They looked at us like a dog that had just been shown a card trick," says Yakuza drummer James Staffel in describing his Chicago metal/jazz/skronk band's reception during last year's Warped tour.
"We were definitely the token goat-worshiping band on that tour," vocalist/saxophonist Bruce Lamont adds. "The average age of the attendees was about fifteen or sixteen. The reaction we got -- well, a few people came up to us afterward and said they really liked it, but we were playing right next to American Hi-Fi, and there'd be a thousand kids standing over there staring at us like we'd just killed one of their parents."
The members of Yakuza are in their van, sailing down a New York highway toward a gig where -- they hope -- the audience will be a little more sympathetic than it was at Warped. As their cell phone fades in and out, the band members -- Staffel, Lamont, bassist Eric Clark and new guitarist Andrei B. Cabanban -- muse about their album Way of the Dead and about the necessity of sometimes having to win over fans one at a time.
"The other night in Chicago, a guy came up to Andrei and said, 'You know, I saw you guys come out and your singer pulled out some horns, and I thought, 'Oh no, what the hell is this? But after I heard you play, it really seemed to work,'" Lamont says. "The usual reaction is to almost completely write us off, and then, if they give us a chance, we can turn them around."
Yakuza's music is admittedly an acquired taste. "Living the Way," the lead track on Way of the Dead, kicks off with delicate cymbal clangs and the ominous, guttural sound of Tibetan-monk-style throat singing. Soon enough, there's a flurry of tribal drums and a bleating saxophone, followed by a crushing wave of metallic sludge and Lamont's throat-straining vocals -- and that's before the song kicks into high gear.
Often when rock and jazz come together, the result is a decidedly unhealthy brand of fuzak, or merely rock with a penchant for extreme instrumental wanksmanship. Yakuza's jazz influence is more about keeping the arrangements of the songs loose enough to find room to improvise amid the stabbing riffs and frantic stop-on-a dime rhythms. The band members look to such innovative jazz musicians as Peter Brötzmann, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Sharrock and Bill Laswell for inspiration, but the rock side of the equation is no less important to them: They're just as likely to enthuse about Slayer, old SST heroes the Bad Brains and Saccharine Trust and even prog-rockers Hawkwind.
"Personally, I go anywhere from Sun Ra to Napalm Death," Lamont says. "Ornette -- I absolutely love the guy, especially the quartet. Don Cherry is one of my favorite jazz musicians of all time. We're into early-'90s rock as well -- Jane's Addiction, Tool and pretty much anything Mike Patton has done over the years. But we like hip-hop and reggae, too. We were just listening to Peter Tosh here in the van. All of that stuff is an influence on what we're doing, either subconsciously or consciously."
Yakuza formed in 1999 when Staffel joined forces with guitarist Eric Plonka. Clark signed on, then Lamont. Staffel suggested the band's name. According to Clark, "The band and the band name is kind of based around Asian culture. We're all really into that kind of thing -- Buddhist stuff, mind-over-matter stuff."
Yakuza is also the name given to the Japanese Mafia. "We haven't been visited by them yet," Clark says with a hearty laugh, "but I'm sure we'll compliment them in every way if we do meet some of them. Really, the name works for us, because we have tattoos and stuff, and when you're in the Orient, tattooed people are usually called yakuza, because they're kind of degenerates."
Initially Lamont was only going to sing with the group, but after determining that his partners were sufficiently open-minded, he brought his saxophone into the mix, often running it through a haze of distortion or delay effects -- whatever he felt the song demanded. Lamont's instrumental work is heavily influenced by saxophonist Ken Vandermark, an important figure on the Chicago scene. Vandermark is noted for his work all across the musical spectrum, having recorded with artists as various as Brötzmann, Superchunk, Jim O'Rourke, Gastr del Sol and the Coctails.
Yakuza released its debut album, Amount to Nothing, in 2001 and signed with Century Media. Way of the Dead followed in 2002. Blistering avant-rock raveups such as "Miami Device," "Yama" and "Chicago Typewriter" dominate the album, with Lamont raging about ... well, it's kind of hard to say.
"The lyrics are all based on very loose themes," he says. "They're not very structured. I'm sort of into the [Williams S.] Burroughs cut-up method --abstract, random thought. I don't care for songs that tell a story. There's nothing on there where I'm going, 'Well, Ricky was a young boy ...'" In other words, you just have to ride the vibe of the song and take from it what you can.
Even more quizzical is "01000011110011," the album's closing cut, a 43-minute-plus jazz meditation that's actually several loops of a shorter space jam. "We had some tape left when we were done with the record," Lamont deadpans.
In fact, the track is an introduction of sorts to the band's jazz-improv alter ego, Kabuki Mono, under the guise of which the musicians also plan to record and tour. "It's the same lineup as Yakuza," Clark says. "The only kind of structure that we work with on a song is the key. Beyond that, it's all improv."
Things are definitely on the upswing for the band these days: Although Plonka's exit from the band was rough, Cabanban's arrival signaled a change for the better. "We're a lot tighter as a band since Andrei's come in," Lamont says, "and at the same time we have a willingness to try different things. We've developed a 'Why not?' attitude about music. It's, like, 'Well, why not try that? If it doesn't work, fine.'
"These past few months have been incredible since the record came out," he continues. "The press has been great, which is huge. And the record is coming out in Europe, and it's the same thing over there. We're kind of overwhelmed in that respect, but we realize that there's a whole lot of work ahead for us."