New York “DYI” art punks Japanther are one of my all-time favourite bands ever. They embody everything that conversationswithbianca.com celebrates: individuality, creativity, posi energy, fearlessness, community and togetherness. They’re always doing super interesting projects, collaborations and shows: playing with synchronised swimmers Aquadoom; performances at MoMA; a puppet rock opera; playing on top of the Williamsburg Bridge with Ninjasonik; the Japanther phonebooth art installation and so much more!
They recently released new record, Instant Money Magic, which fills my heart with pure unbridled joy every time I listen to it. At just under 30-minutes, it’s a beautiful explosion of noise and oomph that helps you transcend the everyday doldrums while inspiring you to embrace your power and get your ass into gear and go out and do something great in the world. I caught up with Japanther’s Ian Vanek…every time we chat it’s always such an emotional conversation, we both get teary and he’s at the hospital!
IAN VANEK: You’re never gonna believe where I am right now?
IV: I’m just driving out of the hospital. Last time we talked I was in the hospital too!
Oh wow…within the last month I’ve had to visit the hospital ER twice unfortunately.
IV: Oh damn me too! I hope you’re doing OK?
I’m getting there. How are you doing?
IV: I just had a surgery today…it was pretty fun.
Was that back surgery? I was talking to our mutual friend Ilias (from the awesome Seayou Records) the other day and was told you’ve been having some troubles with it.
IV: Yeah, this is the second surgery.
It made me cry when I heard it. I know how debilitating something like that can be. My husband’s been out with really bad back problems for a while now and it just breaks my heart to see people I love in such pain.
IV: It is debilitating. I bet you’ve witnessed him lying on the floor and crying being in so much pain.
Yes! It just breaks my heart. It makes you feel so helpless.
IV: You should tell him to read a book by Dr. John Sarno called “Healing Back Pain”. It’s incredible, it has to do with the mind-body connection. It talks a lot about controlling it with your brain rather than letting the physical diagnosis and structures rule your life. It’s written in the 80s, it’s very popular but it is also very controversial. He’s a western doctor from Columbia University but he has an eastern style to healing through a learning process rather than medicine, drugs and surgery.
Sounds right up our alley. We’re big believers in trying to limit medicines as much as possible. The only thing that has seemed to help me the past month is lots of juices, raw foods, yoga, mediation—those kinds of things. Taking a more holistic approach to healing. The doctors gave me really gnarly medication that I had a really bad allergic reaction to it.
IV: I’m not a fan of pain killers and medications either but unfortunately the past month or so I’ve been involved with that stuff. I don’t know if it’s the same in Australia, I’m guessing it is, but there’s a plague of prescriptions. You can hear people in the hospital and they’re just gaming the system. They’re all like, ‘what are you giving me? I’m not sure it will be strong enough’. It’s like how do they know? Are they a doctor? They just want more drugs so they can get high…
…So are you are you starting to feel a little better.
IV: No, I’m not really feeling so well today.
I’ll send you a care package full of zines that you can read while you’re on your back.
IV: That would be amazing. I’ve been making some new zines. I just have to print it up and I’ll mail them out. My new zine has a page where you can make potential potions using certain herbs; it comes with a small bag of herbs with stuff like sage, wild sage from L.A. My friend Jennifer did the page.
I noticed on your twitter a few days back that you mentioned “one hears the best audio samples in the emergency room” (you guys always use a lot of awesome samples on your releases); I’m curious to know what you overheard?
IV: [laughs] Oh god! The guy next to us in handcuffs was raving and ranting about how he caught his wife fucking someone else…just silliness like that. People in handcuffs at the hospital smell freedom but they’re still in jail so they tend to say a lot of funny stuff. He was really drunk.
Being out with your back for a bit now, what’s the experience been like for you? Can you still play drums? Have you still be able to do the stuff you normally do, like your art?
