Q&A: Pirates Canoe on Japan Nite, Americana and Getting Excited About Ships
Americana music brings to mind a beckoning road that never ceases or mountainous visions filtered through Appalachian nostalgia—ideas born from the land, from the mountains and plains. But in the hands of Pirates Canoe, a mandolin and a fiddle, even an acoustic guitar, spin tales intrinsically marine. Beneath the surface nautical trappings of the band’s name and penchant for putting eye-patched scallywags on their EP covers, this trio of roots musicians (who often play as a six-piece with bass, drums and steel guitar) is hiding something sad and also beautiful, like rain on gray expanses of ocean.
Pirates Canoe’s core members, Sara Kohno on mandolin, Reika Hunt on guitar and Kanako Keyaki on Irish fiddle, journeyed across the sea for the annual Japan Nite showcase during SXSW and the subsequent tour that took them to a few more North American cities like Chicago and San Francisco. While in Austin, the band played a handful of other gigs at Austin city hall and a even an East Austin dive bar known as The Grackle.
The room is sweltering enough to drive one out to face the afternoon Texas Sun and the decor is little more than a few string of Christmas lights, but none of The Grackle’s patrons seem to mind as long as the drinks keep flowing. Earlier in the afternoon, The Beards, a self-described novelty band comprising four bearded blokes from Australia who pound keytars and offer up bluesy odes to facial hair, packed the house. Quite a departure from the mandolin strums and silken three-part harmonies of Pirates Canoe. But the band won the crowd from the start, opening with a cover of the B-52s “Love Shack” transformed from a ‘90s party track to something more sincere.
I caught up with the band outside The Grackle where Peelander-Z’s free day show “Peelander-Fest” blared punk into the afternoon. Between guitarist Reika’s excellent English (picked up from a childhood in Arkansas) and my broken Japanese, we pieced together the band’s thoughts on the major American tour, new album plans and the importance of ships.
Promotional video for Pirates Canoe’s “Guitar Blue.”
Nihongaku: What did you think about playing Japan Nite?
Reika: We were very nervous. It was odd because we finally got to Austin and we were out and going to other people’s shows. And we had the day time gig. And then all of a sudden at night, it was like we went back to Japan. With all the Japanese bands and Japanese coordinators.
N: What day shows did you see?
R: We didn’t see any day shows. We had a day show in front of the Austin City Hall. That was actually a good show. We were really concerned, but it was really nice and the sound was really good.
N: Of the bands playing Japan Nite, you have the most traditionally American sound. What is your inspiration for playing Americana?
R: There’s no one musician, I guess. But I did grow up in Arkansas. And my dad plays…my dad was in a band when I was smaller. And my grandpa was listening to folk. American folk. Some Bluegrass and Appalachian and all that acoustic music. I guess I just can’t get away from it. I love pop music and rock. But when I play, it turns out folky. And Sara was in a Bluegrass band in Japan. So she learned Bluegrass mandolin and I think that’s where she gets her American roots influence. But then, she also listens to all these weird, weird artists. It’s crazy.
N: What sort of crazy artists?
R: The roaches. They’re not really weird, but I can’t think of anyone right now. Musicals. She loves musicals.
Sara: George Gershwin.
R: She loves George Gershwin. So I think she uses that. I guess we try to stay within an Americana sound because it’s a focus. Otherwise, we’d just go off and… She takes a lot of stuff from outside like soul music, pop musical type pop. She brings it in. She’s kind of our leader, so…musical direction.
Kanako plays Irish fiddle. That’s where she comes from and she played classical fiddle before that and then Irish fiddle. And when she started playing with us, she didn’t really know anything about American music. Well, she played classical violin when she was younger and then she switched to Irish Fiddle. When she started playing with Pirate’s Canoe, she didn’t know anything about American music, which actually worked for us because she would bring different ideas. Instead of the obvious bluegrass and American sound. She’ll do some classical music stuff and I think that worked for us, especially in Japan because if we were strictly American bluegrass, we couldn’t reach a lot of people. There is a small community that’s really loyal to bluegrass. A lot of people come to our shows and don’t really care about what kind of genre it is. They listen to it and they say, “Oh! It’s new and it’s different!” And it’s not really new, but they think it’s new and different. And they like it.
N: I’ve seen you described as an Americana band. How do you identify yourselves?
R: It depends on who we’re talking to. We’re not sure about in the states, but in Japan we say we play country music because that’s the broadest genre that the normal Japanese person can understand. And if it’s someone who does understand what country music is, we don’t want to say we’re country music. We’ll say bluegrass or roots music. But we’re not sure in the states. We’re going to think about that.
N: Does that mean you’re planning to come back?
R: We want to. It’s kind of difficult. We all work. We have this trio but we also have a six-piece band with three guys with bass, drums, and dobro and they all work. We have more responsibilities at work. So it might not be possible. One of them actually works at the Kyoto City Hall. He’s service worker. But we’re hoping and we’re dreaming. It takes a lot of money to get six or seven people across the ocean.
N: I was wondering what you made you guys decide to come over as a trio. Was it the expense?
R: We started out saying we can do anything from a duo to a six piece. So we had the duo and the trio and a quartet and then we… It started to naturally turn into either the trio or the six piece. And then we’d have a gig with the five piece and we’re like, “We changed the arrangement here for the trio version. Are we going to do the trio version or the full band?” And then sometimes we would notice after starting the song and we’d be like, “Which one are we gonna do?”
