“The thing I care the most about is tone”
An interview with Phew from G-Modern #9, September 1995
+ 3 Album Reviews
The following interview was first printed in G-Modern Vol. 9 which was published in the autumn of 1995. It was conducted shortly after Phew had completed recording and mastering her album Himitsu no Knife which was released by the Creativeman Disc/Alida label in Japan. The conversation is informal covering a wide range of topics such as Phew’s perspectives on the early Japanese and British punk scenes, her travels in eastern Europe and her creative process. Over the course of the interview she sometimes peruses and comments on issues of the then relatively new G-Modern music magazine.
The article also includes reviews for three albums discussed over the course of the interview: Phew “Himitsu no Knife” 1995 Blind Light “The Absence of Time” 1994 Dagmar Andrtová “Golden Gate” 1995
Interviewed and written by Satoshi Iwabuchi, Translated for Black Editions by Taketo Shimada.
Phew was one of the few artists I was curious about among the artists who came out with the punk scene of the early 80s. They—Phew, Machizou Machida, Friction—are still active now. Rock music lyrics written in Japanese might not be special these days, but I feel there are fewer singers who can overpower you solely from the words they sing. I was able to talk to Phew and hear not only how she started and what she’s been doing lately, but also some inspirational wisdom from her. P = Phew S = Satoshi Iwabuchi
I just realized, you are from the Tokyo Rockers generation
S: (looking at Blind Light—Absence of Time LP1 ) I hardly see this record around.
P: I heard Wave stocked it once, but nothing after that… S: I saw it at Disk Union once. I knew it was out but I had no idea where to buy it since I couldn’t find any information about it. P: I’ll be sure to be in touch with you from now on, so please, sell as much as you can. (laugh) (as she glances at G-Modern #8) Tori Kudo… the name brings back memories. S: The magazine [G-Modern] started with a bang, with a Keiji Haino feature in the first issue. We are trying to feature Machizou Machida2 (who is using his real name Ko Machida since 1995), I think it’s good timing since the movie3 just came out.
P: I heard he wants to record in the Summer. S: Have you played with Steve Beresford? (We talk about him in the beginning of G-Modern #8) P: I have, with Yoshihide Otomo. S: Right—at P34, sorry, I couldn’t remember. How long has it been between the new LP5 your last one?
P: It must be since Our Likeness.6
S: When was it released? P: I think it was 1992. S: So it’s been about three years. What’s going on with Novo-Tono 8 days?
P: We did a show last January but haven’t played since then. We thought we might record so we rehearsed for it, but it fell through… We all live far away from each other, and they are all very busy, so it’s hard to schedule a practice where we’d all be there. S: Right, it must be hard. Even if you tried to schedule a show, (Yoshihide) Otomo-san is very busy, (Masahiro) Uemura-san is very busy as well… P: They are not even in Japan most of the time. S: Otomo-san probably spends half his time in other countries. So you guys haven’t played together for about a year? P: I think so. S: I’ve followed your career since the Aunt Sally days. P: That must have been pretty arduous. (laugh) (looking at G-Modern #4) Ah! You’ve even written about me, thank you very much (laugh). S: Recently, I met some girls. They are all 24 years old and they don’t know anything about the Tokyo Rockers8. They even said they can’t really relate to it. Then I realized I am about the same age as them.
P: Right. S: I was talking with (Yuichi Jibiki 9) so I could contact you for this interview, and I was looking at Eater. (a street magazine by Yuichi Jibiki’s Telegraph Factory record label. As I write this interview, only the first issue has been printed. The inaugural issue was centered around interviews that deal with music. I look forward to their future direction and development.) We all know the artists featured in the magazine, but people who are just starting to listen to music have no idea who they are.
P: Right, I think so too. But on the other hand, I don’t know much about bands that are coming out now, close to nothing actually. (laugh) S: I’ve always wanted to do a Phew interview. A while ago, my friend Makoto Otsu (played guitar and keyboard for Songs10 and View11 by Phew) played me a demo track where you are singing along with only a guitar in the background, and I thought it sounded refreshing and really liked it.
