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Life In Mono

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Japan's epic, instrumental rock quartet Mono discuss their inspirations, urge to create, and how to communicate without words.

Life In Mono

Japan's Mono are a rock quartet, but their take on rock grows from the drama, from the epic journeys of sound that music can trigger in the listener. Without a vocalist, their communication comes straight from the heart, through the instruments, and into the audience. Natural points of reference include Mogwai, SubArachnoid Space, Tarentel, and even Sigur Ros at points, but their feeling for emotional journeys through sound is very much their own.

Guitarist Taka is the group's leader. The others number three: second guitarist Yoda, bassist Tamaki, and drummer Takada. I spoke to Taka before a show at San Francisco's Bottom of the Hill, where they flattened the audience with high peaks and low valleys of emotion. The waves of sound clearly demonstrated that this band have mastered dynamics at an instinctive level; best of all, the playing felt organic, and not overly calculated.

Many thanks to Izumi Evers for translation assistance.

Dusted: How did you all meet?

Taka: Around '97-'98, a certain genre of music was popular in Japan: electronica, big beat, abstract hip-hop. I could make music using sampling, but originally I'm a guitarist, so I naturally felt that I wanted to do something focusing on the guitar sound. At the time, with one of the bands I used to be in, it felt like something new was about to happen, but it wasn't clear. My feeling was that I wanted to do something new with guitar, and at the end of the '90s I was wondering. That was the time when My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, all that music with guitar had already been exported, so it seemed like there was no way to create a new kind of music using guitar.

So that was the atmosphere of the Japanese music industry at the end of the '90s. It was 1999 when I met the drummer, Takada, and at that time I was using the computer to try to create a new style of music. That's when we established the basis of what we're doing now. But most of the places to play in Japan didn't know how to handle our kind of music, so we didn't play live. And because we were using computer sounds, the atmosphere, and the essence of human emotion sounded like it had been removed. So then I searched hard for some other members. It only took about a month, and then we were the band that we are right now.

D: So was the change away from using computers because of a combination of the clubs not being prepared, and that it wasn't the sound you wanted?

T: The computer used a click track to control the timing of the playing of the music. As the leader of the band I actually controlled and composed the music, but on the other hand the computer does the job too exactly. So to me it sometimes was just boring.

D: How are the songs created now? What's the process?

T: Before, I basically wrote the notes... There's a reason why I have to make this music. The fundamental reason, or the cause of creating the music, starts from my gut, from something within myself that I want to explore. That's the beginning, the basic cause...

D: Do you write all of the songs fully composed?

T: Well, when I explained about writing the music, I didn't mean that I actually write a script for the music. I use the computer as a tool, but that doesn't mean I'm depending on the computer. I'm the kind of guy who cannot go to sleep peacefully without creating something. So to prevent myself from not being able to create, I force myself to be exposed to external things, like movies and so on. I sort of force myself to become creative. I won't literally write songs down on a piece of paper, but I put pieces of creations into the computer.

D: You record pieces into the computer so you won't forget them?

T: Yes, I wouldn't be able to repeat that state of mind for the music, so I do that.

D: Do all of the songs come from you?

T: First I come up with the original sound, and then I introduce it to the other members, share it with them first. If that piece of sound doesn't click with any of the other members, that means that my creation won't be able to communicate with other people, so we won't use it. But if that music somehow stimulates the other members' brains and creativity, somehow we all unite together and start creating, and then we establish a song. So that's the process.

Also, we're touring right now, and every time we tour we present music. If that music fails to reach the audience's heart then it's not creative, and that's not what I want to do. Every day I feel like I'm creating music by touring.

We're not making music only to impress people, like in one direction. What we're doing is... If the music won't reach the closest people, the band's members, then that music won't connect to other people either. Music that will connect is what I'm pursuing, not like other musicians who are just doing it to show off.

D: How do you feel about communicating with music that doesn't have words?

T: Words are there for us to live, or to live together. I don't want to say that all words are just communication, but there is a lot of lying within words. You can lie...words don't contain 100% truth. But sound is at a more deeply subconscious level that directly reaches to the other person's subconscious level. I feel that I'm able right now to perform this music, it's coming from my truth, and that will enable the audience to sense it. That's the communication that I'm doing.

D: Are there other bands that do actually lie with their music? Sometimes you can tell that they don't really feel what they're playing.

T: (laughs) Mostly! I feel mostly that with other bands, the words are lying, but I can totally sympathize with the sounds. I can imagine an atmosphere, why I want to create the music, what kind of motivation I had to come up with the music. That must be a very very private part of oneself, but even though that's very private, it's really related to the music, and everybody is sharing that.

D: Is it more difficult to lie with instrumental music?

T: No, it's easy. It's possible, maybe it's easy too. Even back in the time of Beethoven, those people are artists, they're very poor, and in order to live, they created those pieces of art to please the royal families. So there's the idea of capitalism, creating music as business, established even back then. Especially right now, the music industry is nothing but business. Everybody has the intention to create some music to please the market. But I really think that music is supposed to be more beautiful, and I'd like to express that truth.

