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“Anything was fine, as long as it was different from what others were doing”

Winter 1997: Interview no. 1 with Chie Mukai from G-Modern Vol. 14

Chie Mukai at Showboat, Tokyo by Urabe Masayoshi.

The following is the first of two interviews with Chie Mukai that were published in G-Modern Volume 14 during the winter of 1996-97. This interview was conducted by Kimiko Isaki on December 23, 1996 in Nishiogikubo, Tokyo. The translation was made by Justin Simon in the Spring of 2018. “A Journey” the 2nd album by Chie Mukai’s group Ché-SHIZU is Available Now from Black Editions.

Chie Mukai Interview by Kimiko Isaki

Chie Mukai Profile

Chie Mukai: vocal, er-hu, piano From Osaka, Japan.

Studied under Takehisa Kosugi at Bigakko art school in 1975. Part of the “East Bionic Symphonia,” a post-graduation project of Bigakko students, along with Kazuo Imai, Yasushi Ozawa (Fushitsusha), Masami Tada, et al. Following her tenure in the EBS, she played in a reggae band called Stereos, A-Musik, Kenichi Takeda’s Vedda Music Workshop, and other groups.

Started a group called Cho-SHIZU in 1980 (name was later changed to Ché-SHIZU). Initially an improvisational group, over time it became more song-based.. Early Ché-SHIZU members included Takuya Nishimura (bass), Tori Kudo (piano, guitar), Tsukasa Takahashi (drums), and guest artists such as the late Masami Shinoda (sax) and Yuriko Mukojima (accordian). In 1983, Mukai gave an improvised performance on er-hu at Plan B (later released as Er-hu (Kokyu) Improvisations, PSFD-10), and Ché-SHIZU released their first album, I Can’t Promise, on Zero Records. She continues to perform both as a solo artist and with Ché-SHIZU. Various recordings of her collaborations with Morio Agata, percussionist Takashi Kazamaki, Swiss saxophone player Christoph Gallio, the American group L.A.F.M.S. and others have been released.


Isaki: I don’t think you’ve done many interviews so far, but a couple recently appeared in Jungle Life (vol. 8, 1996), the free publication circulated in Osaka, and in G-Modern (vol. 7, 1995). Aside from those two, was the last interview you did for COS (#3, 1990)?

Mukai: Oh, I interviewed myself for that one.

Isaki: Some kind of a charade? The publisher didn’t mind you doing that?

Mukai: Okazaki’s not the type to get angry…Also, interviewing myself made it easier to say what I wanted to say, and it went straight to the printer without the need for transcription. Good idea, right? [laughs]

Isaki: So did you periodically agree with yourself while interviewing yourself?

Mukai: Well, that was so long ago, it’s kind of a blur, but that was the gist of it. Later on I had some exchanges with Okazaki via fax about the tour I did with Nachtluft [1] and Hiroshima in 1988.

Isaki: Do you think you are a good interviewee?

Mukai: Do I think I am? I don’t think so, do you?

Isaki: Not really. [laughs]

Mukai: Nobody gets as tongue-tied as I do.

Isaki: Which leads me to my next question: do you think there’s any connection between your music making and your feeling tongue-tied? In the sense that you’re expressing something with music that you can’t express otherwise?

Mukai: I don’t think so. There are musicians who are very talkative and eloquent, like Kenichi Takeda and Shuichi Chino, for instance. I’m just not very good at explaining myself in words.

Isaki: What’s the first music you remember getting into?

Mukai: Classical. We had a record player with a wooden lid in our house and my father had a collection of classical 78s. As a kid I would listen to them all, but this one piece particularly moved me. I’d forgotten what it was, so I went back as an adult and listened to some of the 78s again. I’m not entirely sure, but the piece I really loved might have been “Hungarian Dances.” Then, when I was in grade school, an employee of my parents’ store lent me a Beatles single. I think it was “Please Please Me.” I listened in secret and hid it from my mother because I thought she would be angry. She was kind of a helicopter mother.

Isaki: Funny how even as a child you instinctively knew the music might have had a bit of an edge to it…

Mukai: Actually, my parents bought me a Beatles record for my birthday around the time I was in junior high. I asked them for a record with “Help” and “Yesterday” on it, and they actually brought one home. After that I got deep into rock and roll. I used to like the Beatles, but they’re a little too mainstream for my tastes now. Anyway, around the same time I heard either “In the Steppes of Central Asia” or “Bolero” in school and was really impressed, so I went to a record shop in Juso to try to find the record. I couldn’t decide between that and Bach, but my mother told me to choose the Bach record because she thought he was more sophisticated…so the first record I bought myself was a Bach record. Then I was a huge rock fan from high school through college. I listened to everything from Grand Funk [laughs] to EL&P to Led Zeppelin. I was like, “Jimmy!” [waving her hands in the air]

Isaki: Did you like the vocalist in Grand Funk Railroad?

