Published on July 24th, 2015 | by The Beige Baron0
Interview | Masami Kawaguchi
–Translation by Yoshi
Masami Kawaguchi has been an influential figure in the Japanese underground scene since the 1990s for his skill at creating imaginative improvisational compositions and his incendiary guitar soloing.
Any serious collection of psychedelic and experimental music would contain more than a few albums to which Kawaguchi has contributed.
He’s an original member of experimental rock groups Miminokoto, Broom Dusters, and is also bass player for Los Doroncos (formed by ex-Les Rallize Denudes guitarist Kiyohiro Takada with Mako Hasegawa of Maher Shalal Hash Baz).
Kawaguchi’s main project is New Rock Syndicate, which has been touring internationally and recording for more than two decades, with many listeners first introduced to the band via P.S.F. Record’s popular Tokyo Underground compilations.
A wide and prolific collaborator, Kawaguchi plays regularly with members of Acid Mothers Temple collective as well as teaming up with overseas acts such as Bardo Pond.
We caught up with Kawaguchi a few weeks ahead of the debut of his solo album The Mad Guitar Sings.
BNU: Where did you grow up? How did your relationship with music begin?
I was born in Ise, Mie prefecture, and lived there until graduating high school. I loved listening to music from my childhood, and listening to Japanese pop music on the TV and radio.
I started playing my older brother’s acoustic guitar when I was 11. That was the beginning of my music life. Later I got my own electric guitar and formed a band with my friends when I was in junior high school.
What interested you in experimental music? Was it difficult to learn how to improvise? What happens when you’re improvising on stage and your mind goes blank? Has it ever happened?
I am really charmed not only by music, but also anything I haven’t seen before. I guess that’s why I’m fascinated with experimental music.
I started playing improvised music in ’92 and did a series of gigs every month in Ogikubo Goodman for almost 10 years. It’s since moved to Koenji. I played with a lot of different artists and I tried many approaches.
The most important part thing that I care about with improvisation is “air”.
The most important part thing that I care about with improvisation is “air”. Not only sound, but also the atmosphere of the place and the vibe from the other musicians.
For me, there’s no clear boundary between playing improvised music and doing “proper” songs. I always improvise conventional songs while I’m playing. Also, improvisation is just the same as composing songs in the moment. I like to pass to and from improvisation and conventional song structures when I’m playing.
When you set out to write a song, do you think a lot about you want to do beforehand? Do you generally take the lead in the groups you’re in, or is it usually democratic?
I’ve never written songs beforehand. But as I’m playing something, I’m considering what we should do and where we should go with the song. Of course, sometimes it happens that circumstances lead to a song being composed sort of by itself in a session, though in that case, I also try to take the theme created and reconcile it with my idea.
In my group, generally I take the lead. Especially in a rehearsal, sometimes I communicate details of what I want to the other members. But on stage, I always keep in mind that I play together with members in a democratic way.
Musicians often say they make music for themselves, but art is about communication as well as self-expression. When you decide to experiment, how self-critical are you and the band about what you make?
Communication through music is more sensuous and swift
I don’t feel I make songs for myself. I think it’s a very important aspect of music that it’s a communication tool. It’s okay to misunderstand or distort the meaning of songs because it’s different from communication in everyday life.
Communication through music is more sensuous and swift; it’s unconsciously done between sender and receiver. I can’t see what might happen when the music starts, and there are no rules about how to do it. I’d just like to be in charge of what we’re generating.
So, it’s important to prepare: in short, practice is important.
What does music mean to you? When you play, is your instrument saying stuff you can’t say out loud?
Music. What’s is it? I’ve been thinking about it for a long time. For me, at least, it’s my favorite and most precious thing.
Playing instruments also means there is a communication between the instrument and me, so some new ideas that I could never have imagined or noticed without playing appears in my mind. It’s a way of expressing the connection between the instrument and myself.
It means I do something together with the instrument that I can’t do on my own.
Can I list some Japanese musicians and ask you to describe what you like about their playing?
Kawabata Makoto: His playing is awesome because he is doing what he wants to his heart’s content.
Keiji Haino: There is no doubt that he’s the one who affected me the most.
Michio Kadotani: I like his albums and used to listen to him frequently, but I feel like he’s so different from me.
Tabata Mitsuru: His skilful playing and tons of ideas always surprise me.
Michio Kurihara: The way he plays the tremolo arm and wah-wah pedal and just the way he stands is so cool.
