Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Acid Mothers Temple play Pat's Pub April 4th

Wild that the Acid Mothers are going to play Pat's Pub on April 4th. Given how relatively safe and orderly Japanese society is, I always feel a tad nervous when bands from Japan end up in the downtown eastside, but this IS their "Recurring Dream And Apocalypse Of Darkness Tour," so I guess a bit of social disorder is appropriate. I actually like their quieter, trippier, more subtle stuff than their rockin' out, Electric Heavyland side, which seems to take precedence when these guys play live, but there is no question that these guys rock...

In the interests of promoting the gig, here's the long version of an interview I did for the Nerve Magazine last year when Kawabata and co. were in town. Thanks to Alan Cummings for the translation!

The Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso UFO:
Gone Beyond Beyond (Hail the Goer!)

Founded in 1995, the Acid Mothers Temple have replaced the Boredoms as the number one ambassadors of J-weird to foreign shores, but their fame abroad is not replicated at home. In my three years (1999-2001) of seeking out the unusual in Japan, I never once heard of them. I never saw a poster for their records at the to-drool-for Japanese chain store, Disk Union, never overheard their music at a headshop - nada. You might assume this indicates nothing more than a flaw in my hunting, but dig: the Acid Mothers Temple and Melting Paraiso UFO are a bunch of Japanese freaks (in the Mothers of Invention sense) who appear on their album covers dressed like medieval troubadours from space re-enacting a Trout Mask Replica photo shoot, occasionally holding staffs with skulls or posing like longhaired monks in prayer. They have album titles like Absolutely Freak Out (Zap Your Mind!!) and Hypnotic Liquid Machine from the Golden Utopia, with acid-drenched, 60's-retro cover art, sometimes featuring naked Japanese hippie girls posed as icons of unencumbered freedom. Their stated goal is to make "trip music" designed to attune the listener to the "cosmic vibration," and they abundantly look the part. For a guy with an eye to the weird, if the Acid Mothers Temple were at ALL on the radar in Japan, stuff like this would STAND OUT.

I spoke to AMT founder and leader Makoto Kawabata via email, with invaluable help from Alan Cummings of the UK, who translated (thanks!). AMT neophytes are directed to www.acidmothers.com, the official site, and in particular the FAQ section, “Kawabata's Words,” if you want to learn more about, say, the UFO summoning ceremony the band held, the philosophy of their "soul collective," or where the self-taught guitarist gets his ideas for song titles; since Kawabata doesn’t like to answer questions already in the FAQ, I’ve endeavoured to cover new territory below.

Me: First off, a friend of mine really wants to know about the band and the Moomintrolls. What was the genesis of "The Hattifatteners Song?"

Kawabata Makoto: In Japan the Moomins were shown on television between 1969 and 1972, and it was very popular. I grew up watching it and later I bought all the books and devoured them too. The Hattifatteners are my favourite characters, though the song title itself has no particular meaning. Iguess that sense of movement just popped into my head. It's funny that you should ask me about cartoon characters because when I was a child I had a conception of Christian, Buddhist and Hindu (etc) art as being like cartoons and I used to copy them. Even today I still collect popular religious artefacts.

Me: Do you have kids?

Kawabata Makoto: I have no children and I don't think I'll ever get married. Perpetuating my DNA would probably have a bad effect on future society! People as useless as me should be prevented fromreproducing. Not having kids will be my contribution to society.

Me: I absolutely love the quote on the FAQ, "I think that it was maybe because I had music that I never became a terrorist." Were you an angry young man?

Kawabata Makoto: When I was around six or seven and I first started reading manga, my mother bought me a set of books about the lives of famous people in history. I read them from cover to cover, and I felt a lot of sympathy for the lives of Napoleon and Nobunaga Oda. After that I started to read historical novels and books about war. I got obsessed with revolutionaries on the Imperial side in the lead up to the 19th century Meiji Restoration in Japan, and with the lifestyles of dictators like Hitler. When I was about ten, I had this vague idea that I'd like to become someone who changes the world, and this eventually escalated into dreams of causing a worldwide revolution (not in the Marxist sense) and controlling the world. I don't think I was especially angry at the world - I just had this longing for the idea of revolution. I remember saying that if I had power I would start a guerrilla movement to depose myself and seize power. I must have been interested in the process by which revolutions fail or succeed, and particularly in the plots and mindgames that go along with this process - I saw the whole thing as a kind of game in which it would be worth gambling your life.

In school, I was the kind of kid who always loved to annoy the teacher by asking difficult questions. I loved getting the rest of the kids to back me up in debates with the teacher about politics. I loved the psychological aspects of politics, and I used to enjoy manipulating groups within the extra-curricular clubs to fight against each other. This was probably because I have a real loathing of group activities, so I would manipulate things to create situations more amenable to me personally. However once I discovered music, my early dreams of becoming a politician or a philosopher disappeared entirely.

Me: Do you have any desire to influence young people through your music? Is there a "political meaning" to your songs?

