Wok 'n' Roll

Sweet Japanese Indie pop and spicy American punk converge



Every now and then a freakishly good unknown act slips into town; this is one of those weeks. Two of the finest young bands to don their indie-band thinking caps perform this Friday, bringing a cool breath of creativity and enthusiasm to our parched mountain rock sensibilities. The Wontons (Austin, Texas) and Kabochack (Japan) play Industrial Nation as part of their first tour together, and as Kabochack's first American tour, period.

The bands are musically worlds apart and don't share a label, but became friends in 1999 when The Wontons performed a typically wild show in Kabochack's hometown of Shizuoka, Japan. Lead vocalist and guitarist Dean Hsieh was swinging his guitar around at the end of the show and it accidentally met the stage, splitting in two. Hsieh had to beg the crowd for a loaner guitar so the band could perform their encore, and Kabochack stepped up. Bonds were formed.

So now we find our heroes touring the States in a van, crashing at one another's houses, partying, as they say, like rock stars. They're an interesting mix -- The Wontons are renowned for kicking and squealing vintage trad punk, while Kabochack is an intensely charming and sweet blend of sparkly summer pop and riot grrrl attitude. The music is cute and pretty, in the words of the drummer, Tamaki.

Formed four years ago by Tamaki, vocalist Maripoo and bassist Ruri (none of this is pronounced how you'd think, by the way), the band has developed a strong fan base in the Japanese underground scene with their extraordinary musicianship and originality, steeped in the influences of The Pixies, My Bloody Valentine and Guitar Wolf. Their original songs -- music by Maripoo and lyrics by Ruri and Tamaki -- are performed with a contagious, youthful enthusiasm that is as endearing as a sad-eyed pussycat. Thing is, this kitty has one big set of teeth behind that pretty mouth, and its sharp punk can tear your guts out. Kabochack's innocently delicate harmonies and perfectly placed chords make a soft bed for the girls' dangerously high energy.

"Japanese people want to maybe be like Americans, but the music, like punk and hardcore, is a little different. Japanese music I think has an original spirit," says Tamaki.

It's that spirited cuteness that must enchant the Wontons three, a pyromaniacal group of hardened drinkers with a deep respect for the CBGBs, onstage flashpots and the New York Dolls. Currently residing in Austin, the band is composed of Hsieh on lead vocals and guitar, Scott West on bass and Dwayne Barnes behind the kit. The Wontons' music is a refined distillation of all that is great and good in high punk -- simple chords, throbbing drums, swollen guitars and velvet distortion, hormonally charged yelps and growls and, of course, lyrical expressions of arrogant dissatisfaction with one's present situation. Unlike the demure Kabochack, The Wontons are well aware of their own rocking -- they even have their own dance, which you, Mao Tse-tung and Genghis Kahn can learn in just a few easy steps.

To add to this inflated sense of self, we must recognize that songwriter Hsieh's lyrics are fekkin' great -- songs about building giant walls between you and people you don't like ("oh my great wall, my great wall/it's even better than alcohol"), dancing your nights way with girls who spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e, and odes of love to fictitious Asian action film starlets. These are the songs Saturday nights are made of.

The Wontons have the ability to rise above their punk selves, and can, at will, produce the occasional hard-rocking, vaguely psychedelic jam. There may not be enough time for these two bands to completely strut their stuff on Friday night, but keep an eye on The Wontons and Kabochack -- unless a major label catches them up, both will continue on their way to underground stardom, flying below the radar with infectious, slinky stealth.

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