Perfect Sound Forever

Acid Mothers Temple

Interview by Jason Gross (November 2001)

Kawabata Makoto had a dream. There was going to be a golden road of devotion where manic metal would run side by side with blissed out electornic landscapes and he was going to ride it out. Never mind that such a vision made shit sense in the new wave drenched clubs of Tokyo and Osaka at the end of the '70's. To get to that place, that he dubbed Acid Mothers Temple, he would spend the '80's and '90's with a myriad of other ensembles (including the fabled Toho Sara) crafting his vision. All roads led to this careening large ranked ensemble that were nuttier than Gong, as rabid as Funkadelic, as hairy as the Mothers of Invention and rampaging with hard-edged noisy psychedelic music like the best Hawkwind records. This last part was important as many misguided souls thought that psychedelia meant sludgy, sopored tempos catering to lapsed motor responses. Surely that ain't what Hendrix or Can had in mind, don't you think? (For an even more out-of-control noise rampage, see AMT brother/sister band Mainliner).

Makoto has led this loose ensemble of a few dozen musicians and farmers (?!) since 1996 (already with about a dozen releases, including the recent New Geometric World on Squealer), recently coming to the American shores. Seen in person, AMT's guitar roars, synth squiggles, and unleashed momentum (though missing the heavenly fem voices) were even more vivid- a pulverizing experience maybe only matched by their homies in the Boredoms. Bookcasing their touchdown in planet Brooklyn, I e-mail exchanged inquisitions with Makoto about life, loves, and philosophy.

Somewhere in there, I hoped to glean the origins of his Townshend-like guitar-demolitions which he thoughtfully reserves for his own equipment (at a recent gig, he begged the audience for another guitar, which he promised not to break). Happily, any fan can buy a piece of musical history in the form of one of his destroyed guitars for a meager $50. Someone call the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame...

Enoromous thanks to Alan Cummings for doing the translations here.

PSF: Could you talk about where you grew up in Japan and what kind of effect that had on you?

I was born in Osaka in 1965, but we later moved to Nara. (Osaka has a very different culture to Tokyo - maybe a bit like the difference between Scotland and England). I think that my family was pretty normal, except that my grandfather was a noh performer of the Hosho school. My father didn't follow in his footsteps, but when I was a kid I remember him singing some noh pieces to me at home. When I was a child, I loved reading historical novels and books about famous people, and I wanted to be a politician or a philosopher when I grew up.

(NB, Hosho is one of the four traditional schools of noh acting, dating back to the 14th century at least.)

PSF: Before you ever got to be involved in music, what were you listening to early on that influenced you?

My mother loved classical music and when I was a kid she never let me hear any pop around the house. I've been told that I used to hum Beethoven's Pastorale.

When I was about 10, I heard Indian classical music for the first time on TV- that came as a massive shock to me. If I think back now, just hearing those drones on the tamboura probably ruined my entire life! From when I was a kid, I'd always hear these phantom ringing sounds in my ears, and I was convinced that it was UFOs trying to communicate with me. I'd often run to the window when I heard those sounds, scanning the sky for any sign of a UFO. Anyway, the sound of the tamboura was really close to what I used to hear. I was just really surprised to find out there was an instrument that sounded like that, but it wasn't until many years later that I actually found out what instrument it was.

Some time after that incident I came across musique concrete and Stockhausen's electronic music on the radio. In terms of actual musical content, this was the first thing that really shocked me. Friends had played my Beatles records and so on but I was never able to get into them. But hearing electronic music was a real culture shock. It was just like someone had turned the ringing in my ears into music. I rushed off to look for records like that, but of course no one in the rural record shops nearby had ever heard of it. In the end I wound up taping stuff off the radio and listening to it over and over.

PSF: How did you first get started in music?

The reason why I decided to start playing my own music was that I searched everywhere for the music that I wanted to listen to, but I'd never been able to find it. The only way left to me was to create it myself. At the time I dreamt of how cool it would be to find a record that combined hard rock like Deep Purple with the electronic music of Stockhausen. But I hadn't been able to find any records like that, so in 1978 I formed my first group Ankoku Kakumei Kyodotai (NB: literally translated, this means Dark Revolutionary Collective) together with a couple of friends who I used to listen to music with. However, at the time we didn't own any instruments and we'd only been able to borrow a single synthesizer. We (were) forced to start building our own instruments. Since our whole plan was to create music that we could listen to, we started recording ourselves from the very start. At the beginning, we were trying to play this dream combination of hard rock and electronic music on our own homemade instruments and this single synthesizer.

