Published on October 30th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron1
Interview: Suishou No Fune
For Suishou No Fune, music is ritual, a communion. It navigates unseen currents of energy and emotion, sometimes delicate and fragile and at others a buffeting, ecstatic gale. The way it approaches improvised musical expression allows mood and environment to pass through unfiltered: there is no pretention, just a yearning for release, a sweet sadness that blossoms in swirling color-drenched soundscapes.
Guitarist and vocalist Pirako Kurenai says the band has always been about self-expression for both her and partner Kageo (guitar/vox), from the time the two started jamming in dingy Tokyo rehearsal spaces.
“We exchanged brushes for guitar. We improvise to create the world of Suishou No Fune using sound as colors, mixing colors and imagination.”
In first grade junior high school, I was shocked when T. Rex came on the school PA system
In 2002, about three years after the duo began performing as Suishou No Fune, the band added Toshihiko Isogai on drums and ex-Les Rallize Denudes bassists Yokai Takahashi and Doronco to their fluid lineup, and began releasing music—first a collection of early live recordings, then a critically acclaimed self-titled album that’s an almost definitive example of the “P.S.F. sound”—a cult label that’s been exposing Japanese psychedelic and experimental rock to the outside world for over three decades.
Since then, Suishou No Fune—sometimes performing live as a duo and at others as a full band—has released a stream of albums, including the haunting Where the Spirits Are in 2006 on US label Holy Mountain, and Prayer for Chibi two years later. The band has toured all over the world and performed with a number of respected artists and bands, including Keiji Haino, Bardo Pond, and Numinous Eye.
Last spring, a new album When You Wish Upon a Star was issued through P.S.F. with more music to follow next year. BNU corresponded with Kurenai over a number of months to assemble this extensive interview on Suishou No Fune, one of art rock’s most darkly fascinating jewels.
BNU: What made you first pick up the guitar? Do you remember what your first guitar was, and where you bought it? What music did you grow up listening to?
I was 13 years old when I got my very first guitar. Folk songs were booming at the time and I was so inspired by the musicians’ style of making and singing songs by themselves.
I bought Martin acoustic guitar in Ochanomizu. It had a flaw in its neck, so it was heavily discounted. I felt so lucky being able to get an acoustic guitar at a junior high school age.
My first electric guitar I purchased when I was starting Suishou No Fune. It was a Les Paul-shaped cherry-sunburst-colored one and I got it at a secondhand store in Nishi Ogikubo near my house.
Kageo and I used to meet after work and play noise guitar at maximum volume for about three hours together from midnight to dawn for about two months after we met.
I sung about that cherry-sunburst guitar in my song Cherry [from Prayers for Chibi, 2008]. My lovely white cat named Chee Milk had passed away at the age of 18. So along with playing and singing the song and improvising, the feelings I have about that guitar combines with my longing for Chee Milk.
I grew up learning classical piano from a young age, so I didn’t listen to anything that wasn’t classical. But when I was in first grade junior high school, I was shocked when T. Rex came on the school PA system radio program, and my mind opened up to rock.
When you first started performing with Suishou No Fune, were you concentrating on music only, or were you involved in other artistic activities? When did you realize that you could communicate best with music? Did it take a long time to develop confidence playing live or did you immediately feel at home on stage?
I was painting watercolors and making dolls before I started playing in Suishou No Fune. For me, it was not so much artwork as it was experimental life work. I’d been into drawing abstract images, like a view of my dreams while sleeping, or the radiated energy of the human soul.
I’d also been making and selling a lot of dolls of imaginary animals. Around that time I met Kageo for the first time. He was a painter and had painting in oils for a long time.
Kageo and I used to meet after work and play noise guitar at maximum volume for about three hours together from midnight to dawn for about two months after we met. It was around that time I came to believe that music was the best way of expressing ourselves. I felt the vast possibility of potential artistic expression in the raging storm of noise that I hadn’t experienced before.
That’s how Suishou No Fune was born, trading our brushes for guitars.
The sound created by Kageo and I is like the world of paintings. We improvise to create the world of Suishou No Fune using sound as colors, mixing colors and imagination. And we mix grooves with it to make it more powerful as a band sound. I feel the joy of living.
Suishou No Fune is definitely a rock band.
I’ve never thought about having or not having confidence to play live. Luckily we had a chance to play in a rock event three months after forming Suishou No Fune. We approached our own music on stage like wrestlers in a ring. I think performing live is always like a fight with ourselves.
Right after that it felt necessary that we play more shows. If it was midnight or deep in the winter season, we went down town to play in front of the train station whenever we felt like it. It was very exciting to play on the street.
But sometimes there was trouble, like with the police or with strangers interfering, that kind of thing, and we’d have to stop playing in the middle of a song. So at that time, playing on stage made it easier to concentrate and to express our world, so we gradually shifted to performing on stage.
Your music is strongly evocative of nature, and many of your songs are named after the sea, flowers, sky, and the rain. Is nature a big influence on Suishou No Fune? Do you feel optimistic that humans can look after the planet better, or do you think we are doomed to destroy it with war?
