Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Boredoms performing at the Starlight Ballroom in Philadelphia, April 2, 2008, with the Sevena in foreground. Photo: Hisham Akira Bharoocha. All photos courtesy of Boredoms and Hisham Akira Bharoocha.
I first saw Eye perform in the early ’90s in Tokyo, where I grew up. He was opening for the metal crossover band Helmet with his hardcore punk side project, Concrete Octopus. Eye came out of the audience screaming “Concrete! Concrete!” with a knit beanie covering his face. Once onstage, he shoved the microphone into his mouth and over the hat, screaming along to the band’s 30-second songs. I was mesmerized by his electric presence. Later I found out that he was one of the leaders of the avant-garde rock band Boredoms. I became obsessed with Boredoms and went to see them whenever they’d travel from their hometown of Osaka to play in Tokyo. Even after moving to the States in the mid-’90s, I made it to every Boredoms-related show in every nearby city.
Eventually, I became friends with Yoshimi, one of the drummers, and opened for her all-girl band OOIOO with one of my bands, Pixeltan, when they came through New York.
Later, a gallery in Tokyo called Trees Are So Special invited me to play solo music at the opening for Eye’s show. When I got there, Eye stood staring at me intensely while I went through my sound check. He was excited by Soft Circle, my solo music project, and agreed to do a jam session with me after our performances. That was one of the best moments of my life. I had dreamed of collaborating with him. As if that weren’t enough, we too became friends.
When Boredoms began thinking of doing a large-scale project in New York, we came up with the idea of creating a performance with 77 drummers for one of their compositions. Thanks to many people’s help, we were able to make it happen in Brooklyn on July 7, 2007, and called it 77 Boadrum. This was another one of the best days of my life. We were able to create a one-of-a-kind experience that connected countless people in a public place outdoors.
This interview happened in March while I was opening for Boredoms as Soft Circle on their latest U.S. tour. Anyone who reads this will get a sense of what motivates the power of their artistic vision: a mix of ancient rites, Japanese folklore, nature, and even cosmic disco.
Hisham Akira Bharoocha Something about yesterday’s performance felt a lot tighter, compared to your last U.S. tour.
Yamatsuka EyeYeah, I agree.
HAB Is it more fun to play a tighter composition? You were saying that when you’re in the middle of a tight performance this huge energy gets created. How’re you thinking now?
EYE I’ve always liked energetic music with intense concentration: hardcore music and ethnic music. Also Polynesian music from Hawaii, the Tamure music from Tahiti, with that intense bamboo percussion and really fast tempo, even faster than hardcore—Takataka, takataka, takataka, takataka…. The upper body might be spasming like this, gagaa….
Yoshimi P-We In our earlier albums, the spinning turntable was an instrument. That was the axis of our music and it created the flow. Then the drums came along. Now it’s getting more percussive—there’s more concentration on each point.
HAB You find out how different it is gradually during the live performances. You devised the Sevena, the 7-neck guitar, before the 77 Boadrum performance. When you first started using it were the songs pretty similar?
EYE I was going around Europe with it. The Sevena is, in one sense, something you can hit to make noise, yes, but I also was picturing a ladder—as if I could climb it and just keep going up. In the beginning I was actually climbing up on it. Tanabata, the Japanese Star Festival, concerns a love story about a bridge placed across the Amanogawa, the Milky Way, to connect one of the celestial emperor’s seven daughters with her earthly lover. To me, the Sevena resonates more as an object of “access” or “connecting” than as a musical instrument.
HAB An object that doesn’t just make sound, but becomes a symbol?
EYE Yeah. Before, it was a simple time signal also.
YP It’s not the bells on New Year’s Eve, but a booong at the temple. Something that marks time.
HAB I see; it has that role in the songs too. Can you explain how you first thought of the 77 Boadrum performance?
EYE Was it around 2006? After Hisham and I performed at Gavin Brown’s, as the duo GaTax—
EYE The people at Deitch wanted to do something art-related around the band. We thought it’d be interesting to do an installation with drums. You know how parking lots in the U.S. are huge, and the cars are all lined up and shiny, like drum sets? So I thought, What if each of the cars in this parking lot were a drum? Then I tried to imagine what that perfect sound would be like, with the cars arranged in rows. My imagination kept going—we were thinking about an installation that we’d call Parking Drum Ritual with 77 “cars” in the gallery, but nobody would be able to come in. We’d want to make sound. It all kept expanding until we decided to set the parameters of the performance to include 77 drums, and happen on July 7, 2007.
YP In the end we never did anything at Deitch.
HAB The number seven was already in Boredoms’s music.
