Friday was awful. Negishi Souichi had tidied his apartment, survived an annoying phone call from his manager, packed a sweet lunch and gone out to meet Aikawa for a park picnic lunch. As usual, she'd organised a gathering involving trendy young musical people. As usual, everyone there but Souichi had received praise and positive criticism. They were all amateur, or sloppy with their music. They didn't seem to have any grasp of music – wasn't that the joke? How to stop a guitarist strumming? Put sheet music in front of him!
Well, these people made that sound real. They all had stiff and childish handwork, just holding a few sounds and strumming, barely able to keep good time. But their lyrics about walking in the park and sipping chai lattes were wonderful. Aikawa had promised to review them in her mag, and asked if there were any live events planned. Hidetaka had nodded sagely and complimented their outfits.
For Souichi, Hidetaka had made a face and turned away, talking loudly to a young vocalist. Aikawa had put on a smile and clapped, but her eyes stared off into the distance. Even though he was putting his whole self into the sound, creating technical wonders with his simple acoustic guitar, nobody cared. Aikawa clapped, and the other male guitarist who had come along had shrugged.
“That was a bit, you know, fancy, but nice try.” Nice try. Nice try?! That little shit probably didn't know how to tune his instrument without an electronic guide. His fingers barely had a single callous between them!
Aikawa hadn't thought anything amiss. She had smiled, and nodded at the other man as if he had been offering useful advice. “Oh, but that reminds me of this cute pair of socks I saw in Hidetaka's shop. They had this delightful design all over them, and...”
Souichi had tuned out at that point. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much of his heart he put into it, he just couldn't compete with the less competent. At home alone on Friday night, washing out his newly bought “retro style” lunch-box, he felt the frustration rise in his head. Hot burning pressure, squeezing small tears out. The easy dismissals, the bitchy tone of Hidetaka... it was like it was all just a game to them. A nice diversion. Didn't they care about the beauty of the music? There was more to it than just juxtaposing cute ideas and everyday objects, there was a real importance to the effect that the right words and the right notes and the right combinations. A subconscious difference, that changed it from something that was just light noise and into an emotion that lightened the heart and refreshed the mind.
Ah, fuck. He slammed the lunch-box down as heavily as he could in the sink, spraying soap bubbles up his arms. He'd been having an uncomfortable feeling recently that maybe he was outgrowing the genre of music that he had cared so passionately about for years. Well over a decade, it had been now. He felt as if he was on the verge of losing the very core of himself. All that kept the vulgarity and bile that he'd learnt as Krauser from taking over completely.
No, it was more than that. He didn't have anything other than his own style. He'd spent years learning and growing and practising. If he was growing sick of the accessories and the magazine articles and the artful posing in cafes and on street corners, then what else was left? He still hated the music that DMC made, and he'd never cared that much about classical guitar or jazz, or any of those genres. If he let himself get bored and rise above the simplicity of his own styles, then...
He didn't even have a way to relax, to bring himself back up out of his funk. Listening to his favourite music would only keep his failures and his fears in the front of his mind. So when the phone rang, he counted it as both a blessing and a curse. Wiping his hands dry and throwing the tea towel onto the floor with vicious spite towards the stylish flowers on it, he carried his phone to his bed before picking it up.
“Krauser? Hey bitch, it's me!”
He shot up from his bed, back tense with fear. “K...” He shut his mouth, but then realised that he hadn't sounded his usual upbeat self when he'd answered anyway; he'd become way too used to censoring himself. He did his best to put on a more demonic sounding voice anyway. “Kenni? Miss Ill Dark, I mean?”
“The one and only! You're probably busy tonight, but hear me out, okay? My plane leaves tomorrow, and everyone else is busy too. I'm lonely and fuming. So blow off whoever you've got blowing you tonight, and come buy me a drink? You know where I'll be.”
She hung up before he even had the chance to answer. He regarded his phone warily for a few seconds, then shrugged. Kenni was one of the few people who had ever believed in him musically. She and her father. The fans didn't count: they were in it mainly for the aesthetic, as cheap and posing as Hidetaka's “productions” were. The other band members just wanted to get paid. And their manager? She was insane.
But Jack and his daughter cared about Metal the same way that Souichi cared about Swedish Pop. And they cared about Souichi's – Krauser's – playing. Though he hated Metal, and the bar that Kenni probably meant for them to meet at, he begrudgingly admitted to himself that she was maybe exactly what he needed. Someone who said something, anything, about his music that wasn't condescending or insulting.
Caking on the face-paint and combing his hair back, putting on the wig, it was so routine that he barely noticed the time go past. Wearing plain black shirt and trousers, which he'd bought for exactly times like these, he headed out. He was in no way willing to wear his costume on the train if he could help it. Still he got looks. He fixed his eyes on the flashing cityscape in the windows, the flickering lights of the night. Walked to the bar looking straight ahead. He wanted to move outside of himself. To forget himself entirely.
Kenni waved him over to the spiked and impossible looking bar. The place was mainly empty, and DMC was (of course) playing on the speakers. Wincing at a flub in the drumming from that recording – why hadn't he made Nishida fix that – he sat down and waved a hand in greeting.
She smiled at him slyly and tapped the bar. “Sit down, I've ordered already.”
He sat. “So, you're going home to Jack again?”
She shrugged. “Ah, maybe. But I'm thinking about going on to Europe, getting a band to manage or something. Find something new. Project Ill Dark pretty much takes care of itself these days, and I don't want to do too much in the scene in the US. Even though Jack's gone over to Jazz, I don't want to rub his face in it too much.”
Thinking about the custom guitar locked up at his house, Souichi nodded guiltily. “Sorry about that.”
“... the fuck?!”
Their drinks were delivered, nothing more than two glasses of the bourbon that Kenni seemed to like best. He sipped his cautiously, hoping that it wouldn't wash off his make-up too much. You never knew with alcohol after all.
“Seriously, what the fuck?!” She repeated after a taste of her drink. “Jack was only ever about the make-up and the gimmicks and the fans. But you? Even though it's Death or Thrash, you manage to draw on so many other things. And there's actual music in there! No matter how ballsy or black Jack tried to be, you have the technical mastery to really succeed. You're the true Emperor!”
She raised her glass to him, and he mimicked her gesture in vague confusion. Did she mean to say that all the efforts he'd been putting into his own music had made DMC better?! He hoped that it was just an affinity for music instead of murder. The thought that all his energies had been being channelled into DMC wasn't something he wanted in his head. He'd tried his hardest to have distance from DMC's music and lyrics.
Beside him, Kenni smiled slyly at him. “Oh, you're thinking something very serious now. Even under your 'natural' demonic features, I can see it.”
He shook his head, and sipped his drink to keep his mouth occupied for a few moments. It fumed in his throat and burnt all the way down. He hated drinking.
“Okay, never mind then. You're cool, but I hate how stoic and reserved you are. So an easy question then, trivia to keep me entertained on my long flight home. What band got you into this? Who's your main inspiration and influence?”
The usual flutter of fear rose in his chest. But then it faded. After the day he'd had, the thoughts he'd been having, well... was it such a bad thing if Krauser was outed as Negishi Souichi (and vice versa)? The worst it could possibly do was ruin his career in music. He was already close to that himself anyway.
He gathered himself to answer her. “Well what? You tell me, bitch!” He gave her a helpless look. “Do you want the answer that's the official marketing device, or the real one?”
There, that absolved him of having to make the choice that doomed him. He wasn't sure he could bear it if he'd done it all by himself. Even if he knew she'd take the bait, it didn't have the sting that taking the initiative would.
“Oh, real. This could get interesting.”
Her eyes were hard and intense. He took a deep breath in, let it out, and answered. “None.”
He sipped his drink again so that he didn't start fluttering his arms about nervously.
He heard the intake of a gasp from beside him, and didn't turn his head. Looking straight ahead, he explained. “I never played or heard Metal before DMC, and I only joined as a favour to a friend. So I went to a few live shows in the area, and then I just started writing. Though I didn't like them very much.”
