The Japanese Connection part 2: Keith interview

In the second of the series of articles focusing on Japan, Yuka of SIS Japan interviewed Keith, the drummer from the band ‘ARB’ and good friend of JJ. To add his thoughts and memories to the conversation, JJ was also present.

Keith & JJ first met in the late 70s, forming a close bond which remains to this day. JJ stepped in as ARB’s bassist for a tour in the mid 80s and Keith returned the favour cover drumming duties on The Stranglers tour of North America in 1993. Over to Yuka…

Yuka First of all, can you tell me when ARB was formed?

Keith It was 1977.

Y How did you meet with others? 

K By audition. Ichiro (Ichiro Tanaka, guitarist) and I were already in a band so we needed others.

JJ Ichiro was the guitarist, right?

K Yes. At that time Bay City Rollers were big and Shinko Music recruited us to form a band like them.

JJ Ohhh, honto? (big laugh)


K Then five of us made a band but I and Ichiro just hated that idea… So we left Shinko Music together with Ryo (Ryo Ishibashi, singer). That was the start of ARB.

JJ So Ryo was recruited by Shinko Music?

K Yeah, but he left Shinko with us, and then we recruited a bass player for ARB. We then recorded a second album.

Y So your first album was released by Shinko Music, right?

K Yes, so the first album is full of different type of music. If you listen to it now, you can never tell it’s ARB. Hahaha.

Y Does ARB really stand for Alexander’s Ragtime Band? Why did you choose that name?

JJ Hahahahahaha!

K Yes it does. It was decided by the president of Shinko Music.

JJ Hahahahahaha!

Y So you had no choice, right?

K That’s right. So we shortened it to ARB, and it’s been ARB even after we went independent.

Y Did you already know The Stranglers’ music?

K No I didn’t. The Stranglers had just made their debut then and they had no album release in Japan yet. So I met JJ, and got musically influenced too.

JJ So I met you for the first time in Yotsuya 3-chome, and that’s where your friend lived as well. Did she introduce me to you? How did we meet?

K I was asked if I could put you up as you were coming to Japan for Karate. But I was also told then “JJ is a very dangerous man so it would be hard for you if you don’t get on with him.”

JJ Oh nooooo…

Y What year was that?

JJ It was 1978.

K You said you came to join the HQ of Kyokushin Karate then.

JJ Honbu (HQ) was in Ikebukuro. What I remember was, if this is correct, you were by yourself in that apartment but I think the apartment was for the whole ARB, but all the others were staying with their girlfriends.

K Hahaha, that’s right.

JJ And the only company you had was dozens and dozens of big sake bottles, ne(wasn’t it)?

K Hahaha, they were 1sho (1.8 litre) bottles.

JJ I was quite happy to be with you there. So that was the start of it.

K Yeah, we met each other then for the first time.

JJ Hai (Yes). Then I got my ribs broken at Kyokushin training and I think one of the guys who broke my ribs was Makoto Nakamura.

K He was a really strong man, wasn’t he?

JJ Yeah he was the world champion.

Y Is it true that you nursed him back to health when he broke some ribs in Karate?

K Well I did all I could do but…I’m a man, you know, hahaha.

JJ I know you are a man. (grin) Oh Honto!?!? (big laugh). Then I left Japan because I was injured, but the following year we played in Japan for the first time.

Keith at Korakuen tent backstage Dec 1979

Y It was February, 1979.

JJ Yeah, and I think Keith hang out with us.

K I think it was Korakuen Hall.

JJ Did you come to the Korakuen Hall?

K Yeah

JJ There was a few gigs and there was one in Kyoto University.

K That was Kyoto Univ. Seibu Kodo.

JJ Yeah, and I think we came to Japan later that year as well. Now I can’t remember the next time I saw Keith after that but my memory suddenly jumps to sometime like 1984 because that’s when I got asked to help ARB, they started to get quite successful.

Y What circumstances led to you inviting JJ on tour with ARB in 1984?

