PICTURED: Stalag 13 at The Pit Bar, Tokyo. Photo courtesy of John Crerar
The years can be hard on a band. Interests diverge, personalities clash, lifestyles change and the natural progression of musicianship often alters that particular magic that can bring all the elements together to create something extraordinary. It’s hard enough capturing lightning in a bottle; sustaining it can be next to impossible.
It’s no small miracle, then, that Nardcore original Stalag 13 has continued to perform, in one configuration or another, since 1981. And while the band — which today includes original members Blake Cruz (guitar) and Larry White (drums), John Morris (bass), Ben Halen (guitar) and John Crerar (vocals) — has traversed the globe on numerous tours through the decades, the first-ever tour of Japan just took place in September. What they found when they got there was surprising — and exciting.
“When we got there, we didn’t know what to expect,” says Cruz. “We weren’t sure how Stalag 13 was going to go over. But there were super-fans!”
The crowds in these small venues in Tokyo, Yokohama and Okazaki weren’t enormous — Crerar estimates 50-150 — but they went wild when the American punk band took the stage. Crerar recalls the first show in Tokyo, at a club called Wall.
“The club was packed, and we saw Nardcore and Ill Repute shirts. . . . When we went on, people went off. We played the Agression song “Intense Energy” (a song about skateboarding) and [there was] someone stage dove with a skateboard on his feet. It was wild, fun and exciting, seeing how it was the first night and all.”
“These kids were just so crazy — they just love the music!” Cruz adds. “They like their saki and their music and their smokes. Everyone smokes.”
“It looked like there was a smoke machine in the venue, and there wasn’t — it was cigarette smoke,” Crerar confirms. “By the fourth show, my voice was almost gone.”
Stalag 13’s fans weren’t just in the audience. Many of the Japanese bands taking the stage were ecstatic to be playing on the same bill as the American punk veterans. Crerar and Cruz recall one opening act, Dear and Horse, that had created a logo “ripping off the cover of our In Control album. They said, ‘there’s no way S13 would ever come here.’ But here we were and they were super stoked to play with us. They even bought us a bottle of saki.” Understanding that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Cruz happily purchased a patch with the “ripped off” logo.
While Stalag 13 was basking in the admiration, the feeling was definitely mutual.
“Every band that played before us was super tight, and all slightly different,” says Crerar. “We played with over 20 Japanese bands and all of them were extremely good.”
Cruz agrees, singling out And Believe and SloMotion as “my new favorite bands. . . . If they were in America, they’d be signed by big-time labels.”
Ryota, SloMotion’s bass player, is also a promoter who worked with Cruz to set up the tour — and served as a driver and tour guide as well. During down time, he’d take the band members to attractions like a waterfall and cave in Hinohara Village, Osaka Castle and “a huge buddha
that’s two times the size of the Statue of Liberty.” The band even stayed at Ryota’s house in Mito, where he’d make them home-cooked meals and they’d listen to music together.
“When you stay with people, you see how they actually live,” Crerar says. “It’s a cool way of going on tour.”
“It’s hard because of the language barrier,” Cruz adds. “But it’s cool because we’re all connected through the music in our souls.”
They took that connection on stage, when Ryota played with Stalag 13 for the last show of the tour, which took place in Tokyo at club Moon Step.
“He might be one of the best bass players I have ever heard,” Cruz states.
Looking back on the tour (which ended Sept. 29), Crerar and Cruz are both impressed by the growing punk scene in Japan.
“We’ve been to Europe and other countries, but that was one of the best trips we’ve had,” Cruz says. “Japan is a more recent market for punk, so it’s just starting. . . . They have a great scene there. . . . [The shows] were all just full force wherever we went.”
Crerar notes that since things aren’t as “dialed in” as they are in, say, Europe, the experience isn’t as smooth. “It was a DIY punk tour. We had to book our own accommodations. . . . There was only one club that would give you a free drink. Even people on the guest lists had to pay half price — nothing’s really free there.”
Nevertheless, even the smallest clubs operate very professionally, and have quality equipment. And both Cruz and Crerar were struck by how friendly everyone was.
“In a city with 14 million people, they’re still very nice and polite to each other,” Crerar says of Tokyo. “It was cool to be in that situation for two weeks.”
And of course, the fans couldn’t have given Stalag 13 a warmer welcome.
“That’s why we do this,” Cruz acknowledges. “For the next generation, and watching those kids enjoy it. The culture, the people, the bands — it was just amazing! We’re grateful.”
Stalag 13 plays its final concert for 2019 on Friday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. at the Hong Kong Inn, 435 E. Thompson Blvd., Ventura, www.hongkonginnchinese.com.