An in-depth, unfiltered interview with Asahito Nanjo the enigmatic force behind High Rise, Musica Transonic, Toho Sara, the La Musica label and numerous other legendary Japanese underground currents...
The following interview and images were first printed in the third issue of Opprobrium, a key underground music magazine published in New Zealand and edited by Nick Cain during the 1990’s. The interview itself is expansive. Nanjo is known for his outspoken nature; accordingly he offers candid recollections and insights about his own history, his numerous projects and his general philosophy and approach to music. Please note- Footnotes have been preserved as they were current in 1996. Many thanks to Nick Cain and Alan Cummings for their original efforts as well as their current encouragement and kind permission.
Asahito Nanjo Interview by Alan Cummings
To most of you Asahito Nanjo may just be one more of those difficult to remember names from the currently hep Japanese underground. To those of you with a couple more brain cells (and deeper wallets), his role as bassist in Japan’s loudest mind-and-speaker-blowing units, High Rise, Musica Transonic and Mainliner (recent release on Charnel House) may spring to mind. Musica Transonic have been described in these very pages as “total over-the-top distortion insanity . . . . some kind of peak in the post-psych idiot rock underground.” But these comparatively well-known manifestations of Nanjo’s work esthetic are but just the surface . . . . He has been (very) active in the Tokyo underground scene since the late seventies, clocking up appearances in around thirty different gigging bands – including Rotten Telepathys with the late Michio Kadotani (see the document CD on PSF), long-running space psychedelic masters Kosokuya, the original version of Keiji Haino’s Nijiumu, Sweet Inspirations with underground legend Tori Kudo (of Maher Shalal Hash Baz “fame”), the ubiquitous High Rise, Toho Sara, Okami no Jikan . . . . The list is probably endless, and I haven’t even started getting on to the various studio-only projects and one-off jams. He is active at the moment as a composer, lyricist, guitarist, bassist, keyboardist, performer, vocalist and concept-originator in around fifteen different units, all pursuing different aspects of his unique musical vision. Nanjo has recently revived his label, La Musica, to get more of his work out into the world. Around sixty (!) cassettes and the first three CDs in the release schedule are currently available. He is due to take Musica Transonic, Mainliner, Okami no Jikan, and Toho Sara on their first European tour in late September / October. [Questions, translation and desultory conversation by Alan Cummings. The interview was conducted in my living room, Tokyo, on an immensely hot afternoon in mid-August 1996. Ice coffee and “psychedelic” ham sandwiches were the refreshments of choice].
How did you get your nickname, “Red”? Nanjo: That comes from the name of my first band, Red Alert . There was a time when I was pretty close to the edge, in the things I thought about. That was why I chose the name Red Alert.
 Active from ‘71 to ‘81. Nanjo describes them in his profile as a “psychedelic punk group.” They have no known recordings.
When was that? Nanjo: At the height of punk in Japan. Red Alert was a pure punk band. How old were you then? Nanjo: Around nineteen or twenty, I think. I took the name from films. It’s a very punk-type name though. Did you have a nom de punk? Nanjo: No, but the nickname sort of stuck. Were you born in Tokyo? Nanjo: No, in Aichi prefecture . Just around that time the whole Tokyo Rockers  scene was happening. Red Alert started up at the same time. I knew a lot of people from the Tokyo Rockers scene – the guys from Friction  and so on. Friction’s guitarist [5 ]was in another band with the guy who played guitar with me in Red Alert. So I knew people like RECK  and Lapis. I actually had a band for a while with Lapis, we called it Lapis and Red. Punk was really big in Japan round this time, with lots of bands – it was a pretty vital scene.
 The area around Nagoya – about half way between Tokyo and Osaka.
 The Japanese punk scene in Tokyo, involving people like Reck, Chico Hige, Hiroshi Higo, S-ken and their various bands, the best known of which is probably the still extant Friction. The other main scene in Tokyo at this time centered around the live venue, Minor, in Kichijoji. Minor was run Pinakotheca Sato, and tended more towards the avant-garde.
 Famous and still extant tension-punk band led by bassist Reck. Their albums never really lived up to the amazing live shows. Released their first nearly good new album in a decade, “Zone Tripper” a couple of months back.
Did the Japanese scene start after the London punk explosion, or was it something that grew up by itself? Nanjo There were punk-like bands going back to about ‘75 – stuff like Sanbunnosan , Frankenstein, Bronx. I was still in Aichi then, but I’d read about these bands. They’ve all become legends now. The original Japanese punk scene lasted about five years, from ‘75 to ‘80. These early bands gave birth to a more fully-formed punk scene – that was the Tokyo Rockers scene with Friction, Lizard and S-Ken etc. Totally separate to this there was another stream – Hadaka no Rallizes  and Lost Aaraaff . The stuff they were doing was different. It wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll – Rallizes were kinda folk, Lost Aaraaff were kinda jazz.