Kenni's hands were shaking, he could see out of the corner of his eye, now. She was probably furious, or incredulous. Either way, he was about to get a real earful, and have to admit that there was nobody he could really ever talk to music about openly, not ever. His heart sank right to the bottom of his foam padded stage boots.
“... you mean, you never knew, have never heard... none of them, and you still..”
She didn't sound upset, but scared. Unable to overcome his worry for her, he turned his head. Then he wished he hadn't. Her eyes had that aghast sheen over them, the one that he associated with his fans. That gaze that conveyed awe for Metal and his own “talent”, something he'd never be able to agree with. It was as if she was on an entirely other planet to him. One that resounded with heavy screeching guitars, speaker distortion, and the screams of backing vocalists.
“I just can't believe it.” She calmed herself, and swallowed the rest of her drink in one gulp. “You just walked right in and picked up a guitar, and everything just worked?”
He shrugged, embarrassed now. “Yeah, more or less. I mean, I just wanted to do... ” Oh, how to word it right? Hell!
“... something different?” Kenni said it in the end. But she wasn't sounding like someone who'd just had their favourite genre insulted, she was sounding like someone who was in on a big and wonderful joke. She tapped a finger against her nose, and smiled. “Of course you did. I was surprised that you came from Japan, myself. All the Metal here, it just seems to be... lame. You know? I spent all that time here on exchange listing to music I'd brought from home. Sometimes, going to live shows had me scrubbing myself raw in the shower; I just couldn't get the taint of it off me.”
The conversation was confusing Souichi. It was obviously delving deeper into regional types and preferences, something he had barely paid attention to with pop music, let alone Metal! Music was music, and he only really had listened to pop made in Tokyo. Metal made in Tokyo, too, now that he thought about it, apart from Jack's CD. Even though only a few seconds of each track didn't really count as “listening” as such.
“Yeah? Well I'm relieved to hear that. It's not easy, being surrounded by people getting excited about something so clumsy and hideous on the ears.”
Kenni winced and laughed softly in agreement, her eyes flicking towards the speakers in the corner that were thrumming with the force of the volume. She crossed her arms on the bar and let her head rest on them, turning to look at Souichi's painted up face through strands of her own hair.
“So you've never listened to much Metal since then, hmm? That you're so good, when you haven't even heard some of the greats, it makes me wonder what would happen if I...”
Souichi blinked. The lazy and amused tone in her voice, the way her breasts were pressing against the ridiculously decorated edge of the bar, could she possible be hinting at seduction? If Krauser was a real demon, instead of just a costume, he'd be raping her right now. Souichi did his best to quell his own physical reaction to Kenni, and to ignore the temptation to drop too far into the persona of Krauser.
“Oh! What time is it, right now?”
Caught off guard, Souichi looked at his wrist, which had of course nothing but the Lycra of his costume and the frills that surrounded his gloves. He fished around awkwardly until he could reach where he'd hidden his phone and wallet, and flipped his phone open.
“It's just after 6.”
“Aha! Sorry, important business, gotta go.” And with no more than that, Kenni stood abruptly and walked out of the bar. It was odd. She'd been so insistent just an hour ago that they had to go out, that she'd die of boredom. And now she'd left, run off to something more important?! Women were always ditching Souichi for someone better, or something better. Someone more talented. He wouldn't be surprised if Kenni had seen through his facade to the complete and utter fake that lurked deep inside his gut. The coward who couldn't even try to dedicate himself to the music he loved, who clung to the excuse and prop of DMC to...
Ah, fuck. He left his drink unfinished, tried politely to pay (even though the bartender never let him), and made his way wearily home. His lunch-box sat in the murky cold water in the sink, and in the darkness his room looked strange and different and sterile of any real feeling or hope. Just things, pretty pointless things. Half of them he'd replaced countless times, when a newer and more wonderful thing had been marketed in Shibuya.
With a tight and painful feeling in his chest, Souichi removed his make-up and dressed in his happy sheep pyjamas. Staring at the ceiling, feeling dumped by the world, when he finally did manage to fall asleep hours later it was only into a fitful and restless torpor.
Even that was disturbed by a very early and sharp rapping at the door.
A young high voice, calling out his name. He didn't recognise the person at all. The hand knocked again, more insistent. Groaning up out of bed and feeling sore all over he made his way to the door. It opened to reveal a student courier. It was so early that the sun was barely rising, long dark shadows were cast across the city. He squinted at the courier, and then at the very large box that had been placed before the door between them.
“Good morning, please sign here.”
That voice was more pleasant than anyone had any right being this early in the morning. Even so, Souichi scribbled his signature. The courier nodded in thanks, and left quickly. As a car was turned on in the street below, Souichi regarded the box.
The box did nothing. He supposed, after five minutes, that he should pick it up. He squatted and readied himself for a heavy load, and then found himself rising upwards with far more force than was necessary. He swore under his breath and steadied himself, taking the box inside and setting it down on his table. The return address was somewhere he didn't recognise at all, and it was in Europe, of all places. Surreal. Maybe he hadn't really woken up properly, and was still dreaming. He wondered about that as he put the kettle on and fished around in his desk drawer for a pair of scissors. When he had sat down with everything, inhaling the aroma of apple tea, he decided that he really was awake. The heaviness in his heart returned full force.
Still, he was curious. He didn't know anyone in Europe. The name was unfamiliar, and he wasn't really sure how on earth he was supposed to pronounce a word like that. He dragged the scissors along the line of tape that sealed the box, and swung the flaps of the top open. Inside was... a record store catalogue. You could tell it just by looking. But more importantly, it was a Metal record store. The entire catalogue was black, and most of the lettering was bright blood red or covered in flame. It looked tacky and old, and was maybe a little faded. He tugged that out, and then felt his eyes widen so far and fast in surprise that his head began to hurt.
Someone had sent him a huge cardboard box full of shrink-wrapped new CDs and DVDs. From Europe. Souichi remembered, in a flash, the feeling of Kenni's fingers through his glove. But that seemed a little ludicrous. She'd have only just got on a plane, after all. And these didn't look like they had been cheap to get, it was a small fortune's worth of stuff. He shimmied some CDs out of the tightly packed box and sat back to investigate further.
Most were shrink-wrapped and still had price stickers on them, and not all of the stickers matched. But what surprised him a little more were the covers. They didn't all look like black backgrounds and demons. In fact, some of them were light colours, or had incredibly detailed art. Painted, airbrushed, and a whole new world to Souichi. They weren't very stylish, of course, but they still had something creative and wonderful to them. You could tell just from looking that the whole process of album creation had been taken seriously. That the record labels were willing to treasure their bands and music.
That uncomfortable feeling he'd felt while out with Aikawa had come back. A bad taste at the back of his mouth. Whether it was death metal or pop, Souichi hadn't ever encountered an album cover that wasn't designed to do anything other than simply sell well to the right market. These albums were obviously designed to sell, but in a more elegant and coherent way. DMC's covers seemed to be more about the gimmick than the product, just like the band itself. Pop covers were about the latest fashions, just like...
Biting his lip, Souichi wished from the very depths of his gut that he'd had the thought – or chance – to make an album that looked even half as good as one of these. If DMC had a cover like this no matter how crap the music was, he'd have felt able to admit to being involved. Maybe not immediately, but along the line, later in life, sure. It would be something you could really put on a resume.
There was a soft click in his door, and some footsteps receded away. Mail. He retrieved it from the box quickly, finding something postmarked within Tokyo, and marked for overnight delivery. The paper was cheap and low-quality, and covered in pink hearts. It was addressed to Krauser – oh god, what if somebody had seen it – and had an apology for the shitty paper scrawled in thick black marker on the back. On the line of the sealed flap was a small dirty brown stain that he didn't want to even think about. He had a feeling he knew who it was from, but he opened it with a sense of growing urgency anyway. Maybe inside would be an explanation for the box and its expensive contents...
Hail to Krauser, Emperor in a land of shit music.
Hey there. I couldn't believe it, when I realised you'd never really heard any metal. I mean, yeah, some live bands in your area, and the guys at the battles. But there are so many more that you probably never had the chance to go to see, or didn't know about, or couldn't get a hold of. So many that aren't trying to prove themselves, and who aren't talentless knob-jockeys. Even more that have broken up or retired. If you could become the Emperor from just hearing a few minutes of some really shit J-crap, I thought, then what might happen if you began to expose yourself to the real greats, and learn from them?!