Yes, it’s very much influenced by nature. Kageo and I love nature. We can’t separate nature from our life.
Often, natural scenery starts to expand in our imaginations when Kageo and I spin sounds ad lib. I feel like I’m in a dream whenever I sing. It’s like a shamanic sense, something possesses my body and words fall spontaneously in drops.
Feeling close to the soil, the sky, the wind, the clouds, the rain, the ocean, the mountains, the sun, the moon, and the stars, words are born impromptu and transiently. And the words change to songs little by little.
Nature is magnificent. It’s like my utopia, a paradise where humans and nature harmonize and live together. But in the real life, humans easily sell nature by the slice. It looks like nature has been broken without speaking…
But I think the God of Nature is strong and is an invisible gigantic force. The destruction of nature will return to human beings as another form of damage some day.
The God of Nature is strong and is an invisible gigantic force. The destruction of nature will return to human beings as another form of damage some day.
Humans are a foolish animal that injures nature, friends, and themselves. Unless people’s desire vanishes away, war will never end. Peace is just the interval between wars. A prayer for peace is so beautiful and sacred. But unfortunately, in this material world it sounds like a refrain or prayers for war.
Your music seems full of sadness and captures feelings of pain and longing so beautifully. This style of expression has been a big influence on a lot of bands around the world. It’s very distinctively Japanese. Can you tell me what led to you developing this and whether there were any influences on you and Kageo that helped to shape your music?
Exactly, Suishou No Fune’s songs, sounds, and words are often born from heartrending feelings like sadness and pain.
For us, the music is life itself. That is to say, the kind of environment we grew up in and what we have been thinking about and feeling is reflected or embodied by the sound of Suishou No Fune.
One thing Kageo and I have in common is that we had very few sympathetic supporters. We had no good friends in our childhood. Kageo used to play with flowers and my only friend was a cat. In due time, Kageo and I came to know each other and became sympathetic partners. Because of our personalities, nature and animals affect us more than artifacts. And we’ve got to know a lot about love and affection.
Maybe the best art contains a powerful message; that has something to say, an attitude. Do you think the style of music Suishou No Fune plays has an “attitude” or political point of view, or is it simply artistic self-expression?
I think musicians are not politicians, but artists. If you want to change society, it’s more effective to be a politician than an artist. The purpose of an artist’s work isn’t to incite people to revolution, but to live in a stream of society, feel something, and create artwork from those kinds of feelings and thoughts. As a result, one seems to sympathize and harmonize with others.
One thing Kageo and I have in common is that we had very few sympathetic supporters.
We do not like intentional, explicit, or artificial expression in our art. The musicality of Suishou No Fune is highly individual. We hope to express the natural. Humans can expose the naked reality of soul when they are relaxing because that state is furthest from untruth. The innocence and lack of deceit at the core or soul of humans is something that’s free from national boundaries. It has very profound meaning.
You have played both as a duo, as a four-piece, and also collaborated with other bands such as Bardo Pond. Which format do you get the most enjoyment from?
It’s hard to rate because all of them are special. There’s no limit of time and space when we play as a duo—we don’t know what kind of sound and lyrics might be generated. I can enjoy how that the deep world of mind appears in front of our eyes.
Playing as a four-piece makes me feel like I’m swimming in space. It’s enjoyable. When we jam with Bardo Pond or Numinous Eye, the freedom and the joy of intercultural musical communication is expressed. And we released it on the albums. I really appreciate that we got to meet them.
Anybody exploring Japanese rock music will find Fushitsusha, Les Rallizes Denudes, Keiji Haino, Kousokuya, Shizuka, and others on P.S.F. You have played with a lot of cool people, but I wanted to ask in particular about Keiji Haino. You have jammed a lot together and I was wondering how that experience was, and whether at first you were nervous, and also if any recordings of these sessions were made?
Yes, Suishou No Fune has had a lot of sessions with many great musicians. We were so excited to communicate with musicians and bands that have a similar vision through sound. We had some long sessions with Keiji Haino. All of them were at gigs played at concert halls. During every live performance together, we played and expressed ourselves in the session freely, equally. We communicated with each other in our own language in the rumble of sound waves. I felt like I was standing on a boat in a storm. I felt no nervousness in session with Keiji Haino. I remember it as a very thrilling experience.
But we haven’t released anything from those sessions with Haino-san—for us it was meaningful enough to just experience the sessions with him. We never actually thought to record them.
As musicians, it meant a lot to have communication through sound not only with Haino-san, but also with other great pioneers. How they sound is how they live their lives as musicians. We experienced it and were rewarded with uncountable precious things.
Two former bass players of Les Rallizes Denudes have played in Suishou No Fune at different times. How big of an influence has the band been on you personally? What do you feel about the fascination many people have for the band and for Mizutani in particular?
