The Shrine Vs. Japan: Blood, Honor, and DIY in the Land of the Rising Sun

Stream the title track from their new Tankcrimes release 'Waiting For the War.'

J Bennett

J Bennett

Venice, CA skate-rock rippers The Shrine recently upended the Land of the Rising Sun on their first Japanese tour, banging out five shows in Tokyo, Kanazawa, Gunma, Niigata and Ibaraki. They returned like conquering heroes, with tales and photos galore—of old-school skate crews, bloody head wounds, and very polite Japanese fans going berserk. Unlike most bands that have the opportunity to tour Japan, The Shrine didn’t take the established booking-agent route. Instead, their tour was organized by a particularly enthusiastic and well-connected fan: Tsuyoshi Nishiyama, who runs a skate shop called Felem Skates in Sakai, Ibaraki. Just a few days after getting home, The Shrine’s vocalist/guitarist Josh Landau met us for a beer at Footsie’s in Los Angeles to give us the rundown on the entire saga.

In addition, The Shrine have a new 12-inch for Waiting For the War due via Tankcrimes. Stream the title track for the first time below.

NOISEY: How did you meet Tsuyoshi?
Josh Landau
: About four years ago, I was skating this pool in my neighborhood and my friend Tony Farmer brought these four Japanese dudes over who had come right off a plane at LAX and straight to this pool. They were unbelievably stoked to skate a real pool in California. We were all taking photos, and after they flew back home I emailed one of the guys the photos and he asked to buy some Shrine CDs for his skate shop in Japan. That was Tsuyoshi. A month later he emailed me asking to buy some t-shirts. After a while, he was hitting me up regularly and buying a lot of shit. It was weird—we felt like we were sending this stuff into outer space. He’d order like 40 shirts, which is more than anybody had ever ordered of our stuff. It didn’t even seem real.

How did a guy who runs a skate shop end up arranging a tour for you?
For a while, he was flying over here a lot to learn how to build skate parks from American skate-park builders. So he’d email us and we’d tell him we had a show here or there, and he’d schedule his trip around our shows and bring a bunch of our stuff back to Japan. It was really crazy. At one point, he got us in this Japanese biker magazine. Eventually he brought us over for this tour. He’s not even a show promoter. I don’t think he’s ever booked a band’s tour. I think he just asked dudes he knew at skate shops in different towns if they knew anyone who could set up a show. It was so renegade. It wasn’t a regular tour where there’s like a booking agent counting numbers. He was just happy to have us over there.

And he was like the tour manager, too.
Yeah. He picked us up at the airport, drove the whole time. He’d show up in our hotel room every morning. He’d tell us we’d get going at ten in the morning the next day, but he’d be in my room at like eight giving us all the money from the shows. It was fucking crazy. It was a totally different touring experience for us. It was like an alternate universe.

What’s his shop like?
He lives in this tiny little town in Ibaraki, but because of him there’s this community of all these kids who are skating and getting into kind of underground American skate stuff. He comes over here and buys stuff or imports it. He’s been running his shop for 25 years, and it’s really mind-blowing because he doesn’t have anything in his skate shop that you could run a skate shop off of here. He has no mainstream stuff. He carries stuff from like Jason Jessee’s company—those skateboards don’t even exist here. So his customers have all this underground stuff.

This was your first trip to Japan, right?
Yeah, with the band and personally. It was completely insane. My mom even printed me out this list of Japanese phrases, because she’s been over there. I didn’t learn any of it. Even the little bits I picked up I didn’t wanna try because I did it so poorly and I just felt like a stupid American. I couldn’t speak to anybody, really. Aside from a few things, like “thank you” or “picture” or something, I couldn’t really talk to people at the shows. After a few days, it was kinda isolating.

What were the shows like?
When we were playing, people went crazy like nowhere we’ve been before. They were really stoked. And then when you finish a song, it’s like complete silence. There’s maybe a little clapping, but that’s about it. It was really weird. At first, we were totally thrown off by that—we weren’t sure if they liked it. But then as soon as we started the next song, they’d go crazy again.

