I feel like I’m in a “Kill Bill” outtake and I guess that’s exactly what the three cool chicks I’m with intend. They lead me down a Nishi-Ogikubo side street and up a darkened staircase. At the top is a pair of doors and the handles are bolted-on samurai swords.
“Cool, eh?” whispers Yoshiko “Ronnie” Fujiyama, and I murmur my agreement. Ronnie pulls the sword and when the door opens I feel like Uma Thurman entering the sushi bar in Okinawa in “Kill Bill.” Ahead of me, standing behind the counter, holding a big kitchen knife and clad in a white apron is the genial master of this eatery and he looks like Sonny Chiba’s bigger brother.
Ronnie is the guitarist/vocalist with The 18.104.22.168’s, and she and drummer Sachiko and bassist Saki order a massive plate of french fries dripping in melted cheese and ketchup, with beer and sake to wash it down. They’re here to tell us about the band’s role in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” and their new album, “Bomb the Rocks,” which was released last week.
There’s no better way to start your love affair with The 22.214.171.124’s than to buy the album. Its 27 tracks include all the songs from the singles they released between 1989 and 1996, among them such underground classics as “Three Cool Chicks” and “I Was a Teenage Cave Woman.” Ronnie sums up the band’s music best: “I like Chuck Berry and we wanted that sound, but we wanted to deconstruct that rock ‘n’ roll into punk music by using distortion and noise and screaming.” So if the only thing you’ve heard by this band is the gentle doo-wop of “Woo Hoo” on the “Kill Bill” soundtrack you’re in for a few punk-rock surprises.
The 126.96.36.199’s might be legends in Japan’s underground garage-rock scene and release records on the same label as The White Stripes in the States (Sympathy for the Record Industry), but that’s about as far as their fame stretches. So how the hell did they end up in “Kill Bill”?
“Tarantino was in Japan for a ‘Kill Bill’ meeting and he was browsing in this thrift store in Ebisu. The clerk is a fan of ours and she was playing our record,” says Ronnie. “It was the first six songs on the new album, actually. And Tarantino asked her to sell him the record.”
“But it was her record, so she told Tarantino to go and buy his own copy,” continues Sachiko. “So he left the store to search for it, but he ran out of time as he had to return to the U.S. so he went back to the thrift store and begged the clerk for her copy. She finally gave in and let him have it — but she charged him double the price.”
“When we met Tarantino on the set, he told us it was destiny that we’d end up in the movie,” says Ronnie, plucking out a bunch of ketchup-splattered french fries.
Tarantino asked the band to perform the covers “Woo Hoo” and “I’m Blue,” and the original 188.8.131.52’s song “I Walk Like Jayne Mansfield” on the stage at the House of Blue Leaves, the rock ‘n’ roll izakaya in the movie, while people get chopped to pieces all around them.
When did The 184.108.40.206’s first hear they were going to be in “Kill Bill”?
“It was out of the blue and we were told to get to Beijing — where they were filming — by this particular day. Period,” says Sachiko.
“It was April last year,” adds Ronnie. “The production team told us they had all the gear ready for us, but as Tarantino wanted us to play live on set we insisted on using our own gear — guitars and amps and stuff. If it was just lip-synching we wouldn’t have cared, but he wanted a live take and a lip-synch take. It was all edited so we don’t know what ended up in the final cut.”
The band spent 10 days in Beijing, but only worked three of them. The rest of the time they hung out at the studio. “I saw [Lucy Liu’s henchwoman] Sophie getting her arm chopped off and that was very interesting,” says Ronnie.
“And in that scene where Lucy Liu suddenly shouts ‘Get them!’ we were onstage about to play a song and we had no idea what was going on — suddenly the shoot was happening all around us!” says Sachiko. “And you know that scene where Lucy Liu enters the place with her gang? Well, as they march in they are moving to the rhythm of the song we were playing live on the stage at the time.”
We don’t see you once the battle commences. Did you get out alive?