EYE We had one album where all of the song titles had the number seven. People feel attracted to the number. You can’t divide into it.
YP And it’s got a simple shape.
EYE When I was in Palenque, I climbed the Sun Temple, and when I counted the number of steps, there were 77. After that, I started focusing on the number.
Also, in Okinawa, nana (seven), also means “a lot,” “many,” and “spreading.” The idea is that everyone can share; the number seems fertile that way. So when all the sevens lined up on July 7, 2007, I thought that something good might come.
The number seven itself has a form that expresses an energy that spins clockwise: it represents a system of movement, like the energy in a DNA helix. It’s all related. Actually, the “bore” in “Boredoms” means “boa constrictor.”
HAB I’m just learning this.
EYE A boa expresses an energy from the earth. This simple, long shape increases its energy by spinning and turning around. It’s something fundamental connected to the number seven and also to the sun. Looking for inspiration for 77 Boadrum, I’d go to a river a bit north of our house. I’d see a snake. The third time I saw one it was all coiled up and looking at the morning sun.
YP What kind of snake?
EYE It was completely black.
YP That was loaded with some kind of message. It all fits, right? If the snake lifts its head, it makes a 7 shape.
EYE When I first saw it, it was eating a frog! The snake was all ballooned out. At first I couldn’t move, I just watched from nearby. Then the frog went inside its stomach, and it expanded like a tsuchinoko (a mythical snakelike cryptid). I took the snake, it eating a frog, the sun, and the timing as something very specific and clear. There was some doubt about whether I’d be able to do 77 Boadrum—but having this vision changed it into a feeling of “I can do this.”
HAB You were talking about various concepts before, like that of the Sun Goddess, and the connection of your music to Japanese culture.
EYE I have a really deep connection to this, the band members probably not as much. Sometimes we get seen as some kind of cult band, but really—
EYE It’s not good to be taken as too bent on spiritualism. It’s not like that at all. It’s animism—a normal sense of respect towards things of nature. For me, it does imply Shinto in a large way. I was raised Shinto. It’s related to chance. If I focus on what I come upon, like invisible writing on a boulder, there’s plenty that comes to the surface. It’s like a little tale in itself. I’ll think, Why am I here; why am I in Boredoms; why do I live in this place called Nara? It’s as if there were a small magnet called “me” within this large magnet called “Earth,” and that by placing myself on a certain point of the Earth, a pull were generated. My existence is pointing to it and meaning comes out, whether I like it or not—that becomes my reason for existence. So I go and look at my surroundings.
There is a river to the north of where I live, that, believe it or not, is also named after the Milky Way: the Amanogawa River. By the Amanogawa is this huge boulder called Amanoiwafune, which means “cosmic ship.” Inside is a Cosmic Ship Shrine. About two thousand years ago, the grandson of the Sun Goddess came down on that ship and landed on that site: that is how the legend goes.
HAB You can enter the boulder?
EYE It’s a big boat-shaped boulder. You can go in on the side where there’s a tiny shrine. When I saw the boulder I could see an eyeball on it. Do you know what Shugen-do is?
EYE It’s when you go into these boulders, or caves, to do ascetic practices. You heighten your worshipping of nature there.
HAB They do this commonly in India.
EYE In Japan too. Anyway, the name of that Sun Goddess’s grandson is Ninigi No Mikoto. Ninigi refers to a tribe in northern Japan. There’s this phenomenon where a large thing gets reflected as a small thing. If you keep going north past the Japanese archipelago, you come across the Amur River along the border between Southeastern Siberia and China. Amur means “rain,” “heaven,” and “flowing,” so it is, in effect, a reflection of Amanogawa. Living around that river was a minority ethnic group—well, they’re still there—the Nanai people. Nana is “seven.” Those people gradually descended south into Japan; I bet they named the Amanogawa river after the Amur River to the north, because it reminded them of where they had come from. That word of theirs, na-nai, must have, over time, evolved into the number seven: nana.
YP The word we use today.
EYE Near the Amanogawa river there are Myoukengu—shrines to the gods of the stars. A long time ago a huge meteor came down there. They thought it was a god. That meteor landed and broke into three pieces in a perfect triangle on the peak of Myoukengu, bam! So they built Myoukengu shrines with shintai (an object of worship housed in a Shinto shrine) in each of the places where pieces of the meteor landed. The first part of the word Myoukengu—妙見宮—can be 妙 (myou, which means “strange”) or the similar sounding 名 (pronounced na, mei, or myou, and means “name”). The na there refers to the Nanai people.