P: Do you know when it was from? Around when we recorded View? S: I think it was recorded sometime between View and Songs. P: Then I think it’s from the recordings we used to make before we would start practicing. S: I thought it was simple but great. P: I didn’t even know of its existence—no wonder it’s simple. S: I think I encountered it when I wanted to listen to something more immediate than rock… I’ve always wanted to ask you, did you feel a kind of unease among the punk scene in the early 80’s? P: You mean within the punk scene? S: Right. P: Yes, I’ve always felt that. But I feel ambivalent about positioning certain scenes in general. S: I was wondering if you felt that at the time… P: I can’t quite put my head around punk rock in Japan. I understand punks were around since late 1976 in England, but the situations in London, England and Japan are totally different, things like unemployment rates are not the same… So it doesn’t feel real if we just imitate the style… S: It is usually on a surface level, like fashion… P: Well, if you can pull off the fashion as something cool, I don’t have any problem with it… S: There’s a definite gap in the motivations. P: Totally, I couldn’t really relate to them. S: To which side? P: To the Japanese punk scene… I don’t even know if it really existed, maybe it was manufactured. I think it just made it easier for the musicians in the scene to get gigs that way. It’s hard to gain traction when you are by yourselves and unknown, it might make you more visible if you form a crowd. I feel like that was the reason why it started – it was manufactured… S: It’s easier to sell more tickets if you bundle bands together and call it a movement, it might just be that… Some of them sound pretty psychedelic when I listen to it now. Like Friction sounds psychedelic after (Masatoshi) Tsunematsu left the band, it doesn’t sound punk rock. P: Which period of Friction do you mean after Masatoshi left? S: Tsunematsu san left and then Emi san12 joined, around that time. Lately I think they sound more like when they started. I wonder how many bands from that time are still around? P: I think more than you think – not all of them but many of them still play.
The only thing I felt sympathetic about with punk rock from London was the fact that they negated hippies, dismissed a part of their past
S: I talked about it in there (G-Modern #4) as well, but the sound of Phew’s music reminds me of Europe, not that I’ve lived there. P: In what sense? I am trying to understand. S: I feel that it’s standing tall among the crowd but it’s not shouting about individualism. You know the Japanese idiom, “Anmoku no Ryoukai” (unspoken understanding or unwritten rule) P: Just like “Ishin Denshin”. (In tune with each other, kind of telepathic communication, ability to understand one another without language) S: Maybe you negate that kind of easy compromise. P: You feel that in my approach? I wonder if people see me that way. (laugh) S: Maybe you are not even negating, you are that way from the beginning. P: You might be right, I’ve always been this way, I am not consciously designing my approach in any way. S: I thought maybe the unease you felt in the scene came out in your work unconsciously. I feel that way from reading the Eater article and talking to you just now. P: It might not even be an unease, I just couldn’t find anything I can feel sympathetic about. S: Just like that. P: I can say the same thing to punk rock from London or the Rock Against Racism or something like that, I just couldn’t agree with their political opinions. It just seemed pretty childish, and it might sound irresponsible, but as someone who is born and raised in Japan—in large part I’m just not into it. The only thing I feel sympathetic about with punk rock from London was the fact that they negated hippies, dismissed a part of their past. They sounded pretty good, but I felt they are on their way to becoming something. Musically, I really liked the guitar playing of Tom Verlaine from New York. S: I’m not sure if the punks brought anything new musically to the table either. When we look back on the hippie movement now, people of the Anpo generation13, who are about a decade older than me, were right in the middle of it. I feel like their demonstrations and political actions might have created a worse environment for the generation that followed them. They may not have made it worse but they kind of threw in the towel without really taking responsibilities for their actions, and that makes me angry. Do you feel that way?
