Author’s note: This interview took place a couple of weeks ago, but we had some technical issues to deal with. Everything is fine now and we’re back on track. Thank you for your patience.
Naoto Shibata is one of the most important figures in Japanese Metal, going all the way back to the early 80s. He is the founding member, bassist and lead songwriter of the legendary band Anthem, being omnipresent in all their albums and writing some of their best songs. His consistency as a player and as a songwriter is instrumental to understand the band’s success and legacy throughout the years.
So it was a great opportunity to do an interview with him and have a look at his career. We discussed the band’s history, his playing, the songwriting process and many different things. I hope you enjoy it because Anthem is one of Metal’s most well-kept secrets and they deserve a lot more credit for the decades of great music they have provided.
Welcome to MusikHolics, Naoto. Thank you for taking the time to do this. How are things going in Japan with the pandemic?
Hi, guys, I’m Naoto. I’m the bassist of Anthem. Like other countries in the world, living standards and environment in Japan has changed considerably due to COVID-19. We can’t hold concerts like before and we need to take precautions to prevent spreading the virus by limiting the number of audience and taking safety measurements such as social distancing at the venues as advised by the government.
How has the situation affected your plans with Anthem in the last year or so?
Last year was our 35th anniversary and we had a whole bunch of shows scheduled. However, all shows were canceled except for one in February, 2020. We had a European tour scheduled in July, 2020 including some big festivals and a domestic tour for the 35th anniversary in the fall that were all canceled due to the pandemic. I lost a lot of motivation last year.
A new version of 2008’s Black Empire title track in the 2019 Nucleus album.
For those readers not familiar with your career, what can you tell them about your career?
I made my debut in 1985 with Anthem. I’m the leader, the bass player and songwriter of the band. We were active in the Japanese Metal scene throughout the 80s and the band disbanded once in 1992. We recorded and released the album Heavy Metal Anthem in 2000 with Graham Bonnet as a guest singer along with the former members of the band. This album reunited the band and Anthem continues to this day. We signed with Nuclear Blast in 2019 and released the album Nucleus worldwide.
How did you get into Metal music when you were younger?
I’ve loved music since I was a kid. I really loved pop music, but at the same time I was crazy about baseball and my dream was to be a professional baseball player. That changed when I was in junior high school, when a friend let me listen to Deep Purple’s Live in Japan. It changed my life completely. A year later, I decided to become a musician after watching a video of Deep Purple playing at California Jam.
What made you want to be a bassist?
For some reason I’ve loved the sound of the bass since I was a kid. And the impression of Glenn Hughes I saw in the California Jam video really stuck to my mind. Then there were Martin Turner (Wishbone Ash) and John Wetton (King Crimson) that greatly influenced me. These guys were totally genius.
Night After Night from Anthem’s Tightrope album.
What do you think are the aspects of being a bassist that are not discussed enough?
The bass player is not only responsible for the bottom sound, but also takes a great part in the dynamics of the entire band and the creation of a unique band ensemble. It’s a very difficult instrument to master, actually. The image of a band is often determined by vocals and guitars, but I would say it’s the bass that glues it all together and gives further color to the sound.
Anthem is one of the most important and influential bands of all time in Japan. What can you tell us of the Japanese Metal scene back in the 80s?
Even before 1985 when we made our debut there were a number of really great rock bands in the country. By the time we made our debut, there was a huge movement of heavy metal music in Japan. Especially after 1985 countless bands appeared in the scene and it was a vibrant era in which many bands competed for several years. However, I don’t think there were many bands that continued to grow by capturing Hard Rock and Heavy Metal as music that they really pursued. So inevitably the number of bands decreased within time. I would say most of the bands emerged and vanished just like a fashion trend.
Anthem in the 80s.
How has Metal grown since the 80s to today?
I don’t think it has changed drastically in regards to the essence of the actual genre. It’s the perfect music to express human emotions such as energy, passion, anger, joy and sadness. When it comes to Metal today, there are some differences of course such as in tempo and expression. Not sure whether you should call it change or progress, but there is no doubt that it’s changing while incorporating the current musical trends. I like some of these aspects and some I’m not interested at all. I basically just use the music that influenced me to create things that excites me most.
What were the biggest challenges for Anthem back in the early days as a band?
Our debut itself was a big challenge (laughs). There were a lot of competitors in the Japanese music industry and there was no guarantee that our music would be accepted at all. Another big challenge was changing singers in 1988, but that worked out well.
You are of course the band’s main songwriter. How has your creative process evolved throughout the years?
I think my writing process has been the same more or less. I would say it’s similar to the basic aspects of Rock music itself in which various elements and changes are incorporated. The important thing for me is to focus on the style I initially want and envision. That means keeping aware of trends but not making unnecessary changes as a result.
The title track of 1988’s Gypsy Ways album.
Out of the band’s first time period before breaking up in the early 90s, which is your favorite album and why?
I like Gypsy Ways → Bound To Break → Domestic Booty. I feel that Gypsy Ways was a good way to bring out my true musicality. Bound To Break, I can feel the energy of metallic music that I envisioned at that time. I think Domestic Booty has a very similar style with Anthem’s current music.
Comparing the band from that first time period to your return in 2000, what do you think are the major differences between those two eras of the band’s career?