Takashi Mizutani: I cannot forget the explosive sound from his guitar with Les Rallizes Denudes. I saw them just once.
For many fans, the Japanese psych scene is kind of mysterious and opaque, maybe because the language barrier makes it difficult to find and obtain music. What kinds of music in other countries do you find exotic and you wished you knew more about? What music inspires you?
I’ve been interested in ’70s and ’80s Korean rock for about 10 years. There are a lot of unique psychedelic bands, especially Shin Jung Hyun [申重鉉（신중현)] who is my favorite.
For Japanese people, it can be more difficult to understand Korean than English, and there is very little information about this kind of music available. I never thought Korea even had its own rock scene. Maybe that is similar to how the Japanese psych scene is for western people.
Luckily my Japanese musician friend lives in South Korea, so I got a lot of information through him. His name is Yohei Hasegawa and he’s just published a book about Korean rock called Daikan Rock Tanbo Ki (which means “rock interviews in Great Korea”) last year.
I think ethnic music is the best avante-garde music
I’ve learned Korean and got to understand it little by little, and I’ve visited Korea a lot over the last few years.
And I’m also interested in ethno music and medieval music. I’m buying and listening to any ethnic music from whatever country and wherever I can lay my hands on it.
I like medieval troubadour’s music especially. I think ethnic music is the best avante-garde music and medieval music is the best psychedelic music.
What’s your favorite guitar and what is the story behind you getting it? Why did you choose that guitar in particular?
My favorite is a Japanese Fender Telecaster with Bigsby, and it’s still the main one I use. I found it by accident at a musical instrument shop in Kichijoji about 20 years ago, fell in love with it at first sight, and bought it.
I’m also a fan of the Korean idol group Girl’s Generation
I think it was probably because I loved Telecasters since I was a high school student, and it was around that time I got interested in playing with tremolo arm the same as John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service and so on.
Do you think music scenes in Japan are insular? Do you only hang out with people who play your kind of music, or do you hang out with anyone? Do you notice much difference in the music landscape when you tour overseas?
I don’t know much about the whole entire music scene in Japan, though I don’t think the scene around me is “closed”. We have a lot of communication with many different musicians from abroad. There are a lot of musicians launching their work from labels abroad, and also we have connections with musicians that live in other parts of Japan other than Tokyo.
Usually I spend time with music people because I mainly hang out after my own shows or after seeing other people’s concerts. It’s also relaxing to just drink by yourself.
I’m also a fan of the Korean idol group Girl’s Generation, so sometimes I go to hang out with their fans [laughs].
The difference between Japan and overseas? It’s often said that overseas is unlike Japan in that bar customers who aren’t interested in live music come see shows because they’re there to just get drunk, like in America for example.
Going by what you post on Twitter, you really love food. When you are away on tour, what food from home do you dream about eating?
I love food, but I’m not a gourmet. I’m fine with a curry, a beer, and a bowl of soba!
I love to cook for myself as well. You are what you eat. The way I feel emotionally as well as my physical condition is affected by what I eat, so I enjoy cooking, thinking about various things.
When I’m overseas, I try to have the local food in whatever country I’m in because I’m also interested in food culture. Normally I make a point of not eating much meat, as much as possible anyway, but I don’t mind it so much when I’m away. Two weeks is usually the longest I’m away on tour, so it’s never happened that I’ve missed Japanese food.
If you could go to a normally forbidden place in Japan, where would you go?
The Imperial Palace.
What books and movies do you like? What do you do on a Sunday?
I prefer light reading books. I often read books like the Marukajiri series by Sadao Shoji, essays by Nancy Seki, Jun Miura, and Masayuki Kusumi when I’m in the bath.
On a day off, in the afternoon I usually spend my time to listening to music, watching TV, surfing the net, or replying to emails. And in the evenings I sometimes go see a movie or go to a record shop and after that, see a live show or go have a drink or something.
If I ever get a week’s holiday, I go to Korea. It’s close, the airline tickets are not so expensive, and the food and drink are incredible.
What album are you most proud of? What would you recommend to someone who hasn’t heard your music before?
Probably Broom Dusters’ 23hours 30minutes, Miminokoto 2, Kawaguchi Masami’s New Rock Syndicate Cat Vs. Frog. Most of my recordings are out of print, though, these three are comparably easier to get. I have them in my house so if you interested in them, let me know.
And I’d really like to recommend listening to my solo album that will be launching next month called The Mad Guitar Sings.