K Because our bassist had left the band.

JJ Oh you lost your bass player… How come?

K Various things happened…well, bad behaviour really. So we let him go.

JJ All right. Then ARB asked me if I’d do the tour with them.

K Yeah. The Stranglers were on holiday then and JJ was going to study in Germany or somewhere but he cancelled it and came to Japan to help us.

JJ Yeah, yeah, it was much more fun!

Y Were you surprised that he was able to oblige?

K Oh yeah. Well we were surprised but moreover others in the Japanese music industry were all impressed because the man is an authentic punk musician, and he’s from the UK, the home of punks. He’s the one who was shaping the times and was like a god of bassists.

JJ Yes, I am! Hahaha!

K Yeah, you still are!

JJ with ARB, Japan '84

JJ I think I only had four or five days to rehearse for the tour.

K There were tens of tracks.

JJ Yeah, and I had to learn them.

Y Were the audience surprised to see JJ?

K Oh yeah, of course!

JJ I think I was staying at Keith’s house in Karasuyama then.

K It wasn’t Karasuyama then…I don’t remember where it was.

Y So although it wasn’t Karasuyama, JJ was staying at your house wasn’t he?

K Yeah, he stayed at my small room and we used to walk back from rehearsals and had atsukan (warmed sake) together. You not only learned our tracks but also got to learn atsukan .

JJ Oh yeah, atsukan! Were you married then?

K No, I was single.

JJ All right. So every night when we finish rehearsals, we go to aka-chochin (casual eating/drinking place. Aka-chochin literally means a red paper lantern) and maybe have 15 bottles of sake. And we sort of find the wrong way back…didn’t we used to walk back?

K Yeah it was close from the studio. Oh I remember now, I was living in Nakano Sakaue!

JJ I see… It seemed quite a long way after the aka-chochin! (laugh)

K Hahaha, although it was close we actually walked a lot. It was particularly long because we were drunk and got lost.

JJ Then we did tour. I can’t remember how long the tour was but it was a quite long tour.

K Yeah because it was a national tour. We went around to some ten places. It was a rather long tour.

JJ Yeah, we went to Fukuoka, and met Ryo’s mom there. And the guys thought I was lonely, so they introduced me to a girl they knew. She was some kind of exotic dancer or something?

K Well she was a dancer and a porn actress.

JJ Oh was she!?

K Yeah, and her home town was in Nakano Sakaue where I was living.

JJ So I stayed with her a few times when we were in Tokyo. A very small girl but perfectly formed! She’s good fun. Yeah, I was very young. And during that time I met a lady from Personz (a Japanese rock band).

K That’s Jill (who also played at Keith’s Kanreki gig).

JJ That’s right. Also during that tour, I think Ryo had a flat in Shinjuku. It was a very high building.

K Was it close to a park in Shinjuku?

JJ I can’t remember but it was very high up. One night I was by myself in his apartment and I was woken up by things falling off, and I rolled off my futon. It was my first experience in earthquake! After the tour, did we record in a studio? Was there an album recording? “Yellow Blood”?

K Yeah, we recorded “Yellow Blood” album.

JJ And I recorded a few tracks…

K You did two tracks, I think.

JJ Was that during the same time?

K It was right after the tour.

JJ So who played the other bass part?

K I wonder who that was… I think that was a new bass player…

Y Do you not remember???

K The new bassist didn’t have much of a presence to me. He didn’t stay long either… I was just too enjoying and excited to play with JJ and that impression was so strong that my memories of the bassist have completely slipped out.

JJ Hahaha, yeah it was great!

K We also played together at a festival organised by Yuya-san (Yuya Uchida, rock singer) at Yaon (Hibiya Yaon, an open-air concert hall).

JJ Ah, yeah yeah! There was Anarchy (Japanese punk band) too. Ah yeah, I remember that. Where was that, was that in a park somewhere?

K Yeah, it’s in Hibiya Park.

JJ That was quite a big festival, I think.

