"I See Spirits All the Time"
An interview with Makoto Kawashima, the last P.S.F. artist.
Though he has played the saxophone for just over 10 years, Makoto Kawashimahas emerged as one of the most original improvisers in a new generation of Japanese players. His releases on his own Homosacer label as well as on what would be the final album released by P.S.F. Records reveal a haunting and impassioned style of playing, bursting with what some call the foundations of Japanese free jazz: brutality and virtue. What follows is a far ranging interview in which Kawashima discusses the origins of his playing, his relationship with P.S.F. founder Hideo Ikeezumi, the legacy of Kaoru Abe and a philosophy of music that wrestles with the intersection between music, life, death and the spirits that appear in the spaces in-between… Makoto Kawashima (alto sax) Biography:
Born April 10, 1981. Started playing alto sax in 2008. Released the solo album “Homo Sacer” on P.S.F. Records in 2015. Runs his own label, Homosacer Records.
Unification (solo CDr), HomoSacer Records, HMSD-000 (2011)
Homo Sacer, P.S.F. Records, PSFD-211 (2015)
Hamachidori, Makoto Kawashima & Naoto Nishizawa Duo, HomoSacer Records, HMSD-001 (2016)..
Shuyukan (solo CDr), HomoSacer Records, HMSD-002 (2016). Recorded at Shuyukan on June 25, 2016.
Dialogue, HomoSacer Records, HMSD-003 (2017). Recorded at Ogose Yamanekoken.
“Mado kara no kagayaki” on V.A., Tokyo Flashback P.S.F. -Psychedelic Speed Freaks-, 2CD, Super Fuji Discs, FJSP271/272 (2017).
You Also Here, Homosacer Records, HMSD-003 (2018). Recorded at Kid Ailack Art Hall, Downtown Music Gallery (NYC), Kawagoe I.M.O., Hanno Amigo.
Harutaka Mochizuki, Kawashima Makoto. Free Wind Mood LP. An’archives An’14 (2018). Split LP, recorded on November 18, 2017 at Shuyukan. Homosacer Records: http://kanpanelra.wix.com/homosacerrecords
Interview by Takeshi Goda, Translation by Alan Cummings Saturday, February 18, 2018 at Kugutsuso, Kichijoji, Tokyo
Q: Where were you born? What was your family like?
A: I was born on April 10, 1981 in a town called Ogawamachi in Saitama. I was an only child and my parents were both beauticians. At the weekends, I would go to sleep over with my grandparents in Arashiyama. My grandfather was a strict, salt of the earth type. I have very clear memories of riding on his shoulders when we would go to watch the trains.
Q: Was there music around?
A: We had a brown upright piano at home, and I used to hammer away on it. My mother often sang Takurō Yoshida songs to me till she fell over laughing.The first instrument I touched was the piano. My grandmother played the shamisen, and my grandfather the shakuhachi. My great-grandfather was a sculptor and they’d show me his works, so I feel like I got exposed to Japanese aesthetics and wabi-sabi from very early.
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: Honestly, I’ve been told that I was a good kid. I never begged for candy. If I got offered one, I would only take just one. I didn’t hate school either. Thanks to my dad, I got into Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies and I used to copy their moves. I was always bouncing around and I liked telling jokes to make people laugh. But at the same time I was intensely shy, and with a new person I’d get too anxious to speak. One of those kids who was very curious but afraid of strangers.
Q: What’s your first musical memory?
A: I remember my mum playing guitar and we’d sing “Kaette kita yopparai” together. The first line, “Now I’ve gone and died”, we’d really draw that out and sing it over and over again, and even as a child I remember being shocked and wondering to myself just what kind of song this was. I remember thinking really seriously about someone climbing up a staircase towards heaven and wondering if that was what happened when you died.
Q: What were your experiences of music at elementary and middle school?
A: The music classes left the biggest impression on me. We’d practice these choir pieces really seriously. Then we won first prize at a choir contest and I was so happy that I burst into tears. I remember thinking that I would never have felt this emotional if I’d been performing alone. Later, when I was in my second year of middle school, a kid from the neighborhood taught me how to play the guitar.
Q: In your teens what sort of music were you listening to?
A: At the start of middle school I was into X Japan. I liked up-tempo hard rock. After that, Bon Jovi and Tamio Okuda, and my mum introduced me to Yōsui Inoue and Takurō Yoshida.
Q: Did you play instruments or in a band?
