Published on March 23rd, 2015 | by The Beige Baron3
Interview: Masaki Batoh from The Silence
With The Silence, Masaki Batoh—founder of the Tokyo experimental rock group Ghost—wants you to feel music with your heart, and not just listen with your ears.
Part of what makes you feel the group’s debut self-titled album is how it was made. If you set aside the virtuoso performances from former Ghost and music arranger Ogino, Batoh, and collaborators Ryuichi Yoshida and Jan Stigter to one side—just a for a moment—and listen, each instrument floats into your ears as if on warm thermal cushion of analog sound. There is a sense of airy spaciousness and three-dimensionality on this record that is startling; it really makes you realize just how flat and compressed the majority of music sounds today.
Dive into the joyous billows of Hammond organ on Lemon Iro No Cannabis. Drift on the melancholic piano chords and transcendent guitar that bring Jewels in Tibet to an ecstatic climax. Fly over the Martian terrain of Tryptycon, with its haunting flute and guitar. The Silence steps out of the ’70s musically and stylistically. The rich, layered foliage of instrumentation decorates the path as you travel deeper into the record, right down to the closer Overture with its Baroque cello and recorder.
“The rock music that raised us in ’70s is undoubtedly our base,” says Batoh. “Of course ’60s music too, as a vicarious experience. Most of us were born in ’65 or ’66. We’ve loved this era of music since we were small to now.
Capturing the feel and sound of the time was central when recording the album. “Ghost’s recording method included hyper overdubbing and improvisation in the studio. The Silence is much more simple. We abandoned Pro Tools computer recording software. We got back to full analog recording like in the early ’80s, with open-reel 8-, 16-, or 24-track MTR. Even fadeout is refused. There’s no such thing as Do It Again. We leave it up to chance.”
According to Batoh, the original songs for the album—not counting the re-imaged versions of Tango Whiskeyman by progressive rock legends CAN, and the Appalachian folk tune Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair—were originally intended for his fourth solo album.
We got back to full analog recording like in the early ’80s
“Most of the tunes were written by me except the second track, Gotter im Exil. I asked Ogino to write an acoustic tune to be performed on Bulgarian tambura.
“There are also two cover tunes. One is Tango Whiskeyman by CAN. It’s quite a different version, especially on each verse part with its crazy arrangement. The fourth track Black is the Color… likewise, I just took lyrics and melody from the traditional version.
“Most of the tunes can be called collaborations with Ogino. He supported me a lot. At first, I threw him my demo tunes by mail. Then he replied with arrangement and his own opinions. He did most of the arrangement. He’s really a very skilled composer, arranger, and producer.”
Why another CAN cover?
“Their music was interesting in the ’70s. We just love Damo personally as a good friend.”
But mention other bands that form the rich tapestry of Japanese music history in the 1960s and 1970s—and suggest Ghost or The Silence is the continuation of a legacy laid down by bands such as The Taj Mahal Travelers, Magical Power Mako, or Tenjo Sajiki—and Batoh suddenly seems dismissive.
“Except for Tenjo Sajiki, I have never heard of any of them. Even Tenjo Sajiki is very boring to me. So it’s hard to understand your words.”
I wonder if, seeing how much of Masaki Batoh’s solo work is painted with natural imagery—the sea, the sky, the mountains—living in the city affects the expression of his music?
“Music is spiritual expression itself. I live in Tokyo, a crazy-busy megapolis. There’s no impact or too much stress because I’ve been living here for a long time, maybe. On some days, music rises from the depths of my spirit. Another day it falls from the canopy. It’s born, but not created.
I regret many people misunderstand that Japan is a homogeneous society
“I’m an acupuncture doctor working very hard at my clinic. In such a big, busy city, I feel at peace in my mind from the natural world where I grew up. My hometown is in the southern part of Wakayama, on the west side of Japan. It’s famously beautiful. Ocean, woods, river, waterfalls, caves, and mountains. I’m content with that living inside of me as I’m living every day.
“I won’t go to the mountains anymore.”
When I suggest that Japan is a homogenous society—and that the pressure to conform might repress creativity and individual expression—Batoh strongly disagrees.
“First of all, I regret many people misunderstand that Japan is a homogeneous society. I would point out that on the northern island of Hokkaido, there is Ainu people, and in Okinawa, there existed a Ryukyu Empire whose people belong to a totally different ethnographic root from mainland Japanese, and which was its own independent country until the Meiji government took over control back in the 1800s.
“The ethnographic demographic of mainland Japan is Mongolian, which is understandable if you consider the fact that the main island of Japan used to be part of Eurasia and the American continent. We share the same DNA as Aztecs, Mayans, Eskimos, and Mongolian, and we continued to develop and merge with some immigrants from the Korean Peninsula. In fact, DNA from Okinawa people does match with those from Ainu, and at the same time the DNA from the mainland Japan matches with those from Korea.
“I wonder who the true ‘native Japanese’ are—I am not here to judge, but it’s an important fact to be noted.
“I find it difficult to agree, ‘The homogenous nature of Japanese society represses creativity and individual expression’. If the homogenous nature of a society were repressive, then homogenous societies and races such as Eskimos and Lap of Sweden, for example, would not have developed their own cultures and heritages.”
So, Batoh doesn’t find it odd that, despite the strict social rules and punishments of Japanese society, experimental and influential art continues to flourish? Does individualism depend on critical acclaim or celebrity to legitimize it, to make it acceptable?
“I wonder—are you referring Iran or Tunisia or East Germany or Poland or Croatia before they become democratic? I surely doubt you are referring to Japan. And I’m not sure how to respond as there’s no definition of ‘experimental art’.
I am not interested in whether I am known or not
“I guess I found Dada and art from the former Soviet Union superior and eye-catching; beautiful classical and modern music composers and players as well as movie producers—but those from Japan, I wonder?
“Individualism is not measured by comparison with others. It is the best trait of what everyone is naturally gifted with at birth. I believe people find paradox when one believes art is universal. One should express art in its natural form.”
Batoh never experienced pressure to conform to the expectation of mainstream Japanese society?
“Never. I never knew what the main street was, nor know of any underground communities.”
Has international recognition not provided a greater degree of freedom to self-express than, say, when first starting with Ghost?
“I am not interested in whether I am known or not. In any case, my expression is my continuity, my life, and it exists equally and freely in my words, lyrics, tunes, treatments, love, and music.”
I have to ask. Masaki Batoh has been central to alternative music in Japan since the late ’80s, and I have a feeling he might have crossed paths with Takashi Mizutani from Les Rallize Denudes at some point in time.
Mizutani—a real Ghost—a man of incendiary musical genius who was hounded by Japan’s intelligence agencies after his bandmates hijacked a plane and landed it in North Korea, where they remain today, was forced into hiding for many years.
Apart from a rumors of him living in France, or according to others, in Tokyo, he remains out of the public eye.
He is a man whose music profoundly influenced two generations of musicians, a man without whom there would be no Sonic Youth, no Swans. A man who just kind of faded away, despite the resurgence of interest in his music.
I ask Batoh if he ever met Mizutani, and if he, like me, hopes he is never found.
“I know him but won’t talk about him, sorry. I can say I like his personality at least.”
But it appears at least one band, one musician, is not content to be folded like a strange flower into the pages of a history book. Already The Silence’s label, Drag City, has the tapes—literally, the analog tapes—of the band’s second album, and The Silence is already writing a third. Batoh is thrilled.
“This band might be eternal. We’re setting our schedule for Europe tour this autumn. Next year, the U.S. Since we formed last July, we’ve been working continuously.”