Published on November 21st, 2016 | by The Beige Baron2
Interview: Rie Miyazaki
“She is rock!” says Mitsuru Tabata when I ask about bassist Rie Miyazaki. Waiting for him to go on, he laughs. “Isn’t that enough?”
Tabata, a mainstay of Acid Mothers Temple, is one of many musicians Miyazaki’s played with since she started out as a guitarist (and later bassist) in the 1980s, the two paired most recently in improv psych outfit Mammal Machine featuring Yasuyuki Wantanabe on drums and the mercurial Yumi Hara on vocals and keyboard.
Miyazaki was also backbone of the short-lived Japanese supergroup Heavy Metal Glue; she played with German collective Instant Drone Factory; is part of Damo Suzuki’s Network; she backed the late Mick Farren of The Deviants and David Peel of The Pope Smokes Dope on their Japanese tours, and since the late 1990s has played bass for legendary psychedelic rock band Marble Sheep, led by Ken Matsutani.
A fearsomely powerful guitarist who’s seen too many bands come and go over four decades in music, Matsutani says: “She doesn’t need any suggestions. She plays big sound with a smile.”
Miyazaki’s resume is deepened by many other projects she’s started or contributed to, painting a picture of a creative musician who has not so much made a career out of rock, but given her life to it.
Listening through her catalog, it’s striking how adaptable a player she is. Yet it’s her signature bass roar—not a million miles from Lemmy Kilmeister—that makes a lasting impression: a ball of energy with a Gibson SG, massive speaker cabinet almost overtopping her by a foot and a half.
“She’s got the groove,” says Junzo Suzuki, who, like a great many other legends of the scene, has jammed with the Marble Sheep family.
In our interview, we find Miyazaki to be warm and totally unpretentious. She is defined by enthusiasm for music; an obsession that started as a kid listening to the sound of ’70s rock seeping from her brother’s room.
How old were you when you first picked up an instrument? Who was the biggest influence on your musical taste growing up?
I liked music since I was young, but when it came to instruments, nothing really stuck. I learned the Electone [electronic organ], but practicing became a pain. When I said, “I’ve had enough of this”, mom let me join the choir. I continued choir until I got into rock music.
As for rock, I have two brothers, and the eldest, who is 10 years older than me, was an influence. One day, my older brother suddenly bought an electric guitar, and from then on he started putting on hard rock records. My room was right above his; even in the middle of the night I could hear the roar of electric guitar riffs. I didn’t feel annoyed at it at all, but rather came to love it.
At the time, though, all the other kids my age and I listened to were popular songs that got played on TV. I got to listen to ’70s rock records as much as I wanted to from my brother’s room, so I guess nobody else was this lucky.
I got to listen to ’70s rock records as much as I wanted to from my brother’s room, so I guess nobody else was this lucky.
When I told my brother that I wanted to play guitar in a band too, he taught me guitar by showing me how to play by ear while learning to cover songs. I didn’t feel like practicing was a pain anymore.
Since I started playing in bands, I pretty much stopped studying everything except the English necessary to understand the lyrics of English songs. However, I wasn’t bad at cramming for exams the night before, so I was able to enter university.
But then I quit shortly after, because at the university I entered at the time, the students’ personal conversations were louder than the professors’. It was so terrible that I couldn’t hear the lectures at all.
At what point did you become dissatisfied with mainstream music? What appealed to you about punk and metal and unusual music? Did you relate to the philosophy or attitude of the music, or the music itself?
I don’t really know where you draw the line as far as what defines mainstream music, but I considerably preferred music that was played at live houses. I love music, but before that, I love live houses. I also liked the type of people at live houses.
As a high school student, I spent most of my time between live houses and school. When I say live house, I don’t mean like today’s sanitized standing halls, but dim and dirty basement live houses. Loud noise, drunkenness, smoke, I like a space where anything goes. I think that it’s as if anything could be born from the interaction there.
I have never really thought about music in genres like, oh this is punk, or this is metal, or whatever.
What was the biggest turning point for you in how you approach playing the bass? Were you concerned with being technically good, or did you just love the tone? What was the moment you felt like your playing was “you”?
The biggest turning point was definitely when I converted from the guitar to bass. I feel like I’ve only started playing bass recently, but I’m surprised it’s actually been over 15 years.
I had a late start as a bassist, so I thought that even if I learn it with orthodox practice, I will remain just a late starter. The way I play now is the result of just playing without thinking about the basics for tone or technique.
