Winter 1997: Interview no. 2 with Chie Mukai from G-Modern Vol. 14
This interview with Chie Mukai is the second of two first published in G-Modern Volume 14 during the winter of 1996-97. (The first interview can be found here.) It was conducted by Fumio Kosakai on December 31, 1996. Kosakai is best known as a prominent artist in the Japanese “noise” movement both as a soloist and as a key member of seminal groups such as C.C.C.C. and Incapacitants. Translation completed by Justin Simon in the Spring of 2018.
Chie Mukai Interview by Fumio Kosakai
Interview notes by Fumio Kosakai: To be frank, Ikeezumi asked me to interview Mukai after I interviewed Masayoshi Akita for the first issue of G-Modern. I was very willing, but coordinating our schedules proved to be a bit difficult, and it was a while before we could make it happen. Finally, on a trip to Osaka to play a show with Bust Monsters, I bumped into Mukai. I asked if I could interview her right then, only to learn that she had just been interviewed by Isaki. But Mukai generously offered to do another interview with me. Having known each other for a while, she thought we might be able to talk as fellow musicians, and touch on different topics. So this is the backstory to this unprecedented double interview feature. Please note that there are slight overlaps in subject matter between Isaki’s interview and mine. I ask for your understanding in advance.
Kosakai: Do you like listening to noise, like the music Merzbow played yesterday? (The interviewer made a guest appearance on synthesizer at the Merzbow show at Club Quattro on 12/30)
Mukai: I do like listening to noise music live. But I’ve been under the weather lately and loud sounds have been difficult to bear, so I only stayed for twenty or thirty minutes yesterday. But in terms of Merzbow’s set yesterday, the closed space of a club really limits Sakaibara’s  movement, which is disappointing to see. I’d love to see them perform in a more open, better-suited location again, like they did on their European tour in 1992. That was amazing. Incidentally, a long time ago I collaborated with Merzbow at Kidailack Art Hall. I asked Akita  to turn down the volume so you could hear my er-hu, but you could only hear it for the first four minutes. [laughs]
Kosakai: You played with Hijokaidan too, right?
Mukai: Yeah, but just for a moment during one of their shows at Doshisha University. I let out a loud scream at the very beginning, and that was it. I had planned to play in the back of the classroom, but stuff started flying through the air from the front of the room as soon as the performance started, so I got out of there. I remember vividly how, when it was all over, the late Ichikawa kept apologizing to me as he wiped my dirty er-hu case clean.
Kosakai: I bet Ché-SHIZU fans would find it odd that you like noise music.
Mukai: You think? I like Masonna too; his movements are really interesting. It was also fun to see your collaboration with Pain Jerk. It was like watching a professional wrestling match (see issue 12 ofG-Modern for a live review by Sakaguchi). I play my er-hu really noisily. It’s nothing like the kind of pure sound that a traditional Chinese musician makes. I couldn’t make that sort of clear sound if I tried, and to be honest I don’t really want to. I think my er-hu sounds more like a Korean er-hu. I wonder why there isn’t much of an improv scene in Korea?
Kosakai: According to Manabu Yuasa , there’s no noise scene in Korea either.
Mukai: Actually, a long time ago I saw a performance by a traditional Korean theater troupe and their shawm performance seemed just like free improvisation. Perhaps improv isn’t considered to be some new technique since their traditional music already has elements of improv.
Kosakai: Hmm, maybe you’re right. I was watching a Korean factory strike on TV once, and the workers’ spiel was interrupted by this hair-raising scream that sounded like William Bennett or Yamazaki from Masonna. So noise might already be a part of their everyday lives. [laughs] Also, I once heard that Koreans prefer songs with an element of malice to more traditional instrumental music. Incidentally, you don’t play a Japanese er-hu, right?
Mukai: I tried to once, but it was more difficult. The strings on Japanese er-hu are very loose compared to Chinese er-hu, which makes them very hard to control.
Kosakai: There’s a well-known Japanese er-hu performance in Toyoma where the players march around in a procession, right?
Mukai: You mean the “Ecchu Owara Bushi” in the Kaze no Bon festival I went to see it once and it was amazing. That’s my favorite of all the Minyo folk songs. The dance is wonderful too. The audience and the dancers make a circle and dance together. There’s a female version and a male version of the dance. The female dance is elegant and coquettish, but the male dancers strike Kabuki-like poses. I thought those poses were really cool so I did the male dance the whole time. [laughs]
Kosakai: I went to the Kawachiondo Bonodori summer festival in Tokyo once. Makoto Nakaya from Isansozokunin had told me that the steps were easy and really fun, so I gave it a shot, but they were actually too difficult for me.
Mukai: Oh, Tokyo has something like that too?
Kosakai: Yeah, in a place called Kinshicho. But they’re having some issue with the location, so it might not happen this year. In any case, I want to ask you a bit about Ché-SHIZU. Are bass, guitar, and drums all necessary components for Ché-SHIZU?
Mukai: Yeah, because Ché-SHIZU is a rock band.