Later on, we finally managed to get hold of some proper instruments. But we hadn't a clue about how to play them properly, so we just stumbled through a whole process of trial and error, trying out various approaches to see if they would work. It took me four years to work out that there was such a thing as a proper guitar tuning. Before then, we'd work out our own tunings, and we felt that as long as we could make the sounds we wanted, then tuning didn't really matter. Our playing was basically improvised, but listening to it subjectively you can tell that we were always trying to create some sort of song structure so what we were doing was completely different to so-called free music. Once we got our instruments, we would record stuff in this local studio that had a four-channel mixer and a cassette recorder. Then we'd take the tracks home and overdub with these two cassette recorders we had with a mixing function. Eventually we heard about independent labels and records and we started our own independent cassette label, R.E.P. We released almost forty cassette titles on the label.

PSF: When you started, what was the music scene like? Did you feel that you fit into this scene?

At the time (the late '70's and early '80's), punk and new-wave were really popular, and the scene was mostly comprised of those kinds of bands, as well as some noise groups. We started playing some gigs, but because we weren't punk or new-wave or noise, no one wanted to know. Then, when the whole electro-pop/techno thing started happening, people would hurl abuse at us because we were only using our synthesizer to make all these spacey sounds. I had started creating some solo pieces at the same time - musique concrete type things using lots of drones. These were my first hesitant attempts at creating music that turned the ringing sounds in my ears into some kind of structured piece. (I still continue this work in INUI, and with my solo drone guitar pieces)

Back then, I'd seen Les Rallizes Denudes just once, but because I wasn't that interested in Japanese music I'd never heard Taj Mahal Travellers, Fushitsusha or any Japanese free jazz. The kind of people who were interested in that kind of stuff back then and experienced it in real time were probably a few years older than me. But as well, it was really hard to find any information about that stuff then. Of course, if you were living in Tokyo or another big city, there was probably ways to do it, but I was living out in the wilds of Nara, recording music with my friends, and occasionally going up to Osaka to play a gig, so there was a limit to the amount of data I could come across. The friends I hung out with in Osaka were all the same age as me, and we didn't have any contact with older people, so that was another reason.

Ironically, out of that older generation there's still quite a few musicians who are still around - but everyone my age seems to have already disappeared. Now everyone digs the '70's Japanese underground scene and free jazz, even people outside Japan, but it had nothing to do with me, and I wasn't influenced by it at all. Even today, if you omit a handful of musicians like Keiji Haino, I have absolutely no interest in that stuff. The music that did influence me was the electronic music and '60's and '70's Western rock (mainly hard rock, progressive, and German rock [NB which is what the Japanese call what we call Krautrock]) I listened to when I was young, and also ethnic music. And also the constant ringing that I hear in my ears and the heavenly orchestras I've heard playing in my dreams. Since everyone on the scene back then despised our music - that was another reason why I was never influenced or interested in Japanese music.

PSF: Please talk about the groups you were involved with before Acid Mothers: Musica Transonic, Toho Sara. How were you involved in these groups?

I first met Asahito Nanjo in 1991, when he'd left Tokyo for a while and moved to Nagoya. He was looking for people to join a new band that he was forming, and I went along to the audition. I remember seeing this flyer asking for people - it had this really long text where he wrote about the concepts that he was aiming for with his music. It said something like he wanted to process rock, jazz, classical, ethnic, all kinds of music through a strictly rock idiom. At the time, that was exactly the same approach as I had, except that Nanjo had taken it even further. So I felt very sympathetic, and I called him up straight away. I had seen High Rise play once before and I owned their second LP. In the end, the band that Nanjo put together soon fell apart, but I met him again in 1993 just before he was due to move back to Tokyo, and that provided the impetus that has kept us in touch.

At the time, because of various personal problems, I had totally given up making music, but I was thinking about getting back into it and was mulling over the idea of moving to New York. I promised to meet up again with Nanjo once I got back to Japan, and then off I went to New York. I busked on the streets there and went to clubs every night to see different musicians playing. Then, when I got back to Japan, we formed Toho Sara.

When I first met Nanjo, he described himself as a singer-concept creator. And he'd definitely say the same thing today. He values the concept above the music. I do agree with many of his concepts and I've definitely been influenced by him, but when my own thoughts about music began to become clear to me, we gradually started putting a little distance in our relationship. I think that rather than being a musician, Nanjo would prefer to become a producer or thinker. What I want to do is purely and simply to play music. So the kind of relationship we had in the past, where I'd play music based around his concepts, has gradually disappeared. I think that he did treasure my participation in his concepts, but at the same time I feel that there's no real reason why it needs to be me rather than someone else in his groups. I have learnt a great deal from him, and I am profoundly grateful for the introductions to this world that he gave me. And he is still a good friend.

