Sonic Youth in Japan (1993.2.24)
with Incapacitants, Keiji Haino, Violent Onsen Geisha, Solmania, Monde Bruits, Merzbow and Masonna.
Sonic Youth first went to Japan around 1988. We weren’t the first New York import. I believe Zorn and Frith and a few others from the underground improvisors scene had been connecting there. But as far as post-no wave/noise rock bands go we weren’t the first. Einsturzende Neubauten had gone there. And Lydia Lunch went with Richard Kern and they hated it. But it was Pussy Galore who were the first New York noise freaks to hit Japan. They came back and mumbled something about this band that opened for them in Tokyo called The Boredoms. They referred to them as Japan’s Butthole Surfers.
Six months later we make it to Japan and play a tiny, tiny club in Tokyo and, sure enough, The Boredoms are opening. Yamatsuka Eye literally burst into the dressing room (the hallway between the stage and the back door) saying, “Hello we are Boredoms. I am Eye. This is P-We. She is 16 years old. We are Pisshole Surfers! Yeah yeah yeah!” And they played a set of music very tangled and free and with a full-on head of velocity. We were awed. Eye gave us records. One was the first Boredoms LP called Onanie Bomb Meets The Sex Pistols. The other was an LP by something else of Eye’s called the Hanatarash (loosely translates as: the snot nose). The Hanatarash LP was pure screaming noise. We were told the legend of a Hanatarash gig in Osaka where Eye hot-wired a mini street-demolition tractor and drove it into the club and proceeded to tear the place apart.
Through Eye we found out about other musicians exploring like-minded territory. Eye was at the centre of it all in the sense that there was an evolving history of Japanese noise-music before him (notably Hijo Kaidan,Merzbow, Null and Keiji Haino) and an insane influx of it after his Hanatarash debut. Noise labels, such as Alchemy Records, documented the music on vinyl. But it was the cassette which would give this expanding scene its identity. Eye ran a cassette label called “?” and musicians as wild as Masonna and Aube created labels (Coquette and G.R.O.S.S.) to further the exploits of their own noise as well as others.
The next time Sonic Youth went to Japan I spent every free minute tracking down noise-cassettes. The music began appearing on CD and I started gathering those as well. Enthusiasts in America, the U.K. and Europe began to release cassettes of Japanese noise: Boredoms, UFO Or Die, Masonna, Ruins, Bustmonsters, Omoide Hatoba, Zeni Geva, Volume Dealers, Incapacitants, Hanatarash, Gerogerigegege, Violent Onsen Geisha, Hijo Kaidan,Aube, Pain Jerk, Merzbow, MSBR, Magical Power Mako, Fushitsusha, and many, many more. It all reached a peak in about 1992-93. Many of the same noise-artists continue to release brutal hyper-electronic noise cassettesand CDs. I want them to stop. I figured I may have 900 hours of sick and insane Japanese noise-music in my apartment. I’ve stacked it all in boxes. I told Yoshimi, the Boredoms’ drummer, that I plan on selling it all as a lot. She looked at me and smiled and said, “No one will buy it.” Sometimes I think I’m going to have a nervous breakdown when I receive notice that Vanilla, G.R.O.S.S., Alchemy, P.S.F., Mom ‘n Dad, Public Bath, Japan Overseas, Beast 666, Forced Exposure, Nux, Endorphine Factory, My Fiancee’s Life Work, Coquette, etc, etc, etc have released a new Merzbow or Incapacitants cassette, CD, LP or 7” (Masonna released a mini-disc made to order for anyone willing to buy it. I bought one immediately.) I devised various plans of action. One was to purchase hundreds of cheap walkmans and build a small-scale house and line the structure with continuous playing noise. I’d heard that Merzbow released a CD in an edition of one. This CD was in a car CD player installed in a Mercedes- Benz. I bought the less limited edition, the one in a box with a t-shirt. I obsessed about buying the car edition, though. I imagined parking it in front of my noise-house. From time to time I figure I should just dump the stuff on someone who loves the music but can hardly afford to buy anything.
