Summer 1994: A snap-shot from G-Modern Vol. 6 of Naoki Zushi, member of Hallelujahs, Nagisa Ni Te and the original Hijokaidan- a boundary-breaking guitarist on his evolution and path forward at that pivotal time in his work. Interview conducted Shinji Shibayama on December 4, 1993 at Zushi's home, translated from the original Japanese by Justin Simon.
Naoki Zushi is a rare breed of musician - he can tell stories with his guitar. There is a distinct, multi-layered quality to his work thus far. While his lyrics and melodies provide an underlying storyline, his guitar work provides an extra strata of meaning on top. When I use the term “storyline,” I don’t mean to imply that Zushi’s work has a simplistic sense of narrative. At the same time, Zushi doesn’t run from narrative development, and offers more than a mere patchwork of dull sounds. Which is all to say that Zushi’s performances and recordings occupy a space the music industry has no interest in. And he has a unique ability to impart a raw sense of his personal entanglement with the world at large. Much like Tim Buckley’s “Song Slowly Song” or Robbie Robertson’s “Unfaithful Servant,” Zushi’s ‘Paradise’ album is filled with tales, and could only have been made by him. These tales take the form of music, and while they might go over the heads of some, they will certainly linger with others, resonating in a new way.
Zushi no longer lives in Kyoto and currently leads a quiet life in his hometown of Okayama with his wife and children. But, in a flip of the typical musician script, Zushi’s drive to create has only grown stronger, and he continues making home recordings, one after the next (he plans to announce his second album when the time is right).
Over the years, Zushi has consistently played an important role in some heavy groups - Rasenkaidan, Original Hijokaidan, Spiral Stairs, and Idiot O’Clock. The fairly reticent Zushi agreed to an interview recently, and expounded on a number of fascinating topics. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
- I brought a tape of mine to Drugstore* . At the time (1979), Drugstore held what they called “tape concerts,” so I figured it was there or nowhere. I’d gone to a Van Der Graaf Generator “record concert” at Drugstore, and thought “Whoa! This is great”…and that’s roughly when I became a regular. I met Jojo (Hiroshige)** there around that time, too.
* Drugstore was a strange “rock cafe” in business from the late ‘70s to the early ‘80s that played a lot of progressive rock, avant-garde and
free music, but which generally defied categorization. Refer to back issues of G-Modern for more information
**Founder of Hijokaidan, one of the worlds first true noise groups, and the Alchemy Label
-I started making tapes of multi-tracked recordings at home during highschool. The first tape I brought to Drugstore had a progressive rock feel to it, with endless guitar solos. But I’d already moved onto noise by the time I brought them my second tape…
-I wasn’t influenced by other noise records when I first started making noise, it just happened naturally. I tried a bunch of different approaches, just seeing what I was capable of, and that’s what came out…at the time, I wasn’t familiar with any so-called noise records.
-I hated the progressive rock of the time, with its sentimental synthesizers and weepy guitars. I wanted to make something that could wake you up. And Jojo seemed interested in doing the same kind of thing, so it was perfect timing. I wanted to make progressive rock to wake you up, not put you to sleep. [laughs]
-So we made plans to jam. It started with the three of us - me, Jojo, and Idiot (Kenichi Takayama). Idiot was already singing lead vocals in Rasenkaidan by the time I joined (1979). And right around that time, maybe a couple months later, Jojo and I started talking about doing something else. That’s how we started Hijokaidan. Hijokaidan played a bunch of shows while we were still doing Rasenkaidan. Actually, I guess it was just two shows. [laughs]
-Jojo wasn’t a fan of traditional “live performances,” like with chords and melodies… Jojo really can’t make anything but noise. I mean, for him, that’s just normal music. I think his music just naturally turned out that way. I was always interested in improvised music, but I’ve lost interest in that form of improvisation [noise]. If anything…I feel like I was constantly trying to bring improvisation into a context where communication with others was possible. Like, how could improvisation fit into a space with room for communication? I asked myself this question for a long time after I left Hijokaidan. I might still be wrestling with this question. But at the time I may have had a romantic notion [of improvisation] in my head…I guess I think about it a bit differently now.
