Though Kawabata Makoto doesn’t claim alignment with any specific brand of spirituality or philosophy—“I believe only in my cosmos … I live until I die,”—there is something Confucian about this supremely gifted guitarist that runs as deep as his shamanic, Father Yod appearance might suggest.
When explaining his music, Kawabata can at first seem opaque, but turn his answers over in your mind for a while, think a little less superficially, and everything begins to make sense, derailing trains of calcified thought and opening new perspectives not only on his prolific work with the Acid Mothers Temple ecosystem, Mainliner, and his solo output, but also on any improvisational music that aims to enlighten.
“I am like a radio tuner—I catch music from my cosmos”
To Kawabata Makoto, the harshest noise is pure silence. Technique is useless on its own, but an essential component to creations with meaning. Rehearsal and practicing sucks joy out of music, but telepathic connection between members, a sixth sense, is prerequisite to musicality and can only come from playing together. The audience is nothing, but at the same time, it’s everything.
His most insane and chaotic free-jazz-inspired experiments (such as those with Musica Transonic) are largely scripted note-for-note; but Mainliner’s apparently composed monolithic structures (think Black Sky) and the vibrant eruption of life, like microbes thriving in an undersea vent—is improvisation in its purest form.
It’s as if the acceptance of not understanding—not analysing, but feeling—is the key to understanding what makes Mainliner’s music so overwhelming. This, after all, is rock: it’s supposed to be a thunderclap, something that stimulates every sense, Zen at a million volts.
“All my music comes from my cosmos,” Kawabata explains. “I am like a radio tuner—I catch music from my cosmos. Then I just play and find the correct sound tones and colors.”
We’re talking about his second reactivation of Mainliner about 20 years after its original inception, again with Bo Ningen bassist and vocalist Taigen Kawabe (the first “reunion” was in 2013 with the record Revelation Space issued on Riot Season), a tour planned for July, and a new recording with Kawabe, Kawabata, and long-serving drummer Shimura Koji. But first, I ask what originally motivated Kawabata to help form Mainliner back in 1996.
“I think the reason people need to rehearse is they don’t understand each other”
“The founder and leader of Mainliner in its previous form, Nanjo Asahito, asked me to join his new heavy psychedelic group instead of High Rise,” Kawabata says. “He had another idea about heavy psychedelic rock that High Rise couldn’t play.
“We then formed a new band with my friend and free-jazz drummer Koizumi Hajime, also he was also a founder of Acid Mothers Temple. Hajime and I had already started a new band: the music was psychedelic rock with lots of irregular meters … Nanjo liked this idea too, so we joined with him.
“You can learn more about his concept for this new band Mainliner from his notes on the backside of the CD jacket on our first album Mellow Out.”
Nanjo is a one-in-a-million artist whose ability to draw disparate elements from within the experimental music community together into groundbreaking bands is matched only by a determination to never tread on the same musical ground twice, and to firmly and consciously reject influences from both his own country and from without, has been a pioneer within the scene for some 30 years.
He joined with Kawabata in the late 1990s to lay down two key albums that stamped Mainliner’s sound in smoking pig-iron: Mellow Out and Mainliner Sonic a year later [both of which have been reissued and are now available on vinyl and CD on Riot Season].
Following Nanjo’s departure, I wonder how Kawabata approached Taigen Kawabe with the idea of reforming the band after a decade since the previous album of new material from the original lineup, Imaginative Plain on P.S.F.? And what is it he loves most about Koji Shimura’s drumming?
“I don’t remember when and how I met Taigen for the first time. Probably it was at an Acid Mothers Temple show in London.
“When I decided to reunite Mainliner, I had to find a new bassist/vocalist to replace the founding member Nanjo, because Nanjo had retired from musical activity for a long time.
“I had a few candidates, but I chose Taigen even though he lives in London. I had seen Bo Ningen live a couple of times, and I felt he could fit in with Mainliner. I also wanted to make him flower into a different musical style from his work in Bo Ningen.
“And Koji’s drums really ROCK! I think he’s not so much a technical drummer, though, but his drumming always makes me rock!”
With only a few weeks remaining until Mainliner hit the road, I ask how the band is sounding, and whether they are planning to play old or new material, or if they would try to ad lib the entire show.
“I don’t like rehearsals. Personally, rehearsals make me lose interest in playing these songs. I need to keep a kind of nervous tension or energy for playing music. If I play the same song too many times, I just lose interest in playing the song.
“That’s why we don’t rehearse many times, maybe only once before a tour, or there’s no rehearsal at all… but then, I understand the members of the band.
“You know,” he muses, “I think the reason people need to rehearse is they don’t understand each other. So they need common rules established by rehearsals.
“We’re going to play new songs and one old song Black Sky from the first album Mellow Out. We are also recording a new album now; it will be finished this year.”
With redlined volume and the way the shape of every live house can affect the sound, I ask whether Kawabata has any foreknowledge of how the gig will sound with a full room, or how much tweaking needs to be done to get it sounding good.
“Rock should be played loud as possible! We just use all our amps with full gain!” More laughter. “If we could use 100,000,000 amps, we’d wanna use all of them turned up to 10!”
With Mainliner’s roots straddling High Rise, Acid Mothers Temple, and free jazz, along with their pioneering work (with other Japanese greats like Les Rallizes Denudes, Keiji Haino’s Fushitsusha, and Kousokuya) in pushing the concept of “noise rock” in a new direction, was that whole scene an influence on Mainliner?