“When Sophie gets her arm hacked off there was a scene of the three of us running down a corridor with Uma Thurman, but that didn’t make it,” says Ronnie. “But the thing is, it was so interesting being involved in all these different takes.”
Can’t wait to check the outtakes on the DVD.
When I saw the 220.127.116.11’s in September before the movie’s release they played to about 50 fans in the Nishi-Ogikubo Watts live house. When I saw them last week in Shimokitazawa Shelter and Musashi-Sakai Statto each show was sold out, with hundreds packed inside. There’s also been a media frenzy to get hold of the band, with few succeeding. Britain’s most influential music magazine — The NME — put “Woo Hoo” at the top of its office playlist a few weeks back and issued a plea for info about the band.
“We’ve received an avalanche of offers from abroad,” says Ronnie. “Italian Vogue have even tried contacting us. But I don’t speak English so we’re having a hard time. We’ve got this stack of emails that we haven’t replied to.”
Will the 18.104.22.168’s sudden fame help propel garage-rock into the limelight in Japan, where, unlike in Europe and the States, it has remained an underground phenomenon?
“In Japan that’s not going to happen. The country is still stuck in its ways,” says Sachiko.
“We played with The White Stripes years ago in the States,” says Ronnie. “And then a few years back we went to England and The White Stripes were on the cover of all these magazines. They were suddenly huge in England, but they weren’t that big in Japan. We think that there’s no chance that we’re going to make it big in this country, but the important thing for us is to get out there and keep playing rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a cliche, but that’s it.”
“When we go abroad we meet many indie bands who don’t make the charts but they still manage to make a living by doing their little tours and their part-time jobs,” says Sachiko. “And in Japan there’s more bands out there doing it. It helps that now when people get past 30 they don’t just quit bands and ‘settle down.’ People have realized that you don’t have to stop having fun.”
“If we did make a load of money we would buy our own recording studio,” muses Ronnie. “It’s like Tarantino. We’d go with something we believed in. We’d spend the money on rock ‘n’ roll.”
In true “Kill Bill” style we’ll end at the beginning. In 1986, sisters Sachiko and Ronnie started the band. About 10 other members have come and gone over the years, but they’ve all been girls apart from guitarist Eddie, who went on to front another legendary Japanese garage band, Mad 3. “Eddie’s like a little brother to us and he’s always had a very feminine side so it was easy to work with him,” says Ronnie.
The latest addition is bassist Saki, who is young enough to be their daughter. “She’s 21, but she’s perfect for us. So cute. Don’t you think so?” asks Sachiko. I glance at Saki. She blushes, flutters her long eyelashes, and looks away. My heart skips a beat and I bemoan the fact that Saki didn’t make it to The House of Blue Leaves.
“She wasn’t in the movie because we didn’t know her then,” says Sachiko. “So a previous bassist, Yoshiko Yamaguchi, played.”
I have to say that it’s pretty damn amazing that The 22.214.171.124’s have kept it together for 17 years.
“It’s probably because we’re sisters. How do you split up with a sister?” asks Ronnie.
“Eddie left because he wanted to be in a band with boys,” says Yoshiko. “The girls leave because of their day jobs or because a new boyfriend pressures them to leave the band. That’s a big problem for girl bands. They have a baby and stuff, so then they have to take care of the man, the baby and the home. There’s no time for the band.”
So you control the men, not the other way round?
“We’ve got men, kids and a home! But our men influence us in a good way,” Ronnie says with a laugh.
“Kill Bill” is not the first time The 126.96.36.199’s have enjoyed 15 minutes of fame. Back in the ’80s they appeared on the amateur-band TV program “Ika-ten (Ikasu Bando Tengoku)” and the judges loved them so much that they were awarded a “special prize.”
“The show had just started so we actually got paid to do it. We’re a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but it was ages ago,” says Ronnie. “So, while before people said, ‘Hey, that’s the ‘Ika-ten band,’ they’re now gonna say, ‘It’s the ‘Kill Bill’ band.’ “
She picks up the final french fry, decides against it, tosses it on to the plate and says: “Do we care? Not much.”