A conversation with Keiji Haino on his early years and Watashi Dake?
Interview conducted on January 29, 2017 in Kawagoe by Takeshi Goda. English translation and notes by Alan Cummings.
H = Keiji Haino G = Takeshi Goda
G: How did you first come to perform at Kichijōji Minor? 
H: At the time I was crashing at the house of this friend of mine, another musician, in Fussa. I have this memory that Takafumi Satō called me up out of the blue. I hadn’t heard about Minor until he called. I don’t remember if he asked me to come and play there and then, but that was how we first got in touch and I started to go and play there. I think the first time may have been the at the memorial concert for Kaoru Abe. Anyway, I played at Minor first and then later I started playing at Raoya.
G: How did you come to form Fushitsusha? H: There were lots of musicians living in Fussa at the time, so I got to know lots of them. One of the people I met was (Shūhei) Takashima. He ended up coming to see me play solo at Minor and out of the blue he said that I should let him play drums. Like he was the only possible drummer for me. So I thought OK, if you’re that sure of it, go ahead. G: Were you already planning on putting a group together? H: I wanted to form a group, yes. I think I was already playing in the duo with Shiraishi by then. G: So the first version of Fushitsusha was a duo with Shiraishi? H: That’s right. He played synth. G: And when did you start using Fushitsusha as the name for the group?
H: I can’t remember if I decided to retrospectively call it Fushitsusha or if I decided that was what I would call my next group. I really can’t remember.
G: There was that manifesto that talked about the beginning of Fushitsusha that you wrote in Amalgam, the bulletin that Satō published at Minor. So you must have already had the name then.
H: It’s unclear if there were any members in the group when I wrote that.
G: It would have been around the same time that you were playing with Shiraishi. That was the time when you were referring to yourself as “watashi yo”.
H: Show me?
G: How did you move from “watashi yo” to the album title Watashi Dake? That decision to add “yo” to “watashi”, to my mind that signals that you weren’t using it as a simple personal pronoun. Is there a link between that and Watashi Dake?
H: They’re not exactly the same. I was using “watashi yo” from the time of Amanogawa(1973), as a kind of penname. In reality, the full name was much longer – “Gods’ Orchestra White Watashi Yo”. I wanted to draw a distinction between the kind of particles that people usually use (after personal pronouns) in Japanese – wa, ga, mo, ni . That was why I decided to use yo. At that the time I think that I used to say to people that “watashi yo” would be doing whatever. That’s exactly how I used it in that text (the manifesto).
G: Was there something conscious behind “watashi yo” becoming just Watashi?
H: No one got it. People would keep saying “what?” I wouldn’t say “watashi ga”, I’d say “watashi yo ga” and they’d look at me weirdly.
G: Just to clarify: so you’d been playing solo for a long time, then you had that break when you stopped playing shows, and you were studying breathing and rhythm and jazz. And it was then that you used “watashi yo”? Then when you started to play live again (at Minor), you stopped needing it?
H: No, I still used it at the start, when I was playing at Minor.
G: But once you had started Fushitsusha, it started getting tedious, or might it be better to say that the idea of watashi wa watashi (I am I) began to sprout in your mind?
H: That’s right.
G: In that sense, when you had been using yo then you dropped it, your choice of Watashi Dake? as a title and the decision to add a question mark feels very meaningful. Anyway, going back, so you started playing with Fushitsusha, and you were also playing solo?
H: Fushitsusha starts around ’77. But for me, internally, it began before that but there were no members. When I played solo, there was nothing to say it was Fushitsusha, but for me inside it was, even if I was playing solo. So the first version of Fushitsusha was me solo. Fushitsusha the word is not plural, it’s not like Fushitsushas.
G: Yes, it’s singular.
H: But at the same time I never want to hear anyone saying “The Fushitsusha”.
G: So, Satō closes Minor and starts Pinakotheca Records. After Minor shut, I’ve heard that everyone was looking for somewhere new to perform. How were you feeling then?
H: One thing I’d say is that people now, including you, they draw up a kind of plan whenever they plan to do something. I want to do this, or I want to do that. But, you know, wanting to do this or wanting to do that really means that there’s nothing you want to do. Really wanting to do something is a power that cannot be stopped, it isn’t limited by whether there is a place to play. That’s how I felt then and how I still feel. That means that if I had received no offers after Minor closed, I might no longer be playing music in front of people. I’m confident that my love of music wouldn’t have changed, so I might just have been listening to records and collecting them. I never had an urgency about performing. If I wasn’t getting invited to perform, it wouldn’t get me down. It was nothing new – no one invited Lost Aaraaff to play either. But kids now, if they don’t get invited to play regularly they start to get anxious, I think. “Oh? No one wants to hear me play?” The wavelength of that process is really short for them. Listen to me, acting all hardcore, so uncool. But for me not getting asked to play was just normal. That’s how I felt.
