Nature, melody, and the primal urge to make music.
Yoshimio joined Yamatsuka Eye in the noise band UFO or Die in 1987, and, the next year, joined Eye as drummer (among many other roles) in the seminal and highly influential Boredoms. Aside from Eye, she is the longest running member of that experimental project. In 1996, she was asked to do a photoshoot for a magazine and asked a few of her girlfriends to join her. They created a fake band called OOIOO for the shoot, but then decided to make it real. Gamel, the band’s eighth album, marks a shift in their sound with the addition two new members who are both trained in the the traditional Indonesian music of gamelan.
Although she was here last year for a few one off performances, including Doug Aitken's Station to Station event last year with Hisham Bharoocha and Ryan Sawyer and a performance at Union Pool with Ikue Mori, it's been seven years since Yoshimio—who recently added the o to her name—and OOIOO have graced American soil. With a seven date tour starting on July 15 in Chicago, Yoshimio and company bring their flowing, organic, and genre-less music to the States in support of their new album.
I had a chance to speak with Yoshimio through email about the endless number of projects she’s been involved with, gamelan, nature, creativity, and more.
Translated from the Japanese by Hashim Kotaro Bharoocha.
Scott Davis How did you discover the gamelan?
Yoshimio In 2007, a designer of Cosmic Wonder, who is my friend, asked me if I could do a solo performance for the opening of her new store in Tokyo. I wasn’t interested in doing a solo show, so I decided to ask two gamelan players, who I had just met at the time, and OOIOO’s drummer OLAibi, to perform with me. I decided to call the project Yoshimio with Gamelan. It became an improv performance of me with the sounds of the gamelan; it was the first time I performed with these gamelan players. I also kind of forced OLAibi to play gamelan at this show, so she had to learn how to play the gamelan on the spot from the gamelan players (laughter). The performance was recorded and released as a CD entitled Hikari with the brand’s magazine, Cosmic Wonder Free Press 2. In the magazine, I wrote an article on the theme of “hikari,” which means “light” in Japanese, with Eileen Fleiss and Mike Mills.
SD What is it about the gamelan that appeals to you?
Y Well, it’s not just the gamelan—I love all keyboard instruments that you hit, and all percussion instruments that have melodic elements. When you play the gamelan really fast, it creates a really sparkly sound. You need more than one person to do this. When multiple performers alternately play phrases on gamelans, it makes the sound even more sparkly, which I think is beautiful.
SD Why bring gamelan into OOIOO instead of starting a new project?
Y When we did the Yoshimio with Gamelan project, I spoke with Kohey and Hama—the two new members of the group—and I was fascinated by a story that Kohey told me. He said that he was walking around Tokyo one day and he walked into a boutique to check out some clothes. There was some really weird music playing in the store, and he was so struck by the music that he stayed in the store until the music stopped playing. Then he asked the employee at the store, “What is the music you were just playing?” The employee told him it was OOIOO’s Gold & Green record (laughter). He had already studied the gamelan in Indonesia for many years, and thought that he was going to be playing classical gamelan for the rest of his life. But after hearing our record at this clothing store, he realized, I can make the music I want using the gamelan!
Though the gamelan is a traditional instrument, he discovered that it wasn’t his style to be bound by traditional rules, so he started up his own band which incorporated the gamelan. When he told me that story, I thought he would be a perfect fit for OOIOO. I didn’t have to explain anything to him; I knew that he could join OOIOO smoothly. And that is exactly what happened. He was able to seamlessly become a member of OOIOO without any hesitation. It felt really natural.
SD There are many different gamelan instruments. Which ones are you using on the album? And will they be the same on tour?
Y I don’t know too much about this, so I emailed Kohey who is in Indonesia right now. (laughter) These are the instruments we used on the album:
- Gangsa (the academic name of the instrument is “salon," which is a keyboard instrument) - Tolompong (the academic name of this instrument is “boning," which looks like a large pot) - Gong - Ceng Ceng
Most of the gamelan were from Bali, and we also used a drum from West Java which is called “kengdang sunda.”
The instruments we will be bringing to the US are the “gangsa” and “kengdang sunda."
SD Why did you decide to re-record some old songs using the gamelan? Were you hearing it?
Y OOIOO’s sound always changes depending on how we are feeling that day, and is like the horizontal thread in a tapestry. The sound of the gamelan has a punkish vibe to it and is sparkly at the same time. When we combined the horizontal thread of OOIOO’s sound, with the vertical thread of the gamelan, it looked like a beautiful tapestry. I didn’t perceive it as incorporating gamelan into our old songs, since all the “new” songs on Gamel were also made when we were playing rock music as a four-piece. We had a lot of fun rearranging the OOIOO songs we were playing live to incorporate the gamelan. So, as you say, the songs started to sound closer to the sounds I was hearing in my head when I wrote the songs in the first place.
SD Gamelan is traditionally a ceremonial instrument. Do you think of shows as ceremonies? I would think so: circle formation, energy. I see many parallels between music and energy—the fast energy of punk music with a circle pit, for instance.
