Published on March 2nd, 2017 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview | Kikagaku Moyo
Does Japanese psych and folk music have a unique voice? Something in the geography or culture, beyond language, that gives it a distinctive character?
The question can flatter or frustrate Japanese artists.
Some think that, if true, the indescribable atmosphere that pervades Japanese psych and acid-folk is related to wabi-sabi: embracing the impermanent and imperfect.
Others, like Kikagaku Moyo, want music from Asia “taken on its own terms”.
“We were nervous about how people would react to our music here in Japan…”
From the beginning, Kikagaku Moyo has had a global approach to music, gigging more often overseas than at home.
Musically, too, an appreciation for global psychedelia is reflected in influences as varied as vintage Hindustani raga, American free jazz, Afrobeat, Zamrock, Swedish folk, Krautrock, and proto-electronica, overtones of which are felt just as strongly as staples like The Beatles, Hendrix, Floyd, and the Stones.
The band’s mission is to give their music life beyond the recording by seeking an active connection with the audience and using it to shape their improvisations as they unfold on stage.
Live, recorded versions of songs become almost unrecognizable, familiar structures overwhelmed in shifting rhythms, cascading solos, relentless bass grooves.
Witnessing Kikagaku Moyo really unleash on stage is an unforgettable experience.
The torch is passed from member to member like a metaphysical joint, audience closing the circle. Witnessing Kikagaku Moyo really let go on stage is an unforgettable experience.
A sense of ritual and fluid approach to composition is shared by other bands, such as organic hypno-rhythm group The Myrrors, with whom Kikagaku Moyo formed an early friendship.
Having English-speaking members in the band helped break down some of the barriers to western audiences and allowed friendships between Kikagaku Moyo and other bands to flourish. This made the logistics of touring easier, and the band was able to slowly build a community of fans all over the world.
It says a lot about Kikagaku Moyo’s approach that its members already had a label on which to release their earliest recordings. Rather than a digital storefront pulled together at the last minute, Guruguru Brain Records was established before Kikagaku Moyo “took off” as a way to showcase local talent.
We talked with drummer Go Kurasawa ahead of European and American tours about community, elitism in music, and the need for artists and audiences alike to nourish their underground art scenes.
BNU: Kikagaku Moyo grew out of relationships with bands all over the world that you formed yourself. You seem proactive in that way, in communicating with bands you like from overseas.
It’s absolutely true that we proactively wanted to reach out beyond Japan’s borders, to connect with not only a broader group of fans, but with a more diverse group of musical collaborators.
In terms of making music alongside other creatives, for example, the show we played at Paris Fashion Week for Issey Miyake’s runway, we thought not only about whether the combination would expand our community or fan base, but also whether or not we were artistically compatible.
“We are also looking at non-musical features from which to draw inspiration…”
We considered the fact that the designers at Issey Miyake took inspiration from the same things as we do: the colors of a particular place, the nature contained therein, the shapes of the buildings. For that particular collection, the Holi Festival, which takes place in India, inspired him and his approach was to investigate these tangential aspects of the event rather than to examine the local fashions themselves.
We could very much relate to this, as we are also looking at non-musical features from which to draw inspiration. Recognizing this shared approach, we felt as though we could collaborate to create something beautiful and in-sync.
BNU: With the Guruguru Brain label that you started, you’ve helped promote bands other than your own. I’m thinking of the compilation record you released featuring underground bands that presented some new opportunities for them. Do you think that’s part of the reason for your success—you understand you have to give in order to get?
Releasing our music from our label was not the first purpose of starting Guruguru Brain
Certainly we have learned time and again from our experience as musicians within the music industry that those people who are successful and enduring are those who are generous with their time and efforts.
So there is a direct need to give, perhaps initially to pay one’s dues, and later as a way of fostering a more thought-provoking and varied musical landscape for us to work within. We feel that it is within that kind of scene that we will enable ourselves to continue being engaged and inspired, whether as a band or as label-heads.
Our goal for Guruguru Brain was to encourage Asian musicians to investigate the musical possibilities outside of their home continent. There are real and concrete barriers to this, both cultural and practical. Many young Japanese people in particular are not comfortable in English, and we have to consider this when presenting them with overseas touring opportunities.
We try to be as thoughtful and holistic as possible when nurturing their careers, and facilitating those international forays. Releasing our music from our label was not the first purpose of starting Guruguru Brain. But having seen business practices that were more mercenary than from other labels, it made sense for us to also release Kikagaku Moyo on our own label.