I think the number seven is also related to this place because they have a shrine of Hokutochisei, the Big Dipper. The word for—北斗七星—literally means “North-Ladle-Seven-Stars” (the seven stars in the northern sky shaped like a ladle). So this is the land where the Tanabata legend about the bridge across the galaxy originates: Tanabata is written 七夕、and means “seven-evenings.” It is celebrated on the 7th of July, the seventh month, each year. I got really interested in the legend and the number seven even before I had the idea for 77 Boadrum—it was a foreshadowing.
The Nanais in China live near the Sea of Okhotsk, along the Amur River. They worship the sun there and their flag is a white sun on a blue flag. Japan’s flag is a red sun on white. Yoshimi’s husband and I were there when they were having this festival which we participated in—there’s this Sun Temple and they ram the neck of a living horse into it. Everyone dances clockwise in a circle while singing songs. These people’s faces are really similar to ours—it surprised me, it was as if they were our roots. Those people around that part of Asia, as well as Mongolians, came over to Japan a long time ago across the Korean peninsula. They brought over the power of the Amur River, that’s to say, the celestial powers. You can see them as messengers of the Sun Goddess. Back then, in Japan, it was all about animism, all local customs and religions, different kinds of nature worship. Everyone doing whatever they wanted—it must have been pretty crazy. Then the symbol of the sun came in; it was the one thing that could unify all of the tribes. There were more anarchic people who continued in their ways, who didn’t obey—maybe they didn’t know. They were called sanka and lived like primitive people in the depths of the mountains. I bet the legend of oni [horned, three-eyed, and three-fingered demons] had something to do with them.
YP Sanka is written, in Chinese characters, as “mountain-hole,” not “mountain-house.”
EYE Language and its evolution are so amazing, it’s information from the past—you can’t erase it. As much as the Imperial system tried to change things, the words were unable to change. They might have become phonetically transmuted, but they continue on. I can see this with the number seven, too—na-na or na-nai or shichi, these words are related to the sun: they express a fertile energy.
This conversation got strangely religious, thinking about roots, origins, and stuff, but if you think deeply about all the implications of the sun, and the number seven, and our band name, you realize they’re all connected.
HAB The way you, as a band and as individuals, are concerned with these elements of humanity, and how you connect them and people through music is astounding.
EYE That’s exactly it. I cast out these questions, to see what kinds of things become visible. The things I start to understand later tend to have stronger implications. When they first come out, I don’t really know. It’s a questioning of one’s consciousness, like those meanings I was just talking about. It’s the timing of the questioning that’s important—its depth, duration, repetition—as I think about these things, those signals become a time-based art, and get closer to music.
HAB How is the music you’re making now different from 77 Boadrum? The music is a language—you have your own experiences, the audience members have theirs…. Your most recent album, Super Roots 9, records a performance that you did the with a choir day before Christmas in 2004. How many people sang in the choir?
YP Twenty people.
HAB Different from your 77 Boadrum experience, but it still involved collaborating with a large number of people.
YP That piece had a score. They got someone to notate what Eye does on the turntable. The sounds from a turntable don’t exist in the regular scale, so even if you transcribe and hear them with just intonation, they come across as very different depending on who is notating. We had to fix a lot of it. In any case, we brought it to something that we thought was close to the music that Eye’s been making. Then we had the choir sing it. These people sing in a church—a quiet place, with no mics—so it must have been really hard for them to sing alongside drums and explosive sounds. They all tried hard to belt out their voices, and it turned into “Aaaaaa, Aaaaaa, Aaaaaa, Aaaaaa.” It was pretty problematic, since they were all made tone deaf by the noise. (laughter)
EYE 77 Boadrum was quite special. But then again, the things that I want to do, after all, have a little bit of that as well. It’s an expanded version of what you want to do in a band, in a circle. There are four of us working in this band, but something like a circulation system completes it. It’s Vipassana-like, in a static state. There aren’t any ups and downs, just these fine undulations. In times when everything is completely balanced, it feels as if we can become a huge playback device. The efficiency in access gets totally heightened.
It’s something emotionless, a world of mu (emptiness), actually more like komu (nihilism). It’s an amplitude; a sense of playing something huge—that, to me, is cosmic disco. Disco is the most excited and hyper state. My own image of the formation of the universe is static and infinitely connected disco music that a DJ plays continuously. Now we’re in a transition period—at first I was aiming for something as static as possible. But over time, and now with the Sevena, it has turned into something more like rock—hence the sense of amplitude. As a waveform, I want it to get finer and stronger, as if it were going to flatten into a line. I want to get into a drone-state.
