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Kan Mikami '92 "If you’re going to make music, stake your life on it" The G-Modern Interview Part 2

The second part of the interview first published in the first issue of P.S.F. 's underground music magazine G-Modern from July 1992. Mikami here discusses his first album with P.S.F. "I'm the Only One Around" his first encounters with Keiji Haino, the relationship between musician and instrument and many other far ranging topics. The interview was conducted by Takuzō Nakashima, and translated by Alan Cummings. Continued from Part 1 which can be found here.

Next I want to ask you about that "Live in the first year of Heisei" album. How did you come to know Yoshizawa and Haino?

Mikami: Yoshizawa used to play solo at Station70, so I knew him from that time. Station70 had been doing experimental stuff like that as well, so I was aware of him, and I really wondered if he was still playing. (laughs) He's super stubborn. So, I knew Yoshizawa from all those years ago. Ikeezumi[1] introduced me to Keiji Haino though. I had always been convinced that there had to be someone like me in Japan, someone who had just played by themselves for years. It would weird if there wasn't someone else like that. I had convinced myself of this, though I knew that maybe I was just a fucked-up example. It was like fix, there being someone else like me. When I met him I realized that I couldn't totally dismiss the Japanese music scene.

Ikeezumi-san was at the bottom of the plot to get us together here, and since he is with us now I'd like to ask what was he aiming at by bringing Mikami and Haino together?

Ikeezumi: Haino has been in the scene on an ultra-underground level for over twenty years, and he is immensely charismatic. As far as rock is concerned I don't think there is anyone who can surpass him, in terms of the way he lives and the music as well. I had liked enka and pop from when I was a small kid at school, and all in all in Japanese folk there was no one better that Kan Mikami and Akira Kobayashi[2]. I thought that if Mikami and Haino were to play together they could make something very interesting - though I was a bit worried. (laughs) So, about three years ago I took Haino along to see Mikami playing live at Mandala. When the gig was over Haino turned to me and said, "I didn't know there was anyone that amazing in Japan". And that's how it happened.

Kan Mikami's 1991 P.S.F. Debut

"I'm the Only One Around" is available in a deluxe LP Edition from Black Editions

So you both wanted to play together?

Mikami: The making of that two record set ("Live in the first year of Heisei") was like an affirmation that there was another level of existence in Japan, a level outside of the so-called major record labels. Just being able to make and release that kind of a record meant so much. Like there are strictly two kinds of music - good music and bad music. (laughs) It's always been the same for Japanese and for people in general, from the past there are two distinct levels or streams. In general, in the record industry in Japan today there is no real music. Everything is based on the music of the (American) Army of Occupation. I want to say that outside of that there is real Japanese music within us, music that has continued from the distant past. So that record was like a big experiment, and in that respect it was very easy for me to do.

Like you were able to break through to something?

Mikami: Yeah, I thought that it was a fuck of a record. You can't see it clearly now, but in ten years time I think that people will look back and be able to see that everything started from that record.

You recorded it live in Nagoya, right?

Mikami: We didn't have any intention of turning it into a record, we were just touring together and things came together. The timing was right. We had played together two or three times and understood the extent of each other's power. We had come to understand where each of us had to stand - I think it was our best time as a trio. If we had gone on, things would probably have fallen apart. But all the same, I would really like for the three of us to play together one more time. If there were about ten people in Japan who could do that kind of thing, it would all get so interesting again. We could compare ourselves, but at the moment everyone is just focusing on the three of us. (laughs) Because we're all there is. And that gets boring, doesn't it? That isn't the way music should be - you've got to mix a whole of different things up together. There was a lot of meaning to dividing that record into two volumes.

It sounds like Volume 1 is impact, and Volume 2 is comprehension / tolerance.

Mikami: Because we each had our separate themes on a high level, we were able to just charge off after each other - I don't think there has ever been anything like it. Usually it feels like just one person pulls everyone else after him. But when you want to play music completely the way it should be played, then I think it naturally becomes like that. If you play it properly.

