The seven member Athens-based band plays what Berg calls "ambient-pop rock." But when pressed to explain, the talkative guitarist is at a loss for words. "It's not jangly and there's no catchy hooks or vocals. We actually started out with a 4/4 beat but we moved away from that. Our music can actually piss some people off. If you don't like 10 minute long songs, you are not gonna like us. We're not gonna rock ya; it's gonna be pretty mellow but loud, too."
Relaxing at an Athens coffeehouse, Berg is joined by 'Cakes keyboardist Todd Kelly, who adds, "You really have to have a patience for our music. With most bands the people in it are all thinking, 'We want to sound like whatever or whoever.' This is not quite that, um, directed. But a lot of people are more open now about instrumental music, which is good because our music requires an open mind."
Since the group's start, Japancakes have been anything but conventional. In fact, the band was formed with a built-in expiration date. "We had recorded enough just to do a single, so we had two songs, and that was it. We decided to do one show, break up and that would be that."
The band then made T-shirts and invited friends to their debut and final show. "We played those songs we had and one more, I think," recalls Berg. "We opened for [like-minded experimental pop band] Macha at the 40 Watt. The next day, people started calling and asking us to play more shows."
Encouraged, Berg added more friends to the original trio and listened to the tape of the first show to remember what was performed. "That was the first time I really heard us. I am still surprised how good it all comes out." Their one- and two-chord songs originated "mostly from our lack of playing skills. Todd had just started playing keyboards that summer and I don't like vocals that much. I can't sing, I can't write lyrics. And that A chord was easy to hit," Berg shrugs. "I like a lot of Indian music, a lot of Ravi Shankar, so I kinda liked the idea of a 10-minute piece. It seemed to work within our limited range."
The unusual three-year-old band never rehearse and quite often never see each other until show time. "There's really four bands going on inside of this one," explains Berg. "Basically we meet only to do a show or record. It takes about 17 phone calls to round up everybody. Its just an of-the-moment thing."
"We had people playing with us," Kelly says, "that didn't play stuff like we were trying to do at all. It was hard for them at first to sit down and play this kind of simple music, especially when they were used to playing hard rock or country." But, in the creative spirit of the Athens scene of the '80s, that "try anything" combination seemed to work. Berg ran into John Neff, the Star Room Boys' steel guitarist, in a bar and asked if he would sit in with the band. "I promised him he could record three songs with us and that would be it," says Berg. "Turns out, he was great for us , even tough he's used to pure country songs. And now he's our lead player. The pedal steel has such drama in it, such emotion. And with Heather McIntosh on cello, it's just incredible."
McIntosh frequently guests with several Athens-area bands for recording or live projects, including Kelly's other band, the brooding Great Lakes. Bassist Nick Bielli is a full-time member of the hard-rocking Hayride, while guitarist Orenda Fink and drummer Scott Sosebee are in the pure pop-oriented Little Red Rocket. Berg is the only performer without other musical commitments.
Typically, the diverse musicians write songs as the tape is rolling in the studio. Then they relearn the song in order to present it live. A Japancakes concert is equally spontaneous. "On the set list," says Kelly, "We'll just write 'A' or 'D' or 'Song 2 in A,' and we'll just pick up the time signature and figure it out from there." This process sounds simple, but the results are complex and breathtaking in cinematic scope and texture. "We are constantly surprised at what we sound like," Berg says. "There's not a lot of traditional jammin' going on, but there's a ton of tonal differences in each players performance of those same chords."
Songs from the group's full-length debut, last year's If I Could See Dallas, have evolved from their five-minute versions on the album to become live epics that go on for 10 minutes or more. "To me, it would be boring to play the same songs the same way over and over," Berg says. "I couldn't do it. I'm not a very good guitar player, anyway. I play about once a month. I mean, if you catch me tomorrow, I'll be makin' pizzas, not sitting around and writing songs."
Surprisingly, for such seemingly apathetic artists, the band has already released two CDs, including the brand new EP Down the Elements, and regularly garners praise worldwide. Just back from headlining an evening at Austin's SXSW music conference, Berg seems a little overwhelmed. "I mean, here we are, bartenders and pizza cooks and clerks. Never had real songs, and never had any kind of career plans, really. We really haven't paid many dues. We'd like to tour and do all that, but we just don't have time."
Japancakes new EP Down the Elements is out now on Kindercore Records.
Nashville has more dive bars than ATL now that sucks. tbh i think that new…
*Christ, Lord sorry
"Punk" style like this seems like it is the polar opposite of punk. Bradford Cox…
They're kind of starting to look like a joke of themselves. Song's good though.
All 80s movies want you...