Tokyo based rockers – The Complaints Department

When the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit last spring, many living in Japan, be them foreign nationals or Japanese, found that they had an inescapable desire to do something, but many found it difficult to put their good will to full effect. One band that have taken the bull by the horns and are still raising money for north-eastern Japan, almost a full year since the quake are the international band, The Complaints Department. Axiom caught up with lead singer and guitarist, to find out a little more about the band, the song and the charities they are supporting.

Could you start with a short bio, who makes up The Complaints Department and what do they bring to the band?

Nate Gildart – Lead Vocals, Rhythm Guitar, Songwriter
Chris Lucier – Percussion
Aki Minakawa – Bass
Ken Kishi – Lead Guitars
Matt Rollo – Keyboards, Backing Vocals

Basically, I began seriously writing music about six years ago with the plan to form a serious band after finishing a masters degree in education. In 2009 I formed the band, with a few people coming and going. We now play all over the Kanto area.

I record demos and bring them to the band and each member writes their own part(so essentially, each member composes their own part of each song, rather than me dictating what they should play). This works well because we all have different styles and genres we like. It has ultimately led to a sound that has elements of metal, punk, pop, indie and rock. We all enjoy playing live and I think the audience sees that energy. Ken is the most experienced member, but it’s his positive energy and great ideas that have had an immediate impact. The guy just loves life. Aki is one of the coolest cats you’ll ever meet. Very kind person, and is a killer bassist. Matt writes excellent keyboard leads and fills and approaches vocal harmonies with creativity (rather than just repeating lines an octave higher). Chris is a big indies kind of guy. He doesn’t allow any percussion pieces to sound like another, and brings in a variety of styles in what he writes. He is different from many drummers in that he wants percussion to have a life of its own, rather than simply holding the rhythm.

It’s taken a few years, but I think patience has been the key in developing a group that works well musically, but without compromising the original vision for the project.

The Complaints Department is made up of both Canadian and Japanese members, would you say the band is more Japanese or Canadian? Which country offers the biggest influence whilst making your music?

Three of us are Canadian. Culturally and musically I would have to say we’re more western, particularly because Ken and Aki are also very fond of western music. Ken played in a signed, American-style heavy metal band called Tommy Sword. I write the songs before the band arranges them, so I have to say it’s a Canadian influence. However, I’m very fond of some Japanese bands/artists such as Ellegarden (now broken up), Ken Yokoyama, Glory Hill, and Hi Standard, so they influenced my style as much as western bands like Green Day, The Offspring and New Found Glory.

The band’s name is awesome, is there an equally cool story behind it?

I get a lot of comments on the name, which is nice. Unfortunately, it’s a boring story. I just though of names and that one sprung to mind. I wanted a name that kind of reflects the genre of Pop Punk / Power Pop, which often has lyrics complaining about the government, crappy love situations, and people you can’t stand to be around. ;)

It seems that a large percentage of foreign nationals that come to Japan get involved with music in someway, either joining a band, going solo or becoming a DJ. Is there a very strong music community in Tokyo, or is it more like stiff competition?

I love the music scene in Tokyo and I think it’s very healthy; I don’t find it’s a competition. Japanese bands we meet at live houses tend to be curious, but welcome us. Matt and I speak Japanese, which helps break any potential barriers down. As an example, we hosted 3 music charity events at What The Dickens pub in Ebisu, Tokyo. (Musicians for earthquake & Tsunami Relief) Just under 20 bands participated over the 3 shows, and I had to turn down another 10 or so; we raised just under 900,000 yen, together. For charity or not, these kinds of events happen all the time in Tokyo. I think bands realize that people listen to many kinds of music, so by working together one band’s friends and fans can also become another band’s friends and fans. There are contests such as Emergenza, but these are also a good chance to get your music out there and build on your music network. I’ve got about 30 bands I can call on at any time to share events.

How can an “international band” and apologies if that is a clumsy term to use, stand out from the crowd?

I think by virtue of having non-Japanese members in a band we stand out. What surprises people is when we sing some songs with Japanese and speak to the crowd in Japanese. They don’t expect it. If people take time to read or listen to lyrics I think perhaps that stands out as well. Ken once pointed out that any oddities in my Japanese lyrics make it more natural, though I would prefer to have Ken and Aki revise the Japanese lyrics.