As I pondered this over the summer of 95 I got a call from a major label record company asking me if I wanted to remix a track off the forthcoming Yoko Ono LP Rising. I said I hate being locked in recording studios and am not into remixing anything but I’d listen to the tape. There was one track on there, the title track, which I loved. It was 10 minutes of acoustic guitar, tabla drum and Yoko singing these scarily beautiful lines and going off into lovely warble-improvs. I realized I had found a home for my Japanese noise-cassette children. I called the record company and said I’d do it but it had to be immediately as Sonic Youth was preparing to leave for tour in a few days. The next day I went to this amazing studio in Manhatten. The Yoko tapes were there as were two studio engineers prepared for a good two days minimum pro-remix. I brought my box of noise. I pulled out cassettes, some wrapped in homemade gunk, and had the engineer fill up every open track on the song. There were many open tracks. I cranked Yoko’s voice, closed my eyes and listened to the playback. When I yelled, “Go!” the engineer would toggle switch the stereo-rainbow of MSBR, The Gerogerigegege, Hanatarash, Masonna, Solmania, Incapacitants, Violent Onsen Geisha, C.C.C.C., Hijokaidan, Aube, Monde Bruits and Keiji Haino into the mix completely obliterating everything in its path. And when I yelled, “Stop!” he’d toggle it off. It took four hours and I got paid enough to cover a good percentage of what I had paid out for all this noise. My guilt was somewhat relieved. Only problem: I didn’t ask any of the artists for their permission. I told the record company to get clearance from each artist and to compensate them fairly. The label received two responses from Japan. One was, “Please use my music freely anywhere, anytime, anyplace!” and the other was, “How dare Thurston Moore use our music and tell us afterward?!” I responded to all who had animosity and everything was ironed out but I did get called a weird Japanese name by Hijokaidan.
Which leads me to what is probably my favorite Japanese recording. It’s a cassette compilation entitled Gomi-Akta (Gomi and Akuta roughly translate as Trash and Dirt, metaphorically as something with absolutely no value). It’s released by Masonna’s Coquette label and a weird, wild assortment of the Japanese noise underground is present on this tape.
Yamazaki Takushi from Masonna gave all participants a set of rules:
1. No electricity or batteries allowed.
2. One take, no corrections.
3. Recording time less than three minutes.
4. All recording done on Yamazaki’s Walkman.
The tape is wrapped in aluminium foil and has ripped Sony cassette wrappers rubber-banded to it and it’s all dumped in a crinkled plastic bag. All 41 tracks are masterpieces. Eye is screaming and flushing a toilet in a club dressing room. The liner notes claim, “The resonances of the toilet bowl are idiotically fascinating.” All kinds of shit goes on here with people shaking pachinko balls in beer cans, breaking chopsticks, screaming underwater, hitting cash registers, teeth brushing, ordering yakitori, a paper cup leaking cola, teeth being extracted.
One track is by the owner of a record store called Fujiyama. Fujiyama is a shack full of noise on the outskirts of Tokyo. I had heard of this mecca a few years ago and trekked there only to find it shut. There was no information on when it was open and so I returned two or three times a day for two or three days until it was finally open. The owner was an interesting, eccentric fellow and he had a motherload of original Japanese noise artifacts. I found cassettes from the incredible Beast 666 label as well as early Hanatarash items. Photographs of Eye destroying stages as a young man were slipped in plastic baggies and sold as Hanatarash ephemera. I went hog wild. I’ve been back a few times since then. On the Gomi-Akta cassette the store owner, Watanabe Tadashi, recites what the liner notes refer to as “incomprehensible repetition of nonsense”. The liners also note that Watanabe “often capriciously closes his shop. He was once severely scolded by Thurston Moore, who was unable to shop there despite several attempts.”
Well, this is patently untrue as I believed myself to be dutifully respectful to Mr. Watanabe. My thanks to Resonance for letting me put the record straight.