Guitar Wolf is a cliché.
And that's exactly what makes the Tokyo garage-punk trio great: Guitar Wolf takes all of the discarded picture sleeves, pin-ups, safety pins and postures of rock-'n'-roll culture-the leather-clad look of '68 comeback-era Elvis, the frenzied fun of classic '50s rock and the distortion-ravaged pop revisionism of the Misfits and Ramones-and makes it all seem exciting, if not entirely new again.
Speaking via telephone from the New York City offices of his record label, alternating between his own broken English and the help of a translator, guitarist-vocalist Seiji, a.k.a. "Guitar Wolf" (along with Billy "Bass Wolf" and Toru "Drum Wolf"), succinctly explains his band's modus operandi: "Very important, no change."
Speaking in Japanese, Seiji adds and his translator elaborates, "When most bands get older, they replace the original energy with better technique. Guitar Wolf will never change." Asked to discuss the band's latest work, Seiji simply, and proudly, says, "It's the same. We play rock 'n' roll and punk rock."
It's that simple infatuation with the classic look and sound of American rock 'n' roll that has fueled the band for the past 18 years, seven albums, countless singles and frequent world tours. Fortunately, however, something has been lost in the translation from American pop to Japanese rock, making Guitar Wolf sound like a three-man oldies radio station with a wildly distorted signal, playing the songs at crystal-meth speed.
Guitar Wolf first launched its mission to return the gift of its mutated take on our culture via its 1993 album, Wolf Rock, on Goner Records. While the band escalated to stardom in Japan on the Sony label, five of its subsequent albums were issued to much acclaim, although smaller sales figures, in the U.S. on the mega-indie Matador Records. The band signed to Narnack in 2002 and has since sought to catch up on releasing its growing overseas back catalog.
Its most recent U.S. release is the revamped album Rock 'n' Roll Etiquette on Narnack Records, which was released overseas in 2000 on Sony. Guitar Wolf's latest album, Love Rock, has yet to be licensed in the states, perhaps to allow us to catch up and get some proper schooling in the lost art of rock.
"I want to teach everyone rock-'n'-roll etiquette," the guitarist explains. "Rock 'n' roll is a very important thing. First is the look. Second is guts and power. Third is action. Four and five, nothing. Sixth is technique. That is rock-'n'-roll etiquette."
Taking the first rule to heart, the band always performs clad head to toe in black leather. It's a wonder the band members remain upright throughout their frantically energetic sets (see Rules 2 and 3) under the hot stage lights. "We've never collapsed," Seiji explains, "but it's quite hard to stay conscious."
Perhaps such an exhausting regimen has kept Guitar Wolf from touring the U.S. for the past three years, but the band is excited to return to the Rose City. "Last time in Portland, on stage I got a piece of glass in my finger," Seiji says. "There is still a small piece in my finger, so there is a small piece of Portland inside my body." Who knows what other pieces of U.S. cities may be trapped in the the Wolfmen's bodies after years of touring with bands like the Cramps, John Spencer Blues Explosion and the Makers?
Aside from the obvious reason of promoting its latest album, Seiji says the band's other motive for its return is to throw down the gauntlet. "Guitar Wolf is looking for a good rival," he jokes.
But there may be some truth to that statement. Now that the last of the original bands to supercharge the rock-'n'-roll sound-the Ramones, the Misfits, the New York Dolls-are gone or fading fast (in the case of the aging Cramps), Guitar Wolf seems poised to show its frenzied and furious dedication to the multitudes of watered-down, posturing garage-rock bands that have sprung up in the wake of the White Stripes' mainstream success.
"Elvis Presley, Link Wray, Johnny Thunders, Joan Jett and many punk bands," Seiji emphatically declares without a question being posed, "we love the '50s sound." It comes as much as a warning of the group's intent to summon all the passion and energy of those artists as it is an outline of the Guitar Wolf aesthetic.
Would Guitar Wolf ever have an interest in changing the band's sound to succeed? "Ah, no," Seiji says. "Because we are foolish."
Guitar Wolf plays with Fireballs of Freedom and Typhoon Killer on Thursday, March 10, at Dante's, 1 SW 3rd Ave., 226-6630. 9:30 pm. $5. 21+.