After recording a video against a fountain Off Beat sat down on a park bench in the middle of Yoyogi Park in central Tokyo. To a backdrop of crows, insects and joggers we began our chat.
Introduce yourself to Off Beat
Hi Off Beat, I’m Grant Rolls, from New Zealand. I’ve been playing music now for about ten years. I came to it pretty late. When I was living in Beijing there wasn't a lot to do, so I started picking up the guitar then and started writing songs and Bob’s your uncle!
So how did you start in Beijing?
I started with a band called The Beta Project. All of us were new to music, none us had played before. It was easy to get cheap equipment, so we got together and played at our local pubs to start with. We were absolutely horrible, but we reformed into BETA and similar to Flight of the Concords, we were the best indie rock cover band in Beijing, as listed in the local expat magazines. However, what they didn’t mention is that we were the only rock cover band in Beijing.
I started teaching myself guitar back then and recently I’ve started to get some vocal lessons with it, by a local guy named Chris Levens, who helped a lot and got me thinking about doing a CD.
Is music something you’ve always been into?
I was in a Kapa Haka group when I was younger, a Maori culture group, performing on stage, like the Haka the All Blacks do. We’d go and sing Maori songs. So I did a fair bit of singing and dance choreography when I was younger, but not with a guitar.
Who are your influences?
Biggest influences would definitely be Neil Finn, from Crowded House, New Zealander, and another guy named Dave Dobbyn, also a New Zealander, kind of our version of James Taylor. Internationally, over the years, Kenny Rodgers, I grew up listening to Kenny Rogers, Charlie Pride and Tom Jones with my grandma.
How do you come up with you song ideas?
Most of it is written during holidays when I’ve got time to decompress and think about things. There are a fair few romantic ballads in there which I have my muse for that. But, there’s also quite a few songs about friends and broken friendships and struggles around life I guess. There’s a bunch more songs, but some of them are too depressing to play to anyone else.
How long does it usually take you to write a song?
Crafting, I usually start with the chord structure then play around with a melody and that usually gets me started. But, I have a poetry book that I don’t write notations in, it’s just purely lyrics and those can sometimes turn into songs but often I come up with a melody and chord structure and think what kind of mood am I in with this structure and go into my poems and choose the ones that fit.
You have your new album Shining Light. Tell us a little bit about that.
Yeah, it’s been something I didn’t think I’d actually do. Ian Gronow was the one that actually said I challenge you to put one out in the next six months. He kept emailing and it was just to shut him up I think! Though, when I mentioned it to others they said you should get it done. Went through a tough process of trying to select the six songs that I wanted to put together and got some advice from friends and family. I met a guy called Greg Verotsko who plays the other instruments on the album and also plays guitar with me for the odd gig. He was really instrumental, excuse the pun, in engineering and producing the songs. He helped me craft some of the lyrics and changed some of the structure that really brought them to life. I owe him a lot.
It must have been nice to finally have the finished product in your hands.
It was one of the biggest highlights, because I put a lot of time and effort into it. It’s also a scary thing, putting something down and then handing it over to people to listen to, wondering what they think, and I can’t go back and change it. That’s a real scary thing. I’ve always had the excuse to not have my music recorded then just leave it on the night. It was good experience, and it was my fortieth birthday present to myself. I managed to start it and made the commitment on March third a year ago and then published it on iTunes and CD Baby March third this year. It was exactly a year, pretty stoked with that!
You’ve got the album launch party coming up with The Complaints Department, you must be looking forwad to that?
Yeah, definitely, it’s going to be a fun night! Big props to Nate for doing the organising as he does all around Tokyo with music. The guy is a philanthropist for all us struggling musicians. But, really looking forward to it, there’s a band called 2am in Tokyo starting us off at 7pm, then I’ll be jumping on. The Complaints Department will be playing after that and Misoshiro Family ending the night, who have one of my favourite songs called Soccer, that they’ll be playing. A great way to finish the night! A good array of music for the night, so I’m hoping we’ll get a lot of people out.
How did the show come about?
Actually Nate and I talked ages ago about doing a dual release, but then things happened and they got stuck getting their CD ready. One of those drink ideas, then I got mine out and we decided let’s definitely get together and do it! I know Nate’s been working hard getting their CD ready for digital distribution. Nate and I worked together a while back and we’re pretty tight as far it goes with music. It’s a great synergy too as people can have some mellow music then I can get up and dance to the power pop stuff The Complaints Department do!
Any other shows in the near future?
Yeah, there’s a couple coming up in October and then also in November. October I have another gig at the Dickens, usually once a month I play there. November, it’s another Meet the Folkers night with the original line up, Ian Gronow and Brian Smith. That’ll be at the Crawfish.
Moving away from the music. How long have you been in Japan?
We just celebrated the beginning of our ninth year! No plans in the future to leave as we love it here! It’s a great city to be in and you get to enjoy your hobbies and great way to meet like minded people!
Apart from the music what do you get up to in your free time?
Outside family time and a bit of exercise the rest of the time is work, which is what we’re actually here for! That takes up a big chunk of time, but I love what I do, I teach at ASAJ at an American school. A lot of the faculty and staff have been big supporters over the years as well.
To wrap up. Where would you recommend I go to take pictures?
You’ve got to go to New Zealand! I think you’d run out of film if you were still on analogue. Every corner you go around there’s something to see! There’s lots of places were there’s just no one! Living in a place like Tokyo or Japan, New Zealand’s the same size as this place and we’ve only got 4 million people! You’ve got pristine waters, beautiful trees and beautiful mountains! Beautiful people too! You’ve got to come down! You might be lucky enough to take some shots of some hobbits while you’re down there! They roam around freely through town!
Thank you very much for joining us, it’s been a pleasure.
Thank you for the opportunity and all you do around town, a great supporter of the arts.
Get down and join us at What the Dickens, September fifth or some of the other shows as well.
Awesome thank you.
Feel free to look around