Kan Mikami '92 "Music can talk about everything there is in the world" The G-Modern Interview Part 1
This deep dive interview originally appeared in Japanese in the first issue of G-Modern, P.S.F.’s “Psychedelic, Avant-garde, Underground magazine”, published in July 1992 and is here presented for the first time in English. The interview was published just after Mikami had released his critically acclaimed P.S.F. debut "I'm the Only One Around". In this first part Mikami recalls his musical odyssey from the peaks of his early years to trials in the wilderness of the late 70's/early 80's as well as the first signs of his musical rebirth in the 1990's.
The interview was conducted by Takuzō Nakashima, and translated by Alan Cummings. Part 2 can be found here.
“You come to a city, and suddenly violence is the real power”
When did you first pick up a guitar?
Mikami: It must have been in 1965. But I didn't know how to play then so I'd just look at it and polish it.
Did you learn to play from a book?
Mikami: I had Masao Koga’s guitar book and I’d practice with that.
Back then a lot of people would practice with steel strings on a gut guitar. Did you do that too?
Mikami: Everyone did back then. I used to change the strings about once a year.
Did you have to go all the way to Aomori to buy new strings?
Mikami: No, there was even a music shop Goshogawara. There wasn't one in Kodomari though.
Did you start writing lyrics at the same time?
Mikami: No. First I spent a year or so learning some chords, and then I started writing.
What kind of themes did you write about at the start?
Mikami: Anti-war stuff. The Vietnam war had just started, and everyone thought that folk equals anti-Vietnam War songs. So I wrote a few of those, though not that many.
Did you perform in public at all?
Mikami: I played at my school festival. Back then there weren't too many people who played guitar so it went down unexpectedly well.
Did you sing any anti-school songs?
Mikami: No. I was the head of the students' council, and I was pretty aggressive in getting them to give us somewhere to perform. But I wasn't really a model student. Our school was co-ed and they used to segregate the kids who couldn't study into a separate class. We kicked up a fuss about that. But there was a pretty free atmosphere.
Did you really get into the guitar about two or three years after you first started?
Mikami: Yeah. I'd practice until six in the morning. There were a lot of times when I'd look outside and it'd be morning already.
Did you write a lot of your own original tunes back then?
Mikami: I've forgotten them all. They were mostly imitations, or versions of stuff that was popular at the time.
Did you have any feeling that you would go so far with your guitar?
Mikami: Not at that time. It was just a hobby - I'd pick up the guitar when I was tired of studying.
Between graduating from high school and coming up to Tokyo you went to a police college. Were you really serious about becoming a policeman?
Mikami: I had a really immature attitude, and just wanted to fire guns and stuff. (laughs) I didn't associate the police with authority for some reason. Anyway, I did that for two years and then I quit.
So you left the police college and came up to Tokyo. Had you always yearned to come to the capital?
Mikami: Yeah, I really did. All the sixties pop-art stuff, and Shūji Terayama and Tadanori Yokoo. It seemed like there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in Shinjuku, and I didn't just want to watch it from the provinces, I wanted to come and get involved myself.
When did you come up to Tokyo?
Mikami: The fourteenth of September 1968. The autumn.
Did you come up trembling on the night-train?
Mikami: Yeah. There was hardly any information back then, and I wondered what was going to happen to me. I was a little worried… no, make that very worried.
What did you think when you first arrived in Tokyo?
Mikami: I thought of the word "violence". It was as if the city was controlled by violence. The countryside is really pastoral, and I understood the relationship between man and nature. And then you come to a city, and suddenly violence is the real power. Like when the traffic light changes and everyone sets off at once in the same direction - when I saw that I felt like I was being chased by someone. Like there was someone following me and someone controlling it all. Like Tokyo itself was moving.
Where did you live when you first came up?
Mikami: At the start I wasn't in Tokyo itself, but in Fujisawa. I was there for about four months and then I moved up to Numabukuro in Tokyo itself.
Were you working and playing the guitar as well?
Mikami: Yeah. Around that time Kansai-folk - Nobuyasu Okabayashi and that crowd had just started up. I felt that I wanted to sing and perform again myself.
So did you first start playing seriously in live houses around that time?
Mikami: There were hardly any live houses or places where I could sing back then. There were small theatres, so I got to know some theatre people.
After that you played at Station70 in Shibuya, and gradually got involved in that world. Did someone talent-spot you for that gig?
Mikami: No, it wasn't like that. I heard that a new place had opened, and I went along to sound them about me singing. I remember them giving me an audition up on the roof, and then I played there for real. Station70 was where Marui is now, underground. There isn't anything left now though. It's become a coffee shop. It was really modern back then - they had TVs on the wall - it wouldn't look out-of-place today. The PA was good too.