K It was Japan Rock Festival. So many musicians and celebrities came to see and Yusaku-san (Yusaku Matsuda, actor) was watching at the wing of the stage too.

JJ Yeah, I’ve forgotton about that. Hibiya Park? That was in the same period, was it?

K I think so. I’m not sure what year it was…

JJ I think it was 1984.

K It must have been, as Mitsuhiro (Mitsuhiro Saito) was our guitarist. We actually played those tracks recorded with you.

JJ Then I can’t remember…there was a bit of a gap. And then the next thing I remember was your farewell tour at Yoyogi Hall.

K Yeah, Yoyogi #1 Gymnastic Hall.

JJ Ah yeah, was that leftover from the olympics?

K Yes, it was built for the 1964 Summer Olympics.

JJ What year was that? 86?

K Hmm…

JJ It was the end of ARB.

K It was the first farewell.

JJ Oh, there were more… Because I remember I was starting to go out with my future wife, and I’m not sure if it was 1986 or 87.

K 1990, maybe… Yeah she was with you.

JJ Yes, they paid for me to come over from London to Tokyo just for the weekend to play this one concert. And if I recall, I only had to do two or three songs.

K That’s right.

JJ One of them was in French.

K It was during the bridge on “Hagakure”. Another one was “Union”. I think you played those two tracks with ARB.

JJ Yeah, and then you threw both of us out and we had a long weekend. Mr. Fujii (manager of ARB) took care of that and it was fantastic. And I remember it was packed at the Yoyogi venue.

K Yeah there were approximately 12,000 audience and we broke the record there.

JJ Yeah it was incredible. It was massive. Did you only play one night or two?

K Just one night.

JJ I remember seeing you and Ryo crying afterwards.

K Hahaha, you are right.

JJ So then the next thing I remember about Keith was suddenly about three years later. Hugh had left the Stranglers and we were scheduled to do the American tour, and Jet was ill so my suggestion was to bring you over to England to rehearse, and then come to America with us. So I think you were living at my house for a short while.

K Yeah that’s true.

JJ I think you got a bit upset because you were missing your son.

K Hahaha.

JJ You were married by then.

K Yes I was. But rather than missing my kid, it was tough for me because there were no-one who could speak Japanese around me and learning tracks was challenging too. I lost weight and had mouth ulcers.

JJ Oh, honto (really)…

K I’d never had such experience before then…so it was hard.

JJ Yeah it was hajimete (first time) for you. You must have been really homesick.

K Also, we used to play, for example two nights and had a day off in Japan but The Stranglers played five days in a row. It was my first time to tour with such a tight schedule as well.

JJ Yeah we always pushed ourselves. I remember it was a hard tour.

K So with my experience of that tour, I could easily bear everything back in Japan. We were using bullet train instead of a tour bus, we were all spoiled in luxury.

JJ So it toughened you up.

K Yes, both physically and mentally.

JJ Yeah, I remember it was quite a long tour.

K We did about 25 shows in a month. I remember that because I was seriously taking notes during the tour.

JJ Ah… right.

K And it starts at around 7pm and ends at 9pm in Japan but in America, our ending hour is when they start.

JJ Yeah, yeah, sometimes even later.

Keith with JJ and Paul, US tour 1993

K In addition, we party after the concert. So in comparison with America or the UK, I thought we were all indulgent with ourselves in Japan.

JJ Yes, and we travelled the whole of the States, from one coast to the other.

K Yeah yeah, I looked out of the bus window in the morning and the scenery looked the same as the night before.(laugh) And there are no Japanese books or magazines so I was reading the ones I had every day, day after day. (laugh).

Y The journey was that long, right?

K Yeah. So if I didn’t have that experience, I might have not been able to continue my career in music.

JJ Honto (Really)? Why, naze desuka (why)?

K Well I injured my arm and had an operation, the band broke up, etc. and it was not always easy. But whenever things were not going well I remembered the American tour, and I thought “I can still hang in”. I think such experience is very important. I mean, not everyone can join The Stranglers and play together, can they?