P: Right now, I’m about the same age as the people of the Anpo generation were when I was in my early 20’s. (laugh) So I don’t want to be repeating the same old stories. (laugh) What I felt hostile about was when I was in my late teens, people in their 30’s would say “When I was your age things were more exciting” or “It didn’t used to be this way”. I thought those were unfair, because that’s something I was too young to experience. But they wanted us to use their past as examples to think about what our generation was going through. I thought that was a kind of cop out, and it made me upset. (laugh) It’s the same thing when someone older, like our parents’ generation would talk about the war. S: So people around me—they think it’s more important to act continuously than to talk. I agree with that sentiment. P: Well, we are doing the same thing as those older generations, talking about the punk movement. (laugh) S: Even though I’d rather not talk about it. (laugh) P: (laugh) I just kind of feel embarrassed about it, kind of like nightmares. I think their unabashed energy was pretty cool. S: Maybe their youth made that possible? P: I think you only get one chance that way. Take Johnny Rotten, from the Sex Pistols to P.i.L., he keeps getting more uncool. (laugh) S: That was awful when he came to Japan. P: It might be my personal preference but I think he was at his best when he was playing with the Pistols. Maybe he couldn’t reinvent himself as time passed? It would have been great if his footwork was lighter and moved along with the time. He kind of dragged Pistols to P.i.L., and became unsightly. (laugh) S: His style didn’t change at all, even though the props around him kept changing. Well, we shouldn’t talk too much about the past right? (laugh) P: Right. (laugh), I always try not to. But I understand why people want to. S: It’s really tempting to say “I don’t think that’s right”. (laugh)
Lately, Eastern Europe feels like a museum
S: I was reading about how this LP (Dagmar Andrtová – Golden Gate14 ) came about. What was Eastern Europe like?
P: It’s hard to answer that, since I’ve only been to Prague last year and that was my first time visiting the region. I don’t know a lot about what it used to be like either, so I don’t want to say anything careless, but I felt a kind of energy along the lines of a rebirth. S: It looks like they have all kinds of information, from both America and Europe, but it hasn’t been contextualized yet, that’s my observation from afar anyway. P: I picked up a music magazine in a record store there, there’s a full page ad for an old Bob Dylan record on one page, and when I turned a page, there would be an ad for Diamanda Galas! S: That’s great! (laugh) P: It was kind of surreal, newer things like Diamanda Galas and much older things like Bob Dylan or The Allman Brothers exist together. S: So there’s no distinction between old wave to new wave, or folk to rock? P: Right, everything goes. But then, you’d find great record stores in the center of the city as well. Is Mute Records in Prague? Their sound is pretty prevalent. S: Maybe European music is easier to distribute there? P: Oh, I saw a Zeni Geva15 LP in one of the stores. (laugh)
S: What!? P: It was at a small record store in Prague, a punk looking guy was running the store. It was pretty strange… S: It’s hard to believe—I wonder who imports things like that? P: Maybe he likes Zeni Geva personally. So it’s kind of interesting. Every music genre from the past 30 years… S: All exist. P: All exist in the same place at the same time, (laugh) it’s kind of like a museum, it was pretty surreal. S: Many parts of Eastern Europe experienced some kind of oppression, which I think made them adept at preserving culture. A friend of mine married a Polish woman and they now live in a town called Olecko near the Lithuanian border, he says many people in the town harbor ill feeling towards Russia to this day, from the history of the invasion. P: That’s the same with the Czech as well. S: He says there are some deep-rooted issues. P: I felt they don’t like Germany, second only to their dislike of Russia. I’d hear people speaking in German on the street though, and I could talk to them in German. S: I think they have to take Russian classes, but no one uses it. P: Then there’s a Soviet Union and Mafia axis? S: It must be hard to digest everything that happened. Their political situations are so complex, that must affect on a personal level as well. P: I think it depends on the person… It’s all based on my own observations, which are crude at best.
Band members for the recording of Phew’s album “Himitsu no Knife” (from left to right: Masahiro Uemura, Phew, Hisato Yamamoto, Tatsuo Kondoh, Yusuke Nishimura)
I’ve always made my version of pop music, though it’s rather intuitive
S: Let’s get back to the main subject, what’s your new work16 ? (Since I just received the final mix before the interview) Obviously I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but can you say a few words about it.