 “Three thirds”. Underground band which nurtured many later Japanese punk heroes, including Reck.
 Japanese garage band led by the enigmatic Mizutani. Legendary in the Japanese scene, but virtually unknown in the West – possibly due to their gimmick of only ever pressing a few copies of any release and then charging $200 a copy. They’ve got a couple of CDs and a video that you see occasionally at astronomical prices.
 Primal Keiji Haino free jazz unit (drums, piano, sax and vocals) from the early seventies. Amply documented on the live PSF CD, and on disc 1 in Haino’s 4CD set “The soul’s true love”, on Purple Trap.
Were you able to get information about weird stuff like Lost Aaraaff, living out in the boonies? Nanjo: There were good magazines – the original Rock Magazine and DOLL. They’d do profiles of weird stuff, so I read about a lot of bands there first. What kind of music were you listening to back then? Nanjo: I was listening to stuff like The Fugs around ‘75. When the punk thing happened I was buying a lot of punk records. And of course psychedelic stuff as well. Just around this time the English Radar label was reissuing stuff like Red Crayola and 13th Floor Elevators. That was around ‘78, I think. So all that stuff got mixed up in my head with the punk movement. I was listening to the Red Crayola and Elevators reissues – the originals were too expensive. Then there was the Psycho label in England, and Eva in France. All that was happening around the same time. So you were absorbing punk and weird psych at the same time. Nanjo: Yeah, but the impact of punk was so great that I felt more drawn in that direction at the time. What are your earliest musical memories? Nanjo: Film soundtracks. When I was a kid, I loved films and would buy the soundtrack to every film I saw . I got to hear a lot of different music that way that I mightn’t otherwise have encountered. When I saw “Elevator to the scaffold”, I had to go out and buy the Miles Davis record. I’d even buy the soundtracks for action films. This was back when I was in primary school. I was a collector – I had to have the soundtrack to every film I saw. Of course, when I was a kid, action films were my favorites. At that time, they showed all kinds of films on TV. Stuff that you wouldn’t believe would be on at nine o’clock – stuff that they put on at about three in the morning now . From the end of the sixties and through the seventies Japanese TV would show lots of really weird films. I’d decided that even if the film was boring, I had to have the soundtrack. When I first started buying records, all I was bought were soundtracks.
 Nanjo is well-known in the Tokyo scene as a manic record and video collector.
His film collection / knowledge is as extensive as his music one.
 Japanese TV basically has no concept of censorship or “watersheds”. Films and repeats of evening adult dramas are shown during the afternoon – stuff that would have Western child psychologists and media campaigners up in arms. The reason why any “interesting” films here are shown at three in the morning (amongst the soft porn and brothel review programs) is because of the limited audiences.
Front Cover, Opprobrium Issue 3 (Christian Marclay "Footsteps" installation pictured)
Would you buy the soundtracks for Japanese films as well? Nanjo: Of course – monster movies and stuff like that. (laughter) When I was kid they didn’t release the Godzilla soundtracks. That came later, when the films became cult viewing. Most of the soundtracks in the shops were for Western films. Did you learn any instruments when you were a kid? Nanjo: I went to piano lessons. Any time there was an event at school I had to do a piano piece, because I was the only one in the class who could play. I remember hating being forced into that kind of thing. Was there any specific musician or record that was a turning point for you and made you want to become a musician? Nanjo: Not really. I was a strange kid with no ambitions. How I became I musician was sort of the opposite to everyone else. I didn’t bother writing it down on my profile, but I had a band in high school called the Kangan Zenji Band. It was an acoustic band, like the Holy Modal Rounders, or The Fugs, The Godz. Were the ESP records widely available in Japan? Nanjo: I’d managed to get hold of second-hand copies of The Fugs albums. “Virgin Fugs” was the first one I found, I think. I just happened across it somewhere. At the same time I was listening to all the normal stuff too. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Yes, Genesis. Basically I listened to everything I could find, but the stuff I liked best was the weird stuff. Stuff that wasn’t straight. It was probably the influence of listening to all those soundtracks. I’d always preferred the odd stuff played by jazz musicians to the sweeping string arrangements. The kind of thing you’d hear in “Le Samurai” or “The French Connection”. The jazz stuff sounded cooler than strings to me as a kid. And the spaghetti Western soundtracks [12 ]too, with the electric guitars- they were cool. And that’s probably why I’ve loved listening to psych guitar and jazz all these years. I think that all those soundtracks I listened to as a kid have had a really powerful impact on me. Even though I may have not understood them at the time.
 Known in Japan as “macaroni Westerns”, for some unexplained reason.
