So many bands and pop musicians got their start while they were still students in college — MGMT, Vampire Weekend, and of course the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to mention only these few. Matt Reilly and Ian Vanek, of the Brooklyn-based art punk duo Japanther, got their start in art school at Pratt Institute, where they were encouraged to pursue the kind of mixed media projects that became creative anarchy/Japanther. The band has some serious art world street cred, having been featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennale and later making it to the 2011 Venice Biennale. They’ve won artist residencies — the most recent of which helped them produce their latest record — and they’ve performed along side some of the most important contemporary artists working today.
But don’t let the list accolades fool you. Japanther, a time-based performance duo, is the real deal because they kind of don’t give a shit, in only the way that free-spirited artists can. Vanity Fair called the band a “performance galaxy,” a world unto its own, and the Milwaukee Express said that “The music itself is unruly and lo-fi—a din of chaotic drums and distorted bass with warped cassette and keyboard accompaniments—but their performances are often high-concept.” Japanther has partied on the Williamsburg Bridge with some pretty iconic flash parties, they’ve held illegal parties, performed with synchronized swimmers and giant puppets.
How do you talk about a band with a huge cult following — a band that’s equal parts performance art, politics, and punk? Their most recent LP Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart, out now on Recess Records, is a ravenous romp through in-your-face punk politics. We caught up with Ian Vanek and talked about tattoos, vegans, the FBI, and the real meaning of punk.
Thought Catalog: So, clearly you guys are huge fans of The Simpsons.
Ian Vanek: (laughs) Yeah. I always thought if you could make it on The Simpsons then you’ve made it in life. Sonic Youth is on there and all these great bands make it on there. Kenny Scharf was on there. It’s funny when popular culture becomes important enough that you’re immortalized on The Simpsons, it’s amazing. I think it’s high art – you know, Conan O’Brien was writing for The Simpsons. That’s somebody we look up to, Matt Groening. He’s from the Northwest, I’m from the Northwest, too, and it just has a lineage around Portland and around Olympia, Washington.
TC: But like you really like The Simpsons, because not only is your record a reference to the show but you are covered in Simpsons tattoos.
IV: I just have really shitty tattoos. And they’re mainly like little roadmaps that help me remember something. So I have Bart Simpson, a naked Bart on my arm, and my friend Bo tattooed that. A lot of the tattoos on my arm are about immortalizing people. Anyway, he passed away after doing the tattoo so it becomes a very special tattoo. It had very little to do with The Simpsons at that time and everything to do with the person that put it on my arm. Same thing with my friend Thomas, down in Australia. He’s a famous hand-done tattoo artist. So we’d sit in our bedrooms and listen to punk rock records and get out needles and just start stabbing each other in the arm. Tattoos are more like stories like, “Last night we were in Oakland and we fell asleep on a boat and we woke up in the morning we did tattoos.”
TC: How did your new record Eat Like Lisa Act Like Bart come together?
IV: We did a residency at a place called Experimental Media and Performance Arts Center in upstate New York. They gave us this giant mansion and they let us stay there for four or five weeks. So we were all living in this house and goofing around, and that’s where a lot of the writing and the process. We would just go to the studio – we call it a studio but it was a giant football sized room. They have beautiful facilities and are really, really supportive people.
TC: Seems fun. That experience must have really impacted the creative process.
IV: We were in this cocoon of an art residency and we did the bulk of the writing there. Then the rest of the year we spent time collecting and thinking about things. But aside from that, it’s a political record, it’s about prison and police and housing and things like that. But done in an artful way where we’re not going to write any lines so hard to turn of someone else.
TC: Yeah, I mean there’s a song on the record called “More Teachers, Less Cops.”
IV: Exactly. And that’s the idea that everyone is a teacher, and everyone has the potential to be a cop. It’s upsetting when people want ot scold someone else instead of teach someone else. But we deal with a lot of racism and bigotry with the NYPD specifically. They’re a bunch of fucking clowns.
TC: It’s crazy! “Stop and Frisk” alone unfairly targets people of color.
IV: It’s important to me that a kid can walk down the street and have something in his pocket, whether it’s legal or not. That’s part of being a kid, having some type of secrecy. My brother is actually a volunteer for something called “End Stop and Frisk,” which is the Bronx Defenders. He volunteers for them, donating his legal services. He’s certainly on the frontlines.
TC: Man, the world is so scary right now. How did we even dig ourselves into this hole?
IV: Well without being too paranoid, the Federal government is tightening their grip day after day with things like the Patriot Act, and I’m certainly on a Watch List just for my activism with music.
