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The Guitarist Speaks: An interview with White Heaven's Michio Kurihara

Michio Kurihara of White Heaven, Boris, Ghost, Damon & Naomi and one of the most revered underground guitarists to emerge in the last 30 years speaks with Justin Simon about his lifelong journey in sound...

Michio Kurihara performing with White Heaven, at Gospel, Tokyo, December 30, 1990.

Photograph by Sachio Ono.

At first glance, the following groups don't seem to have much in common—White Heaven, Damon & Naomi, Boris, YBO2, Yura Yura Teikoku, Tenniscoats, Ghost. But despite their stylistic differences, they all share one thing—they've all had Michio Kurihara grace their work with his sensitive, evocative guitar playing. With a deep catalog stretching back to the '80s, Kurihara is equally at home playing barely perceptible, delicate guitar lines as he is blasting out eardrum-shredding runs of fuzz-drenched noise. And it's hard to overstate the reverence Kurihara's peers have for his playing. You Ishihara of White Heaven described Kurihara as having an "uncanny ability to find the heart of a song. Other guitarists can replicate his sound with the same equipment and settings, but they’ll still never sound anything like him." And Atsuo of Boris once said that a guitar in Kurihara's hands "ceases to be a guitar. He just destroys our entire conception of 'guitar playing." He also happens to be one of the most humble and self-effacing individuals you could ever hope to meet, and it was a real pleasure catching up with him for this deep dive into his past and present work.

—Justin Simon, January 2020

Interview Conducted Spring 2019

K: Michio Kurihara

S: Justin Simon


S: What sort of music was on the radio and TV at home when you were a kid? Did you have any favorite music at that point in your life?

Were your parents music lovers?

K: I mainly watched superhero shows and cartoons as a kid, and I loved their theme songs and soundtracks. I guess this would have been from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. I especially loved the theme songs and BGM in the Ultra series, starting with Ultra Q and up through The Return of Ultraman. As for superhero shows, I really liked the theme song for Giant Robo. And in terms of cartoons, I loved the closing credit music in Gegege no Kitaro. The Moomins soundtrack was great too. I don’t remember watching any of the popular music shows in those days though. I didn’t develop an appreciation for rock and pop music until much later. When I was a kid, I guess it was easier for me to appreciate music when it was paired with some sort of visual image, the way it was in superhero shows and cartoons.

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that my dad worked for the occupation forces at Yokota Air Base when I was little, but I also remember liking American music - dixieland, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, that sort of thing. Even today, I have a special place in my heart for Glenn Miller.

S: When did you first get into music seriously? How did you learn about new music? Did you have friends at school who shared your musical interests?

K: My brother is two years older than me, and I remember listening to his rock and classical records when I was around nine and feeling a sudden surge of interest in music. I especially liked Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” and Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic poem “The Moldau.” I guess these were “entry-level” classical pieces, ideal for newcomers like myself. But I remember reading the liner notes for “The Moldau” as I listened along to the record, and picturing vivid imagery as I read about gentle streams gradually flowing into powerful rivers and other related scenery. (Of course, I’d never actually been to Czechoslovakia…I just conjured my own, made-up versions of this scenery.) I felt the same way about “The Planets.” I remember being very moved, as only a young, impressionable kid can be, and thinking to myself, “These sounds are so expressive…Music is so amazing!” But I was just an elementary school student at that point, so I couldn’t talk to any of my classmates about this stuff yet.

I made a new friend my third year of junior high (when I was fourteen years old) who I’ll call Fujihara. Fujihara knew a ton about rock and pop music and played guitar and sang really well, in an effortless kind of way. He had a Fender Vibro Champ amp at home (which sounded amazing) and he taught me the basics of the guitar, as well as a few Beatles songs.

Once I got to high school, classmates and older friends turned me on to cool music. My friends and I lent each other our records and we all taped whatever we borrowed to cassette. There was also a popular TV show at the time called Ginza Now! that came on every evening at 5pm. The show profiled the latest rock and pop releases from overseas and aired live performances from Japanese rock bands. I also remember seeing groups like Roxy Music and Yes perform on a show called Young Music Show on NHK (Japan’s state-owned channel). These sorts of shows were valuable sources of music information for me in those days.

S: When did you first get into rock music, and groups from other countries? What were some of your favorite groups in high school?

Did you have any favorite musicians? Are there any that you still consider favorites today?