IV: I still do those things. In the last two or three months I’ve just been concentrating on the fundamentals of drumming and going back to the very simple things. Also, the super fundamentals of learning to play the snare again. I’ve been telling myself that I don’t know how to play the drums because I can’t fully, and wildly, play the kit. It doesn’t mean that I can’t sit with a pad and tap on it and expand my skills. Do you know DJ Qbert at all (an incredible scratch DJ)?
Yes I do! He’s the nicest guy. I love what he does, he’s so frickin’ talented.
IV: Oh god, he is so inspiring. He broke his femur and he’s taken an entire year to focus on being the best scratcher. I took that inspiration while I’ve been laid up and can’t really move much and just watched youtube videos on fundamentals. That’s what I’ve been involved in and I feel really good about that. I’ve also been involved with K Records, which is Calvin Johnson’s label. I’m closely involved in music still which is really exciting. I think it’s good to expand how you’re involved in certain elements of your life. To just keep saying I’m a musician, I’m a musician…it’s kind of a boring stance to take on life. I’m many things to many people, one of those things is to play music to people. I don’t really like to just label myself as that. Same thing with art, I love to make paintings. It’s one of the things that I like to do with my day, just to stay interested and not really get bored. Although I’d never really get bored, I think it’s more occupying an overactive brain [laughs].
Ha! To me, it’s so frustrating when people complain about being bored. I feel like just saying to them, you know what? Only boring people get bored. So, what kinds of things have you been painting lately?
IV: I like to do exterior interiors, which is kind of funny. I’ve been painting like, almost a doll house. I’ve been painting a lot of colours in my focus lately. Again, going to that idea of, yes you’ve been making paintings since you were a 7-year-old kid, so you have a bunch of years physically doing it but, do you actually know about it? Going back to colour mixing, going back to all those ideas of learning a craft and honing your craft…or at least starting to. I don’t claim to be good at it whatsoever. I love studying craft. That’s what brought me to oil painting, it’s more complex and more of a challenge to get the right colours. Getting that process down is really exciting for me—learning the colour wheel again, learning how to balance an image, learning depth and shadow with colour through colour rather than through straight drawing, and working on my drawing, going back to forms and techniques. I like trying to combine all my disciplines into one discipline, rather than be, oh I do art, music, typography, I want just one discipline in my life—for people to go, he’s a well-rounded artist. It’d be nice for people to look at a typeface and be, that comes from his studio or that painting or that song comes from his studio. I don’t want those things to fight against each other, I want it to all be one body of work. That’s my goal, to create a well-rounded body of work. Right now the focus is painting but within a few years it could very well be gardening, it’d be the same thing, I’d do it my way. My girlfriend is great in the garden, we’ve been digging in the dirt.
I love working out in the garden, we have a veggie patch. It’s the best being grounded in amongst the soil and plants out in the sunshine.
IV: Oh definitely.
I understand what you’re getting at with wanting to have one discipline and one body of work, I strive for that too. When people ask me what I do I say, I just make stuff. I find it hard to label it, like, oh I’m a zine maker, and I’m a writer…that’s always felt weird to me. I just do what I do, always have, always will despite what everyone else is doing and what’s popular.
IV: Oh but come on Bianca you are a writer. You’re one of our punk writers! This is an interesting conversation because there’s an artist named Allan Kaprow, I think [Matt] Reilly posted some of his work on the Facebook page recently; both of us in Japanther really admire him. In his time he was a very interesting artist in L.A. He talks about the non-artist and the artist-artist. I’m sure there’s someone in your own scene that talks about themselves like ‘well I’m a writer’…and it might slightly annoy you a little, I’m just guessing but…by capita you would be categorised as a non-writer-writer because you tell people, I just make things. Meanwhile, you spend hours and hours writing.
I do. I’m always studying and honing my craft…it’s something that never stops, I’m pretty much always on.
