September 9, 2008

THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES

Japanese Motors like to ride waves, romance and rage—so they made an album about it

By Cristina Black

“We’re people like anyone else,” says Alex Knost. “We just happen to live in California.” The surfer-musician is hanging out in his friend Nolan Hall’s room, eating takeout and chatting about his coastal lifestyle. Sure, he hangs around the beach in denim cutoffs and an organic cotton t-shirt with a drunk collar, but he’s not just like everyone else. He’s living the dream and he knows it.

Knost, 23, surfs professionally, though not competitively. His job, thanks to sponsorships from Vans and RVCA, is to spend his time long boarding and socializing, making surf culture look cool and fun—not such a hard gig. And he’s about to add another glamorous title to his resume: rock star. His band with Hall, the Japanese Motors, release a self-titled debut album on Vice Records on October 7, and it’s all about—guess what?—surfing, partying and hanging out at the beach.

“It’s not like we write about the same thing over and over,” Knost explains in his signature dude voice. “We just make pop songs about the subculture that we’re a part of. This is just what our band does every day. And every night.” The album’s opening track, “Single Fins and Safety Pins,” is emblematic of the Japanese Motors’ retro-slacker repertoire. It’s somewhat of a scorcher, but with a laid-back beat and good-time lyrics. During the breakdown, Knost sums up a moment in the life of a guy like him, speaking over the music: “Before we knew it the day was at its end / The sun was about to set / Everyone already had a good buzz going on / We figured we’d head over to this party across town / Guess some chicks are gonna be there / Siiick!”

“When we first started writing songs,” Knost explains, “people told us to write what we know. A lot of people from the West Coast try to emulate what’s going on on the East Coast, and people on the East Coast try to emulate what’s going on in the U.K., but then the people in the U.K. are trying to be like the people on the West Coast! It’s this big cycle of chasing what you don’t have.” Rather than imitate faraway cultures, the Japanese Motors figured they would just make music about their own lives. “We just thought we’d chase what we do have,” says Knost, “’cause then we wouldn’t have to run as far.”
Indeed, the process of becoming a regionally revered rock band was fairly quick for the Japanese Motors. Just a few years ago, they could barely play their instruments.

Hall, who is also an accomplished street photographer, was the first to pick up a guitar. Knost followed with vocals and sound effects he made with ray guns and toy airplanes. Both sons of surfers and beach buddies since 14—“We took mushrooms together for the first time,” says Knost, “and have been best friends ever since.”—they began recording together in their bedrooms. A rock band just seemed like the next logical step. As Knost remembers it, “One day I said to Nolan, “Do you want to be in a band together?’ and he was like, ‘Toootally.’”

At first, the two then-teenagers were less than serious about their musical aspirations. “We would play at our friends’ parties or whatever,” says Hall, “but it was just noise. It was more like performance art, actually.” Now a quartet—Chris Vail plays bass and Andrew Atkinson supplies the beats—the Japanese Motors certainly aren’t the first group to play music about being young surfer dudes around California’s shores. Beginning in the ‘50s, guitar gods like Link Wray and Dick Dale designed their licks to imitate the thrill of riding waves, and, later, the Beach Boys created a mellower version of surf-rock that included aspects of the total beach lifestyle: girls, cars, parties. The Motors make the art their own, splicing analog-sounding, stripped-down hop-rock with updated lyrical elements and explosive energy. Their sound draws heavily on the rawness of rockabilly and the refreshing amateurishness of garage rock. “I love the innocence of the music that came out of the ‘50s, that people were appalled by Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis,” says Knost. “Just like them, we’re writing about things that everyone can relate to.”

The Japanese Motors have certainly amassed a colorful fan base by tapping into the concerns of commoners in their culture. But skaters and surfers are just a fraction of the kinds of kids who crowd in at their shows. Models, actresses, music nerds and fashion geeks come out for the Motors to join in a wild dance party alongside stoners, slackers and any other kind of scenester you can think of. Because, after all, the music is aimed at all of them, or at least what they all wish they were.

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