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'Noise Is Japanese Blues': An Interview With Boris
Tristan Bath , June 19th, 2014 06:28

With the Japanese shapeshifters' nineteenth album Noise released this month, Tristan Bath meets the mighty Boris in London to discuss the background noise of life, their many collaborative projects and, of course, guitar feedback

"I like speaking to young people." It's odd to hear Atsuo speaking English after over an hour of him answering questions in Japanese through a translator. "I want to speak to everybody!" He's reiterating the point made most salient throughout our chat, which wound up going on even longer than one of the group's monolithic album-length songs: Boris are in the unexpected position of building a lasting legacy beyond that of almost any other band currently in their field. Drummer Atsuo, the only member to have a conversational level of English, has always been the spokesperson for Boris, but that's changed now. Guitarists Takeshi and Wata have to be part of the conversation as well - after all, it's their legacy too.

The group are about to release their nineteenth studio album in eighteen years, and the body of work already behind them is truly staggering. Although still most closely associated with the Earth-like doom of Absolutego (released back in 1996, when Greg Anderson and Stephen O'Malley were barely putting out demo tapes for Thorr's Hammer and Burning Witch), Boris have since taken on and incorporated countless additional styles in the studio. Album number two back in 1998, Amplifier Worship, mixed trippy jams and gentle interludes into the sludge, their two Heavy Rocks albums were imbued with high-energy acid rock, Pink and Smile both rode far-reaching walls of shoegazing psych, Vein melded crust punk with outright noise, Flood ascended into space-reaching ambience, and New Album and Attention Please both toyed with J-Pop tropes and radio-friendly choruses.

Anyone who has seen the band live will know that the three distinct personalities within Boris are what drive the dynamic. Atsuo is the id of the group, acting on base instinct, yelling and screaming with lustful joy from behind his drums throughout. He's the first to stand and shake my hand, and the first I recognise, having helped crowd-surf him back over the barriers from the front row of the Boris gig only the night before at London's Desertfest. Bassist/guitarist/vocalist Takeshi acts as something of a Freudian ego, rooting all aspects of the group sound, and seamlessly switching from rumbling nimble bass lines to far-reaching sludge guitar drones on his unmissable double neck. His greeting bow is the deepest, his expression the most intense.

This leaves lead guitarist Wata as the superego, guiding the furious Atsuo while spurring on the more meditative Takeshi with a psychedelic axe mastery that goes beyond any and all of her contemporaries. She gives a quiet smile as we greet. It's perhaps her input that's most helped to propel Boris' multi-faceted and prolific career. Without her wailing solos and sodden ambient echoes (she's often in fact credited as playing both guitar and 'echo', her effects unit visible next to her on stage), Boris could well have been 'just another sludge band' (albeit a very, very good one). This kind of three-way symbiosis is rarely seen anywhere, and it's crucial to a group that, despite going sonically further than most symphony orchestras, still remain a headbanging power trio in their heart of hearts.

Thanks you so much for the gig yesterday, it was really great. Did you get to see any of the other bands playing at Desertfest?

Boris: You're welcome! Yeah, we saw Church of Misery.

What did you think?

B: We always love it when we meet other Japanese bands in other countries too, it makes us really happy and they were really excellent too.

So, what is the world of Boris all about?

B: It's indescribable. normally a human can't sense all of what they truly are, and so we can't sense all of Boris. I think we're definitely one of the hardest bands in the world to define, in any case.

How did the new album, Noise, come together? It's got an even broader range of styles than normal.

B: Before the Noise album, we've normally made music under quite a lot of pressure - we'd actually put it on ourselves while recording. But this time, it's been quite relaxed. It all just came naturally for once.

So many Boris albums have been collaborations. How do you make the decision to work with someone else?

B: There's actually been even more different ideas for collaborations, but when we do decide to collaborate, it all happens pretty easily. It normally comes together through friendship, and we just work with people we know already.

How did you three meet back in the early 90s? Did you like the same sort of music?

B: We all met at university in Tokyo. We were all in different bands at first, but we all knew this guy, the original drummer for Boris, and we tried to make a band just for him. So we got together and formed Boris, but then he left! That's when the Boris you now know was fully formed.

Are you originally from Tokyo then?

Atsuo: No. Wata's from Hiroshima, Takeshi's from Shisō, and I'm from Gifu [all in the west of the largest island of Honshu].

What was the scene like that Boris first came from? The first recordings are quite sludgy with elements of hardcore punk - was there a lot of that in Tokyo at the time?

B: It was really chaotic! Lots of alternative bands were upcoming at the time. There were a lot of hardcore punk bands and metal bands and so on, but a few like us were trying to meld all those genres together. The scene was really trying to change around the time we started.