Kosakai: Would you ever consider restructuring Ché-SHIZU around traditional instrumentation, like those bands that focus on more traditional music?
Mukai: I’m not interested in pursuing straight up traditional music.
Kosakai: But recently Ché-SHIZU has played lots of songs based on traditional music.
Mukai: That’s true. Shibayama pointed out the same thing in his “Admiration for traditional music” piece (referring to the Ché-SHIZU live review in issue 12 of G-Modern).
Kosakai: You can find lots of songs with great beauty and depth in traditional music, but there’s always the risk that your own personality will get subsumed if you devote yourself to that sort of music.
Mukai: A friend I made in college first introduced me to traditional music. But I’m not a devotee by any stretch, I just perform songs that have become favorites over the years. I said this in my interview with Isaki too, but Ché-SHIZU used to be purely improvisational, and only started to play songs by chance. I was home one day and happened to hear a melody coming from somewhere. Ché-SHIZU had a show that same night, and I decided on the spot that I’d like to try playing that melody at the show.
Kosakai: So there was no intentionality at work. Actually, when Ché-SHIZU began to perform songs in the early 80s, more and more people were embracing the efficiency of composition, having witnessed the free improvisation and alternative music scenes that started in the late 70s hit a wall. I assumed you may have reacted in part to that as well.
Mukai: No, I never thought about that. I actually want to ask you something though. What do you like about Ché-SHIZU?
Kosakai: I think songs written by women have a sexual or biological element to them, regardless of the female artist’s intentions. Like Patti Smith’s music, for example. Of course, that’s what’s good about those songs, but sometimes I personally find that element suffocating. You’ve also written some lines that seem passionate, like “Come meet me soon,” but your songs don’t necessarily have that same sexual or biological feeling. There is something larger at play, something that I can’t grasp yet, like a nostalgic feeling that should exist somewhere in my memory that your songs shed light on. I am sorry for my poor vocabulary.
Mukai: You know, I just let my songs follow their own course. It’s not as if I have a subject I want to sing about each time. “Juso Station” or the songs on our I Can’t Promise album certainly have passionate lyrics, but they don’t necessarily reflect the state or mood I was in when I wrote them. Those words just came out of me naturally and became songs.
Kosakai: Oh, so you make songs the same way I do, but your lyrics are cooler than mine.
Mukai: You write songs?
Kosakai: Yeah, I do, for my rock band, Uchu Engine.
Mukai: Interesting. So when do songs come to you?
Kosakai: Well, I usually write on guitar, and most songs come to me when I’m just randomly strumming at home. Or when we’re taking a break at the rehearsal studio and I’m mindlessly noodling. A whole song might come from that.
Mukai: That happens a lot, doesn’t it? Our song “Sannomiya Station” was written when we were practicing in a studio in Umeda and our guitarist Koma was playing some riff. As soon as I heard it I told him, “That’s really good. Let’s use that one.” It was about six months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, and Koma and Nishimura had just taken an overnight bus to Sannomiya. The rehearsal was right after that, so the song was meant to be a prayer for Sannomiya’s recovery. “Nigihayahi” is another example. The song just popped into my head one day when I was in Juso station. I happened to have a tape recorder with me, so I recorded it right then. I was a little embarrassed to sing in public.
Kosakai: Sometimes I have those moments of inspiration at work, but being a “salary man” I can’t just start playing guitar in the middle of the workday. And then I get drunk after work and the idea is gone by the time I get home.
Mukai: I’ll often get an idea for a song when I’m dozing off. I’m sleepy and don’t feel like getting up to write it down, so I lose it. I wonder how many great songs have been lost that way? [laughs] By the way, which do you write first, melodies or lyrics?
Kosakai: I usually write them separately. I write lyrics with the presumption that I will sing them at some point, but rarely have a melody in mind when I first write them out. And then later, a song I’ve already written will suddenly fit perfectly with that set of lyrics. I adjust lyrics and melodies after the fact to make songs easier for me to sing.
Mukai: Interesting. Everyone has his or her own way of songwriting. Christoph Gallio says he write lyrics first, and then writes melodies for the lyrics afterwards. I write melodies first, and then write lyrics for the melodies. When I get a melody down, I sing it to myself over and over, and the right words for the melody come naturally. So I turn those words into lyrics. I’ve never written a lyric based on a preconceived image or concept. The words do tend to illustrate the way I was feeling at the time, though. Only later do I understand their meaning. I only strayed from my songwriting method once. Sometime in 1980, I started a band called Takasago with Taniguchi from Hijokaidan and a violinist named Nishikawa, both members of Ché-SHIZU at the time. One day Taniguchi brought in an old Chinese poem titled “Jade Emperor” and asked me to write a melody for it. I wrote the whole thing very quickly on a bench at the train station.
Kosakai: Do you take any inspiration from literary works when you write lyrics?
Mukai: I’m not interested in novels or literature.
Kosakai: Really? Your lyrics have highly literary features, so I assumed that you read a lot of books.