G: Your state of mind didn’t depend at all on having somewhere to play?
H: In one sense it’s universal. But then I got asked to play at Gyatei . And back then, if someone asked, I never turned them down. If I went and had a fight with the owner, that’s the only time I could say no. So it was just like, “Come and play”, “OK”. I was living near Minor, and it wasn’t that far to Gyatei. So I went and I played.
G: So you had already moved to Kichijōji by then?
H: I was living in Kichijōji around the time that Minor was winding down. What year did it shut?
G: It existed from 1978 to October 1980, so just three years.
H: When I was playing in the duo with Shiraishi I wasn’t living in Kichijōji yet. So I must have moved there shortly after Fushitsusha came together.
G: Did you move to Kichijōji because of Minor?
H: No. I had to move for other reasons and by chance I ended up living there.
G: And it turned out there was Minor, then there was Gyatei.
H: But there was no Parco yet. (laughs)
G: But there were some record stores too, right?
H: A few. Not that many.
G: There was Georgia and Ongakusha and Meruridō, and… Georgia was run by Gotō from Pass Records.
H: Meruridō was daunting to go into at first. It specialized in American rock. In ’78 and ’79 I wasn’t listening to much blues or black music yet, but Meruridō was in the neighborhood so I could go by every day. But at first the clerks had this kind of attitude, like “who the fuck are you? Beat it”. Then they started to carry sixties psych reissues, and they were importing them themselves so it was the cheapest place to buy them. From the prices they were charging, they must have had a really low margin. So there was Meruridō, then there was Disk Inn on the second floor. I used to visit those two stores. Disk Inn carried new releases.
G: They had the whole floor, right?
H: Right, they had so much stock. I bought releases by new bands there. I was listening to 80s new wave but not the plinky-plonky stuff, more psychedelic renaissance like The Only Ones, groups like that. Then one day I decided to listen to black music, so I went back to Meruridō and finally got to know the clerks.
G: So you were still going on being you, whether there was a place to play or not. How did the idea of releasing a record come about?
H: It came from Satō, of course. I’d never thought about releasing a record. I’ve talked about this in another interview but I wanted to just disappear, like sand. This is a deliberately business-like way of putting it – the reason why I can still play live is because it’s important, the most important thing.
G: Switching topic again, when you came to give a talk at Waseda University around the first half of 2000, I asked you why it was that you had released Watashi Dake? in 1981 and then nothing for the rest of the 80s. Then in the 90s you started releasing this flood of records.
H: I think I gave a really easy to understand answer.
G: You said that you can’t survive just by eating mist.
H: That’s still true.
G: Yes. I could only agree with you.
H: Plus I have three more cats to feed now.
G: I have this image of your music as being entirely unconnected to any commercial concerns. Why is that?
H: If we were still living under the 19th century patronage system, I could get away with that kind of conceit. When I first met Uli Trepte, it was after the release of Watashi Dake? so around 1982, the first time I went to the US. I was fortunate enough to meet him and I still remember one thing he said. “If you wait for people to ask you to play, you’ll never get asked. In the 60s people would sit around acting cool and waiting for the phone to ring, then when it did they’d get all excited. But now, if you don’t put yourself out there, then you won’t get any work.” That really stuck with me. When Lost Aaraaff started putting on concerts with Les Rallizes Denudes, it was because we were already having a really hard time. There was no one who was going to ask us to play otherwise, apart from some university festivals. Our drummer, Takahashi, who plays with Seikatsu Kōjyō Iinkai now, in a really positive sense he was like a strategist and he had this political side to him, and he found us work. That was one of his strongest points, and I bow my head to him. It was like we had our own publicist. If it had just been up to me, we would never have found anywhere to play. Like, he’d invite (Mototeru) Takagi to play with us. Takahashi went to see Takagi playing somewhere and he just went up to him after and ask him if he wanted to play with us. And Takagi said yes. He just said, sure, you guys are cool so I’ll play with you. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it was like that. Takahashi would just go up to people and ask. I remember that there were just five people in the audience.
G: Then later it becomes this legendary show. But at the time there was no one who thought it was amazing! Anyway, you’d never thought about releasing a record, but then Satō asked you to. How did you feel?
H: I’ve already talked about that in another interview. I’d got to hear the Third Ear Band through their records, so even if only 1000 people would get to hear my album, I’d still choose to release it. If I hadn’t started to make records, I would never have got to play outside Japan. So the life I have now was thanks to that decision. It was the beginning.
G: Had you been asked to contribute to Aiyoku Jinmin Juji Gekijo before?
H: Was that first? I thought it came later.