BNU: In Australia in the late ’70s and ’80s, influential bands like The Birthday Party, The Saints, and The Go-Betweens had to move to London to have a chance at a career. Locals ignored them until they became successful overseas. Even today, a lot of bands relocate to the US or Europe. Do you think Japanese listeners share this ambivalence toward local underground music? Do they want their indie bands “validated” by overseas recognition?
“There is kind of a post-colonial hangover that we are experiencing outside of the States and the UK.”
I think that there is kind of a post-colonial hangover that we are experiencing outside of the States and the UK. Not just in regards to the music industry, but to arts culture in general.
It is difficult for music that is made outside these centers to be read on its own terms rather than as music from “fill the blank”. This applies to Australian bands also, but I think that it is especially easy for Asian musicians to be ignored at home, and pigeonholed abroad.
We were aware of that, and it has, to some extent, factored into our decision to tour to the degree that we do. It must be said, though, that we see playing overseas as integral to our development as musicians. Because we morph our music when playing live to the moods and reactions of the audience; we needed to play in front of a variety of people in order to be able to develop the sound we have today.
If you look purely at numbers, the music market in Japan is huge…
One of the obstacles to other young bands doing this is that the main markets of the music industry are still in the West. That’s where all the recognized media, distributors, labels, and festivals are. If you look purely at numbers, the music market in Japan is huge, but it is highly specific, and operates in a completely different way. So it’s very tricky for musicians to straddle the divide.
In order for fans to be proud of homegrown talent, probably the industry, both here and in the West, needs to change a little. It’s something we struggle with. As the label, we aim to subvert this “tagging” of bands as Asian. By choosing to only represent bands from Asia, we have the opportunity to show the diversity and richness of music from this area on its own terms.
BNU: Having experienced success overseas, have you experienced any backlash from local fans, as sometimes happens? How do you deal with that?
To be totally honest, we were slightly nervous about how people would react to our music here in Japan. It had been about a year since we’d last played in Tokyo, and we were unsure as to what the reception would be.
“We had to accept the music we played in the studio would be different from that performed live.”
This time, we structured our time here into a Japanese tour, playing in four different cities, including Tokyo, which is our hometown. We were really thrilled with the result and felt a strong connection to the audience.
One of the biggest things was the variety of people that came to see us. It was really nice to see people who were obviously hardcore fans of psych music, alongside people who are perhaps more a part of the indie scene, or the trance scene, whatever.
BNU: How many years of practicing did it take to get good enough to focus on Kikagaku Moyo as a tour-ready outfit? How much of the concept came from talking and listening, and how much from jamming together? Was there a point when you felt what you had was special, and that you should go for it?
We honestly never got to a point where we said to ourselves, “OK, we’re ready.” Our performance and musical style was hugely developed through our time spent on stage, touring. We began to play shows overseas really early in the band’s career, and haven’t stopped.
“We don’t see jamming as just a way to develop new sounds, but as an end in and of itself.”
I still remember our first show abroad, which was in Melbourne. We weren’t sure if people would like our music, but in playing the show we came to the realization that if we were to focus on simply trying to recreate recorded tracks, we wouldn’t be able to generate a “performance”. So I think we had to let go of that, and accept that the music that we played in the studio would be completely different from that which we performed live.
It’s that kind of back-and-forth feedback from the crowd that gave us the confidence to continue what we are doing. The music and the performance style have both developed a lot since then, but it was this kind of “positivity reverb” from crowds who obviously connected to what it was we were trying to convey that helped us to continue developing.
While jamming is also intrinsic to what we do, we feel as though there is a distinction between how we use improvisation to create new songs for recording, and as a part of our performance.
It was this kind of “positivity reverb” from crowds who obviously connected to what it was we were trying to convey…
Applicable to both is the idea that improvising is a skill, which needs to be honed and developed. We don’t see jamming as just a way to develop new sounds, but as an end in and of itself.
For example, recently we have been aiming to perform jam sessions that are like a live composition, where the format of a structured song is laid over the improvisation. First we improvise a theme, and then we divert from it, returning now and again, to provide something more layered and narrative-based than a normal jam.
Having been satisfied with the results of these experiments, we are now planning to release an EP in spring this year, with some of the jams we played in the Czech Republic. Nonetheless, the whole thing is really mutable—much more process-based than about waiting for the sound to be “ready”.
