Go Hirano: "The most important thing for me was that initial, unadorned expression"
After nearly 30 years of creating some of the most delicately melodic and deeply personal music to emerge from the Japanese underground, the enigmatic Go Hirano speaks in his first ever interview.
On the occasion of the first ever vinyl edition of his third album Corridor of Daylights, Go Hirano spoke with Justin Simon about his early years playing music in the 1980's and 90's, his experiences creating music for a Butoh dance troupe, playing with the psychedelic rock group White Heaven and his work with Hideo Ikeezumi of P.S.F. Records. He also discusses his evolving musical approach and the gradual discovery of his own musical voice in more melodic and gentle sounds that focused less on perfection and more on "that initial, unadorned expression."
Hirano and Simon first met while Simon was living in Tokyo during the mid 1990's. Simon is a New York based producer and artist. He founded the esteemed Mesh-Key label which has released key albums by artists such as Yura Yura Teikoku, Phew and Shintaro Sakamoto. He has also recorded albums in collaboration with Nagisa Yoko and Chie Mukai.
The interview was conducted in the winter of 2019.
GH: Go Hirano
JS: Justin Simon
JS: Long time no chat. How are you doing? GH: I’m well. JS: Are you still living in Tokyo? GH: I’m in Kamakura now. But I think I was already living out here when you were living in Tokyo. It’s like an hour and fifteen or twenty minutes from my station to Shimokitazawa. JS: Ah, I see. Well first off, I was talking to Peter and he mentioned that he was having a hard time tracking down interviews with you. GH: That’s because I’ve never done any! JS: Not even in Japanese? GH: Nope, never! I’ve never been interviewed before. This is the first time. JS: Oh, wow, ok. Well if it’s alright, let’s start at the very beginning. Where are you from? GH: Tokyo. JS: Were there any particular events that stirred your interest in music early on? GH: Hmm, I can’t think of anything in particular, but I’ve been a music fan since I was really little. When I was a kid, I loved the music I heard on the radio and TV at home. And then in my last year of elementary school, when I was 11 or 12 years old, I became interested in music from other countries, and older music. I was bored with TV and radio music, and started thinking there must be something more interesting out there. I grew up in Chiba, and at some point during my first year of middle school, my friends and I started going to record shops that stocked imports. We would look for records that no one else knew about. My friends and I all wanted to track down interesting music. The timing was good too; all sorts of cool music was popular in Japan at the time, and imports were readily available. JS: you said you started making demo tapes in college, but did you play any shows then? GH: No, I just recorded a bunch of demo tapes. Modern Music had just launched their in-house label. I think they’d released three or four records at that point. There were tons of people bringing their demo tapes into Modern Music at that time. And I did too, getting Ikeezumi-san to listen to my recordings and give me feedback. JS: Did he have any advice for you? GH: Yeah, he gave me some advice. He also recommended certain records, usually the kind that fit in with the PSF aesthetic [laughs]. Ikeezumi-san’s tastes at the time were very specific. He listened to a wide range of music, but his advice was really unique and reflected the taste of someone running an “experimental” label. To some extent, I think many of us in his orbit back then ended up moving in the same direction. Ikeezumi-san’s earliest releases, like the High Rise and Haino LPs, were noisy and aggressive, and I think to some degree he was searching for other records that had those qualities. I can’t remember if he communicated this to me directly, but I think a kind of insanity or extreme passion was what he wanted most from musicians back then. That’s what he was really into. So he would recommend records that had those qualities, and he looked for new music that had that flavor too. JS: That relates to something I wanted to ask you about. Your music doesn’t sound much like the aggressive music the PSF label is typically associated with. How did you feel you related to the rest of the label’s catalog? GH: I started making music for an experimental butoh group around the time I graduated from college, and I ended up touring with them. The music was improvised and aggressive. Sometimes I joined the performers on stage while they danced, and I improvised on various instruments or played pre-recorded tapes. I think I felt almost obligated to make that kind of aggressive music back then, and I may have been influenced by Ikeezumi-san a bit. JS: What was the name of the butoh group? GH: I’m not sure if they’re still active, but at the time they were called “Bodhisattva.” I toured America and Canada with them in ‘89 or ‘90. We went to New York, Toronto, Montreal and some other places. JS: Were there other musicians in the group? GH: No, just me. The rest were dancers. JS: Which instruments did you use on those tours? GH: Just a violin and some effects units. Bigger instruments were too much of a pain to fly with. Oh, and I also brought some smaller percussion instruments. JS: Had you played violin for a while at that point? GH: No, I had no idea how to play the violin! [laughs] I just tried to harness noise from the movement of my body, as a sort of reflection of the way the dancers moved. JS: Were there any particularly memorable moments on those tours? GH: Yeah. I was making really aggressive music with the butoh group, but at the same time I was recording radically different material, songs that would later end up on Reflection of Dreams and Corridor of Daylights. So while I was pushing myself to make aggressive music for the butoh group, at the same time I was working on completely different music that came more naturally. And on one of our Canadian tours, I met a group from Montreal called Boreal Multimedia. They later changed their name to Boreal Art Group. I’m not sure if they still exist. They made “land art” and incorporated nature into their performances. They focused on the way we interact with the natural world. I thought they were incredible, and they left a really strong impression on me. I met up with them each time I went back to Canada, and in the early to mid ‘90s, they made a piece called “Initiation,” a video work maybe ten minutes long, and they asked if they could use some of the music I’d just been recording for fun on my own for the soundtrack. Jeane Fabb from the Boreal Art Group, who is sadly no longer with us, edited a tape I gave him of piano, melodica, and percussion and incorporated it into the video. I was just making those recordings for fun, and never thought that material would appeal to anyone else, so getting that kind of positive feedback meant a lot to me. And it gave me confidence to move forward with what I was doing.
