players- can be firmly placed into the rock category, and within that the punk and metalcore genres. Influenced by several Western bands (they mention Foo Fighters, Slipknot and Iron Maiden, to name just a few), their songs are underscored with the twangs of the shamisen, not ruled by it. So, while ROA might not be the first Japanese rock act to use shamisen as an instrument, they easily distinguish themselves from the pack with their raw metal sound.
It’s their presence on stage that truly differentiates them as a powerhouse rock act. Bursting with energy and charisma as they perform, the term ‘bouncing off the walls’ doesn’t seem to cut it; especially not when shamisen player Moroboshimann runs into the crowd mid-performance to play the instrument in the middle of a mosh pit. They’re ruthless on stage, beyond entertaining, and the audience couldn’t get enough of it.
But, it seems that if it wasn’t for a case of good timing then the band might not have come to be. Formed of drummer Akaba, singer Masatomo, guitarists Shu and Tono, bass guitarist Miyo-c, and shamisen players Moroboshimann and Sakamoto “Mani” Shinjirou, the septet came together when their respective groups disbanded. Akaba describes the decision matter-of-factly, explaining simply: “One day I said: ‘I’m going to form this band’, and then I did!”
Their music fuses East and West, a blend they dubbed ‘Wayo Settyu’, which they decided to do as a way of “introducing the world to the traditional Japanese instrument of the shamisen,” and combining it with “the western bands that [they] grew up with and respected”. Although Moroboshimann, who describes traditional music as “shit”, sees it slightly differently, as he says: “Culturally the shamisen is quite a high-brow instrument, and I wanted to bring this instrument to everyday people.”
To which Akaba added: “When Moroboshimann heard my mixes he said to me, ‘I’m the only person in the whole of Japan who can do this, I’m the only person who wants to completely destroy traditional shamisen culture. I want to break it all down and play rock.’
“To see a shamisen player stand up and actually go mad on stage is something you don’t see from traditional players, which is what we bring to our performance.”
While they do use the shamisen, this isn’t something that has made their presence known in the classical music circle, as Mani says: “To those that like traditional shamisen culture, they don’t even know we exist, he’s trying to break this culture but they’re like ‘whatever, you do what you do’.”
Although it’s not something they’re particularly concerned about, as Masatomo chimes in and quickly adds: “On the other hand, we get those fans that like J-rock bands and it’s exciting for them because we bring something completely new to the scene.”
It’s not just their use of classical instruments that makes them stand out, though, their lyrics -especially the origin of them- also distinguishes ROA from other bands. Masatomo, who writes them, explains: “If you read our lyrics from left to right, which is how we write it, then that’s the crux of the song. But then if you read it in the traditional Japanese way, right to left and then up to down, then it makes it completely different!
“One of the things about our lyrics is that we will use phrases, the Japanese equivalent of ‘two birds, one stone’. It’s like a four-letter Kanji that make a phrase that has a meaning, it’s little things like that that influence our work. So, if you don’t read Japanese it’s going to be a little difficult to see that.”
He continued: “But our lyrics are difficult for even Japanese people to understand. Most of the time they won’t understand either, so don’t worry about it. I write the lyrics and I don’t even understand them!”
“There’s lyrics that I wrote that use a particular phrase, ‘ikkikasei’, I sing it, but I don’t remember what it means! That phrase translates into [something like] ‘a single person in a valley all alone’, but basically no one understands that. So, if someone said that in a normal conversation then the other person wouldn’t get it at all.”
When asked, jokingly, if he just sits with a dictionary whilst writing the lyrics Masatomo says poker-faced: “Yes, I do. While I’m writing lyrics, I’m studying! But, because I have a limit on what I can remember, then I just forget what the words mean. I don’t need to try that hard.”
ROA’s exclusive overseas album RODIAC is available with JPU Records now.
Interview and photos by Roxy Simons.