Who else played there at the time?
Mikami: Kaoru Abeand a lot of other people who were just starting back then. Guys from the Tatenokai and the Japanese Red Army came along to watch. There were biwa performances and butoh - it was a real mixture. It was like a multi-purpose live house. When I think back now, it was an amazing place.
So at last you made your debut, at the age of twenty-one. How did you feel then?
Mikami: Of course there was pressure, and there was also a feeling of becoming something outside of my own experience. Up until then I had been surrounded by my friends and family, but from now on I had to get my music across to people who were complete strangers to me. I remember being really afraid.
Did you start getting paranoid as well?
Mikami: No, I didn't feel very much of that. I had this vague fear because I didn't know what was going to happen to me. Once you've gone out on your own, you can't predict how things will turn out. I had this fear that I was being marked out for something.
Around the time of your debut what kind of stuff were you doing?
Mikami: I debuted under contract to Columbia, so there was a marketing campaign. Just like today's CD artists, I'd go around record stores and perform on the roofs of supermarkets in the provinces.
Do you remember your first solo gig?
Mikami: I used to play solo every week at Station70, so I don't remember exactly when I first played solo in a concert hall. But I reckon it was probably somewhere around Goshogahara.
It's well-known now that your first album was covertly withdrawn from the shops, but how did you feel when you heard first heard about it?
Mikami: Well, even before it was withdrawn I had felt that it was a bit dangerous. I understood at the time that my words were close to being banned - it was obvious. So I didn't get especially pissed off, because I had already suspected it would happen. That's the way it goes, so it was OK.
In 1971 you became famous nationwide after your appearance at the Nakatsugawa Folk Jamboree. How did you come to perform at that?
Mikami: The first place that put out my album was a publishing company owned by Kōichi Haba. But it went down the tubes in about three months, and I had to work part-time in Shinjuku's Golden Gai. There I happened to meet the editor of Playboy and Meisei, and he had found my record at Haba's place and shown it to the people at URC. They thought it was interesting, and that's how it happened. But I didn't just suddenly play at the Nakatsugawa festival. Around June of '71 I had played with (Takurō) Yoshida and (Ryō) Kagawa at the Kudan Hall. I suppose that was my real debut. When I think back on it now, they must have realized that no one would have got it if I suddenly appeared at Nakatsugawa, so the promoters must have wanted to have a look at me beforehand, like an elimination round. But they liked me and decided to let me play the festival. But I didn't know when it was, and they rang me up at work. I had my guitar with me, and I got straight on the night bus.
The festival was recorded so you still hear how enthusiastic the audience was. Did that make you happy?
Mikami: I was more surprised than I was happy. I mean, there were 30,000 people there - the entire population of my home-village was only 5000. (laughs) I was so amazed to see that many people in front of me. What are all these people doing here, I thought. I still wasn't interested in playing outdoors, and this was just a big Woodstock imitation. So I wasn't that much into it.
Did you think that it was enough if people remembered your face and your name?
Mikami: I didn't think that anyone would like me. I was really contemptuous of folk music.
So you thought that you weren't folk?
Mikami: Not like that. I had this idea of myself as a singer-songwriter, and I didn't want to be lumped in with everyone else.
At that concert, you really emphasized one side of yourself, and for better or worse that pulled your image in a certain direction.
Mikami: It took me a long time to free myself from that image. If you stir up as much of a fuss as possible, people will also talk about the other stuff that comes along with it, won't they? But from that time on I gradually started to change my way of thinking. Briefly, there's not just the way you perceive yourself , there is also the way that other people perceive you. So I had this idea of fitting into the image that people had given me. A so-called professional attitude.
After the Nakatsugawa Festival you released several albums up until that "Hiraku yume nado aru janashi" album, which has been re-released on CD. It really shows one side of you to great effect, but what were you thinking about when you made it?
Mikami: Basically, I had this desire to make something that was in an enka-style but a lot more complex. Enka was inside of me, like bad blood. Before I could make my own music I had to get rid of it, and then I could show myself fresh and pure. If I didn't do it at that time, then I would have had to do it later. Anyway, as the first step I had to vomit all that up. I don't think that I could do it the way I am now.
You did it because you liked enka?
Mikami: I felt that I would run up against it sometime, and I thought it would be best to get it out of the way early on.
Even now you play some songs from that album live. What standard do you have for songs you play and songs you don't?
Mikami: What standard do I have? I play songs that have become more like the stuff I do now.
Uhuh. That "Anata mo sta- ni nareru" track is sung really differently to the way you do it now. I think that now the speed and power have meshed together and it's become a very typical Mikami "rock" track. Maybe "rock" isn’t an appropriate word to use. On the other hand, you have a lot of songs that you have put away in the cupboard as it were, songs you don't play anymore. Do you feel that you have sung them out, that you have fully understood them?
