To avoid any confusion, let’s establish one thing right off the bat: We’re From Japan is not, in fact, from Japan. Portlanders Brian McIntyre, John Reed Dunn, Aaron Heuberger and Martin Castillo did, however, manage to nab a record deal on a Japanese label, Zankyo Records, with their sweeping instrumental rock.
Poems without words
To avoid any confusion, let’s establish one thing right off the bat: We’re From Japan is not, in fact, from Japan.
Portlanders Brian McIntyre, John Reed Dunn, Aaron Heuberger and Martin Castillo did, however, manage to nab a record deal on a Japanese label, Zankyo Records, with their sweeping instrumental rock.
For eight years now, We’re From Japan has been progressively refining their sound. Perhaps surprising to the first-time listener is the absence of lyrics populating their tunes. Instead, We’re From Japan relies on their instrumental compositions to convey the meaning of their music.
This week the Vanguard was able to catch up with guitarist Brian McIntyre to chat about the band’s lack of vocals, what it’s like to tour Japan and the possible fate of kidnapped drummers.
RO: How did the band start up?
BM: Aaron and I had been playing together for years, in and out of various bands that never really clicked and as a basement studio project. In late 2000, we started playing with a drummer who shared the same goals we had musically at the time and we started to get more serious about performing live again.
During that time, John [Reed Dunn] had been coming to the studio often to record his songs with Aaron … acoustic songwriter stuff. We collaborated with him on some of his recordings and he in turn collaborated on some of our recordings and the two projects just kind of fused.
RO: How has the band changed over the years? Are you the same band you were when you started?
BM: John, Aaron and I have been around since the beginning. Martin is like drummer number six, we really burned through them for a while.
Interestingly, he was our fill in drummer during our first tour when our then drummer was unable to go. He’s always been part of the family. Soundwise, I think we’ve stayed pretty true to our original concept. The only major change was the decision to drop what were already very minimal vocals.
RO: Have any of your drummers spontaneously combusted?
BM: I think so, or maybe they were kidnapped. We were never asked to pay a ransom so we’ll never really know.
RO: Who are the musical artists that influenced you?
BM: I was a teen during the whole Cure, Smiths, New Order era so my playing is certainly influenced by that. Oddly, I listen to more ridiculously over-the-top rap music now than anything else.
RO: Any non-musical influences for the band?
BM: I think we all bring non-musical influences to the group. John’s background is in film … total film geek. He and I can kill an evening talking about movies/directors etc. Martin is the same way. Aaron doesn’t really see many movies. He still thinks they’re called “talkies.”
We’re all readers as well, I went to school for lit and am going through a phase where the bigger the book the better. I don’t know what it is but I have a new patience for punishing, oblique novels.
RO: Is there a thought behind constructing your songs as mostly musical, with very little or no lyrics?
BM: Originally, when we became a four piece, there were some vocals carried over from some of the material John had brought with him and some of the first compositions we made together.
As time went on and we began to see how we all played together—reacted to what the others were playing—vocals became unnecessary. As a group we don’t tend to write in a verse, chorus, verse setting. Oftentimes vocals sound forced or out of place when a composition isn’t tailored for their inclusion.
RO: Where most bands would incorporate meaning into their words, how do you tackle song content or expression with a lack of lyrics?
BM: We’re not really that deliberate about it. We do find thematic elements in our music but it’s usually not until a composition is complete. We rarely title a track until after its completion but oftentimes the title can bring about a thematic element.
RO: Have there been any high points or low points for the band over the years?
BM: High points are absolutely getting a Japanese label and having the opportunity to tour Japan. We’re headed back for two weeks in March. Low points? We’re pretty resilient and when one of us is being a baby (there’s always someone being a baby) there’s always another one of us there saying, “Hey! You’re being a baby!”
Sounds ridiculous but it’s really quite effective, we all keep each other in check and we never hold grudges towards one another. That said, the definite low point of our career was a brutal van accident outside Kalamazoo, Mich.
RO: “Brutal van accident?”
BM: We were lucky. Without going into boring detail, we were T-boned in the middle of a busy intersection by a car traveling at 55 mph. The impact spun the van around and it actually rose onto its front driver side tire. I felt certain that we’d roll at that point but all the weight in the back pulled us back down. Thank God for our amplifiers.
We suffered some minor injuries and a couple of us were taken to the hospital but released after a quick check up. We suffered some damage to our gear but our van was totaled. Fortunately the damage to our gear wasn’t enough to keep us from finishing our tour, so we holed up in Michigan for a few days, scraped together enough cash to get a new van and completed the tour.
Editor’s note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.