Kan Mikami: "Music can talk about everything there is in the world."
Updated: 20 hours ago
Kan Mikami 1992: 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?
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?
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 Abe and 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.
Was there any sense of playing in Aomori being a homecoming for you?
Mikami: There's that as well, but when you record live then there is an atmosphere that you can catch, a scent. The scent of the north. that's what I wanted people to feel. The cover hints at that too, it's a nebuta picture.
Then in 1978 you released the acclaimed "Makeru toki mo aru darō" album.
Mikami: That came out on King, right? The reason I left Victor was because I didn't manage to sell as many records as I thought I could, and I knew I had talent. Around that time they were starting create that “new music” genre, and I was asked if I would become a producer. At that time Hisahiko Handa had become a producer and had given Pink Lady a lot of hits, so the record company wanted me to do the same. One of the directors of Victor basically told me that I was going to be a producer and that I was going to develop new talent. It really pissed me off, I mean I was only 28 or 29 and they had me down as over the hill. I debuted in '71, caused a bit of a stir and then moved to Victor where they made me sing popular songs. That was their intention from the start. I released that "Blue Flame" record and it didn't sell because it was a bit different. That was all they cared about, it was just business. Then they tried to persuade me to become a producer, or an actor like Yūsaku Matsuda or Tōru Murakawa. I had the attitude that I had been better than everyone at Nagatsukawa and that I was still developing in a positive direction. I didn't understand why, but I was so against their plans. It was no laughing matter, I had only been singing for seven or eight years, and they thought I was washed up already. At any rate, I was in a surprisingly good situation. Most musicians never know what's going to happen tomorrow. I could have told them to make me a producer. You can't do that kind of thing anymore.
But you rejected their offers and here you are today. I think that's the way your fans wanted it to be.
Mikami: All those offers were around 1977 or '78. It's very interesting if I think back on it now. I felt that from that time on the world started to lose its need for my songs. But it was preparing some other role for me. (laughs) I think that's the way it was. And in spite of all that, I wanted to make records and change record labels. They must have thought there would be no way I would turn down such a good offer. Victor wasn't that big a major at the time, but they were prepared to listen to me. I feel pretty bad about it now, after them spending so much money on me and everything.
There are probably songs that you wrote around that time where you concealed everything. Did you become distrustful of other people?
Mikami: That came afterwards. Around '78 and '79 all the people around me gradually disappeared, like the tide going out. When I think about it now I understand why though, it was no good to just go on in the same direction. At that time I went back to the basics in a lot of areas, so people stopped coming to see me play.
Was that painful for you?
Mikami: More than being painful, I just didn't know what to do, which was the best way to go. The only hope I had was to keep on singing, if I did that then things would eventually work themselves out. So I toured constantly, and sometimes there would only be one person who came to see me. Around that time TV games and so on got popular in the coffee houses, and while I was playing everyone would be bleeping away at those things. Then the owners started doing away with the stages altogether and turning their places into amusement arcades. Of course, there were some who still wanted to keep the stages, but they'd use them to store stuff on. (laughs) I was being treated like garbage, just some big piece of garbage. (laughs) I was singing in places like that, so it was just me with one guitar, and all around me there would be all this bleeping. (laughs) It was really bad. Then the next morning I would go off to play the next show and it would be just the same. I started to wonder why I had to keep on doing this, and when I think back now, that was a real do-or-die situation.
Where did the "There's times when you lose too" title come from?
Mikami: That was when I was just coming out of that period. I couldn't say that I was totally winning, and it felt like I was still losing. My plans got a lot bigger during that period. I can say now that it was the time when I could see things the clearest.
Your lyrics from that period have a lot of literary elements. Were you reading a lot?
Mikami: I was hardly reading at all then. When you are in that kind of world you don't have a lot of spare time, though I would read while I was moving from place to place. I would walk around with two guitars. When I think back now the music was very powerful - I was using an acoustic with heavy gauge strings and I would still break them. That's why I had to carry two of them. They're too painful to play now, but they still sold them back then. Do they still?
Only in the bigger shops. Even then there's no one who uses them any more. These days everyone uses light gauge.
Mikami: Even the light ones are painful, aren't they?