“What is ‘noise rock’? I don’t know what it is. We didn’t get any influence from noise music. We were influenced by many kinds of music, even European medieval music. For composing and playing Mainliner’s music, I felt more of an influence from contemporary music, like Iannis Xenakis, Giacinto Scelsi, and so on.
And how about gear? Was that a factor in developing that tactility of sound; does the equipment and the tones it creates drive composition?
“I don’t need any equipment. I am like a radio tuner—I catch music from my cosmos. I always use almost the same equipment, even with solo, as I do with Mainliner and any other projects because I can play almost any music and sound tones using my present gear.
“I also know my equipment very well. I don’t want to change much about my equipment, because I’ve already got enough for any music that I want to play.”
I mention an interview where Kawabata was quoted as saying that he didn’t consider music a personal expression, but rather a reflection, or what the audience sees of their selves. I wonder if he cares at all what the reaction is to his music?
“The three important, necessary things for me about the ‘live show’ are time, place, and people.”
“I’ve never composed any music, because all my music comes from my cosmos. Anybody who can feel will have a reaction to my music: to me, it doesn’t matter what the reaction is. People can enjoy or even hate my music by themselves.
“I believe any music should be shared by people … music is not a musician’s possession! Musicians can be alive by offering music!”
Somewhat tentatively, and with a certain meme fresh in my mind (it pictured a group of people on hands and knees earnestly photographing a pair of spectacles, accidentally dropped and forgotten on the polished wood floors of an upscale art gallery—they mistakenly thought it was an exhibit), I broach a topic about which I am both curious as hesitant to ask: if experimental art is unique, then judgment of its quality must be wholly subjective as there is nothing else to compare it to objectively.
After all, what separates the scrawls of a child from the scrawls of a modern master? Is it, in the end, just the reaction of the audience or of the creator of the work that defines the quality of experimental music?
“The reaction of other people doesn’t matter!” Kawabata insists. “But of course, I need an audience, especially at shows. The three important, necessary things for me about the ‘live show’ are time, place, and people. That’s what gives my playing meaning, being there, at that time, with those people.
“Even people who don’t know anything about music, not necessary just ‘experimental music’, should make up their own minds if its ‘good’ or ‘bad’ on their own. ‘I like it’, or, ‘I don’t like it’! I have always judged only by whether ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’, that’s all, that’s enough!
“Because everyone has different values, people have to respect each other’s values. I don’t care about ‘success’ or not. What is success? If I can sell a million discs, people will say it’s a success, but that’s totally pointless for music. I just want to be a better radio tuner for my cosmos. That’s all, and that’s enough.”
What emotions does Kawabata feel when he plays in Mainliner? Is it a joyful feeling, or aggression, blissful escape?
“Nothing. Not necessary just with Mainliner, even with Acid Mothers Temple, playing solo, in any situation. I just concentrate on catching music more clearly from my cosmos, that’s all.”
Use of disorientating voice echo, heavy repetition, frenzied attacks of guitar and rhythmic patterns that move and shift beneath your feet give some of Mainliner’s work an almost nightmarish quality, at least to me. A feeling of being trapped, the colossal noise and distortion is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, an Edvard Munch painting come to life, a horror movie created by my own mind.
“When I went to super-loud, harsh noise gigs, I always felt silence”
“To me, it doesn’t matter what you felt from Mainliner’s music,” says Kawabata. “You said yourself that it was ‘created by your own mind’. You imagined it like that. But it’s not my thing. It’s just your thing.”
So in everyday life, does Kawabata look for experiences that challenge you or make him uncomfortable? Why do you think it is necessary for people?
“Of course, there many uncomfortable things and comfortable things in life, it’s normal. The human race needs these experiences to be alive.”
I change tacks, hoping for insight on what makes “heavy” music “heavy” when the softest music can hit with wrecking-ball force.
“I can’t understand what you mean by ‘soft’. Even if I try to guess what you want to say to me, I just don’t get the same feeling as you about music. Although, I do share the same experience as you in some respects, for example, when I went to super-loud, harsh noise gigs, I always felt silence. ‘Too loud’ changed to ‘silence’, that’s the way I’ve gone to sleep, always.”
In a question that again underscores the idea that with Mainliner and Kawabata Makoto, things are not always what they seem, I decide to ask about drugs. About the apparent tension that exists between bands like High Rise, that on the surface appear to celebrate use of amphetamines with albums titles like Psychedelic Speed Freak, Mainliner’s own overt and oblique references, and the apparent endorsement of the Acid Mothers Temple collective’s experimentation with psycho-active drugs.
But in fact, as I learn later, High Rise’s adoption of English drug slang was actually a reaction to having the band’s friends dying around them from overdoses, influenced also by Keiji Haino’s unequivocal denouncement of all intoxicants: a kind of “fuck you” to the drug scene and an encouragement to get high instead on music.
The answer to the question in relation to Acid Mothers Temple, however, remains more nebulous, so I ask if drugs like weed and psychedelics were legalized tomorrow in Japan, one of the world’s most intolerant societies when it comes to possession, if Kawabata thinks society might change in any way?
To him, is the Japanese attitude good or bad?
“Probably society would stay the same… even with a change regarding marijuana, if people want to take something, they never reach any next-stage level, ever. But people are faced with many choices.
“Anyway it doesn’t matter; this is not my business. But I’ll share with you one of Acid Mothers Temple’s slogans: ‘Do whatever you want. Don’t do whatever you don’t want!’”