JJ No…

K I’m the only one who’s done it in Japan.

JJ Oh yes, of course. That’s fantastic. One of the official drummers of The Stranglers. It was quite strange because it was also different incarnation of the Stranglers because it was Keith, Paul Roberts, John Ellis, me and Dave.

K Yeah, you were a five piece band then.

JJ Then after that, I think my managers didn’t pay you everything that we owed you.

K Hahaha, but you talked to him and paid me later.

JJ Much later, because years later I found out, I don’t know how but I found out that we had not paid Keith everything. But that was with a different manager with Sil, so I got Sil to pay you what we owed you, because I thought it was a matter of honour.

K That’s true, many years had passed. To me, however, I was just pleased to have had the chance to play together because I could gain something more valuable than money. That was priceless experience.

JJ Oh yeah…right. I think after the American tour, I didn’t see you for quite a few years

K Right…until you came here for Karate.

 Y When was that?

 K I’m not sure…it was for Shidokan karate, wasn’t it?

JJ Ah, yeah! I came back for Shidokan and you took me to Shidokan Honbu Dojo in Shin Tokorozawa. That would have been 1991, something like that?

K Ah yes, I did.

JJ So that wasn’t so long after the American tour.

Keith I don’t think so…

JJ What year was the American tour? 1990? 1991? And I joined Shidokan in 1992, so it was 1992. So it was only about a year or two after the American tour. Then you were living in Karasuyama, right?

K That’s right.

JJ Which, interestingly enough for British listeners, or readers, is “a mountain of the ravens”.

K It certainly is! I also remember that you were invited to an opening ceremony of a new branch dojo of Shidokan somewhere, and we went along together.

JJ Ah yes! Yes, yes, yes!

K We saw Murakami-san’s (Shihan Ryuji Murakami) demonstration to break baseball bats with his legs.

JJ That’s true. It was upstairs… There were many Shidokan black belts in the streets but I can’t remember where…

K Yeah, yeah, there were dozens of black belts! It was somewhere in downtown maybe.

Y Was it in Tokyo?

K Yeah, but I don’t remember exactly where.

JJ Me neither. Watashi mo(me neither)… Then we’ve been in touch ever since!

K Yeah, I am pleased that you always contact me whenever you come to Japan.

JJ Yeah, we are friends, old friends. We are comrades-in-arms. We’ve been through the same war together!

K I don’t have anyone who I’ve been friends with for such a long time, not even among Japanese musicians. People just come and go

JJ Ah, I see. And of course, the last important event was your Kanreki gig (read the ratter here) which gave me a great idea because your band had rehearsed No More Heroes and Something Better Change without keyboard, and one of his guitarists was playing the keyboard part. And I thought it was a great idea. That was good fun, and it was only two years ago.

K All other members of the band were also saying that they’d love to do it again.

JJ Oh yeah. When is your next Kanreki? (grin)

K Hahaha! Maybe we could do when I’m 65 years old.

JJ That gave me a great idea to do a tour of Japan with the Japanese musicians doing the Stranglers’ songs but without a keyboard player and one of the guitarists plays the keyboard part. That was a really rocking band.

K It would be great if that happens!

JJ I still think it’s a good idea. Oh! Do you remember, when we were rehearsing with ARB, didn’t Billy Idol come in with Steve Stevens?

K Ah yeah! They did! (laugh)

JJ And they were staying at the Hilton.

K We called them out and took them to aka-chochin, didn’t we?

JJ Didn’t we also take them to the Shinjuku Loft one night?

K Yeah we did.

JJ Ryo was there…I remember that, that was in the early 80’s and Billy was doing very well. Yeah, we all went to the old Shinjuku Loft.

K Yeah.

Backstage with Kashimura, Shinjuku Loft

JJ Also, do you remember we came out the Shinjuku Loft late one night, and we were both a bit drunk, both wearing black leather jackets, and suddenly a big black car slowed down and stopped. Then the window came down and we heard a deep voice saying “You, where are you from?”