How easy was it to get hold of weird records in Japan at that time? Now Tokyo is like an Interzone where all the rare and weird records of the world eventually appear. I don’t know about the States, but it’s so much easier to get hold of stuff here then it is in the UK. What was it like back then, when you were in high school? Nanjo: The stuff was available, but the main problem was the strength of the dollar. Imported records were really expensive. When I was a kid, one dollar was 360 yen 1, so imported stuff was very expensive. Even compared to the inflated prices of Japan-pressed records. So if I was buying a new record, it had to be a Japanese-pressing. That was what I was buying right through high school. But then I heard some punk stuff on the radio, and I started buying imported records. If I wanted to buy imported records, British and American stuff I had to get on the train and travel for about an hour – if I wanted Japanese records it was only ten minutes. So that was what I did. I’d work part-time jobs and spend all the money on records. Presumably there were no 7-Elevens back then. Where did you work? Nanjo: Factories making threads. Restaurants. All kinds of stuff. When did you come up to Tokyo? Nanjo: Around ‘78 or ‘79. Red Alert was my first band in Tokyo. I’d already decided to become a musician. It was just around this time that No New York was happening. And that was like a second shock for me. Punk had been a shock, but it was basically just three-chord rock. But then hearing The Contortions, Teenage Jesus, Mars, DNA. The first time I heard DNA I knew that I had to make music. On my profile I’ve described Red Alert as psychedelic punk but it’s probably closer to Teenage Jesus. Have you heard those Von Lmo CDs? Nanjo: No, but they’re from around the same time, aren’t they? The whole New York scene around ‘78, the second wave, sounded really fresh to me. The shock of No New York wore off after about a year though. And just around then I began meeting the people from Friction and Fushitsusha – that really decided my future for me. I was still young when I met Haino and Lapis and so on. And that was it, they showed me that punk wasn’t where it was at. I suppose I was lucky. If I hadn’t met them I would have kept on doing the same thing and I probably would have given up eventually. All the bands I was in, from Conformist up till Sweet Inspirations , were all with the musicians who hung around with Haino – Tori Kudoh , Kadotani , Kaneko , Harumi Yamazaki, Tamio Shiraishi . When you play with people like that technique no longer matters. They were jumbling up jazz and contemporary music and psych and punk any way they wanted. Hanging out with those people had a big influence on me.
 The early history of Fushitsusha is not particularly well-documented. Haino seems to have started the band in the late ‘70s, with the first incarnation a duo featuring Tamio Shiraishi. The second version included Ayuo Takahashi, the son of famed pianist Yuji Takahashi. Ayuo’s recent prog-like outings have been documented on PSF.  For the record : Conformist (‘81-’82), Deaf and Dumb House (‘81-’82), Virus Freak (‘81-’82), Tako (‘81-’82), I’m useless (strange free rock unit centering around Tamio Shiraishi, ‘81-’82), Rotting Telepathys (psychedelic punk group with Michio Kadotani, ‘81-’82), Kosokuya (‘82-’83), Sweet Inspirations (progenitor of Maher Shalal Hash Baz, ‘83-’84).  Legendary, secretive underground figure, founder of the mysterious Maher Shalal Hash Baz (who have just released a monumental 3 LP/CD set on Org Records called “Return Visit to Rock Mass”). Previous appearances in Sweet Inspirations, Noise, Ché Shizu, A-MUSIK and a heap of others.  The late Michio Kadotani of Rotten Telepathys fame. PSF released a memorial CD w/ notes by Nanjo.  Kousokuya leader and guitarist. Kosokuya have only released two albums to date : a very limited 1991 LP on their own label, RNM, that you’re never going to see, and a
CD on Forced Exposure. They also have a couple of tracks on Tokyo Flashback 1 and 2.  Another obscure figure who was involved in an early version of Fushitsusha. Shiraishi is well-known for organizing a series of concerts at the Minor Club in the early eighties. Pataphysique Records released a nice CD of his solo alto-sax work (“Live Performances 1992-94”) earlier this year. A video which features Haino also exists.
Were you doing any improvised stuff then? Nanjo: The earliest bands weren’t. We were totally punk – not much technique but a lot of attitude and rhythm. I played guitar back then – actually I couldn’t play it. I’d keep making mistakes and that gave the whole thing a No New York flavour. Did all those early bands exist simultaneously? Nanjo: Some of them did, but others only lasted for a few months. For example, I was only in Kosokuya for three months. What did you do in Kousokuya? Nanjo: I played bass. Narita  played drums with them then, though of course he was already playing the guitar. He had been playing in bands since ‘79. Recently we found a tape of a band called Tokyo that he was in around ‘79 – I’m going to put it out. After that he was in a band called Kyoaku no Intentions . After that the next band he was in was Psychedelic Speed Freaks, with me. That band became High Rise. I formed Psychedelic Speed Freaks because even playing with Kosokuya and Tori Kudoh, I felt that their ideas and direction weren’t quite right for me. There were points that we had in common, but other points where we were totally different. So I decided to do something “hard” with the people I got on best with. Kosokuya have hardly changed at all – they were weird back then too.