BNU: How much of a rehearsal do you give to writing new songs? Do the members come up with ideas in isolation and bring them to rehearsal?
How much rehearsal a song needs depends very much on its structure. We like to maintain the energy and spontaneity on the recorded tracks, so we prefer not to record more than one or two takes.
We find that it’s possible to conceive new stuff on tour, or more specifically to continue to remain alert to different things that will later form the basis of inspiration for a song. Because we are inspired by natural imagery in particular, touring is a good time to take in these new visual stimuli, with the landscape around us changing from day to day.
This basis for creating new songs also means that we are able to work on melodies and concepts in isolation, and then bring them to practice.
For example, Ryu took a trip to Kyoto recently. He was passing an isolated temple, when he came across one of the monks. They got to talking, and the monk invited him for tea.
This basis for creating new songs also means that we are able to work on melodies and concepts in isolation, and then bring them to practice.
They sat in the tatami room chatting softly, but every once in a while there would be a pause. In the silence, there was a call of a nightingale from inside the woods, but only when the conversation slowed. It was kind of a call and response, it seemed to Ryu, between the human conversation and the natural world. It was a very peaceful moment, that, when he described to us, we were all able to picture clearly.
This was the inspiration for our jam session that evening, from which we took the melody for a new song.
BNU: One of the most surprising things seeing you live was the different energy to the songs. Is capturing the live energy on tape something you want to work on further?
For us, jamming is a bit like performance art: a little bit thrilling and unpredictable, not just for the audience, but for the band members too.
“With The House in the Tall Grass record, our intention was to send listeners on a mental journey.”
For example, as the drummer, I get a clear view of the front row. I can see people dancing, sometimes incredibly intensely, and often to a rhythm of their own. I then incorporate those rhythms back into the music, with a variation on the beat.
In those situations we feel as though the barrier between audience and performer is being broken down, and a result is produced that could never have been created in the studio. It’s somehow much more human.
Conversely, with The House in the Tall Grass record, our intention was to send listeners on a mental journey. We imagine you closing your eyes, leaning back on a nice couch, and imagining a place you’d rather be: floating underwater, or wandering atop clouds.
I don’t know that we necessarily want to conflate the two styles of listening or bring them closer together, if that is even possible.
BNU: What bands does Kikagaku Moyo share that gave you that “holy shit!” moment when you first heard them, like Jeannie from The Velvet Underground song? Was there a band in particular that brought you together, or do you all have totally separate tastes?
We do all listen to really different kinds of music, which enables us to share different sounds that we like with one another. Recently, at practice we listened to Can’s Lost Tapes together, and we were amazed at how their jam moved and flowed.
“It brought to mind a flock of birds in flight…”
It brought to mind a flock of birds in flight: tight drums and bass layered with the sounds of the guitar, vocals, and keyboard.
The transition within the jams sometimes borders on the abrupt, but because everyone reacts so quickly, the suddenness of the changes become a stylistic feature, allowing the band to generate a host of moods within one track.
One song in particular we all really enjoy listening to is on a record by Blackfoot. It has a really warm mix of sounds, which isn’t mirrored in anything that I’ve heard in contemporary bands.
BNU: To return to playing locally, you seem critical of the “pay to play” system in Japan. Ticket prices for punters are high. Is that the reason people don’t have an awareness of music happening off the TV screen? Do you think the alternative—low cover charges and big rooms of people there to drink and talk rather than listen—is better than the Japanese system?
So in the ’80s and ’90s when the profit bubble was affecting Japan, many people used their excess cash to open music venues. Those individuals ran their spaces as businesses, rather than from the perspective of wanting to nurture new music.
While on tour, I had the opportunity to talk to promoters, venue owners, and bands about where the live music scene in Japan is heading. One told me that there are eight live venues in a small Osaka district called America-mura. All these venues put on shows daily with three or four bands, reaping healthy profits. Not only has the band forked out $300 to play, but the ticket prices are also US$18 a head for even local unknown performers.
Because of the dwindling population in Japan, fewer bands will be coming up through the scene…
So, these venues still exist today, and for bands willing to pay, they will provide not only a space, but also a small army of staff to assist the band in setting up.
In the future, because of the dwindling population in Japan, fewer bands will be coming up through the scene. If we aren’t protecting the underground, and as musicians, being more discerning about the venues we play and the terms on which we perform, then there won’t be an underground in the future.
