"How do you feel about this music?"

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.

You Ishihara's "Formula" released by Zelone, Japan.

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