Who else was in Kosokuya then? Nanjo: There was me on bass, Narita on drums, Kaneko on guitar, and Mik on vocals. I think there’s one tape left over from the time we were in the band. Kosokuya have been playing for a long time. They debuted in ‘75. They were called Kokugaiso back then. Kaneko and Mik were involved with Shuji Terayama’s theatre group – they met there in about ‘75. At the start they would both dance naked. Then they called themselves Ray, and finally they changed the name to Kosokuya around ‘78. The name may have changed but it was always the two of them – if you look at it that way then Kosokuya has been going on for over twenty years. Everyone else has left the band now – Kaneko is the only one left. Why did you call yourselves Psychedelic Speed Freaks? Nanjo: Because that was the way we played. At that time, Kosokuya and all the other bands were really dark, exclusionary and closed off. I didn’t like that and wanted to do something that would be the antithesis – that was why I formed the band. Who were the original members? Nanjo: There was me on guitar, Mitani from Maher on bass, and Narita on guitar. Then there was Takahashi  from Maher and Ché Shizu  on drums – he also plays on Tamio Shiraishi’s CD. The bass-player quit soon after, so I started playing bass. We played for quite a bit as Psychedelic Speed Freaks before we changed the name to High Rise.
 Ikuro Takahashi. Active in the scene since the late seventies and drummer on the first High Rise album. In addition to the groups mentioned, he has also played with Kosokuya (appearing on both their albums), with Reiko A. (Merzbow), and with Gun (who have a CD on Pataphysique). He currently performs solo under the name Aura Nihilitica.  Chie Mukai’s otherworldly kokyu-led dream song unit.
When did you change the name? Nanjo: When we were about to put out the first album on PSF. We talked with PSF and they thought that the band name was too direct and asked us if we would change it. So we changed it to High Rise, and they took the initials of Psychedelic Speed Freaks for the name of the label. Why did you choose High Rise? Nanjo: From the Ballard book. What was the initial aim of the band? Nanjo: A lot of people we knew were dying from drug ODs and so on. There were a lot of great musicians in the sixties and seventies who died from drugs, or went insane before they could become famous. We wanted to make an anti-drugs statement, so we chose American and British drugs slang for all the titles. The concept was to save the junkies. Were you all involved in the drugs scene too? Nanjo: Not at all. I had happened to meet and play with Haino when I was very young, before I could get into that scene. Haino is totally anti-drug and anti-alcohol. Narita was the same. None of the members of High Rise drink or use drugs. We were one of the few clean bands in the scene. That was why we dared to come up with the concept. Is the High Rise energy an imitation of a drug high then? Nanjo: That was just our concept for the first album. The energy arises from deconstruction and reconstruction. We gradually moved towards that. What kind of music were you all listening to? Nanjo: Psychedelic and improvised music. Narita had been going to see people like Kaoru Abe  while he was still in high school. We were all listening to free jazz and psychedelic.
 Intense Japanese free altoist, now deceased. Many of his recordings have been re-released of late, but you can him at his best on the PSF live document CDs from the early seventies. A film called “Endless Waltz” about Abe and his wife, writer Izumi Suzuki, was released last year starring Matsuzo Machida as Abe, and also featuring Haino as himself. It gives a pretty good idea of the seventies Shinjuku free jazz and drug scene.
How would you describe your position in the Japanese music scene at that time? Nanjo: We didn’t have a position. And the way PSF promoted us at the start was to a very limited audience. Everything was word of mouth, limited pressings, and they turned down all offers of foreign licensing. That was their idea, not ours. Though they’re totally different now from how they were in the eighties. How were you accepted by the fans? Nanjo: I think everyone was totally shocked by what we were doing, and no one really got it. But we got a reaction, and we counted that as a success. We wanted to shock everyone with a wall of sound. I believe that when you hear an electric guitar you need to get that sense of shock from it. That’s why we came up with that sound. PSF and the pressing plant put a lot of work into getting that sound – at first we were told that we couldn’t press something that sounded like that, that the sound would drop out. So we just pushed all the levels as far as they would go. When the first album appeared we got a lot of offers from all over the place.
Nanjo (left) and Munehiro Narita, High Rise
Did you get any coverage in the music press? Nanjo: None. None. Everything was done by word of mouth. The word spread to Alchemy in Osaka too. So the year after it came out, we got the offers to do the Alchemy compilation  and Dead Tech. We didn’t do any promotion at all, but the word spread and we got a lot of offers to play live and to record.
 “Renkinjitsu – the Alchemy Noise Omnibus”, released in 1985 and containing three High Rise tracks. One of the tracks “PSF” was later included on the CD “Alchemism”, which partially reissued the album.