TC: Whoa, really?!
IV: Oh god yeah. FBI and FBIS, just based on the fact of the rhetoric and they see some passionate people. Who the fuck knows, honestly. But I know that I find myself under that scrutiny and just kind of laugh, because we’re not doing much else other than enjoying ourselves: going swimming, sharing, friendship, laughter, music. That’s how we picture it, but then the government and the city we live in picture something very different. We’ve been accused of starting riots, which is a complete fucking farce and a lie. The media is starting to go the route of the Federal government or the police department: they want an interesting story by any means, so they’re willing to scrutinize instead of research.
TC: I hear you are involved with a lot of food activism. What does that even mean?
IV: Yeah, I mean the point is to talk about food and to talk about health and to have fun with it, and to be playful with the way that we serve and talk and think about food so that it isn’t something that you’re turned off by. Very often when you say the word “activism” or “food activism” people get turned off very fast. They say, “These fucking vegans want to tell me how to eat my food.” So yeah, to remain playful with food and have it be a conversation. We definitely want to focus in on making food something that’s fun.
TC: How did you and Matt have the idea to start this performance art project cum punk band? The whole thing is very art school. Did you meet in art school?
IV: Yeah, we were both in art school, screwing around, making stuff, biking around New York. We both went to Pratt at the end of its heyday, where there were still punk shows going on. Our band pretty much took over the computer lab. There was all types of really fun things going on. My mentor there was a punk guy for years, and when I was a freshman he took me under his wing and he said, why don’t you work in this computer lab? And he took us under his wing. Some of the most important things you can only learn through friendships in like a very slow manner.
TC: Did you hit it off right away?
IV: Well, an important part of the story is that weren’t really huge fans of each other, we were really critical of one another.
TC: Ugh oh…seems dramatic.
IV: Just like in the creative output. In an art school there’s an extreme amout of partying going on and different people have different priorities, and when I was there I had a real priority to work. I thought everyone should have my priority. So he and I were at each other’s throats because of the work that we were doing. I thought there was potential. We ended up trading mixtapes we had put together of different songs we liked. I was really digging the fact that there was Bob Marley and The Ramones and Big L on the aame tape. I was like, see, this is someone I could hang out with.
TC: Isn’t it funny how mixtapes work that way? I don’t really interact with tapes in anyway whatsoever anymore, but I do make mix CDs for people I like a lot. It’s funny how giving a mixtape/mix CD away is like the purest way of telling someone you like them.
IV: Completely. And that’s kind of a lost thing with the CD or iTunes – maybe not, I don’t know if people still make mix CDs for each other.
TC: Well, and your new record is also available as a cassette.
IV: For sure! That’s important to us. I think there’s some magic that goes on with cassette tapes and with magnetization. Our band also uses cassettes to play our beat, which creates a kind of wall of sound. Ultimately that’s what we’re seeking as musicians: magic.
TC: Have you seen the PUNK exhibition at The Met?
IV: No, I haven’t seen it. I have to check that out.
TC: Well, it’s a fashion exhibition that’s showing how punk goes from the streets to the catwalk. They’re showing designers —
IV: Who’s the woman whose shop was called SEX?
TC: Vivienne Westwood.
IV: Vivienne Westwood, yeah! That’s it.
TC: But like, do you think punk is something that can be a fashion or be commercialized?
IV: The punk that I grew up around is very different. It’s like a West Coast, more about your output and your attitude than what you wear on your back. So I have on the same jean jacket I had on in 1997. It’s falling off my back and it’s been sewed together 20 times, but it’s the most comfortable thing I own and I don’t want to put on anything else.
TC: I’m sure it smells wonderful! The most interesting thing about that PUNK exhibition are the people who go check it out. There’s a feedback loop between the mannequins, who are dead, lifeless, and the people in the audience who look like actual punks. Do you know what I mean?
IV: I read a book called LONDON IS BURING that is really about this idea that punk comes from fashion. And there’s this quote we say in one of our songs: “To me, punk rock means dirt. It means bikes, not cars.” I think it means something different for everyone, so for a lot of people it’s very high fashion and it’s developing. Fashion is a thing of trend, and we’re not the most famous band that is selling out whatever the big place in New York is.
TC: But do you want to be that, though?
IV: No, I don’t think so. I think that comes with a great deal of stress – more money, more problems. With a smaller audience, we can actually reach our audience. Whereas somebody who’s selling out Madison Square, it’s just a different success rate. We’re not interest in scrillions of dollars, we’re interested in doing projects that keep us interested in being alive.