A: My mum gave me a Yamaha acoustic guitar when I was in middle school and I still play it today. I used to sit at the kotatsu and fall asleep still holding that guitar. At the lunch break at school I would run to the music room and play Bon Jovi songs on classical guitar. In my second year of middle school I started a band. We covered Bon Jovi and X Japan songs and I played lead guitar. Then, when I was 17, I heard Nirvana and the Velvet Underground and that inspired me to switch to vocals and guitar and start writing my own songs. I played in a band for ten years.
Q: Were you living in the same place all this time?
A: Yes. I’d go to live at my grandparents’ house, and we moved a few times but it was always in Saitama. I’ve always lived in and around Kawagoe.
Q: Did you take anything from that environment?
A: Definitely. I’ve always lived in the countryside. If I walked for a few minutes I’d be surrounded by paddy fields, and when I was a kid I would walk to school along these spring roads. It was an hour to school and an hour back home. Sometimes there would be an old woman working in the fields and she’d be singing as she gazed at the sunset. Songs like “Aka tonbo”. I’d sing along. That’s a happy memory. I have these fragments of memories from my childhood deep in my consciousness and they probably had some influence on me.
Encountering the alto sax
Q: When and how did you first encounter the alto saxophone? A: I think it was in 2007, after my band split up. I wanted to do something by myself and I happened to see a film by Jim Jarmusch (Permanent Vacation, 1980) which has an itinerant saxophonist in it. John Lurie’s sound really affected me and I got really interested in how he made those sounds. That was the beginning. At the time I didn’t even know his name – he was just the guy playing sax in that movie. At the time he was the only saxophonist I knew. Q: The following year, when you were 27, you started to play alto yourself. How did that come about? A: At the time, I was expressing myself by drawing these abstract pictures. I had a pretty vague need to express myself so I’d been making art for a long time. I would pin sheets of white paper up on the wall, put some charcoal next to them and when I woke up the first thing I would do would be to draw something. I did that for ages. (laughs) I never knew when the drawing was going to be finished, but I would do a little bit more every morning. Either it would come together, or I’d rip up the paper and throw it away. I wasn’t interested in creating a finished work that I could keep, it was more like I wanted something that I could do as part of my daily routine, somewhere where I could be myself. I guess it means that I’m a mess if I don’t create. Q: Did you think that it would be impossible to do something similar through music? A: Once I realized how easy it was to rip up a picture, it made me feel sad. I ended up putting them all away and I started trying to do the same thing on sax. As a kind of daily discipline. It felt like the sounds were alive and they didn’t linger in the room so it was fun. It felt more real than drawing. Q: Did you learn just through self-study? Was your style from the start similar to how you play now? A: I am totally self-taught. I had no idea who could teach me. But as I’ve been influenced by various people, my style has changed pretty radically. At the start it was really soft. Q: How much would you practice back then? How many hours each day? A: I never consciously decided to practice for a set number of hours. Instead, I would pick a sound that I wanted to produce, then I would keep going until I could produce it. Normally I just tap on the keys of the sax, and I actually spend longer playing the guitar. Sometimes I will make up the melodies on the guitar, and then I find that I can reproduce them immediately on the sax. Learning by ear is a similar process probably. But the melodies that just suddenly appear when I am playing live (AKA a situation of anxiety), those are the most beautiful, the most precious. Q: How about now? A: I don’t consciously practice. But I like songs so recently I’ve been practicing the melody for “Moon River”. But for me, practice isn’t just when I am actually touching the instrument, and I don’t put a lot of weight on improving my technique. It’s more the physical experiences I get from living: they become the elements for creativity and change. I believe that it is through expressing those experiences that I create a link to improving my performance. For me, in music the idea of song is vital. But song doesn’t come into existence unless there is something that strikes the heart. Most of the time it is some super sad experience, but it’s impossible to hold it inside for very long. In one sense, playing live (AKA a situation of extreme anxiety) is the only place where I can practice and where I can come into dialogue with myself. It’s the one time when I can understand the situation I am in with direct clarity, and I think that in that space I am testing myself. It would never be possible for me to play a perfect set. Because my state of mind is constantly changing, the performance is totally different each time. In improvised performance you can summon unknown versions of yourself, and that ability to express something in another dimension is amazing. As I play, I start to feel like my senses are connected to everything and I’ve come to understand that what you get back from a performance totally changes depending on the audience and the venue. Q: I know you play other instruments, but what is special about the alto sax to you? A: For me, the alto is the only instrument that becomes part of my body. It’s like a soul that fuses together with my spirit. When I hold the instrument ready to play, something external to me appears behind me. That doesn’t happen with any other instrument.