And so I have decided to do the world a service. I've made you a starter pack of good music. It's metal, but it's nothing like the arse-licking whiny copycat crap you'll have heard. There's CDs, and DVDs of live performances, and if I'm lucky then my pal might have been able to throw in some sheet music for you too.
You can pay me back with a free guest pass to your American tour. Because when you start trying, then things are really going to start happening. Fucking incredible things.
P.S. I was going to sign this in blood, but I didn't have the balls for it. I might put a drop on the envelope, instead. I promise you, like a contract signed in blood, you're going to love some of this stuff!
He glanced across the room to the table, his hands falling to his sides, still holding the letter tightly. There was something in the words that Kenni had written that grabbed at both Souichi and Krauser's heart. The hope for more, for something beyond and better. It scared him, to feel those two halves – his joy and his rage – agreeing with each other. He felt that he was timeless, standing just inside his doorway on the threshold of something bigger than anything he'd encountered before.
What was he, if he wasn't himself anymore? Oh, fuck... fuck it! He was already losing himself, already beyond being able to really commit to his street performances or DMC. If he didn't take a step forwards now, then... and anyway, it was just a pile of plastic. Just CDs. He heard music from genres he didn't prefer all the bloody time and he'd never had any problems before.
Taking a deep breath, Souichi faced the box with determination. He had all day to browse through them, but he wanted to get into it before he lost his nerve or got a call from someone. Lifting the box in his arms and carrying it awkwardly across the room he spilled out the albums onto his bed, CDs and DVDs, just to soak it all in. His eyes caught names at random: In Flames, Rush, Apocalyptica, Moonsorrow, Blind Guardian, Lacuna Coil, and... Porcupine Tree?
Huh. That last one, the name at least, you could have almost said it reminded him of bands he liked, juxtaposing interesting sounding English words. But the one that he really snapped to was written on a DVD cover. A red circle on a white background, and the words “Live at Budokan” written at the bottom. Dreamtheatre, a really nice name compared to Detroit Metal City. It was a bit surreal, to be holding a live DVD of another band that had played at Budokan. Turning the case over, he managed to make out the year they had played there – 2004. They had been in his city, while he'd been doing live shows, too. Had DMC's fans gone to see them? He felt a little disassociated from his own world, as if he'd been daydreaming through his own life.
Pulling the shrink-wrap off was like trying to play guitar with his teeth: fiddly, painful, and frustrating. When it finally sighed off with a small gust of plastic tasting air, he decided it was better to not think about having to unwrap every other disc in the pile. He booted up his computer, and put the disc in – his PC had better speakers for sound than his TV.
When he'd navigated the menu, and was watching the band move around on-stage, a small shiver ran down his back. At the time he thought it was all part of his natural detestation of Metal. They began to play, guitars slowly picking up speed. There was something to them that felt off, though, wrong. Souichi's mouth was dry and his heart beat fast as the odd sounding noticeably American vocalist launched into the lyrics. The sound wasn't gravelling at all, but careful and clear and (as he began to get used to the strangeness of the man's voice itself) wonderful. It fit so perfectly with the music that there had to be more thought and deliberation going on in the song writing than did with DMC's music.
The next thing that hit him, as the camera tracked the musicians through close-ups, was the sheer technical brilliance. Oh god, and the bassist. The guitarist! And, ah! There, there! The drummer, even! Souichi felt his breath come short. Dear lord, the drummer! Nishida had nothing on this fellow, and his kit, it was just... fuck!
He could feel his jaw working meaninglessly in the air, agape. His eyes were beginning to tear up. This wasn't brute force horror, this was music. It was Metal, and it was music, and it was beautiful and powerful and, and...
As the song slowed to a finish, Souichi felt his arms and legs shaking. He was sweating and shivering all over. This music was like birth, like death, like sex. Like a prayer. This had happened in his scene. In his Budokan, of all places! Why hadn't he seen this? Why hadn't he noticed? How could he have missed something like that?!
Unable to watch any more, Souichi shoved the rest of the CDs onto the floor beside his low bed. He lay on his back and closed his eyes, letting the sounds alone float over and through him. Even greater than his sense of betrayal – why hadn't they told him?! They must have known! - was a feeling of petty smallness. Really he'd known it for a while, had felt the knowledge rotting inside himself at the edges of his dreams and souring his street performances. Pop music, for all it had inspired him in the first place, just wasn't very, well... musical. The rigmarole of social engineering and sucking up disgusted him. Chasing after a hope of selling yourself, and a wish of true pure love, it was stupid and naive and just as debasing and empty as his current career as Krauser.
Rising and falling with the music, like a piece of driftwood in a rough ocean, Souichi cried louder and harder than he ever had before in his life. His nose ran, his throat rasped dry, his hands clenched tight in his bedsheets, and his entire being ached. He felt like he was dying, or rather that the ideal person he had always wanted to become was dying. His dreams were dying, and there was nothing he could do to hold on to the life he had wanted.
He fell asleep again, and woke up bleary and aching and with the salty taste of dry snot at the back of his tongue. The DVD menu flickered out across the apartment, darker. It must be late afternoon. He rose with stiff limbs and rinsed his mouth and face until the puffy and sticky awful dry feeling left him. His head still hurt; he wasn't used to crying so much. But he felt clean inside, like all the horrible secrets and shame he had been carrying around had been cleansed.
He wasn't sure what he could do with himself now, but it didn't really matter. He'd stop making pointless music. He didn't want to smile for arseholes and idiots anyway. He didn't want to be scared of failure or being superseded by another different gimmicky band or vocal artist. He could feel things beginning to grow; a hope and passion so huge that his body felt too small to possibly contain it. He felt that if he thought about it too much, he'd go mad. So instead he enjoyed this feeling of achingly empty potential in himself. He tidied the mess he'd made of the CDs earlier, and sat down at his desk to begin industriously unwrapping all of the Dreamtheatre CDs she had sent him. It looked like their entire discography was there, or at least a good portion of it. Albums and lives, all with surreal and distinct cover art.
One by one, he ripped them and copied them across to his mp3 player. He found himself wondering all the while, how he'd be able to stand playing the gig next week when he had the feeling that he'd be hardly halfway through Kenni's box of music by then. If he spent a week immersed in the best of the various Metal sub-genres that the world had to offer, how could he possibly put on that costume and go on stage?!
He swapped discs over in the computer, and set the next one to copy to his hard drive. He only lingered long enough to copy the last album across to his player, then grabbed his bag and headed for the door. He paused with his hand on the knob, and then headed right back to his desk. He hadn't needed to use one of these in ages, but.... ah, there! An old book lined for musical notation. He usually just made short quick notes about the big changes for all his songs; the themes stayed in his head, and he never cared or worried that much about finesse on-stage with DMC; power and theatrics was more important. But today? Today was different. In a matter of hours, the world had turned on its head, and in this new world, he suspected that he might need to be able to keep a better record of his ideas. The intricacy and potential for... oh, so much!
He felt the way that he imagined religious converts felt, with all their fervour and enthusiasm. As if his soul had connected with something far greater than himself. Something that he could aspire to, that could give his life meaning. Give all of their lives meaning. Wada and Nishida and yes, even the cuntbtich of a manager. He started with the same song that had shocked him so strongly the first time, As I am, and began to walk. It didn't really matter where he went. He had to pick up something to eat at some point, but he didn't really care about that quite yet. His blood felt thick and heavy, his lungs tight, and his soul fiercer with passion than he had ever known. This music was perfection, was glory, was god.
Writing lyrics and music had always been exhausting in the past. Writing sweet love lyrics had buoyed his hopes up and crashed him, falling into troughs of self-doubt and depression. Writing for DMC had been harrowing and empty and soulless, making him feel drained and hollow. But once he began considering death metal as something melodic, harmonic... something he could care about, he realised that his problems with the lyrics were all his own. He'd brought them along with him, with his preconceptions that this would be lovely and brilliant, and that that would be awful and hateful. That happy sweet love was a more valid subject than anything else.
