Osaka Popstar Up Magazine

John Cafiero - Osaka Popstar

Photo by: Shigeo Jones Kikuchi: Photo Assassin

Q: Who is John Cafiero (grew up in, studies, first job etc.)?

A: I grew up in NJ and later relocated to NY as an adult. My primary focus of study in later years was TV & Film production although I have always pursued multi-faceted interests and often wear many different hats within projects I am involved with.

My first steady job was working at Toys R Us when I was about 15 or 16. I was in charge of the action figure isles, which for me, a kid who grew up during the inception of Star Wars figures and all of that, it was the coolest spot in the store. At the time He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Transformers were the hit toys everyone was rabid about and that was my turf in the store.

After the store would close all of the staff would have to clean up the isles and sometimes I would play a mix of Ramones songs over the store PA after closing. As you might imagine, it was very cool and very unusual to hear the Ramones cranked and blasting after hours in Toys R US. It was almost like taking over the mall in Dawn of the Dead. Getting up for school the next day was another story though.

Q: At what age did you discover music? 

A: I’ve always loved music ever since I was really young, probably about 3 years old as far as I can remember. I know I used to love the Beatles’ “Octopus’ Garden” which I was introduced to by the show Sesame Street. I used to get a lot of these book and record EPs with the stories and songs of Disney movies and cartoons and other stuff like “GI Joe and the secret of the Mummy’s Tomb”, the Monster Mash, etc.  I always wanted a 45 of the theme song from Popeye but I remember being annoyed that the records I’d find never had the “real” voice actor singing the song as it was in the cartoon!

When I was about 5 or so, the kids who lived downstairs from us were really close with my family and their parents were very into 50’s records. Sometimes they’d give me a 45 if I really liked it. One was the 45 for the song “Rip Van Winkle” by the Devotions. I loved it because it was catchy and it had that insane sped up voice laughing and it sounded cartoony, particularly over that baritone doo-wop arrangement. I used to play it over and over and my sister hated it, so I would intentionally play it even more to torture her. One day she smashed the record! Another 45 I remember having at a very young age was the song “Topsy Part 1 & 2” which was mainly an instrumental with a lot of progressive drums in it.  I guess you could say I was exposed to music very early on and really took to it. From approx age 3 on I started to collect 45s and I still have most of them.

Q: Which artist/band came first?

A: Aside from children’s records or one shot 45’s…honestly I can’t remember if it was Black Sabbath or Kiss that came first for me but one or the other was my first serious delve into “rock”. I was heavily into Kiss (what kid wasn’t in the 70’s!), Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and a local East Coast band called the Good Rats. All of this was approx. age 7 – 10. The first “rock” album I ever bought was either Black Sabbath’s “Master of Reality” or Kiss “Alive” and I honestly can’t remember for sure which I bought first.

Q: When did you discover punk rock?

A: I think it was around 79. I remember all the sensationalism in the news about the Sex Pistols and how freaked out adults were by them. But that was more of an image I was aware of as opposed to the music itself, at the time at least. The first punk music to make an impression on me was the Ramones Road to Ruin album when I was about 10 or so years old.

Q: What were your first thoughts hearing this kind of music?

A: I loved it because it was really heavy yet fast, poppy and melodic at the same time. I really identified with the Ramones and to me their image would set the standard of how I wanted to be perceived. Whenever I had to get a hair cut as a kid and the person cutting my hair would ask me how I wanted my hair cut, I’d say “like the Ramones” and no one ever knew what the hell I was talking about. To me they were like the biggest rock stars of all time, as a kid you think an album is all it tales for the entire world to instantly know who you are, so I would take it for granted and just expect EVERYBODY to know the Ramones as if I was talking about the Beatles. The funny thing is, now that is the case entirely and it’s about time!

Q: Could you share the music with your friends?