Mukai: I couldn’t really tell who was who. [laughs]

Isaki: How about Yes?

Mukai: I wasn’t that into them.

Isaki: I recently read a quote from Yes guitarist Steve Howe where he described his attitude towards music, and I felt like it might be similar to yours. It was in a 1981 issue of Yu magazine, in a feature where Derek Bailey compiled quotes from various musicians. Howe said, “I guess I always try to mix improvisational ideas with the sort of music that’s normally written in musical notation. So regardless of what type of music I start out with, I end up improvising and stepping into something else entirely. And if I really like where I end up, I try to use it. I feel like I can create something new this way. And I like it when creation comes easy like that.”

Mukai: …I wish I could talk like that. [laughs] But, basically, my mind is blank (when I’m creating something).

Ché-SHIZU at Showboat, Tokyo (L-R) Nishimura Takuya, Takahashi Ikuro (back), Mukai, Koma Keita by Sato Takafumi.

Isaki: Let’s go back to where we left off. Who were some of your favorites after Jimmy Page?

Mukai: In college I was really into progressive rock, which was popular back then. King Crimson was intoxicating.

Isaki: You and I are from the same generation. Was the Vienna Boys Choir one of the first groups you idolized? They were my first obsession.

Mukai: Yes! I saw a movie about them at school, about a boy who hits puberty and his voice changes.

Isaki: Born to Sing. The one about the boy who suddenly can’t sing soprano anymore, and almost quits but then comes back as a conductor.

Mukai: I just remember his face, with his mouth always open.

Isaki: Sean Scully was the actor on the poster. He was photographed from below while conducting.

Mukai: That image worked its way into my subconscious. Without thinking, I used to imitate him and make the same expression, with my mouth half open. I convinced my parents to buy me records and flexi discs of the Vienna Boys Choir. I listened to them constantly.

Isaki: Back then, whenever members of the choir visited Japan, magazines like Girlfriend ran articles about them with glossy photos and captions like “Emily Takami and other celebrities greeted the choir members at their welcome reception.” Takami is actually the wife of the current prime minister, Hatoyama. Back then she was a model. Of course, young people today would have no idea what I’m talking about.

Mukai: Nope.

Isaki: How about Kayokyoku[2] ? Who did you like?

Mukai: No one in particular. But I watched Jun Mayuzumi and Chiyo Okumura on TV. In terms of Group Sounds[3], I liked the Spiders and the Tigers, you know, as “idols.” I loved Toppo.

Isaki: I knew it.

Mukai: Really? Is it that obvious?

Isaki: Sort of. When did you start playing instruments?

Mukai: I started taking piano lessons in kindergarten. My father pushed his unfulfilled childhood dreams on me.

Isaki: Same here. Not the best situation.

Mukai: I didn’t like practicing. I still don’t, but I admit it was good that I learned to play.

Isaki: Do you think stringed instruments are a better match for you than piano?

Mukai: Definitely. But would I have worked harder if I’d learned violin instead? Probably not. I didn’t really care for its sound. If I were playing cello instead? Hmm…I still don’t think I would have practiced. After I had been playing piano for a while, I got an acoustic guitar in high school, and learned to play from songbooks. I taught myself how to play “Romance” from the movie Jeux Interdits, “Kokiriko no Uta,” and “Sekai wa Futari no Tameni.” What else did I learn? Oh, my father’s hobby was utai[4] . I lived in Tokyo for a bit, but after I moved back to Osaka I asked him to teach me utai. He told me to pick up the basics from someone else first, so I took lessons for a year at the Asahi Culture Center. But in the end, I never got any lessons from him.”

Isaki: Did you ever incorporate utai vocalization techniques into your singing?

Mukai: No. A few years later I became really interested in jiuta[5] . It all started with my love of film. When I was in high school, I often applied for free tickets to preview screenings. I’d see anything, regardless of the genre. I loved Pasolini, and he used Japanese music in the final scene in Teorema where a man runs around a sand dune naked. It sounded like jiuta. Normally I’d pay no attention to Japanese music, but I thought this was really fresh and great. But I didn’t know what it was at the time. Much later on I was taking a Japanese music history course at a culture center where some gagaku[6]. musicians who’d been given Living National Treasure status would sometimes perform. And one day an old jiuta musician named Hatsuko Kikuhara (also a Living National Treasure) was invited to sing a jiuta song called “Kosunoto” (an old term for a mosquito net). I was floored, and wanted to try jiuta myself. Then, during a performance at Gatty shortly after that, I banged on a tambourine with a stick and ended up breaking it. I got some leather to repair my tambourine with from Kawaguchi, a chindonya[7] musician and taiko builder in Osaka at the time. And while we were chatting I learned that his mother actually taught jiuta. Purely coincidentally, later that same day my mother suggested I take up a hobby, like tea ceremony or flower arrangement, thinking that some sort of distraction would help cheer me up. But I told her I wasn’t interested in learning that stuff and wanted to learn jiuta instead. The next day I visited Kawaguchi’s mother and was able to see her right away, for it happened to be her day off. Kind of strange.