If he was just thinking about making something good, really good, it was a lot easier and a lot more exhausting. But it wasn't because he felt depressed or put-upon; it was because after he'd spent all day Saturday absorbing new sounds and words and universes of thought, he had sat down in a Wendy's restaurant and scribbled out tabs and notes and words all over his notebook. He felt too full of it all to possibly eat, so he sat behind a cold soggy burger on a scratched plastic tray and pressed on.
Rising in my gorge
I try to swallow (x3)
I am too full
of the hollow
someone told me I was hated
He scribbled those stanzas out again with his pen, tearing the page a little in his rush. He could do better. DMC could do better. But... his hand wavered over the page. But whatever they did right now would pale in comparison to what they could do ten years from now. When they could afford better gear, and had more experience, more exposure and funding. He bit his lip, took a reluctant sip of the drink that had come with his order, and got back to it. He wanted to have something substantial for Monday morning.
The weekend blurred, and getting up on Monday at 10 seemed much harder than it had to get up at 6 the week before. Wincing at the dry and gummy acid taste inside his mouth, he swallowed water slowly and brushed his teeth. Every few seconds he couldn't help but look across the room to his backpack – to his notebook and the sheets of paper he'd printed and copied in a late rush the night before. He didn't feel more or less nervous than any other time he'd exposed new stuff to anyone, it was always terrifying. But this fear touched different parts of him. It wasn't a fear of being rejected, but a fear of losing Nishida and Wada and their manager, and having to start from the ground up again. There was no question about whether or not he was going to turn this material into a full album before the end of the year. No fucking question at all.
Trying to steal some of the courage of his Krauser persona, he grinned at the mirror. But... no, that wasn't really working. He closed his mouth, and stared straight into his own eyes. He seemed angrier, more intense than before. No make-up at all, no hair combing or pretentious clothing. To try and express his determination through his clothing, he was wearing an old black T-shirt he'd gotten from a venue they'd played, and jeans. Nothing fancy or wanky or pretentious, and nothing really linked with Krauser.
Ah, fuck it. If he thought about it too much, he'd never have the balls to face them confidently. He had to present himself better than he ever had before, because the second that the words “I want to try playing something a little different” were out of his mouth, his manager would be slapping (or kicking, or punching) him and screaming that his pissant pussy music was bullshit.
“Fuck you, dickwad! That...”
In the meeting room, the day blending into one long torturous feeling of anticipation, Souichi faced down his band and manager with hideous determination.
“No, fuck you, you bitch! You've been keeping us corralled into your own G-sport of bullshit tastes, unwilling to even allow for us to deviate. Do you know what happens when music does that? It gets stale, and old, and nothing better ever happens. So shut up and fucking listen!”
She blinked at him, mouth open with a smile growing slowly. Shit, he'd expected her to react with anger, not with... whatever that face meant on her.
“Look, sorry, just... look at the stuff I printed, alright? And I want to play you something.”
It needed a bit of a setup, but he'd done most of it while they were settling themselves at the table and bitching about how early in the day it was to be called in. Picking up his guitar, already plugged into the amp, he put the CD. He'd made it with the music program he had used to use for demos, alone at night in his parents house. It sounded a little strange, those old midi samples being used for something so different and new. Still, he counted off along with the rhythm of the track, until it was time for him to enter in. Closing his eyes, he began to play. The vibrations echoed in his arms and his skull, and he frowned with concentration. It was more complex and deliberate than anything he'd played before. Not just power chords and fast strumming, but real fucking music.
The room was silent. He wasn't used to silence. There was heckling on the streets, and screaming in his live shows. When he practised a new DMC track, the manager was rutting and doing very improper things around the office. Yowling and howling. So silence felt like a very bad sign. Biting his lip, and refusing to think about it, he kept on until the end of the track. It was a little long for DMC at seven minutes long and it needed a lot of work but other bands had longer tracks. He wanted to make sure that they heard it all, even just once, so that if they decided to drop him they'd have at least made an informed decision.
Holding the last note until it faded, he lifted his head to look at his band. Wada was sitting there, staring down at the sheets of music Souichi had printed out. Nishida had his fingers splayed out on the table, and his eyes were out of focus, directed somewhere at the ceiling. Their manager... was she crying? That looked like a tear at the corner of her eye.
Clearing his throat awkwardly, Souichi shrugged and began to pack up the stuff he'd got out for his demonstration. “So, ah, yeah. That's what I wanted to do. Take it to the next level, you know.”
As he rolled cables and sealed his guitar back in its case, he felt galvanised and powerful. Nobody else had said a word.
“We have to change our name, and we have to lose the costumes and the make-up. I can grow my hair out instead, if you like. And I don't need to do this here, with you. But I know I can work with you, you're my band. I know that Death Records has a pretty good reputation. I'd like to make this album with you, I really would. But if you don't, I can understand that. I'll find you another Krauser, and go start from the bottom again.”
“Ah, I...” Wada began to speak, then stopped and shook his head. Nishida' eyes seemed to clear, and his fingers began tapping lightly on the table.
“I'm in.” Wada got the words out this time. “But... are you sure I'm good enough?”
Souichi nodded. He really probably could find someone technically better for the job than Wada, but this was his band, goddamnit, and Wada was a part of that, had been from the start. “You aren't, that's true. But you will be.”
“... shit. I just... fuck, crap... guys! You fuckers!”
Their manager seemed overcome. It seemed as good a moment as any to get started, if she was unable to physically damage any of them. “Alright, um, great. So I'm going to need new pickups, and some other stuff. I have a list.”
Souichi slid it across the table to her. It was a long list, because he'd never cared about getting a good sound before. It had just been DMC, after all, and there were techs to handle all that bullcrap. Now? Now things were different, and he had to make up for lost time.
“Ah! Me too, let me see that!” Wada intercepted the list and began making some notes on it himself. “I'll need most of this too, I think. And maybe some other stuff. I want better pedals.”
“I'll need even more than that. There's a drum-convention soon, I can go get my stuff from there.” Nishida chipped in. “It'll cost a lot, but if I spend a lot this time, I'll get a real good relationship with the vendors for next time.”
Their manager nodded slowly, looking a little shell-shocked. “Why haven't you little shits asked me for any of this before?”
The band shared a long look with each other. Then Nishida turned to her, and shrugged,non-committal. “Well, it never mattered before.”
A fury seemed to rise in her, but instead of attacking any of the band, she slammed her fist down on the table. “FUCK! You douchebags, you... I'm just so fucking proud of you right now!”
At any time in the past, Souichi would have felt sore inside. He'd been the catalyst, he'd done all the work. But now it was different. He had the band that he needed. He had a promise of the gear he needed. He had a sense of something bigger growing within him. He had a G3 DVD that he hadn't watched yet, waiting for him at the end of the day.
“Great. Now, it's time to practice. And practice. And practice. It's not metal unless our fingers fucking bleed.”
While it sounded like a great empowering line in the meeting room, after several hours of painful exhausting practice, Souichi was wishing he'd never had that brilliant thought. His fingers throbbed painfully around the water ice he'd bought at the convenience store near the station. He could choose between numb and agony, and all of it leaving his fingers feeling thick and swollen and too large. He shouldn't have pushed so hard, but the guys had been inflamed by his energy in the meeting. They'd thrown themselves into the music, and had repeated the same sections over and over again, discussing and modifying the song. Tweaking it here and there, in a pile of messy notes that Souichi was going to write up properly before they next met. They didn't have a live show as DMC for two weeks, so he had ample time to himself.
He had all sorts of things to do, but when he opened his door and heard the rattle of a letter in his mail slot, he forgot them all. Shit, Kenni. It had only been three days, and she was probably still sleeping off jet-lag, but she'd managed single-handedly to shake his world to its very foundations. She'd seen the potential in him, and spent a lot of money to try and coax it out. He knew he'd owe her a lot of thanks, as he improved and his music began to reach more people.