A: When I was younger, even though I did have friends my own age that I’d hang out with, I spent more time hanging out with my sister’s friends who were about 6 or more years older than me. I identified with them more and that was how I was getting into a lot of rock music at an early age. That really spiraled my Sabbath phase and after checking out my sisters copy of “We Sold Our Soul for Rock and Roll” I ran out and got “Master of Reality”.  I actually used to cover “Sweat Leaf” in garage bands as a teen. By the time I was in high school many of the kids were just discovering Sabbath and Led Zeppelin for the first time, I’d already been through it and while I’ve always been very open minded to a lot of musical types and genres (and still am, if not even more so now) I had moved on pretty much full time to punk. I was on a steady diet of the Ramones, Descendents, 7 Seconds, Agent Orange, the Meatmen, the list goes on and on. That’s when I discovered the Misfits and Black Flag too.  In high school I found a couple of kids that were also into the scene and a small local punk crowd grew from us. We were all into a lot of the same music and I turned A LOT of people on to the Ramones in high school. I was kind of known as “that Ramones kid” and I was even suspended for refusing to take off my Ramones MC leather jacket in class. It was ridiculous and became a local news item on TV and in the newspapers. To me punk was more about just being yourself overall regardless of the repercussions society would dictate.

Q: When came the idea: I’d like to be a singer in punk rock band?

A: I’d always wanted to be a singer even as a little kid. Before I was immersed in punk, when I was pretty young I (maybe 8 or 9 years old I can’t remember exactly) I actually jammed a few times as the singer in a band with other members ranging from ages 16-30. The 16 year old was my sister’s boyfriend’s brother who became an older brother figure to me and the 30 year old was a guitar player/commercial artist who used to tell everyone he wanted to be my manager. They used to be freaked out that this little kid knew all these Sabbath and Zeppelin songs word for word and we’d jam in a basement. I actually sang in a properly set up mic with a full band behind me. Imagine an 8-year-old singing songs like Dancin' Days and Dyer Maker, stuff like that and you’ve got the picture. They recorded some of those jams and somewhere a tape may exist. I don’t have them though.

But it was in high school that I really had my first serious designs on fronting a “punk” band. I actually won “best band” & “best vocalist” in my high school battle of the bands doing the Ramones classics “Sheena is a punk Rocker” and “KKK Took My Baby Away” and the Descendents song “Good Good Things” which many people thought I wrote and I always had to correct them because few people seemed to know the Descendents aside from my inner circle of friends. My high school garage band actually had a decent amount of local popularity when I was a teenager and we even sold T-shirts that I screened in graphic arts class. Our cassette demos used to sell really well in Bleeker Bobs in NYC too. After a while I became more focused on TV & Film Production because I could do everything myself if and when needed. But in a band, everyone had to be as dedicated as I and that was often a tall order.

Q: Ever thought this genre would last that long? How come?

A: I always felt the Ramones in particular set a standard of music that could last eternally. So much so, that I used to take heat for being so adamant about it. The genre of music the Ramones invented defined my taste and never left. A lot of people used to laugh and turn their noses up to the Ramones back then and I could never understand it.  I always saw them, as they are finally perceived now, pure, immortal and deservedly so.

Q: Favourite punk rockband and – artist? Saw them live? Ever met them?

The Ramones. Yes I saw them live many times and yes I met them on a number of occasions both as a kid/fan and on a professional level as an adult. I was very fortunate to become friends with most of the band in my adulthood. Now Marky is not only a good friend but my bandmate as well and I’m playing the genre of music they introduced to me and inspired me with as a kid.

The first time I met the Ramones I was 16 or 17 and Marky was not in the band at the time - which is a shame because that would have made the memory even more surreal! Anyway long story short, I was in NYC and I passed a guy standing in the street holding a big cardboard sign that said RAMONES on it. I was really intrigued and excited to see this so I ran over and asked “What’s going on with the Ramones?!” and the guy said, “They’re shooting a video over at the NY Public Library, you look like one of them so go there now, tell them I sent you and they’ll put you in the video”.  When I got to the library, standing on the steps lined up like an album cover was my favorite band shooting the music video for the song “Something to Believe in” from the Animal Boy album. I told someone on the set what had happened and they immediately put me right next to Dee Dee standing in a line up with the band. At the time I was probably at a peak in my Ramonesmania so needless to say I could not believe what was happening. The band was really nice to me. I got to hang out with them all day and Dee Dee seemed genuinely happy to hear that I was a real fan and into the new album. Unfortunately the footage I was in didn’t make it into the video, but it’s housed in the Sire archives …

Q: Favourite punk rocksong and -album an why?