The responsibility then rests on all of us. As musicians, it may initially be an appealing prospect to play somewhere where you will immediately be in a large venue, with an excellent sound system, an engineer, and staff to help you set up.
But if you learn to set up your own equipment, and hack the poorer quality sound for a while, then playing to smaller rooms and cultivating and adding to the underground scene will allow these types of DIY venues to flourish. The venue will be able to afford to do so because of their lower overheads.
The outcome will be a good one for bands, venues, and also audiences. It will be cheaper to attend, but venues can still make a profit, and we will be seeing a healthy variety of musicians finding success.
“Long hair has a different history and set of associations for us as Japanese than it does for people from abroad.”
BNU: Although your songs don’t seem political, your image, with the long hair and beards, seems so in that it’s suggestive of an alternative lifestyle. Do you see any parallels in your philosophy as a band and the ideal of an alternative lifestyle as many hoped for in the late 1960s? With the social inequality today, and the celebration of ignorance and authoritarianism, pursuing the utopian ideal seems more necessary now than it was then.
Until the Meiji period, it was quite normal for Japanese people to sport long hairstyles. It was only after Westerners “opened” Japan to trade and influence from Europe and the USA that we cut off our chonmage and learned to adopt Western short hairstyles.
So long hair has a different history and set of associations for us as Japanese than it does for people from abroad. This perspective gave me a different outlook on the imperialistic gender norms that we have adopted from abroad, and it’s irked me from a young age.
My teachers often berated me as a child because my hair was not naturally straight. I even had to get special dispensation from the school after my parents wrote a letter to inform the school staff that, in fact, this was my natural hair; it hadn’t been permed. Meanwhile, girls were permitted to wear their hair however they wanted. It seemed so arbitrary and ridiculous.
My teachers often berated me as a child because my hair was not naturally straight.
Those kinds of restrictive gender norms are harmful in any context, but I suppose they were especially noticeable to me by virtue of the fact that these particular prejudices were imported.
For that reason, I associate the long hairstyle more with a resistance of imperialism and gender norms, than specifically with the ’60s and ’70s counter-culture movement.
BNU: I’m curious about the electric sitar you use in the band. It’s not like a regular sitar. Was it custom-made? Who made it? How does the tuning work with the other guitars?
The sitar Ryu uses is custom-made by RihkRam in Delhi, a company that has been crafting sitars for over 100 years. It uses the same kind of tuning mechanism as a guitar, so it is easer to manipulate. Ryu specially customized the both the bridge and the pickup. The sitar’s tuning only ranges between C and D#, so he physically changes the frets for each song.
The sitar’s tuning only ranges between C and D#, so he physically changes the frets for each song.
BNU: Kikagaku Moyo could not be what it is without the rhythm section, your bass player is a machine. How do you explain the telepathy the drums and bass have? Had you played together before?
I think it really helps that our bassist, Kotsuguy, plays the drums a little, while I used to be a bassist. That helps us to understand what the other wants during improvised jam sessions.
BNU: The line between traditionalists and experimentalists is interesting when it comes to use of instruments. Some students of Indian classical look down on the use of sitar in anything other than classical as being some kind of abuse of the instrument. Jazz purists look at what others are doing with sax, flute, and viola and regard it as not being “proper”. Is acceptance of your “world hybrid” style by these kinds of listeners important to you?
Classical and popular music are not so divergent after all…
I used to play classical piano as well as horns in an orchestra. During that period, I realized the most important aspect of playing within that context is to understand the will of the composer and the conductor. It all seems very structured, and for the players, it is.
However, for the composer, for example, there is actually a rather free, improvisatory element to the creation of new sheet music, even within the classical genre. From that perspective, classical and popular music are not so divergent after all, and this understanding gives you an entry point into thinking about how to combine the two.
I find it hard to understand where purists are coming from in some ways. We have such a degree of interconnectivity in this day and age, my thought is, “Why not combine these different styles, and genres, even if they are not naturally mixed, and see how it sounds?” This does nothing to detract from the original music. On the contrary, it adds another way of appreciating and listening to both the original genres, and the new products. These should then be judged on their own merits.
BNU: What has been a highlight of Kikagaku Moyo’s journey? Was there a moment when you felt, “Wow, I will never forget this experience”?
We had a really amazing time in Iceland. It’s a physically striking country and the show we played there felt really inspired by the scenery we had experienced.