Foreign light gauge is the same as Japanese medium. I use guild strings but even those are pretty painful.
Mikami: So I'd have my two guitars, and a bag with one week's change of clothes. What must I have been like - walking through the snow, nowhere to stay so I'd crash at the houses of the venue owners who’d invited me. Their kids would be crying . . . . I'd like to make a film of it sometime. (laughs) It was really hard. Then I'd come home totally exhausted and there'd be a final demand for the rent and I wouldn't have paid the electric bill so there was no light. The water had been cut off. Of course, lots of musicians around the world go through a hell of a lot worse, but I think I've paid my dues too. Music is amazing in that respect. No matter how bad your situation is, no matter how unlucky you're being, you always have all you need, it's always the same. For example, if you are a novelist then if you don't have paper then you are fucked, but music isn't like that. At the time I really felt like I could do whatever I wanted, I could take my music wherever I wanted. Even if there is no one who will come to see you, and you have been forgotten, then that makes all the more free, doesn't it? The music is always going to be with you, and because there is nothing else you can choose whatever you want. In that respect it was free.
I hadn't heard anything about what happened to you in the late seventies so I'm very surprised by all of this.
Mikami: I don't like to talk about it much, so only my close friends really know about that period.
"I can laugh about it now, but they took me along to see a vocal coach…"
In the 80s you shifted label again, this time to Toshiba EMI, and you started to appear on TV more often.
Mikami: Around that time everyone started getting greedy for success, right? All the people I had known from before starting churning out hits. That was the peak of their success around that time. So they started wondering about what had happened to me, and King / Bellwood heard that I was down on my luck and approached me. They didn't have a lot of money, but they promised to do what they could, so I changed labels again. They released "There's times when you lose too". There's a lot of strings on that record. Too many names to mention but there were three or four members of the Boston and Berlin Philharmonic who appeared anonymously on that record.
There are hardly any of your own songs on that "Baby" record released by Toshiba EMI. Did you feel like singing other people's material?
Mikami: Briefly, at that time I approached a lot of majors but they didn't want to have anything to do with me. (laughs) Then Toshiba is a big famous company, and I reckon that they wanted me to have a hit record. I hadn't been too concerned when I was on Victor or King, but since it was Toshiba. They really tried hard. When I think about it now, the amount of people they called in to help, musicians offered their songs. It was like their last trump card.
Did you agree to all that?
Mikami: I agreed at the time. After they had finished making my record, all those people left and started up their own label (Funhouse). They made my record, so my position in the industry was . . . . it was like doing penance. They helped me out one time and then moved on to doing something very minor. They can relax and still sell records, but I think that they are going wrong - music isn't supposed to be like that.
You mean that you were used, in the best sense?
Mikami: If I think about it now I suppose I was.
Toshiba is famous for putting out best-of compilations, and they released a best of Mikami Kan as well, didn't they?
Mikami: When I think back now I am ashamed of the recording of that record. They would tell me how to sing, where to come in. I’m amazed I put up with it. (laughs) In the end the producer was showing me how to sing. (laughs) I can laugh about it now, but they took me along to see a vocal coach, the kind of place where they take small kids. This guy would say "And this is how you sing . . . ". Then they took me along to this room with a metronome counting off the beat, and I didn't know what to do. (laughs) Like, get me the fuck out of here! Well it was a good experience, all that idol singers today learn to sing like that, from some pattern.
You've got so many great stories.
Mikami: I had already quit by that time, but for some reason the head of Toshiba Records had taken an interest. He'd say, if we release that Mikami record the way it is the guy will become an even worse singer. He would order the guys in the studio to do all this stuff that was next to impossible. Everyone was always bitching about him. But there was a lot of pressure from above, and everyone was sensitive to it.
Was that why you quit?
Mikami: There was nothing else I could do.
"Maybe you could say I have perfected my own style."
Did you play out a lot around then?
Mikami: You can probably hear it in the records, but I knew some people from the Kansai Blues scene from a long time ago. I was playing out with them a lot, and I thought that maybe I was a bluesman as well. So I thought I'd better do it properly, shouting out "Get up!" and shit like that. (laughs) I tried to sing in that style but I didn't like it, and I ended up not going in that direction.
