Ché-SHIZU’s A Journey “Off Kilter and in the Pocket at the Same Time”
Che Chen is a New York based multi-instrumental artist who is currently one half of the band 75 Dollar Bill. He is also known for his numerous collaborations including releasing music with Chie Mukai, Tetuzi Akiyama and Tashi Dorji. He runs the Black Pollen Press musical imprint and also formerly published the magazine O Sirhan, O Sirhan.
Ché-SHIZU’s A Journey was one of the many great records that I discovered while spending time in Japan in 2011 and 2012. I was traveling east whenever I could to visit my aging grandmother in Taiwan and would usually take an excursion to Japan for a week (or, on one occasion, six) while I was “in the neighborhood”. I played one duo set with Chie Mukai on my first trip and it went well enough that she booked a two week tour for us the following year.
I’m pretty sure that I bought A Journey off of the merch table after one of our gigs, but it’s also possible that it was one of my many finds at Disk Union or at Modern Music, home of the legendary and now defunct Tokyo label P.S.F. that originally issued this album in 1994. I remember putting it on my friends’ stereo when I got back to their apartment in Shin-Ōkubo and a big fat smile breaking over my face as the band dropped in after what must be one of the best hooks ever written, the opening bass line to Juso Station. The Mukai I was getting to know was a fearless improviser that couldn’t be categorized; She was always open to the inherent music in any moment, and in anyone. What was coming out of the speakers was somehow both totally in line with that philosophy and also full of surprising other dimensions. It had all the intensity and fragility of her improvising but also radiated a kind of melancholic joy. And it was rockin’. The band, somehow off kilter and in the pocket at the same time, seemed to be both subverting and taking a real, deep pleasure in the simple rhythms and melodies of what is basically a three minute, 60s style pop song. As the record continued, new facets revealed themselves with every song, with the band stretching out into long form rock instrumentals, English folk tunes and even an a cappella rendering of a song from the “Llibre Vermell de Montserrat”, a 14th century Catalonian manuscript! The tunes, mostly penned by Mukai with a few by longtime bass player Takuya Nishimura, are built upon the band’s undeniable, languid chemistry, with Mukai’s lonesome, penetrating voice or bowed er-hu cutting through the fog at just the right moments.
Not only had I never heard music like this, but it cast much of the Japanese music that had been reaching America since the early 1990s into a totally different light. Why hadn’t I heard this before? It became conspicuous for its absence after the fact. Despite the various connections of its members to the origins of modern Japanese avant-garde and underground music, Ché-shizu (much like Maher Shalal Hash Baz, whose Tori Kudo is Ché-shizu’s current guitarist) has never fit into the rather limiting or worse, orientalist, narratives that have surrounded Japanese “Noise” or “Psych” or “improv” music in this country. Ché-shizu has always been too conversant with too many different strains of music -- 60s Group Sounds from Japan, Medieval European Music, English Folk and American punk -- to fit neatly into any of those categories, and their music is all the more compelling for it.
Fast forward to 2014 and I’m along for the ride for a handful of Ché-shizu dates, their first in the US. Nishimura can’t make it so I’m filling in on bass. I learn 15 songs at soundcheck. Their drummer Tsukasa almost doesn’t make it either but arrives in time for our second show in LA. A few days later during our set in Brooklyn, he takes a running start and jumps full steam into his drum set, somehow without breaking his ass. It’s a dream gig and an education, just like the duo tour with Mukai was. I hope this reissue brings Ché-shizu’s music to some new ears, and this great band back to these shores.
- C.C. Sunnyside, NY May 31, 2018