Nostalgia, rhythm, and synchronicity.
Great Master Ma is unwell. (This guy has broken down quite a bit. He’s dragging in other people.) The temple superintendent asked him, “Teacher, how are you these days?” (Four-hundred four diseases break out all at once. They’ll be lucky if they’re not seeing off a dead monk in three days. This is in the course of human duty.) The great master said “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.” (How fresh and new! Sustenance for his fledgling.)
—from The Blue Cliff Record
Led by Tori Kudo, the group Maher Shalal Hash Baz (Isaiah 8:1, “hasten to the spoils,” or according to Tori, “quick spoil, speedy booty”) has existed in permutation in Japan since the mid ’80s, playing a kind of shambolic congregational music that at times veers into poignant simplicity. By employing a simultaneous rigor and spontaneity (players will often perform a score having not seen it prior), Tori has crafted a unique musical space. What results as often conjures the infamous Portsmouth Sinfonia interpreting the Ventures as it does the prescient doomed neo-romanticism of the Only Ones’ Peter Perrett (Tori’s hero), and always with a certain laconic charm that is unmistakably Maher.
We sat down after Maher’s concert at ISSUE Project Room in NYC to discuss the blues, misunderstanding as an imperialistic prerogative, unwittingly embodying the herd, and the end of the world.
(Special thanks to Yuzo Sakuramoto for live translation.)
Keith Connolly I was listening to the Individualism of Gil Evans, as well as tracks from the new Aphex Twin album, SYRO, and I was hearing how the space exists in each, but at such different speeds. By speed I do not mean tempo, but rather a kind of speed of the apprehension of space, or ma in Japanese, as I understand it. I hear something similar in the music of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, happening at its own speed. Can you talk about how this is done?
Tori Kudu If you listened to my concert tonight, you may have found that some part of the rhythm is somehow delayed. That is my original idea. It is a secret rhythm, which came from blues, country blues. I perform Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s funeral march, even tonight. In a funeral march band, they have a big, big drum, which sounds like (mouthing a distinct rhythm) DUM … TACK … FHWAAM … It is delayed, always. That is my dogma, and black music’s secret is that delayed rhythm. The Japanese blues players do not quite understand that element.
KC There’s no term in Japanese for blues …
TK There are blues players who emulate western blues musicians, but this is unrelated to Japanese folk music.
When I discovered this kind of delay in Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s funeral march, I started looking for a Japanese rhythm. There is a drummer named Doronco [Kiyohiro Takada] and a bassist called Sami [Toshiro Mimaki], who were both original members of Le Rallizes Denudes. They were very close friends and played in Rallizes for a long time. Once, I was listening to their sessions, and they practiced beating out an “on on on” rhythm like a machine, so perfectly in tune with each other. But every once in a while they would shift this rhythm without having any preliminary arrangement, playing off of each other. It’s not a jazz interplay, but a real rock happening. Then I heard Yamao Sansei, a kind of hippie guru who lives in Yakushima, kind of a beat poet like Allen Ginsburg. He wrote a poem called “Kirikabu no Uta” (“Song of Stump”). There was a song made from this poem that the people of Kokubunji and Fussa started singing, on the outskirts of Tokyo where there is a big US Air Force base and many hippies live. Among them, the song is really famous. Doronco and I would refer to this song as “Nigatsu No Sora” (February Sky), because this phrase is the beginning of the verse. It is about the first political movement of anti-“Japan-United States Security Treaty,” which was signed in 1960, and about Michiko Kanbe, a female student who was killed by police in front of the Diet Building during her participation in the demonstration.
Somehow, with this song, along with Doronco and Sami’s rhythm, I began to hear a new delay, different from that of Roland Kirk. This is the rhythm that I play today, like in the song “Shiogamori.” It’s like a Japanese farmer cutting rice straws (gestures and stoops), with the emphasis of delay on the second or third beat. This delay in response to the physical action is uniquely Japanese. It’s kind of a posture of the body, very different from that which you see in New York or Los Angeles or Detroit. It is from this rhythm that I compose the songs for Maher Shalal Hash Baz. It’s a kind of regulation I impose.