IV: That person I was talking about who tells the world ‘I’m a writer’ they spend a lot of people time telling people they’re a writer, they’ve convinced themselves so they don’t spend as much time on their craft. Generally what that will equal is kind of a less interesting product. I don’t know that for sure but it’s my theory. It goes across the board for things, like someone whose like ‘oh I do a record label blah blah blah blah blah’ …well yeah but it’s probably not super interesting and I don’t think you’ll really be here long enough to have it be something that we can quantify it. Where someone who’s like, well I just put stuff out is a non-label-label. That Allan Kaprow idea of an artist, the artist-artist, the non-artist and anti-artist (people who are like, I hate artists but then they spend all their time painting)…they’ll think artists are losers or lazy or hippies…well I go to the same store, buy the same material and still generally do the same actions…I think it’s a weird symptom of society where you’re always talking about it, what you are and what you aren’t.
You’re such a great writer Bianca really, you’re one of ours—a punk writer. We need someone like you to interview Ian MacKaye and get really deep with the guy. Having him trust you and open up to you is amazing, he feels that you’re genuinely interested in what he has to say…not like, oh I’m a writer and I have to get this story done and then I gotta do ten more. I would call you a writer all day long but it’s certainly up to you to own it.
I do know what you mean. I call myself a writer if someone is asking what I do but to me, going back to what you were saying about creating one body of work, that’s’ what I do. It’s my life, I don’t compartmentalize. I guess maybe I just don’t label myself to myself.
IV: Well just maybe see what it does for yourself. Own it. Next time someone asks you, just say, I’m a writer and have no ‘buts’ and no ‘and’ or no ‘I’. And they’ll go, oh cool. Then say you do interviews, you self-publish. There’s a lot of words that you can get around. Often people will say to me, oh man that’s your band?! That’s so exciting, that’s cool. I give recognition to that and I ask them if they make music? They often say, yeah but… It’s like why throw in but? What’s with that? It’s like, you guys are awesome, you guys are the best band in the world. That’s how you should feel. That’s how I feel. I’m fascinated by that, people seem like they really want to tear themselves down for fear of trying…that’s the best way that I can put it. Don’t tear yourself down for fear of failure or whatever it is. Build yourself up, I’m a writer, I self-publish, I’m punk.
Is being a musician and artist always something you’ve owned then? Has it taken you a while to own it for yourself?
IV: Funnily, all this is me talking to myself too, reminding myself [laughs]. It took a long time. I’ve been playing since I was a little, little boy. Even today when you’re saying, I’m musician, I’m chopping up a bit to have that same reaction and I’m like, well I’m not a musician I’m just a guy that does shit but—fuck that! I am a musician. I play the drums. I’m a percussionist and I’m proud of it. It’s taken me a long time to get to that. I’d hope that younger artists or anyone who reads this should just skip that step, go directly to self-confidence and say…like even if you’re a mechanic, I’m a mechanic and I’m a damn good one. Or, if you screw up you go, I’m a good mechanic, why is this screwing up? Not, oh I’m shit I’m not good at this. What you don’t know you can figure out.
It’s funny we’re talking about this, there’s a book on a shelf across the room from where I am sitting on the floor right now and in big letters it says: Art &Fear. It’s just glaring at me.
IV: [laughs]. It’s a big thing though, right?
Yes! And very important.
IV: As an artist you really do expose yourself. If you make a zine and someone says, oh that girl, she made a shit zine, I don’t like what she says she’s always talking about emo stuff…it’s best to just go, cool, well that’s your reaction but this is what I’m going to do. I can take what they said as a challenge and push myself to make the next one even better. Some people are just haters though and they just want to speak negatively. Maybe that’s how they’re just creative? If they’re good at it they’ll probably a comedian, if not you’re probably just a fucking troll on youtube or a weirdo commenting on some blog. I don’t recall them giving out awards for trolling though, I do recall them giving awards for writing however [laughs].
Japanther have a new album out now, Instant Money Magic; what’s it mean to you?