What was the rock culture like over there?
They were really dialed in, super-fans of punk and metal and all the subgenres. We were seeing dudes with rare bootleg shirts—like old Venom shirts with a graphic I’d never seen before. In Tokyo, we’d see people in like obscure Saccharine Trust shirts. You could tell they were deep into music. One thing that was really mind-blowing is that the guitar player from [Japanese black/thrash metal OGs] Abigail came to one of the shows wearing one of our shirts. I mean they’re so gnarly, I wouldn’t think anyone in that band would even listen to us. Over here it seems like people are just into their genre, but over there people don’t give a fuck. The lines between punk and metal and hard rock are all totally blurred.

Did you do any skating while you were there?
On the last day, we skated at the park Tsuyoshi is building behind his shop. He builds people bowls at their houses, so at his shop he’s got all these different concrete tests, like a piece here and piece there, that you can skate. He’s got all these kids who hang out there and skate, but they’re learning to build, too. It’s insane. The kids in his scene are very much into old school skating. They were doing all these Dogtown-style tricks. Like all the kids there can do laybacks and stuff.

Like time stopped.
Yeah, like a tunnel from the ’80s skate scene straight to Japan. All of it—the music, the culture that goes with that kind of skating—went straight to his little town. I mean, I feel like I’m a minority over here, but you go over there and it’s normal. People are into it, and there’s a lot of them. It was crazy.

What’s up with the photo of the kid with bloody head?
That was after our show in Kanazawa. They have these late-night restaurants called izakayas, these like bar-restaurants where you can get your own room and you order what you want off a TV with a remote control. We were in there for about an hour or two with Tsuyoshi, who’s in his 40s, one of his team captains from another city, and all these kids who were probably like 20 or 22 years old. There was maybe ten of ’em, and they’re all obviously talking in Japanese and we’re just sitting there smiling because we have no idea what’s going on and we’re just bugging out on how insane of a place this is.

At one point, one of the kids gets so drunk that he falls off his stool and passes out on the floor. But nobody even acts like it happened, like it was no big deal. Which was weird, you know? A few minutes later, we get up to leave and someone wakes the kid up. So I kind of helped him up and had my arm around him, like, “Are you alright, man?” I was kind of holding him up. So I look over and the team captain is behind us kind of raising his umbrella toward the kid’s head, like he was gonna knight him or something.

He was lining up his shot.
Yeah! I thought he was just joking at first. Then I realized his umbrella’s handle is a golf club—it has a mallet on the end. So he whacks the kid right on the head and blood just starts pouring out. I didn’t even realize what had happened at first, but then I saw a piece of his scalp sticking up. Then the kid leans over and blood just starts going all over the floor in the restaurant. Everybody with us just kinda laughed, but the kid didn’t even flinch. He showed no pain. I think he even smiled. I mean, whatever, he was drunk, so maybe it didn’t register. But he just put his hat back on over his bloody head and we walked out. We were hanging around outside afterward, and nobody said anything about it.

Did anyone from the restaurant say anything?
I don’t even know if they noticed. We were kinda halfway out the door when it happened, anyway, and there were so many of us. But nobody asked if he was okay or anything. Nobody even paid any attention to him. The vibe I got was that it was a weird, fucked-up honor thing. Like the kid would even further dishonor them if he showed any suffering. It kinda made me really sick, man. When I went to bed that night, I was really bummed out that I didn’t say something or do something. But it wasn’t really my place. I was just blown away by how normal it was to everyone, the careless violence.

What else did you do over there?
Tsuyoshi took us to a 300-year old sake brewery. It’s been in the same family forever and the rice is grown right there. They have an intense dedication to tradition. We put on these full bodysuits and walked through. They’re playing classical music in there, but one of the guys who worked there asked for our CD so they could play it while we tasted the sake. We knew that was gonna go bad, but we gave him one.

Do you think the tour went so well because Venice skate/punk culture is so revered by some of the kids over there?
I think that’s what it is. We’re like this fantasy of theirs, carrying California skate history and punk and metal on our backs. It makes us seem way bigger to them than we are. There were kids showing up in Dogtown shirts from Venice Originals, which is the skate shop right at the beach. That’s another thing—no matter where we go, if someone at our show has been to Venice, they’ve got to tell us. It’s super cool, actually. People are really enamored with it. Venice is romanticized around the world, even though it’s this total yuppie paradise now that’s pushed out a lot of the creative people and interesting weirdos. It’s totally different now, but people know the history and have their fantasy of it, so they love it. And so do we.

J. Bennett used to be an editor at the skate media conglomerate TransWorld. Which seems weird even to him.