Q&A: God of Shamisen

Led by Tsugaru-shamisen master Kevin Kmetz, Santa Cruz’s God of Shamisen creates cultural collisions in the form of shredding, Japanese-infused progressive metal.

Kmetz and drummer Lee Smith have experience with unorthodox stylistic convergence as members of Estradasphere, but guitarist Karl Schnaitter and bassist/producer Mark Thornton provide just as much inspiration to shift sounds — Thornton, in particular, describes the band’s sound as something of a crazy mixtape.

ALARM caught up with Kmetz and Thornton following a West Coast tour and the release of the group’s full-length debut, Dragon String Attack (Reptile Records).

Kevin, how has your heritage as a Japanese American influenced your interest in playing the shamisen, and is your multiethnic upbringing responsible for your interest in combining traditional Japanese sounds with rock and metal?

Kmetz: I grew up in northern Japan and went to high school on an American military base, where I would hang out with the sons and daughters of Unites States Air Force people, so in a sense I was always part of these two worlds. My family lived outside of the base, so when I went home I would be called “gaijin,” or “outsider,” by the neighboring Japanese kids.

In Aomori Prefecture there is a well-known establishment called Yamauta where live Tsugaru-shamisen is performed every night. As a kid, I used to travel by train to go and check it out. I was also deeply moved by Takahashi Chikuzan, whom I saw when I was 14 at a concert in Hachinohe city.

At the time, I never dreamed that a gaijin kid could become part of the mysterious world of northern Japanese shamisen music, so I stuck to my electric guitar and music theory studies and formed a metal band with my air force brat friends on the base for fun. When I was 18, I moved to America for the first time to study music at Cal Arts in southern California. Among the items in my suitcase was a small collection of Yamauta and Chikuzan shamisen cassette tapes.

Japanese shamisen masters have a tendency to be very firm about what “cannot” be done on shamisen. I wanted to kind of piss them off.

The shamisen/metal fusion is the group’s driving force, but what was the impetus for including elements of other genres like jam rock, funk, reggae, and Turkish music?

Kmetz: I have always been a huge fan of many different styles of music (rock, jazz, funk, classical, folk music from around the world, crazy modern stuff, etc.). Mark and I met through Estradasphere, and that whole approach to music — throwing together different musical elements — seems to have been a basic assumption of the band from the very start.

I guess part of what I always envisioned was that the shamisen would be presented in the most versatile way imaginable. Japanese shamisen masters have a tendency to be very firm about what “cannot” be done on shamisen. I wanted to kind of piss them off by breaking as many traditional shamisen rules as possible while still maintaining a sound and presence that shows I actually do have roots in northern Japan.

Thornton: I think the influences for the band come from a lot of different places, and of course you have to have a sense of humor. Busting out into reggae is pretty funny. Sometimes pieces fall into place; it just makes sense, and we have to go reggae here.

That was the case in “Bad Dog Attack,” when band members are jamming and there is an urge to just go reggae. You have to follow the will of the music, however convoluted. Other genres just make sense for variety’s sake. If you have some guitar shreddage and you have some crazy blast beats, those moments are even more powerful when you have a fake new age song, for example.

The whole concept of Dragon String Attack is sort of like a mixtape, or some crazy set list, but I think future songs will be more concise and still have the same style.

How was the recent West Coast tour? What other plans do you have as a group or as individuals?

Kmetz: Tour was great fun, and I am very thankful to Mark for all the work putting that together! We had great luck with people offering us places to stay and got to see many old friends. Right now all of us are going to be working off and on throughout October on a new CD project for a Japanese release.

Thornton: The West Coast tour was incredible. It was the most shows we’ve ever played together, in a row, and the timing was pretty remarkable. Reptile Records got our CD out, a total rush manufacturing, to meet our crazy tour requirements, so we couldn’t have done it without them.

Individually — Karl’s in grad school, I’m an occasional DJ, and Lee is drumming for another project called Isle of Black, which is a two-piece involving the guitarist from Girth. That stuff is pure shred.

Estradasphere is maintaining a low profile for a few months. In the meantime, will Kevin and Lee make GOS their top musical priority? How does the geographical difference (Santa Cruz vs. Seattle) affect the relationship of the two groups?

Kmetz: I don’t know how much of a priority it is for each one of us at the moment. Being far apart is kind of weird, but it seems like the kind of thing that happens more and more these days with all kinds of projects.

Thornton: Estradasphere still does occasional private shows, but it does appear that as a full band they’re on a sort of hiatus. I know that along with traditional Tsugaru-shamisen performance, GOS is a musical priority for Kevin. Lee again is involved in other bands.

The geographical difference definitely gets in the way of random one-off shows, which makes GOS pretty much a tour-only band. We still will do major shows, though, like anime and sci-fi conventions. Anything geek or metal I think we can sneak into, thematically. But for our next projects, we’ll be recording it in pieces — drums in Seattle and everything else in California.

God of Shamisen: The Science Fiction of Ray Bradbury Attack

God of Shamisen: www.godofshamisen.com
Reptile Records: www.reptilerecords.com

– Scott Morrow