Yokozuna |  facebook |  bandcamp | 

By: Aidan Hehir

On the 3rd of October, at the Silver Bullet in Finsbury Park, Yokozuna played their last ever gig. It was not headline news; Yokozuna have 349 “likes” on Facebook, I’ve never met anyone outside of the DIY circuit who’s heard of them, and when you type their name into google you get thousands of pages of info about a deceased wrestler. Yet, for those who knew the band, Yokozuna’s end was mourned as a profound loss. They embodied that tradition which has thrived beneath the mainstream for decades, rejecting the rampant commodification of music and deification of “rock stars”; though criminally unheralded, Yokozuna join a long line of great bands who inspired more than they sold.

I met Chris (guitar/vocals), Phil (bass/vocals) and Karl (drums) a few hours before the gig. While they were understandably sad to be finishing they were philosophical about the end and generally upbeat. Chris is moving to Australia and so the band’s end is amicable. Their reflections on Yokozuna’s legacy were a mixture of pride in their being part of the growth of the capital’s DIY scene, and a blunt acceptance of their relative anonymity. In their last Facebook post promoting their final gig they wrote, “two more days until the day that you get to say you were there! And then endure the awkward silence that follows when whoever you’re talking to tries to figure out a polite way to tell you they have no idea who we were”. “We’re self-deprecating to a fault” Chris laughed, “I actually think we’re pretty good”. If you’ve not heard them “pretty good” is a massive understatement.

I first saw them by chance playing with Frau Pouch and Bear Vs Manero at Roadtrip and the Workshop on Old Street. They were effortlessly brilliant. Since then whenever I’ve seen them play – in dark cellars in London, a house party in Rochester and at an anarchist bookstore in Brighton – they’ve always been fantastic; despite being very much the sardonic slackers, live they bristle with energy. Chris is sarcastic, laconic, and composed, while Phil, by contrast, pummels his bass and bestrides the stage like a man possessed. Karl, who replaced founding member Russell after he left for Japan in March 2013, drums with the infectious enthusiasm of someone who was Yokozuna’s biggest fan prior to joining. Since they formed in 2007 they’ve released six EPS – This Japanese Guy is OK (2007), Rare Nurse (2009), Dog Talk (2009), Les Fous sont maîtres de l’asile! (2010), My Turn to Be A Hero (2012) and John Frum (2014) – with the last three in particular standing out as uniquely inspired melodic grunge; songs like “Arcata”, “Toy Boat”, “Spaceship”, “Keith not Keith”, “Architecture” and “Extreme Sports Song” combine raucous power, pop melody and genuine, enthusiastic abandon.

Their importance and influence extends far beyond their own music, however; through their work in supporting the London DIY community they have won the utmost respect from their peers. Before conducting the interview I asked various musicians involved in the scene to share their thoughts on Yokozuna’s legacy; everyone mentioned their selflessness, their support for emerging bands and, of course, their musical brilliance. Describing the imminent final gig as “a funeral” Joe Wise (Frau Pouch/Punching Swans) noted, “Don’t believe them when they down play their abilities, I’ve witnessed the aftermath of their live shows. The first time I saw them I remember wondering where bands like this had been hiding.” All echoed these sentiments; Tom Adamson (Ragweed) stated “They’re a great band, awesome guys and a huge influence on us. If we had not learnt so much from them, we might not even be a band anymore”. Pete Bevan (Bear Vs Manero) likewise wrote, “They were inclusive and supportive to all the bands around them, which for me will stand as their legacy”.

Through helping to establish and promote “Rip This Joint” – a not for profit music collective – the band was central to regenerating the DIY scene in London. Reflecting on their influence, Wayne Adams – (Death Pedals/Shitwife and producer at Bear Bites Horse Studios) – told me “Yokozuna are responsible for the London DIY scene’s finessed facelift”. Rip This Joint continues to curate gigs and recently released a compilation of DIY bands, including the last recorded Yokozuna release.  The collective has spawned similar projects outside the capital, such as in Brighton and especially in Medway where Yokozuna are revered. Joe Wise credits them with inspiring him and wife Suze to start Motherboy, a Kent-based DIY music collective; “I doubt we would have progressed so quickly if they weren’t so supportive and approachable” he said, “I can’t emphasise enough, the positive impact that band and those people have had on me”.

The band have often been vocal about their disdain for the mainstream London music scene and the many craven promoters who exploit bands. In one particularly colourful post responding to a sudden flurry of requests they’d received from said promoters they wrote; “Whilst we are both delighted and flattered by the attention that you are showering us with at present we’re not really giving a tuppeny fuck about the size of your venue’s P.A….Some of the best shows we’ve ever played had neither a stage nor a P.A, some of the worst shows had both…we’re self-sufficient mofo’s and we just ain’t all that excited about playing with power metal bands called HOT SAUCE, or dreary indie bollox called THE ROUNDABOUTS or something”.