Kawabata Makoto: To begin with, my music has no message. Music is simply music, no more and no less. If you wanted to find some message in it, perhaps it would be that I want people to find some sense of the secret of music through it. That's all. I have no idea and no interest in whether my music exerts any influence on the young. It is as much as I can do to create my music to the fullness of my abilities, and I have no time to consider its effect on others. Neither have I ever wanted to influence anyone else. Of course, I do have personal political beliefs, but I have never tried to express those beliefs through music and I do not think that music should be used for such a purpose. Of course I am aware that such music exists, and putting the message aside, there is some of that type of music that I enjoy. But if I do enjoy it, it is purely on musical terms, not because I agree with the message it is trying to express. If I ever wanted to express a political message, I would find some means other than music.

Me: Are you often hassled by the police in Japan?

Kawabata Makoto: When I was young I was often suspected of being involved with drugs, but I've always tried to avoid contact with the police as much as I can. They're always going to have power and the law on their side, no matter how irrational, and I'm always going to come off worse. So I try to avoid contact with them, try to avoid being suspected of anything criminal. I had various run ins when I was younger, but now I need to apply for work visas to go the US so keeping my nose cleanhas become a matter of life and death.

Me: Have you ever sampled the weed here?

Kawabata Makoto: Vancouver marijuana? I've never tried it, and to be honest now I have zero interest in drugs. Drugs provided a hint for me at one time, but I don't think they can ever provide an answer. I'm not anti-drugs and I would never object to anything to that anyone else wanted to do, but for me drugs are no longer necessary. When I was younger I tried everything I could get my hands on, but it was out of curiosity to find out what they could show me. Now I'm able to enter into thosekinds of states through strength of will alone so I no longer need the help of drugs. In fact, I have a feeling that if you want to keep on searching for answers then drugs will eventually become more of a hindrance than a help.

Me: What do you admire about Japanese society? What irritates you the most?

Kawabata Makoto: In answer to the first question, the need to try and do everything as efficiently as possible. Sometimes this can take capitalism to an extreme, but I don't necessarily think this is a bad thing. The value placed on the effort and the process of trying to find the most efficient solution is something that I think the Japanese can be proud of. The stance of seeing yourself as not worthy, or “the culture of shame,” are also two of the virtues of Japanese culture. Of course, there is much that has been lost due to the Westernization of our lifestyles and efforts to increase the standard of living. Probably the thing that annoys me the most is the ceaseless yearning after Western culture. It is so sad to see ancient and wonderful traditions being wilfully discarded, but of course I am also conscious that I am a part of the problem. I am disappointed by young Japanese who have become stupid through growing up in an era that provides for all their needs.

Me: Do you feel alienated from the mainstream of Japanese society?

Kawabata Makoto: Once I started travelling abroad, I rediscovered many things about Japan. I read once (in a book written by a non-Japanese, I hasten to add!) that there are two kinds of people, Japanese and everyone else. I lot of what I have seen leads to feel that this is perhaps true. I believe that the Japanese are innately communist. There's a Japanese proverb that says that the nail that sticks out should be hammered down - and Japanese love uniforms, and there is a current of thought in Japan that admires you the less individuality you show. Accordingly, what 'individuality' that is allowed to exist in Japan must always align itself to some kind of group identity. Truly unique and visible individuality is not recognized and is treated as 'alien'. But on the other hand, it is this kind of thinking that has created Japan as it is now. It is this system of values that sees the individual as one part of the whole that creates in Japan words like 'corporate warrior'. And it is these people and their devotion of their lives to their work that has created the idea of 'family service' (the time that they give to their families at the weekend). However, I do not hate the values of these kinds of Japanese – they are the ones who sustain Japanese society and for that I thank and even admire them. I, on the other hand, have no qualifications to become one part of their society. But it's because of their hard work that I am able to drop out of that society and live in comfort while devoting my life to music.

In the past I once worked as a designer in a large company. But when I realised that if I were to struggle for the next 30 years and rise above all my colleagues and rivals, the seat that I would finally get to sit in would be the same one occupied by my boss today, I handed in my resignation. I realised that I could never live in a world where I could so clearly imagine what kind of person I would be in 30 years time. But at the same time there is a part of me that cannot accept the European idea of individuality. I'm a hedonist, a revolutionary and I live for the moment, but I'm also quite driven. I can't just sit and enjoy life or relax. Perhaps that says something about the Japanese blood that must run through the veins even of this dropout.

Me: How do you feel about touring?

Kawabata Makoto: In recent years I've spent six months out of every twelve on the road. It's great to be able to meet all kinds of people, but touring really does wear you down both mentally and physically. When I'm on the road I get loads of new ideas that make me want to rush home and start recording. But when I'm recording every day, I get this desire to get back on the road. Wherever I go people ask me about which countries or cities I enjoy the most and I always give the same reply - "there's good things and bad things about everywhere, things I love and things I hate. Wherever you go there's people, cities and nature, and it's all pretty much the same. And besides we get to see very little of the places we visit apart from clubs, record shops and wherever we're crashing that night.