So on the flip-side, you're saying that people today aren't playing music as completely as they should?

Mikami: If you ask me it's not music. Everything just sounds like a branch of science or electrician's henchmen. People are saying that music is a kind of liberal art, for fuck's sake. The thing that fucks me off the most is all these classical jerks trying to get into rock. These jerks think that they can play contemporary stuff just because they can stretch their fingers a bit further than everyone else, or they can hold a note longer. If you've made a mess of classical music then you're going to do the same to pop and rock and folk. These classical guys just think that they can turn their hands to anything. There's so many of them coming out now - and that shows how insipid our music has become. They're just taking the piss out of us. Once rock and folk were led by a bunch of hoodlums, but the ones who were out front had their limitations. Then these intellectuals came along, and they just played music in their spare time - and that's not the way it should be done. But it's really strange why the rock and folk guys didn't do anything about it. Why didn't they resist it?

I think that we need you to be aware of that problem and be an antithesis to it.

Mikami: Yeah. Music isn't something that you can dabble in. It doesn't matter if you haven't graduated from high-school, or that you can't read music. All they teach in school is that you've got to give something back to the establishment, right? It's the kind of education where the teacher just sells you his own sensibility, so you have no help in making yourself into an individual. Even if the hardware is complete, there's no human software installed, if you see what I mean. Just like a machine going round and round, or to put it another way, they have the necessary skills to play but they have nothing to actually say - there's no music there.

"Live in the first year of Heisei" P.S.F.-5,6 (1990)

Thanks for your thoughts on that, but I'd like to go back to what we were talking about earlier. The cover of the "Live in the first year of Heisei" album is wonderful.

Mikami: My son drew it. I happened to use it on my New Year's cards, and I sent one to Haino and he loved it. So we were able to decide on the cover just like that - usually it's a real pain. My message is that I want that kind of music to be the basis for three and four year old kids. I think that in twenty years time that this kind of music will be the basis. The other day my daughter was staring at the TV and I wondered what she was watching so intently. Turns out to be an all-Japan folk song competition. So you can talk about "world music" but my daughter listens to these traditional tunes and she hears them as something totally fresh, just the same way we used to listen to pop. Recently everyone picks up music from TV commercials, right? When you do that, you're no longer seeing or hearing it as music, it's become some kind of lifestyle sound. So my daughter was totally entranced by all these old guys just moaning away. My wife was worried that there might be something wrong about it, but for me it's just natural. I think it's good that traditional songs interest her so much.

Do your children listen to your songs?

Mikami: Yeah, occasionally. My son really likes them, but my daughter always looks like she's about to burst into tears. She says that I should sing something happier - that my songs are too painful. If you treat music lightly it's going to have a real bad effect on the human race. It's a fascinating subject.

"When I was making the record, I thought that a song like that could wake up fifty guys who had been asleep since the seventies."

Then last year after a long break you released another studio album "Ore ga iru[3]" ie. "I'm the Only One Around". What meaning is there in the title?

Mikami: Well, I took the title directly from that song by Nozawa. That was the first record I had released in ten years, and if I think about it, it's the first time that I’ve ever had the feeling of actually making a record. Before it was always because someone wanted me to put out a record, or because I had to, or because it was one of my tactics to become famous. But since "Ore ga iru" I have felt that I have got to make records with the realization of myself as a performer, an "expressionist". In general you don't think of it as something that you've got to do. Up until now it's always been more like something that I couldn't get out of.

So it wouldn't been wrong to say that this album is one where all your desires to sing and to create have finally been concentrated?

Mikami: Yeah. It’s not forced. My life and my making a record are the same. Because there was no sense of having to make it in a certain way, or having to try things out I think I was able to do a good job on it.

Yeah. Why did you decide to sing Nozawa-san's "Ore ga iru"?