Lead guitar was never my forte as a guitarist, so I didn’t end up trying to be “lead bass”
I never practiced by copying phrases of my favorite bassists. Lead guitar was never my forte as a guitarist, so I didn’t end up trying to be “lead bass” as many guitarists who convert to bass do. Instead, I played my bass unusually with guitar picking and glissando, and I think that’s how my distinct style came out.
I started bass because of a Marble Sheep member change, it wasn’t necessarily the case that I decided I wanted to try it, but now I’m really glad I converted to bass. Since there are less strings, I can dance concentrated on the rhythm.
Your first recordings were made in around 1984, I think? But you have been pretty much a permanent member of Marble Sheep since around 1995? Can you tell me how you came to join the band?
I joined Marble Sheep when they reformed in 1999, so I can’t really comment on how the band formed. My first encounter with Marble Sheep was in 1988, when I was a high school student.
On a summer vacation in Osaka, I happened to see their show, and early Marble Sheep’s chaotic sound made a crushing impact on me and left me in shock. I momentarily realized what “psychedelic” felt like.
Ten years later, one day in 1998, was my second encounter. Marble Sheep’s leader, Ken Matsutani, came to work at the music studio I worked at. His band was on hiatus at the time, but he came to the studio for the mixing of bands on his label, Captain Trip Records.
Marble Sheep’s chaotic sound made a crushing impact on me
We struck up a conversation talking about my first encounter 10 years ago, and we got along right away. The following year, Marble Sheep was back in action and at the end of 1999, their reunion show become a reality. I was lucky enough to have been able to stand on stage as Marby, Marble Sheep’s giant sheep mascot at that historical show.
Before joining Marble Sheep, I also played guitar in a band called BEATRIX. BEATRIX was a female-fronted hard-rock band that released two cassettes and a four-track CD in 1996 at out own expense.
Marble Sheep has gone through many different formats with many different members. You played guitar and bass and sang on different albums. Did you like the concept of having a flexible lineup? Did you ever get the chance to play with Michio Kurihara or Masaki Batoh? What albums are your favorite?
I played guitar and bass in Marble Sheep, but as far as vocals go, I’ve only done backing chorus.
Band members and its formation were different on every album. It wasn’t because we wanted to, but it just happened.
Member changes were always a source of worry, because the groove that we worked to set up was back to zero.
People probably thought it wasn’t zero, but that was how important each member was to Marble Sheep’s groove.
I remember, however, that for flexibility there were certainly times we played as a guitar, bass, and drums trio depending on the show or tour, since needing to bring two drum sets every time would have made it quite difficult to tour.
It was just because I was not in the band when Michio Kurihara and Masaki Batoh were members, so I’ve never played a show with them.
My favorite album is one I didn’t play on… WHIRL LIVE.
Apart from playing shows in Marble Sheep, we toured with Mick Farren, the vocalist of Deviants, a leading band in the England underground psychedelic scene, and New York street punk rocker David Peel of The Pope Smokes Dope, when they came to Japan with Marble Sheep members plus guest guitarist as their backing band [CD available here].
In 2003, the tour with David Peel was tough, but the last day’s show in Nagoya was so great, it blew away all our tiredness.
The 2004 tour with Mick Farren is a treasure I’ll never forget in my lifetime.
The 2004 tour with Mick Farren is a treasure I’ll never forget in my lifetime. This was when I’d only been playing bass for a few years, so in order not to cause trouble for the leading musician, I desperately practiced the garage rock grooves I had to play.
Mick Farren, too, would naturally have been nervous because he went from playing Japan by himself to suddenly having a backing band in Japan, but he didn’t show it at all, and believed in us from the start.
I was really happy the music from this tour was released as a CD – it was a real honor. Unfortunately, Mick Farren collapsed from a heart attack in the middle of a Deviants show and passed away in 2013, but to us he lives forever as our psychedelic leader.
You managed to tour overseas quite a lot with Marble Sheep. Do you enjoy touring overseas or is it an exhausting routine? What do you think about the differences in how people listen to live music in say, America or Europe, and Japan?
Overseas Marble Sheep tours were always fun. Of course there was the routine of load-in, set up the gear, play a show, pack everything back in the car, and go to the next city every day and every night, but regardless of where we stayed or the travel, whether good or bad, it was always exciting.
The number of people that came and how much merch we sold varied by day, too. There were also tough times, but everyone on tour was happy thanks to beer.
