An interview with You Ishihara by Tsutomu Noda
Photographs by Yasuhiro Ohara
You Ishihara discusses "formula" his first solo recording in over 23 years, his connections to rock and the avant-garde as well as his work with White Heaven.
This interview was originally published by Ele-King, Japan and presented here with their kind permission, Translated for Black Editions by Justin Simon. The original interview in Japanese can be read here.
You Ishihara’s first solo album in 23 years is a brave, sink or swim endeavor. Some will likely find it insufferable, while others may celebrate it as a rare masterwork. It’s an audacious album divorced entirely from current trends. A work that panders to no one, free from any and all considerations of what might garner popular or critical acclaim.
No single piece of music can inspire a uniformly positive reaction in its audience. It all comes down to the listener’s worldview. And on formula, there is simply no escape from the reflection of Ishihara’s worldview. It’s everywhere, unwavering and merciless.
You Ishihara is widely known for his production work for Yura Yura Teikoku, and for producing Ogre You Asshole’s three-album run from Homely to Papercraft. He’s also a distinguished (albeit highly biased) listener with a profound knowledge of music, held in high esteem by his fellow artists.
I knew his old groups White Heaven and The Stars were popular with underground music fans. And I guess if I tried to offer a simple description of his former groups, I’d liken them (and feel free to disagree) to other groups customarily described as “psychedelic rock,” like Spacemen 3. Music with a world-weary bent, that almost functions as a kind of spiritual armor from society. But what You Ishihara’s formula offers is almost like an inversion of the “typical experience” of other psychedelic records.
Let’s say, for example, you’re listening to Spacemen 3. And then all of a sudden your ears are bombarded with an endless blast of typical but grating noise from the outside world, keeping you from fully immersing yourself in the band’s psychedelic music. This may sap you of your desire to “lose yourself in the Spacemen 3 daydream” but it may also stimulate a certain “awareness” that you’ve never experienced before.
So the interrupted experience becomes a new experience in and of itself.
I hope the following interview sheds some light on Ishihara’s eccentric work. Ishihara was generous with his responses, and spoke candidly about various aspects of his album. The rest is up to you, the listener. Let your imagination lead the way.
To start, tell me a bit about how this solo album came together. Ishihara: I hadn’t done anything in years. I couldn’t find the right way to do what I wanted, or I guess I just spent a really long time considering the best path forward. So you had the urge to make something for a while then? I: Yeah, I guess I did, somewhere inside me. And then roughly two years ago it occurred to me that if I approached it in this particular way, I might be able to pull it off. And that was when I got the ball rolling, so to speak. As soon as that idea came to me, I had a clear image of what the finished product would be. Mixing the raucous field recordings with the live recordings of the band? I: Yeah. Right off the bat, I knew how I wanted to use those field recordings. But it was a real challenge figuring out how to mix those sounds with the sound of the band, and how to achieve the right balance. Throughout the process, my root concept was “distance.” Like the sense of remove one feels from ones surroundings. Remember those terrible sounding vinyl bootlegs from the analog days? Records that sounded like they were recorded in a club? There were some decent sounding bootlegs too, but the ones that sounded terrible really communicated how the bootlegger had caught the performance from far away, and probably just with a single microphone. Sometimes the sound of audience members talking near the mic even overpowered the sound of the music. I always liked that quality for some reason, even back then. Like those old, terrible sounding Velvet Underground bootlegs where Lou Reed sounds really far away. Why did you like the sound of those bootlegs? I: Because…actually, I’m not sure why. [laughs] I think I may have always had issues with the sort of approach that’s like, “Here it is!” Where whatever’s being presented is just sort of plopped down directly in front of you. Artists and musicians all do this, you know? Where it’s as if they’re telling you, “This is what I’m talking about” or “This is how I feel.” Kind of like, “Look at me.” I’ve always hated that. A certain degree of that kind of thing is to be expected with any kind of “expression,” but it’s always bothered me when it’s been too in your face. It’s kind of a paradox. I: Yeah. But really aggressive expressions have always bugged me. Of course, there are many exceptions to the rule that are actually good, and lots of stuff I like [that could be put into this category]. I feel like you could express “distance” a number of different ways. Was it important to you that your album impart a sense of being buried under the noise of a crowd? I: Yes, very. For me, the commotion made by crowds and other outside noises are all like data or information. You’re never going to actually meet those strangers you see walking through the city, right? Everyone stares at their cellphones while they walk, and no one pays any attention to their surroundings, but there are always nearby conversations, bits of subliminal information, BGM, Wi-Fi frequencies, radio