Mikami: That song was like a basic opportunity for me - I felt really worried. Like if I didn't do something drastic, then me and my music were going to diverge in a bad way. After you've been playing for a long time it no longer matters how people perceive your music, how they listen to it. Of course, there's the aspect where you allow people a certain amount of leeway and you won't allow anything beyond that, because then your music starts having a totally different and wrong meaning. One person makes some music, then another person interprets it up to a certain point, someone else takes the interpretation a bit further. If someone else understands more then they can interpret it even further. The piece of music is no longer anything to do with your world. So I felt impatient when I first heard that song - if I don't do something now then people are going to read too much into me and turn me into something else entirely. People started referring to you in reverential tones as a "folk legend", don't they? Especially young people. Because I have been playing for twenty years people want to keep me within that image. They start treating you like some natural memorial, or a Living National Treasure[4] or something. (laughs) It's not a title you give yourself, someone else starts trying to preserve you. And once that happens, then the music no longer matters. Before I put out "Ore ga iru" I was close to becoming like that. If I had put out folk genre record then things would just have expanded and after about fifty years people would be calling me "sensei". Watari (Takada) is half like that already. (laughs) He should just go on like that, they'll give him a medal for sure.

The First Order of Merit or something. (laughs)

Mikami: I reckon that's what he's aiming for. (laughs)

Nozawa-san, who wrote the song "Ore ga iru" is also here with us today, so I'd like to ask him how he came to write it?

Nozawa: I'll have to admit that I wrote it back in 1986 just to amuse myself. I didn't have any money and I would just loaf around, making tapes with friends. In that song we thought it was pretty interesting that someone in our situation would scream out "I'm here", and we would joke around that it was my masterpiece. But after I had written it a lot of people told me they liked it, so I began to think maybe it wasn't that bad after all. Then I played to Kan-san, and he started to sing it live, then he made it into the album title. When an artist like Kan Mikami sings it, the song takes on a whole new meaning from when I wrote it - it becomes really radical, and begins to stand on its own.

Mikami: That sense of isolation that Nozawa has just talked about - that's something we have all felt at one time. So the first time I played the song live the response was… the way people responded to it was like we had regressed back twenty years. People's responses were like the way a rabbit pricks up its ears when it hears a falcon, like "what was that??" So when I was making the record, I thought that a song like that could wake up fifty guys who had been asleep since the seventies. (laughs) Everyone probably thought that I wouldn't sing that kind of song any more, that I had already gone beyond that. If I had put up with things for just a little bit longer I was in danger of becoming an institution - you just get eroded or ground down into something else. So I had to break free from that. I mean, people from my generation have now all reached middle management positions in companies. They have all stopped thinking about what they are doing, and they’ve lost their relationship with songs. I really wanted to communicate to them that they've got to keep on fighting.

Though the song overlaps with your life as well.

Mikami: At that time Nozawa-san was an amateur and I was a pro, but the reason why I thought I could sing the song was because there are so many ways you can interpret it. That theme is clearly defined within the song. So I thought that it was the kind of song that could gradually grow and change with me. If you want to keep on singing a song it's got to be like that.

You sang it a lot before you recorded it, didn't you? In a different way than normal.

Mikami: Yeah, for about six months before the record was released. The first time I sang it was at Jittoku in Kyoto, as the first song in the set, and I still remember how surprised people were. Everyone thought that I wouldn't write any more new songs, that I would just rely on my old material. So, because of that song people started coming to see me play live again. It was like everyone was tied to their chairs. (laughs) The atmosphere was really amazing. Yeah.

So everyone comes to see you thinking that they can slip back in time for a moment or two, but then they go home feeling like they’ve been smacked around the head with a hammer?

Mikami: Yeah. While I was singing I was so tense that I couldn't even pause for an moment. In effect, the audience couldn't breathe out either. When the singer gasps out the words then everyone just goes with him - it's not an actual technique as such, that's just the way it happens. Everyone was just astonished and didn't respond at all. (laughs) And since they're like that I can't go on and sing the next song. It had been so long since I had had a response like that - it felt like the way it was twenty years ago when I first started out. That night was comparable to the time I played at the Nakatsugawa Festival. I was standing in front of those thirty thousand people and I knew that I had to consume them all - just because I had been sitting down and taking a lot of shit for the twenty years of my life. In that respect, performing is like an attack. If I had to take any more I'd fall out of the ring and lose, but I put my foot down at the last moment. I believe that the audience can hear the thrill of that.