-I don’t think music needs concrete communication on the level of, say, two drummers communicating in Africa, like with talking drums or something. But I kind of romanticize the way musicians can lose themselves in sound. Like lose all sense of themselves in the sounds made by others…in a good way. I don’t think it’s always good to hold too firmly to a sense of self…like maybe it’s ok to lose it sometimes? And by “losing a sense of oneself,” I mean blacking out, willingly. It’s fine to put yourself out there, like “me, me, me.” You have to. But I think you can still lose yourself when you take that approach… At the same time I feel like it might be a mistake to get too romantic about “losing oneself.”
-When I say “losing oneself,” I’m talking about something real. Completely real. Not a romantic idea. Like when you’re asleep, you lose yourself, right? When you lose your consciousness, you really lose yourself, and it isn’t some kind of romantic notion. What I’m getting at is similar. But what’s different is that it’s not simply losing your consciousness or falling asleep, it’s more like awakening to the presence of someone else’s sound - actually, there doesn’t even have to be another person there - and simultaneously losing yourself in the process. That’s what makes it totally different from losing consciousness or falling asleep. But that’s a pretty romantic idea. [laughs]
-I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I was in Hijokaidan. Back then (in 1979), I was just looking for a brutal sound. To wake people up. That’s it. [laughs] But eventually I felt like there was a limit to what I could do in Hijokaidan. And pretty soon Rasenkaidan got busy, and JOJO quit Rasenkaidan to focus on Hijokaidan… He asked me, “Aren’t you gonna join me?” [laughs] but at the time I thought I could try out a wider range of approaches with Rasenkaidan. And I didn’t follow Hijokaidan at all after I left. Rasenkaidan was primarily song-based, but we improvised some parts, too. And Idiot wrote great songs… But we didn’t really buckle down until Riradan (1980) and Idiot O’Clock (1981). We were still figuring things out in Rasenkaidan.
-Riradan and Idiot O’Clock didn’t get a whole lot of attention. [laughs] But those were the days I was most devoted to free improvisation. I always wanted to improvise more, and try new things out with new people. When I was on the fence about quitting Idiot O’Clock (1982), I went to Tokyo and jammed and played shows with people like Akevonoiz, Toshi Tanaka, Kitagawa, Jujuka…I did all sorts of things in those days... And I think it was my interest in improvisation that drove me to do all that.
-I was feeling kind of mixed up when I did the Naoki Zushi Unit (1983). I played a lot of shows but …I just couldn’t find new territory to explore.
-But yeah, I really feel like I gained a lot during my time with Idiot O’Clock…it’s hard to put into words, though.
-As far as ‘Paradise’ (1987)…it was sort of a collection of songs that had meant something to me up to that point. And by that I mean…it was my paradise. [laughs] I wanted to create paradise, or something like that. Even now, that record means a lot to me. But it’s not like my whole life still revolves around that record. [laughs]
-These days, I’m deep into “pre-meditative music”…It’s something I’ve been thinking on recently. It’s different from so-called new age music, but…I’m trying a bunch of different approaches. And I have plenty of songs, if I ever wanted to release some music…I mean, I’ve made so many tapes.
Zushi doesn’t seem interested in forming a band or playing shows these days. But he also doesn’t seem content staying home and making multi-track recordings by himself. The simple act of wrestling with sound - with no plans for formal releases or public performances - has become a natural part of his daily routine. I was surprised by his recent work - some pieces don’t feature guitar at all, or consist of him “merely” strumming his guitar. Some even find him skillfully incorporating electronic beats. But each song effectively warps my internal sense of time, and each brims with Zushi’s distinctive flavor, something simultaneously intimidating and warm. Listening to Zushi’s music, I recall the shock I felt when I first heard Ervin Nyiregyházi’s “Rose on the Heath.” At the time, I felt as if the sound gave me a glimpse of something I shouldn’t see with my own eyes, and as a result the music had an appealing air of danger.
Likewise, if it’s a sound made by Zushi, I’d like to see it. And to lose myself in it…