K Hmm, I don’t recall that…

JJ That was Yakuza.

K Ah, there were Yakuza’s offices around there then.

JJ Oh, honto (really)?

Y So did you answer?

JJ I said “England”.

Y Then what happened?

JJ The window shut, and they just carried on.

K Okay…it was also close to the Loft where we took Billy Idol and Steve Stevens to aka-chochin or robata-yaki (casual eating/drinking/barbeque) place. At that time Billy Idol was very successful and had a big hit called…more something. It goes something like “more, more, more”…

JJ Rebel Yell?

Y (sings) In the midnight hour she cried more, more, more…

K Yeah that’s it! He had someone write “more, more, more” in Japanese in his palm, and showed it to servers when he wanted another drinks, etc. (laugh)

JJ Motto, motto, motto (more, more, more)…that’s funny.

K But they were as meek as a kitten in front of JJ.

JJ Of course. Yeah, Good memories.

K We met various people at the Loft didn’t we? Because you were visiting from England, they invited you and me.

JJ Yeah, yeah. It was a great place. It was legendary, but it’s changed quite a lot now.

K Yeah it has.

JJ Well it’s not the same place to start with.

K No it’s not.

JJ That only has changed quite a lot.

K I’m a honourary adviser of the Loft. (laughs)

JJ What do you mean?

K I can get in anytime I want.

JJ Oh honto (really)? For life?!

K Yes. (big smile)

JJ That’s great!

K So when they open a new branch, I always get invited to give a first speech or chat shows.

JJ Oh wow. What do you talk about?

K Many thing such as the history of the Loft, but I’m not good at talking so usually a MC asks me questions to get the story out of me.

JJ Oh cool!

Y Talking of talking, I’ve got a question from the UK “how’s JJ’s Japanese ?”

K It’s much better than my English! (laughs)

JJ I can order a beer. Hahaha.

Keith's back tattoo

Y You can ask for a bill too.

JJ Hai! (yes) By the way, you know in Japan, tattoo is normally badly considered except for Yakuza. So first of all, what made you get so many tattoos?

K I went through an operation for gallstones when I was 29 and because medical technology and skills were not as advanced as nowadays, I thought I’d never be able to play drums again. In fact I could not play at all for about 6 months. That period gave me time to think. Then at the age of 30, I thought I didn’t want to go on like this, I wanted to play drums for the rest of my life. As a commitment to myself, I had my first tattoo of god of thunder, that represents drums.

JJ Oh, ok! So since it was kind of unconventional, certainly in Japan because it’s almost the monopoly of Yakuza then, have you had much trouble?

K Well I don’t go to swimming pool or those places where I have to show them to others. If I go where tattoos are accepted, those guys with small ones who’s showing them off and trying to look strong leave when they see me.

(Yuka’s note: In Japan, many hotels and public facilities do not accept those who have tattoos. These days however, many young people have tattoos simply as fashion)

JJ Ah, yeah.

K They know the pain to have tattoos like mine.

JJ Are you doing the traditional way with the bamboo?

K Yeah. So when those guys see mine, they know how it’s done and how painful it is. They see me as a guy who lived through such pain.

JJ Ah, yeah, yeah. Also, I’ve never asked you this before, your real name is not Keith but why do you call yourself Keith?

K I like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. In the band, Mick is the front man, Number One and Keith stays as second. I like his style. (laughs)

JJ Oh, ok!

Y Now it’s all clear. Good. Thank you for your time today. You two certainly have wonderful memories of business and pleasure from the past. I look forward to seeing your Kanreki band with JJ again.

K You are welcome. I hope we can make it happen.

Thanks to Keith for his time and his recollections. Thanks too to Yuka for conducting this interview, transcribing it and supplying images for use in the article. Other images from Strangled magazine. Following soon-part 3: Yuka from SIS Japan…

SIS Japan have also published this article (in Japanese) with extra photos & memorabilia included here