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Minimal Foundation: An Interview With Nisennenmondai
Tristan Bath , July 28th, 2014 09:08

With the Japanese trio embarking on a UK tour this week, Tristan Bath speaks with Nisennenmondai in a rare interview to discuss their mesmerising voyages into the interzone between noise, rock and dance music. Along the way he discovers that their commitment to minimalism stretches beyond their intensely stripped-back tracks...

When music repeats enough, time stops. Or rather, it seemingly ceases to exist. Japan's Nisennenmondai have grown to almost exclusively explore this phenomenon, looping, repeating and pounding around and around until 'then' and 'now' dissipate, leaving behind nothing beyond a mesmeric infinity of kick drum thumps, bass line throbs, hi-hat ticks, and swirling, trippy electric guitars. The group of guitarist Masako Takada, bassist Yuri Zaikawa, and drummer Sayaka Himeno are set-up like some heavy power trio, but play music closer to the pulsating stadium-ready classics of The KLF, bringing to mind all manner of trancey 1990s acid house, or the rushing oscillations of futurist club music on Tim Wright's (aka CoLD SToRAGE) soundtrack to the PlayStation's classic racer Wipeout. Their latest album N appropriately takes this all to the nth degree, with the three basic elements of beat, bass and guitar noise trimmed down to their skeletal finest.

The trio didn't always have their unique current sound though. Formed in 1999, they took their name from the Japanese word for the Millennium bug. "It has nothing to do with us!" they explain via email. "Our friend, who happened to be sitting next to us when we were talking about our band's name, just named us Nisennenmondai - literally the computer bug problem in 1999." All three were born in the suburbs of Tokyo, the city where they still live, first getting together while still students. "We met at the music club at university, and started Nisennenmondai after being inspired by our older friends' band, 'Fukuro' [Owl]."

Earlier Nisesnnenmondai recordings were more akin to the noisy early days of Boredoms, littered with quirky nonsense and fuzz. "We like Boredoms and used to listen to them a lot," they confirm. "So maybe they had some influence on us, but we don't think they have much influence on our recent style." Even so, the busy hi-hat repetitions of drummer Sayaka and one/two note bass lines of Yuri have been there for a while - very audibly so back on their 2006 debut LP, Roukon - but have developed over time, becoming sparser, cleaner and less reminiscent of trance rock and more and more akin to straight-up trance. "We'd been exploring what we think would be a cool sound, what we could do, all through trial and error. We were often inspired by music we were listening to at that time; a mix CD by You Ishihara [of White Heaven, The Stars], Peter Gordon, Throbbing Gristle, Allan Bryant [of Musica Elettronica Viva], Mika Vainio... We listen to electronic, minimal music these days. These have influenced us a lot. Rhythms especially."

Our email interview is a tough one, for reasons which the trio eventually make clear when they tell me that "too much talking dilutes the music's power". Immersion is at the core of Nisennenmondai remit, and meaning is essentially an unnecessary mundanity by comparison. Nonetheless, the questions of why and what for linger throughout the hypnotic entirety of the minimal opus that is their new album N, until I finally realise that I forgot to just shut up, switch off, and dance instead.

Why do you like to repeat in your music?

Nisennenmondai: Repeating makes us feel good.

What's your instrumental and equipment set-up like when you play? Is there stuff you use on albums, but not live?

N: No, there isn't. We always use the same stuff on albums and live. Masako uses a guitar and looper with effects pedals.

Did you all play instruments before you decided to start a band?

N: Masako learned piano when she was a student.

Had any of you played music in bands before?

N: No, this is the first band for all of us.

You mentioned a friend's band, Fukuro, as an early inspiration. What were Fukuro like? Are they still playing today?

N: Yes, they're still playing. Two of the four members changed, though. We had never listened to that kind of music - no singing, noise, rock - before we first saw them play live. We had listened to only popular music.

Where do you all live now?

N: Tokyo.

How did you get Nisennenmondai music recorded and released? Who gave you your first break?

N: It's a long story…

Is there a notable difference between Eastern and Western audiences' reactions to your music?

N: We used to feel that more people in Europe and the US got more excited when we played live than in Japan, but now we don't think there is much difference between them.

So has the music scene changed in Japan? What's it like at the moment?

N: We don't think the music scene in Japan has changed. If anything, we have become a bit better known in Japan than before. Actually, we don't know what it's like at the moment. We're a bit outside of it.

Are there any bands in Japan that you're really excited about? Anybody you play with regularly?

N: We like goat from Osaka these days. There isn't anybody we play with particularly regularly.

What do Goat sound like? Have you seen them live?

N: We've seen goat play live twice. They play very groovy music with primitive rhythm. They all sit in a circle, face to face, and start very quietly. They concentrate very much.

Do people dance when you play?

N: Yes, there are more people dancing than before.

How does playing your music make you feel?

N: We concentrate on our sound very much. We feel very comfortable when we can hear the sound very well.

How much of a role does improvisation have in your songwriting? Is there any meaning behind the songs, or perhaps does the music represent something?

N: We do jam sessions first, and then pick out some good parts, and build on them. Usually, we decide a loop first and then work on the rhythm and structure of the song. We fix the rhythm and structure of a song while Masako improvises on guitar.

There is no special meaning behind our songs.

So how much do the songs change when you play them live?

N: It depends on the situation when we play live, especially how much we can hear of the sound we are making. Ideally, we'd like to play exactly the same live as in the studio.

How do you record in the studio? Is it a live take, or do you overdub or use loops?

N: We used to record as a group as live until FAN. N was the first time we attempted to record individual tracks and overdub.

Would you ever use a drum machine or a synth bass instead to make your rhythms? Why?

N: We like to create something new with a normal band style.

Restraint seems to be a recurring theme in the music, with the drums in particular barely veering off from hypnotic hi-hat and kick drum rhythms on your most recent album, N. Is that difficult to keep up?

N: Yes, it is. But I (Sayaka) enjoy that style.

As you've introduced certain guitar effects, the music's evolved. How much do you look out for a certain effect to achieve a certain sound, and how much do the effects lead the way you make music?

N: Masako has been focusing on and exploring guitar sounds and effects for a long time. She's always been trying to make sounds which she thinks are the coolest, through trial and error. Those sounds are affected by the music she's listening to at that time and her state of mind at that time. She is most inspired by trying to make new and exciting guitar sounds.

'Krautrock' is a term that gets thrown about a lot by people describing your music. How much of an influence did the music from that movement have on you?

N: We had a few songs inspired a bit by Krautrock, but we don't think it has influenced us a lot.

What else do you guys all do besides Nisennenmondai?

N: Masako and Sayaka work in restaurants.

What sort of restaurants ? What are your favourite foods?

N: We're very interested in foods from many countries. Our favorite is Japanese food, though.

Sayaka - you played drums on an improvised set by Norwegian duo, Maranata released on The Tapeworm label last year. How did this meeting come about? What did it feel like to play something different?

N: Mike from SuperDeluxe, which is a great venue in Roppongi (a district of Tokyo), introduced them to me. I really enjoyed playing with them. As they are noise musicians, I could play totally free, without thinking about any structure.

Are there any places you would like to visit, or bands you would like to see in Europe?

N: We'd like to visit Iceland and Moscow.

If you could choose one thing for people to take from Nisennenmondai's music, what would it be?

N: We are happy when people dance to our music.

Nisennenmondai's new album N is released in the UK on 8th September via Blast First Petite. The trio are on a UK tour this week with Blood Sport. Their dates run as follows:

28th - Leeds, Brudenell
30th - Bristol, Exchange
31st - London, Birthdays

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