Oh god, that conviction felt good. He didn't just hope to succeed anymore. He knew, that if he applied himself he'd be able to make it work. He felt calm and centred and whole. Hell, he felt ready to take on the world. Throwing the melting ice block into his sink, he rinsed his fingers off and sat down at his computer. He got the notes down while the sounds were still fresh in his mind, and then with a long exhalation of breath began to check his email. He wasn't a popular guy, but his inbox was pretty full for a Monday night. Aikawa had sent a group message out about some wanky gig for a vocalist (who the hell would want to make an album without their own music? It was wrong!). Nishida and Wada had both sent messages with more ideas for further songs, copied to everyone else. Their manager had sent an email demanding a new band name that would sound like a cock ramming into her would feel, since they had decided to use their real names in the end.
And there was an email from Kenni, short and to the point.
It's Kenni, if you couldn't tell from the email. I'm half asleep, but I have to know. I have to fucking know, I can't wait for the post. What did you think of it? I hope I didn't go too far... anyway, reply, cunt!
Souichi couldn't keep the smile from his face as he converted the modified file to a basic midi and attached it to a message that was exactly one sentence long.
I, Negishi Souichi, will see you on the release tour, probably in a year for the US.
The elation that he felt from just sending that off felt stronger than any crush or love he'd felt in his life. It wasn't Kenni, either. It was all about the music, about sharing something incredible with the world. About playing live to all those people.
His mood was brought right back down by the stupid, vapid tinny ringtone of his phone. Swearing, he fished around in his pockets for it. He had to turn it off, crap! He should change it as soon as he could, right after he'd finished the call.
“Yeah?” He expected it was maybe his manager, or his bandmates. Maybe even Kenni in America, listening to his music file. Though, it was a bit quick for that, after all, she probably hadn't even finished downloading it...
“Negishi? It's me, Aikawa...”
“Ah! Ah, Aikawa, it's er, good to hear from you.” He hadn't even thought about her until he'd seen her email in his inbox, and he'd barely spent a second on her then.
“Yes, same here. Going on that picnic was lovely, wasn't it? Well, one of the guitarists there is doing this workshop, and invited me to cover it for the magazine. He's going to arrange a retreat to a hotel in the mountains since it's the off season, and help other guitarists refine their style. I might even get a focus piece on it, and...”
“Ah, Aikawa, that's good to hear, and thanks for the invitation, but I'm busy. Every day and weekend, I probably won't be able to meet you, let alone go on a weekend retreat.” And as if he would! The thought of smiling smarmily and trying to play surrounded by idiot wankers in over-ironed shirts was ludicrous! Not when he had real music to make. He was doing his best to be polite to Aikawa, but still...
“Oh? Do you have a job, then?”
“Well, I'm in a band. We're making another album, so things are going to be pretty hectic.”
“Ah, I see. Wait, what? Another album? Were you already making them? I thought that you hadn't got a label yet, or anything.”
“Ah, well..” He rubbed his hand through his hair awkwardly, trying to find the right words. “Yeah. I've been in a band, we've had a label for about four, five years now, you know.”
“Oh?! Why on earth haven't you told me before! I'd have been at every one of your live shows!”
“Well, when we met for the first time since university, I... you... you said you hated metal. I didn't think that you'd really want to hear about that.”
The line was silent, and he had no idea what she was thinking. He didn't want to hurt her, as such, but now that they were having the conversation, he really did want her to understand. Even if her tastes in music were more about trends and less about music itself.
“I mean, you're more into mainstream popular music, and I was playing some of that on the street anyway, so it seemed stupid to mention the metal. I thought you'd only like the pop stuff I was doing, so... yeah. And I didn't have much pride in myself or my work, so it's been scary, trying to tell you. I'm proud enough of what I'm doing right now, to confess it all to you.”
He laughed awkwardly, and shrugged even though she couldn't possibly see the gesture. “Sorry, it's been an intense few days, so, um, yeah. Sorry.”
“So... that's how it was?”
He wondered what she was thinking about, what she was remembering. “Yeah. I really care about the music I'm making right now, so I'm taking a break from pop. Maybe forever.”
When she answered, it was after a long pause. “Wow. Well, I'm surprised, but... wow. Now that I think of it, the way you play... I had no idea you were experimenting with other genres. Or that you were successful like this. I probably won't like your albums, you're right about that. But I'm really glad that you've found the sound that you like. I was so worried, seeing you struggle and seem so depressed.”
“Ah, yeah. Thanks. I guess. This is all a bit weird, you know. I thought you'd scream, and never talk to me again, or something.”
She laughed. It was nervous sounding and tense, but still laughter. “Well maybe. But you're my friend, Negishi! I care more about you than I do about your music. So I'll just stop inviting you out to meet people you have no interest in. We can do other stuff, alright?”
The tentative hopefulness in her last question cheered him up a lot. He'd always associated Aikawa with his pop music attempts, and hadn't ever really thought about their friendship as something in and of itself. “Yeah, of course. And we can still talk about composition and music theory, after all.”
“Of course! Tell you what, since you're busy working on your album, message me when you have time for a meal. I'll come take you to lunch somewhere. Oh, and I want to interview you about recording albums, I'm sure my readers would love to hear about that sometime. The hidden hard work, all that. Would that be okay?”
“That'd be fine. But I should probably go now, I'm pretty beat from our sessions today.”
She laughed again, a lighter happy sound, and he could imagine the smile on her face. “Sure. Hang in there, and good luck!”
In the end, Souichi decided to keep Aikawa's ringtone as a Kahimi Karie song, though he changed all the others to something more respectable and heavy.
Things were going so wonderfully well that he was super-charged and ready to set up for the first practice session with Wada and Nishida. With new music and a new outlook for their band, he was actually looking forward to playing with them. Seeing how they interpreted his concepts. But after only a few minutes of sounding flat and terrible, they gave up. They weren't used to the time changes, the complexity of the chord progressions. For all that even Souichi himself was damn fast on the strings, none of them were used to trying too hard. Not for DMC. It felt a little off. They stared at the cables on the floor between them in silence.
“Shit, we suck.” Was all that Wada could say.
“Balls.” Nishida agreed.
“And we're still missing a keyboardist.”
Their eyes met, and they all turned away. “Yeah.”
They'd held a few auditions, before this first practice. But they'd chosen to avoid using DMC's name. It had meant that the respondents to their advertisement were mainly beginner teens and old bored Jazz pianists. Not that they had no hopes of lucking out – Jazz pianists could do some seriously weird shit – but so far nobody had seemed right. Nobody had fit.
“Alright, come on. We're gonna sound complete crap until we've practised, so that's what we're going to fucking well do!” Wada seemed fired up again. Souichi smiled, wishing he had the seemingly boundless enthusiasm for his own idea that Wada did, and returned his hands to his starting position.
“Okay, then, fuckers!” Nishida cried out before counting them in.
They gave up for honest half an hour later, when they'd all given it enough of a go to convince themselves that nothing was going to go right. Sure, it was a sight above and beyond anything they'd ever done as DMC. Sure. And they were playing better, sounding better. But not better enough for any of their liking.
“Look, how about we keep up with memorising this stuff, and wait till after that drum sale thing you're gonna go to, Nishida. We can only do what we can do, until then anyway. And we should make sure we still have energy left for the live DMC gigs. We'll need a way to pay for all of it, after all.”
While Nishida sulked and scrutinised his kit carefully and Wada began rolling up cables, Souichi made for the door. He needed some space. Some air. This was full-on, and even though he knew better, he was heartbroken a little inside that everything hadn't worked perfectly the first time. Even without a keyboardist. He was probably going to take shit from the guys for that soon, when they got sick of waiting. But they needed that sound, that potential. Their setup was so cheap, so bare-bones basic that it made his head hurt. Even with good rapport between them all on-stage, there was just no fucking way that they were enough as they were.
When he opened the door to the hallway, he found himself looking at their manager. Bright red-faced and shivering, she rested against the wall opposite the room they used for practice.
“A-are you... okay?”
He didn't want to press too far with her, she was always so aggressive and dangerous. But she looked really, really off. Like she had a fever, or something. At his words, she looked up and stared at him with shocked eyes.
“I... I um... I...”
“What is it? Are you okay?” He raised an arm, still unwilling to reach out. She looked like she was about to fall over, though. Should he be ready to catch her?