A: I don’t think I could ever narrow it down to only one favorite because that would be impossible for me, but I will say one of my all-time favorites is “Pleasant Dreams” by the Ramones. I think it’s because I used to listen to it constantly during my peak of Ramones fandom as a teenager and I think it’s one of their most obscure and underrated albums. There is a diverse range of unique songs and styles represented and I think it’s a little bit different from their other albums while remaining consistent with the entire catalog. That album never gets old for me. There are so many gems that have not been oversaturated yet, so it feels like my own private stash of Ramones hits. I also feel that album was during somewhat of a musical peak within the Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Marky lineup and while I cannot confirm this, it’s my opinion it was the last album before everything started to drastically deteriorate between Johnny and Joey. To me Pleasant Dreams just feels like a send off or a turning point before the kids inside the Ramones started to feel like unsatisfied adults. Probably for a number of reasons including the lack of mainstream success they so greatly deserved that continued to elude them unjustly. While the work that followed Pleasant Dreams was still great stuff, something lives in Pleasant Dreams that I feel got locked away from that point forward. Almost as if a carefree sensibility still peeked it’s head from time to time, but was not as willing to make itself as vulnerable as it once was.

About Osaka Popstar
Q: Who had the idea?

A: I did and thankfully all the participants believed in my concepts and wanted to help me see it through.

Q: What’s that idea? What’s the purpose?

A: To create something fun and entertaining carrying on in the spirit and tradition of my mentors while simultaneously injecting my eclectic tastes, cultural influences and individual personality into it, making it uniquely original.

It’s my hope that Osaka Popstar fills the void for people that miss the fun and purity in punk rock from days long gone while simultaneously introducing a new generation to the material and mentality bred in classic 70’s punk. I really like the idea of turning people onto stuff that might not have been as accessible or potentially as palatable to them if presented in it’s raw form for the first time. So basically Osaka Popstar is a new creation born of what has influenced or inspired me. It could be described as a Trojan horse of sorts in the form of a well-polished, Giant Robot.

Q: Who picked the musicians and what was the argument to convince them participating.

A: We came together very organically and no argument was necessary. I’m proud to say everyone was actually very willing and very interested in being a part of this.

Q: Daniel Johnston?

A: I’ve been a fan of Daniel’s work since around 1986 or so. I first heard him on a free form radio station in NJ called WFMU in the middle of the night. A whole block of songs from his (at the time) home dubbed cassette album ”Songs of Pain” was played on the air. One of the songs was “Wicked World”. I threw a tape into a tape deck and recorded the block of songs. I called the radio station to find out who and what this was. I was directed to a local record store in NJ that carried the homespun cassette albums of the soon to be underground legend, Daniel Johnston and I was hooked. I felt the music was pure and filled with raw emotion. The recordings were very DIY, the songs well crafted and brilliantly written yet almost obscured within a raw stripped down simplicity. Basically, very similar elements to the Ramones and a great deal of classic punk when you think about it. As I said before, I always felt punk was more of a free form state of self-expression and that’s Daniel. In many ways, he is a true punk, although his genre of music is quite different. But if you check out his recordings with the band Texas Instruments backing him up on the “Continued Story” cassette album, you’ll see Daniel as a punk even more clearly.

I’ve wanted to do a Ramones-esque cover of “Wicked World” ever since I heard it on the radio in the mid-late 1980’s. I could always hear it in my head the way we’ve performed it on the Osaka Popstar album and I’ve always wanted to sing it. To my ears, it was always a hit song but for some reason most mainstream audiences don’t hear Daniel that way. Osaka Popstar’s reinterpretation of the song has actually been getting a surprisingly decent amount of radio airplay here in the US so I guess you could say now people are hearing it as I always did.

I wanted Daniel to guest on the album as well and when I decided to do a punk make over on the bluegrass standard “Man of Constant Sorrow”, I felt Daniel would be the perfect person to embody the voice of hope within the backing vocal – answering to the “Man of Sorrow” in the song. I’m really pleased with the way it turned out and honored to have Daniel be a part of this too. I think that recording is really something special and unique.  I’m very proud of it. I honestly can’t think of anything else that sounds like it and to make something new of something so drastically different, so traditional and timeless doesn’t happen very often. I attribute it to a culmination of great talents working together and going with the flow; without self-consciousness.

Q: If Sid Vicious was still alive or Johnny Thunders, would they have been invited? Other great ‘dead’ artists that you would invite if the still were alive?