KC And there are hundreds of songs …
KC You cannot possibly play them all.
TK No, because some of the scores are very difficult to play. In a few cases I have overdubbed myself on recordings, though the goal is to perform these with live musicians.
KC I find the blues connotation particularly intriguing.
TK It is like sewing, the rhythm of stitching by hand, which also exists in country blues. When I last met Keiji Haino, we talked about Syd Barrett’s particular, cutting kind of guitar playing. If only the on-beat is used, the song kind of stands still, but with playing off, or behind or ahead of the beat, it can move forward, like sewing. This kind of discovery makes it possible to animate ordinary songs. Using such rhythms in rock interplay may constitute what is referred to as ma, which you mentioned earlier.
KC That is something I learned a bit about working with Chie Mukai, and something she addresses in her workshops. Speaking of Chie, there is a quality that her band Che-SHIZU and Maher Shalal Hash Baz seem to share that I would describe as a kind of instantaneous nostalgia. Is this something you would say you recognize?
TK Nostalgia is a problem in rock. It is a big issue.
KC I am referring to the material, not so much the attitude.
TK It all depends on how you challenge nostalgia. Nostalgia is a chasing, and rock goes against nostalgia. In some cases the nostalgia can be absorbing, like with Tangerine Dream or the Velvet Underground, who are essentially a nostalgic band, and immensely important. Personally, I tend to drown in nostalgia whilst trying to maintain some distance from the world and from the audience, sometimes by deliberately embracing cliché.
KC The end result certainly transcends cliché.
TK Thank you.
KC Was the piano your first instrument?
TK Yes, I attended a class at the Yamaha School of Music when I was two and a half. I played a pump organ there too, but during the classes, I slept.
KC Can you name some piano music that interests you?
TK Have you heard the Japanese piano player Yuji Takahashi performing Bach?
KC I’m not sure.
TK In some instances he plays Bach as a child would, as if confronted with the score for the first time. Also Jacques Fevrier, whose touch, or attack, is very unique. Of all the interpreters of Satie, he is the best. Really though, I am not interested in pianists. I am only interested in this kind of … attack (makes a snapping sound with his finger on the table). Just attack.
KC You played piano a bit last night with Che-SHIZU. Do you still play much?
TK I play piano in a hotel lobby, playing jazz, like “’Round Midnight.” Depending on the shift, I can alter the style to suit the customers.
KC Nightlife, Business Class, Happy Hour …
TK I will think of Erik Satie playing at Le Chat Noir. Even when I play at a place like that, I play carefully, paying close attention to rhythm, or touch.
KC Other than this, are you performing much in Japan?
TK Yes, a few times a month, though I rarely collaborate with musicians of my own generation. It is mostly with younger musicians. These days, in many different places there are groups of younger musicians who have learned to play Maher music, so when I go there, it is these younger musicians who become the band. I have played in many places ending in ma, making for YokohaMaher, HiroshiMaher, etc. It is my goal that this will culminate in Italy for RoMaher, someday …
KC You have strong connections in Glasgow and Olympia, Washington, via Geographic and K records, who form a kind of Maher trade route to Japan.
TK Yes. There’s also Movietone in Bristol, and the Maher musical family in Liége, Belgium. These scenes kind of overlap and have embraced Maher, and the people involved are very important to me, like a family.
KC What has your impression been of US audiences?
