Riding in Vans With Girls

Riding in Vans With Girls

by Julian James


Music is the universal language. It’s a sunny morning in November 2015 and I’m twelve stories high in an apartment somewhere in what appears to be the Middle of Nowhere, Japan. I’m midway through a seven show Japanese tour as part of hardcore/punk/screamo group Blind Girls. After waking up earlier than everyone else and performing the customary shuffle of repeatedly saying sorry while trying not to put my foot in anyones crotch who’s asleep on the floor, I’ve made it out into the living room into the company of a couple strangers.

We can’t speak each other’s languages, so we converse by trading riff for riff on two acoustic guitars. We play all the cultural touchstones that mark learning to play guitar. Dammit by Blink-182. Enter Sandman by Metallica. Smashing Pumpkins. Sabbath. Zeppelin. Volta. Sunny Day Real Estate. Fcpremix by Fall of Troy gets a nod of approval. I guess Guitar Hero was big in Japan too. In the kitchen our host’s mum cooks her son’s nine new friends breakfast. Somewhere else Jack Black sheds a single tear because the spirit of ROCK N ROLL is still alive and it’s out here creating beautiful moments between strangers.

A month after I get the approval from uni to defer my exams and go ahead and live out a dream I’m in the Kichijoji precinct in Tokyo. More specifically I’m sitting on a couch in between Tokyo band San Visage’s members Kou and Yohei (‘Brilliant,’ I remember thinking: ‘a man with two greetings for a name.’) The couch we’re seated on is in the boot of a five seater van that we’ve fit eight people and all of our gear into. That van I’m talking about is in second gear with the handbrake on as we’re attempting to enter the highway. The whole van is vibrating and it sounds like Optimus Prime is in the engine recreating the scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin where Steve Carrell gets his chest waxed. We pull off at the next exit and someone who actually knows how to drive a car takes the wheel and it’s the start one of the best experiences of my life.

We play shows in studio rooms, in bars with AFL memorabilia hanging off the walls, in spaces underneath mechanics. We sleep on floors, in the van and in giant traditional Japanese farmhouses. People bring gifts to the shows. People scream words back at us. In Fukushima someone goes for a crowd surf to a riff I’ve written four months before in my bedroom. At our first show in Shinjuku the first person there is a mid-thirties man in a business suit who stands up the front to watch us play. Afterwards he takes photos with us, buys a record and has us sign it. The whole experience feels surreal.

After every show everyone heads to the closest 100 Yen bar to feast down on food and drink what roughly equates to $1 beers. I know I said that music is the universal language in the opening paragraph, but that was a lie. The real universal language is saying dirty words. My Japanese dick talk repertoire starts expanding at a phenomenal rate throughout the tour, and soon enough I’m throwing around phrases like ‘there’s a dirty dick on my futon’ like a seasoned vet. At any given point in time I am only three beers and two genitalia references away from thinking I am the funniest man alive and a groundbreaking cross-cultural pioneer.

Why do I play the music I do? Because it resonates with me. Because it’s visceral. Abrasive. Aggressive. Challenging. But at it’s heart it’s frail, flawed and full of hurt. Every night we play is a catharsis, an outpouring of expression in a period that prefers disingenuity as a reality. Hardcore is outsider music. Which is why it’s valued, which is why people keep it alive, and why small bands like us are over to go overseas and have these incredible experiences. I am eternally grateful to everyone who made that tour and the resulting tours possible. Maybe punk rock didn’t save my life, but it sure gave it meaning.

Written by Julian James

Photography by Ben Smith and Keisuke Baba

Check out Blind Girls and Sans Visage