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Escape Velocity

Hiroshima Mon Amour: Paul Thomsen Kirk Of Akatombo Interviewed
David Stubbs , May 10th, 2017 08:28

Paul Thomsen Kirk uses the isolation afforded him by life as a Westerner in Japan to make his own special brand of dub and post punk influenced industrial music, says David Stubbs

Paul Thomsen Kirk, aka Akatombo [Japanese for red dragonfly], originally hails from Scotland but lives in Hiroshima. Despite the alluring, grey industrial washes of his sound, underpinned by remorseless rhythms that feel like the late 70s Industrial era revisited via the filter of time and distance, Kirk did not settle in the city that survived an atomic bomb for any morbid reasons.

“Apart from the memorials, you’d have no idea of what happened,” he tells me, via phone, from the city. He continues to be struck by the sheer newness of Hiroshima’s architecture, in which buildings constructed as recently as 1985 are demolished on grounds of age, and appalled by a right wing element in the city that gather in large vehicles with blacked out windows outside trade union buildings during meetings and pump out patriotic Japanese music at ridiculously high volumes. Kirk, however, whose wife is from the city, has lived there for 20 year, enjoying a uniquely detached vantage point from which to observe a section of humanity whose outlook and social mores make him feel quite the outsider.

His latest album, Short Fuse, is his fifth since he released his debut, Trace Elements. on Colin Newman and Malka Spiegel’s Swim label in 2003. It may well be his best to date. It’s an album of multiple, oblique atmospheres, visual in its muffled evocations - Kirk is also a filmmaker - its layers of samples and field recordings undergirded by grinding, pneumatic beats and broadsides of carefully calibrated noise.

Kirk says that his music has no political theme but is intended to awaken the listener to their environment, particularly in a time when people live such disconnected, solipsistic lives. It’s also a music that drives you down into the fathoms of the mind where long-submerged memory and the imagination merge.

First off, can you tell me a bit about the process of recording Short Fuse, how long it took, the collation of material and processing, etc?

Paul Thomsen Kirk: The preparatory recordings for every Akatombo album I’ve released to date have all started off in my work/listening room in my apartment, (aka Crowhill Studio), I have a very, very basic set-up of a Mac with outdated, but useable, music composition software; an external digital sound-capture/processor; a very cheap digital keyboard workstation and a CD recording unit. I don’t need, nor do I desire, tons of fancy gear.

I begin by listening through headphones to short and long wave analogue radio, random clips from YouTube from such sources as long-forgotten TV programmes, odd b&w movies, foreign language films, bad dramas or talk shows from unknown radio stations - even North Korean propaganda bulletins complete with the sound of marching battalions crunching away in the background and patriotic music in the background - literally anything that strikes a chord within me - and then I record it straight to CD. I then repeat the same process until I’ve around three hours of noises, snippets of foreign languages from every imaginable source from air-traffic controllers to taxi dispatchers to children’s nursery rhymes sang in Laotian.

You use a lot of street/field recordings of voices in your music – closer to This Heat's Health & Efficiency than say Cabaret Voltaire – usually quite indistinct. Why is that?

PTK: I try to get out at least for a couple of hours, two nights per week, with my portable sound recorder. Sometimes, I attach it to a telescopic tripod to indulge myself in a bit of photography - and position it near a busy intersection or pedestrian crossing in downtown Hiroshima; press record; and just wait a while. I’ll then visit the two large bus and train stations or shopping area and do the same.

I like the samples I select to be akin to uneasy murmuring in the background with the occasional raise in volume to jolt the listener. I really want to make the listener focus on what is going on around them; to start paying more attention to their own version of the constant barrage of sound they’re subjected to in their own environment.

Obviously in terms of recorded output the Akatombo project stretches back to the early 21st century but I always feel it is rooted in a much earlier time. What were you yourself doing in the post-punk era and did you absorb a lot of material that felt vital, that has stayed with you?

PTK: You’re bang on the money, there. I find this millennium sterile to the point of personal insult. And, what makes things worse is the lack of dissent or positive action among the general populace to try and redress the balance in any way they can. I want absolutely no part of it.

The late 70s early to mid 80s were extremely important for me. After coming through the Year Zero of the Punk explosion, things took an enthralling turn.

I had been drumming in bands for a while and playing gigs in various sticky-carpeted, stale beer and cigarette scented ‘venues’ and was very fed up with it all. Bands such as The Scars, Fire Engines on Fast Product moved the goalposts in Edinburgh whilst Simple Minds released some tremendous music over on the West Coast. In Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, and of course London, too, things were happening at a rare old rate of knots. The Cabs and This Heat as you mention, The Slits, Throbbing Gristle, The Mekons, Joy Division, Pink Military/Industry, Thomas Leer, The Pop Group, Magazine, 23 Skidoo, Dome, Robert Rental, ACR, Gang of Four, DAF, The Normal, Wire, John Foxx fronted Ultravox, Eno, PiL, Yello, Scritti Politti and American acts/labels such as Ze, Ralph, Devo, The Residents, Renaldo & The Loaf, John Zorn, DNA, Suicide, Lydia Lunch, Pere Ubu, MX-80 Sound. But my favourite of that whole era is Chrome, and their album, Half-Machine Lip Moves. It turned my world upside down. That’s where the idea to one day do something along the same lines but slightly more rhythmic in parts started to gestate.