“I... um... wet myself. Soaked through.”
She spoke softly, her head hanging, bleached dry hair prickling out around her face. Souichi felt very confused. “But... don't you do that every time we play? I mean, you said...”
She made a sound that sounded like a hiccup, and then turned and walked slowly and awkwardly towards the bathroom at the end of the hall. Souichi decided it was probably better to not follow her. That having air was maybe not as important as it had been a few moments ago. He headed back into the room, and started helping his bandmates pack up their gear.
“So Souichi, what... happened? Did I see the manager?”
“Uh, yeah.” Souichi focused very narrowly on the amp he was lifting. “She said we did good.”
Wada scratched his head. “But I didn't hear any of the usual screeching...”
Nishida sniffed the air, and then broke into a very lecherous and creepy grin. As realisation dawned on Wada, Souichi did his best to shrug casually. “Well, I'm glad that she thought we were good. And I will ask no other questions, or ever think about something so perverted again.”
Souichi would have liked to say he was surprised by the knock at his door, but he wasn't. People had always had a habit of interrupting him just when he needed to be left alone. It happened at home when he was 12, masturbating deliberately for the first time. It had happened when he'd been in his Krauser costume and shouldn't be, or vice versa. Now it was happening while he was scanning through bulletin boards, knowing he'd never find anyone, but trying his best just the same. They had no chance of a keyboardist. But having three guitarists – even if one of them was the singer – seemed a bit of overkill. He didn't want to sound heavier, and they had more than enough competency to trade off the trickier parts between himself and Wada. They needed more music, and all right, fine. Maybe he was a little head-over-heels in love with Jordan Rudess' playing. Maybe. But Souichi wasn't unrealistic. He didn't expect to find himself his own Rudess. He just wanted to reach out towards that brilliance, and do the fucking best he could with this band.
They didn't even have a replacement name. The deadlines they'd set themselves for finding new members, recording the tracks, holding a final revenue-raising DMC concert... they were all approaching fast, and there was no hope in sight.
Souichi would have welcomed the interruption if he hadn't known that putting off the job would only make it more boring and depressing. Still, the hand banging on his door was insistent. Reluctantly and gratefully, feeling exhausted by the mix of feelings, Souichi answered it.
It was his manager, of course. She'd been meddling more than usual recently. Sitting in on practises, showing up at all their live shows, paying out eagerly for anything they asked her for. Gear, food, notebooks, some cash for a night out at a bar. She was being so accommodating and, well, nice to them that Souichi was genuinely worried. He hadn't turned her away from his apartment once. She seemed happy enough to just sit and listen to music with him while he worked.
It was... creepy. No destruction, no pain, no fury. Souichi didn't get any answer when he offered her tea, so he just made a pot for them both. He used the blend that had something that stained the water bright pinkish red, on the off chance that it might cheer her up.
She accepted the cup, and nodded solemnly at him. “Thanks.”
“Okay, what? Tell me, alright? I'm sick of this placid humble bullshit. I'm actually worried about you, and that's just... it feels wrong, boss.”
She shrugged and held her cup in her hands, not drinking. “It's nothing.”
He ignored that, and just waited. He at least was going to enjoy his tea.
“Alright, it's not nothing. It's just... Ever since that day. That I, um, yeah. Actually did, for once. I've been thinking about it. It's pretty depressing being me.”
Souichi frowned and found himself trying to suppress a small amount of hysterical laughter from bubbling out. “Wait, this is all about your erotic fascination with music? But we've all known, all of us, always. It's never been a problem before.”
She sighed heavily, and her shoulders sank. She seemed to shrink where she sat, curling in on herself. “Yeah, shit. I know that, you fucktard. It's just... never being able to have a relationship, ever. Being so dependant on DMC for something so base. I've gotten used to myself, you know? I was okay with the arousals in public. But that shit... that was the most romantic and incredible orgasm I've ever had. I just feel so... inhuman. And vulnerable, and it's all so one-sided and lonely.”
She smiled in a way that showed more pain than anything else. Souichi had no idea what to do or say. He tried anyway. “Well, I mean, some people have taste or smell or touch fetishes. You could say that sex itself is a weird fixation on genitalia. So I'm sure that there are other people out there who share your experience of music...”
No, that wasn't helping at all. Her face fell and she turned away from him. “If it's a person, I just... can't.”
Souichi patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. “Well, have you ever thought about playing music yourself? Maybe then you can find something more fulfilling. It'd be weird, a little bit, but I'm sure we'd all be happy to help you learn, and explore your, ahem, sexuality.”
It was all in the name of mental health, Souichi reminded himself. Though he seemed to have talked himself into another awkward fucking corner, one in which he had sexual musical intercourse with his boss. Just what the fuck was wrong with him? Why did he never know when to shut the fuck up?!
“I... can't!” She sobbed. She shook her head. “I couldn't ever. It's why I gave up piano.”
“Wait, what? What do you mean, 'gave up'?!”
She took a sip of her tea, and winced at the taste. “I took classical lessons as a kid. Until I discovered Jack's music. Then I put that all behind me. Piano is piss-weak bullshit”
Souichi felt incredulous fury building up inside of him. “Piss weak?! BULLSHIT?!”
He forced himself to calm down a little; she looked very startled, and had put her cup down, spilling a little onto the table.
“How many years did you study piano for?”
“Um, eight. Until I was fourteen. I started very young, my parents are real classical musicfags.”
“We... you do realise we've been looking for a keyboardist for months now, with no luck?”
She blinked, as if she had no idea. “Yes. But what's that got to do with... oh. Oh no, Krauser, I'm not going to..”
Souichi slammed a hand down on the table, spilling even more tea. “Look. You know how, and we haven't had any luck yet. So climb out of your self-pity, get over your shame and embrace your own nature! It's what you always said you wanted me to do. Not Krauser, but me. The potential you saw in me.”
He felt his blood throbbing in his temples, his fingers. He was as inflamed as he had been in his most manic moments as Krauser on stage. He knew he needed to convince her, felt it in his gut.
“Look, just... get a cheap keyboard. Or a good one, we'll need to buy one anyway in the end. So yeah, get a good one. And just take the sheet music I sent to you, take that and give it a go. Try it, just once. Put on extra absorbent panties if you have to. I don't care. Just show us what you've got in a week.”
She frowned, but this time there was something in her eyes that gave him hope. “We don't have to keep you for the album, or anything else. But just having someone to practise with, might help us. And it might help you too, right? It's worth a try?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
That was enough of a victory for Souichi. More than enough. It meant that he had a whole evening free to himself, and at least for the moment there would be no more awful painful hateful searching for a keyboardist. No more auditions.
“So how about you? If I've got a fix for my issues, when is sweet little Sou-chan going to finally dick someone?”
He winced. “I wish you wouldn't use language like that. And it's not that I don't want to have sex with someone. It's just... there's a part of me that really wants that first time to mean something. So it's not just sex, but love and intimacy. Something deeper and more complete.”
“Hmmn? You know, that look on your face? You only usually get it when you're talking about music. Really talking, I mean. About the stuff that really gets you... going...”
She trailed off, looking a bit shocked with herself. Or him. He wasn't sure which he was, either. He'd realised it as soon as she'd started speaking. Though it wasn't erotic at all, he really did feel for his music in the same way that he idealised feeling for a lover.
“Ah, let's go out to get a drink, or something. Invite the others?”
She jumped on that with a ferocity that scared him. “Sure! We can have a band fucking meeting! Get pissed, pick up some dinky cheap keyboard from an all-night shop, go back to the practice room and make dirty kinky music together! Fuck!”
They didn't do that. But Souichi did call Nishida and Wada, told them to meet him at a bar. That he'd be bringing along their new keyboardist, to introduce everyone to each other. They didn't seem to think that anything was odd at all, just greeted them both and sat down. Ordered drinks. After ten minutes or so, Nishida shifted in his seat and tapped his hands on the table, bored.
“So, when is he showing up?” Wada finally asked.
Souichi held up a hand, pointing at their manager. “She's right here.”
