Quite surprisingly, earlier this week, the lauded, but cult, New Jersey punk band Sticks & Stones announced a one-off reunion show. The band will be playing in their Theme Song for Nothing lineup because bassist Osamu Kawahara is moving back to Japan.
Kawahara's story is quite an adventure. He came to the states not knowing a word of English, but ended up being drafted into Sticks & Stones. Early on, before Kawahara was fluent in English, he would communicate with Sticks & Stones' Scott Hollingsworth and Jack Terricloth through music. From there, his story involves recording a troubled album, fighting with Nazis, and bring the two original members of World/Inferno Friendship Society back together. Check out the interview below.
Osamu Kawahara's journey from Japan to an American punk band and back again
In 1988, Osamu Kawahara stepped off the plane from Tokyo and improbably made his way to… Bridgewater, New Jersey. The 19 year old didn’t know a word of English and his parents were some 7,000 miles away.
“I came to America for the same reason as many young people,” Kawahara says, “I was looking for excitement.” That’s a thread that runs through Kawahara’s story. Unlike most Japanese students, Kawahara decided to not go to High School. Instead, he started working. He was a hairdresser’s assistant even though he didn’t know anything about hairdressing. He drove a commercial delivery truck even though he knew nothing about truck driving. He was a pool hall instructor even though, as he says, “I was not very good at pool.”
Kawahara moved in with his uncle and, well, he did not fit in. “They were the typical Japanese immigrant family,” Kawahara says. “The kids had to drive BMWs and Benzes, you name it. I was not about that.” It didn’t help necessarily that Bridgewater was a relative sleepy town. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a farming community, but by the ‘80s, it had developed into a relatively wealthy suburb with an influx of former New Yorkers, telecommunications execs, and pharmaceutical professionals. An arts hot-spot it was not.
Growing up, the arts had been imbued in Kawahara by osmosis. His father was a jazz pianist, though at the time, Kawahara did not quite get the significance. “At the time, I disliked jazz. It was a noise in the house for me, not knowing what it was. When I was old enough for lessons, I said, ‘Sorry dad, I want to go play baseball with me friends and I don’t wan to take lessons from you.' That is the first regret that I have. I would have been a keyboard player and not a bass player.”
Early on in his USA stay, Kawahara chose the Americanized name “Sam,” because in Japan, his friends would often call him “Osam” or even “Sam” for short, and at the DMV, the counter-worker called his name as “Oss—aaaa----mmmuuuuu???” “I thought, oh, my name must be very difficult to say,”” Kawahara laughs. “I will be Sam then.”
Even though he was already 19, Kawahara was enrolled in high school as a junior and assigned to ESL classes. But, from the secluded section, he spied a group of kids that didn’t fit in with the rest. They wore black, some had spiked belts, some wore trenchcoats, and many of them had crazy, multicolored Mohawks.
Kawahara remembers, “The ESL kids told me that, ‘Hey, stay away from them. Those guys are trouble!’ But, like any foreigner, you hang out with the people that you feel most comfortable with. I could see that they shared certain ideas with me.”
Still not knowing any English, Kawahara met up with one of the punks, a skinny kid named Scott Hollingsworth. “Scott was actually a person who everybody, regardless of the group of people, everybody liked him. I’ve never met a person that disliked him, even today,” Kawahara says.
As per his reputation, Hollingsworth warmly received Kawahara and introduced him to his group of friends, which included another skinny, pale guy, with a gigantic, colored bi-hawk named Pete Ventantonio (who as you know, much later, would be reborn as Jack Terricloth of the World/Inferno Friendship Society).
“When I first met Osa,” Terricloth recounts, “he was wearing full makeup and a cape. I don’t think it was a goth or punk thing, though. I think he was listening to dance music at the time. He was very clearly one of us.” Kawahara explains why the trio pulled towards each other. “Scott and Jack- in Japan, an island, you only see Japanese. You don’t see African-American, you don't see Spanish. When I came from Japan, people saw me as an Asian, not as a person. But, these are the guys that didn’t have that. I felt that these are the guys that look at me as I am, a person, nothing more and nothing less.”
“Everyone at school liked Scott,” Kawahara continues. “That was not true with Jack. Jack was very much… people hated him.”
“It was a very hostile environment,” Terricloth adds. “I would never want to be young again. I don’t think punks today realize how dangerous crap was in the eighties. People died.” (More on the danger element later).
“None of us had the typical way of taking life as is- going to high school, going to college, looking for jobs,” Kawahara says. “It was for determined for me in a certain way. In Japan, I didn’t go to high school because I wanted to do something else… so I did something else. Scott and Jack didn’t wan to be what society expected them to be. We had a common sharing in that bond and we understood each other in a crazy way.”
Kawahara and Terricloth eventually started jamming even though neither could speak the other’s language. In lieu of words, they would trade chords and textures against each other, Kawahara speaking through his bass and Terricloth answering through his guitar. It might sound like a Hallmark card, but they were able to cross their language, cultural, and societal barriers by communicating through music. In fact, perhaps because they did not have language tools at their disposal, their method of communication was solely though music, creating a different form of connectivity and communication that other had ever experienced before.
“We truly would communicate through playing our instruments, “Terricloth explains. It really did open my mind to the concept of non-verbal communication and that you could achieve that.”
By that point, Terricloth and Hollingsworth were in the regionally popular band Sticks & Stones. At the time they were a “brother band” to the bouncing souls. But, where the Bouncing Souls focused on simple, snappy melody, calling back to the earliest punk singles, Sticks & Stones were a different animal. Instead of joyful fun filled choruses, they had a post-punk informed menacing melancholy running through their music. Where as the Souls would urge unity and friendship in their music, Sticks & Stones seemed to deliberately push people away with their heavy musings. Artful and clever it was. “Oh boy, let’s party it up!” it was not. Whatever Bouncing Souls were, Sticks & Stones were not, and vice versa.