Isaki: And what about Ché-SHIZU?

Mukai: This was 10 years ago, so Ché-SHIZU had already started.

Isaki: You’ve had many serendipitous encounters, haven’t you?

Mukai: Yeah.

Isaki: It seems like the same thing happened when you entered art school at Bigakko, even though at the time you weren’t that familiar with Bigakko or Takehisa Kosugi[8]. What inspired you? Were you trying to learn composition at that point?

Mukai: Not at all. I was in college, and I belonged to a photography club and a neo-theater club. The founder of the club was a fan of Jūrō Kara[9] pieces, so we ended up doing lots of those. But in the middle of performances I’d be thinking to myself, “Music is my thing.”

Isaki: So you decided to go in a different direction all of a sudden.

Mukai: Yeah, but there’s more to the story. I moved in with a guy when I was a freshman at college in Kyoto. We lived in a tiny, six-mat room, exactly like the famous folk song “Kanda River.” I wrote lyrics that described my lifestyle – “A sign on the utility pole is making an empty noise” – and then I wrote a song around them. It was very indicative of the life I led then, an indescribably depressing song. That’s the first song I ever wrote. A while after all that, I took a trip on my own and stopped in Matsumoto, where I saw a flyer recruiting students for Bigakko in a café. I decided to enter the school. That was in 1975. My parents were completely opposed to the idea.

Isaki: So daring.

Mukai: Looking back, I was really bold. [laughs]

Isaki: You didn’t waste any time once you’d made your decision.

Mukai: I’m usually really indecisive. And I’m a slowpoke. I have some sort of obsession, but it never goes smoothly. I’m lazy.

Isaki: And yet you forged your own path as an artist, all on your own. What did you gain from studying with Kosugi? In an interview he did with G-Modern, Ozawa[10] from Fushitsusha (also a student of Kosugi’s) mentioned that improvisation was more of an attitude than a method, and that rather than focusing all of one’s energy on the sound one makes, one should listen to outside sounds, and focus on one’s own movements and breathing first and foremost. And that this approach would give the improviser more freedom. What was your experience with Kosugi like?

Mukai: I can’t recall any specific things Kosugi said. It would be difficult for me to say that I learned such and such a technique. Because [meeting Kosugi] literally changed my life. That encounter was so huge for me, much more than any one technique. Even in terms of the er-hu, I only started playing it because Kosugi gave it to me.

Isaki: Do you feel sympathetic to those improvisers who refuse to be labeled as such? Derek Bailey seems to be the most well-known figure for this sort of attitude. Is this of any significance to you?

Mukai: Not at all.

Mukai at Showboat, Tokyo by Urabe Masayoshi.

Isaki: Next Point, with Shuichi Chino, is the only active improvisation unit with set members that you’re currently involved in, right? When did that group come together?

Mukai: In 1992, Christoph Charles[11] organized a European tour and 20 of us, including Haino, went. The following year, we did a show in Japan that was meant to be a sort of “report” from the European tour, and purely by chance Chino, Christoph and I performed together at a place called Riverside something-or-other on the Sumida river in Tokyo. That was when it started. And then we performed again at Bears and Minoya Hall in Osaka, and at Seibu Kodo in Kyoto. In 1994 we performed throughout Japan, first in Konronsha in Matsuzaka city in Mie, and then in Kansai, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

Isaki: What sorts of places have you played overseas?

Mukai: My first overseas performance was with Nachtluft in Zurich in 1990. I also recorded with Christoph Gallio that trip. The Venice Biennale was also taking place at that time, and I performed a piece by a guy named Erick Anderson. In 1992 I toured Eindhoven in Holland, Gent in Belgium, and Nice in France. After that I took a personal trip to Montserrat in Spain, where I performed in the courtyard of a monastery without permission. I really wanted to go there because I had used a song from “Llibre Vermell de Montserrat.” There was this performer named Toshimasa Furukawa from Osaka who I got to come along to Spain with me. I was a little nervous to go alone. He had heard from another performer named Goji Hamada in Nice that Gaudi had blown up a mountain in Montserrat, and became interested in the place. We went, and he did a solo performance on the mountain. It was great. I played er-hu, but it didn’t go so well. And later that night I played in the monastery. There is something inexplicable about the place, it being sacred and all. After the trip I became really attractive; all my friends said the same thing to me once I got back to Japan.

Isaki: Do you think the “attractive” part is still holding up?

Mukai: No, I’m back to the way I was before, so I want to go back again. Montserrat picked up its name “Saw Mountain” because of the shape its sandy rock formations make.

Isaki: Ché-SHIZU actually has a song named “Saw Mountain Dog,” doesn’t it?

Mukai: That’s Nishimura’s song, about getting chased by a dog as a kid on Saw Mountain in Chiba.