HAB That drone—it might be in hardcore, or ethnic music, anything trancelike. The best is when it comes out of your head, and you experience that feeling of mu. The most interesting part of making my own music is when I’m not thinking of anything at all, I’m concentrated on what I feel inside. Accessing mu transports you into a trance-state. Many cultures have an interest in that sensation and music is the best vehicle to attain it.
EYE It’s also about making sound. Now we get into fundamental things like simply inhaling and exhaling, that Vipassana, that original action and the sound that accompanies it. Those waves are the biggest trigger. The sound of breathing is transmitted to the brain. I always feel those relationships.
HAB The relationship between you and sound.
EYE It’s not like this sound exists and then I’m there outside it; it’s how I am in relation to it. If you think about dance music, the sound with the kick—boom boom boom—is considered the main part now, but if you look at Japanese shrine music, there’s a sho, which makes a high-pitched howling: that sound makes the Shinto priestesses start dancing. Everyone now responds to the bass, but I think we’re going to see more of that kind of pleasure in responding to those high-pitched sounds. Even now there are those moments in dance music when everybody goes crazy for some high note.
Our sense of rhythm is going to change—we’ll also see strange kinds of dancing. It’s because of pii-go-sho! that people get totally excited with Merzbow. It’s the best! Dance music is the most physical—it takes in this thing called noise. At least in Japan we see the tendency to pay more attention to noise as dance music. Everyone’s playing noise.
YP And then they dance like they’re nuts.
EYE They’re also playing underground noise from the U.S.—Wolf Eyes, Six Organs of Admittance…. I forget all of their names, but some bands that do drones.
HAB It’s like that over here, too. It started with Wolf Eyes, then it was headbanging, and now it’s noise rock; they’ve made it popular in the U.S. So, at shows, all these young long-haired people take their fists and—
YP They raise their fists to noise.
HAB I’ve often wondered about that….
YP They dance without a beat, the noise people.
EYE In the past, DJs wouldn’t have played noise. They would just play the standard dance music and mix it and stuff. But DJs are a crevice industry now, they have to do something that other people aren’t doing.
YP Crevice industry?!
EYE Before, only a few DJs owned a lot of records. If you were a famous DJ, you could go into a record store and they’d treat you like a VIP. When you played rare music everyone would be moved, thinking, Wow, what is this music? Now everyone knows, or can know, and it can all be acquired. But still, some DJs can really bring out the potential of a record.
HAB They are the ones who communicate to a great number of people.
EYE When you think about the Internet, it’s actually an “inner-net.” It has always existed. For me, there’s a sense of a past familiarity. In Japanese we have a term for this—ishin-denshin (thought transference)—just by thinking about a person, you can get through to them. I wonder if she will call me, you think, and then she calls. It’s like that with you, Hisham, we understand each other without needing to talk—the cords are connected, the line goes through. It’s the “inner net,” in other words.
HAB You had to look really hard to get information in the past. Now, with Google—
YP They can even figure out your physical location.
EYE Reality keeps changing. What has been real until now might no longer be so, and something virtual that we thought was a lie might in turn become real. The fact that you can do a quick search online is only one, often inaccurate, surface of reality. You might hear that some guy did an interesting performance, but it could be more interesting to imagine what it was like than actually look it up. For example, the other day I heard about the Brazilian musician who did recordings with pigs….
YP You mean Hermeto Pascoal. He was in a spring, or a lake, and everyone had bottles…
EYE They were playing music in a circle. When I heard that story, I thought, How interesting is that?
YP It sounds amazing!
EYE So in your head, without that much information, you can enjoy it for a long time. So then the guy with the new drums showed me what Pascoal had actually done.
YP That was Senju.
EYE I thought, Oh, I see, and I was satisfied. (laughter)
YP Yeah, it ended there—the thrill of anticipation disappeared. The art just went into the world of information.
EYE If we were primitive people and saw an airplane, we’d think it was a bird, a metal bird. Reality is something we can make up more of—it’s not something you confirm or verify at some point and call it done.
HAB I was thinking about the vocals for Boredoms—what’s the deal with the lyrics?
HAB What are you singing about, are they words you wrote yourself?
YP The stuff that Eye says is Eye’s. They have meaning, in their own way. With me there’s a lot of “Aaaaaaaaa!” I don’t sing so much, maybe just words like “yes” and “sky.” It’s pretty embarrassing. I might use a bit more words with meaning, and maybe coin new related words…. It’s not like with those American songs, where you know exactly what the lyrics are.
HAB But I can tell when you’re saying “sunroad.”
YP You mean “volcano,” right?
HAB That was volcano! Oh well. Tell me about that soundtrack you did recently. How did the project come to you, Yoshimi?
