Sweet J.A.P.’s beautiful sonic mess

Kate Silver

A penetrating scar marks the right arm of Sweet J.A.P. vocalist Sho Nikido. When asked about the gash, he jokes, “I saved Takashi’s life,” nudging his band mate. Takashi Obu reveals a welt of his own, earned while saving fellow guitarist Hideo from an onstage tumble. Hideo proudly displays a mark on the forearm. This display leads me to reveal an injury of own, caused by an errant pizza pan. “So,” I inquire, “can I join your band now?” I’m instructed that first I must save Takashi’s life first.

So much for occupational hazards ñ this is more like a fraternity hazing. But we’re dealing with rock and roll, after all, and sometimes dues are payed with a few permanent nicks and scrapes.

Wounds are expected here. After all, Sweet J.A.P. (short for Sweet Japanese American Princesses) has been saving the collective (night) lives of music fans for the past few years. The quintet has brought to the local scene their distinctive brand of writhe-around-and-fall-down rock, an approach to performance that is as much exorcism as awakening. Think Sonics-meet-MC5 with the exoticism of, say, Guitar Wolf. The band produces a beautiful sonic mess that has finally been collected on record, a 1+2/Big Neck release with the oh-so-titillating (yet still ambiguous) title Virgin Vibe.

Gathered for coffee at Minneapolis haunt Caffetto early on a Sunday afternoon, three of the five members of Sweet J.A.P. discuss their release, which follows a series of split singles with Texan band The Reds and Japanese punks Das Boot (released on Hideo’s own Nice & Neat label). Hideo explains the restrained ambitions of these limited releases, saying, “When no one knows you outside your city, it’s better to wait.”

Virgin Vibe succeeds in translating to CD the wreckage of the band’s devastating live performance. Capped off by “Den De Den,” a call-and-response speed punk number, and followed by concrete slabs of guitar fashioned into “Turn Me On,” the album effectively evokes what once roared from the garage and was smart enough to avoid FM radio. “Oh My Pretty Face” calls to mind the Buzzcocks’ sweetly cynical pop punk, but tiny sparklers like “Hong Kong Express” fizzle all too quickly.

And when the CD fizzles, it only hints at the group’s onstage personality. Singer Sho calls himself the band’s “frontman,” a title with an epic rock history (think Daltrey, think Roth), and his roaring vocal delivery gives his self-applied title some credibility. In the back, drummer Yuichiro Kazama rips up his drum kit while bassist Tsutomu feeds the rhythm, and everyone collaborates on beautiful, unhinged harmonies. “I like bands who are more energetic.” Hideo says. “Otherwise people won’t remember you.”

It is hard to believe such chaos could come from this group of unassuming exchange students. They talk animatedly about their favorite books and bands, excited that Sonic Youth will play adjacent to an upcoming 7th StreetEntry show.

In fact, its obligations to school that will place Sweet J.A.P. on hiatus in fall. This will, no doubt, leave a gaping wound in local music. After all, it’s only rock and roll, and scars are to be expected.