When I call Ian Vanek he's jogging through Brooklyn. His band Japanther is supposed to play a free summer music series put on by Vans, but he's literally running late. He assures me I can interview him even as he's in transit, breathlessly pounding the pavement, ducking under bridges and through traffic, people and the dull roar of the city. We're constantly breaking up, but Vanek insists it's no big deal. "It's just the subway," he says. "It'll pass."
A chaotic interview isn't surprising. Japanther, who headline a show at the Palace this week, is really more of an art project than a band, so anything unconventional seems apt. Vanek plays drums, cassettes and sings. His other half, Matt Reilly, plays bass, a Casio SK-1, and also sings. They're fast-paced, a wall of sound made of upbeat noisy punk rock with a pretty pop sheen. The duo sings into microphones made from the severed heads of telephones. Sometimes they play in the middle of the crowd rather than on stage.
A couple of years ago when Japanther played Missoula they brought a blender and made smoothies during their set. Last year, they played the Missoula Art Museum, which ended with a discussion on art. Both those shows were for Missoula's indie rock Total Fest, which Japanther's played numerous times since the festival's 2001 inception—including this year's fest, a week ago. They have an obvious connection to the festival—the founder is local Wantage record label owner Josh Vanek, Ian's brother. Over the years the band has built up a following in Missoula. Now they're a Total Fest staple.
Bar shows, however, aren't really the band's bread-and-butter.
"We have a rough time sometimes playing in bars and other places where they serve alcohol because there's a priority there," says Vanek. "And you know, it really is a priority other than ours. That being said, we've had good and bad experiences there. It's the wild west in Montana. There's a lot of crazy shit that goes on in downtown Missoula."
Crazy isn't exactly new. What happened to Japanther during their recent January/February tour through Europe sounds like something out of a Judd Apatow movie—if Judd Apatow was into making art films. Early in the tour someone broke into their van and stole the band's clothes and laptop. In Paris, their roadie crashed the van while he was driving by himself and ended up wandering the streets all day long. That night they played the Moulin Rouge. The club is expensive but it still hosts wild garage punk bands and the crowds generally don't take to the high bar prices, preferring to smuggle cheap beer in under their coats.
"We had a funny day," says Vanek. "Then the show was totally sold out. It was a lot of girls going crazy."
In London, about six days later, they ended up renting a car, which led to the debacle of trying to drive on the other side of the road. That night, they played the Tufnell Park Dome in their boxer shorts. With very little clothing left, it seemed like the most practical thing to do, says Vanek.
"Again people were just going apeshit on the stage," he says. "By that time in the tour I think we were probably playing shows just about naked because we didn't want to get our clothes dirty; we had so few clothes. So we were playing in our boxer shorts in London in front of a million girls on stage jumping off shit and tearing us apart. It was great. Felt like the Beatles. The naked sweaty Beatles."
In June, Japanther returned to Europe to attend the Venice Biennale. Working with a performing arts group from Vienna called Gelatin, the duo helped construct a giant woodfire oven heated to 1,200 degrees, in which crystals were melted and poured into a constantly transforming sculpture. While the sculpture was being made, Japanther helped keep the fire going 24 hours a day for eight days, and they played an "endurance show" for 13 hours per day. They'd also mic'd the Venetian canal with a hyrdrophone, which captured the sound of boat engines, adding to the strange ambience.
The crowd got a little crazy.
"In the height of the performance there were performers being fucked in the ass with bananas and olive oil," says Vanek, "and it made the papers in Italy. I ended up almost under arrest the next morning because guys with machine guns showed up and I didn't have any paper work. So the performance definitely got wild. When you feel that energy then you get whipped up into momentum. We called it big gay summer camp. It was an amazing experience."
Japanther's plans include more outdoor shows and several projects with museums that deal with the way government treats art. In the end, Vanek says, he doesn't want to just play music. He wants to see how far he can go.
"We've been influenced by people who see the world as something to be played with a little bit," he says. "Don't worry about yourself and who sees you naked and how much money you made at the end of the day. Go for broke. If something's going to embarrass you, now you really have to do it."
He's still jogging when we say goodbye.
Japanther plays the Palace Saturday, August 27, at 9 PM for a Hellgate Rollergirls Fundraiser with 10yoGF, Total Combined Weight and Hurdles. $6/$12 for those 18–20 years old.