P: It’s mainly songs, so the vocals are the focus. It’s my take on pop music, we kept it simple during the production. S: Simple can mean so many different things but I’d probably understand what you mean after I listen to it… P: I tried not to over-produce, tried to keep it true to my original inspirations. S: So you kind of made them on the spot… P: Right, many of the songs are like that, we kind of jammed. S: So you kind of constructed the song in the studio? P: Well, they kind of took form as we practiced in the rehearsal studio, so I tried not to deviate too much from that in the recording sessions. S: I think things come out better that way often, rather than over-thinking it. P: I often work that way. S: It’s not the type of music that utilizes many studio tricks. I wonder if I can fill my allotted pages if we keep talking lazily like this. (laugh) P: 30,000 words? That’s 80 sheets of Japanese manuscript paper? That’d be a novel. (laugh) I’ve never been able to create an album where I had a solid concept with a well defined process. There are people who make great work that way, but I feel I’m rather more intuitive. So even if I tried that approach I’d probably lose interest. I won’t be able to enjoy the process if I’m not inspired by the material. So if I have everything figured out in my head before hand, I won’t be able to go through with it. S: Your nerve will reject it? Probably your brain is constructed differently. P: I’m just not that way. I admire people who make records like that. I can’t do it. S: He doesn’t look it, but (Yoshihide) Otomo san really thinks through his process. Like really deeply. The resulting music could sound totally random… but it’s by design. P: Otomo-san is truly awesome. I wonder how many songs he played on this album? I think he at least played on four songs. S: I think he reflects this era in many different ways, really fascinating. Are you happy the recording got done without any trouble? P: I’m happy. I was on pins and needles. (laugh) S: You finished it about a week ago? P: We just finished mastering. Things come on their own pace. I can’t come up with anything when I want to, but I come up with bunch of ideas all at once when I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I have periods of time like that. So if I were to contextualize, this work is what follows View. Our Likeness is what came after the first album from Pass Records.17
S: So you kind of jump back and forth? P: They are kind of interconnected in my head. With this record, I’ve done things I can’t do in Germany or with Anton Fier.18
S: I really like the sound qualities of your European recordings. P: Maybe. I really don’t have a preference, I love working in both places. S: I like listening to Our Likeliness. Maybe it’s easy to listen to? P: I like that record too. S: I think your music sounds contemporary and also reflects the time they were recorded. The first record with Conny Plank, View, I think they captured the sound of that era really well. P: What’s the sound of now? S: When we say sound of now, it doesn’t really mean in the mainstream pop kind of way… P: What’s the mainstream now? Rap and the noisy electronic music? That’s kind of disappointing, I sometimes hear it on TV… S: Well, they are not really songs, the words don’t carry too much emotion. P: I like rap music. Sometime I think their sense of tone can be better. S: They kind of put lots of sound and hope the beat is strong enough. P: It can be pretty flashy. S: I was pretty afraid that I wouldn’t get to interview you, since it got delayed for few days. P: I annoyed many people during the recording in many ways (laugh), I kind of enjoy being on pins and needles, it’s pretty thrilling. S: So it was exciting in many different ways during the recording. (laugh) Is it pretty much all in one take? P: Some are. But there are some overdubbings as well. There are some songs where we didn’t add anything to the vocal… S: So basically you record in one take with everybody playing together, but if there are mistakes you kind of edit them out. The way it flows makes me think you have to be pretty focused to play it. P: You might be right. There’s also a budget constraint. If I have a big budget I can probably pick and choose. But if you are on a tight budget, you are kind of forced to do one take. (laugh) Everything I’ve recorded in the past, well, was on the low budget side. S: I’m sure you’d rather not talk about it, but could an extreme example of that be the record you did with Parco19 ? I was wondering why the sudden drop of quality from you, then I heard it was all recorded in one day?