If there's one thing that really gets me down on the road, it's the food. I prefer to stick to a pure Japanese diet and trying to change that is really hard for me. I don't like bread, cheese, ham and other processed meats, pasta, pizza or fruit, so often it is hard for me to find anything that I can order. Recently I've been drinking nothing but shochu (a Japanese alcohol, stronger than sake), and I can't really drink much beer any more. But everywhere we go, we always get given beer. I try vodka instead, but what I really want is shochu! In February I went on a solo tour of Europe and this time I didn't bring any food with me from Japan and tried to get by on what I get locally. That's was tough and my healthsuffered. On the road it's important to look after your health, so the change in diet is the most difficult thing for me.

Me: At your last Vancouver show, there were almost no Japanese in the audience.

Kawabata Makoto: AMT have refused to be covered by the Japanese mass media for the past ten years. Apart from our first three albums, almost everything we have released has been on overseas labels which are of course poorly distributed within Japan. We only play once or twice a year in Japan, so until recently virtually no one had heard of us. Which might explain why there are hardly ever any Japanese fans at our concerts abroad. Sometimes we do get Japanese who come to our concerts abroad, but almost always they tell us that they first heard of us after they left Japan.

Me: I was struck by how more respectful and attentive Japanese audiences were, compared to audiences here. When I saw Keiji Haino play, the audience didn't make a sound for the whole forty minutes of his performance, only applauding when he was finished. How would you explain this difference?

Kawabata Makoto: If there is a difference, it's that Japanese audiences come to hear the music and that American or European audiences come to enjoy themselves. In addition, tickets are expensive in Japanese clubs so most people will only be able to afford to buy one drink. But in the US and Europe people will drink while listening to the music and they'll go to the bar even during the performance. Japanese audiences will also watch all the bands on the bill - firstly because they've paid a lot to get to in, but also because they're simply curious about the bands even if they've never heard of them before. I don't know which attitude is better. If you've paid your money to get in, then you should have the right to enjoy the music in whichever way you like. You can listen quietly or if you're bored you can chat with your friends, it's up to you. Maybe it's more important for the musicians to try and play in such a way that people won't feel like chatting?

Sometimes in Japan you'll see people sitting down criticizing those who get up to dance, and I'm not too sure about that. If it's rock then of course I think it's natural for people to want to move their bodies. Because Japanese audiences are so restrained in their reactions, sometimes Japanese bands that play overseas get overly surprised by the reaction they get there. But that's just stupid. Sometimes there'll be some really tedious band on the bill and they'll get just as big a round of applause as us. At times like that I wonder how much you can trust the audience. But the audience are there to enjoy themselves, so that's their prerogative – but musicians need to be wary of getting too carried away by audience reaction...

Me: When people from one culture adopt the forms of another, they are often selective about it, and sometimes get certain things wrong, or leave certain things out (I’m thinking of the way many westerners have adopted aspects of martial arts or Buddhism here). Did you ever feel like you were consciously adopting foreign forms, by emulating the rock of the 1960’s?

Kawabata Makoto: For me, and for those Japanese of my generation or older, rock was an imported culture. For this reason, many Japanese expended time and energy in creating exact copies of it or in 'deliberately' trying to create original forms of rock. My take on rock is that it is a form of popular music that began in the US and was brought to a peak of completion in the UK. But at the same time it is equally true that since rock is not just a surface style but a 'spirit' or attitude, it absorbed influence from many other sources and thus transformed itself in innumerable ways. This is its great difference to jazz. And it is this that meant that many countries or regions gave birth to their own forms of rock, Krautrock in Germany being a good example. At this point then rock ceased to be a US or British monopoly and changed into a kind of music of the world. When we first thought about covering the Occitanian trad folk song "La Novia" we worried that because we ourselves were not Occitanian, trying to cover their traditional music would be a sterile exercise or a kind of fakery. But fortunately what we play is rock not trad, and rock possesses a power like that of a black hole, capable of sucking in and absorbing every other form of music. We realised that this power could transform even Occitanian trad into rock, and that was why we went ahead with the cover. And now does anyone who hears the AMT version of “La Novia” think that it sounds fake?

For better or worse rock has the power to absorb and fuse together every form of music. Has there ever been another music as mutant and freakish in nature? I believe that rock has now completely severed its connections with its roots and its original socio-political contexts, and has become something unique of itself. Rock has become something that anyone can play, regardless of musical training or technique. Its style now exists only in its absence. For me, this is why rock has become something that I only judge on its coolness or uncoolness. No matter what form it takes, if it is cool, then that is enough.


Anonymous said...

This has got to be the best Kawabata Makoto interview I've read thus far (and I'm only halfway through). I too prefer the "quieter" stuff...funny how that works. Have you heard Floating Flower?

Allan MacInnis said...

Yeah, it's a good read. My time in Japan served me well!

Hope to have some cool pics of their show April 4th.

Haven't heard Floating Flower - haven't heard a lot of their stuff. One to check out?


Anonymous said...

Definitely check out Floating Flower's second album...it's a Kawabata Makoto project. Wordless female vocals over dreamy tabla and guitar...like the best of AMT's dreamier stuff, only better.