G: So you were asked to do the solo album first?
H: Eh? Maybe I am getting confused with Welcome to Dreamland.
G: Aiyoku Jinmin Juji Gekijo was the compilation that had the performances from the last Juji Gekijo show.
H: I thought it came out later.
G: It was the first release on Pinakotheca.
H: No, Nord came first. Nord was definitely their first release. No matter what the catalog numbers say, Watashi Dake? took time to put together so Nord came out before.
G: Aiyoku Jinmin Juji Gekijo was the first release, then Nord by Nord, then there was an ad that ran a few times in (the Minor bulletin) Amalgam apologizing for the delay with your album.
H: Yes, it was delayed for a year. (laughs)
G: When you decided to make the album, did you already have some ideas for the title and the tracks you wanted to include?
G: No ideas at all? Really?
G: Please tell me about the process of recording.
H: Satō knew this guy who lived in Higashi Fushimi and had a studio there where you could record. So, we decided to use his studio. It was a brand new studio, a private one in his house. I still remember it.
G: So you decided to record at his studio.
H: Satō wanted to make a proper record, so I think he probably only wanted to use studio recordings. But for me studios are dead space. I need to know how I can use the reverb or I can’t create my sense of atmosphere. Thinking back now, I have a feeling that we recorded at night, because I couldn’t get the feeling that I wanted.
G: In the middle of the night?
H: I think so. That record really was just the way it sounds.
G: The darkness of night.
H: I have a feeling that it was pitch-black in the studio when we recorded “I Can’t Do It Properly”. And on some of the other tracks it was too dark for me to see where the microphone was. I had this idea that I wanted to have to grope blindly on the guitar to find each individual sound, starting from nothing. I wanted to create the music from a place of absolute nothingness.
G: That’s really fascinating. How many days did you record for?
H: Two or three days, I think. It wasn’t any longer than that.
G: The tapes from the sessions are really long. Did you just keep them running?
H: They are long.
G: How did you decide what to record?
H: Nothing was planned.
G: Not even the lyrics?
H: Nothing. I made them up on the spot. How can I put it? The way I was playing then, I would play and a pattern would emerge. One of the challenges was always how much I could remember, but I would add some lyrics to the pattern. Singing was really important to me. I wanted to make a record of songs. The way I was playing these long pieces, I wanted to betray everyone’s expectation that if they bought one of my records it would have one long noisy piece on each side.
G: You love betraying expectations, don’t you?
H: I do. In a really deliberate way. Like an antithetical Keiji Haino. It’s really rare that I use the word deliberate, but this was a perfect example. I had this really strong conviction that I wanted to record a 1920s country blues record that hadn’t yet been made. If I am going to be compared or placed in some genre, there are all types of rock, and there’s classical, jazz, ethnic music, electronic music, etc. But, for me, I wanted to be filed in the country blues section at Meruridō.
G: So you had a really concrete image for the record?
H: I did. For me it’s “contemporary country blues”.
G: The writer Shinya Matsuyama wrote that you were listening to medieval music at the time.
H: Of course, yes. I told him that. I can’t remember who it was now, John Duncan maybe that first time I went to the US, or Alan Cummings, but they asked me how they could best explain my music to someone who hadn’t heard it before. And I said, “a fusion of Gregorian chant and country blues”. Or maybe I just said blues, I can’t remember now.
G: Thirties stuff…
H: 20s. I talk about white and black in the lyrics.
G: On the track “Majiwaru na”.
G: The album title is Watashi Dake?, then the lyrics also mention ‘myself’ and not being able to mimic yourself. Maybe it’s an odd question, but was there still a link there to the time when you were using “watashi yo”?
H: Mmm, yes.
G: It feels like you haven’t changed.
H: I haven’t.
G: Since those lyrics were improvised on the spot, does that mean that in your work you always put a special emphasis on the idea of “watashi”?
H: It’s always the same. If you’re conscious of something and thinking about it, whenever you enter a natural state of freedom it will emerge as words. In everyday speech no ones ever naturally uses difficult adjectives or really complex, overworked phrases, or philosophical terms. “Mum, the water’s hot!” That’s what you say, not some other complicated phrase.
G: Right, no one uses words like ‘boiling point’ at that moment.
G: So on that first recording those words came out naturally?
H: Well, I was 28 by then and that was important. I probably couldn’t have done it when I was a teenager or 22 or 23.
G: You’ve talked about being a fan of early garage bands and those are literally high school kids singing about hating the world. But those bands all fall apart and there’s a regret to that, isn’t there?
H: Yes, right. If those bands had managed to find a direction, they could have created many things. That’s how I feel.
G: So it would be fair to say that the 28 year old you who recorded Watashi Dake? was an evolution out of garage rock?
