Musician Petra Hanson has never been interested in traveling the middle of the road. Her primary passion has always been finding interesting things in far-flung places, so while her peers were trying to marry a lawyer before turning 30 and, one assumes, turning into a pumpkin, she travelled the world in search of what’s behind door number three.
She wound up in Japan, where she was a member of the retro pop band Gaijin à Go Go. It was a blast until market forces interfered, and she returned to the States, taking up residence in San Francisco.
Since then, she started a blog and podcast called The B/Sider, in which she extols the virtues of being on the back of life’s “A/Side.” On life’s “A/Side,” you’re young, full of naiveté and thinking it will all last forever. As anyone who’s crossed over into over-40 territory knows, it doesn’t, and when the “A/Side” ends, it does so in a brutal and unforgiving fashion.
“Maybe you’re wondering, is this is end of the record?” she writes on the website. “Just flip it. Close your eyes and listen to a riff you haven’t heard in a while — the sound of your indie-soul, the part you neglected when life got in the way: You took a crap job just for security. You stayed in a bad relationship. You tried to win a medal… Your B/side doesn’t care if your life didn’t go as planned, if you succeeded or failed, if your ex ran away with a spoon — this is your take 2.”
We caught up with her to subject her to the “Five Questions” treatment. We also had her put together a playlist of Japanese pop B-sides, which appears at the bottom of this interview. It was by far the most difficult playlist we have ever had to assemble, so kudos to her!
TZR: When did you first start listening to music and who were your earliest musical addictions?
PH: The first time I listened to Sly and the Family Stone, I was five. That was it for me. I was lucky have been raised with that New York 70s free-range hippie style parenting that came with an incredible sound track, some of the greatest rock music known to humanity. At least that’s what my stoned-out babysitters told me. To this day, I think they were right. Before my 10th birthday, my brain was already fluent in Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, Bowie, Fleetwood Mac, the Stones, Santana, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, John Lennon, George Harrison, Wings, Peter Frampton, Elton John and throw in some Hair and Grandmaster Flash. It’s a long list.
The 80s changed everything. First, my hippy childhood embarrassed me and I began to reject the music that had defined that chapter. I rebelled with synthpop imported from the U.K. Suddenly it was all about Madness and Soft Cell. Then I went through my 80s club phase, wore lots of black eyeliner and danced to Dead or Alive. Then I went to college and became a full-time nerd. But I frequently took dance breaks to Mantronix and Public Enemy. They got me through a lot.
TZR: Can you explain what Gaijin à Go Go is and how you ended up in Japan doing it?
PH: Gaijin à Go Go my Japanese pop band that wasn’t supposed to amount to anything. By my early 30s starting a band just seemed more appealing than trying to land a husband and have a kid. So I found local musicians in New York City and went for it.
Thanks to my past as an international nerd, I could converse and possibly even sing in either Italian, French or Japanese. We took a vote and decided that a tall blond signing in Japanese would be “something new.” Our name translates in Japanese to “Dirty Foreigner à Go Go,” with the acronym “GAGG.”
We never expected that this would be the perfect formula for major success in Japan. It all started with a high-concept and a very low aim, but we ended up with an international record deal with Sony Japan. We’re like Spinal Tap, scratch the 80s hair and guitar solos. Oh, and it’s a true story.
Our style was not-terribly-sophisticated 60s pop, because it was fun. You could argue that we didn’t deserve a record deal. We weren’t very serious musicians, but we also had nothing to prove. We wanted to dress up and be silly and free, and sometimes that spirit is enough. If we could get away with playing Japanese garage and sound anything like The 188.8.131.52’s, then we’d already accomplished our goal. But we went beyond that.
Once Sony was behind us, we had the incredible fate of working with the legendary producer Joe Blaney, who worked with The Clash, Prince and Keith Richards. We got busy honing our chops, making videos, recording three CDs — Happy Go Go Lucky, Merry Go Go Round, and Go Go Bootist — opening for Puffy Ami Yumi for their US tour. It was wild.