TK Each city is different. For example, I have been opening each Maher concert with a video piece I made, a realization of John Cage’s famous 4’33”. In LA, when the video was finished, there was wild cheering, but in New York, the audience seemed nonplussed, like they were too cool to react or acknowledge it. Also, I observed that the posture of the people walking around in each city is markedly different. In LA it seems loose and kind of relaxed, where as New Yorkers are more adroit and upright. In Texas I had initially thought to make some kind of tribute to Texas psychedelia, like the 13th Floor Elevators or Red Crayola, but then I realized that Marfa, where we were playing, is far from Austin where those bands were from, so I wrote a country song for the occasion instead, called “Too Many Wives.”
KC Might this eventually appear on record?
TK Making vinyl records is very important, but it requires money. I have four different SoundCloud accounts, but I don’t think that too many people are listening.
KC In Japan, is Maher seen as a Christian band?
TK (laughter) No. In my local town, Matsuyama, I am considered a noise musician.
KC There was an interview many years ago with you that originally appeared in the Japanese magazine G-Modern, which was subsequently translated into English by Alan Cummings, and which goes to some length tracing out your history.
TK The translation is incomplete. I find that there is an almost imperialistic tendency in the coverage of Japanese underground music by publications such as The Wire magazine, which is similar to that of the British Museum. An exaggerated, westernized form of the Japanese underground is portrayed, and then this is imported back to Japan. Usually, when the Japanese import or try to understand western culture, there is some kind of misunderstanding. A good example of this would be the Japanese reception of Derek Bailey. With the minimum of information that was originally available, his work prompted speculation and fantasy. Conversely, when this happens with Japanese music, a weird kind of feedback loop is created, affecting the reception of this music, both in Japan and abroad.
KC There are some artists, for example Daisuki Tobari, or Jun Konagaya/GRIM, or Magical Power Mako even, who seem immune to this.
TK You are right. In any event, certain artists may exist outside of this loop.
KC Like yourself?
TK I am perpetually on the border.
KC What then, would you say, is the state of Maher Shalal Hash Baz today?
TK That’s a difficult question. It’s very difficult to run, though I am trying. In a way it could be said that Maher does not exist anymore. All the original members are gone, so now I accept whoever comes to Maher, and they are more like participants. I can continue that way, and I can create songs, so if you want to call that Maher, it’s okay. In some ways it is becoming more of a theatrical undertaking, akin maybe to Pasolini with all his actors being like a theater group, or the same actors playing in different films. I have worked with the Montreal-based playwright Jacob Wren in creating the play “No Double Life for the Wicked,” about the members of Maher and their daily lives. For example, in the play I am making pottery. It’s an attempt to show how Maher has become Maher, a kind of meta-Maher.
It interests me that Jeremy, a Maher band member, was reading a book on Jodorowsky when I met him New York. Back in Japan I had recently watched Jodorowsky’s latest film “The Dance of Reality.” I also recently saw the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky [Jodorowsky is thanked in the closing credits to this film- ed.] which depicts the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. At the same time, Arrington, another Maher member who is a painter, is studying Nicholas Roerich, the backdrop painter and costume designer for that original production, who was quite interesting. He was committed to Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy and ended up in India. And not too long ago I had performed an "opera" called A Centennial of The Rite of Spring in Kochi, Japan. With Diaghelev as producer and Nijinsky, of the Ballet Russes, The Rite of Spring premiere in 1913 was the most important artistic event of the twentieth century, due largely to its collaborative nature, though it was very messy and confused, and the cops had to be called.
There is some kind of synchronicity in all of this, that we are all sharing this same information, though at the same time I feel somehow domesticated, which is a little scary, as if we are under the influence or control of highly advanced capitalism. We correspond like an art book fair. We are the livestock of this late capitalism. But ironically, this seems to result in miraculous collaborations like The Rite of Spring becoming rare.
KC Do you feel the burden of proof, to continue?
TK It’s very hard. I am hoping that this world is going to end soon.
For more on the work of Tori Kudo and Maher Shalal Hash Baz, visit Kudo's SoundCloud page.
Keith Connolly is a founding member of the No-Neck Blues Band—a seven-piece improvised-music collective—and a contributing editor at BOMB.