Yamanekoken and Kaoru Abe
Q: When you start playing improvised sax, where were you performing?
A: I’ve always liked visiting cafes, and I read a magazine article about a café and gallery called Yamanekoken in the mountains of Ogosemachi in Saitama, and I decided to check it out. So, I walk in and there’s a massive photograph of Kaoru Abe on the wall and they are selling Masayuki Takayanagi CDs. I was really surprised, so I asked Tatsuo Minami, the owner, about them. He told me that he had taken the photo so I got to be surprised all over again. It was the first time I’d ever met anyone who had known Abe, so we started talking and he wanted to hear my playing. One thing led to another and I began to perform and record there. This would have been around 2010.
Q: How did you hear about Kaoru Abe? What did you think when you first heard him?
A: I first heard him soon after I started playing sax. A friend said that what I was doing sounded like Abe, so he lent me a record. It was the studio session one. My first impression was “what the fuck is this?” It felt inorganic and cold, like there was no blood flowing through it. I turned it off immediately. To begin with I didn’t understand his playing. But somehow I got interested in him and I tried to listen to him again. So I bought Mort à crédit, just from the look of the jacket, and as soon as I put it on it froze me to the spot. Is this even a human being playing, I thought, then tears started rolling down my face. There was no falsehood in it, just a simply beautiful sound. I felt like I understood everything he was feeling and thinking, like I had directly touched his soul. It was too naked and frightening but that made me really happy too.
Q: Minami-san had seen Kaoru Abe performing. Did he give you any opinions or advice on your performance?
A: Hardly anything, actually. He’s not the kind of person to talk about his impressions. He’s really open, but he’s not a performer himself so he’d often say that it wasn’t his place to give his opinions. I think he is careful about giving any unwarranted advice because he wants lots of different people to use Yamanekoken. The sound there is just amazing. You can hear the rain and the calls of the birds outside. It’s like one of the only places where you can perform together with nature. And you have Abe gazing down on you too.
Q: It was there that you recorded your first CDr, Unification, wasn’t it?
A: I had started to see what it was that I wanted to do, so I thought it would be a good idea to “unify” everything by recording at Yamanekoken. On the day, I felt like I wanted to cut my consciousness to a certain level, so I turned down all the lights and recorded in the dark. It felt like I could see the sounds like blue flashes of light. It was the first document of my own work that I felt happy with, so I decided to release it.
Hideo Ikeezumi and P.S.F. Records
Q: How did you first hear about P.S.F. Records and Modern Music?
A: I don’t remember when it was, but there was a time when there was no music that I wanted to listen to. All I wanted were CDs by Abe, so I was searching for likely shops and then I found Modern Music. It sounded like a cool place and I thought I might be able to talk with the owner about various things or get him to listen to my CD. So I went over to check it out. That was probably 2011 or 2012, and that was when I first talked with Hideo Ikeezumi.
Q: What was your first impression of him?
A: At first I thought he was a really chatty shop assistant. I didn’t know his face, so I had no idea who he was. No idea at all that it was Ikeezumi-san himself. But while we were talking I realized. He was really candid and spoke his mind, and it was a great conversation.
Q: Why did you play him your music?
A: I thought that he might like what I had recorded at Yamanekoken. And maybe he would stock it in the shop, so I brought it along with me. If I’m honest, I had this intuition that if he liked it, that would mean it was good music. So I was testing myself.
Q: Tell us a little about how you came to have that CD release on P.S.F.?
A: From the start he had talked about releasing a record on P.S.F. But my performances weren’t up to scratch. Ikeezumi-san would say you’d have to go deeper or you’re trying too hard. It was from around that time that I started to realize that I didn’t have enough heart, enough emotion. Ikeezumi-san gave me a whole bunch of enka CDrs and told me to listen to them. I listened to a lot of stuff by Tōru Funamura, Yoshio Tabata and Naomi Chiaki.
One time, I went with Ikeezumi-san to visit Kaoru Abe’s mother. We had a few drinks together and his mother asked if I would play Abe’s alto sax for her. “Kaoru says he wants you to play it,” she said. There and then she handed me a Mark 6, still with Abe’s fingerprints on it. I played it and she got all emotional and started crying. Then she gave me a reed that Abe had used and told me to take it and play with it. I so happy that she had entrusted me with a really important memento of her son… I thought to myself that this is the kind of feeling that turns into sound, so I went straight to Yamanekoken and recorded with that reed. In the middle of a huge rainstorm.
Q: How did it feel?