“In the evening we played underneath the Northern Lights…”
The nature looks almost prehistoric. It’s incredibly flat, and the ground is riven with deep clefts that disappear into endless blackness. The rocks are covered with multicolored shrubs and mosses that are interspersed with crystalline pools and reddish dirt. There is a smell of sulfur in the air; its earthy richness pervades the winds coming across the plains and the naturally hot water that comes from the taps.
We spent a beautifully trippy day wandering among the geysers and waterfalls, and in the evening we played underneath the Northern Lights, with the spangled rainbows and grey-green lichens still appearing before our eyes.
That was really unforgettable.
BNU: Bands have to keep evolving and touring and making sure their records get out to as many people as possible. What does the future hold for Kikagaku Moyo, and what do you have planned for this year?
Continuing to work on refining our skills as improvisers is central to our plans for this year, which is why we’re particularly excited about the jam EP we’re releasing.
“I really feel that there is a kind of music that only a family can make…”
That album was recorded and compiled by a friend of ours, which speaks to something that is at the core of our work: we can create the sounds we do because of the close relationships between the members of the band, and the inspiration derived from those we meet along the way, touring and recording.
Being on the road, the members of the band feel a familial bond, and I really feel that there is a kind of music that only a family can make. Perhaps that goes back to what you were saying about telepathy between the different members.
We’ll be playing a lot of countries and cities for the first time next year, and I expect that there will be a lot of inspiration to come from those new sites and cultures; New Caledonia is one that we’re particularly looking forward to.
BNU: Lastly! What are some local Japanese bands people from overseas should definitely check out if they love Kikagaku Moyo?
Dates for a May 2017 US Tour and June 2017 European Tour are below. Follow on Facebook for more information.
U.S. Tour Dates
05.02 PA – PHILADELPHIA – JOHNNY BRENDA’S*^
05.03 DC – WASHINGTON DC – ROCK N ROLL HOTEL*^
05.04 NY – BROOKLYN – ROUGH TRADE
05.05 VT – WINOOSKI – WAKING WINDOWS
05.06 QC – MONTREAL – BAR LE RITZ
05.07 MA – BOSTON – GREAT SCOTT
05.09 OH – CLEVELAND – MAHALL’S
05.10 PA – PITTSBURGH – SPIRIT
05.11 MI – DETROIT – MARBLE BAR
05.12 IL – CHICAGO – EMPTY BOTTLE
05.13 WI – MILWAUKEE PSYCH FEST
05.14 MN – MINNEAPOLIS – 7TH STREET
05.17 OR – PORTLAND – DOUG FIR**
05.18 BC – VANCOUVER – THE COBALT**
05.19 WA – SEATTLE – SUNSET TAVERN**
05.20 OR – EUGENE – HI-FI MUSIC HALL**
05.21 CA – SAN FRANCISCO – THE INDEPENDANT**
05.22 CA – LOS ANGELS – ECHOPLEX**
05.23 CA – SAN DIEGO – HIDEOUT**
05.24 AZ – TUCSON – FLYCATCHER**
05.26 TX – AUSTIN – SCOTTISH RITE THEATER
05.27 TX – DALLAS – THE FOUNDRY
05.28 TN – MEMPHIS – GROWLERS
05.31 GA – ATLANTA – THE EARL
European Tour Dates
5.06 – RAVENNA — Beaches Brew Festival
6.06 – TORINO — Blah Blah
7.06 – TOULOUSE — TBA
8.06 – CLERMONT FERRARD — Raymond Bar
9.06 – RENNES — Mondo Bizzaro
10.06 – ANTWERP — De Single
12.06 – COLOGNE — King Georg
13.06 – MUNICH — Milla
14.06 – LAUSANNE — Romandie
15.06 – ZÜRICH — Zukunft
16.06 – MANNHEIM — Maidfeld Derby
17.06 – Freak Valley Festival
18.06 – Best Kept Secret Festival
19.06 – PARIS — Espace B
20.06 – LONDON — Moth
21.06 – MANCHESTER — Deaf Institute
22.06 – LEEDS — The Library
23.06 – BRIGHTON — Hope & Ruin
24.06 – LILLE — La Malterie
25.06 – LUXEMBOURG — Rotondes
26.06 – NUREMBERG — Z-Bau
27.06 – LEIPZIG — UT Connewitz
28.06 – PRAGUE — Theremin
29.06 – BERLIN — Badehaus