— Story by Beige Baron. Translation by Yoshi.
In Japan, they sell these hot adhesive plasters to put on knotted muscles. They burn into the pain on your neck or back and after a little while you feel better.
White Heaven do a similar thing, but for your soul. Stick on Out, the band’s first record from 1989, and the warmth of You Ishihara’s slurred poetry and broken chords bleed onto the torn edges of your spirit. Kurihara cauterizes with a climbing solo, and there’s a supple bassline, and drums hitting exactly where they should to restore circulation.
The liquid chords from Ishihara burned and caressed by Kurihara, the way their records sound like they are made in an empty cavern and the musicians a million miles apart. The aching melody, the loneliness and depression like the blooping in your ear of a disconnected call.
And live, a raging colossus, smashing and exultant and defiant.
When the fractious band White Heaven finally imploded, Ishihara formed The Stars (who the locals finally got) while producing records and working with Yura Yura Teikoku, Boris, and Ogre You Asshole.
Where did White Heaven come from? How did it all happen? You Ishihara tells us in this candid interview.
BNU: What was the first musical experience that changed your life? Were your parents musical?
When I was a little kid, there used to be a furniture-style audio system in my living room, and I usually listened to soundtracks to western movies, classical music, colorful picture-book records for kids, and that kind of thing.
An amalgam of ’70s New York punk, psychedelic, and freeform that informed the earliest days of White Heaven
My parents were not really that into music, we were a pretty average family I guess. I used to like astronomy, watching the stars at night, playing baseball, and I was listening to regular pop music songs when I was in kindergarten.
Probably my first life-changing encounter was with music from abroad that I heard on midnight radio programs when I was in the first year of junior high. T. REX was very popular at that time. I was deeply shocked by it, like I’d never experienced the frantic riffs of songs like Easy Action and voices like Marc Bolan’s before.
During high school, how aware were you of an alternative music scene in Japan? I understand that the media paid very little attention to anything except mainstream music. How did you discover it, and whom did you explore it with?
I was in high school just at the time punk rock began to happen, so there wasn’t a “Japanese alternative music scene”, or if there was, I didn’t notice it. I started to notice that an underground scene existed in Japan when I was in university around the end of ’70s or the beginning of ’80s.
I became aware of it through mini magazines sold in record stores and other crazy ’zines. But, you know, I wasn’t interested in it especially.
The albums you made with White Heaven are now considered landmarks. What fed your songwriting inspiration? How was the music received locally at the time, in the ’90s? How do you feel now, with the Internet, that people overseas are discovering and appreciating them 25 years later?
I never expected that I’d get into playing instruments. I was totally crazy about digging music that I’d never heard before, but I wasn’t really that interested in playing music.
The trigger for starting to play an instrument myself came with the punk movement in the ’70s. It was like an amalgam of ’70s New York punk, psychedelic, and freeform that informed the earliest days of White Heaven in the mid-’80s. We didn’t have many original songs, so we were playing some covers like Intersteller Overdrive by Pink Floyd, plus Modern Lovers, Cramps, and Litter.
I guess I was inspired by this kind of music at first. But all the members of the band at that time were basically amateurs technically, and had no interest in improving skill-wise, so the types of songs we could play were limited. Contrary to our expanding imagination… we just didn’t have enough skill to realize it.
We had no permanent bassist and felt a lot of frustration; it would not have been surprising if the band had broken up
In the ’90s we released our first album, though it was only issued on analog and was limited to a pressing of just 500 copies. There was almost no media exposure. There was no Internet yet.
At first we figured it would take a minimum of five years to sell out, but after P.S.F. sent sample discs to distributors in other countries, I don’t know why, but each of them ordered 100 copies and all of them were sold out immediately. Surprised.
I guess only about 100 copies were sold in Japan. Now I’m glad foreign listeners are enjoying our music, though it’s a lot different from what we expected at the time.
What changed for you when you signed with P.S.F.? Were the other artists on that label like a family?
I didn’t think we actually had a contract with P.S.F., but [owner] Mr. Ikeezumi offered to release a record for us, so we just did.
We’d been continuing along with the band for some years, and I felt like we should record something as a kind of a milestone, I think. We actually had no permanent bassist and felt a lot of frustration; it would not have been surprising if the band had broken up around then. We were in a very unbalanced situation.
My label-mates were Keiji Haino [Fushitsusha], Kan Mikami, High Rise, and others around that time. Haino-san and I had a close relationship, and we used hang out at each other’s houses quite a lot. We also played a few gigs with Mikami-san and High Rise, so I knew them as well. But I don’t really think it was a family-like relationship.
The sort of communication we had also shaped the mood of the Tokyo underground scene at that time.
Do you think PSF-style Japanese alternative rock music has a unique character compared to, say, music from Europe or the USA? How would you describe that difference?
I tried to make it a bit incomprehensible, to hide, because I didn’t want to be asked about lyrics and didn’t want to explain
If you mean Japanese alternative rock like what people call Japanese underground music, and speaking from my own narrow range of experience, I think the difference comes down to listening style and musical interpretation.
I don’t know current situation, but I’m sure there were a lot of “conscious” western rock musicians in the 1980s and 1990s that liked free jazz, krautrock, minimalism, electronica, and avant garde neue musik just for the sake of being “new”.