"I'm the Only One Around" was pretty well-received critically, but out of all the good tracks on the album are there any that particularly stand out for you?

Mikami: Yeah. That one, the one that goes "Hassen . . . ".

"Ushi to Nagakami[5]" ?

Mikami: Was that what I called that? (laughs) Yeah, the way I titled that was totally fucked. I used to title them in line with the lyrics, but then I started playing about with the titles as well. You play about with them too much and you start to forget their names. (laughs) But I really think that song is something special - the tension is so different. Though I sing it the same way as everything else. Up until this new record the song with the most tension was "Karasu" [6]. It's strange, but even though it's the same kind of song as "Karasu", the songs on the new album have so much more tension. Though it doesn't mean that the old stuff was no good. It seems like the way I recorded and sang the songs on the new album is more effective. So I'm going to keep on singing that way and see what happens. I wasn't able to think this way in the past. Back then if I was tense when I wrote the song then I could put a lot of tension into it when I sang it, but people today are listening with their minds a lot more - they can enjoy stuff like that more. That's a unique difference between Japanese audiences and audiences abroad. Not just appreciating that the singer has made something, but interpreting that whatever way you want. I don't think there are many people like that abroad- maybe it's a special characteristic of the make-up of Japanese brains. There's times when the audience's tension is higher than the performer's. That's really unusual - for the audience to be more intense than the performer. I think that only happens in Japan. [7]

"It's very strange, but each guitar is fated to be played in a certain way from the moment it is made - the guitar insists it be played that way."

The Telecaster sound on that album comes across really cleanly, doesn't it?

Mikami: It kinda of felt like I had made pilgrimages to a lot of guitars and finally ended up with that one. Though I don't know if things will change in the future.

Might you go back to playing acoustic?

Mikami: It's possible, depending on the time and place.

We're going back over ground you've already covered, but I'd like to ask you about playing live. Are you superstitious about playing live?

Mikami: I'm not superstitious as such, but it's always a bit uncomfortable until I come to understand why I am singing in a certain place. From the time I get up until I actually get on stage. Well, I am able to think that it's my job and I should get on with it, but there are times when that doesn't work. I am able to stand up on stage once I have understood why I have to sing in this particular place at this particular time.

Are there times when you get up there without understanding why?

Mikami: Most of the time I realize about a second after I've got up there. But there's about one time out of a hundred when I don't realize why, and that is immensely unsettling. Then there's times that I understand whilst I am singing, and then I can go for it. The worst is when the set goes on and I still don't understand why - there was one time when I only understood while I was playing the last song. That was when I was playing together with Keiji Haino, and he said that he realized at the same time as me. It was an immense feeling, but then we had to finish. (laughs) Most of the time I have to start again when I realize.

Do you decide what songs to play beforehand, or do you decide whilst you are playing?

Mikami: A bit of both. In order to understand myself more, I think about the way things were in the same venue last time I played there, and I play the songs in the same sequence. I am aware of at what point I change strings. Maybe that's a kind of superstition, if things go wrong it's because of changing the string. I have a lot of jinxes like that.

This is something that I have wanted to ask you for a long time. Most of the time when you are playing you don't talk to the audience, but very occasionally you do. Do you have any special reason for that?

Mikami: It just depends on how I feel at the time. For me, talking is like another kind of work. So if the live situation gets a bit better then I might talk a bit more. It's just another job for me, so that's why I don't do it so much.

Do you just want to devote yourself to the songs?

Mikami: In my case, there is a huge difference between communicating through speech and communicating through song. The two never come together.

Just from watching your rehearsals it seems that you are very concerned with the way your guitar sounds.

