The story of how one guy decided to stick it to the man with coffee beans rather than punk music.

Our Japanese language reporter Seiji Nakazawa is a firm believer in the mantra ‘you only live once‘, where you live your life to the fullest and make the most of every opportunity. He started feeling this way since way back in his teenage years, when he picked up a guitar and started playing with a band. While he’s now a full time writer with SoraNews24, that’s not to say his dreams of being a professional musician never came to fruition; quite the opposite, actually, as he’s played gigs all over the world, and has even written and released his own record.

And while Seiji has managed to continue living a humble life after reaching the dizzying heights of worldwide rockstar fame, he’d always wondered what had happened to other musicians once their time in the spotlight ended, especially in the case of bands.

Putting on his investigative reporter glasses, Seiji tracked down one such person; a man called NG, a former guitarist in Tokyo-based punk band Roba (‘Donkey’).

▼ The band was active in the Shibuya, Koenji, and Shimokitazawa areas of Tokyo between 2011-2016.

After initially being signed to Japanese indie label GoodLovin’Production, Roba went on to create their own record label, going on tours of live houses all over Japan.

▼ One of Roba’s hits, “Early Afternoon”.

Even the band photo gives off an underground, electric atmosphere that made Seiji feel a little nervous about meeting a real life punk rocker. Surely this guy was going to be pretty intimidating…!

▼ … or so Seiji thought, as this is NG today.

These days, NG is the general manager and director of SOL’S COFFEE, a home-roasted coffee shop with three stores in Tokyo and another in Fukui Prefecture. He’s also going by his real name, Mr. Nakajima. There’s no way anyone would be able to tell he was formerly a punk band guitarist, and so Seiji decided to ask him about his punk band origin story.

Seiji: How did you start playing in a band?

Mr. Nakajima: In my third year of junior high school, I came across Shigeo Hamada, a third generation fish farmer who wrote the foreword to the liner notes of the Rolling Stones’ album Stripped. Inspired by him, I decided to start writing lyrics myself. I learned the guitar to accompany my lyrics. Then, once I got to high school, I heard another student playing Steppenwolf’s ‘Born To Be Wild’ which struck a chord with me, and I started playing in a band.

From there, we started getting paid to play in cafes and hotels, and it was during that time that I met the other members of Roba. At that time I was more into playing the blues, but I thought the other members’ “DIY spirit” was really cool. I remember recording Roba’s first demo in a lab at Tama Art University. Everything was just so gung-ho. I really wanted more than anything to make a living being a musician.

A few years later, Mr. Nakajima graduated from university and started working in a live house in Kichijoji called ‘Force Floor’. He was playing music on a daily basis, and he’d finally become a full-fledged professional musician. It was at that moment that Roba started to fall apart.

Mr. Nakajima: Each member’s ideals and reality became intertwined, like an unstoppable flow. That was a huge factor in the break-up of Roba, for sure. Around the same time, my other band ‘zampano’ also went on hiatus. I’m not sure of the exact reason, but our main singer left the band due to stress from the tight touring schedule. We looked for a new lead singer and found one, but after about two gigs, they died.

To be fair, my memory around that time is so hazy that I’m not sure that’s even true. All I knew is that I couldn’t keep on like that.

All of a sudden, both of Mr. Nakajima’s bands were over, and the life as a professional musician that he’d worked so hard to get was over too. It was around that time that he met Rieko Arai, the president of SOL’S COFFEE and his current wife.

So what happened next?

Mr. Nakajima: After I lost both my bands, I decided I wanted to start a music label.

Seiji: Like a company that distributes CDs?

Mr. Nakajima: More like one that makes the CDs. I had recording equipment, and luckily I had the experience of starting an independent label when I was in Roba. I thought it’d be a great chance to promote music that I thought was great. So I asked Reiko, and she said “Why don’t you buy a CD press?” When I heard that, my jaw hit the floor.

Seiji: How come?

Mr. Nakajima: Well, I had just assumed I’d have to get the CDs pressed at another company, based on the know-how I gained as a band member. I had never thought of buying a CD press and pressing them myself. Kind of like a coffee shop that has its own roasting machine; you can establish your brand much better that way. SOL’S COFFEE is all created by us, the workers — the walls, the floors, the bread and pastries. Everything here was much more DIY, independent and original than my ideal of an indie label. “Coffee shops are so punk,” I thought. That piqued my interest, and I thought I’d like to start working here instead.

Mr. Nakajima: And since working here my eyes have been opened to a lot. There’s a movement called ‘specialty coffee‘ that’s basically working as a counter-movement to all these big coffee chain corporations. In the past, it was common practice to cheaply bulk-buy a mixture of coffee beans from different regions or countries, and sell the coffee at a low profit margin.

But this wasn’t fair to the coffee farmers, who suffered more and more. Therefore, we decided to pay a fair price for good coffee beans. This way, we can improve the quality of the coffee we serve, while also giving money back to the farmers and increasing the value of the coffee itself.

Seiji: How punk! Like when the rock band Nirvana came out in the heyday of MTV and disrupted everything.

Mr. Nakajima: Yes! This movement is very ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’, isn’t it? In fact, when I looked into it, I found a lot of people from the punk culture were into the specialty coffee movement. I felt like there was a real connection between punk culture and being into specialty coffee — both are very ‘non-conformist’.

Seiji: So you are saying that the ‘spirit’ of the shop has not changed?

Mr. Nakajima: Well, we are just a coffee shop, but the punk spirit is still very present. In fact, when I was invited to a coffee event in Taiwan, I also played the guitar, even though I wasn’t specifically asked to, haha.

We also collaborated with the UNIQLO Asakusa store to make “SOL’S COFFEE” T-shirts, using the same design as the bags our coffee comes in. A portion of the proceeds will be given back to the coffee farmers who made the original jute bags. We wanted people who came to buy the t-shirts to consider the whole journey coffee makes, right back to the farmers who grow the beans. I personally think it is interesting that we were able to use the influence of a large corporation to get the point across about these small coffee shops. I think that these ideas came out of being in a punk band.”

▼ The t-shirts available at UNIQLO…

▼ … feature the logo present on the jute sacks of coffee.

While Mr. Nakajima is living his life happily as a barista, he still wants music to feature heavily in his life. His current dream is to record music made by workers at coffee bean farms, play their music in store and give all the profits from any CDs sold back to the workers.

And when Seiji asked if he was glad to have been in a band, Mr. Nakajima answered, “I have very precious memories of my time playing in a band, including Roba. I am the person I am today because of my life as a band member.”

So if you find yourself thirsting for some coffee with an interesting backstory to it, head on down to SOL’S COFFEE.

Cafe Information
東京都台東区浅草橋3丁目25−7 NIビル1F
NI Building, 3-chōme−25−7, Asakusabashi, Taito City, Tokyo
Opening hours: 8:00a.m. – 5:00p.m
Closed on Wednesdays

Photos ©SoraNews24
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