I’ve never played a show in America, but in Europe, the audience is at least twice—if not more—as drunk as people in Japan. We didn’t really mind and every member enjoyed playing.
Because Japan has after-party culture, most people who come think that you swap your drink ticket for a glass at the venue, and drink at an izakaya after the show. For that reasons, live houses don’t earn money and become like rental halls. I think it would be good to drink at live houses, though. It’s a vicious circle.
Playing with Instant Drone Factory at the festival was actually a spontaneous gig…
Some Marble Sheep records were tracked in Germany, and you were also a part of Instant Drone Factory. Do you have a strong connection with Germany, and can you tell us how you came to be involved in Instant Drone Factory?
It was not because of me, but thanks to leader and Captain Trip Records label owner Ken Matsutani, who released a lot of German music on CD that we had a lot of German connections. Because of that, Marble Sheep was able to release CDs on a German label and tour in Germany.
My joining Instant Drone Factory dates back to 2002 when Mani Neumeier, leader of influential krautrock band Guru Guru, invited Marble Sheep to play Finkenbach Festival in South Germany. Marble Sheep was featured in an article in Moonhead, a German music magazine, and my on-stage photo was used on the cover.
The photo and article were by Instant Drone Factory’s leader. In 2006, we played a music festival in North Germany. Since his band was also appearing, I was asked to play bass, and that’s how I joined. I got an offer to record, so I also joined them recording at Hamburg’s Electric Avenue Studios.
Mixing was left up to the leader, and playing with Instant Drone Factory at the festival was actually a spontaneous gig and a one-time thing.
Speaking of that project, your direction seemed to progress from metal and punk into more experimental music. How has your listening taste changed as you have gotten older, and what kinds of music made you want to try playing something more improvisational? The project Mammal Machine is a great example, too, of you doing something different.
My taste in music hasn’t really changed, I was influenced by German rock, which is rooted in improvised playing and one-chord-based music. I think not those sessions, but just starting to do improvised performances, transformed the way I play. When I was a guitarist, I couldn’t imagine playing improv, but Marble Sheep had a lot of songs with improvised parts.
The first time I played improv on stage was a show with Damo Suzuki
At first, I didn’t know what I to do, but I just went along with what the other members were doing. After, I met the guitarist MONDOG (Keiichi Miyashita) from his collaboration with Germany-based Japanese musician Damo Suzuki, and from mixing with him and his fellow musicians, my opportunities to try improvised playing increased.
The first time I played improv on stage was a show with Damo Suzuki in Sendai that Miyashita invited me to. Since then, I’ve played with Damo Suzuki numerous times, but thinking back now, it was an awesome debut.
The Mammal Machine album Mitsugi had completely improvised playing, then I shaped it into song tracks and Yumi Hara [vocals/keyboard] and I named each of the songs.
When playing live, Yumi Hara and Mitsuru Tabata [guitar] had an overwhelming impact, but with Yasuyuki Watanabe [drums], the rhythm part of Marble Sheep had graduated from the band, so we were able to play in a relaxed way that felt like a reunion.
Heavy Metal Glue is kind of a supergroup… Ken Ishihara from White Heaven, Ken Matsutani from Marble Sheep, Yoshiaki Negishi from Church of Misery, and more… such a great band, I don’t understand why that band is not world-famous. Are you surprised sometimes about what foreign listeners like, and what becomes popular overseas, and what seems to go unnoticed?
Heavy Metal Glue was active for about a year in 2011, and in that time we only released one gimmick jacket cassette, so regardless of each member’s musical resume as a selling point, if we didn’t play shows, our name value wouldn’t increase.
Yoshiaki Negishi attracted listeners not because he used to be in Church of Misery, but because he continued to be a great performer and vocalist. This is clear even with his current band Nepenteth.
Right about that time, Negishi left Church of Misery and focused on Nepenteth. There were also other reasons that led to shutdown, but some Heavy Metal Glue songs were carried over to DEEPFREEZEMANIA, a band I am currently in, and we still play in it now.
It was around the time that I started to rehearse with DEEPFREEZEMANIA’s leader, and vocalist-drummer ISHII.
A few years ago, we added a guitarist AJIMA and now play shows as a three-piece. In a way, this band restarted my musical career, and now I play with them thinking of it as trying my luck just as I who I am having no backup.
Musically, it was quite an outlaw style and like Heavy Metal Glue, it was loud and heavy.