K: I had become a pretty serious rock fan by the time I was thirteen or fourteen years old. My older brother played his Beatles records constantly in those days, and I think that influenced my growing appreciation for those kinds of sounds. He influenced me the same way with classical music. The first song I really took a liking to was “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” from The White Album. The guitar solo was especially fantastic, and I thought to myself, “I really wish I could play like that…” I didn’t find out until much later that Eric Clapton had actually played that solo. Regardless, that was the song that made me really fall for the guitar. I also loved “Killer Queen” by Queen. To this day, every time I hear that song I’m impressed with the tone they got for the guitar solo. I also loved Ritchie Blackmore’s playing on Deep Purple’s second Made in Japan record. His Stratocaster sounds incredible on that album.

Shortly after that, I got into Rory Gallagher a bit, but in recent years I’ve developed an even greater appreciation for what makes Gallagher’s playing so special. Then in my second year of high school, when I was seventeen, I discovered Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, and the Jacks (from Japan). And over the next couple years I heard Blue Cheer, MC5, The Velvet Underground, Tim Buckley, and Peter Ivers for the first time. Of those groups, I would say that I still count The Doors, Blue Cheer and Tim Buckley as top favorites. I feel like I’ve been influenced by their work.

S: When did you start playing guitar? Did you play any other instruments? Were your parents supportive of your guitar playing?

K: I started playing guitar when I was fourteen. But before that I actually played the euphonium, a brass instrument. I was inspired by my love of classical music to join the brass band as soon as I started junior high, and I think the band leader, an upperclassman, randomly decided I would play the euphonium. But it was really hard… [laughs] I was never able to wrap my head around it and after a year and a half I threw in the towel. The whole experience put a damper on my enthusiasm for music for a while.

But at some point I picked up a classical guitar that had been lying around my house and I was really taken with its beautiful sound. I learned to play some simple chords and melodies on the acoustic, but the more I got into rock music, the more I wanted an electric. Finally, that fall (I was still fourteen at the time), I bought a cheap Japanese electric guitar at an instrument shop in Shinjuku (the store is actually still there, but it’s called Music Land Key now). I really wanted a telecaster-style Elk Cutlass, but the clerk wouldn’t sell me one, telling me, “You’re just a beginner, right? The Bigsby-style tremolo arm on this one constantly throws the tuning out of whack. I don’t think this is the guitar for you.” Instead, he suggested a brown, more average-looking telecaster-style El Maya. But I’d never even heard of El Maya before. I jumped right into playing, but it was a long time before I was able to coax anything decent out of the guitar.

Incidentally, about 20 years after this incident at the guitar shop I finally got myself an Elk Cutlass. It’s a good guitar but it’s true that the tuning does get thrown pretty easily, and it’d probably be hard for a beginner to tame. I could see a new player giving up on the guitar entirely if he or she started with a Cutlass. I remember thinking, after I’d had mine for a while, that the clerk had been right to discourage me from buying one. My parents didn’t encourage me to play the electric guitar, but I also don’t remember them being particularly discouraging, either.

S: When did you join your first band? When did you write your first song?

K: I performed in front of others for the first time when I was fourteen, at a school festival my third year of junior high. I had a duo with Fujihara, who I referred to earlier. He sang and played acoustic guitar, and I played electric. We covered a popular folk song of the era, and I borrowed Fujihara’s Acetone FM-3 fuzz pedal for my part. I made it through the simple guitar solo in the first half of the song but there was a second, longer solo at the end that was way beyond my abilities at the time. I didn’t even know scales at that point. So I just completely winged the second solo…And this was through tons of distortion, too. I’m sure I played out of key in a bunch of spots…This was in front of all the teachers and other students, and I still break out into a cold sweat thinking back on that experience. [laughs] But I remember my art teacher, who was usually pretty hard to please, complimenting me afterwards for some reason. Looking back on it now, I’m amazed at how bold I was to get up on stage with no real clue of how to even play the guitar yet…

I put my first band together when I was fifteen with some classmates in my freshman year of high school. Of course, we only played covers, and we just performed at school festivals and other similar events. But in my sophomore year, some friends in the grade above me invited me to join their band. They were influenced by punk and ‘60s music, and most of their set was original material. And in that band I performed outside of school for the first time, at a local club. I think we did a Jacks cover at that show, too. The principal songwriter and default leader of the group was a kid I’ll call Suzuki, and I remember admiring him back then. I thought he was super talented. I think the first time I wrote an original song was right after Suzuki left the group. I came up with a song to pair with some lyrics that the singer had written. My song was in three/four, and centered on a weird riff. But we lost our momentum pretty quickly, and the band had broken up by the time the upperclassmen in the group graduated. I played with various bands after that, but I can’t think of any original songs that were formally mine until I wrote “Out There” for White Heaven’s third album. Incidentally, my solo album Sunset Notes was my first completely original work. For someone who’s been playing music for a pretty long time, I imagine I’m kind of an outlier in terms of how few original songs I’ve released.

