Keiji Haino: Creating Music from a Place of Absolute Nothingness
Outtake from the Watashi Dake? photo sessions by Gin Satoh.
This piece draws from an interview conducted by Takeshi Goda with Keiji Haino on January 29, 2017 in Kawagoe.
Over the last 50 years, few musicians or performers have created as monumental and uncompromising a body of work as that of Keiji Haino. Through a vast number of recordings and performances, Haino has staked out a ground all his own—creating a language of unparalleled intensity that defies any simple classification.
Yet even as he has been recognized for his lifetime of constant musical evolution, little remains known about his auspicious debut album, the enigmatic Watashi Dake? This mystery was intentional. The album first appeared in 1981. The album’s title translates to “Only Me?”. On its cover, Haino stands draped in black, sunglasses blocking any view inward, no text, no color to guide the way, just the stark visage of the performer. The startling sounds and silences contained therein remain some of the most powerful and confounding sounds in recorded history. For a debut album it was the culmination of a decade of performances and intense focus from its author, who at 28 years old had evolved and channelled a consciousness and wisdom beyond the wiles of youth. It was a stark invocation and the wider public’s first introduction to the seemingly eternal figure of Keiji Haino—casting an iconic image that remains constant nearly four decades later.
Through the years, details of the album’s origins have remained largely untold or obscured. For its inaugural release Black Editions will attempt to bring light to the album’s history.
Haino’s first public performances were in the improvisational rock group Lost Aaraaff, who debuted on stage at the Rock in Highland Festival in July 26, 1970. The group lasted for five years but aside from one track on the incredibly rare 1971 Genya Concert compilation, no recorded music emerged from that time. Years later Haino was invited to play at the now legendary club Minor, a tiny coffee house and performance space located in Tokyo’s Kichijoji neighbourhood. Run by Takafumi Satō the venue existed for three years from 1978 and closed in October 1980. It was a crucial space for the development of experimental music and culture in late 1970s Japan.
Performances at Minor were intimate, many times given to an audience of a dozen or so. Haino began playing there, often solo, using just voice and electric guitar. He recalls one of his early performances was a memorial concert for the free jazz saxophone legend, Kaoru Abe. At the time, recording seemed a far-off concern for Haino, who preferred to remain in the moment.
After the closure of Minor, Satō took his passion for music further by starting the Pinakotheca label. Its first release was the now legendary Aiyoku Jinmin Juji Gekijo compilation released in 1980. The compilation documented the Minor scene including early contributions from such notable players as Tamio Shiraishi, Motoharu Yoshizawa and Chie Mukai as well as the first released solo track from Keiji Haino. Taking particular interest in Haino’s work, Satō asked him to record a full-length solo studio album. Though he had never thought of recording, Haino agreed.
Recording in the studio was conducted over the course of two to three days. With Satō producing and letting the recorders run, the session tapes were long; Haino channelled sounds and songs deep into the night. Later, live recordings captured between Aug 80 to Feb 81 at three different venues, ‘Minor’, ‘Puru-sya’ and ‘Goodman’ were added to what would become his debut album.  “Satō wanted to make a proper record, so I think he probably only wanted to use studio recordings,” Haino recalls “But for me studios are dead space. I need to know how I can use the reverb or I can’t create my sense of atmosphere. Thinking back now, I have a feeling that we recorded at night, because I couldn’t get the feeling that I wanted. Watashi Dake? really was just the way it sounds.” Haino approached the studio sessions as a blank canvas, no materials or forethought prepared. All of the music and lyrics were created at the moment of recording.
The resulting album has since become one of the most sought-after artifacts in Japanese underground music. “The way I was playing then, I would play and a pattern would emerge,” says Haino. “One of the challenges was always how much I could remember, but I would add some lyrics to the pattern. Singing was really important to me. I wanted to make a record of songs. The way I was playing these long pieces, I wanted to betray everyone’s expectation that if they bought one of my records it would have one long noisy piece on each side.” Rather than a harsh attack, audiences were stunned by the ghostly silences and minimal song structures as well as Haino’s striking lyrical abstractions. “It’s really rare that I use the word deliberate, but this was a perfect example,” Haino recalls. “I had this really strong conviction that I wanted to record a 1920s country blues record that hadn’t yet been made. If I am going to be compared or placed in some genre, there is all kinds of rock, and there’s classical and jazz. But, for me, I wanted to be put in the country blues section at Meruridō.”
The packaging and design of Watashi Dake? were closely related to the music, creating a unified artistic statement. Legendary rock photographer Gin Satoh, who had shot bands such as Les Rallizes Denudes, Phew, Friction and the Hanatarash, created the cover images. Satoh and Haino worked closely over the course of a year. Unable to come to a full agreement the musician and photographer each picked an image, one "Dark Morning" chosen by Haino for the front and the other "Bright Night" by Satoh for the back. The photographer recalled of the session, “It was rare when our opinions were the same, quarrels with each other were frequent. Finally, we selected two photos instead of one. ‘The photo that doesn’t want to be seen’ and ‘the photo that we don’t want to show’ were chosen. As a result, they appeared on the LP jacket with no back side.” Inside, the lyrics were printed to be barely perceptible on black paper.
After the album’s release Haino recalls, “Satō really worked hard on promoting it. He’d load up this cart and go out trying to sell it with his wife.” Because of these efforts and in spite of the lack of major support, the album slowly made its way to adventurous listeners. British experimental guitar innovator Fred Frith played with Haino in Japan. Struck by Haino’s performance, Frith wrote Satō asking for 15 copies of Watashi Dake? to bring to his friends. Haino recalls that “they turned out be this amazing lineup of people Marclay, Zorn, Laswell, David Moss, those people. And they were all blown away. I guess also Henry Kaiser. People around the same age as me, and they all listened to it”. These then emerging music innovators recognized the contributions Haino was making in modern music.
Fatefully, the album was also championed at a small but adventurous new record store in Tokyo named Modern Music. The store’s owner Hideo Ikeezumi stunned Satō when he ordered 50 copies. A few years later Ikeezumi formed the P.S.F. label which would become the home for many of Haino’s most highly regarded and foundational albums including his work with Fushitsusha, Vajra and numerous collaborations.
Haino would not release another full-length album for nearly 8 years, however Watashi Dake?’s reputation and legacy were already beginning to form. The album served as a lone early beacon, shedding light on his unique vision. Its impact steadily growing over the years, it marked the beginning of Haino’s ongoing, lifelong journey into recording. To this day, it remains one of the most startling and fiercely singular debut albums in the history of underground music.
1. Archival live recordings appeared decades later, including one released by P.S.F. in 1991 (PSFD-18).
2. One of these live recordings, a piece entitled “Devotion”, was later added as a bonus to the P.S.F. CD reissue as well as the Black Editions LP release as a download.
3. An influential early Tokyo record store that imported hard to find western records.