P: Well, there are times when you can record a great album in a day. If everything falls in the right places. That wasn’t one of those days. S: There’s nothing you can do if things go wrong when you only have a day to record. You need at least three days to make a record. P: And I’d rather go into a studio thinking I’m making an album instead of a single. I need to center myself to have enough motivation for that. S: That record feels kind of disjointed to me, it sounds like a jam session and maybe too relaxed… I think it lacks intensity. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s a tough listen for those reasons. P: Some people like that CD. It’s hard for me to say.
I want to be able to bring my work to those who want it.
S: What’s the release date on the new album? P: September 1st. S: So about the same time this interview gets published. The music magazines don’t deal with this type of music anymore. They were around up to the 80’s, or even the 90’s. P: I don’t really know these days… S: There used to be magazines like Takarajima20, but they became something else. We didn’t know how long we could continue this magazine, but lately, we are able to sell copies of back issues so we can keep going. So I think there are demands, as long as you produce it the right way.
P: See, I don’t know how to do that, how to bring my work to those who want it. For instance, let’s say I have a new record out, it probably won’t sell that many copies but there must be people who’d definitely want it. I just have no clue how to reach these people. S: I might be able to help you a little on that end. If you can deliver information to those who want it, I’d imagine they’d buy it. You have to make sure you spread information to the right channels, with distributors and such. P: I think distribution in the Czech Republic is kind of in disarray. I heard they only pressed about 500 copies. I don’t know how to sell that record, I can’t find a distributor who wants to carry it. S: There’s a language barrier, and we don’t have much information about the record to begin with. I think it’d sell okay If we can clear these hurdles. P: I’ve got about 50 records from the Czech Republic, I bought a few, and some were given to me, and it really covers all kinds of genres. I have some records that sounds neo-acoustic, some hardcore punk, and this one is Hungarian but I bought some rap records as well. It pretty much covers it all. And some of them are pretty great and make me go “huh?”. S: Do you think we can find a market for them in Japan? P: I think our – business sense? – is pretty different. Things like contracts, I think it has a ways to go. S: They are pretty tight about these things in the U.S.. P: They didn’t want to deal with things like the rights to the original recording. S: Maybe they have a different mindset about intellectual copyright and things like that? P: I’m talking about (american) indies here, they are pretty great, but their business practice is kind of all over, so I might get into some scary situations. (laugh) There are some good bands there though. S: I’d love to listen to them, but it’s hard to get information on things like that. P: I think most of the music that comes to Japan from the Czech Republic is traditional folk type music, it’s hard to find more rock oriented records, right? I thought the Hungarian music scene was pretty interesting too. We have so much information in Japan, but they are focusing on what they want to do because they are not over saturated by it. S: Interesting. P: I learned about a singing tradition from Moravia in the Czech Republic, and there are people who do more contemporary and personal versions of that style, like Iva Bittová, that I found fascinating. S: I imagine all kinds of information started to come in, as well as many businesses from the west… P: On the one hand, there is a deep rooted history of classical music, from Dvořák to Janáček, and then there is traditional folk music, like songs from the Molavia region. Some people study both traditions in the conservatory and translate them into something personal, I thought they were great. And there are rock bands by young people… S: I guess music was always part of their culture, so it’s a normal part of their daily life. P: I think they take pride in Prague being the capital of music. It’s not a big city, but they have some great music halls, like Dvořák Hall and Smetana Hall, they have a great opera house too. I was really impressed. S: Sounds like it’s much better than Japan. P: They have some great landmarks, even though they say the city is not doing well financially. S: But the business side of their music industry is totally disorganized, kind of like the way it was with the punk scene from the 80’s? It wasn’t really awful since it was a Japanese scene, but it wasn’t great either. Is it kind of like that? P: I guess, I think they are just starting out now. S: Maybe it’s better to not get poisoned, musically speaking. P: I heard there are some unsavory characters, even though I didn’t meet them. (laugh) S: (as he hands her Vajra21 and Harry Bertoia CDs) I’d like you to listen to them, one just came out, and another one that’s not very well known.
