Published on April 8th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron2
Interview: Itaru from COHOL
— By Beige Baron and Yoshi Fukae
“My whole life has been leading up to this moment. I have to give it absolutely everything I have otherwise I’m going to feel guilty. I’m going to regret it.”
Blue light explodes behind dark figures: one slight, face covered by waist-long hair, the other shrouded head-to-toe in mummies’ rags. A surge of electricity rips through the crowd, drumsticks hiss on hi-hats, and the rest is given up to ecstatic oblivion.
After the show, my friends try to figure out what the hell COHOL just did to us in subterranean Osaka. How does depressing black and hardcore music transform itself into something euphoric and uplifting?
We hope we can express our feelings about real life here in Japan in an original way
Those voices—one from the mummified bassist, Hiromasa, and the other from Itaru, on guitar—are an intertwining howl of rage and despair. But at the music’s core—beneath the screaming, the churning riffs, and face-melting blast-beat—is something fragile and hopeful. It’s that mix of light and shade that grips your attention; there’s innocence wrestling with cynicism inside the music giving it a compelling and dynamic power.
With just one long-player and a Split EP to their name after almost 10 years together, fans have been desperate for some new material–and finally the wait is almost over, with an new LP entitled 裏現 [“Rigen”] ready for release this spring.
“It’s been eight years since we released our first album 空洞 [kuu-dho, Hollow],” says guitarist and vocalist Itaru from his home in Tokyo. “It was our very first album. We sort of recorded and arranged songs we’d been playing live to make a record. But this second album has a clear concept, it’s based around [bassist/vocalist] Hiromasa’s lyrics and around his experiences.”
I think people from our generation have felt the same sort of internal conflict and can relate to it
It turns out that growing up in Japan wasn’t always easy. The pressure to conform is ever present. It permeates everything. For many kids, embracing a style of music or a subculture that lies outside the boundaries of “normal”—or even just questioning why things are the way they are—risks isolation at school or at work, of finding themselves outside of a close-knit society that values belonging above all else. No nail wants to tempt the hammer by sticking up.
With social isolation come feelings of guilt and self-recrimination. Why can’t I fit in? Why am I letting everybody down? What’s the point of anything? A tragic recent statistic suggested that of all adolescent deaths in Japan, more than half are the result of suicide.
“[Hiromasa’s] lyrics for Hollow were about inner conflict, about being human. For this record, he’s describing the progression from a state of suffering to the point where you decide to stand up and step outside of that inner world, to fight it.
The lyrics are a reflection of Hiromasa’s experience, but I think people from our generation have felt the same sort of internal conflict and can relate to it. It’s an honest description of what it feels like for us living in Japan right now.”
We hope we can express our feelings about real life here in Japan in an original way
Just as some kids felt crushed under the weight of outwardly progressive and harmonious societies of Norway and Sweden–and created not only a new form of art but an entire subculture to express it–COHOL’s frustration finds release in the musical catharsis of black metal and in the spittle-flecked refusal of hardcore.
“The world of black metal grabs our souls but it’s not really a perfect fit. Because, you know, the lifestyle, history, soil, body-shape, language—everything about European culture is different. We really like metal and respect the great acts that came before, but if we straight up replicate what they do, then it’s not real for us.
“So like a lot of original bands, expressing our real feelings is what motivates us—otherwise we couldn’t be true artists. For us, black magic, Satanism, and hell are not connected to our real life. We hope we can express our feelings about real life here in Japan in an original way, as Japanese who were born not in western countries but in here Japan. Perhaps what comes out of COHOL is ‘Wow, it’s fucking great to find some joy in a life that’s full of conflict and suffering!’”