There was a moment of silence. Then, some awkward laughter from Nishida. Their boss raised her glass, drank it in one gulp, and swore loudly. “It was Krauser's idea, the fucking cunt! Don't look at me!”
“Hey, stop calling me that. I don't even have the wig on. And she knows how to play, which is more than we can say for most of the people that auditioned. So she's worth a try.”
Nishida smiled, openly and genuinely. “I'm okay with it. Looking forward to it.”
Wada took a bolstering sip of his drink, and then nodded. “Alright. Sure.”
Just like that, they'd gone from being a half-formed project to a complete band. Souichi felt it in the way everyone settled further down into their chairs, slouched into more relaxed positions.
Of course, they were a mess in rehearsal. Souichi was distracted and stressed. He'd tried to mix things up a little, convince Wada to take over the rhythm guitar and vocals so that Souichi could himself handle the more technically brilliant parts of the song. But Wada had put his foot down; he didn't like singing or taking a demotion in instrumental roles. He didn't budge, not for one verse or solo. It didn't help that Souichi had been the face of DMC; he was still singing every live they did and wearing the ball-swelteringly hideous costume.
And if the band wasn't resisting change already, introducing their manager into the hierarchy at the bottom-end of things didn't help. Power was confused, as was the chain of command. The least musical aside from the drummer, the least practised in the genre, the least able to improvise, she was craving the heady power she had once had over the rest of them – Souichi could tell from the way she ground her cigarettes out on the hallway floor, as if she was imagining stepping on his income-earning hands. But she couldn't assert herself when she was still finding her way around her keyboard, slipping into the wrong time signature and missing some notes.
Souichi had spent the whole week wincing his way through practice, wondering if maybe he'd reached a little too far beyond their own abilities with the epic, long and complicated song. The Manager was fuming, feeling impotent and frustrated. The botched songs seemed to be giving her something along the lines of blue balls, as far as Souichi could tell; she was snapping at a moment's notice. Wada was resistant to her addition to the band, and to Souichi now, and his playing was angry and detached. Nishida wasn't off-game particularly; he could still drum with the best of them. But his lewd comments weren't doing anything to ease the tension in the room. After one last comment about sopping panties, the Manager slammed her hands down on her keys and then stormed from the room.
“Shit-bag douches! I don't know why I ever fucking listened to you in the first place, Krauser!”
Souichi had tucked his plectrum into his fist and let his arms fall limply to his sides. “...my name... isn't Krauser...” he said flatly and dully. But nobody heard or noticed. Nishida was still chuckling in the corner behind his kit and Wada was staring at a wall, resolutely ignoring Souichi.
“Well, it's not.” He said it again, just to make the point, though he had no idea what he was trying to prove to himself. He began packing away first his guitar and cabling, then the keyboard.
“We should pick up some food before we go to the live tonight.” Wada said flatly. His shoulder brushed past Souichi's on his way out through the door.
It was exhausting. Not agonised and tortured, like his negativity towards DMC gigs had once been. There was no rush or excitement involved with it either. Souichi hadn't needed Krauser as an outlet for his feelings in a very long time. He hadn't hated or liked his fans for even longer than that. It all felt so... pointless. Meaningless. After dinner and in the dressing room he swallowed his pride and decided that something had to give. That for the sake of the music, the band, the album, it would be him. Souichi wanted to be lead guitar, but he didn't need it. Wada was good. Damned good. Damned fucking good. They had a great energy together, and he needed to get that back if they wanted any chance of succeeding.
Greasepaint applied, he stood and watched Wada applying his own, looking over the man's shoulder and into the mirror. “Look, Wada... I'm sorry. I've felt so attached to the stuff I wrote that I've been acting like a dickhead. And you're probably the only guy in the world who I'd trust to pull off some of the solos. People venerate the Krauser persona... but you're the real backbone of the band.”
The odd ridges of Wada's Jaggi costume felt foreign under Souichi's fingers as he clapped him on the shoulder and moved towards the door of the room. But Wada's hand came up and grabbed at Souichi's wrist, smearing greasepaint over the cheap Lycra of his costume.
“I... I was scared. I am, I mean, scared. I'm lead guitar. I should have come up with riffs like yours, or at least had the guts to try and push the band further. I let our characters dictate what I did, just became a total sheep, and I...”
Wada didn't have to say anything. Souichi knew just what he meant. He could only imagine how twisted he'd feel inside, if it had been Wada who had been the one to start innovating and shaking their music up.
“Let's go fuck their brains out tonight, then. And tomorrow you can start working on your own stuff. We'll need more than just a few songs on the album, after all.”
They really did have to get out on stage; the crowd was going utterly rabid from the sound of it. Souichi rushed about the room gathering his gear, and the hushed sniffing he heard coming from Wada's corner of the room might have been in his imagination. Nevertheless, on stage that night DMC shone in a way that they hadn't in a long time. Even with the crappy songs and lyrics, even with the sycophantic idiot sheep fans they had, Souichi felt connected and alive.
That only lasted a couple of days, of course, until Wada was swearing and upset over musical notation and trying to make his own style sound like it fitted with Souichi's own. There was a lot of work, way too much, to be done. While their Manager's skills were picking up, she was still slow and ready to blow at any moment. They all – all – had bruises. Everywhere. Still they pushed on. Worked themselves hard. Souichi lost the better part of a month to an endless stream of takeaway and pre-prepared supermarket food. He lost the better part of his mind in a repeating cycle of exhausted sleep and frenetic working days.
In a month they had enough for an album. They had practised enough to run through a set together in the room. But, as they listened to the crappy taped recording of their latest session, they slumped as one onto the table in the meeting room. They had worked so hard, for so long, and they still... sucked.
“We suck. We suck balls. Hairy, sweaty, truck-driver on a hot day balls.” Nishida groaned. He was too depressed to even tap his fingers on the table.
“You... cunts... and I've put so much fucking energy into this, and I...” The Manager sighed, hiding her face beneath a curtain of dry-bleached cracklingly abused hair. “You should just cut the crap and get one of those other fucktards back in.”
Wada laughed bitterly into his crossed arms, shoulders shaking. His voice came out muffled through the inside of an elbow. “Did you hear 'those other fucktards'?”
They all took a moment to contemplate the few keyboardists they'd interviewed. Souichi sighed in defeat. “If it's possible, they're even worse than we are.”
There was certainly no arguing with that. The Manager sighed heavily and scowled at the white-board on the wall. It was covered with concepts for the name of their band and album that were all stupid and absolute crap. Across the top in their Manager's angry handwriting was scrawled DETROIT METAL SHITTY, as if fury and self loathing were enough to compensate for their complete lack of success.
Their gigs were suffering, too. The fans were petering out, loosing enthusiasm and passion. Souichi felt like the walls were closing in. Even their master plan, to kill Krauser off in a blaze of glory to help promote their debut, wasn't enough to cheer him up. The thought of tearing up that costume on-stage, of finally revealing his own face to the fans, terrified him. In one fell swoop they'd be unmasking and destroying their sole source of income.
And their new band... sucked. It was breaking Souichi's heart, in a way that being unable to play pop music never had. Because he was playing his heart out, he was amongst understanding peers, he had access to talent and money and time, and in the end it would be shit anyway.
Gritting his teeth, Souichi cast one sad look around the room and pushed his chair back. “I'm taking the day off.”
Wada waved a hand lazily. Their Manager nodded slowly and stretched, looking out the window onto the street below. “Don't forget you fuckwads have a Detroit Metal Shitty gig tonight. Dysentery from hell, infecting the masses.”
Nishida pouted, raising his head up to blink blearily at them. “Fuck, it almost sounds worth it, when you put it like that.”
“Yeah, ahah... yep. Anyway, I'll see you guys tonight.”
He usually wore earbuds when he walked these days, immersing himself in metal and higher quality music. But he couldn't bear it. All that noise, all those thoughts and emotions were just becoming a cacophonous drone. He needed something that had nothing – or very little – to do with the music industry for a while. Someone who wouldn't be able to talk to him about music, about work. His pace slowed as he realised exactly who he owed a call to.