Now there seems to be a bit of enmity between the Tokyo and Osaka scenes. What was it like then? Nanjo: There wasn’t really any enmity. Information flowed both ways. There was a bit of rivalry between Alchemy and PSF though. Alchemy had been going a little longer, but in spite of the rivalry they were shocked when they heard High Rise, and they asked us to be on the compilation. There were a lot more offers, but PSF turned down all the labels it had a grudge against. Trans Records and so on. They turned down all the punk and new wave labels – they must have thought that Alchemy had some promise though. (laughs) Were you playing a lot of gigs? Nanjo: For some reason we played with Hijokaidan. Musicians seemed to like us but the audiences didn’t. We were only playing live three or four times a year. We were very stoic and never tried to attract more people. We would only play when someone invited us. I suppose that if we had pushed more we could have played every month. Back when I was in Kosokuya and Rotting Telepathys and Red, I was doing a lot more gigs, maybe fifty times a year. I played out a hell of a lot. You played with Michio Kadotani in Rotting Telepathys, didn’t you? Nanjo: Rotting Telepathys was me and Kadotani – everyone else was a guest. We’d invite someone different every time we played. I played guitar – it was the two of us on guitars. We’d do these wall-of-noise performances at the Kido Airaku Hall  and so on. We’d both be playing chords and he would be screaming out these agit-prop type vocals. It was pretty cool. When we’d play proper gigs we’d invite people to do bass and drums. There were a few times when we played at Goodman that we invited Tori Kudoh and Kaneko – it would be the four of us on guitar. (laughs) Today that line-up would be a supergroup. There’s one of those tracks on the PSF CD. I’d played out a lot back then and was tired of it all, so when I formed High Rise I decided not to book stuff myself. And there are a lot of idiots involved in the live house scene.
 Live venue above an art gallery about five minutes walk from Modern Music. Hosted free-form jazz guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi in his later years.
Did you rehearse a lot? Nanjo: For sure. We’d record everything on to 8-track as well, which is why I’m able to put out this early stuff now. The CD that I’m putting out is from those rehearsals too. I listened to all those tapes recently for the first time in eleven or twelve years – I was surprised that we’d actually recorded it all properly. And that the quality was good enough for me to release. Were you rehearsing regularly? Nanjo: Even if we weren’t playing many gigs, we were still rehearsing regularly. We rehearsed seriously from ‘84 to ‘88. So there are a stack of unreleased tapes that I’m going to edit and start putting out. Why didn’t you aim for more conventional success? Nanjo: Basically, I thought that there was no one who would get it. You only really began to get known outside of Japan from about 1990, when Forced Exposure ran a review of High Rise II. Nanjo: Like I said earlier, PSF turned down all the offers. They didn’t try to promote us. But that was the label’s policy then, and that was fair enough. You seem to be known only amongst record maniacs – there was even that American boot of the first album. Nanjo: I heard that a friend of Jimmy Johnson [Forced Exposure] was responsible for that. Jimmy lent him a copy of the first album, and they bootlegged it from that. But that was also because Ikeezumi at PSF turned down their offer to license it. It doesn’t really bother me now. You played as support for Mudhoney at their Tokyo gig a few years back. How did that come about? Nanjo: They’d heard one of our records and they requested that we open for them. I think what they do is trash though, I hate it. I’d rather open for Madonna than Mudhoney. All grunge is worthless, it has no thought behind it. They just copy ‘60s garage tunes but it has no connection with their lives. I think that Mudhoney have just copied other people’s music – people they heard playing live. That’s no way to make music. You’ve got to have a need to make your own, new music. And that’s why I don’t listen to any post-eighties rock. It doesn’t matter how technically good it is – there’s no real intention behind it. The most recent rock I can listen to is stuff like Peter Perrett. He still had something to sing about, but rock has stopped there. That said, in the last five years there have been a lot of great tunes – but spiritually they have nothing to do with me. Great tunes are no longer really necessary. There were a lot of them in the past, but back then it was great tunes plus something else – and it’s that something else that I like. Just around the time that you played with Mudhoney, it seemed like a lot of Japanese bands were using their American connections to get well-known. There was Shonen Knife with Nirvana, and The Boredoms with Sonic Youth. Nanjo: We had no interest in doing that. We’re not fans of Sonic Youth or anything. There seems to be a real gap between the bands on PSF and the rest of the Japanese underground. Nanjo: I don’t feel much of a connection with PSF. For the first two albums there was a definite link, because Ikeezumi  set up the label in order to release our records. But from the third album on, PSF began to exist to release Haino’s stuff. The label itself changed – it’s very different now from how it was at the start. It was like High Rise’s private label between ‘84 and ‘87, we were the only band on PSF. In that sense it’s very different now, and that’s why I started my own label, La Musica. PSF can’t respond to what we want to do anymore. They do too many different things now – jazz, Fushitsusha, Ché-Shizu. That said, I believe that they’re still the only good label in Japan.