After a period of trial and error trying to find like-minded musicians to work with, I finally, finally realised that if it was going to happen, I had to do it by myself.

There's clearly a “visual” dimension to your music – can you tell me a bit about your filmmaking history?

PTK: I’ve always, first & foremost, been a musician of sorts. I only seriously began making films around 2002. I’d played around with very heavy and clunky video gear in the 80s in Scotland, but was refused funding from The Scottish Arts Council. But, as luck would have it, I was fortunate to meet a great guy from Wisconsin whose wife was in Hiroshima on a three year teaching-contract. He’d been to film-school back in the States and I got hold of a fairly good mini-DVC portable video-recorder. I basically copied what I did when I went out doing my audio recordings. I went out into suburbia and in to Docklands, etc. in search of footage. We then edited it all down, adding effects and and untraceable snippets from very obscure, very untraceable underground footage that had had less than 20 views on You Tube.

I did a search on the Internet and found out that there was a whole Independent Film Festival circuit in place going on all year round that, up to then, I was completely unaware of. So, I entered some of the early Akatombo music videos into loads of Festivals. By the end of two years, we had won over 12 awards.

What filmmakers who have influenced you visually, and perhaps even musically?

PTK: I like David Cronenberg, David Lynch, John Cassavetes, Lindsay Anderson, Truffaut, Louis Bunuel, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa. Musically, only David Lynch’s soundtrack to Eraserhead, some of the early John Carpenter synth s/tracks. Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing is a lost gem, Howard Shore’s work for David Cronenberg, some of Clint Mansell’s work, and Michel Magne’s work, especially. Fantomas, spring to mind.

In terms of the visual arts, I found myself thinking about the German artist Gerhard Richter, especially his grey paintings and his Baader Meinhof series. I kept thinking about him while I was listening to the album – I kept thinking about the idea of memories, still vivid but muffled, obscured, faded, etc, by the passing of time. Does that resonate at all?

PTK: It does, very much so. I like things to be as random and unfocussed in the deliberate blurring of the sounds and samples as Herr Richter did with his stunning images of the captured or deceased terrorist cell members.

Further to that, I felt in places reminders of people like William Basinski and Philip Jeck - “decayed” textures which have an added poignancy – a sense of the faded, the disintegrated.

PTK: Wow, they are both very uniquely wonderful artists that remind you of my work, thank you. I love both artists very much. I suppose, in a way I must unconsciously follow some of their recording techniques and the various treatments that they both add to their work in terms of effects and the often wrongly assumed, total improvisational nature of their work, but I think that’s where the line stops. I almost always have rhythms in mind for the more ‘song-like’ tracks, of which, I write a lot. However, I do possess the same attitude of “less is always more”, too. When I’m writing/recording long pieces I love to add masses of reverb so that the sound is aurally ‘blurred’ to the nth degree. This leaves the track wide open for contrasting heavily effected chunks of absolutely random “scree” – sounds that shouldn’t really work, but they do as they’re not following a beat and they have no melody to grate against in terms of a discernible musical pitch.

Obviously you've spoken about the move to Japan before but I wonder in what way it most affected you artistically? Has there been an alienation effect? I was thinking of the track on the album 'Solitude In Numbers'.

PTK: Living in Japan has allowed me complete freedom of expression as I have no contact with Western culture whatsoever. I do not listen to Western music, I do not watch Western TV, I do not follow whatever is ‘in’ whether it is from the worlds of Western fashion, music, print and broadcasting media, latest digital must-haves, etc.

'Solitude In Numbers' is just my on-the-outside-looking-in observations on Japanese societal norms. It is a country almost strangling itself because of tradition and such adages as, "a raised nail will be hammered down", ie, don’t try to express your individuality or we’ll put you back in your compartment. The lack of interaction outside the workplace is unbelievable; the all-pervasive company mindset, the patriarchal, hierarchical system; is startling to see. Japan does not like change. However, for an outsider, a gaijin, knowing that I’ll never be fully accepted in their world simply because of my place of birth frees things up tremendously.

I don’t socialise; I have no friends; no-one I meet up with on a regular basis to discuss the what/ why/ where/ who/ how. Perfect. All that free time to work/ observe/ compose. And I do still occasionally manage to come back to the UK to see my Mum and my Uncles. Also, I can meet up with the friends that I keep in correspondence with on a fairly regular basis. The luxury of email is much underrated. I do want to return to the West Coast of America to see some old friends from my time spent living and working there, too. Soon, I hope.

I know you've had health difficulties – in what way has that impacted, practically, on the making of the album? Is it something you wish to at least put to creative use or something you wish to use the music to defy altogether?

PTK: My health condition is not good. It will never be good again. I accept that and have learned to deal with it without it being the focus of my existence or the definition of who I am. I refuse to be defined by illness; however, I’m a lucky man. I have a wonderful caring, loving partner with whom I can discuss things when the very worst case scenarios involving my disease begin preying on my mind – it is always about financial security for my family after I’m gone - I also have two fine children who make me proud and very happy as I watch them develop into caring, inquisitive, individuals with a passion for life. If anything, my ongoing health situation makes me even more determined than ever to keep trying to be creative; to keep on writing and recording; to keep on releasing music.

More by Akatombo here and for details of American distribution for Short Fuse click here