Somewhat fittingly, even at their good-bye gig, they were reminded of their relative obscurity. At one point during the interview a man sat down at our table. “Are you guys a band?”. “Yeah” said Chris, “We’re Yokozuna”. Perplexed the man asked; “Does that mean something?”. “Yeah it’s a grand champion in sumo wrestling”. This didn’t do much to allay his confusion. “But none of you look like sumo wrestlers” he cautioned. “We’re working on it” Phil deadpanned. The man left. Later, when they played, however, the venue was full to bursting; people swayed and sang along, carried a semi naked Phil aloft, roared for three encores and poured forth their love for the band. They were as brilliant as ever and the gig, rather than being sombre, was an affirmation of all that was great about Yokozuna; a community joyously enthralled by the brilliance of one of their own.

(((o))): How do think Yokozuna will be remembered?

Phil: As London’s most punctual indie-rock band!

Chris: Hopefully more than that! We’ve always been pretty loose, we liked to have fun when we played. Maybe having a good time sometimes over-rode been technically good. It wasn’t a conscious decision but hopefully we turned it into a strength. It gave us a bit of personality. We’re not math-rock by any stretch but I never wanted to be! Our grunge influences are pretty clear but I’d like to think we were a little bit different, that we did something original.

Karl: When I look back on it I think, we sounded ok and we had an amazing time.

(((o))): Were you ever tempted to change your sound to broaden your appeal?

Chris: No. It’s not that I don’t want to be in a well-known band but I don’t know how to write other music. I never really saw the point. I wouldn’t mind being in a post-rock band but I don’t even know how to start writing that shit.

Phil: Just buy an effects pedal.

Chris: Yeah! I’m stuck with what I can do but I kinda like it.

Karl: My goal has always been to play gigs with my friends, have fun and record. If you are in a band to get signed then you’re going to have a very hard life. If you are playing music for its own sake then what’s not to love about that? The fact that we haven’t been playing at The Garage to 500 people? I don’t give a fuck.

(((o))): According to Wayne [who recorded Yokozuna last two EPs at Bear Bites Horse Studios] in the studio you were “a total breeze, one take wonders!” He claimed this is mainly because, you said you have very low standards!

Chris: Yeah! When we were recording Wayne said, and I think he meant it as a complement, “You’re a very loose guitar player”! We’re always much more of a live band. The latest recording we did I’m really happy with. I used to always have this noise in my headphones when we were recording to make it sound more like a live gig but the last time Phil was like “the point of recording is not to sound like its live”. I finally got my head around that.

Karl: It only took a couple of days to record John Frum, we banged it out. We were really delighted with the sound Wayne got.

(((o))): You ran your own label for a while right?

Chris: Nominally! It was basically me copying the cdrs and doing the artwork at work. I could little runs of fifty at a time

Phil: The vast majority we just gave away for free. It didn’t cost a lot to produce them

Chris: We’d sell some of them at shows. You got to do your own promotion; gigs are the best way to do it. But we had a little scene here that helped.

(((o))): You toured in Europe. How was that compared to playing in the UK?

Chris: Touring Europe was always a lot more fun and the crowds are more appreciative. We actually got paid and fed and somewhere to sleep! Playing in London is shit compared to that. A lot of the places in Europe are subsidised as well. We played at a place in Belgium called “The Pit’s”; every band we’ve ever liked has played there and it’s just a hole in the wall! They paid us 200 euros, gave us free beer all night, a huge dinner, ran to the bakery in the morning to get us breakfast. There wasn’t a whole lot of people there yet they could still do it. In Europe they want to support art whereas a lot of people here just don’t feel they have to. We did a UK tour and even playing out of London was better.

Phil: Relatively speaking in Europe you get treated like kings. I don’t know why but I think on the continent they appreciate music more and see it as a key part of the culture rather than just a cheap night out.

Chris: When we went to France I think we actually made a little money overall! I couldn’t believe that. And we just about broke even on the UK tour. Nuts!

(((o))): So have you felt despondent at times about playing in the UK?

Chris: There’s been times; when you’ve dragged your ass out, waited around for three hours to play and there’s nobody there. But I’ve never wanted to stop playing because of that. The few good shows make up for all the shit. I like what I do for a living, but this is something I kinda need to do.

Karl: A very small minority of gigs have been ok, the rest have been brilliant.

Phil: We played some really bad shows but I don’t think there was ever one that wasn’t fun in some way. As a band we’ve always got on well together so it’s always been kind of like a night out with your mates really. If no-one turns up to hear then you’ve got a free practice.