 Hideo Ikeezumi. PSF / Modern Music founder.
I still sense a very definite musical link between all the bands that PSF has released – you, Haino, Mikami. There seems to be a musical correlation between the label and the people on it. Nanjo: It’s basically a collection of people, like Haino, who existed outside their contemporary scenes or genres. PSF almost accidentally provided the opportunity for these links between jazz and rock, or between folk and rock to develop. But as I see it, the links had already developed in the live house scene, where all these people had been playing in the same places for years. Ikeezumi would go and see everything, so he introduced people like Mikami and Haino to each other, people from different genres who might otherwise not have met. Then he introduced the rock people to the jazz people. He became the link between these people who weren’t doing it for the money, who were prepared to put their lives on the line for the music. The great thing about Ikeezumi is that he’s prepared to release things that he likes, even if there is no hope of them selling. Nanjo: Yeah, for him making a profit has got nothing to do with it. But that attitude also meant that he wanted to spread the word about early High Rise to only a very limited group of people. Not that I think that it is a bad thing – he believes in what he puts out. Which is why he can consider putting out solo records by Urabe and Kaneko. It doesn’t matter if they don’t sell.
 Masayoshi Urabe. Young altoist who is due to have his first album released on PSF in September.
And he’s even talking about putting out some rakugo  stuff eventually. Moving on, how does High Rise come up with new tracks? Do you write stuff down, do you just jam at rehearsals until you come up with something, is there a concept for each track? Nanjo: We don’t have specific tunes. No High Rise track has ever been written or composed.
 Very traditional Japanese sit-down narrative comedy.
But there are certain things that you’ve played again and again. If those aren’t tunes, what are they – concepts? Nanjo: “Concept” is as close as you can get in words, I suppose. Everybody adds something to it. We don’t devote any time to writing new stuff. We start off from deconstruction, though there are things that in the end become like normal songs. But the process that we take in getting there is completely different to everyone else. Our process is totally different from the punk conception of specific chords and riffs. We sort of start off from the position that we don’t want to do this but there’s no way around it. It’s hard to explain in words. Basically we don’t even put in one minute coming up with new songs. Not that we’re lazy or sloppy – we have a different conception of what a song is. But we’ve got to express ourselves in that format . . . . We pay no attention at all to writing songs. It’s very hard to explain – if we wanted to write songs then we could write something amazing. What we do isn’t composition; it’s the wreckage of composition, if you like. Are there things which are close to songs, and things which are further away? Nanjo: That’s up to the listener to decide. It’s not an accidental process though – that would be Musica Transonic. Basically from the start, High Rise has no intention of writing a song. It’s a paradox in a way. We don’t want to write tunes but we want to exist as a band. And bands have certain things that they do – that’s the burden we have to bear. It can’t be helped if someone listens to High Rise and hears it as ultra-composed three-chord punk rock. What the band is trying to do is something different to that. High Rise don’t play compositions, but we have to bear that burden of expectation because we are a band. What about the tracks that have lyrics? Nanjo: The lyrics are the same as the concept for the first album that we talked about earlier – they’re just various bits of English junky slang strung together. They just say that if you want to take drugs, you’re going to have to be prepared to die. Why English slang rather than Japanese drugs slang? Nanjo: I just took some drug slang that I knew in English and strung it together. I looked it up in a dictionary of slang. That was just for the first album – after that I changed it into Japanese. There’s no other reason. Do you think it’s possible for rock to be transferred from one culture to another? Has the rock that’s played in Japan become a uniquely Japanese form of rock, or is it more universal than that? Nanjo: I’ve never thought about that. I suppose that what I do is “human rock”. But, compared to the urge you get from classical or folk or pop, rock has an urge to noise and coolness and delinquency. It was those essences that we wanted to reflect in High Rise. There’s an image of bigness and loudness, of stacking up the Marshalls when you play live – we wanted to embody all of that. I think that we’re probably unique in that our loudness isn’t just because of the size of the amps. In terms of the real electricity of rock, there’s no one like High Rise in the US, or Europe or Japan. There’s a tendency for foreign music writers to look upon recent Japanese underground bands as having some kind of unique take on Western musical forms. A Japanese perspective, maybe. What do you feel about that? Nanjo: Like I said before, that’s just the way the listener hears it – we’re not deliberately trying to make the music sound like three-chord punk or whatever. People may be able to pick up how wide, or how narrow, our listening tastes are. But we ourselves are trying to play outside of any particular genre, so there’s no end to what we do. We’re not aware of particular tunes or particular bands – High Rise just has to carry around an idea of “heaviness” and work from there. Because I didn’t want this idea of “heaviness” to become trapped in one particular form, I started Mainliner. Mainliner is like a more-condensed version of the High Rise aesthetic. I want it to sound huge. The main difference between the two, and I think that this will begin to become apparent in the future, is that Mainliner will attempt some compositions. High Rise never play compositions. High Rise have changed their drummer so many times. Why is that? Nanjo: That’s because the High Rise rhythm is very difficult to play. It’s not just hard-core punk – that’s what PILL  told us while he was in the band. You’ve got to be able to play certain unique phrases at very high speed while still thinking and listening to what everyone else is doing. It demands a hell of a lot of technique and physical energy. One of our drummers left us during the recording of the first album. Only the drummer needs to be a master technician. The guitar and bass are different – what they’re playing isn’t really connected. The drummer who was closest to our ideal was Doctor Euro.