Mukai: My mom was a helicopter parent, and tried to make me read books that were too difficult for me at the time. So I ended up disliking reading, and I’d get irritated if a book was mostly filled with words, and skim through the pages quickly, like, ‘Where is the next picture?”
Kosakai: Well, it’s usually the case that gifted poets tend to read a fair amount of literature, no?
Mukai: That’s true. Ikuro Takahashi actually reads a lot, but doesn’t write any poems. In any case, I’m not like that.
Kosakai: Well I think you’re pretty cool considering that you can write such great lyrics without reading that sort of literature. Next, I’d like to ask you about improvised performance. I think your er-hu improv style is very unique; you conjure a unique mood that’s different from expressionist free jazz, cool European free music, and clever downtown NYC improv.
Mukai: I never studied jazz or classical. I jumped right into improvised performance. But improvising on piano (as opposed to er-hu) is completely different. It’s chord-based, and it’s more like constructing a song in the moment.
Kosakai: I also recall a Ché-SHIZU performance at a town hall in Ogikubo where you banged on the drums because you were frustrated that the rest of the band hadn’t made it to rehearsal that day.
Mukai: I don’t remember that, but I did play drums on Kengo Iuchi’s Inugami to Kachiku. I also played er-hu on the first track on that album, and I’ve got to say, even I was impressed when I listened back to the recording of my performance. That kind of performance is only possible through improvisation. It wasn’t an improvised performance, but I also played bass for Kousokuya at Fandango in July.
Kosakai: You played bass for Kousokuya??
Mukai: Yeah. The rehearsal went great, but the show was miserable. Urabe turned up his bass amp all the way up and threw a cymbal at the wall that bounced back and hit my leg, giving me a bruise. And Fujii (Umihiko) booed me.
Kosakai: Yikes, that sounds really scary. Let’s change the mood. In the past, composition and improvisation were considered to be in polar opposition, but that no longer seems to be the case. A peaceful coexistence of the two, so to speak.
Mukai: There is a clear line between what only composition can do and what only improvisation can do. I think our understanding of the range of expression possible with improvisation has expanded too. Honestly, when I first started improvising I probably did consider my performance as somewhat antithetical to composed music, but I don’t really think like that anymore.
Kosakai: This is slightly off subject, but you often see performances where Butoh is paired with improvised music, and yet it rarely works. Musicians I know who’ve taken part in these kinds of performances often complain that Butoh dancers simply want background music for their performance, and even from my position in the audience that often seems to be the case. As someone who practices both, how do you feel about this?
Mukai: Hmm, I don’t watch dancers when I accompany them, so I don’t really know what they’re doing during the performance. I can’t concentrate on my own performance if I watch the dancers. I think musicians and dancers should be equals on stage.
Kosakai: You’ve been collaborating with Butoh dancers for a long time now.
Mukai: Just recently, I performed with Ishimaru at Terpsichore. It was billed as an improvised performance but it was his project and there were parameters like “do this movement on this cue,” so it wasn’t completed improvised. The show was good, and I got paid, which was also good, but I would have preferred a complete improvisation. Ishimaru and I have discussed doing a fully improvisational performance at our upcoming show at Plan B, but that introduces a whole host of issues like pay, etc. Regardless, I’m looking forward to it.
Kosakai: When did you start dancing?
Mukai: 1988. There was a Butoh group named Bodhisattva run by Tetsuro Fukuhara. I participated in the last show of their tour, at Hachiman shrine in Kokubunji, Tokyo. My amp was set up on a platform at the bottom of a slope right next to the shrine, and as I was walking down the slope towards my amp I found myself dancing a bit. It was really fun and I’ve been somewhat addicted ever since.
Kosakai: How are dance and instrumental performance different for you?
Mukai: Well, it’s more fun to move without an instrument in my hands. And I have more fun with incidental, unexpected movements, or something like performance art, than I do with more traditional dance. But I don’t feel that way when I’m performing solo. I only get that feeling when I’m performing in a duo or an ensemble, and I put my instrument down and start moving. People often tell me to give (more performative) solo performances, and I would like to someday, but at the moment I’m more interested in collaborating and playing with others.
Kosakai: Speaking of solo vs. group performances, I recently read a review of an old Taj Mahal Travellers album in G-Modern (issue 13, a revised selection of the 500 greatest “lost” records). I was befuddled by a line that said, “A distinctly Japanese group, in that they are only capable of greatness in the group setting.” Solo performance and ensemble performance are two completely different animals. This review seemed to claim one’s superiority over the other.
Mukai: Yeah, I think that review missed the mark.
Kosakai: It’s often said that one special quality of collective improvisation is that even when each participant is off doing his or her own thing, a certain kind of harmony can be achieved. I think that’s an exciting place that can’t be reached when performing solo.
Mukai: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s limited to improvisational performances. A world that achieves a balance or harmony where everyone can say what’s on their mind, do what they like, and at the same time avoid hurting others – that’s an ideal world, don’t you think? I think we should all speak freely, and make more of an effort to communicate well with others.
Kosakai: What a great way to wrap up our interview. Thanks for your time.