All-female Japanese punk band Red Bacteria Vacuum formed more than ten years ago in Osaka, back when it was rare to see women in punk bands in Japan. But things have changed quite a bit since the band started out.
"There are more women who've started to play rock music, but it's not necessarily all-women bands," said bassist Kassan from her home in Tokyo. "Usually you see bands that have both women and men as members. I feel like women have become much stronger compared to ten years ago." In fact, there are more mixed-gender bands in Japan than in the United States, an interesting and perhaps unexpected development. In terms of record sales, female artists like Ayumi Hamasaki and Utada Hikaru are putting the men to shame, and even Japan's most successful rock export, Boris, has a female guitarist.
Red Bacteria Vacuum relocated to Tokyo in 2000 to see how the band's brand of upbeat punk would do in the big city (about 10 percent of Japan's population lives in Tokyo). Today, the capital city has a huge punk scene, with a staggering number of live music venues and tons of small bands, although bands of all kinds tend to end up on the same bill. Kassan says that, in general, "most Japanese people prefer pop to rock or punk," but the underground scene is thriving.
One of the things that make Red Bacteria Vacuum such a likeable band is that its sound, although clearly punk, also incorporates rock and pop elements. Kassan says that the three members all have very different tastes in music, but there's one band that they all share a love of — metal/punk pioneers L7, a band that totally rejected the pressure to be sexy and bland, focusing instead on creating a killer sound. "The first time I saw L7 I was really inspired by the strength of the women, but I didn't want to copy them," said Kassan. "I tried to incorporate that into our performances." Now that it has been around for a while, though, the band no longer feels like it has to try so hard. "We're more relaxed and we like to be as natural as we can be, because we're more confident."
The undercurrent of female strength and confidence, without getting all Indigo Girls about it, is part of what makes Red Bacteria Vacuum so much fun, especially live. Kassan says they'd love to tour with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and the Pixies (unsurprising since Kassan has a bit of a Kim Deal vibe herself). The band toured Japan with Austin-based all-women punk band the Applicators and says that they'd love the chance to play with more American bands.
Another thing that makes Red Bacteria Vacuum unique among the small but ever-increasing number of Japanese bands that tour America is its unusually hands-on approach. While most Japanese artists keep contact with fans to a minimum, partly for security reasons and partly to maintain a mystique, Red Bacteria Vacuum acts more like an American punk band. If you head to the merchandise table after a show you'll find them cheerfully selling T-shirts and CDs, and they're happy to pose for pictures with fans. Kassan says this isn't something special they do just for American audiences. "We do the same thing in Japan," she said.
Although their albums are a lot of fun, the band really shines during live shows. "We're happier playing live rather than making records," said Kassan. "I think we perform best on our live shows." Live, they're raucous and energetic, girl-power influenced without being pretentious about it, friendly and prone to high levels of interaction with the audience. Think the best parts of the Riot Grrrl movement fed through a Japanese filter.
With a melodic, upbeat, distinctly catchy pop-punk style and a look that's colorful and visually appealing, Red Bacteria Vacuum is well placed to take a leading role in the attempts by the Japanese music industry to expand into America. They're tough but not intimidating, they're fun, and their musical style is a perfect fit for American alternative and college radio.