 Hard-core punk legend, most famous for his role in Lip Cream. Ask someone at Maximum R’n’R about them sometime. PILL was the drummer on the most recent High Rise album,“Disallow”, on PSF. He’s also been playing in an intense duo with Haino of late.
Playing with High Rise probably takes years off a drummer’s life. Nanjo: Normal drummers can’t handle it. How did you get linked up with PILL? Nanjo: It was more like a collaboration. I don’t think he wants to play on the next album. The ideal situation for him would be if he could just occasionally jam with High Rise. Though not in any half-hearted way. PILL always puts his life on the line. I think he’s had a lot of bad experiences in bands, so he doesn’t want to join another one. But when he plays with us, he’s totally serious about it, no slacking off. Is the relationship between the three members of High Rise equal, or does someone musically pull the band in certain directions? Nanjo: I suppose I do. Though the danger in pulling it too much is that it then starts to sound like a normal rock ‘n’ roll band. People start reading that into it. At one particular instant it may sound like three-chord punk but the conception is different, the way the tracks arise is different. That should be evident from the guitar sound. Narita does play chords but he never knows which chord he will play next. I think there may be a perception that we put a lot of work into coming up with riffs and songs, but the truth is that we don’t. It may be disrespectful to the people who buy our records, but we don’t stake our lives on writing songs. We stake them on the performance – that’s the difference. When we rehearse it’s not to polish the quality of the compositions or the songs. We play because we have to. But it comes down to which is better. Most Japanese bands perfect their songs in rehearsal and they just simply play them live. I don’t like that kind of band, no matter how perfect their songs may be. They’re just using an imported musical culture – I’d rather listen to a band from San Francisco and London who do it much more naturally. I don’t like Japanese rock. The only Japanese band which is trying to do something different is Fushitsusha, and that’s why I like them. They always deconstruct rock. Maybe I shouldn’t say this – I don’t like White Heaven and bands like that. Don’t get me wrong, they’re very accomplished but their methods are totally different to mine. They work out the songs, the lead guitar lines, and then they practice so they don’t fuck it up in performance. You mean that they’re not trying to do anything new, that they’re just recreating something from the sixties? Nanjo: They’ve got good taste in what they listen to, but I think that their methodology is wrong. There’s nothing wrong with the songs themselves, it’s how they arrived at those songs. I think it’s strange that the phrases should all be decided in advance. Because then, no matter how wild the performance may look on the surface, it’s never going to be any more than a recital. It looks like it’s in a frame. You shouldn’t be aware of phrases. The two guitarists in White Heaven are no more than craftsmen. Ishihara’s vocals are good, but I don’t think it’s something that Japanese should be playing in the ‘90s. I’d rather listen to Quicksilver or Television. There’s a tendency to hear certain music as a fixed pattern. The best example is probably the blues – people talk about blues progressions and rhythms, and about Eric Clapton being a “bluesman”, but if you listen to country blues or to John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins, it’s immediately obvious that the rhythm is very free, the progressions are fucked up – in no way is it rigid. Nanjo: But what they’re doing is still great. I’m aiming for that kind of free musical sense that sounds like structure. There was a period when even people like Blind Lemon Jefferson, people who were stars and owned cars, were playing very weird rhythms. But while there were people who were doing strange stuff and still making some money, at the same time there were people like Robert Johnson who were playing very straight stuff. As I see it, it’s his blues that has become accepted and that gave birth to people like Eric Clapton. When all that stuff comes over to Japan people tend to make weird connections – for example, I make a mental connection between Blind Lemon and Syd Barrett, in terms of their expressive ability, not their musical thinking. But Robert Johnson doesn’t fit into that progression in my head. Musical criticism just perceives all these links after the fact. In that sense, music can exist independently of what its creator’s intention may have been – people have the right to analyze music whatever way they want. To get out of that loop, I’m interested in finding true originality. If you think about Japanese rock in those terms, then of course Fushitsusha are truly original. But Fushitsusha’s music is very difficult and very dangerous. I’m glad and happy that they exist, but their’s is a very frightening world, one that’s hard to get close to. So what I’m trying to do with High Rise and in my solo work is to do all the things that Keiji Haino hasn’t had time to cover. He doesn’t have the time to follow the Chuck Berry or Johnny Thunders line – actually I don’t have the time to do Johnny Thunders either. But I do have time to go after that sound – high-voltage, dense, heavy music. In terms of thought I lead High Rise, but in terms of the sound, because there are no songs the guitar naturally pulls the sound. For better or worse, Narita likes Blue Cheer and the MC5 and stuff like that so his interpretation of that comes out in his guitar-playing. And also, because he saw Kaoru Abe and Motoharu Yoshizawa  play live back when he was in high-school, that too certainly is in his playing somewhere. He saw all the Japanese free jazz people live, rather than listening to them on record. He also went to see a lot of Gaseneta’s  early rehearsals. I guess he doesn’t like tight stuff. We tried playing with a proper drummer after the second album, but the sound wouldn’t gel. Me and him were left flailing. High Rise is really a concept band, it just accidentally sounds like a punk band. So it’s not wrong if you hear it as speedy hard-rock punk.