IV: I don’t know. I don’t even know what albums mean anymore. It’s interesting, we’re in a really interesting time for music. Our friend Kim Sielbeck painted the cover. A big part of Japanther is working on the art direction and talking to our artist friends and collaborating, getting them to do covers for us. Kim Sielbeck is an incredible painter and a wonderful woman, to have her do our cover makes me so proud. She actually won some awards for the cover already. For me it’s like, fuck, it’s an award winning album already! [laughs].
The album has some cool tunes on it. It has one called, Take Me In And Let Me Go. It’s a love song about what it is to love and to be human and what it is to leave. They’re all common themes in Japanther songs—love and loss. It’s a cathartic expression of a lot of learning and of difficult life events. There’s a song by the Ghost Mice called, All We Got Is Each. It’s actually by Samantha Jane [Dorsett] that started Plan-It-X Records. She wrote that song in the van and Chris from the Ghost Mice cobbled it together and put it more together as a song. That song kind of represents Plan-It-X and our affinity for the punk underground and for people coming together through music that are kind of freaks and they may not have much else. Against Me and Japanther started out on that label. It’s an important underground label and it’s definitely worth mentioning it and Sam. She’s passed away now, it’s so sad. It’s important to mention her struggle, she went through a lot of hard stuff; she started life as a man and ended life as a woman. It’s important to look at her life as an example.
There’s the, Dreams Come True cover by Puppies on the record too.
IV: That’s a song that Reilly actually wrote for Puppies. It’s come full circle. Our friends wanted to start a band and Matt wrote that song for them. They stopped playing it when they got their own repertoire and we were like, if you’re not going to release it on an album we are [laughs].
I really love your song on IMM, Do It (Don’t Try).
IV: I love that song too. It’s very much a Japanther song. It came from a show we did at the MoMA museum in New York. It was a really difficult and trying performance for us. I particularly like the part that says: I’m a diamond in a stage play / Dance about stars. It just gets to that idea that we’re all just dust and if you don’t stand up and use your breath for something that really matters, if you just use your breath to complain and be mean to people, you’re squandering magic. Here we are just floating on a star in the middle of this massive solar system that just floats in the middle of billions of other solar systems and you’re using your time to tear it apart! Whereas I’m really excited to use my time to build it up. Sometimes you do need to tear things apart to build them up though, I appreciate that. That’s what that song is about. Also it goes back to, I always do my best when I forget to try. I’m really proud of the lyrics. I think the best song is made when you’re not thinking. The best zine is made when you’re not thinking. You stop engaging in thoughts like, am I an artist and you just are. You just really need to get on with it and stop trying; stop telling people what you’re going to do and just fucking do it.
We’re really proud of the video that our friend Droid 907 made for Do It (Don’t Try!). It’s a graffiti video. We’re so proud of his work. It’s very unique. It’s worth mentioning at the very end of that video there’s a sticker that says “Afrika” which is another friend that we lost really recently. He was just one of the most inspiring, beautiful men that we’ve known. He’s a graffiti writer and someone that was really close to us. The video is definitely dedicated to him. When that last sticker gets put up in the video I always kind of cry.
All the things we’ve been talking about has had me pretty teary this whole time we’ve been chatting.
IV: Tell me about it! Me too.
Every time we have these chats it always just gets me right in the heart. Like when I listen to Japanther’s music too. I love you guys so much, when I listen to you I get such a warm feeling…like with this album, you just get an overwhelming feeling of togetherness, joy, positivity, strength and it’s such a celebration of life—it’s just magic.
IV: I really appreciate that. Talking about art and all this stuff has got me teary too.
Online I see so much love for you guys. Often people saying stuff like “you guys changed my life”. That’s pretty epic!
IV: I feel super proud of that, it’s something I will take to my grave.
*All photos courtesy of Japanther’s fb – please let me know if they’re your images so I can credit you or alternatively let me know if you want me to take them down.