My first group with Nanjo was Toho Sara. After that, I joined Okami no Jikan (at just around the same time as Maki Miura left) and we just rehearsed for quite a long period. Around then, Nanjo asked me if there was any musicians who I really wanted to play with, and I mentioned Tatsuya Yoshida from RUINS. I'd seen him playing with various different groups and he was one of my ideal drummers. Nanjo arranged a session for the three of us, and that provided the spark that led to the formation of Musica Transonic.

Musica is a total improv band. But if you listen objectively, you can tell that the concept was to create pieces that had a seemingly composed sense of development to them. At the start we were a loud and fast power trio, and Nanjo's concept was that we should deconstruct and then reconstruct every sort of music. For me, Musica was like a laboratory where I could try out various things. On top of that, there was never the sort of ego collision that you usually get with free music - we supported the idea of the ensemble first and foremost. The idea was that, second by second, we should all be simultaneously composing, arranging and playing - in terms of music, it was massively thrilling.

However, on our second overseas tour the music started to feel a bit mannered, and the sense of tension that had been there at the start gradually faded away. The trio is currently inactive, but I still love the ideas and I think that we'll start playing together again very soon. That whole Musica vibe can only be created when the three of us are together.

I think that the concept behind Toho Sara was 'a new vibration of chaos.' To exclude all impressionistic melodies, and concentrate solely on acoustic phenomena. The group started when we fused some tapes of my solo pieces with one of Nanjo's concepts. In order to focus more fully on the acoustics, we rejected anything with a melody, and then we overdubbed some stuff, Nanjo mixed it and that became the first album. For the second album, Nanjo took piles of the new basic tracks that I'd recorded just after the release of the first album, and he then overdubbed more material and mixed it. There was a gap of four years from the time I recorded those tapes to the album appearing, so I was a bit surprised when it was finally released. In the interim, I had started pursuing my own sound more deeply, and in the end I had started this solo project called INUI. Now, Toho Sara feels like something from the past to me. But since the concept behind Toho Sara is Nanjo's, he may well continue to release material under that name, even if I'm not involved.

PSF: How did the group TSURUBAMI come together? What kind of band did you want to form here? How did this group evolve into Acid Mothers Temple?

Tsurubami was formed in 1994. The three of us - me, Higashi and a female drummer called Nobuko Emi are "Tenkyo No To" like three bloodbrothers whose destinies have been bound together from a previous existence. This bond between us later developed into the 'Soul Collective' ideal of AMT. The three of us have been given a huge mission in life and as a result we're like waves that come and go, tides that ebb and flow. As long as we three have life on this planet the group will continue to exist.

Here's a summary of our mission: According to the theory of Inyo Gogyo, everything that exists in the world can be expressed by Yin and Yang, the two principles (even computers work in this way). Everything is created from Yin and Yang, and the interactions of the Five Elements - wood, fire, earth, metal, water. The workings of the universe can be understood through a knowledge of the Two Principles and Five Elements. The form of everything on Earth and in the heavens is created by Yin and Yang, while the workings of the world occur through the Five Elements. If we take it that sound are one particle of time, then the energy of sound flows from the deepest past into the far future. And that also suggests that the purpose of ritual and prayer is to recreate the energy that existed at the beginning of the cosmos. Rituals and prayer function to reawaken that which existed at the beginning, to open the doors of this world, and to make that energy flow once more. Through the holy sound of Ohm, can we glimpse the eternal, escape the constraints of time (past, present, and future), and come to meet the Buddha?

For us, Tsurubami is a place of eternal spiritual training, a place where everything must be laid bare. This band itself is the last and greatest stronghold of group existence. I see it as a place where we can experiment with a form of improvised playing based on paranormal communication which has existed since the time of the troubadours.

PSF: When you began AMT, what were you looking to do? Did you originally see it having other bands related to it like Tsurubami, Zoffy, Floating Flower?