So in the end you came to realize that you were yourself?
Mikami: Yeah, though there was something mysterious about even that - I thought that I couldn't just go on in the same way. People wouldn't really like it, though that's a strange way to put it. There was no way I would become a major star, and I thought that maybe there was something wrong with me myself. I keep on changing, I sing and then I change again. Up until now there has been something wrong with that constant changing.
From what I've heard so far, you sound a bit like this guy, Anbe Koshun, who I like.
Mikami: Yeah. I've played together with him, and he's like me too. But I don't think I would like to be as big as he is. It's nothing to do with being minor or major being better though. I don't like the idea that music can only go so far, that there are things it can't say. I think that music can talk about everything there is in the world. Truly. Music isn't just something that can give you a bit of pleasure - you can turn everything on the planet into music. But if everyone became a musician, who would make the food? Essentially the world is vast, so when these classical musicians who deal with big themes like life and fate accuse us of being too limited, I think that they are mistaken.
Yeah. There shouldn't be any levels in music like that. Going back to what we said earlier, from about this time you started doing film and TV appearances at the same time as the music.
Mikami: At the start, I thought that if I appeared on TV more people would come to see me play live. But it didn't work that way at all. It was a total failure. (laughs)
But you learnt a lot from it?
Mikami: Definitely ! Up until that time I had done a lot of different things, but from that time onwards I began to choose stuff that would be of some benefit to me because work doesn't just materialize out of thin air. So I worked in TV and films, and I sought out things that were connected to music. There's even a relationship between music and slurping ramen, so there's not that difference between me as a reporter and me as a musician. I make sure that they don't tell me when I'm going to be on TV though. People will just start finding things they have said in my words. The directors and producers who use me all recognize me as a musician as well. They don't come to see me play live, but if we are filming together for three days or whatever they can sort of touch my musical soul anyway.
So from that time you were able to consolidate your unique position?
Mikami: Bit by bit I changed my way of doing things. At any rate, I take care of my life separately, and then I've got to protect the music itself as well. I used to concentrate on just the music, but full frontal attacks don't seem to work that well in Japan.
Were you mostly playing in live houses?
Mikami: Yeah. I started getting slightly larger audiences from around then. In Tokyo I played in Mandala once a month for eighteen years. In the end that was the only place I could play.
What about outside of Tokyo?
Mikami: In the seventies I was pretty much based in Kansai. I played around Kyushu and Okinawa too. In the eighties I played a lot in the north of Japan.
In 1987 you released the live album "Shokugyō", a mono recording from the jazz coffee shop Johnny in Rikuzentakata. How did you come to meet Terui-san, the owner?
Mikami: I think I first met him in 1979. Aketagawa asked me if I wouldn't play in Rikuzentakata, so I went and played for them. Terui-san is really interesting. He started off with this jazz coffee-shop, where there only ever about five customers. Then he changed it into a yakitori joint. (laughs) Aketagawa played him one of my records, but he really hated it. Said he never wanted to hear it again. It was the complete opposite of all the music he had been listening to, but even though he hated it, it stuck in his memory. So he decided to ask me to play, with the intention of proving to himself that he hated me. But when I played, he realized that this is what music really is.
Why was that record released in mono?
Mikami: That time in 1979 was when my electricity and water were cut off, and I even thought that I was no good myself. But when I heard that performance I realized that it doesn't matter what kind of life a musician has, if he decides to perform well he will. My lifestyle wasn't as bad as some, but I was going crazy every day. But when I listened to the tape I realized that I wasn't losing at all, that I hadn't lost any of my tension. So I released it for myself, just to say that you can't go on losing all the time. Releasing that record was like proving musically at least that I hadn’t been knocked off course.
The cover is stunning too.
Mikami: I just let Kuroda-san do whatever he wanted, and it was really good. I wonder how many copies of that record were sold? I have no idea.
Around the time you released that record your live performances began to get more complete as well.
Mikami: From around 1989 I stopped worrying about other things and the music gradually got better. I became able to play the music I wanted to. Before that I had been running all over the place worrying about stuff, but I had already mostly worked it out. Yeah. Over the past two or three years I have worked on my music so that I won't lose out to anyone. Maybe you could say I have perfected my own style.