Then one day Sony called with some mixed news. The good part was, we were a huge hit in Japan. The bad part? We had the most illegal downloads of any new artist they’d ever signed. Call it bad timing for the record industry. Bad timing for nearly every musician on the planet. We struggled to keep it together but sadly, after the recession, we flamed out. Our last show was in 2009, on the MainStage at the old Knitting Factory in Soho. At least we got to say sayonara in style.
TZR: What are you working on now?
PH: Right now I am deep into storytelling and producing shows for live audiences. I never pursued another musical project after we disbanded. I needed years to recover and process such a crazy nine-year ride. But it made such a great story, and I missed connecting with an audience. So I became a big fan and supporter of The Moth in New York, a nonprofit storytelling group. When they invited me to tell my story of accidental fame in Japan for the MainStage, it was intimidating, but I said yes. After a very positive reaction from crowds in Aspen and Austin, I was convinced I had the makings of a memoir.
And there’s already a plot twist in the works. Last year Gaijin à Go Go briefly reunited! We made a few rare appearances this year in New York, which re-sparked my love for performing with the same band that always felt like family. I’m not sure where we’ll play next. But it will probably be on the west coast, where there’s a huge scene for weirdos impersonating Japanese 60’s pop bands. Just kidding.
TZR: Can you talk a little bit about what The B/Sider is and how you got the idea for it?
PH: Ahhh. Glad you asked. The B/Sider is my new passion project. It’s less about music and more about my new live storytelling series in San Francisco. The theme references vintage vinyl as a metaphor for the B/side of life, where taking a fierce risk ends up better than playing it safe or being a hit in the mainstream.
The idea came to me after submitting my memoir proposal to a publishing house. They didn’t reject or accept it, they responded with, “Love your writing style and your story! But memoirs are, like, not selling. Could you just re-write your book as a dystopian novel for millennials?”
Fair enough. She knew her market. But what was I supposed to do with that? I have a true story to write. And are memoirs really not selling? And I’m not interested in the trend of Millennial worship in our culture. Period.
So I created The B/Sider because I couldn’t find any role models, or anything that wasn’t on theme with zombies, mommy blogs and dystopian novels. I saw that the number game of the internet, publishing and the entertainment industry didn’t count people like me — single women over 40 who didn’t choose a traditional path of marrying and having kids.
There are bajillions of us out there, quietly dealing with our status as second-class citizens, or as Bro culture likes to call us, cat ladies. It’s 2018 and I thought we deserved something cooler than that. The B/Sider began as a personal blog, with some B-Side LP set lists thrown in. Now it’s a podcast and show where I coach people from all walks of life to tell their stories.
What I’ve learned is that when you speak up about your own shame and struggles, you set others free. Who knew The B/Sider would be a draw for 35 year old dude programmers at Google? Turns out they also feel pressured about aging out of their field. So maybe my dystopian novel for millennials is writing itself?
TZR: How was your recent trip to Japan to do the whole Gaijin à Go Go thing again?
PH: Yes, recently I went back to Japan to reconnect that part of my past. The trip wasn’t really band-related.
My story with Japan goes way back. I’d lived in Tokyo years before I had the band. This time I wanted to see old friends and how things had changed over there. Also, I wanted to jog my memory, so I could write accurately for my “dystopian novel for millennials.”
Traveling to Japan still feels like going to another planet. The mechanical sounds, the insanely complex subway, the attention to worldwide cuteness, well-designed bathrooms, laser-carved seaweed and spiritual connection with cats… I could go on and on. My love for the culture is as profound as it ever was.
At first, everything was as I’d remembered, including getting lost at every turn. That felt very familiar. But by the third day, I found it — the big difference between then and now. Once upon a time, nobodies like me and Hollywood stars alike went over there to make mad-cash to appear on a billboard selling something random like vacuum cleaners or ramen.
Well, those days are gone. The Japanese no longer worship foreigners. Lately there’s been a big trend in promoting their own national stars, who are largely unknown outside of Japan. This shift makes my band’s story extremely rare! We were part of a place in time that’s totally over. It couldn’t happen today.
Insider tip for copycats? I suggest you hit up North Korea. But do it fast. Trump is destroying our American export value as we speak.