Suishou No Fune started in 1999, but Les Rallizes Denudes had already broken up by then. Unfortunately, Kageo and I have neither seen Les Rallizes Denudes live nor met Mr. Mizutani. It was very hard to get a CD of them at that time. It was actually maybe 2004 before I listened to Les Rallizes Denudes for the first time.
In the summer of 2002, we had a chance to meet Mr. Doronco, a former bassist of Les Rallizes Denudes. He listened to some recordings of Suishou No Fune, he liked them, and we started talking. Sometimes Suishou No Fune did gigs with Doronco’s band (DAS). Once at his house I asked him if I could listen to a Les Rallizes Denudes record, but he said he didn’t have any of them. I was amazed, but at the same time I was curious… I think, you know, that fact in itself says a lot about the legend of Les Rallizes Denudes.
There was a period when there was no proper bassist in Suishou No Fune, so Mr. Doronco kindly helped out playing bass, and we played quite a few shows together. His bass playing was free, easy, and natural, and powerful enough to support the entire band. I usually ad-lib lyrics, and his energy with the bass truly inspired my imagination when we played, especially when jamming on one code or one riff continuously.
It felt like a picnic in a world of sound and I enjoyed it so much.
In the winter of 2003 we met Mr. Yokai Takahashi [ex-Les Rallizes Denudes] at a gig. After the show he told us that Suishou No Fune’s sound was similar to his. And after a while he saw us play live. His playing and “sense” was so unique, it felt like Suishou No Fune, so we asked him to join as a full-time member. Like osmosis, his bass playing harmonized and we went through a stage of playing live a lot together.
He also didn’t have any Les Rallizes Denudes records.
Around 2004, we finally had a chance to listen to Les Rallizes Denudes. My friend played me an unreleased record. I was shattered. The sound was like a volcano. Volcanic ejecta of energy, an uncontrolled spectrum of colors, magma gushing out, sound of chaos and confusion. And the lyrics of Mizutani coming to the surface… I felt Les Rallizes Denudes was precious for me.
And then I kind of remembered that Mr. Doronco and Mr. Yokai had been members of Les Rallizes Denudes.
You have travelled around the world playing music. Do you have a favorite country to visit? Has travelling changed how you feel about Japan?
Every town and country we visit inspires us. Wherever it is, we are interested in it and find a lot of joy. I love and find inspiration in every single town I go to and in everyone I meet.
As soon arriving at a town, I feel like I should give something, like a salute, you know, the sky, the ocean, the mountains, a river, plants or animals, an old cemetery, temples. If we are accepted by the spirits of the area, I believe they will let us play well.
In Hong Kong, where there’re a lot of rivers and oceans like in Japan, and in Minneapolis, which has a lot of lakes, and in the UK where rains a lot, I felt comfortable in my body and mind with the thought and feeling of water, and I could relax and play.
The interesting thing about touring is that I am really affected by the air and the soil and human energy, and it becomes sound. It’s a very inspiring and meaningful thing for musicians who create songs by improvisation.
I feel we’re Japanese when I tour abroad. It’s good and bad, I realize there are differences. But my body and soul was born in the soil, water, and air of Japan. My ancestors were born and died in the country as well. It’s precious to me.
Coming back home and standing outside the airport, every time the soft humid wind caresses me. I feel like a fish swimming in the water, and people walking around me look like fish slowly swimming.
“Yes, it’s Japan, Tokyo.”
It’s lovely, small things like that. And while living my daily life in Tokyo, I’m glad to find myself surprised by tiny “Japanese” things around me. It affects the music of Suishou No Fune and it’s so good to see and feel my own country with brand new feelings. The music of Suishou No Fune is based on this sense.
What small things in life give you the greatest pleasure? What is your favorite sound?
Encounters with people, synchronicity. Colors and flavors of flowers and plants. Raindrops, spring thunder, cicada chirps, cricket chirps in autumn, snowfall, the sound of the temple bell ringing on New Year’s Eve.
What is your favorite book? What kind of films do you enjoy?
Grimm’s fairy tales, Pollano Square, and others by Kenji Miyazawa, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and others by Haruki Murakami, El Topo by Alejandro Jodorowsky, Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky, Asparagus by Suzan Pitt, Twin Peaks by David Lynch and Mark Frost…
No idea for now. We’ve bumped into people or had friends line stuff up, but I’m satisfied. We’ll see what happens.
Do you keep up with new music or do you just enjoy listening to your favorites? Do you go out and see live music often?
I’m the kind of woman who keeps listening to her same favorite music. I do try various instruments and go on trips to search for new sounds for inspiration. I go see live shows.
Do you think the Japanese music scene has changed much in the time since you first started playing?
It’s basically the same Japanese music scene. I feel like the underground scene in Tokyo has been spread overseas with the Internet. Unfortunately, musicians with whom I feel the spirit have been decreasing year by year.
What are you working on at the moment, and do you have any new music coming out soon? Do you still play and write a lot?
This spring we released When You Wish Upon a Star on P.S.F. Records. And there are some recordings we’re planning to release as well.
We’re looking forward to it.