Y I don’t consciously conceive of my live shows as being some sort of ceremony. But you could say that showing my whole being in its highest state at a live show is similar to what you might call a ceremony. When I’m preparing to perform in front of people, I feel that it’s more important to balance my vibration, rather than work hard to improve my instrument playing skills.
The moment humans are born, they cry out loud, so humans have an innate ability to sing and create harmony. Humans are truly sophisticated creatures that continue to create sounds and music during their lives.
Whether you're fighting, getting excited, or planting rice to eat, or when you’re happy or sad, when you die or when you’re born, all humans create some kind of sound. So we are all highly advanced beings who are constantly making music. You don’t have to be conscious of making a live show a ceremony, since that aspect is already innately a part of any performance. We only put that definition onto a show after we’ve seen it.
SD I know that the Ainu were a big influence on past records. Do you think that you take on these influences and sort of throw new ones into the mix such as this music from Oceania/Southeast Asia? Do you travel a lot? Is that a major influence on the music? I’m thinking about the album title of Taiga, which refers to a climate region south of tundra, as well.
Y I am fascinated by the chorus work and vocal techniques of the Ainu. I love their music and am influenced by them, but I don’t know anything about their culture. I’m sorry I can’t really explain more in depth about their culture. I do believe that they were the first people to inhabit Japan as the Jōmon people (a prehistoric Japanese civilization). I believe that they weren’t people who migrated to Japan from the continent, but were the first original Japanese people. I feel the same way about the Ryukyu (Okinawa) people. It was only by chance that we incorporated Southeast Asian elements into our album. On Gold & Green, I had U-Zahhn, who I collaborated with in the band Saicobaba, play tabla on the song “Mountain Book.” I traveled through the rainforests on the border of Thailand, and all the plants were shining a gold and green color in the sunlight. So I made that whole trip into an album on Gold & Green. The theme of Taiga was that I saw the life and death of animals and humans as a big river, and I compared that to human thought processes. So it’s quite an epic album for me (laughter). But I did it in a casual way.
SD What are your lyrics about? The sounds seem childlike, almost like kid language. Do your children influence your music in any way? How?
Y As you say, it does sound like a language that a child came up with. Those are just the words that flow out of me. I don’t know where they come from.
SD Do you often record a lot of things like field recordings?
Y Not recently. On the first Yoshimio solo album, Yunnan Colorfree, and the second album, Bor Cozmik, I used a lot of field recording and incorporated them into my songs. On Bor Cozmik, I was on tour with the Boredoms in the US, and my husband asked my daughter, “Where do you want to go while mom’s away?” She replied “the jungle,” and my husband took her to Borneo. When my husband was on the trip, he went to a village of ex-headhunters, and recorded the sounds of their festivals. He also left a binaural mic in the jungle overnight to record the sounds, and brought it back to me. I was so inspired by the sounds he came back with that I overdubbed myself playing instruments over them and created this album. The sounds of the jungle are so incredible. They are like synthesizers before synthesizers were invented…
SD Would you consider yourself religious in any way? Do you think of your music as spiritual?
Y I am not involved in any religions, and I am not interested in them at all. But I am a spiritually-minded person. What does that mean really? I think it means having the intention to live at one’s highest potential as a human being. And it is to observe oneself from a human perspective. It’s also about finding the light within oneself. Everybody’s light comes from the same source, and all humans are connected by the same light. I think that light is what people call the soul. The light comes from the same source which is the soul. We may not be able to see the soul like we see the physical body, but we can feel its existence. Humans all receive the same potential at birth, and depending on if you have positive thoughts or a positive mind, you will either be healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly. So it can create polarities. If humans have any discrimination or disabilities, it might have to do with something from a past life. In that sense, souls all come from the same source. Creating music is an ability that all humans innately possess; it is a primitive urge that we all have. People gather and create culture, and this gives birth to different types of music. The cultural differences come from the different vibrations of the local places. Music is like water, and, depending on its vessel, it changes form.
SD How does nature inspire or influence the music you make?
Y My belief is that traditional musical instruments were created by humans trying to emulate the sounds of nature and manipulate them. I’m really influenced by the sounds of frogs and animals. There’s a visceral beauty to it.
SD Boredoms—until 1998 or so—and Free Kitten sound almost like products of pop culture, but after that, it seems like your music started to grow into an almost spiritual expression. What created this change? Was it Eye who sort of guided this process because of his own travels and progressing interests?
Y I’m not really influenced by other people’s journeys. The trips that I go on definitely influence me though. And I am influenced by Eye’s thought processes. I see flashes of animism and the impulse to return to the true nature of humanity in him. He’s so serious that other people think he’s totally not serious (laughter). I don’t think I’ve ever fit into being a product of pop culture (laughter). It’s the same with Boredoms. I think that when we play music, we aren’t just creating a world of sound for ourselves; we’re also creating a new form of culture with anyone who is listening to our music, and with the people who come to our shows. People might think of the music of Boredoms, "this would be interesting if it were pop music, so maybe that type of thinking is influencing people’s perception? I don’t think anyone could ever define any kind of music as being one thing. Again, music is like water, and it changes form depending on the vessel it is in—or, in other words, whoever is listening to the music. And there is a different genre of music exists for every person on earth.