H: As I have said many times before I believed that I was an attorney for rock. I probably felt that most strongly around then. It wasn’t like I had stopped listening to rock and things are hard to recall in detail now, but I think I was listening to more medieval music and jazz.
G: As Matsuyama said, you and medieval music fit tightly together.
H: Well, it’s more like there was no one else listening to medieval music. And there still isn’t.
G: What were you reading at the time? I know that you had been interested in Artaud from before, but I’ve also heard that there was a kind of competition at Minor to read difficult books.
H: I had no interest in that, because in one sense I didn’t want to understand. People spend time together because they share a few things in common. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t take drugs, so I was already missing three big points of connection. I don’t spend time with people.
G: Another question. When you were making Watashi Dake? had you decided from the outset that it was going to be a solo record?
H: It was. Satō had said that he wanted to make a solo album, so I never asked him about doing it as a band or adding any other players.
G: You two were on the same wavelength.
H: We were. I don’t know what image Satō had in his head, it could have been one long loud piece on each side, I guess. If we’d done that, the recording would have been finished in one day.
G: So he never suggested it?
H: He said nothing. He let me do whatever I wanted. When I played something he’d just say something like “oh that’s really interesting” or “that’s great”. It all comes down to how you define what a producer is. I don’t really know how much power they have today, but in the past they were like a sponsor for the recording, weren’t they? It takes money to make a record. It wasn’t like today where you can press 1000 CDs for $900. Back then pressing 1000 LPs cost a lot of money. They used to say then that if you pressed 1000, you had to sell over 500 to get into the black. But my record, with all the printing, and the film and processing costs for Gin (Satoh), I have no idea how much it cost in the end.
G: So three days of recording, and how long did the photography take?
H: A whole year! (laughs painfully)
G: Was there anything that you learnt from Satoh?
H: What do you mean?
G: I heard that at those sessions you two fought a lot, saying this is wrong or that is wrong. Were there times when you had to accept his perspective as correct?
H: What I felt was that there’s a difference between the subject’s desire and the photographer’s desire. I understood that. I was 27 or 28 at the time, so I was already past that point where you make it all about you, or I was moving in that direction at least. Even when I was younger I was trying not to make it all about me, but by this time I think I had some more room in my heart, for when things get really tough. There was stubbornness too, when we’d both be demanding an explanation for why things had to be a certain way. That kind of discord, mostly I think it’s something in your own mind, but at the sessions we would lock horns. But then when we heard the explanation the tension would go back down again.
G: What would he be saying?
H: He had his opinions about what looked cool or which poses he hated. But then again, if he only ever talked about whether things were in focus or not, I wouldn’t have worked with him. If he’d been the kind of photographer who’d say a photograph was cool because it was perfectly in focus, I would have given up. So I think I really learnt that there is a big difference to how things feel on either side of the lens. It’s exactly the same as the way I use acchi (over there) and kocchi (near here).
G: I see.
H: Or the relationship between the passive and the active. I had been thinking about that stuff before, but in those sessions it was a clear and concrete fact.
G: You really experienced it.
H: The awareness that the sender can never complete things on their own.
G: And the result of that was the paired “dark morning” and “bright night” images on the jacket, wasn’t it?
H: We each chose one image.
G: You’d wanted to have metallic printing at the time, and now that has finally been realized for this reissue. Is it true that the gold print on the front cover is based on a test print that Satoh made at the time and kept?
H: That’s right. I was told at the time that if we went with that, then we’d have to sell each record for 20 or 30 thousand yen. He had made a test print and asked me what I thought. But when I said it was great and let’s go with it, he just said that there was no way. (laughs)
G: So he made it and showed it to you even though he knew you couldn’t use it?
H: He said that if each record would have to retail at 30,000 yen. If I had been a certain type of record collector, one of those maniac types, then I might have ended up insisting we do it. But from the moment we decided to make the album, I was determined to sell 1000 copies. I didn’t want it to end up as one of those records were there are only 10 copies in existence.
G: You wanted people to hear it.
H: Right. I realized that when I heard the Third Ear Band. With Blue Cheer you could hear them normally (on the radio), but you are never going to come across something like the Third Ear Band in an everyday situation.
G: There are several live tracks on the album. The first track, “My Refuge” was recorded at Goodman. You can hear the piano.
H: My butt hit the piano by accident.
G: I remember the first time I heard the album, with these rustling sounds flying left and right and then the sudden rumble of the piano. It had a huge impression on me.
H: I didn’t intend it that way. If that had been a studio recording, that sound would have been removed as something extraneous. I only listen to it once every ten years, but even I think that sense of tension is amazing. The atmosphere feels concentrated.
G: It was you who chose the order of the tracks and which sections to use from longer tapes, right?
H: It was all me.