Then there was the release of the video "Jōmon Songs". Why did you use the word "Jōmon"?
Mikami: Because of the breadth of the music, and because I have the same approach to my music as the so-called shamans used to have. Because music used to be something so much more massive than it is now.
That was the first time you had made anything for the screen?
Mikami: On video, yeah. I made a forty-five minute thing for TV about twenty years ago. But there wasn't anything like video back then.
Your songs were matched up to images of the rising sun and the iron foundries at Kamaishi.
Mikami: From about that time people became obliged to recognize my position. I was able to attain my own position, as a person, in the music.
And you knew that whatever happened from then on you would still be OK?
Mikami: I suppose so. But you can never tell with music. Because I had been playing for twenty years there was just no way I could go back again.
Then there was a long period when you didn't release any records. Were you still writing a lot of songs?
Mikami: I was always aware of the songs - so I suppose that means I was still writing them.
What kind of songs were they?
Mikami: The ones I am singing now. I got the original ideas for the songs on the new album ten years ago. And there's still a lot of new ones to come. I don't write the idea down at the time, I save it up for the future. Ideas are still good for twenty years.
 1904-78. Japanese popular composer and guitarist, often considered as one of the founders of enka.  Mikami was born in the forbidding far north of Japan. Aomori is the largest city in that part of the country.  The nearest town to Mikami's village. It comes up often in his early lyrics.  Mikami's home village.  Japanese schools and universities have a festival once a year where the students put on various kinds of performances and displays.  Radical dramatist and poet. Also from the north of Japan.  Famous artist / graphic designer / stage designer whose weird psychedelic ukiyo-e and 1920s nostalgia themes gave many of the 60s avant-garde theatre crew, including Terayama, a real distinctive look.  An area of Tokyo, a hangout of the underground hipsters in the sixties and seventies. Even today parts of Shinjuku are somewhat less than salubrious.  Outside and to the south of Tokyo, near Kamakura.  Kansai refers to the west of Japan, the area around Osaka and Kyoto. The Tokyo area is referred to as Kantō.  Japan’s Bob Dylan (maybe). Famous for dropping out of the music “biz” to go and grow cabbages.  Marui department store.  Legendary and now deceased free jazz alto saxophonist.  Novelist Yukio Mishima's private "army" who assisted in his famous suicide.  Japanese terrorist group who became involved in several “incidents” in the seventies. Several of its members are still on Japan’s most-wanted list.  Traditional Japanese stringed instrument. The instrument of itinerant story tellers.  Radical form of dance, "invented" by the other avant-garde giant of the north, Tatsumi Hijikata.  Legendary Tokyo drinking area of alleyways, ramshackle bars, and disreputable cabarets.  Two of the big names in Japanese folk in the early 70s.  Enka is traditional Japanese song also associated with the bleak north. Sentimental and earthy, it has been compared to American C and W, but with more songs about fisherman than about truck drivers.  Famous free-jazz pianist.  Japan’s most remarkable female jazz vocalist. Renowned for always wearing black, smoking a lot and releasing a ton of inspired dark records, some of which have been re-issued on CD.  "The broken-hearted motorbike".  "The Mikami Engineering Works are walking".  "From memories of a red sunset".  Aomori festival, where pictures of samurai heroes, folklore monsters etc are painted on huge paper lanterns and carried around the town.  "There's times when you lose too".  Famous kitsch female idol band of the late seventies.  Cool actor of yakuza roles, perhaps best known in the West for his portrayal of the psychopathic gangster in Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain”. He died of cancer shortly after completing the film.  Famous live house in Kichijōji. Home to many folk singers, and other alternative acts.  Shōji Aketagawa. Jazz pianist and owner of the legendary Aketa’s Place basement jazz-dive in Nishi-Ogikubo, where Mikami played a regular monthly duo with percussionist Toshi Ishitsuka.  Jazz coffee-shops were hangouts for the avant-garde community in the seventies - as the name suggests the shop had a large stock of jazz records that you could request. Some of them also put on gigs by Japan’s minuscule free-jazz community. There were (and are) rock and classical coffee-shops as well.  Jōmon refers to the earliest period of Japanese pre-history.