SD It seems that creativity is a huge part of everyone’s life, obviously. I’ve always seen your kids and Junko’s son around shows.
Y Back then my daughter was still really young, and when kids are at that age they always want to be around their moms, so that’s why she was with me at the shows. For me personally, since the big earthquake and tsunami on March 11, 2011, I haven’t taken my kids to the Tokyo area. I used to take my kids overseas when I was breastfeeding, but after that period, even my youngest child wanted to stay home with her sister, dad, and the dog.
SD Were your parents supportive of your creativity? What are your daughters interested in, and how does that make you feel?
Y My parents have never stopped me from what I want to do. My daughters both love owls right now. They love animals. I think they are learning how to live from animals.
SD Can you talk about Emerald Thirteen a little bit? I’ve been following your designs every year since 2006 or so by looking through yahoo.jp. Where do you think this inspiration comes from and what pushes you to continue? I wish I was a girl so I could wear the clothes! I love everything. Do you see it growing more or do you like the way things are going now? Any plans to stock outside of Japan?
Y I know a lot of boys in Japan who wear Emerald Thirteen. Designing clothes is a different process than making music. I just make clothes, because nobody sells the clothes that I want to wear. I wanted to make clothes that would be comfortable for anyone, from hunters to pregnant women. I actually never had any aspirations to design clothes. The day my dog Tamago died, I met a girl with the same nickname of Tamago. She said she wanted to start up a brand with me, and asked me if I could be the designer. Seriously, this is a true story. I told her right away that I wanted to do it. So I was hiking in the mountainous region close to the border of Thailand, and I was thinking about what kind of clothes I wanted to make. I happened to meet a woman from the Karen Long Neck tribe. She was wearing a cylindrical white dress, which was crude but avant-garde at the same time, and I fell in love with it. I asked the woman if I could trade her traditional dress for the OOIOO t-shirt I was wearing, and she agreed to the exchange. That white dress from the Karen tribe is the basis of all the clothing I make to this day. It’s simple, crude, but avant-garde at the same time. And most importantly, it’s comfortable.
SD What are the upcoming plans for Boredoms?
Y We have two shows in Japan in September. This show will be like an art installation where the set up is a big sound apparatus, but it will also be a Boredoms show.
SD I’ve never been to Japan but am a little familiar with the geography. Do you still live in Nara? I was sort of referring to this in my earlier question about nature, but how do you find balance in 2014 between living outside of the city and mixing with it? What is your perspective on the future of cities and earth in general? It’s a heavy question, I know. Both OOIOO and Boredoms balance perfectly cutting edge technology with sort of ancient instruments or sounds or rhythms. I’m interested in your view of technological progress as it affects humanity at large—the singularity, biology, and so on. The importance of keeping in touch with our human roots while using technology as an instrument for evolution. I like your Instagram, too.
Y I do live in Nara, but it’s not really the countryside. It has a completely different vibe than Osaka, but you can’t really call it a rural area. But I could never live in a big city like Tokyo. In Japan you can no longer say that the city is safer than the countryside, or that the countryside is safer than the city. You have to examine the air quality of that area, which is invisible to the eye, and find the safest place to live. But it’s impossible to find any area that is totally safe. Most people are just ignoring what they can’t see, and living in denial about how dangerous the radioactive contamination might be. It’s really unfortunate. Many people are relying on the belief that the human intellect will someday overpower radiation, and we have to endure living wherever we are until it is resolved. But there is some truth in that, and I do believe that humans are actually stronger than radiation. I believe that there is a way to use the power of thought to neutralize the dangers of radiation. Humans have the capability to infinitely expand their possibilities. I believe that positive thought and mind can overcome anything.
At the same time, human beings abuse the intellect. There are all kinds of people out there. Some people will utilize human DNA for their own gain, and some people will make millions off of wars. That is also something that humans do. That type of thinking is ruling the world right now. It’s something that I have a hard time grasping—if all our souls come from the same source, then why do humans kill each other?
What is hard for me to understand is the system of the world that allows people to be controlled by those that are making money off of wars. I can’t understand how humans could do that to each other. My job is to express myself through sound. It may not be much of a contribution, but when I’m on stage, I’m just showing the possibilities that any human being possesses. I’m not doing anything special. What I’m doing is totally normal, but that’s what makes it beautiful.
It might only be a small contribution to the world, and it’s on such a small scale that it doesn’t have anything to do with money, but I’m not satisfied unless I’m expressing myself. Maybe there’s a part of me that hopes that what I do will open up even a small awareness in people.
This has nothing to do with religion. It’s my hope that every single person will awaken to the infinite possibilities of their DNA.
Yoshimio and OOIOO will be on tour in the US from July 15 to July 23rd. For more information, visit the band's website.
Scott Davis is an artist and musician living in Los Angeles.