I only write about a very, very tiny fraction of the music that crosses my path, and it's not uncommon for me to get super excited and totally nerd out about completely unknown bands that struggle to receive the attention they deserve. A little over a year ago, I received an email from some kid named Johnny about what would turn out to be one of those bands: Chinatown. The more I listened to them, the more I fell in love with their uniquely gloomy approach. Add to that Johnny's ability to enthusiastically discuss music as diverse as Nirvana, Godflesh, Oasis, and Theory of Ruin—to name but a few—and you've really got my attention.
After releasing two excellent EPs, Chinatown morphed into a new group called Shinobi—a band named after an Eyehategod song despite having next to nothing in common with Eyehategod; instead coming across as some general form of morose alternative rock/indie punk/whatever it may be. One that has found most of the people I've played it for struggling—in a good way—for a proper description; resulting in statements like, "It reminds me of [insert band name here], but... not really... just, you know, whatever you'd call that genre."
Indeed, the Philly outfit's true debut, Tape No. 1, finds the quartet exploring familiar—yet different—territory, complete with a superbly Jawbreaker/Leatherface-esque vocal rasp and grittily melodic, slightly noisy chord phrasings aplenty. The end results simply don't clearly sound like anyone, however, and fully buck the trends in the process. It's droney, sure, but not drowning in effects. There's no stale, overblown post-rock or shoegaze horseshit here. And catchy, hook-based tunes? Absolutely. But they're neither trying to be polished and pretty nor blown-out and garage chic. It's punk at heart by simply being what it is and just not giving a fuck.
All in all, Shinobi's an interesting group of kids who really have something special happening. I truly believe in 'em and wish there was more I could do to help, but despite having written about shit on the internet on and off for 17 years, there's only so much I can do, so... if you like what you hear, please help me help them and spread the word. You'd be surprised just how much every little bit can make a difference.
Stream or download the entire three-song demo below—available on cassette through U.K. label Negate Everything—followed by a quick chat with the band's guitarist/vocalist, Johnny Poppke:
I've been a huge fan of your work with Chinatown, but you've recently described that band to me as having sort of been absorbed by Shinobi. Talk about how/why that came to pass.
Shinobi's lineup consists of Chinatown, plus my little sister on bass. With all the music that we've put out over the past two years, we've kept the same core group of people and played musical chairs whenever material was written that wasn't suited for the band that was currently active. Carlos was the primary songwriter for Chinatown, but Liam and I always had a large amount of influence in the direction in which a song would go being that the band was so rhythm section-centric. I also penned the lyrics for Chinatown. Carlos got busy with programming, so I started thinking about different routes to take musically where I could take over as frontman and bear the brunt of the songwriting responsibility. Alas, Chinatown was put to bed and Shinobi was born.
This new material carries traces of the band's original two-song demo from last summer, but this is clearly a more—I'd hate to say "mature," but—more refined and developed Shinobi, at the very least. The production values have improved, the songwriting is much more immediately catchy, etc. How would you assess the band's development over the past year?
The two-song demo we threw together was more of a bedroom experiment than anything else. We were just getting our footing and trying to figure out what we were doing. There's no bass on those songs. Our recording methods were very... "unconventional" would be one way to put it, due to a lack of resources. The idea was just beginning to come to be.
The new material feels far more fully actualized. Liam's production techniques have improved a ton. He really knows how to hammer out an incredibly solid-sounding product with very little equipment. We spent ridiculous amounts of time listening to the bands that we're pulling from. In so doing, our vision for what we wanted the final product to sound like became a lot clearer. We unabashedly wear our influences on our sleeve—those primarily being Nirvana, Oasis, R.E.M., Nick Cave, and the Pixies.
I quite enjoy the strikingly simple lyrics, but I also know there's more beneath the surface there. I'm not sure if you'd want to discuss some of the inspiration behind the subversive aspects of the lyrical content...?
A lot of the lyrics come from me just not being able to get behind a lot of the modern bands getting signed to bigger indie labels. I see tons of bands writing music that harkens back to late-'90s and early-2000s radio rock, and I just don't get it. It's terrible. Ultra-produced pop-rock shouldn't be something I'm seeing on labels that are even tangentially related to hardcore and punk. I find myself listening to [Ink & Dagger's] Drive This Seven-Inch Wooden Stake Through My Philadelphia Heart, [Oasis'] Definitely Maybe, and [Nirvana's] In Utero way more often than I do current releases. I'm not trying to come off as some jaded kid in his early-20s. I'm just right. Whatever.
Me being an out of touch old man in many ways, are there modern bands that you do dig/find inspiration in and would recommend?
I've been listening to this punk band from London called Crown Court a ton. They remind me of Blitz, but they throw in these bluesy riffs that are sort of early Oasis-y. There's a band called Fishbach from Paris that has a KEXP set I've watched just about every day since it aired. There's an interesting band out of Boston called Vein that I've been checking out. They remind me of Jane Doe-era Converge. I'll be sure to catch their set at This is Hardcore.
I have to ask about the band being named after an Eyehategod track. To me that's just another perfect little weird, head-scratcher tidbit about Shinobi.
Eyehategod is one of my favorite bands of all time (arguably my favorite band of all time). "Shinobi" is a song off of the first Eyehategod full-length. Not a favorite, but I like how it sounds. Totally meaningless, like Sebadoh or Fugazi.
We've discussed at length how frustrating it can be to simply get music heard these days without some degree of "luck" or the "right friends" or whatever it may be—there's just so much shit out there at everyone's fingertips. Do you want to talk about those struggles at all, or perhaps close with an impassioned plea to the types of listeners you'd hope to capture or connect with through your music?
I hope that the music we'll be putting out with Shinobi speaks to kids who are looking for honest, catchy, raw punk rock; or maybe to capture an audience with old heads looking for something that reminds them of the good ol' days. Whatever. I'm really satisfied with how the songs came out this time around, and I'm excited to keep pushing forward with this band.