Walking Hand in Hand was not only the band’s first single release, but it is also raising a lot of money for charity. Could you tell us a little more about the charity the proceeds are going to?

We have ideas for a couple of charities. We want to go as “grassroots” as possible, so that the maximum amount of funds raised gets to people in Tohoku. All Hands Volunteers has worked exclusively in Ofunato since last year. In Japan it’s being renamed The Kizuna Foundation. They have low overhead and administrative costs. They’re at the moment doing things like rebuilding playgrounds for kids and cleaning public facilities. Another is The Mud Project. A Canadian named Colin Rennie finished an MBA last year, but rather than join the rat race he used his business skills to get corporate sponsorship and has been volunteering in Tohoku since July. He’s an inspiring guy, so it’s the kind of project that we can get behind. Another is Wa-Navi Japan. A group of Tokyo Japanese and non-Japanese women set up a charity to assist women and children impacted by the tsunami. They also help foreign nationals with earthquake preparedness, etc. Nothing has been decided yet, however. we’ll have to wait and see how the single does in terms of raising money before we redirect the funds. That will be a band decision.

Was it a difficult decision making your first ever release a charity song?

Yes, very much so. Matt’s father (a professional musician) heard the demo and suggested we release it. Having lived in Aomori for 3 years, and my brother living in Iwate and Miyagi over the course of 8 years, the disaster really affected me. With a single based on a tragedy being released it’s only right to use the proceeds for charity. The problem we struggled with was it potentially coming across as a callous attempt to bring attention to the band. In the end, it’s a fundraiser so people in Tohoku will benefit. We’ve also raised money through charity music events and busking events, and I’ve been to Tohoku 5 times now as a volunteer, so the single isn’t a one-off effort. We’ve been doing other things, too.

What message do you think the song itself puts forward?

I tried to write it from a collective view (using terms like “we” and “the world”). It’s starts out with “How is it that we wake to just another day?”. Basically, we all woke up to another day but one that would change the lives of all of us living in Japan in some way. I didn’t want to write a song about disaster and tragedy, however, I wanted to write it with a sense that “we’re in this together”, the world is reaching out to us, and there is hope. My favourite line is “and thank the heroes that were made”. There was a Japanese gentleman who lost his wife and children and was volunteering; thousands upon thousands of people volunteering (including a couple of young university students who drove up from Kagoshima and ended up on my work team for a couple of days in Watari); and of course, the police officers, fire fighters and nuclear plant workers that worked to stabilize the plant, regardless of their health. Those people are heroes.

After the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, there seemed to be a huge group effort of people raising money and much needed supplies, but as time passes, the urgency to help has faded, although there is still very much a big problem for a large portion of the country. Is it difficult to rouse interest in helping those effected by a catastrophic event that happened almost a full year ago?

I think creating events as fundraisers isn’t difficult, but to quote a friend I think people have “donation fatigue”. The first volume of our charity music series raised 320,000 yen, and the third in December raised 171,000 yen, so I think people are getting somewhat tired of charities and donation drives. Being up in Minami Sanriku over Christmas with my wife was a reminder that there really is a lot to do, but in Tokyo (and the rest of the country) you would think nothing happened. It’s easy to create fundraising opportunities, but not so easy to get people to donate. I think we have to get creative. My friends Issac, Keiko and Asami had a great idea during our last event in December. They walked around with an empty beer pitcher collecting donations, but the delivery was perfect. From the stage Issac simply pointed out that “We buy a drink for our friends, so why not buy a drink for Tohoku”. They walked around for 10 minutes and must have brought in another 50,000 yen or more. (the pitcher was filled with bills) Clever idea. What The Dickens pub has been brilliant in supporting many kinds of charity events.

What does The Complaints Department have in store for 2012?

We began recording our first mini-album in November, so finishing that is a priority. We want to tour in Kansai and Tohoku (and perhaps even as far as Kyushu), and work on new material. We’re participating in the Emergenza band competition, which is now in the tougher stages. I’m hoping to establish a Musicians For Charity Network with a couple of friends, and use the band and our network of bands as a springboard to get it off the ground. We’re going to continue promoting the charity single. It’s the most important song we have.

To learn a little more about The Complaints Department, either check out their website, or go over to iTunes to get your copy of Walking Hand in Hand.

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