Aikawa was most absolutely free for lunch, she said. She sounded exuberant and alive in a way that felt like a distant dream to Souichi. When she met him in front of the cafe – one of the good old pretentious ones that sold some really nice soy chai blends – her face was relaxed and open and beautiful until she caught sight of his own. Then she was all worry and concern, shepherding him to a seat and fussing over him until he let her order for him and fetch some water.
“Are you sure you'll be alright, Negishi? Can't I get you any medicine or food?”
He let his weight rest forwards on the table, feeling too defeated to sit upright. “I'll be fine. I'm just... exhausted.”
“Recording must be tough, hey. I can imagine, doing all those re-takes and getting frustrated...”
Souichi groaned at the back of his throat. “Recording?! We'd be lucky if we could agree on an intro, or keep the keyboard in time. I mean, we're so bad. Was I always this bad? How could we make so many albums before now, and still be this bad?”
Their drinks had arrived at some point. Aikawa made a sympathetic noise and pushed his towards him.
“Maybe you're just too immersed in it? You always were a bit obsessive about your music, even in school.”
He shook his head. It wasn't that at all. Being obsessive meant that he cared about being good, and knowing that didn't make their band any less shite.
“Well, at least I always thought you were talented, Negishi.”
“Hmmm...” he did remember that, but he also remembered the way that her friends and colleagues had shot him down. That, and Aikawa liked some pretty shallow stuff. Some pretty untalented stuff, like the tripe that was playing right now. Even worse than his own band, these people were missing notes and getting it wrong. Was that guitar even in tune? How on earth did you get away with a studio mastered album release and not be able to tune a guitar properly? You could, at the very least, get a techie to do the job for you!
He shook his head clear and took a sip of his iced tea. The sugar in it went straight to his brain, the moisture was obviously something his body had been needing. He felt more awake in seconds. He could almost feel his mind speeding up.
“Sorry, I'm just tired, like I said, from all the practice.”
Aikawa laughed, and shook her head. “I know. And I was saying how much of a perfectionist you were. I was surprised to hear that you'd got an album out, you know?”
Souichi had not known. “Really?”
“Yeah. I mean, you practised the same song over and over again, for years at a time. Fine-tuning it, changing it a little. Other people would say your style was out-of-date, or that you were overplaying it, but I could tell that you were just unsatisfied the whole time. Working the whole time.”
Souichi didn't like to think about his naive musical adolescence. But he'd also never looked at it from that perspective before; he'd always felt a little stale and wrong inside, and criticism had resonated inside his heart with what he had known to be true.
“I'm serious, believe me! I can tell that you don't, but maybe that's for the best.” She sighed, but she was smiling. “You always were a step above us all in that way, Negishi. Too dedicated to music for any scene.”
“Maybe. Though thinking that I'll spend the rest of my life without making anything good is a bit depressing. If I could fit a scene, maybe I'd have a reliable income. Now even our live gigs... the fans can tell we're not all there anymore.”
Aikawa rolled her eyes, and for the first time that Souichi had known her, she said something that didn't come with a smile or apology.
“I just think that you should get over yourself. Other bands don't have to be perfect; their style evolves over time, and they use their money to fund their experimentation. You should get over yourself, compromise yourself, make some money and learn to relax.”
She pointed up at the speakers, and they both listened to the tinny catchy terribly badly composed music that emanated from them. “I know.”
“I... fuck, I don't know what to say. Thanks for believing in me, I guess. Even if you don't like metal, it means something to me.”
She shrugged and nodded at the cafe counter. “Did you want to have lunch here?”
“No, sorry. I called you out and all, but I really have to get some stuff done before tonight.”
She nodded. “You've got a gig, right? Oh, relax! I won't come watch, I promise. But good luck with it!”
Souichi nodded. He'd decided on a course of action, and he knew exactly what he had to do. Now he just hoped that he'd have enough time before he had to show up as Krauser. He raised a hand and smiled goodbye to Aikawa. If he ever got rich, he'd have to buy her something really lovely looking and nice, to say thanks.
By the time he had organised everything, it was time. Souichi stood poised just off-stage, with Wada and Nishida hovering behind him. He knew that their Manager was in the crowd somewhere, waiting and watching. She'd been at all their lives recently, staring up at the stage with eyes that were wide not with adulation of the metal, but fear of the crowd.
When he took a peek out there, he was pretty sure he had caught a glimpse of her hair, bleached and dead looking, but still shining in the lights. He hadn't felt this scared, this ill, before a gig in years. DMC had become routine. But what he was about to do, would destroy everything.
They played half of a normal set. He ended it with Satsugai, of course, ever popular. He let his hands fall to his side, and did his best to stare in the direction that he thought their Manager was. They'd figure out what he was doing – he knew they would – because for all they still sucked, they were a band. His band. He could trust them.
Staring intently at the audience, Souichi raised his costumed arm and performed boredly some of Krauser's trademark obscene gestures. Then, when he should have started the rhythm for the next song, he kept his eyes facing into the bright light and hoping that his Manager was paying attention.
The crowd cheered, and swore, and screamed.
“All you little shits of demons and worthless human beings! Tonight I, Krauser, have risen from hell wearing a very special costume. Just for you!”
Souichi hung his head for a moment. A sliver of light entered the room as a door at the back of the audience pit opened and closed. “Because tonight, you derelict miscreants on the armpit of society, I am going to SET YOU ON FUCKING FIIIIIIIIIIIRE!”
The crowd roared with excitement. It couldn't have been more than a hundred metalheads and idiots, but they sounded like far more. Intense and sweating and scared, Souichi projected his voice and screamed into the mic. “Jaggi will dig a hole with his axe and condemn you to boiling in the fiery pits of hell! Camus will make IEDs and explode you all into a gasoline fuelled pyre of the dead!!!”
That had been their cue, but Wada – dressed as Jaggi – was shaking his head slightly. Souichi couldn't say anything with the mic so close to his mouth, and he didn't dare move for fear of his own safety, so he raised his arms and played a pretty basic battle riff from an old show format they'd once used, Krauser versus Jaggi.
Frowning, Jaggi replied with his line a little slowly. But he was nodding, as well. They didn't put much of themselves at all into the battle, but their improvements in fingering and speed had the crowd going wild. It was... boring. Depressing. It made Souichi very glad when he finished one riff, and with a nod to Wada took his guitar off. Wada followed suit, and then approached. Only years of playing around in stupid monster costumes were what allowed them to pull it off: Souichi pulled the lighter out of his pocket, and pretended to scream, writhe and fight back as Wada clicked the lighter and raised the flame to Souichi's cloak.
With one more unholy scream – this one partly full of real fear – Souichi slumped to the ground. He'd be fine, with his prepared makeup and the custom insulated suit. But it would be hot, it would be dangerous, and it would hurt. He had to undo as much of it as he could while he trusted in the rest of his band to do their jobs.
The dark and smoky inside of his cloak made the whole thing seem distant. He was reduced into this moment, the poorly orchestrated rebirth of his musical self. He could hear the screams of alarm from the audience as if from a great distance.
Quieter than that but closer were the sounds of people carrying equipment onto the stage, and the shuffle of Wada's boots as he moved to stand before the mic. In a quiet, solemn voice, Wada told the audience the truth.
“Krauser is no more. DMC is no more.”
Souichi finally threw off the charred remains of his costume, coughing a little and reaching blindly for the water bottle he'd left near his guitar stand. He stood shakily and rinsed his face off, filled his mouth and spat ashy tasting bile out onto the floor. It was far from the worst thing that had been left behind at a DMC concert, at any rate.
Only then did Souichi brush his damp hair back off his forehead and look out to the stunned faces of the audience. He joined Wada beside the mic.
“I am Negishi Souichi.”
“I am Terumichi Nishida.”
“I am Masayuki Wada.”
“I'm the fucking president.”
Souichi glanced suspiciously back at their Manager, who was blushing and busying herself with her gear, flustered with her first gig. He turned back to the crowd and picked up his guitar. They all took their places, and Souichi took a very deep breath.
“...and we are called Distributable Metal Content.”
There was a few gasps in the seconds of silence that followed the statement, and then scattered applause. The members of DMC nodded to each other, Nishida counted them in, and then they played.