The songs are composed more precisely and are more in detail. The performance level and expression ability has improved substantially too. The band after 2000 has acquired a more solid professional attitude as well.
I have to say, my favorite album of Anthem’s is 1992’s Domestic Booty. I’m curious to know how the creative process to make that album was.
I’m happy to hear that! The Japanese Metal music scene at that time was basically dead. Music known in Japan as “Bad Boys Rock” and “Visual Rock” was emerging. Both the band and myself were worn out and tired of being in such a scene. I decided to recruit a young guitar player by the name of Akio Shimizu, whom I found through an audition we did in order to record what was to be the final Anthem album at that time. We didn’t have much time to record and I wasn’t very calm psychologically, but I just focused on the production thinking “this is the end of the band!”
Silent Cross from 1992’s Domestic Booty album.
After the band broke up, you actually spent a time playing with Loudness for the remainder of the decade. How did that happen?
When Anthem broke up in 1992, I thought I would never play in a band anymore, and for several years I was working alone as an arranger and composer. I kept in touch with the staff that used to work for me in Anthem, and coincidentally one of them became the manager of Loudness. He asked me to tour with the band as their bass player. I did a few gigs and then somehow ended up making a few albums with them.
Of course, you were joining another band. Was it difficult to have a different role, considering that you were no longer the main songwriter like in Anthem?
Japanese Rock fans who knew me seemed to say, “It won’t last long anyway!” or “Why did the Anthem leader join Loudness?” Well, I know what they meant, but I like to surprise people (laughs).
I simply enjoyed my position as a bassist. I was also able to reconfirm my style as a bassist and it really brought back the pure fun of playing my instrument. As a result, I felt it was a great change that eventually led to start Anthem again. If I didn’t join another band during this time, there may not have been an Anthem reunion.
I personally like a lot the Ghetto Machine album you did with Loudness in 1998. What can you tell us about that album?
As a bassist, I really enjoyed the music made by Akira Takasaki. It was different from the typical Loudness music, so I was working with a more challenging spirit.
You have had the pleasure of playing with some of the best Metal drummers of Japan, such as Takamasa Ohuchi, Hirotsugu Homma and now with Isamu Tamaru. As a bassist, what is the most important aspect to have a strong musical relationship with the drummer?
The bottom line is that the person must know how to interact and communicate as a normal human being. This includes being a decent person in everyday life as well. Someone who shares values as a professional musician. And of course having the musicianship to play the music I envision.
Loudness’s Ghetto Machine album from 1997, with Naoto Shibata on bass.
One thing that has always amazed me about Anthem is the fact that you not only release a lot of albums, but they are also of high quality most of the time. What is the band’s secret for such a notorious consistency?
Thank you. I always feel that a band must continue to create high quality music, and if you’re not able to deliver that you’re better off calling quits. I still keep this idea in mind constantly and a band should definitely always have that attitude. That’s what keeps Anthem going.
Last year you guys got back together with former Rainbow vocalist Graham Bonnet to do the Explosive -Studio Jam- EP. How was the experience of playing and recording with Graham again?
It was the first session in 20 years since Heavy Metal Anthem in 2000. That album was literally the fuse of our reunion. I really thank Graham from the bottom of my heart. This session for the Studio Jam EP was only for a few days, but it definitely was one of the happiest times we had.
I’m actually curious to know how you guys got him onboard to record 2000’s Heavy Metal Anthem album.
I was talking to one of the music producers I knew back then, telling him “It would be great to have my idol Graham sing my songs”. Soon after, when the producer brought the project to the record company, the A&R in charge became enthusiastic and approached Graham and made things happen.
Heat of the Night from 2008’s Black Empire album.
Focusing on the present, what can you tell us about the upcoming Anthem album?
We started recording earlier this year and finished drums and bass for 11 songs. However, due to this COVID situation, there were various social restrictions that made things difficult to continue the recording sessions. So I had to postpone the recordings without setting a deadline. I want to restart recording as soon as possible. I would like to add another song as well.
Do you guys work with a clear idea of what you want the album to sound like or do you develop that idea as you are writing the music?
I basically like to develop the image of the album spontaneously while I’m making the songs.
Current Anthem lineup. From left to right: drummer Isamu Tamaru, guitarist Akio Shimizu, vocalist Yukio Morikawa and Naoto Shibata.
This Anthem lineup has been active for almost eight years now. What do you think it makes it stand out compared to the previous ones?
I would say that this current lineup is the strongest in the history of Anthem. Each member has more individuality and a very high level of musicianship compared to the past members. We also have a strong trust between each other.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned as a musician throughout the years?
I have learned that the most important thing is to have the desire to reach out to what you truly want. Spare no effort and continue with perseverance no matter what.
And after so many decades in the business, what are your goals and ambitions at this point of your career?
Just to keep making better songs and aiming for better live performances until the end. That’s all.
Thank you so much for doing this, Naoto. It was a great interview. Any last words for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media and buy Anthem’s albums?
Thank you, Kevin, for the interview. It would be great if we can reach out more to the Metal fans around the world. We plan to tour Europe in 2022, so I hope you can catch us playing live somewhere. We have an Instagram account and a Facebook page in English, so feel free to follow us! You can also order our albums and merch online at our website store, in which we ship worldwide.
One of Anthem’s most iconic songs, Bound to Break, live in 2017.