Until One Of Us Dies: An Interview With Maher Shalal Hash Baz

"I'm like a prodigal son," says Tori Kudo; partner Reiko prefers to stay home with her cats. They tell Dale Berning about life in Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Photograph by Shoko Ishikawa

Reiko and Tori Kudo from Maher Shalal Hash Baz recently did a joint three-day residency with Yoshihide Otomo and Sachiko M, who play together as Filament, at Cafe Oto in Dalston, London. With a mixture of solo sets and collaborations, this was a rare opportunity to see four giants of the Japanese underground scene in an intimate, almost private, setting. Sitting on the floor in a candle-lit room, so quiet between songs or sounds that you could hear yourself breathe, it felt like an immense and all-too-fleeting privilege.

Maher Shalal Hash Baz on stage is a disconcerting act – intense and as opaque as a foreign language, and yet candid, open and inclusive at the same time. There are 10 people on stage – Tori on guitar and vocals, Reiko on mouth piano and vocals, then drums, trumpet, second guitar, bass, piano, clarinet and bongos. The songs are composed yet played with such looseness as to leave you wondering whether such music is at all practiceable – rehearsable…. Each musician takes their cue from Tori while staying in their own world. The tuning is disfigured, and the structure of the composition comes entwined in noise. It’s like you’re allowed to see into Tori’s mind, but you don’t have the words to understand what’s going on.

For Reiko’s solo work, Tori plays florid piano with lots of sustain pedal and dissonant, expansive detail welling in and out of Reiko’s linear singing, her voice as fragile and constant as she is thin, a striking, indelible presence, in a mid-calf length blue velvet dress with long sleeves, a high, buttoned collar and a platinum blonde wig. She talks a lot before songs about individual people and scenes she’s observed, either standing still, or crouching down, folded in three. Her lyrics are simple and sung with minimal vocal movement – the emotion contained and the expression dense.

The final collaborative set started with Tori leaning into the opened baby grand, playing stabs of mouth piano. Reiko started talking, in Japanese, saying that Otomo and Sachiko had arrived from Sweden where it was minus 18, that she had met a few ladies around the corner who made her happy, that she then saw a cat, and would it be ok for her to sing a cat song … I caught up with Tori and Reiko after this final set, both visibly spun out and spent, like they’d given their whole beings.

How do solos sets where you are playing together differ from Maher Shalal Hash Baz – are they part of the same thing?

Tori Kudo: No, it is different. Maher’s songs are my songs but the songs that Reiko sings are her own and I just play piano

How do you work with words?

Reiko Kudo: I need to wait until the words sink down to the bottom and come up again, otherwise I cannot sing. I think of myself as a stenographer – I record what is going on around me. My lyrics are about myself and about other people, Mrs Weaver, the man from North Korea – I’m recording it all, as a document. I think about it that way.

TK: For Reiko the words come first, but for me it’s the melody that comes first, and then lyrics follow. For me the sound and the meaning of words are both important. For Reiko it’s different, it’s only words.

It seems to me that listening and waiting, being still, as an activity, is important. Your music is so open…

RK: I live in a quiet place, not in a big city. I listen to the birds singing, the sound of cars passing. Neither of us actually play or listen to music that much, we listen to what is happening around us.

TK: I’m a bit like a coffee filter. Many sounds come in to my body, they percolate down and become sounds in my music. I choose some and not others. Even tonight, while playing, I was listening to what was happening outside, the police sirens – I listen to everything, but Reiko doesn’t.

When you perform, do you need to be closed inside yourself or are you aware of what is happening around you?

TK: In early 2000 there was a lot of interest in environmental sound. We made a CD of field recordings mixed with music. But that was really only my interest. Reiko doesn’t think sounds much.

RK: For me it’s just words going up and down, Tori has music inside himself.

TK: …but she does improvise things all the time. She doesn’t know about her ability to improvise, it’s so natural. She responds very quickly. She has a certain flexibility or spontaneity.

Your words are very musical Reiko. This evening the phrases you were saying constantly ended in the syllables "ee-te" – it was like a train or footsteps

TK: Yes! She should become a rapper!

RK: If I was younger, maybe I could be a rapper. But I was born earlier, I grew up with punk.

Collaboration seems to be a big part of the way you work.

TK: Often people arrange collaborations for us, and we accept.

RK: I haven’t played as much as he has, and it’s nice to widen myself! Otherwise I’d be staying in my house with my cats. Always with my cats, they don’t want me to go away.

Yesterday, Reiko, you quoted a passage from Revelation before a song. Is your faith important in your music?

TK: It’s important for her. For me the distance is important. Sometimes it’s very close, and sometimes it’s very far. My lyrics are always about the distance between society and my melody. For her it’s very close. She’s very close to the creator, I think. So her lyrics are happily made. They are immediate. There’s not that distance. God is her father, very close. I’m like a prodigal son.

Saya and Ueno from Tenniscoats were part of Maher at one point, and you have had many other young musicians pass through – it feels like a community, not just a band…

TK: Yes, many young musicians come to Maher and go, like my little birds. I like young people. And I’m always glad to see them standing on their own two feet. Maher isn’t really a band. It’s like a theater troupe. They are actors and I’m the director – I’m making a film with them. But we – Reiko and I – are a band. Since the late 70s. We always make music together. And it’s for life. We will carry on until one of us dies.

Read more from Dale Berning at her Bunt-Art Blog

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