 Legendary free bassist, who developed his own unique style of playing on a homemade 5-string, heavily effects-laden bass. One of the most respected figures in the free-improvisation world. Played with Masayuki Takayanagi’s New Directions group. Has lots of very worthwhile recordings on PSF, especially the solo “From the faraway nearby”, the “Angels have passed” trio, the “Uzu” duo with Barre Phillips and the “Cracked Mirror and the fossil bird” reissue. Perhaps best known for his role with Haino and Kan Mikami on the “Live in the First Year of Heisei” recordings on PSF.  Original Japanese noise / punk / garage psychedelic band. Their one known release is on PSF.
All your records have a very distinctive production style. Could you say something about that? Nanjo: From when I was a kid, I had this idea of rock as something loud and dirty, and that’s why I push up the levels on the mix. I don’t really want to distort the sound but I have to because almost everyone is listening to it at home on these mini-component systems. I have to put up the recording volume so that they get the initial rush from it – especially on the first Musica Transonic record where I mixed the sound at a level that no one can listen to it. There wouldn’t be any need to do that if everyone lived in solid, soundproof houses and they could buy good stereos and big speakers cheaply. The levels on the Mainliner record are done out of love. That’s my policy, when I’m doing something hard. But Toho Sara and stuff like that, the principle is the opposite. With them I try to record everything at really low levels. How would you describe the difference between the Musica Transonic and High Rise concepts? Nanjo: They’re totally different. Musica Transonic compose while playing moment by moment. But High Rise don’t compose as they go along. In High Rise, we have certain things that we want to put into the sound, so we rehearse – but we rehearse unconsciously without any songs. In Musica Transonic we are ultra-aware of each second and compose as we go along. Recently we decide upon a very basic theme in advance – for example, jazz. Even though my view of jazz, and Yoshida’s  and Kawabata’s  are different, we just launch straight into it. And once we’ve started we compose as we go along. If there’s a certain rhythm then I can obviously play something to go along with it and things develop that way. Of course, we don’t want it to sound like diarrhea but there are times when it doesn’t work. Other times it works really well. Basically we compose while we play. There are some things that we’ve worked out in advance, but we re-arrange and recompose them while playing. That’s the same for both recording and playing live. About half the time when we play live, we’ve playing stuff that we’ve come up with on the spot. Other times we go through stuff that we’ve worked out before, stuff that was on the first or second album. We don’t really want to – it’s sort of a gift to the fans. We’d prefer that you think of it all as new songs.
 Tatsuya Yoshida, Musica Transonic, Ruins drummer- Also has a large number of equally screwey units.  Hajime Kawabata. Long-haired monster guitarist with Musica Transonic and Mainliner. Also a member of Toho Sara.
I think a lot of people hear it the opposite way – High Rise being composed, and Musica being more improvised. Nanjo: It’s definitely the opposite. Musica is so much more composed. But that said, in Musica we’ve never practiced certain songs, we just compose as we go along. The first time we played together it didn’t work too well – we were all over the place. By the second or third time we already understood each other. Had you known Yoshida and Kawabata for a long time? Nanjo: Yeah. Especially Kawabata, who was in an experimental band called Johari  with me. I’ve been playing with him since about 1990. He wanted to fuse ethnic music, contemporary classical, jazz and rock. Even though he’s five years younger than me, he was thinking along the same lines as Haino . He’d also studied Chinese divination methods, and he was wondering if it was possible to introduce that kind of element into the fusion too. We’re working on that in Toho Sara. But before that we were in Johari together. We played at a big ethnic music festival in Nara Prefecture, the Togei Festival, and in Indonesia too. We played in front of 30,000 people once. But looking back now, the fusion in Jo