Eventually, Sticks & Stones’ bass player left the group and Kawahara, being a weirdo like the rest of the crew was pulled into the band. He fit in swimmingly as his recordings demonstrate. (In a rare anomaly, Terricloth, who has his fair number of beefs, states, “Osamu and I have never had any unpleasantness or bad feelings towards each other, ever.”) Interestingly, while most people call Kawahara “Sam,” Terricloth stoutly refuses to call him anything but “Osamu” or “Osa.” “For some reason, people can’t be bothered to learn any non-English word,” he hisses.
Kawahara contributed his unique perspective to the band’s debut album, the blackly titled Theme Song for Nothing. That album, perhaps to the band’s financial detriment, was unlike almost any other punk record. The band kept an icy tension in their sound and built an introspective, oft-bleak worldview off the top of that. “Obvious” opens with huge Gang of Four stlyle guitars before shifting to a Bauhausian clattering while Terricloth warps “My country tis of thee.”
Meanwhile, Kawahara supplied one of the band’s most distinctive elements. Sticks & Stones had a huge, icy sound. In contrast to that, Kawahara supplied a driving, forceful bass that kept the ensemble rumbling along. You could credit Kawahara for keeping the band on the “punk” side of the punk/post-punk-division, which in of itself, supplied the energy to Terricloth’s youthful conviction. It’s not easy to be revved up and introspective, but Sticks & Stones found that space in Kawahara’s four strings.
Still, even though Theme Song for Nothing was a daring release, what with its brooding position and Blade Runner samples, as was the band’s own theme, things were fraught with difficulties. “We had an issue that we could nit complete the album for like six or seven months,” Kawahara remembers. “It wasn’t a money issue. But, it was very difficult. But, we still put as much into the album as we could. I think it showed up in the music- a little bit of pain, a little bit of everything.”
When asked if he likes the album, Kawahara replies, “Why not?” before breaking into his trademark, affable laugh. The fact it, things were never easy for Sticks & Stones. More often than not, the audience just didn’t get what the band was trying to achieve.
“There’s a recording where we say, ‘I’ve never seen anyone mosh to this before,’” Kawahara says. “And then we did the Bruce Springsteen song, ‘Atlantic City.’ “We never pleased anybody but ourselves. That was the attitude that we had.” Of course, as you know by now, modern punks won’t shut up about how much they love the Boss.
But, not only did the punks not care for the band, New Jersey did not care for the band. Perhaps mirroring the past year or so, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, racists had crawled out of the woodwork and open boasted their white-supremacy views. In one notable, Kawahara’s wife was walking down the street in Northern Jersey, which at the time, was a KKK capital. (It’s not anymore, fyi). A number of good ol’ boys pulled up along side her and threatened to kill her. She fled and made it back to the band. In response, Sticks & Stones loaded up their own car with baseball bats and other weapons and tracked down the skinheads. A fight ensued- noses were smashed, blood was drawn, and bones were broken. Be careful though. Some punk history pieces make fighting nazi skinheads sound “glamorous” and “fun.” But, to hear Terricloth recount the evening, and a few other similar evenings, it doesn’t sound fun at all. The horror is locked in the back of his thought as he speaks.
“They picked on foreigners and Sam was a foreigner,” he says. “So, there were a lot of fights. If you go by the train station you can still see some of the Nazi graffiti…” Eventually, Kawahara had other duties to attend to and left Sticks & Stones. Kawahara and the rest of the gang more or less drifted apart until a few years ago. Kawahara had met back up with Hollingsworth and World/Inferno Friendship Society’s annual celebration, The Halloween night Hallowmas was just around the corner. Kawahara wanted to go, but Hollingsworth was reluctant.
“Scott did not want to go to the show,” Kawahara says. “But I said, ‘You have not been in the band for a long time It is not the same band that you were in.” So, the pair went, and in a fitting cycle, Kawahara’s reintroduction of Hollingsworth to World/Inferno, who had not played together for over a decade, wound up with Hollingsworth rejoining the band as a keyboard player. Just as Hollingsworth brought Kawahara into Sticks & Stones, Kawahara brought Hollingsworth back into World/Inferno.
Additionally, because World/Inferno is such an amorphous beast, Kawahara was absorbed into the band, handling engineering duties for the “The Faster You Go” 7-inch EP and running live sound for the band. It’s no easy task sorting out the noise of 7-10 people on stage, but if you’ve seen World/Inferno live over the past few years, you know that Kawahara knows how to give this troupe the thunderous sound they need.
And, as is the chaotic nature of both World/Inferno and Sticks & Stones, just as Kawahara has re-joined his old mates, it’s time for him to return to Japan to be with his family. In celebration of his tenure, Sticks & Stones is reuniting for a single show in Brooklyn on November 10. The band is reuniting the enieirtty of the Theme Song for Nothing line up and will be plying the oft-misunderstood, but compelling songs from that era. In fact, they’re practicing right now.
“It was like, I’m home again. My feet are on the ground,” Kawahara says. “With the practice, it was like old pals. With band, you share moments like a family. Being in a band leads to arguments which are personal, even when it does not need to be personal. But, forgiveness is always there.”
Kawahara continues, “I am sad and excited to go back to Japan. At this point, I have been in the States longer than I was in Japan. So, I have all the feelings you could imagine. Though, I don’t know if people are making too much of me going back. I’m not going to die- I’m just going to the other side of the world….”