S: Were there good record stores and clubs in your neighborhood when you were growing up? At what age did you start going to underground shows?

K: My town only had one small record store, but the next town over (Fussa) had two record shops (one of those was also an instrument shop). I wasn’t really a regular at any of these spots, but I did purchase a record on my own for the first time when I was sixteen, at that instrument/record shop in Fussa. I bought Rory Gallagher’s Live In Europe. I didn’t even really know what kind of music it was when I picked it up, but the album has become a treasured, desert-island disc for me.

There were two venues for live music in Fussa at the time, and I started going to one of them, Chicken Shack, when I was sixteen. This was where the band I was in that I referred to earlier played our first show. I think the manager of the place was pretty clued into the scene at the time. Since we were just a local high school band, the manager didn’t charge an entrance fee for our first performance, but the second time we played there he set the door price at two hundred yen. I think the last time we played there he charged about four hundred yen per ticket. I can’t remember exactly how much the entrance fee was [each time we played], but I do remember feeling pleased that he was charging people money to come see us play. Those club performances had a different sort of energy than the gigs we played at school. I remember the manager of the club giving us pointers, too. Members of other local bands also offered bits of advice, and I learned a lot from their comments. And I guess it was because the club was so close to the base in Yokota, but there were tons of foreigners at those shows, too. I remember people really hooting and hollering during the guitar solos and other high-energy moments in our set. Most of the foreigners in attendance seemed pretty trashed though. [laughs]

S: Tell me a bit about Tokyo in the 80s. What was the music scene like? Did you see any particularly memorable performances? Did you see any of the Tokyo Rockers groups play?

K: I was kind of a homebody in those days and didn’t go out to many shows. Some of the Tokyo Rockers groups played in Fussa back then, but unfortunately I didn’t catch many of them. So I can’t speak much to the ‘80s scene in Tokyo. But I did see a show that left a really strong impression in 1979 by some Kansai No-Wave groups - SS and Aunt Sally. SS was particularly incredible. All of their songs were like a minute long. They were like a revved-up version of the Ramones, but even more tightly wound. I was also really bowled over by a local band called Pattern Z that I saw around the same time. They had a really strange and unique sound, almost like a new spin on glam rock. Just a little bit after that, during the early ‘80s Tokyo Rockers era, there was a guy named Genet who was in a bunch of bands at the same time - Maria023, Axe Bomber , and Auto Mod - and I caught Axe Bomber a handful of times. I saw lots of punk groups in those days, but Axe Bomber really stood out from the pack in terms of how fast they played, and how cool they were.

S: I heard you got a real jolt from an early Fushitsusha show. Could you tell me how you ended up going to that show? What was your impression of the group? Did it inspire you to listen to more experimental music? Do you still check out experimental music?

K: I think I first caught the early incarnation of Fushitsusha in 1979. If I’m remembering correctly, my friend Suzuki who I mentioned earlier invited me to the show. I think the show must have been at Chicken Shack in Fussa. At this point I’d seen other underground groups, like some of the bands I mentioned earlier, but I had never seen a group that played so-called “free” music. Needless to say I left the show completely in shock, kind of half in a daze. Their sound was totally unlike anything I’d heard before. I can’t remember if it was right after that particular show, or if it was on a different occasion, but I had tea with the guys in Fushitsusha around then, too. I remember being taken aback by the big difference between their onstage and offstage personas. Onstage, they played like they were possessed, but offstage they were a gentle and charming group of people. But yeah, I was just in total awe of their stage performance.

For a while after that first Fushitsusha show, every time I got together with my bandmates we’d kind of debate it, like, “What was that?” And then, in our own way, we tried our hand at improvisation. We were also inspired by the No New York compilation, which had just come out. I remember a period of trial and error, when I was trying to produce a provocative, new kind of sound with my guitar. I sort of feel like, for me personally at least, that period of trial and error only came to an end in recent years.

