As part of the Kansai Music Conference (KMC) last month, The KMC Band Contest took place at Bar IZNT, Kobe on September 19th. Original music band Union Trouble and cover bands The Mist Acoustics and Sabado Boys Band did their best and gave outstanding performances, and in the end, Contagion, a Kobe-based cover band, took away the honors, winning a ¥30,000 cash purse, musical goods by D’Addario, 20 custom T-shirts from MB Prints, and the double-page spread you are reading now.
One warm October Tuesday night at Polo Dog, Kobe, I sat down with Clayton (Australia) and Ernest (USA), respectively singer/guitarist and drummer for the band, to discuss their victory, history, and work ethic. Because make no mistake: while some may sneer at cover bands, some take their job seriously to deliver performances that customers and bars will ask for again. While Contagion may have won on home soil, describing IZNT as their home territory, they did so having gathered fans in the past three years through loud, energetic and customer-oriented gigs. It was a popularity contest, and as the saying goes, the absent are always in the wrong.
Throughout the interview, the words “hard work” came back again and again, perhaps more often than “hard rock” and “punk,” their music of choice. The band, which also features Masato “Spider fingers” on the lead guitar and Tida (a Sun God in Okinawan culture) on bass and vocals, meet regularly to practice and learn new songs, which isn’t always easy. As Clayton remarks, “We have to learn these new songs, as we like to try to bring something new to every gig. And it’s hard to get four guys to learn them.”
On the topic of song selection, Clayton, who also plays in Vampyre Nation (originals and covers), adds, “There’s quite a bit of stuff we do that I don’t like much at all. But the funnest is the feedback we get from playing something customers like. Also, I personally like to do songs that I know no one else can do; it might be a unique vocal, a unique riff, or an amount of power on the drums, just something that I know other bands wouldn’t try.”
While it may seem strange for a musician to call his fans “customers,” that is actually the only way Clayton and Ernest refer to them throughout our discussion, except when mentioning that many of them have become friends over the years, including their photographer Kazumi Okuyama and Ernest’s wife Noriko, his biggest supporter. It is a way for them to keep their feet on the ground and remember that it is the audience and the bars that actually pay them. “It’s like real work,” Clayton points out.
“It’s hard work, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lot of fun,” Ernest quickly adds. “When you’re playing something correctly, and it’s authentic, then you look at each other, at the customers, and you know you’ve nailed it and that you’re making people happy, that is so much fun.”
This is easy to believe from someone who took drum lessons for over ten years and says he had very little natural aptitude for it. As perhaps the most cerebral member of the band, honing his skills at home, practicing his parts, experimenting with other styles like Latin and jazz, always seeking new teachers and going to numerous gigs to hear what works and what doesn’t, Ernest does mention that all of that technique gets thrown out the window once he gets on stage and the band starts playing.
For Clayton on the other hand, focusing on his music skills is new since joining Contagion, something he feels very grateful for. Since starting to perform in punk bands 30 years ago, he had never aspired to be more than a passable rhythm guitarist, as his main drive is “…not the music; it’s the connection with the customer, the energy feedback. More feedback, and more energy, and then it gets out of control.”
But again, Ernest interjects to praise his bandmate, “Don’t believe everything that he says. He works harder in this band than any other. I know this because I saw him playing 10 to 15 years ago. I was his fan and I’d go to his gigs. He’s singing and playing the guitar on a different level now. Just a few weeks ago we had the contest and he sprained his hand before. But he still came to the studio and to the show, and I respect that.”
Listening to them talk, it is easy to realize that through the struggles the band has overcome, a strong bond exists between the four friends. This was apparent when I asked (since they named themselves “Contagion”) what contagious disease each member would die of after a lifetime of playing the same catchy songs (Clayton, “Lust for Life,” Ernest, “Back in Black”), and before being stuck in hell for eternity listening to the same song (Clayton, “Hotel California,” Ernest, “Wannabe”).
Clayton ended up with a pelvic inflammatory disease (“That sounds pretty cool. I wouldn’t mind telling people I got that”), foot & mouth disease for Tida (“He often puts his foot in his mouth because of that language gap”), tuberculosis for Masato (“He smokes a lot”), while Ernest for himself suggested cauliflower ear (“because I have to listen to so much bullsh*t all the time”), before Clayton vetoed and stuck him with dysentery (“He just eats hot spicy sh*t”).
Rest assured, though, there is little chance of catching these diseases at a Contagion gig (unless your vices lead you there)! The biggest danger is probably muscle ache and some small bruises from too much dancing along the other fans, uh, customers.
Hobgoblin: Oct 17
Bar IZNT: Oct 31
PoloDog: Nov 28
Bar IZNT: Dec 19
Hobgoblin: Jan 23