This band of five wolf-men have been tearing up the Japanese album charts with each new release, but what do we really know about Man With A Mission?
By Matthew Hernon
Created in a laboratory by a professor known as Dr. Jimi Hendrix, five guys with wolf faces were supposedly frozen in the Antarctic, escaped, then came back as musicians. It sounds like the plot of a wacky animated movie, but it’s actually the backstory of Man With A Mission, one of the hottest rock bands in Japan right now.
Wanting a greater insight into this strange yet hugely successful act, Weekender decided to visit their office in Tokyo to chat with lead guitarist, songwriter, occasional singer and spokesman for the group, Jean-ken Johnny.
“At the beginning MWAM didn’t have anything to do with music,” he says. “We were made to be the bad guys and cause havoc. I’m assuming we overstepped the line and that is why we were frozen. Being omniscient life forms, we could still listen to some amazing bands during this period like Nirvana, The Smashing Pumpkins and The Pixies. Also, Japanese groups like Hi Standard, Brahman and Back Drop Bomb really moved us. Not really caring about being mainstream, they mixed things up and did things their own way. We got a lot of inspiration from that.”
Johnny and the other members of the band are clearly just having a bit of fun, but gimmicks and shock factor can only take you so far. Rock fans would get bored pretty quickly if there were no substance to the group. MWAM’s popularity has continued to rise because they are genuine musicians who can play in a variety of styles.
“We’re an alternative rock band with a little bit of everything including rap, melodies and heavy guitar solos,” Johnny tells us. “We started out around five years ago playing to tiny crowds at live houses in Shibuya and the initial reaction was like ‘who the hell are these guys? They must be in the wrong place or something.’ Once we began our set, though, the mood would always change. The audience could see beyond our appearance and show an appreciation for what we were doing.”
According to Johnny things really started to take off for the group after an appearance at Kyoto’s Daisakusen festival in 2011. “The headliners and organizers of the event, 10-Feet, told people that we were cool and they should go and watch us. There was also a buzz being created on social media about this weird band.
“It was a small stage and we weren’t expecting much; yet, within minutes people came flocking. I think there were around 3,000 people there, which was a record for that event. We’ve played in front of much bigger crowds since at festivals like Fuji Rock and Summersonic, but for me that one was the most special. Word can spread quickly and suddenly from nowhere you are big—that is the beauty of music.”
No longer seen as an obscure, underground band, the musical wolf-heads started making a big impression in the charts. Their second studio album, “Mash Up The World”—released just over a week after their next show in Kyoto—peaked at number four while their following LP “Tales of Purefly” went in even higher at three. Every single since 2013 has been a top five hit, with the most popular song, “Emotions” garnering more than 10 million views on YouTube.
Their latest single “Raise Your Flag” entered the Oricon Charts at number three last month. It’s a powerful track that is used for the opening credits of the popular animation series “Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans.” The lyrics were written by Johnny and bassist Kamikaze Boy, who along with singer Tokyo Tanaka, disc jockey DJ Santa Monica and drummer Spear Rib, never speaks in interviews.
“The message we are trying to get across with this new release, as with many of our tracks, is that it’s important to follow your own path in life,” Johnny tells us. “Of course our lyrics are for other people, but we’re also writing them for ourselves. We don’t ever want to be bystanders and let things idly go by without caring. It’s about having belief in yourself, finding that flag in your heart and making things happen.”
As with many of MWAM’s singles, most of the lyrics for “Raise Your Flag” and all of the words on the B-side were written in English. Writing songs in their second language has helped them gain a large following abroad. From the outset, this was a group determined to spread their wings well beyond Japan. Soon after forming they went around Los Angeles playing at various nightclubs as part of their “Whisky A Go Go” tour. They’ve gone on to perform in a variety of countries and continents around the globe and they are currently wowing fans in Europe alongside American rock band Zebrahead.
“We’ve played together before and also released the split EP ‘Out of Control’ with them,” Johnny says. “Every time we went into the studio with them we were all hung over so it was quite hard, but also so much fun. I remember being on stage and a cake came out for their 20th anniversary: It ended up everywhere. We were throwing it at each other and then into the crowd. The security guys were really angry. Like us, Zebrahead enjoy joking around a lot, but behind all the silliness they’re are an extremely talented, hard-working, and very loyal band.
“We feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to work with so many great musicians. Earlier this year we opened for (the melodic hardcore band) Rise Against, who we learned so much from. Prior to that Sid Wilson from Slipknot remixed our song ‘Distance’ and also played on stage with us. I remember the night Kamikaze Boy and myself first saw him in a Shibuya bar. I’m a huge Slipknot fan so I wanted to go up and chat to him. After around six tequilas for Dutch courage we went up and offered him a drink—that is all musicians really need to get them talking. We eventually asked if he’d do a song with us and he agreed straight away. He was drunk at the time so I had to double-check the next day.”
With MWAM’s stock continuing to rise there will no doubt be further opportunities for the band to work with well known Western artists. So given the opportunity, who would Johnny most like to play alongside?
“Too many to choose from: The Smashing Pumpkins, [or] British bands like Muse and Radiohead. Cyndi Lauper would be great: I love her song, “Shine.” If I were only allowed one … it’d be The Foo Fighters. I was lucky enough to be backstage with them at Fuji Rock and they invited me on stage. I must have looked like a kid walking on.
“I actually spoke to Dave Grohl before that on Skype for a TV show. He was surprised how much I knew about him. I’ve followed his career closely since he was in the band Scream and then after that in Nirvana. These are bands that are so important to us (MWAM covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium”). They are part of a musical heritage that we want to share with our fans.”
Jean-Ken Johnny, comes across as a soft-spoken, thoughtful and articulate individual who is clearly passionate about his profession. He’s very interesting to talk to, but these were not characteristics I was expecting from a wolf.
“Well, we are part human,” he says. “This side of our personality is shown in our songs and in interviews. At the same time we have the spirit of the wolf. We never want to be tamed by the world or society. If something bad happens we have the courage to bite back. That is our driving force.”
Man With A Mission’s single “Raise Your Flag“ is in stores now.