JS: Were you listening to something specific at the time that made you rethink your approach? Or was it more of a gut feeling? GH: More of a gut feeling. I guess if I put it another way, when I think back to why I wanted to make music in the first place…I was listening to a wide variety of music - jazz and classical and popular music – but I never found a specific genre of music that I wanted to focus on in my own music making. So I figured I might as well just follow my own path. I loved classical music, but I was looking for something simpler, more like a hummed melody, without the dramatic, emotional peaks and valleys of traditional classical music. And I felt like jazz could be weighed down by too much technique. I loved the tonal palette of jazz, but when you put all those tones together you usually ended up with this monolithic thing – “Jazz.” That was just my opinion, for what it’s worth. So I thought it’d be great if there were a music that had elements of classical and jazz but wasn’t either, technically. JS: Something that incorporated elements of jazz and classical, but was a bit simpler? GH: Yeah. I thought there should be a more irreverent approach. I felt like jazz and classical were too excessive, or packed too tightly with the requirements of the genre. So I thought there should be a simpler approach that integrated elements of classical and jazz but only as needed, in moderation. And I was totally uninterested in “skill.” It seemed like a lot of musicians were aiming for perfection, but the more they applied themselves to that pursuit, the less interesting the music became. The most important thing for me was that initial, unadorned expression, regardless of whether or not the playing was technically impressive or not. I thought it was ok to just accept performances for what they were, right from the start. And that was already my philosophy when I compiled my first LP. So at that point I began to think I should value the other recordings I’d made, the ones I made with piano, melodica and percussion. I’d never played those recordings for anyone else, but once I did, and once I got some positive feedback, I started to embrace the idea that what I was doing was acceptable, and valuable. JS: Was Ikeezumi-san surprised when you first played him the Reflection of Dreams material? GH: Yeah. Well, I was encouraged by the fact that my Canadian friends had taken a liking to what I was doing and had used some of that material in their video, so I summoned the courage to play some of it for Ikeezumi-san. But even if Ikeezumi-san wasn’t into it, I knew I wanted to release an LP of that material on my own. Because I’d found what I really wanted to do, and I wanted to make sure it was documented. And I presented it to Ikeezumi-san as material I wanted to self-release. I asked him to recommend a pressing plant and a graphic designer. I fully expected him to say something like, “Ah, this won’t work for PSF” but instead he said, “How about you let me release it instead?” Not the response I had expected! So that’s how it ended up coming out on PSF. And after that, I felt like I could just operate in my own way, in my own style. JS: Could you tell me a little bit about your experience making Corridor of Daylights? GH: At a certain point Ikeezumi-san said to me, “Maybe it’s time you released another record?” [laughs] I already had a backlog of newly recorded songs, so I used that material for Corridor of Daylights. JS: Did you record any of those songs in a studio? Or did you record them all at home? GH: I recorded them all myself. I didn’t use any studios. JS: I love how each song on Corridor has a unique texture. Certain songs have very clear ambient sounds in the mix, like the sound of wind in the background. Did you record those songs in a variety of different environments? GH: Yeah. I wanted to present each song as a sketch, in the sense that I was whittling down the feeling of each space I recorded in. The recording process was fragmentary - I recorded each song in a different space at a different time - but I wanted the songs to play off of one another in a way that made the album resonate as a whole. That was my concept for both Reflection and Corridor. But with Reflection my process was a bit less self-conscious. I think Corridor leaves a slightly different impression than Reflection does because I was a bit more self-conscious when I recorded Corridor. It wasn’t that I made an active decision to be more self-conscious when I made Corridor, but a good chunk of time had passed since Reflection, and there were natural changes to my approach. There was no way I could have made another Reflection, even if I had tried. Conceptually, Corridorwas sort of a continuation of what I had started with Reflection, but organically it became a more self-conscious affair. JS: What was your songwriting process like? What role did improvisation play? GH: I don’t have much of an affinity for pure improvisation. Or, to put it differently, what I value in music is not that it be completely improvised. That said, the beautiful melodies that can spring naturally from improvisation are absolutely essential to my approach. And in order to summon those sorts of melodies, I think you need to maintain a certain regular practice, and be persistent with the physical act of regular playing. So, I improvise, but in the end I’m looking for a melody that will stay lodged in your memory. I would say roughly half of the material on both Reflection and Corridor was improvised in the moment and completely unedited. But the other half was initially improvised material to which I later added additional sounds. I didn’t use a traditional songwriting method where I wrote the notes down on paper. My approach was somewhere between pure improvisation and traditional composition. I think composition is important, but the closer you get to “perfection,” the less vibrant the material becomes. You have to find that sweet spot. JS: To stop yourself at that ideal point. GH: Yeah, the question just becomes how to maintain an approach where you consistently stop yourself at the perfect place. JS: Has this been your approach ever since Reflection and Corridor? GH: No, my approach is completely different these days. I was just describing how I felt when I made Reflection and Corridor.