Originally I had no intention of making Acid Mothers Temple an ongoing group. I started the group because I knew so many wonderful musicians who had no way of releasing an album (and in some cases, no desire to do so), and I wanted to give the world a chance to hear what they could do. The concept, in two words is 'trip music.' I have listened to all sorts of trippy psychedelic records, but I was never fully satisfied with them. So I began to want to create a really extreme trip music. It was also a great chance for me to try out all sorts of things in the studio, and so that first album is basically a solo record. I edited and overdubbed all these tapes of jam sessions we'd done, and ended up with something that is like musique concrete. That was why I never even thought about the group playing live. That record was really the first time that I realized my childhood dream of creating a music that fused hard rock and electronic music. And it's also that extreme trip music album that I always dreamed of making.

I knew his face from way back, but the first time we played together was at a gig with Tatsuya Yoshida (Ruins). This later developed into the Seikazoku unit. After that, he crashed at my house for a long time, and because our characters are so similar and we're from the same area, we became friends. We formed Zoffy together, he started appearing as a guest at AMT gigs, and then finally, he formally joined the group. He's been utterly in love with rock since he was a kid, and when he was at high school he played in groups with Shibayama (currently in Nagisa Ni Te) and people like that. After that, he revealed another side of his character and set off on the path to becoming a woodsman. For ten years, he travelled (to) various mountains all over the world, and he now works part of the year as a forest ranger and caretaker at a mountain lodge. In the mid '80's, he suddenly reappeared on the Osaka scene, playing with Hallelujahs and joining Omoide Hatoba, which is a group led by Yamamoto from the Boredoms. He's played with all sorts of people. He's really knowledgeable about European trad music - probably one of the leading experts in Japan. On his own solo stuff, he likes to use these fake languages, and do this really impressive fake trad stuff. He has mastered all these weird vocal styles like throat singing and yodelling, and if you ever hear him on acoustic guitar, he has just amazing technical chops. He is a member of si-FOLK who are one of the few Irish trad bands in Japan, and he has a duo with Fumio Yoshida, who is the most famous Irish musician in Japan.

What Tsuyama has brought to AMT, (he) has been first and foremost the musical depth that allowed AMT to become a real group. The group's current style with the combination of me, him and the drummer providing the base, and Cotton's and Higashi's space sounds out front was developed after he joined. His knack for coming up with melodies has really expanded the possibilities of the group. And anyone who's seen us live will recognize what a great entertainer he is.

Floating Flower is an acid folk unit comprising me, Yuki and Tetsuya Kaneko. The other two are always travelling around India, and I've forgotten where I first met them, but the group started when I suggested creating a folk unit that featured Yuki's vocals. This unit, like the AMT label, was an attempt to introduce some unknown musicians to a wider audience. But in the end we just spent all our time improvising these really long minimal pieces, and they became the first album. Yuki and Cotton have totally different characters, but once they start singing they both slip into a trance and fly off somewhere.

Any time Kaneko or Yuki have some free time they go off to travel round India. I never have any idea when they're going to be back to record the next album. While they're away, their house is filled with a bunch of spongers. But that must be the way they like to live. They don't care at all whether their CD's sell, or whether we reissue them on LP. That isn't what they're about - their concerns are somewhere else entirely.

PSF: Do you see the different bands that revolve around Acid Mothers Temple as projects which feed and influence other projects that are also related to AMT?

People got together and there was some sound - that's all. But everything exists under the umbrella of the AMT.

PSF: What kind of things inspire you to work and create?

When I play any sort of instrument, not just guitar, I never think that it's me making the music or of music as a means of self expression. In my head, I constantly hear sounds from the cosmos (or God, or whatever you want to call it). I believe that these sounds are constantly there, all around us. I'm just like the receiver in a radio, picking up these sounds, and then transforming them with my hands into a form that everyone can hear. So I'm constantly striving to become a better receiver - picking up sounds from ever higher dimensions, picking them up ever more precisely, and then reproducing them ever more exactly. That's my aim.

PSF: Do you see that AMT and its related groups are part of any larger music scene in Japan?

Some people know me, some don't.

PSF: Do you see yourself as a spiritual or religious person?

Firstly, I am not a follower of Buddhism. I have no beliefs that connect me to any organised religion. The only thing I believe in is the cosmic principle. Of course, as a clue to that principle and also as an element of philosophy, I do partly believe in things like the "cycle of reincarnation" and the "four ways of being born and eight divides" (which is one branch of yin-yang). I grew up in Nara and that environment gave me a love of looking at Buddhist statues and designing and drawing my own versions. And also, since I was born in Japan, I suppose that there is some deep subconscious part of me that still carries around a Buddhist value system.

See some of Makoto's favorite music

Also see the Acid Mothers Temple website

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