YP That director is Kim Sung-yoon, he is Korean-Japanese. In order to understand his existence, he traveled to all kinds of places for a long time. He was making a movie about the Dalai Lama called Tibet, Tibet. Then Sung-yoon wanted to make a part two, so he traveled all around Yunnan. He kept filming tribal fashion-type stuff. One day he came over and asked me to look at over 400 hours of footage. I said, “Maybe if you cut it down to 40 minutes I’ll look at it.” So he said, “If I do, will you put music to it?” A year later he came over with a 40-minute DVD. When I saw his film, I thought, Hey, I could do this in one shot. The people in it had hand-embroidered tribal costumes, and high heels and stuff from China. It was super avant-garde—totally punk fashion. We called the CD/DVD set Yunnan Colorfree.
HAB Wow. I look forward to seeing it. You must have been pretty inspired when you saw it.
YP So I turned off all the sound, and improvised while watching it. I also tried fitting in a song I’d already written, and it matched up really well. It was like Sonic Youth’s Death Valley ’69. There were these phrases like Taaan Tataaaan Taaaan that kept coming out, and I thought, “Hey, I should have Kim Gordon sing this.” I sent it to her and she agreed to sing.
HAB Regarding your future plans with Boredoms next year you’re doing the solar eclipse project, right?
YP Yeah, we’ve been warming that project under the ground for a long time. A total solar eclipse is rare. Out of all the places in Japan where you can see the eclipse, we chose to perform on Akusekijima, an island where only 70 people live. There’s the problem regarding how many people the island will be able to accommodate. Akusekijima is pretty central, and you should be able to see 60 or 70 percent of the eclipse. It’s very close to Suwanosejima—a place where Japanese hippies have lived for a long time that has a greater capacity to accommodate people, but won’t have as good a view of the eclipse. Truth be told, you can see the eclipse better on Iwo Jima on the Ogasawara Islands, but there’s only a military base there.
HAB Will you be playing during the eclipse?
YP While the sun is eclipsed, we won’t perform. Everyone will want it to be silent then. We’re thinking of playing just before and after the sun comes back out.
HAB I definitely want to go to that. It’ll be pretty crazy and crowded.
YP It’d be best to be there and just feel it. With animism and all, they say, “Do not look at the sun.”
HAB Any other future plans? Will you have an 88-drums performance this year, on August 8, 2008?
YP There’s August 8, 2008, and then September 9, 2009, and to welcome those dates, we’d like to do the drum performance again.
HAB Will you use a new idea, compared to the 77 drums performance?
YP We want to stick to one concept. The number of people involved will probably be 88, a symbol of infinity—we’d like this to go on into infinity.
The following was originally published as a Web Outtake and not featured in the print edition.
In BOMB’s Summer 2008 issue, Hisham Akira Bharoocha speaks to Yamatsuka Eye and Yoshimi P-We about the ways in which Boredoms connect music with humanity. In the following outtake, we learn more about Yoshimi’s side projects: her clothing line and her own band, OOIOO.
Hisham Akira Bharoocha How long have you had your clothing company?
Yamatsuka Eye Maybe about 6–7 years, but it’s not quite a company.
HAB You just started making stuff?
Yoshimi P-We When I was traveling across the mountains around the border of Thailand and Laos, there was this tribe that had the coolest clothes—I got them to trade them for the OOIOO shirt I was wearing. This inspired me. The mountain tribes of a certain altitude—in Thailand, Yunnan, Brazil, and Africa—all have this color. It might be the way that they see light. In South America, for instance, they have this unique fluorescent blue. But all these tribes’ clothes have something in common: they’re all made by hand, are amazingly beautiful and radiant. It’s totally punk, not just in Yunnan.
HAB In Guatemala, too. How long have you been doing the all-girl band OOIOO? And what about the band’s name?
YP Since around 1995. I saw “OOIOO” written in Eye’s notebook, and I stole it from there.
EYE That’s not right, I gave it to you when you asked me if I could think of a band name…
YP Yeah, then you showed me your notebook and were like, “Which one do you like?” You had OOIOO, Pink Sabbath, and all kinds of things written down.
HAB Pink Sabbath! (laughter)
YP I could only see OOIOO. I was like, I’ll take this one! We wouldn’t even have to do anything after that, because the band name was already art.
Translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu.
Hisham Akira Bharoocha’s art has been shown at galleries including D’Amelio Terras and John Connelly Presents. He is a founding member of the bands Lightning Bolt and Black Dice. Full Bloom, his first solo album as Soft Circle, was released last year on Eastern Developments. He lives in Brooklyn and is currently working on a new album.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.