So that’s part of the reason Hiromasa chooses to write in Japanese? It seems like every second band is writing in English, everyone dyes their hair, wears western brand-name clothes, idolizes western celebrities…
“Hiromasa writes in Japanese to better express his world, to keep its purity. From the very beginning we wanted to cut through to the Japanese listener’s soul with lyrics and music that grew out of Japanese soil. If our songs can find strength and flourish in our home field, then hopefully they’ll have the strength to cross borders. That’s our challenge.”
What about the songwriting process? Each of the three members’ parts seems intricate and complex yet when fitted together, they form a seamless and rhythmic whole.
“I started playing the guitar when I was 12 years old, when I just entered junior high school. Ever since the moment I saw some senior students playing in a band at our induction party, I got totally absorbed in music. Influences? Maybe [R&B singers] Kazumasa Oda and Toshinobu Kubota? From a cassette my mother used to listen to every day,” he laughs. “That was my introduction to music.
“But in terms of how COHOL write, we have a shared vision. Each member creates their own ideas for a song independently and then brings them back to the group, makes them understandable. Then we go to the studio and finalize the song. Repeat.”
For any band, attracting a wider following outside the local scene can be a challenge. For non-English speaking acts without access to stages in the west, the difficulties are even greater. European or American groups promote themselves through bandcamp, put their albums on YouTube, work social media. For independent bands in Japan, it’s different. Digital downloads are not universally offered. There’s no Spotify. The culture—in fact the whole music business—is still in love with CD, and that can sometimes put a barrier between western audiences and some excellent local music. Why does this difference exist?
The natural response is to not want to hear any more, to just shut down
“That’s a deep question. I think it’s kind of up to the band. As a musician, it’s nonsense to tell listeners how to listen and dig your songs. I think it’s good that downloading and streaming is increasing, although problems arise when someone sets up that way of listening as a business [in Japan]. Personally I prefer CDs and cassettes but downloading music is pretty convenient. Sometimes I download someone’s new release and listen to it while jogging.”
Fresh off a national tour taking in the tropical island of Okinawa in southern Japan, which has a pace of life and culture quite different to that of mainland Japanese, I wondered whether the band got different responses when performing in different regions.
“The further from information-overloaded cities you go, the more open-minded the audience. It depends on how you present yourself. Even where I live, it’s possible to break through the ‘Tokyo iciness’ and make a solid connection with fans and end up being friends with them.
“But it’s true that people become harder to impress in such an information-overloaded world, myself included. When I walk in Shibuya or Shinjuku, I’m totally overwhelmed by information, like hit-chart music, ads for restaurants, people preaching religion or right-wing politics, ads for fashion companies, ads for brothels.
I just want to know that I put in 100 per cent of my energy and came home exhausted and with a smile on my face.
“It’s totally inescapable and it comes into my ears, my eyes, my skin so violently. The natural response is to not want to hear any more, to just shut down. Like people handing out those promotional tissue packets [often advertising loan shark companies] at subway stations, I wonder where that poison comes from. It’s like a bribe, isn’t it? It designed to stimulate your natural reaction at receiving a gift; it rips down your defenses so the sales pitch is imprinted on your subconscious. It’s horrible.”
Like social pollution?
“Yeah. I hate this kind of life. I don’t want to be a cold and frozen person. Music keeps me in the right place though.”
COHOL’s last release was a split record with Heaven In Her Arms on Daymare. The new record will be put out by French label Osmose later this spring.
“It’s an honor for me. It’s been my lifelong dream to go on tour in Europe and release a record on a European label ever since I was in junior high, and from when I met Hiromasa and we started playing together. It’s getting closer to reality with Kyosuke and the current COHOL lineup.”
For Itaru and COHOL, it seems that music is an escape, a salvation, and a way of expressing the truth about how they feel as Japanese.
“My whole life has been leading up to this moment. Music is my life. I have to give it absolutely everything I have otherwise I’m going to feel guilty. I’m going to regret it. I’d like to give it our best in Europe with my fists up high. The result or response is not important, I just want to know that I put in 100 per cent of my energy and came home exhausted and with a smile on my face.”