It wasn’t a huge number of shows, but I periodically went to other shows by experimental groups in the ‘80s. Derek Bailey, Milford Graves and Toshi Tsuchitori, Fred Frith’s Skeleton Crew, the Sun Ra Arkestra and James Blood Ulmer were particularly memorable. Also Nmperign, Damon & Naomi’s sax player Bhob Rainey’s improvisational drone duo with trumpet player Greg Kelley. I was bowled over by their performance. I especially liked performances where vocals were paired with improvised music. Sometime around 1990, I played with a group that combined vocals with improvised music called Niseaporia and then in 1991 I played in a trio called Henkyougakudan that made quiet, drone-based, improvised music. Neither of those groups lasted very long, but they were both really exciting and fun.

I don’t go to many avant-garde performances these days. But I always try to incorporate what I see as the essential ingredients in this kind of music - the tension, the force, the speed - into the sounds I make.

S: What was your first experience in a proper recording studio like?

K: I think the first time I recorded at a proper studio was in ’89, about a year before we recorded Out. Ghost had asked me to play on a song for their first album. I think we only did one take, but I don’t remember much of anything about the experience, maybe because I was so nervous at the time…But I do remember thinking that my guitar sounded nothing like the way I was used to it sounding on the cassette recordings I’d always made of band practice. Only later did I get to work with an engineer who helped me capture a specific sound I was looking for, by choosing a specific mic, changing the mic positioning, that sort of thing. At Peace Music, for example, Nakamura was able to get exactly what I wanted for the Stars recordings, and on Sunset Notes. I’ve also been really happy with the electric guitar tones we got during the sessions at Damon & Naomi’s home studio (with Damon engineering!).

S: When and how did you meet Ishihara? Had you already seen him perform at that point? Could you walk me through how you two ended up collaborating?

K: I think it was late ’85, if I’m remembering correctly…I went to a private performance by a band called White Poppies at a rehearsal studio in Kichijoji. Ishihara was the lead singer for the group. I was friends with their guitar player, Matsutani Ken (who later went on to form Marble Sheep), and I think he must have invited me to check out their show. I don’t think Ishihara and I said much to each other on that particular occasion, aside from a simple greeting.

Shortly after that, they changed their name to White Heaven, and I saw them play a few more times. I only remember having one real conversation with Ishihara during that period. But I don’t remember what we talked about. I thought the group was great, really solid. They seemed like they’d soaked up some New York punk influences. The two guitarists (Matsutani and Sakamoto) had very contrasting styles, but they made for a great combination.

Sometime in fall ’86, Matsutani left the band. And shortly after that their bassist, an acquaintance of mine, asked if I’d like to jam with them at a rehearsal studio sometime. That jam was the first time I played with Ishihara. Thinking back on it now, I suppose it may have been an audition of sorts. I remember playing a really extended jam of one song. I’m pretty sure that jam was the sketch for what later became “Mandrax Town.” I think we also played an early sketch of “H.L.” The whole experience was really invigorating. I thought to myself, “Man, it’d be so great to join this band,” but none of them extended any kind of formal invitation to me. So my position in the group stayed sort of up in the air for a while. And then at a certain point it just kind of became clear to me that I had become a member of the group. I think I’m a fairly shy person, but I remember thinking to myself, wow, these other guys are surprisingly reserved, too! [laughs]

S: What was White Heaven’s songwriting process like? Did you improvise together, or did Ishihara come in with fully-formed songs? Did you improvise much at your concerts?

K: When I first joined the group, most of their material was already written. I think most of their songs were composed by either Sakamoto or Ishihara. And then a year or so after I joined the group, Sakamoto left. After that, songs tended to fall into two different categories - fully-formed compositions by Ishihara, or ideas of his that we refined as a group. But, yeah, the majority of the songs were based on ideas that Ishihara brought to the group. And at our concerts, we improvised certain sections.

I remember a time, maybe for a year or so from ’88 to ’89, when we tried to fuse “free improvisation” with “rock music.” We didn’t play many concerts that year, but we holed up in our rehearsal space and jammed a lot. A selection of our recorded work from that year ended up on the Levitation album that came out in ’97. But I don’t think we ever played a completely improvised set live. I think we may have felt this approach had its limitations…I can’t remember the exact timeline [of White Heaven’s stylistic trajectory], but I think White Heaven ultimately shifted its focus to more traditional songwriting as time passed.

S: What sorts of venues did White Heaven play? How did audiences respond? Ishihara said audiences tended to be completely silent, as if they were at a wake. Was this your observation as well? What sorts of bands did you share bills with? Was there a particular band you played with frequently? Did you have any favorites of the bands you shared bills with?