By Preston Hatfield (Yamanashi-ken, 2009-10) for JQ magazine. Preston moved from San Francisco to New York City in January 2012 and is now accepting submissions from people who want to be his friend. Abduct him from his house in the middle of the night, or find him on Facebook and ask about his JET blog in which he details his exploits and misadventures in that crazy Land of the Rising Sun we all love.
Multinational pop rockers Monkey Majik are teaming up with shamisen heroes the Yoshida Brothers, the duo known for their traditional sound and pluck, for a three-date North American tour that kicks off Nov. 14 at Manhattan’s Marlin Room at Webster Hall, followed by the Mod Club in Toronto Nov. 18 and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa Nov. 20.
Monkey Majik was founded by Maynard Plant (Aomori-ken, 1997-2000), a native of Ottawa, Canada, while he was teaching English in Sendai on the JET Program. Known for a having a fun and versatile style of music, the band first earned mainstream attention in 2006 for their singles “Fly” and “Around the World,” and have since collaborated with other Japanese groups like SEAMO, m-flo, Bennie K, and the Yoshida Brothers.
In this exclusive JQ interview, the versatile vocalist and guitarist discusses the band’s origins, his own relationship with music, and his sense of home and community in Sendai, which is still recovering from the devastation caused by the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami.
Which came first: the love of music or Japanese culture, and how has the one influenced and supported the other since you came to Japan?
I probably first took interest in Japan when I was about 10 years old or so when I visited Expo 86 in Vancouver, Canada. My interest in music also started at an early age. Most of my family is musical, so it always came natural. Certainly since arriving in Japan about 15 years ago, my musical interests have changed. The Japanese music scene is incredibly diverse and different from the Western scene. The sound is very unique and [it] has had a deep effect on our music.
It’s funny, many ALTs in Japan feel like rock stars, but you actually became a rock star. What was it like going from small time notoriety and fame at your school, to becoming famous on a national level for your musicianship?
It didn’t happen overnight, so I suppose I never took notice. It’s a lot like learning Japanese—you don’t just wake up fluent one day. Success is born out of hard work and commitment. Regardless of where you live, the same elements come into play.
How did the current band members come together? Were you friends before you started collaborating professionally? How have each of you influenced Monkey Majik’s sound, style, and group dynamic?
I put the current band together after most of the original members quit in 2000. I first called my younger brother Blaise, and within a couple of months we found Tax (Kikuchi Takuya). It was around 2005 that our original bassist Misao Urushizaka quit. We then recruited Dick (Hideki Mori). It’s difficult to say if the friendship came before membership, but one thing is certain now: we wouldn’t be doing this if we hadn’t become best friends. We have a lot of respect for each other and all [band] decisions are made together.
Monkey Majik’s success is such a great story. Not only are your songs catchy and fun, they also have a unique character and quirkiness. Does the band tend to be conservative on stage, or do you stay loose and interact with your audience and each other?
You’ll have to answer that one yourselves!
I love that the division between Japanese and English lyrics in your songs is about half and half. How much did listening to songs in Japanese help you learn the language, and is one of your goals as artists to inspire Japanese and English speakers to learn the other language?
I could already speak Japanese before I started the band, so singing in both languages was just a natural result of my circumstances. I don’t particularly think of music in terms of goals, but certainly music does inspire, and in our case the inspiration may have multicultural themes. On a personal level, I really do think it is important to learn more than one language. Not only for the obvious convenience of communication, but for the enrichment of understanding of other cultures as well. Language really is the only gateway into understanding another person’s psyche and culture.
When writing new material, how do you decide what will be sung in English and what will be sung in Japanese?
The melody usually comes first. The language is then decided based on “feel.” Some songs sound better in Japanese and vice versa.
Regarding this tour, Monkey Majik x Yoshida Brothers in North America, is this your first time performing in New York? What is the occasion for having the tour now?
We’ve wanted to play in New York for a while. Considering we’ve played in Canada several times you’d think we could have done it, but timing never worked out. It was about a year ago when we started talking about combining an Asian and North American tour with our Japan tour, and naturally, New York was a must. The Yoshida Brothers kindly agreed to join in on the fun in North America and we’re so grateful to them.
You do a lot to develop your relationship with your fans and your community in Sendai, perhaps most notably through the relief work you did in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Would you mind sharing a bit about how you helped with the SEND愛Project and what you took away from the experience?
SEND愛 is an ongoing project that we started in 2011 in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake. Immediately after the earthquake, we spent several months doing individual volunteer work in the devastated areas and felt that eventually, when most of the cleanup was finished, people may begin to forget. We felt we needed to start something that could continue for years to come. As musicians, we thought that a benefit concert would be a good place to start. In addition to concerts, we’ve also put together auctions and other events to promote awareness and to help those victims who are most in need. Our next concert will be in Tokyo at NHK Hall on December 21st. With the help of our fans and the community at large, we’ve been able to not only raise awareness but also raise needed funds to support the immediate victims of Japan’s worst natural disaster in history.
Your most recent album, Somewhere Out There, is the first one you’ve released since 3/11. Did you approach this album with a different mindset? What were your personal goals for the album, and what has the response been from your fans and the Japanese people?
Our songs are always written from our daily life experiences. We felt that while everything had changed after 3/11, it would be important to approach Somewhere Out There in the same way that we have always approached songwriting. In this way, you could say that our mindset hasn’t changed. The album, however, was an extremely different and unique one in so many ways. 3/11 is embedded so deeply in us that I don’t think it is possible to write outside its realm of existence. I think the fans really appreciated, and most importantly, enjoyed the album.
Do you think your fans appreciate you more because you never relocated to Tokyo or Osaka to be more connected to the glitz and glam of other pop icons? Were you tempted to leave Sendai?
We’ve never been tempted to leave Sendai. It’s way too awesome up here! I think our fans think it’s cool that we do what we want. Just being here allows us to be ourselves and connect better with the community.
In Japan, everyone from locals and foreigners alike boasts that their region is the best. What are your favorite things about Sendai that you can’t get anywhere else?
Sendai is the ideal city in the ideal larger landscape of Tohoku. It’s where the salt of the earth unite. We’ve got four seasons, and a year-round harvest of various foods. The city population is a comfy one million. Onsens and ski resorts only a 20-minute drive away. The nightlife is bustling and there is a true sense of community. Could you ask for more?
What do you think you’d be doing now if you weren’t making music?
Studying or farming.