Mikami: Yeah, because I'm not playing any melody I'm very particular about the sound quality. That's why I change the strings every time I play.

Your playing seems to go beyond mere accompaniment. Have you been using a lot of different techniques recently?

Mikami: Depending upon the guitar there are different demands. It's very strange, but each guitar is fated to be played in a certain way from the moment it is made - the guitar insists it be played that way. The guitar I am using now is sturdy and comfortably heavy. You've got to treat acoustics like they are middle-aged - just touch them slightly and you can damage them, use any more power and you will break them into pieces - in the worst cases the neck just snaps. That’s happened to me before. It's very relaxing for me not to have to worry about that any more, to be sure that the thing isn't going to fall apart.

What's the make of that guitar you use now?

Mikami: That? I'm really bad about stuff like that - all I know is that it's a Fender Telecaster. I stole it. No, actually I went to a friend's house and saw it sitting there, so I just stole it. (laughs) I was taking my shoes off and just slipped it under my coat.

The guitar was calling out to be played by the great Kan Mikami. (laughs)

Mikami: Yeah. I have this Icelandic acoustic guitar, a George Roden. The first time I held it in my hands I knew that as far as acoustics went there would never be anything better for my songs than that one. When I stopped playing with that, I wondered what would be next - and in that respect, the very first guitar I owned is still the best. So from here on I have no idea what kind of electric I will move on to, or whether I will go back to an acoustic, or whether I will play the piano. (laughs) It all depends on the relationship. This whole relationship between people and instruments - sometimes I think that if I really understood that then there’d be no need for me to make music any more. Musicians never understand why they’re attached to a particular instrument. I think about stuff, and there are times when I think that I understand this relationship between me and the guitar. But every four or five years it’s like my natural rhythm and the guitar’s natural rhythm become totally separate for about half a day. And when that happens it’s terrifying . . . . I can’t put that feeling into words. The closest I can get is to say that it feels like I’d be better off dead. I think that we’re not 100% conscious of everything that our ears take in. There are things that our ears pick up but our minds reject, our interpret a certain way. But those sounds remain in our memories. We’ve heard those sounds but never consciously experienced them. Your consciousness doesn’t remember them but your body does, and that’s why that phenomenon occurs. Guitars are really weird, and they give me a hell of a lot of stress. Things would be so much easier if that disappeared.

I never realized that you’d thought so much about the guitar - it’s interesting stuff.

Mikami: It’s just that no one ever talks about it. Everyone thinks about that kind of thing, except they think about it in terms of women or cars. Musicians think about this kind of stuff because they play guitar.

"You can touch on it really easily, but there’s so much truth in there."

Listening to you talk today I’ve come to realize that people who are going to make music from now on are going to have to take a lot of this to heart.

Mikami: If you realize that music is a dangerous thing then you’ll keep on going deeper and deeper into it.

Recently there’s been a mini folk boom - you see people sitting and singing in the street. What do you think about that?

Mikami: If you’re going to make music, stake your life on it - it’s worth it. Making music is an intensely human act.

I’d like to ask you about words and music - for you which comes first?

Mikami: The words. I come up with a title first. I never put a title to something that I’ve already written.

Are you always thinking about lyrics?

Mikami: Basically you’re always coming across words or phrases in your daily life that could become lyrics, aren’t you? I always try to remember them. Then I come up with a point and try and match those words to it. I never know what people will make out of my lyrics, whether they can get any meaning from them. There are certain lyrics where I know that I am definitely the only person who’s going to get them. That’s what expression means. Nobody else has seen what I saw, there was no one there at the same time to feel the same thing. Those are the experiences that I turn into lyrics. But because we’re human we do the same things, so even these lyrics can communicate something to people. There’s no performer who knows what will reach people, what will touch them. But they can feel that I have discovered something unique.

Does that make you feel good?

Mikami: It feels good when I’ve succeeded in communicating something. But if you take the wrong steps then it just turns into self-conceit.

Like you’re up there just giving pleasure to yourself. (laughs)