Were you aware of all the stuff that went on in Tokyo before this time, in the the 80s or even 70s, in venues like the Shinjuku Loft with bands like Marble Sheep, or Fushitsusha?

B: All that psychedelic stuff? Actually no, not at all really! We tried not to be too into any one particular genre. It was like a new generation was coming up at the time blending stuff together, all after that psychedelic thing.

Absolutego is still something of a landmark album. What did the band sound like at the very start? How did you end up with that one long, slow, heavy track for your debut?

B: [Long pause as entire band thinks] Earth... and Melvins - particularly Lysol. But at the time we were really into hardcore, and had so many friends in hardcore punk bands, so we were definitely comfortable with really loud volumes.

But how did it get so slow?

B: [All three giggle and mime holding a guitar] Buuuuummmm! We just thought it was really cool, holding those notes and feedbacking from the amp!

Were there any other bands droning like this in Tokyo at the time?

B: Only Boris. Nobody else knew about Melvins or Earth. In fact, Atsuo was the first person in Japan to ever interview Melvins.

How did you discover these bands at the time?

Atsuo: There's an old local record shop back in Tokyo that I used to work in, called Warsaw. I picked up a lot of these things by just digging through records there.

You've worked a lot with Merzbow - did you listen to him a lot before you played with him?

B: Well we already liked Merzbow. The opportunity to collaborate with him came up as part of this thing where [Osakan doom metal band] Corrupted were playing live with Solmania, both representing the Kansai region, while Merzbow and us played live representing the Kantō region. So the first time we played together was live actually.

How did that collaboration work? Is it all improvised? How does that music happen?

B: Sometimes it was all improvised; sometimes we prepared compositions, which we would then present to him [Merzbow]. It depends on the situation really.

The collaboration between Boris and Michio Kurihara seemed to be quite a natural one. How did he integrate with the band?

B: Well, we know him as we share the same recording studio with him! Michio Kurihara used to be in a band called YBO2 that we really, really liked, as well as Stars, and we could really see something in those bands of his that we could work with. That's how Rainbow came together, and after that came out we toured together for a long time. We'd been pegged as a 'metal' band for so long in foreign countries that it seemed throwing Michio Kurihara in there would really make things interesting, and help listeners see a different side of Boris.

Wata, you've developed a signature guitar sound over the years, and it sounds more and more like Michio Kurihara's own incredible tones. Did he have a role in this change? Did you learn from him?

Wata: I definitely learned a lot from him. How he uses echo for one thing. The way to express using guitar tones is something I've worked on too, and he's a master at that. He can play exactly the same melody as somebody else, but imbue it with a completely different meaning. We really try to play together as a group, but sometimes everybody can't help but put their own meaning into what's being played.

Atsuo [speaking English]: We try one way; but actually, four way.

So what sort of attention do you get in Japan? Has it grown at all since New Album, Attention Please and Heavy Rocks came out?

B: We caused quite a lot of confusion in Japan with those albums! Actually New Album was the only one of those three to get a domestic [Japanese] release - the others were imported from America. New Album was definitely pretty poppy for us though. The versions of the songs on New Album had totally different post-production to the other versions, from a Japanese producer called Shinobu Narita, who gave them a totally different sound - our Japanese fans got really confused!

After an album with that poppier sound, are you 'bigger' now in Japan?

B: Gradually, our number of fans is always going up.

Atsuo [speaking in English]: Very slow! [laughs]

The song, 'Taiyo no Baka' from the latest album, Noise is possibly your poppiest-sounding to date. It's almost got some form of hit potential! But then it's immediately followed by the slow-building 19-minute epic, 'Angel'. Are you worried about making music that could sound like it has mainstream potential?

B: [All three laugh at the idea of having 'hit potential'] We've had some people say that that song shouldn't even be on the album, but then others really like it - it's an interesting one for us too. At the same time though, we'd never try and sell an air conditioner in the Antarctic! We're not forcing anything, these pop-sounding songs; it's whatever comes naturally to Boris at the time.

Your music's now been featured in two television ads in Japan. One for a 3DS /PS vita game (Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward or Kyokugen Dasshutsu Adobenchā: Zennin Shibō Desu), and the other for the Miki Corp diamond dealership. Which songs were used for the adverts, and was it a difficult decision to say yes to them?

B: They're both still unreleased tunes, never before on an album. They'll both be released on the bonus disc with the Japanese version of Noise this year though. And it wasn't hard at all to say yes to them. It's like design work - an artist can make something for a company and it can be very fulfilling and interesting. It's never a difficult decision to say yes to collaboration, even if it's with a company. If you put your ego first, and you limit yourself and say no to these things it's probably worse.

What do you think about the current state of Japan? You've been all over the world now, so you've got something to compare it to… would you ever live somewhere else?

B: The history of bands playing live in Japan isn't anything like as long and established as that of Japan. So it's really great to play there - audiences are still not so used to live music, and they can still be surprised.