(((o))): Any particular gigs that stand out? Many people I spoke to mentioned the night the “Legend of Phil Saunders” was born.

Phil: That was in Hoxton with Death Pedals and some other band. The lead singer in the band before us was just dancing around like a prick, climbing all over the railings. We were on fairly late and I had drank quite a lot so I decided to jump the railings and I landed flat on my face. The guys in Death Pedals were rather enamoured by that and ever since called me “The Legend of Phil Saunders”

Chris: We played a gig in Marseille; it was probably the hottest gig I’ve ever played in my life. We were all seeing stars by the end.

Karl: Before I joined I saw them playing at a Rip This Joint all-dayer. They were absolutely savage. That’s when I thought, “I’ll break somebody’s legs to be in this band”.

(((o))): How did you get Rip This Joint going?

Phil: It was Rainey from the band Econo’s idea in the first place.

Chris: Rainey really is the impetus for the whole thing. I can’t overstate the influence of Rainey. We wanted to play good shows and go to good shows and he was inspirational in that sense. It started really with four bands, Econo, Cherry but No Cake, The Reactor Core Is Splendid and us. It wasn’t just a punk night, we wanted any interesting music. And we always tried to get an out of town band in as well so people could see something new. We wanted to help other bands succeed and so we’d try to put on shows where there’d be a friendly crowd that would want to stick around and see all the bands and hopefully find a new favourite. I don’t see how it could be any better than that; that’s why you should wanna play and put on shows.

(((o))): Has the DIY scene improved in your time playing?

Chris: Yeah definitely. Rip This Joint was the first of its kind and then a lot of nights grew out of that. It reached saturation point and some nights died off.

Phil: Since Rip This Joint happened there’s been a massive improvement. Previously everyone seemed to be scratching around different venues doing the whole “bring fifty people and you might get a quid per person and half a pint” gigs. With Rip This Joint bands pulled together and made things a hell of a lot easier. It continues and there’s more of an egalitarian attitude towards gigs and bands.

Karl: And it’s not just London bands; other DIY bands, like all the good bands in Medway, are part of this family. It’s not a London clique.

(((o))): In many of your posts you’ve been very critical of London promoters…

Chris: Yeah well I never understood how these London promoters who get like a million demos a week can’t put together a show with bands of a similar style. Even if all you want is for people to buy drinks at your show people will stick around longer if the bill has other bands they want to see. I’d spent enough time before this band playing at Dublin Castle and all that shit with promoters that don’t promote anything.

Karl: In London some arsehole promoter will put you on a bill with a jazz funk band and a death metal band that don’t know each other. Whereas this scene there’s always a good turnout, all the bands know each other, it’s really supportive, a pleasure to be a part of.

Chris: It’s also that in London there are a billion shit bands that will play any toilet on a Tuesday night. It’s a good place to be obviously because there are a lot of options but a lot of places are like “you’re playing in London. We’re doing you a favour by putting you on”. It’s the wrong way to go about it.

(((o))): So which current bands would you recommend?

Chris: Aeroplane Flies High, Francobollo, One Man Team Dance, Cheery But No Cake

Phil: Death Pedals, Econo

Karl: Frau Pouch, Punching Swans, Bear vs Manero

Phil:  There is a crap-load of good bands out there, you just got to dig a bit to find them and the best way to do it is by going to decent shows.

Chris: Mainstream music is appalling today, all my favourite bands are bands I’ve gotton to know.

(((o))): What’s the story with your hatred for Gary Barlow? [“Barlow’s House” is the particularly aggressive final song on their 2014 EP John Frum; at gigs they have (jokingly one assumes) implored the audience to burn down the former Take That star’s mansion]

Chris: At the Queen’s Jubilee he was like the master of ceremonies. Uggh!

Phil: And he’s a supporter of the Tory party which is enough to put our backs up. He’s a simpering arse-licker that dodges tax.  There’s not a lot to like about the guy.

Chris: It’s not him really it’s what he represents. The song is more about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

(((o))): Any regrets?

Karl: None at all. We spoke about it last night at rehearsal and just reflected on how great it’s been. It’s the first time I’ve felt properly at home in a group. It’s been brilliant. I don’t feel weepy; I just want to go out and give it socks tonight.

Phil: I wish I’d bought a better bass guitar sooner.

Chris: I wasted my time playing Dublin Castle and all that shit before this band. I wish we’d played a few more shows and done one more tour but really I’m in the most happy place I’ve ever been playing in this band…and now I’m fucking off to the other side of the world! I’m just grateful to Phil and Karl really. It’s been an absolute fucking pleasure.

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