This time, we did want to come as a full band but our bass player that works at Kyoto City Hall couldn’t make it because March is the busiest month in the Japanese business system. So he couldn’t make it and so I was like we could come as a quintet, but then we’d have to go over the arrangement again. And the dobro player said we should go as a trio. So we decided to come as a trio.
N: Well, I think the trio works fantastically well. I really enjoyed both of the performances that I saw. I particularly enjoyed your harmonies. How did you three get so good at harmonizing together? The song, “Siren’s Comb” for example, ends with the three of you harmonizing for a very long time.
R: Sara can sing and she sometimes does solo acts. And then when we started practicing together, we found out Kanako also sang in a band when she was in university. And I think after that she decided to focus more on the violin, but we were like “You can sing?” And Sara was like “I’m going to make three part harmony pieces from now on.” And I don’t know why it feels so good to sing with them, but we’ve been playing together for three years. I think practice made us a little better, but there was really something there from the beginning when we started that we liked. We decided to make that one of our…one of the things that we’re known for. They play country music and they sing good harmonies.
N: Tell me about the band’s nautical theme.
R: Well, our band name, “Pirate’s Canoe,” was because we are really bad at thinking of names. And we sat down at a table in a restaurant and we were like what are we going to name ourselves? We have to let them know because we’re going to do this gig. For two or three hours we were there and everyone was coming up with these horrible names. But then we had one song which we called “Guitar Blue.” And it’s about an actual bluegrass bar that’s in Pokipsy, New York, which she (Sara) lived in for a while. And it’s called Pirate Canoe and that’s in the song. We were like, “We’ll just call it Pirate’s Canoe and we can change it later.” And then it stuck.
And I love ships. I don’t like riding them actually, but I like reading about them. And then I found out that Sara grew up beside the ocean in Hiroshima and she likes ships.
Then I turned to Kanako.
N: Ships suki desu ka? (Do you like ships?)
Kanako: Dai suki desu. (I really like them.)
R: We didn’t know that she likes ships. We were like it’s Sara and Reika’s thing and then the first time we traveled by ferry to another place in Japan, Kanako was the most excited passenger on that ship.
N: How do you compare an audience in Austin, Tx to an audience in Japan?
R: Well this is our first time, but with just three shows in Austin, this is what we feel. In Japan they listen. They’re a lot more quieter and they listen to every note. And that’s not the case in Austin. In Austin if they like it, they show it more. Whereas in Japan, they’ll be just sitting there quietly and drinking or eating. And then after the show you’re like, “It’s horrible. No one liked us.” And then after the show they come up and say, “You’re really good. I want to buy an album.” And you’re like, “Oh!” You get used to that in Japan. But In Austin it’s nice to see the response immediately while we’re playing.
N: How does that immediate feedback feel on stage?
R: It’s great! Ilove it! I like it so far.
Reika turns to Sara and Kanako who agree in Japanese that the experience of instant feed back from the audience is “bikuri” or “surprising.”
K: There are a lot of people with cameras. Compared to Japan, everyone here was more enthusiastic about raising their voice and letting us know if they thought we were good. And for us, there was a bit more rising tension.
S: Tanoshikata. (It was fun.)
N: Next week, you’re continuing on the Japan Nite tour. Are there cities you’re especially looking forward to playing?
R: Chicago. We’re playing on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago.
R: Tomorrow, yes. We’re leaving tomorrow. And she’s (Kanako) an Irish fiddler. So we’re going to do an Irish theme. Well, not really, just two or three songs. But we’re excited for that. I think that’ll be her show (Reika points to Kanako).
N: How’d you get into Irish fiddle, Kanako?
R: She was playing classical violin and then her mom took her to a concert and there was an Irish fiddler. And she was like “that’s what I want to do. If I can learn from him then maybe I can like violin again. And there’s another story behind that. And then she started learning from him.
N: I know you’ve only been here for a short time, but what do you think about Austin?
R: One thing is, it’s kind of similar. The map or the layout of Austin is kind of similar to Kyoto. Because there will be straight roads going horizontally and vertically. And then there’s the river, which is exactly how Kyoto is. So it’s easy to get around. Because we know like, okay, two blocks that way, take a right and three blocks down. So it kind of feels like we’re in a sister city like our own.
K: The weather is warm in the daytime but cool at night.
N: Yes, I’m very happy about that as well.
S: I think Texas is southern America soul. There are a lot of roots music, but in Austin…
Sara turns to speak with Reika.
R: Her image of Austin is that it’s in the South and it’s in Texas and there’s probably a lot of roots music and country. But when she came, there’s a lot of the other stuff. But everyone’s really accepting of Japanese people and Asian people. It was pleasantly surprising.
N: Yeah, we’re pretty friendly for the most part. I know you have two EPs and an album out already. What’s next for Pirates Canoe?
R: We’re going to keep putting out EPs and albums. We want to put out one more EP and make it like a three EP set. Then put out another album with the six piece. Because we have the trio album. And then maybe some vinyl record releases because we really like that idea. And maybe like a live show on a boat. Like a live event.
R: Internet concerts, maybe for the people who we met here and can’t come to Japan. And we don’t have a really set plan for one year, five years, we have a lot of ideas and we want to get going.
N: What about itunes?
R: I think so. Before we left we just got in contact with a distributor and I think they can get us on iTunes.
N: Excellent, because it’s very frustrating being a fan of Japanese music and not being able to track down a band on the American iTunes store.
R: We don’t know if we can get onto the iTunes.com.
N: Perhaps one day.
R: But we’re on band camp, so you can get our music there.
S: And CD baby!