But the musicians around us weren’t so concerned about genres. They didn’t judge according to superficial categorization. In spite of the fact that I listened to almost all of it, there were very few I felt were any good.
Conversely, we liked to listen to records—I won’t name them here—but some kinds of non-progressive jazz, classical, and pop that western musicians like the ones I described showed only mild interest in because they weren’t “new”.
He used to play a guitar that he borrowed from someone without returning it, and another junk guitar he bought from a pawnshop
The essence of the kind of music we liked wasn’t expressed directly in our music, but I think we shared the essence of it. So that’s the big difference between Japanese and western underground musicians, in that they tend to express the influence more directly.
If you were to introduce someone to Japanese alternative or psych or experimental rock by giving them five or six records, which ones would you pick and why?
It depends on what they want to get from Japanese alternative psych, so I would recommend trying everything released on minor labels or self-released from the ’70s till now.
Why do you sing in English?
I didn’t imagine people outside of Japan would ever listen to our records
It’s natural for me? Actually, no … I really didn’t imagine that people outside of Japan would ever listen to our records, so our music was never intended to appeal to foreigners.
For a start, my pronunciation and grammar are so terrible that English speakers wouldn’t understand. And in fact I tried to make it a bit incomprehensible, to hide, because I didn’t want to be asked about lyrics and didn’t want to explain them. If you can get something like an emotional hook in some words and phrases when I sing, even if it’s a misunderstanding, I think that’s enough.
What is your approach for writing and recording a song? Do your songs come to you fully complete or is it a single idea that you build on?
I don’t take a long time to compose. If I come up with a good idea, I usually forget it in two or three days because I always get depressed. On a recording, I think what is most important is how all the parts sound in combination.
In your career, who was most rewarding or inspiring to play with?
I haven’t had that much experience playing in other bands or in session with others, so I’m talking about my own band here.At first, I started my band with guitarist Tetsuya Sakamoto. Both of us didn’t like to play or practice and didn’t even really want to be musicians, so if we chose some other way [of expression] than music, it wouldn’t have been a problem.
We spent more time talking to each other without instruments than we did playing, and we were young, so we often struggled with each other.
He used to play a guitar that he borrowed from someone without returning it, and another junk guitar he bought from a pawnshop. It was characteristic of him that he quit playing altogether after leaving White Heaven.
His songs were recorded on each of the three White Heaven studio albums.
Michio Kurihara joined, and he was a musician that could actually play the guitar, unlike me and Sakamoto. But it wasn’t only his unique tone and phrasing: his convulsive, nervous, breakneck playing came straight from his psyche. And plus, he was the only one who ever tried to understand and actualize my thoughts and concepts as much as he could.In 1999 you again teamed up with Michio Kurihara and formed The Stars. What was different about playing in Stars than White Heaven?
Thinking back to The Stars, I think I was trying to make understandable songs with dynamism and maybe some kind of a sense of conformity. I never realized for a long time that something of our relationship with our audience was lost when I formed The Stars after White Heaven. It was bigger than I imagined.
Can you explain what you mean?
I mean there was some kind of relationship between us and our listeners and audience. White Heaven, we were in the very small circle in Tokyo, only a few “serious, deep listeners” knew about us.
We always played in small venues with Keiji Haino, High Rise, Kan Mikami, and so on. Audiences were only about 30-60 people max, sometimes only 10 people turned up. But we felt our music went to their hearts directly.
The Stars became more famous and younger boys and girls started coming to our shows and we lost that feeling.
Quite simply, nothing else interests me except music.
How did you get into production work? You’ve worked with some pretty amazing bands over the years, and you seem close with Yura Yura Teikoku. What were they like to work with? What do you like about their music?
Yura Yura Teikoku often used to offer us supports at gigs. On a personal level, I used to talk with Shintaro Sakamoto a lot, and he asked me to help out on their recordings as a sound adviser rather than a producer.
Through the recording process of their albums, I’d gotten the opportunity to try some challenging ideas and methods. Yura Yura Teikoku had become well known and succeeded commercially very well. I just purely enjoyed working with them.About the work process, we had discussions about their ideas in the studio. Sometimes we made them as they wanted, or sometimes we added a totally different taste. It was kind of more remixing than producing.
With Yura Yura Teikoku, at first they were a similar kind of band to other underground bands around White Heaven, but they basically had a more flexible, catchy, and popular style.
What sustains your interest in music? Do you feel like everything has been done, there’s nowhere left to go? What do you listen to for pleasure these days?
Quite simply, nothing else interests me except music.
Of course, from the point of view of technique, I guess there will be very few new mind-blowing approaches. It’s also the setting: years ago there was almost no information we could access, now we can instantly refer to music from any time and all genres, so we tend to recognize similarities before judging whether it’s good or not.
From the perspective of finding new ways to present music, how to sound and how to inspire, I think we still have a bit of room to experiment. But the patience and effort required to “thread the eye of the needle” and do something completely new — I don’t think it’s rewarded.
What projects have you been working on recently?
I’m doing a few gigs this year as You Ishihara with Friends. If I don’t change my mind, I might release my own record in the next year, possibly, finally.