waves, etc. And this all adds up to a huge amount of data. And then there’s the music that’s partially embedded in the noise, but not yet overwhelmed by the cacophony. I guess you could look at this album as conceptual art. Same goes for its sleeve. And while it may be conceptual, I don’t think of it as “art.” It’s just [a straightforward document of] everyday experiences. Like an isolated fragment of the everyday experience. The kinds of feelings [I’m expressing on this record] have been a part of me since I was a teenager. So I didn’t put the record together with an idea that just suddenly popped into my head, like, “Oh, maybe this could be cool?” I think this has been my take on the world since I was a teenager. But until now I just didn’t know how to express this sensibility. Do you experience that sensibility as a kind of euphoria? Like a euphoric reaction to sound? Something pleasurable? I: I do. But you never took this approach with White Heaven or The Stars. How come? I: I think I had a certain fantasy of what a band should be. And we all came together with a sort of mutual expectation, like we could make something together. I don’t know if the expectations I brought to the group actually kept me from trying out other approaches, but I think my work with the group was probably the most I was capable of at the time. Is there an album by someone else that you feel best expresses this sensibility we’ve been discussing? I: I’d say Luc Ferrari’s “Presque Rien” or some of musique concrete composer Jean-Claude Eloy’s works, just to name a few. But they made these compositions with a contemporary classical approach, and I just can’t escape the rock context [in my own work]. I enjoy listening to that kind of [contemporary classical] material but I’ve never considered applying the same techniques to my own work. I’ve always had to do it my own way.
Why do you feel such an allegiance to rock?
I: Everybody asks me that. [laughs] People have told me they thought it was strange that I never tried my hand at any other styles of music, considering how many decades I’ve spent actively listening to music. And of course I listen to other styles of music [besides rock]. I’m very interested in jazz and classical, for example. I’m very interested in club music, too. And I love industrial music. But if I really thought about how I actually hear these other styles of music, I’d have to say that I hear them all in relation to my personal conception of rock. So when I listen to free jazz, I hear it in relation to rock. And when I listen to club music, I hear it in relation to rock.
When did you work at Modern Music?
I: I started in the late ‘80s, around ’86 or ’87, and was there into the ‘90s. Before that, I was just a customer. I started going there in my early twenties and started working there in my late twenties.
How old were you when you first became interested in records?
I: I got interested in foreign music my first year of junior high. Initially from late-night radio shows. Just like the generation above me, I was listening to hit songs from overseas, stuff like that. And then I heard T-Rex. I’d never heard music like that before. At the time, I guess it would have been “Easy Action.” Like, whoa, this is amazing! [laughs] I just thought, “This song is unbelievable.” And from that point on, I started listening to rock music from the West. That was probably ’73 or so. I had a handful of friends in my class at school who were also into music from overseas. I had one classmate my first year of junior high who got really into rock. One day he asked me what I was listening to and I told him T-Rex. He told me to come over to his house after school. So I did, and when I showed up he was sitting with another friend listening to music unlike anything I’d ever heard. And that was King Crimson. [laughs] I asked him, “Is this rock, too?” and he answered, “Yes, this is rock.” [laughs] Those two friends were real music fanatics, so they were already listening to progressive rock and krautrock. And then every day after school we’d all go to the record store together and they’d tell me what was worth listening to, like, “This one’s good, that one’s good…” This was in Kochi [a small city on Shikoku island], so I think there were probably very few young music fanatics around in those days.
Back then it seemed like the whole country was filled with record stores, though. Even the far-flung, smaller cities had them.
I: I was born in Tokyo but my family relocated to Osaka for my father’s work. And then we moved to Kochi when I was in elementary school. I spent my junior high and high school years in Kochi, and those [music fanatic] friends had a huge influence on me. I would look for records from overseas that were never released domestically in Japan, and just in general became a deeper music listener.
Progressive rock is huge for you, right?
I: Yeah, as far as the listening experience goes. It means a lot more to me than hard rock. I went from listening to progressive rock to German rock, but by the time I got to high school all the German stuff started to sound the same to me. I still listened to it, but it was beginning to bother me. And that’s when punk arrived. As a teen, I was most impacted by German rock, punk and new wave. There’s a theory that, in 1977, there were two kinds of people - those who were drawn to “Hotel California” and those who gravitated towards the Sex Pistols - and the trajectory of the rest of their lives was determined by which of those two roads they chose. [laughs]
And was your life consumed by music in the late ’70s?