A: I don’t know about Sid or Johnny specifically because there are too many factors to consider that would have dictated that possibility, but I can say with all sincerity that one of my biggest regrets is that Joey and Dee Dee Ramone will never hear this album.

I think if they had been alive, both would have been involved. I would have asked Joey to produce or at the very least guide me, as he was my biggest influence and inspiration as a singer. So much so that although I knew him, it took some time before I started to become closer and open up to him more because I was cautious not to take him down from the pedestal I’d placed him on as a kid. Being a fan and later really knowing someone can change that perspective sometimes. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, we’re all human, but I was genuinely nervous around Joey when I first knew him because he was my biggest hero and childhood idol. Luckily, I started to let my guard down eventually and got to know him on a more casual basis before he passed away, which is something I feel very lucky and really grateful for. I was convinced he was going to come home from that hospital and Joey really led me to believe he’d be fine. When I found out Joey had passed away I was shocked and it hit me really hard like a ton of bricks. I think he knew how much I respected him and I suspect he wanted me to remember him in the image of that 16-year-old fan I ‘d always protected before knowing him – which is kinda cool. That’s one person that really lived up to his image in my opinion and never fully realized how much of an impact he really made on the world. When he died and it had the intensity of John Lennon’s death, I was really sad but found comfort seeing the world mourn him like that.

The last time I saw Dee Dee he was bursting with energy, full of life and literally beaming. I was convinced he was about to have a full resurgence in his career. He performed here in NY that night at a private event to promote his upcoming book. That night, he played and sang sounding better than ever. I was wearing Marky’s leather jacket from his days in the Ramones that night, which was passed down to me during the inception of Osaka Popstar. I later used it in the promotional campaign for the “Ramones Raw” DVD I directed. Anyway, when Dee Dee came off stage and saw me he gave me a huge hug and kissed me on the cheek like a punk Mafioso. I felt as if he was proud to see me looking like a next generation Ramone. Almost in reinforcement of his accomplishment as Marky has always told me the look of Ramones really stemmed from Dee Dee. I had a copy of the rough mix of “Wicked World” in my pocket but no CD player around. I wanted to play it for him and get his input or at least his reaction but I figured, ‘ah I’ll play it for him the next time I see him’. A couple of weeks later, Dee Dee died of an overdose and I couldn’t believe it. I would have never in a million years expected that. 2 weeks ago he was beaming with life and now he was gone forever. To this day Marky insists if Dee Dee were alive he would have loved this album and would have played on it.  Looking back on that night, I feel very lucky to have that last memory of a living legend that inspired me more than I ever knew.  His spirit is with me in that leather jacket and in retrospect I felt that hug was almost like a good luck send off into the world they inspired me to enter.  I feel very fortunate to have spent time with Joey and Dee Dee, as well as private time with Johnny before he died.  You can never take for granted what’s before you. Make the most of every opportunity because it can be gone before you know it and life is too short.

Q: Who picked the songs?

A: I did.

Q: Why these songs, why this mixture?

A: It really is a candid representation of my diverse interests and an extension of my personality. Although the culture clash I’ve created may not have been an obvious one, I think it all ties together quite well. There was no contrived rhyme or reason; it was a very natural selection for me. In my world, the world of Osaka Popstar, all of these things go together as well as peanut butter and chocolate.

Punks in the true and classic sense were and always will be outsiders or groundbreakers despite criticism and ridicule. To me, blending punk and outsiders and/or outsider music for that matter seemed like a natural progression and well suited to each other. When you really think about it, they are - and in all honesty, I just went with something subconsciously that materialized into what’s become this album. It’s really an extension of who and what I am.

  1. What’s the story behind the name ‘Osaka Popstar’?

It was a combination of reasons and events that drew me to it.

A few of the primary reasons are:

I see a certain kinship between Osaka in Japan and New York City. Both in my opinion have been breeding ground in their respective countries for great punk and a certain sensibility that I identify with.

When visiting Japan, many people assumed I was Japanese, although I am not. Which was kind of funny. People would start talking to me in Japanese and when I would try to explain I was American, many thought I was kidding around.

My vocals have a pop quality about them. It’s not contrived, it’s just the way my voice naturally sounds. I like fast, heavy, aggressive music, combined with melody and that’s the way I wanted the music to sound for Osaka Popstar. I felt the pop oriented vocals with fast, heavy; aggressive music would be well illustrated by the title “Osaka Popstar and the American Legends of Punk”.

