Interview: Sheena & The Rokkets

As I mentioned in my previous post, I interviewed Sheena and Makoto from Sheena & The Rokkets the other week and the feature appeared on this week’s Japan Times music page. Makoto did most of the talking, I think because he’s rather more confident speaking English, although Sheena chipped in. We talked for about one and a half hours so there’s no way I’m writing up the full transcript, but they were very nice and said some interesting stuff.

When I’m writing a feature like this for the JT, the trick to it is always to try to find the story from amongst the chaos of what can often be quite rambling, unstructured conversations, although in Sheena & The Rokkets’ case there were several possible stories to draw from it. In the end, I think the recurring theme was the compromises a rock’n’roll or punk band has to make in order to make a living from music. I get the impression that the “mentai rock” generation are viewed with a bit of suspicion by members of the current Fukuoka rock scene, perhaps due to a kind of subconscious resentment of the jokey and reductive nature of the term “mentai rock” itself, or perhaps due to the perception that so many of the bands seemed to have sold out. Basically, if you’re an alternative band who’s been based in Fukuoka for any length of time without moving to Tokyo, it’s because your roots there are stronger than your ambitions for commercial success. Bands who moved to Tokyo and had hits, well, they chose a different path.

Makoto’s old band Sonhouse were full-on proto-punk rockers though. I was in a bar in Koenji on Tuesday night with a couple of Fukuoka friends who were in Tokyo on tour and we got the owner to put on their first album from 1975 and it was raw, brutal rock’n’roll hedonism in its purest form. Both of my friends were nodding their heads in appreciation and eventually one of them pronounced, “Yeah, this is a really good record.”Sonhouse: Milk Nomi Ningyo

The very existence of Sheena & The Rokkets seems to have more to do with the need to move on commercially without losing sight of that rock’n’roll purity. Sonhouse seem to have split partly because they couldn’t take what they were doing any further in Fukuoka, and Makoto and Sheena had had their first daughter in 1976, so it must have been difficult to marry the responsibilities of having a family with the inherently irresponsible nature of rock’n’roll. The fact that Sheena & The Rokkets moved to Tokyo pretty much as soon as they started shows this change in attitude I think.

What’s interesting about the group is the way they negotiated these opposing principles. Makoto talks a bit in the interview about how kayoukyoku and rock’n’roll were sort of seen as fundamentally opposing forces, but lots of the people who had started out in punk and new wave bands quickly started trying to make what they did work in some sort of mainstream or semi-mainstream context and the early 80s is quite an interesting time in music precisely for how these then-underground musical ideas started to bleed across into pop (in a similar way that you can see this happening now with idol music). Sheena & The Rokkets were lucky to end up with a genius like Haruomi Hosono producing them and the results are a bunch of very good songs, although there’s still a bit a shock in how they went from this…Sheena & The Rokkets: Sugaree (Rusty York)

…to this:Sheena & The Rokkets: Ukabino Peach Girl

In any case, watching them live, it’s clear that rock’n’roll remained at the core of what they did. They seem to have commanded the respect of overseas contemporaries, with Lenny Kaye, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, The Ramones, Wilko Johnson and others all seeming to have had an interest in the band. The collaboration with Yuu Aku is also part of this same continuum of keeping an eye on the mainstream and trying to take what’s good from it.

Of course (through no fault of their own) there’s nothing really underground or alternative about the kind of rock’n’roll Sheena & The Rokkets do anymore because the goalposts for what qualifies as extreme have moved so far since the late 70s. It’s interesting that Sheena and Makoto’s two younger daughters’ own band Darkside Mirrors, while cut from similar garage rock cloth to their parents, was a dirtier, rougher and trashier sounding proposition.Darkside Mirrors: Elevator

What’s happened is that rock’n’roll has moved on from being rebellious into being something timeless, and that in turn has made the distinction between rock’n’roll and pop music that was so strong in the 70s increasingly meaningless. Still, when you compare Sheena & The Rokkets to another 70s rock’n’roll rebel like Eikichi Yazawa, it’s obvious that they’ve retained a way closer hold on their roots and importantly still seem to be having fun.

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Filed under Classic Pop, Features, Interviews

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