I: Yeah, it was pretty much everything to me back then. But at the time I had no interest in forming my own band. And then post-punk (a term that didn’t exist in real time) arrived, and I thought, “Maybe anybody can do this.” The speed at which things were moving was really interesting. The speed at which you would have something that six months prior everyone described as “the most amazing thing happening right now” and then six months later people would talk about like, “You’re still listening to that?” Living through that period in my late teens had a real impact on me. I moved to Tokyo for college, but spent most of my time skipping class and sneaking off to Shibuya to buy books and records. In those days, there weren’t that many domestic releases of albums from overseas, and the few that came out were released way after the fact. We had access to information about all these releases, but we couldn’t actually hear them. So my move to Tokyo was less about attending college than it was going to record stores to pick up records. [laughs] I was living in Yokohama at the time, so I would take the Toyoko line to Shibuya where I would make the rounds, pick up some books at places like Taiseido, lug them back to my apartment, listen to the records I’d picked up until the sun came up, and then sleep until noon…that was my usual routine. I very rarely made it to any classes. [laughs] And I didn’t have a single friend in Tokyo at the time. I never went to school and just holed up in my apartment.
Without anyone to trade information or share my impressions of the music with, I got pretty obsessive in my solitary listening habits. I’d have my own internal dialogue when I listened to a record. I’d ask myself, “What is this?” and sit with it until I had formulated a satisfactory answer for myself. I think it was a really valuable experience for me, spending that time analyzing what I was hearing, without any help from others. It was a really important period in my life. If I had had access to the kind of system we have now, I don’t think I would have been so astonished by what I was hearing. Like if I had read about some insane new release from Throbbing Gristle in a magazine and just sampled a bit of it on YouTube, like, “Ok, I get it” and that was it…it might not have left such a deep impression.
Did you think at all about your own future back then?
I: Not at all. I never once thought about what I’d like to become, or how I planned to make a living. In the back of my mind I was conscious of the fact that if I ran out of money I couldn’t buy any more records. But that was literally all I cared about; tasty food and other stuff like that was totally off my radar.
Was working at Modern Music the first job you had?
I: I had little part-time jobs here and there but never for very long. And then one day Ikeezumi-san asked me out of nowhere if I’d go hunting for stock for the store for him. Even though I was just a customer at that point. I thought to myself, “This isn’t the sort of thing you normally ask of a customer.” [laughs] Maybe he thought I had some knowledge of music and would pick up some cool records for him. And then when I came back with what I’d found, he told me, “My last employee just quit. Any chance you could fill in even for a month or so?”
How old were you then?
I: Maybe twenty-six? I had already moved to Tokyo at that point. So I started working at the shop. And at that point I had already made a feeble attempt at starting a band.
You had already put together White Heaven, right?
I: Yeah. I randomly connected with a bunch of friends around my age in the late ‘80s. We started the group very casually, like, we don’t have much else going on, should we put a band together? We were fans of NY punk, so we talked about doing that sort of thing. I was into noise and avant-garde stuff too, but I felt like it would be pointless for us to retread that old territory.
White Heaven is often described as psychedelic rock, but would you say that’s what you were pursuing?
I: Up until ’83 or ’84, I just listened to new music. But by ’83 or ’84, none of the new rock music was making me think, “Yes! This is the stuff!” I just thought, “There’s nothing left to listen to.” I wondered what I should listen to next. So I decided to check out all the music I’d ignored up to that point. I thought to myself, “Oh, right, I guess I never paid much attention to psychedelic music, maybe I’ll give that a listen.” That’s how I first dove in. I was shocked to see the same exact trajectory spelled out in the book “Post-punk Generation.” I had stopped listening to new music by ’83 or ’84 and found myself listening to groups like The Byrds and Love, groups I’d never had any interest in before, and realizing I liked them. And from there it was a straight shot to the more obscure psychedelic and garage groups. It was less about digging into certain groups than it was about getting a sense of the genre as a whole.
And that [interest of yours] led to White Heaven?
