Brooklyn duo Japanther have played everywhere from the Williamsburg Bridge and Grand Street, to the back of a moving car, to New Orleans -two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
Now the band will perform in Tampa tonight for a Transitions Art Gallery show at 8 with Filthy Savage and Ken South Rock.
The band’s two members, Ian Vanek and Matt Reilly, met while attending Pratt Institute, an art school in Brooklyn. They started Japanther as an art project in 2001 that mixes art exhibitions with a band that plays noisy, lo-fi punk.
The band is also well-known for their unusual concert settings both outside and inside New York City. Once, Vanek said Japanther played atop the Williamsburg Bridge.
“On a whim, we decided to do that with our friend Nick, who had some car batteries and a bicycle,” he said. “We ended up attracting a lot of people and had a really wild time. A lot of police came.”
Another time, Vanek said they played a raucous Lincoln Center show that would later be called a riot by publications like the New York Post and local television stations. They even once “shut down” Grand Street in Manhattan for a show, he said.
“We had this huge, amazing dance party,” Vanek said. “I really love when a show goes wild and our equipment won’t stand up and everyone’s just knocking us over. We can’t even play our songs because people are having so much fun. That really says something to the spirit and emotion of just playing very simple chords and words.”
Yet one of the most intense concert experiences Vanek said the band ever went through was performing in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans two weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
“It was really, really scary,” he said. “There was cars planted in the dirt like they were f—— flowers and there was houses upside-down across the street from where we were performing. It was hectic – it wasn’t safe to walk around at night and we had to be escorted about the neighborhood.”
However, Vanek said he thought it was important to still play there particularly because the residents were going through such rough times.
“A lot of our people, our parents, were saying, ‘Please don’t go there,'” he said. “But I think it’s really important to give music to people at a time when they’re really, really hurt.”
Their 2008 album “Tut Tut Now Shake Ya Butt” was produced by Penny Rimbaud, the drummer and co-founder of the infamous ’70s punk band Crass who also contributed spoken-word pieces to the record.
Vanek said they met Rimbaud while performing together in a small town in Germany and would later collaborate on songs and even an opera Japanther was commissioned to do.
“We had dinner with him and that’s a little bit strange – here’s this Englishman who’s in his 70s and then we’re just young kids from New York,” Vanek said. “It ended up being a very nice conversation. Then when we performed that evening, we were sitting backstage talking about the book we were both reading and he got really interested in our conversation because it was about spirituality and ghosts and strange things like that.”
For their newest record “Beets, Lime and Rice,” Japanther sought out the talents of Michael Blum, who has produced artists such as Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd. Yet rather than a drastic change in switching from a ’70s English anarchist to a producer who’s recorded Madonna, Vanek said both were very similar, friendly experiences.
“He doesn’t really react to the fact that, ‘Hey, I recorded Michael Jackson’,” he said. “He’s more, ‘Oh hey, if you want to talk about that, I’ll tell you a story, but for the most part, I’m here recording you today and getting sound and not talking about the past.'”
The band also has friends at Rockstar Games, who used their song “Radical Businessman” for “Grand Theft Auto IV,” with its relevant refrain of “1, 2, 3, 4, f— the cops.” Though the extra exposure was nice, Vanek said he was especially happy to be part of a video game series that has battled against controversy and censorship.
“We’re really excited to be associated with it, especially when ‘Grand Theft Auto’ was really hated, but it was also loved by young people,” he said.
In a strange coincidence, Japanther shares a lot of qualities with Vancouver duo Japandroids – another lo-fi, two-man band with a similar name. Vanek said he knows the band and in fact has played with them, but thinks there are plenty of differences between the comparably named acts.
“We played a show with them up in Canada,” he said. “They’re nice guys and they’re really, really good. I think it’s such a different style of music and I certainly know we’ve been playing a lot longer than them, but they’re really nice guys.”
Overall, Vanek said Japanther’s goal is not financial success, but to continue a lineage of bands that inspired them to create music.
“We just want to keep going and see where we go with that so that when we do eventually die, there’ll be other people to keep on that lineage and tradition,” he said.