I understand you lived in Panama City for some time? What brought you there and what was it like? Did living overseas change the way you feel about Japan?
I went to Panama with my whole family when my dad, a specialist for JICA [Japan International Cooperation Agency] was transferred there. I was actually only about two or three years old when I lived there, but even after that, dad was re-posted there several times.
So even though I lived in Japan, I would visit my parents there for a month when I had a long holiday, and traveled there many times with them.
I think that it’s not weird to be different, and dislike the Japanese tendency of always caring about appearance as an assimilator
What left an impact on me was when the people of Panama saw the five of us, a Japanese family, they would say, “Oh wow, that’s rare! The whole family has the same black hair and eyes, and the same skin color!”
Panama was a mixed-race society, so everyone was excited to see what eye and skin color the next child would have. That episode is the oldest memory that has stayed with me, and because of it, I think that it’s not weird to be different, and dislike the Japanese tendency of always caring about appearance as an assimilator.
The trip with my mom to San Blas Islands, where Kuna Panama’s indigenous people lived, was also a valuable experience. It made me realize early on that the life forced to develop constantly in all things is not as convenient as we think.
So based on your experience with Japanese underground music, what aspect do you think foreign listeners misunderstand, or what aspect do they not appreciate?
I think that misunderstanding was there up until 10 years ago, but the Internet culture has led to continued globalization and genre subdivision. Now, even in the underground world, the way music is viewed is changing – it’s not about what country that music is from, but it’s more viewed in terms of what genre and style of music. As long as you don’t sing in Japanese, there’s no longer a particular characteristic to distinguish something as Japanese music, don’t you think?
Anyway, even up to now, I feel somehow uncomfortable with the image foreigners associate with the term “Japanese psychedelic”. Us being “psychedelic” is a colorful thing, but if you were to describe us, we can be thought of as playing monotone and dark music.
I’m not sure, but…
Why do you think independent music does not receive much support from commercial TV and radio stations, considering there is all sorts of music being played all over the country every day to such small crowds?
I don’t know about TV, but when I played in Marble Sheep, I had some radio appearances as performer and as a guest for an indie music program. They paid me properly, so I can’t say independent music never gets any support.
But the instances of mass media doing something for music have decreased, after all. In the end, what Japanese TV and radio are aggressively adopting is this “let’s do our best” message, and that’s not what a song is. It’s a shame that importance is placed on lyrics about “doing our best together”, and the music itself is second priority.
I think that ever since the March 11 earthquake disaster, that tendency has continually gotten stronger.
I mean, of course I was shocked by the Tohoku disaster, too. I’ve never seen the spring sakura with such sad feeling, and it made me conscious of some kind of patriotic spirit that I had never found in me till that time. But expressing that is not my job.
What projects are you working on musically at the moment?
I was fortunate to have played bass on two albums released last year. The first is the debut album Julähsica To This Wonderful Day! by Akiko’s Cosmo Space, the space-rock band led by Akiko Takahashi, who’s also drummer of all-girl progressive band Ars Nova.
The other is Ken Matsutani’s first solo album, After The Rush. I played on six out of the twelve songs on Julähsica, and all songs on After The Rush.
Apart from DEEPFREEZEMANIA, which I mentioned earlier, I play in Ken’s band called “Ken Matsutani and…” doing shows. This band usually plays tracks from After The Rush, and also Marble Sheep songs.
Speaking of Ken Matsutani, I also play in The Mickey Guitar Band, a space psychedelic instrumental band. This band released a live recordings cassette box just last month. Next year, we will feature on German label E-Klageto’s compilation CD, and plan to release an analog version through the same label.
Mammal Machine has not been active lately, but I play in an all-girl improv band with Yumi Hara called Dollhouse Residents several times a year.
Akiko’s Cosmo Space is currently preparing to play shows next year. Actually, this band has been booked to play at a progressive festival in North Marseille, France next May. Because this band’s music has a lot of time-signature progression, practice is pretty tough, but I’m looking forward to playing my first overseas show in a while.
With Europe plans as of now, only one festival show has been confirmed, but personally if there is a chance, I would like to do a session with European musicians.
And now I am studying German at university, so if I can, I’d like to go to Germany for a bit. I don’t mind whether or not I play a show there, but in any case, I want to drink German beer!
For more releases featuring Rie Miyazaki, check out Captain Trip Records.
Top Photo: Sachiko Fukuoka. Interview by Beige Baron. Translation by Laura Chan with Yoshi.