D: Have you ever made some music that you felt very strongly about, but that you decided would not be understood by the audience?

T: Fortunately I've never had that happen. Three years ago when I first started playing outside Japan, I was curious if maybe because of the cultural differences, people might interpret it differently. But I never really felt that way, so that's good.

D: I wondered about that, if the audience reacts differently in the U.S. and in Japan.

T: How they listen is different. Over here they're wild. In Japan it's very subtle, because maybe Japanese people aren't able to really express how they're feeling. But then when I'm watching, I really feel something, and I sometimes see that the audience are receiving, but they don't express it.

D: I've noticed that also. Audiences in Japan will sit and watch very closely, but there's no reaction until maybe afterwards.

T: Yes. Today is the time of the Internet, and right after the shows I receive an amazing amount of response by email, so then I try to respond back. Without that kid of response people seem kind of dead, and I just wouldn't know. Sometimes I've wondered, did I make a mistake? (laughs)

D: Since the songs are instrumental, the titles of the songs and albums become very important, because it's what people will first see to get an idea about the song. How do you think about that?

T: Actually I suppose the opposite. I don't really pay too much attention to the titles. Usually I don't even title the songs -- other people make the titles. I understand that they could be a hook for the reader to listen to the music, so they will provide the door to enter the world of the music. But if it's something I wanted to explain in words, I wouldn't make it into music anyway. So it's the same as lyrics: to me, I'm just making something that's undescribable, therefore I'm making music. So the titles are just not a main concern.

Q: I wondered about titles like "Mopish Morning, Halation Wiper" -- does it have any meaning?

T: What I can remember is that one or two years ago when we were touring, we played in Washington DC. Because our music was too loud, we were kicked out. I was so pissed that I turned up full volume and wrecked the equipment. Then on the way back, in the car, there was a long tunnel, very dark. It was raining. We drove through the tunnel and then we saw the shining sky. One of the others said that the music was something like that, and that's how we made the title. To me, the song is pretty dark, but it also has the potential to continue and move on, so it's not really all dark.

D: I have to ask about the album title, One Step More and You Die -- it's very dark.

T: I think the music industry in Japan is very closed, compared to the musicians from US or Europe, because the market is small in Japan. So we have to work outside our area, into the U.S. and Europe, although I could make a living just focusing on performing in Japan, because there is a market. Outside Japan, I didn't personally know other bands, and I didn't even know how to approach outside Japan's market, so I struggled to find a deal. So there was a time, still today really, when every time I would step forward, there was some kind of force against me. So there's always the struggle to expand my music into the worldwide market. There's some kind of a feeling there that's in the title. At the time when I made that title, it was the worst moment of struggling. The next album could be more positive.

D: The first album here was from the Tzadik label -- how did you meet them, through John Zorn? And then how did you find Arena Rock?

T: I wanted to perform in New York because I felt that New York was more suitable to the music than Tokyo. So I searched, and found that label, and I sent some things to introduce myself to John Zorn, and that's how we made the connection. Right after we made the Tzadik album, I was looking for other labels in the U.S. to do more. I didn't really like the underground scene or the indie scene, but we weren't really hardcore either. Arena Rock seemed to be very suitable for the direction that we want to go, so I sent something to them.

Q: Is there a scene in Japan for Mono now?

T: Compared to 3 years ago, the audience is definitely more established in Japan. And also I set up a label by myself to release the music, like our first 4-track EP. I've also established an import label, because the music industry is, like I said, very closed. There are labels like Sub Pop, Matador -- they're there, but it's really hard for Japanese audiences to encounter that kind of music unless the music magazine does reviews and talks about it. Then finally the audience will recognize them. I'm the kind of guy who researches to discover music from another country. I wanted to introduce the music in Japan, so I established my own label. It covers from Okinawa all the way to Hokkaido, all over Japan, so I've put myself in a responsible position. Now I can coordinate a tour if they want to do one, because those people of course want to tour in Japan. But before, they didn't know how to do it. Like for me, if I wanted to tour in the U.S., through knowing bands from outside of Japan who share the same struggle, we can cooperate. So I can do what I want to do outside Japan, and they can do what they want to do in Japan. It's very fair.

D: What's the name of the label?

T: Human Highway Records. My dream is not anything special. I'm Japanese, so of course I want to perform in Japan. But there are many bands who, because they're not popular in Japan, they just go overseas. Then when they become well-known outside Japan, they tend to stay outside Japan. On the other hand, if the band is already popular and well-established in Japan, they always want to remain in Japan, they don't want to get out. What I want to do is simply to perform, nothing special.

I hate the major labels because they just care about success. If the band doesn't do well, they don't care, they'll just get rid of the band. If the band does well, okay, they'll extend the contract to 2 years, and they expect the band to make more money. This kind of major label behavior gives me a big motivation to show them that I can do it without the money. If I can perform in Japan as well as in the U.S. and other countries, to the same kind of audience, I might be able to get their attention and show them that it can be done.

For more information about Mono, visit their web site at www.mono-44.com.

By Mason Jones

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