I: It’s really hard to recall what I was thinking back then. But I was always thinking about the speed of a performance. Not the actual playing speed, but a sort of mental quickness - how fast my sensibilities were when I was performing, and how much of a delayed reaction my body gave in a performance. I always thought about those things while I played. And we could make one big leap from that time to my latest album. When I was mixing the sound of the crowds and noise and listening to the playback, I realized how heavy the sense of speed in the accumulated data really is. Even when you’re not consciously paying attention to it, the data has a powerful speed, and in most cases repels any music that you try to combine with it. So, come to think of it, I guess this has been a theme I’ve wrestled with since the beginning.
Do you practice your instruments a lot?
I: I hate practicing so much…[laughs] I hate instruments. My friends all know this about me, but I don’t even like picking up an instrument. I just hate practicing. I had bought a guitar in high school, and was already listening to rock music, so I thought I would be able to play the guitar as soon as I brought it home, but when I gave it a shot I couldn’t play a thing. I mean, of course I couldn’t! [laughs] I tried playing it for two or three days but it was a pain so I just gave up. And I didn’t play anymore after that. But then at a certain point I wanted to write some songs, and figured I needed an instrument for that, so I tried the guitar again. But when it comes to how to hold it properly, and A and C and D minor and stuff like that, I still don’t have a clue. My bandmates would always show me how to play chords at rehearsals. Whenever we’d get together, I’d be like, “This is some kind of minor seventh or something?” [laughs] And that’s how our rehearsals would go.
How did you get to know Shintaro Sakamoto?
I: At first, he was just a customer at Modern Music. I didn’t know him well then. Then Yura Yura Teikoku and White Heaven played some shows together. He asked me if we’d like to play with them. But even then we weren’t close like we are now. He asked if we wanted to play some double bills together. And we did those for a few years. Many of those shows were at Crocodile. Yura Yura Teikoku was still an indie group at the time, and Sakamoto looked insane. He’d play shirtless, and he had crazy hair. His performances were really over the top, but when you hung out with him, he was a completely sensible, regular guy, so that’s how we ended up talking about me producing them.
Was that your first production job?
I: Yeah. In those days, when Sakamoto tried to explain how he wanted his records to sound to typical studio engineers, they just had no idea, you know? He could say he wanted his record to sound like a Can record, but they had no idea who Can were. He could mention minimal music or German rock and they’d have no clue what he was talking about. He could mention a specific sort of garage rock sound but they wouldn’t understand. Sakamoto really wanted to be able to communicate these sorts of things clearly in the studio, so eventually I become a kind of middle man in the studio who could help flesh out the concept of each record.
Were you interested in producing before you started? And once you started, did you make an effort to track down more production work on your own?
I: I just did it whenever I was asked. That’s how it was with remixes too. I’ve had to mull over whether or not to accept certain offers when there hasn’t been any kind of aesthetic overlap, but if I thought I could do something interesting, I went for it. There’s a part of me that has a soft spot for certain kinds of post-punk, but we made a conscious decision in White Heaven and the Stars to suppress those sensibilities. And when I produce, I think I might let these post-punk sensibilities out.
I very consciously applied some post-punk techniques to the later Yura Yura Teikoku records, and to the Ogre You Asshole records. And apparently Sakamoto had never gone through a punk or new wave phase, so I may have brought something fresh to the table [for Yura Yura Teikoku]. If you compare Yura Yura Teikoku to his solo work, I think it’s pretty clear [that sensibility is missing from his solo work]. And with Ogre You Asshole, it was kind of like they were picking up where Yura Yura Teikoku left off. Had Yura Yura Teikoku made another album, I think it may have turned out something like Ogre You Asshole’s Homely.
Have you considered putting together another live band?
I: Not since I dissolved The Stars.
Getting back to your new solo album, which part of the production process took the longest?
I: Mixing. We finished basic tracking of the live band in three or four days. And there were thirty to forty tracks of clamor. Various tracks of meticulously recorded environmental sounds. And I listened carefully through each of those at home. [laughs]
Was it important to you where each of those field recordings was made?
I: I didn’t want that sort of intention in the work, so I asked a bunch of people to make recordings for me. And they came back with recordings from Shinjuku, Shibuya, all over the place. But I still didn’t have enough, so I had to go out on my own and record more. [laughs] Then I dumped everything into my computer, listened through each recording, decided which sections I wanted to use, and sent my final selections to the recording studio.
So there were certain sections of clamor that you could use, but others that you couldn’t?