Too many people listening to [Japanese girl group] AKB48?

B: Yeah - you don't actually have to be there for an AKB48 gig, there's nothing spontaneous.

So in Japan the whole 'idol' thing is still huge, you have huge domestic bands like AKB48 or B'z [the best selling Japanese band in history]. What influence does this side of Japanese music culture have on Boris? Are idols a good thing?

B: Well AKB48 and B'z is all just manufactured music. It's great that people enjoy it and that it's built to fit people's needs, but then again it prevents lots of underground bands from getting heard. But sometimes we do think about making Boris as accessible as possible, aiming it at all listeners of all types - it's just about how you do that.

The two worlds can be closer than you think too, though. By coincidence, Wata's older brother is in fact the tour manager for B'z! Plus, the producer for Noise also does production for an idol group called Fudanjuku - an all-girl group that always wear [our translator looks very confused] 'man costumes'.

[At this point Atsuo insists on showing me a video by the group on his smartphone]

Bands from Japan have become increasingly important to the underground music scene over here in recent years, particularly since the internet made it easier to discover old albums by Keiji Haino, Les Rallizes Denudes, You Ishihara, etc. What makes Japanese musicians so especially good at this sort of rock music?

B: We have so many shit bands too! You've just only heard of the good ones. There's not even really that many psychedelic bands really - the same as anywhere else - people are just good at picking up the good ones. The market for metal music's actually pretty small and undeveloped though.

The culture in general could be seen as quite 'psychedelic', though? Even mainstream music, like Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, is massively psychedelic.

B: Yeah, so I guess that has filtered down and helped us produce good psychedelic rock, and made it more accepted. The music is really confusing in Japan!

I've been to Tokyo, and the range of sound in the city is quite striking. The constant tinkling of pachinko machines, adverts and arcades can become the calm empty back streets or a silent bar in moments. What effect has Tokyo's soundscape had on the band?

B: This sort of consistent noise is definitely a vital part of the Japanese psyche, and it's been a big influence on us. Noise is a vital part of the Japanese mentality, particularly when making music. Noise is Japanese blues.

Of all Boris' albums, Flood is still my favourite. Could you tell me a bit about how that album happened?

B: At the time of Flood we were still recording using analogue systems - open reel - so we could only record fifteen minutes at a time. We'd then transfer it to Pro Tools, which was still very basic at the time, and try to edit the pieces together to make the 70 minutes.

Was the different sound of Flood, more melodic and gentler in comparison to your other albums at the time, a very conscious choice?

B: We actually wanted to released Heavy Rocks [the 2002 album of that name] and Flood at the same time. But the situation with the labels meant we had to release them at different times. We were already trying to record pop songs, heavy songs, drone songs all at the same time though, even back then.

Obviously I don't know what the words in your songs are about. Take 'Flood' for example: what's that about?

B: The word for 'flood' in Japanese is kōzui [kor-zoo-ee]. The whole piece is basically sung for the landscape after the 'flood', it's a search for the landscape as it was before, still somewhere under the water. In general though, the actual meaning of the words isn't so important, but their mere existence definitely is important for the music. We don't have any particular message in our lyrics really. They're just part of the music, whatever sounds right. We just purely want to make music.

What's been the most challenging album to write and record? Vein sounds like it took a lot of physical effort, while Attention Please is so detailed.

B: Well Vein only actually took about seven hours to finish! So that was probably the easiest one. We've sort of revisited the style of Vein with the track 'Quicksilver' from the new album.

Atsuo: I regret us writing that song. It's too long!

And the whole way through you're pounding away at full speed!

Atsuo: And we're just about to embark on a full-length tour of America too. Playing it every night.

So which was hardest then?

We never find it 'hard' like that. We only do what feels right. Maybe Noise was actually the easiest. We just play what we can play, and record what feels right. We don't feel as if we're making something.

What do you think about Great Britain, then?

Well, the hot water and cold water come out of separate taps here. We found that quite surprising.

Atsuo: I'm a vegan, so the food scene here's actually really good for me. There's not much for vegans to eat in Japan.

Takeshi: I had a pub lunch today too - it was excellent!

You've worked with so many incredible musicians - Keiji Haino, Michio Kurihara and You Ishihara, Ai Aso.

Atsuo [interrupting, speaking English]: Did you see the Ai Aso show?

No, missed it! She wrote lyrics for Boris I believe.

Atsuo: Yeah, yeah, yeah she did. Her show is so… wow! So terrifying! Horrific! My heartbeat almost stopped during the show. She looks inviting, but see her live, and you will feel horror.

So who else would Boris most like to work with?

B: We never really had someone we wanted to work with like that. We were just friends and it happened. Would you like to collaborate with us?

Boris' new album Noise is out now