P: I heard Prince Akishino22 is a Kan Mikami fan. (Interviewer’s note: I confirmed from the sources that Prince Akishino is a Maki Asakawa fan, so this could very well be true. I also heard Prince Tomohito of Mikasa23 loves progressive rock, and frequented Shinjuku Records…) Someone told me he loves noise music. It might just be a rumor (laugh) but he loves strange music. (as she glances at the Vajra CD) I don’t know much about (Toshiaki) Ishizuka san, do you know him?
S: He’s Toshi-san from Brain Police. He plays drums. P: I didn’t love Brain Police. It’s hard for me to listen to something unless I like the vocals. Vocals are so intense, aren’t they? Maybe I think that way because I sing. S: It really characterizes the sound… But I had no idea Prince Akishino is a fan of Kan Mikami. If I can confirm it, I should send his CDs to the Imperial Household Agency. (laugh) P: It’s just a rumor, (laugh) I wonder who told me about it. (laugh) How old is Haino-san? Is he about 45? S: He’s little younger. He’s been playing since he’s 18, and he’s been playing for 25 years, so maybe he’s 43? I think he’s quite popular in Europe these days. I think people are interested in Japanese Avant-garde over there. P: No wonder I found Zeni Geva records. (laugh) S: Right. (laugh)
I wanted to invite her (Dagmar Andrtová) because her live show was so cool but…
S: Not just with Dagmar Andrtová, but these artists need to be contextualized. P: Right, and it’s not easy. Even her name is not easy, Dagmar… Andrtová… It’s not easy to pronounce. S: Especially for us. P: She’s even better live, but it’s difficult financially, especially now. S: It’s difficult to get funding for cultural matters in this country. But you decided to invite her. P: Her live show is really good, and she’s kind of unknown. She played in Japan once, but not many people saw it. I’m planning to release a new work after Himitsu no Knife. It’s solo with an acoustic guitar so not very complicated. But it gets pretty scary when I think about financing. (laugh) S: How many shows will she be doing? P: About ten shows? Including a couple of demonstrations at Disc Union and Tower Records. S: She’ll be playing in Hakushu as well? P: I can’t go there but we are planning to do a show in December with everyone from the record. S: That’s great there’ll be a new record. I hear Friction and Genet24 are releasing new records as well.
P: That’s cool – who’s putting them out? S: I’m not sure, but I think the concept of Genet’s new record is “tribute to Auto-Mod”. P: (looking at G-Modern #8) Kenji Endo…, (looking at an article about Television) I have this record, isn’t it a bootleg? Is this right about Holger (Czukay)? S: The Hoger Czukay interview is fairly recent. P: I’m not really into his recent works. This magazine is quite esoteric isn’t it. S: Yes, no one can possibly know everything they cover in this magazine. (laugh) P: Is Daisaku Yoshino still around? S: Yes, he still plays. P: Condition Green! A hard rock band from Okinawa right? I saw them play at Yuya Uchida’s World Rock Festival, around 1975 I think. S: Were they doing a 3 person piggyback ride (kind of like a human tower), or killing a chicken on the stage? P: No, it was before that. They were all wearing military uniforms, and sticking cigarettes up their nose though. I think I went to the festival to see The New York Dolls, so I saw them as well… It’s hard to say what year this magazine was published. (laugh) Hard Stuff! S: I think there’s a new record by one of the members, (laugh) after ten years of waiting. P: I like his (Masayuki Takayanagi) guitar playing. I listened to his record with Kaoru Abe. S: You are one of the very few. There are only 200 copies of that record.
In terms of the London punk scene, I thought Stiff Records were doing interesting things.
S: I’ve never seen this compilation album from Stiff Records. It’s promo only and they were given to people who ordered concert tickets directly from them in 1978. All the musicians who participated in the tour covered a song by Devo called Be Stiff. P: That’s a great idea. I thought Stiff Records was doing interesting things. S: They were one of the more interesting labels in the London punk scene. People like Ian Dury or Elvis Costello kept repeating the same ideas and they are still around. P: Their advertisements and design sensitivities were awesome too. S: I loved their t-shirts. The one that says “I’m not satisfied because you’re not Stiff”…, I thought, what a sense of humor. P: There were so many record labels in that scene but they were the only truly creative one.