I: Yeah. For one thing, I couldn’t use any takes with music in them. Some of the tracks had famous songs playing in the background, that sort of thing. There were tons of takes I couldn’t use. Some were just too quiet and hard to make out.
But Tokyo’s a really noisy city.
I: It was really hard to remove the stuff I didn’t want in there. We started making the field recordings the year before last, and then entered the studio just before last spring. Then we spent half a year on the mix.
How did you record the takes of the live band?
I: Just the usual way, at a studio. At Peace Music, [Soichiro] Nakamura’s studio.
How many songs did the band record?
I: Seven or eight. We ended up nixing a couple. Because when you mix in noise, certain songs just won’t work. Any discrepancy between the sense of speed in a song and in the noise you pair it with is jarring. We couldn’t use any of the songs that had accents on the backbeat, for example.
You separated this release into two songs. But each of those “songs” contains a number of different songs. Why?
I: Actually it’s all just one song. One song, from start to finish. I always had the vinyl edition in mind, where the music would come to an end on side A, and then start up again on Side B. I really wanted the music to get cut off abruptly, and not just fade out. So the whole thing ends really suddenly. I didn’t think of the album in terms of song number one, two, three, etc.
OK, so the album’s just one long song.
I: Yeah, and [the “song”] may have started before what you hear on the record. Maybe it even continues after the record’s over. The album’s just a snapshot of one particular stretch of time.
What were your thoughts with regard to whether or not others could relate to your sensibility? Like, whether or not anyone would actually enjoy this kind of thing.
I: I understand it’s a challenge, but I think there are ways of appreciating or using a work that don’t occur to the person who made the work. So while I have my own thoughts about this album, I’d be thrilled if others had a different take on the work. I’d love to hear their thoughts. Shortly after we finished the record, I put a copy in a tape player, kind of like a Walkman, and listened to it as I roamed around Shibuya crossing. It was pretty fun - the real sounds of the crowds mixed with the recorded takes and I couldn’t tell which was which.
Would you describe the album as a depiction of rock in the throes of its own demise?
I: At least in terms of innovation, I feel like rock music died sometime around ’83, so that kind of statement feels late to the game at this point. But it does feel like rock is fading out or something. Like, there are things that are completely gone at this point, but are still in the process of fading from your memory, you know? Things that you’re just beginning to forget completely.
Paradoxically, it’s a testament to just how attached to rock you are.
I: True. I don’t know if I’d say I have a complex about not moving on to club music, but for a while I wondered why others were so easily able to make a natural transition to that kind of music, sensibility-wise, while I had to stay stuck.
There must have been some reason you felt you had to stick with rock.
I: My relationship to rock is just really deep, kind of like I’ve had tunnel vision.
But why make the album a single song? I feel like you could have also just presented it as an eight-song work.
I: I think it’s customary to listen to an album song-by-song, but once you get into a frame of mind that’s like, the first song was good, or the second song was good, you end up re-listening and examining how each song was built, like how a kick drum lines up with a bass line or something. And that wasn’t my point with this album. I didn’t want people to listen to it that way. Really all I can say is that this is what I wanted to make. I wasn’t shooting for the kind of thing where people would say, “I really like that third song, or that fourth song.”
There’s no story-telling aspect to this album, is there?
I: I really tried to make sure there wasn’t. But despite my efforts I think a little bit crept in.
Why is this something you want to avoid?
I: I completely understand why people might ask me that. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a hard time relating to certain kinds of humanistic things. Even in punk, bands like the Clash just never did it for me. I could never relate to people who loved the Clash. I never went in that direction.
[Your album] isn’t for Clash fans. [laughs]
I: Indifference, anonymity…those were the sorts of themes I was working with this time. They’re deeply embedded in this album. They’re in the sounds of the crowds. The people [captured on the album] spouting meaningless phrases like, “Ya know…” spend each day buried in their cellphones. And the tremendous amount of information that’s broadcast and received by countless numbers of people, all that data is always in the background. For someone like myself who leads a different lifestyle, it’s almost as if I’ve been hurled into the middle of it all. Although I guess you could say I’m just one more part of the maelstrom.
Is there any irony to your work?
I: None. It’s just reality. I feel like at this point some people would claim that whatever’s not in a cellphone just isn’t part of the world, you know?
In closing, it’s best to avoid listening to this album through computer speakers or cheap ear buds. Listening on your home stereo system is advised.