JS: When did you change your approach? GH: I didn't get to make much music after Corridor came out. All the equipment I used on Corridor - my mics and my multi-track recorder - broke shortly after I made that record. I bought some new equipment, but it was right when a new era of gear was being introduced. I bought a contemporary multi-track recorder, and I hated it. The way recordings sounded on new equipment, the way they breathed, was just totally different. Up until the early ‘90s, even cheap mics and multi-track recorders could capture a good sound. I thought I could still buy that kind of gear around the turn of the century, but I was wrong. I feel suffocated when I hear recordings made on modern, hi-res equipment. They just don’t breathe at all. It's like they’re hyper focused on the individual making them, like they can only capture the sound of a person completely removed from his or her environment. We may not always be aware of it, but we all occupy a physical space on this planet, where we experience gusts of wind, the warmth of the sun, and so on. And when we record, a trace of our natural environment inevitably seeps into that recording. For me, without that element in a recording, it just doesn’t feel like it’s “mine.” I want a recording to capture my daily life experience, and the way I process my environment through my own particular filter, but new recording equipment can’t capture that sort of atmosphere. I tried using the latest technology, but it just didn’t work. So I gave up on recording and stopped working on music for a while. And then about five or six years ago, I started working again. I never stopped practicing, actually, just to hold onto my basic sensibilities, but five or six years ago I started playing solo shows again. And my approach to songwriting changed around then too. JS: How so? GH: My philosophy was still basically the same, but I began to focus more on pure composition as opposed to pure improvisation, and on playing music I’d notated. I flipped the ratio of improvisation vs. composition from before, and now eighty percent of what I did was fully composed in advance. But I also left a section of each piece open to improvisation and free expression. So to some degree the music would change each time I played it. And that’s basically how I work now – notating my compositions and playing the songs live. The most active period of my entire career started five or so years ago and came to an end last year. I played more shows during that period than at any other point, and I wrote tens of songs, way more than I wrote when I was working on Reflection and Corridor.
JS: When you played the songs from your last solo album live, did you improvise sections? GH: I’m not sure there’s any part of my musical sensibility that’s completely “free.” Even when it comes to the “free” sections in my songs, I make a concerted effort to avoid so-called “free jazz” or “free music” moves. Because I want that improvised element to resonate as part of a larger composition. So I may improvise some element of a composition, but the next time I play that composition I’ll improvise a different element. The important thing is to capture a certain energy or vitality. JS: You said your extended period of activity came to an end last year. Are you taking a break again? GH: I wanted to continue making records and playing shows but the place where I was playing regularly in Tokyo got rid of their piano. And I can’t perform without a real piano. I wrote one or two new songs for each gig I played there, and I have a huge catalog of songs from those four or five years. I was hoping to release some of that material but it’s on hold for now. JS: Have you been performing at all lately? GH: No. I’m busy with work and the thrill of performing has worn off a bit. But I play every day to hold onto my musical sensibilities. JS: I see. Ah, this is backtracking a bit, but I wanted to ask you about a name that appears on some of your recordings - Roderick Zalameda. How did you two meet? GH: I toured Canada and the US with the butoh group in ‘89 or ‘90, and we were accompanied by an interpreter named Ando-san. He and I became friends, and he introduced me to Roderick. I went to Canada many times between ‘92 and ‘97 or ‘98, and I played a number of shows with Roderick. Usually it was just the two of us, but sometimes we were joined by dancers or other folks, sometimes as many as four or five people. I also played some solo shows in Canada with the Boreal Art Group I mentioned earlier. In the ‘90s, I did almost all my performances in Canada. I can probably count on my fingers how many shows I played in Japan in the ‘90s. Most of that performance art group lived in a mountainous area outside Montreal. We did a performance on a lake at the base of a mountain, and I played a solo piano show at a church in the mountains, that sort of thing. JS: So all the recordings that feature Roderick were made in Canada? GH: Yeah. JS: And he never came to Japan? GH: He came to Japan once to hang out but we didn’t record anything then. JS: I see. Last question – do you plan on performing overseas for the Corridor re-release? GH: No, but I’d love to!