All of those things and more led me to think of the name. Ultimately I went with it because I liked the way it sounds and I felt it ties in well with my love of Japanese anime, toys and pop culture.

I envisioned the combination of names “Osaka Popstar” and “the American Legends of Punk” as sort of a punk rock-anime themed cross breeding of Teen Titans with Justice League of America. In fact, that’s basically how I described what I was looking to convey in the cover art to Butch (Lukic) the artist that rendered the front and back cover art for the album. Coincidentally, Butch worked on Cartoon Network’s Justice League as well as DC comics, Warner Bros; Batman the Animated series and a lot of stuff that ties into that genre.

Q: What song you are most happy with?

A: All of them really but if I had to single out a few I’d say, “Wicked World”, “Shaolin Monkeys”,  “Man of Constant Sorrow” & “Blank Generation” but I really am extremely, if not equally happy with them all in their own rite.  They are each their own unique entity and I really love the fact that while there seems to be a few that reoccur as favorites, people often cite completely different songs on the album as their favorites. I think I’ve seen and heard within reviews and word of mouth nearly every song on the album cited as a standout track by different people. To me that says the record is appealing to a wide variety of tastes and that’s really satisfying to me as an artist and an oddball.

Q: Tell something about the concept ‘songs-cartoons/clips’.

A: Well I love cartoons and I actually spent some time in the 1990’s as an animator as well as producing, directing, camera op, motion control etc. for many years in TV production. I also love cartoon theme songs, which are short to the point, potent punk songs. I thought it would be cool, unique and fitting for Osaka Popstar to do punk covers of the Astro Boy and Sailor Moon theme songs and I think they worked out perfectly. In fact, our cover of Sailor Moon is often cited as a fan favorite from the album.

Q: Who you like more, Astro Boy, Sailor Moon or Mr. Prune?

A: Probably more like Astro Boy but I wear pants in public.

Q: At what public are you aiming with Osaka Popstar?

A: Anyone who likes fast fun music and is looking for something a bit different. Anyone looking to be entertained really. It was my belief that Osaka Popstar would have the ability to appeal to a very diverse mix of tastes and age ranges and so far, that seems to be the case, which makes this a lot of fun for me. It seems like everyone from fans of old school punk to teens and even kids just discovering the wide variety of music in the world have found some common ground in Osaka Popstar, which is pretty cool if you ask me.

Q: Gonna perform live with Osaka Popstar?
Q: If so, who is in the band and when?

A: Yes absolutely. This Sept. We will be on tour with the Misfits in the UK as special guests doing an Osaka Popstar set within the Misfits slot and doing the same throughout North. Am. Oct 13 – Nov. 9 on the Fiend Fest tour with a slew of great punk bands. The band will be the same as the album, Marky on drums, Jerry on Bass, Dez on guitar, Ivan on guitar and myself on vocals. The only difference is I also play some guitar on the album (“Monsters” and the X-mas intro) but with both Dez and Ivan on stage with me, guitars are very well covered live.

Q: Ever been to Holland?

A: No, not yet. But I look forward to it and hopefully we’ll perform there in the near future.

Q: Never got sick of the idea this kind of music never will reach the masses?

A: Well in a way it has through bands like Green Day who always have acknowledged their deep respect and influence from the Ramones so I’m glad to see they’ve achieved the level of success that they have.

Q: Why will punk rock last forever?

A: Because it is a pure expression born of emotion that speaks a universal language. Something that potent is timeless and breaks down all barriers.

Q: What’s the next plan for Osaka Popstar.

A: Touring and an animated series I have in development for “Shaolin Monkeys”.

Q: Will there be another album? What´s on it?

A: Yes. I have a lot of original songs written already and I will always continue to write. There are also other songs I’d like to reinterpret for the next one just as we did for this album.

Q: And what is John Cafiero doing these days?

A: Gearing up to tour and really looking forward to performing this material live with “the American Legends of Punk” on the road. Trying to get them all together in the same place at the same time can be nearly as difficult as getting Superman and Clark Kent in the room together!

That aside I am overseeing plans to facilitate several other excellent punk releases for the Misfits Records label but I can’t say anything about them just yet. There’s a lot of good stuff to come, not only from the Misfits and Osaka Popstar but some other excellent punk bands both old and new that I plan to produce in the not too distant future...