Mikami: No, it's not like that.
Are there songs that you have come to hate?
Mikami: There songs that I don't sing anymore, audiences don't want to hear them anymore maybe. There's no point to them anymore. When I play live they gradually seem to disappear.
OK. You have released quite a few live recordings. Do you feel that they are best?
Mikami: Well, also because people want to hear the live stuff. It's not really supply and demand, but I released them anyway. Back then it was cool to put out live records, and besides there weren't a lot of studios with good sound like there are today. Live records felt close and the sound was better.
"I wanted to sing various things that no one had sung before."
Then in 1974 you really shook things up by releasing "BANG!". It was a jam session with jazz musicians, including Yosuke Yamashita and Ryōjirō Furusawa. How did you suddenly get the idea to play with them? Did you meet them all somewhere?
Mikami: Yeah. I realized that were there various different ways of thinking about music, and so I decided to get to know some jazz men. There are things that folk singers can communicate even without using words. You can pick up what kind of world they are living in. And there are no words in jazz, are there? They try to express themselves just by using sounds, and it's very hard to catch hold of. So I was wondering what jazz really was, and the only way to find out was to play with them.
When you asked them, did they give you the OK just like that?
Mikami: Well, yeah. A lot of the time musicians decide to play together just by going out for a drink together. So I was out in the provinces and I went drinking with Furusawa, who was in Yamashita's band at the time. Yamashita was out on tour and we just did it one night.
When Furusawa-san saw you play live for the first time he was allegedly amazed that there was someone singing that kind of soul music in Japan. Was your singing style at that time the same as it is now?
Mikami: The feeling was the same. I haven't changed the way I sing.
What did you feel when you made "BANG!"?
Mikami: I think that it would be difficult to make a record like that now. Back then, musicians weren’t as controlled by the record companies - they could play whatever they wanted to.
I think that it sounds really free.
Mikami: Shortly after that record was released URC went bankrupt. It was like they got a lot freer towards the end.
At the same time were you also playing live with Yamashita-san?
Mikami: Yeah. We used to play a lot back then - maybe three or four times a month.
Did you play all around the country?
Mikami: Yeah, just the two of us. Yamashita-san was the heretic child of the jazz world and I was the heretic child of the folk world. We were just forced together. Then Maki Asakawa came along, and the three of us played a lot of big events. I'm annoyed that no one has continued doing the kind of music that we were making back then. There's been no one like us since then.
After that you moved labels. Were things still going smoothly?
Mikami: Yeah, things went pretty smoothly around that time. There was still something left of the student movement, and when they went back home to the country during the holidays they would invite me to play. So it was pretty easy to get gigs.
You wrote a lot songs around that time, didn't you.
Mikami: Yeah. Things were working out pretty good around '73.
Your hardcore fans’ favorite album, "Kan", was released in 1975. You still play a lot of songs from that album live, so was it one that you were particularly proud of?
Mikami: I had made four albums for URC and then I moved to Victor, so I was conscious that I could reach a wider audience. There were a lot of songs that departed from what my peers had been doing. I suppose that around that time I was thinking more in terms of being on a major label, aiming for hits if you like.
A lot of your songs from that period compare objects to people, don't they? For example, "Otobai no shitsuren" and "Mikami komuten ga aruku". It sounds like you were concentrating your love onto objects.
Mikami: I'm using objects as metaphors in those songs. I mean, all songs are about people, aren't they? Falling in love, splitting up . . . so I wanted to extend the lyrics into some other world. I think that was what I was aiming at.
There's a line in "Otobai no shitsuren" where you sing "There are a lot of songs about broken-hearted people, but no one writes about broken-hearted motorbikes". Was that an antithesis to the popularity of love songs?
Mikami: There is that side to it. Recently there’s been a gradual increase in singers who are using the voice as just another kind of musical instrument. Back then I wanted to see how far it was possible to take vocals, to sing about all human feelings. It's a funny way of putting it but I sort of wanted to lay down a challenge.
Your lyrics started to change from around that time too.
Mikami: Yeah, I wanted to expand the framework of music. At that time I wanted to sing various things that no one had sung before.
After that, in 1977 you recorded a concert in Aomori and released it as "Yūyake no kioku kara". Could you tell us about the venue for that concert - the D’Avignon Theatre?
Mikami: In the spring of 1974 a guy called Ryōsuke Maki built a theatre for plays, not for music. I helped him out, banged in a few nails and so on. I already had the studio album ("Kan") on Victor, but I wanted a live document as well, so I used the album as a base.