White Heaven's You Ishihara speaks with Justin Simon about his formative years, the origins of White Heaven and the creation of the group's classic 1991 debut album "Out".
You’d be hard pressed to find someone with deeper ties to the Tokyo psychedelic underground scene than You Ishihara. Founder and principal songwriter in seminal groups White Heaven and The Stars, clerk and stockist for the influential Modern Music record shop in its heyday, risk-taking producer of some of the greatest Japanese rock records of the ‘90s and 2000s (from Yura Yura Teikoku, Boris, O.Y.A., and more), club DJ, elite member of the international rare record trading cadre…he’s had a singular and storied career. And he continues to confound and impress with his latest solo album, formula, on Zelone Records. I got to know Ishihara about fifteen years ago through my work with Yura Yura Teikoku, and it’s always a treat to catch up with him. He’s laid-back and completely unpretentious, and it's easy to see why many prominent figures in the Japanese scene view Ishihara as a kind of "sensei"—he’s a walking encyclopedia of music knowledge with a totally unique ear for sound. Many thanks to Peter for orchestrating this conversation.
—Justin Simon, January 2020
Interview Conducted Spring 2019
I: You Ishihara
S: Justin Simon Photographs by Sachio Ono.
S: You’re from Kochi, right?
I: Yeah, but my family moved a lot when I was little. We ended up in Kochi when I was around 7 years old and in second grade. Before that we lived in Tokyo and Osaka.
S: Do you have any early memories of Tokyo or Osaka?
I: I remember what our old neighborhoods looked like, and my pre-school and elementary schools in both cities. My parents had to relocate repeatedly for work, so that’s why we moved so much.
S: Is Ken your only sibling?
S: He’s younger than you, right?
I: He’s four years younger than me. He was actually classmates with Nakamura [Soichiro, future member of White Heaven].
S: Oh, really? Were they classmates in elementary school?
I: No, not until high school.
S: Did you already have a friendship with Nakamura when he became classmates with Ken?
I: No, for a while I just vaguely knew him as one of Ken’s friends. We got better acquainted later on.
S: I’d love to hear what Kochi was like when you were growing up. I was there for a couple days last year, and over the course of a single afternoon two different strangers winked at me. I’m extrapolating pretty heavily, but I wonder if the vibe in Kochi is a bit more open compared to a city like Tokyo. What was Kochi like when you were a kid?
I: I lived in central Kochi, right in the middle of town. The city is pretty sprawling, but I only really knew our part of central Kochi. I remember there being a lot of drunks. [laughs] I didn’t drink much when I was a highscool student, but the adults in town were definitely heavy drinkers. And I don’t know if you’d call it “friendliness,” but in general I think people were good-humored and open-hearted.
S: Do you think the same could be said for Kochi folks today?
I: Yeah, I think they’re still pretty much the same in that respect.
S: Were there record stores and music venues in Kochi when you were growing up?
I: They’re all gone now, but there used to be four or five small, privately-run record shops dowtown. Those are the places I went to for my records.
S: When did you first develop an interest in music?
I: I started listening to music from other parts of the world in my first year of junior high, when I was 12 or 13. Up until that point, I was only interested in Japanese music. I had heard mention of the Beatles when I was in elementary school, but I never actually heard their music, I just knew their name. Then in my first year of junior high I started listening to foreign music. You know the late night radio programs in Japan? Those shows had a real impact on us teenagers back then. I remember hearing completely unfamiliar music from overseas on one of those late night programs and for the first time thinking that rock ’n roll was pretty cool.
S: Was that a Tokyo program?
S: Do you remember the name of the show?
I: I don’t, but there was also a program that aired Sunday afternoons, a countdown show that only featured foreign hits. It was called “All Japan Pops 20” or something like that. I got really into the music on that show, too.
S: And was that when you started buying records on your own?
S: Did you have any friends who shared your interest in music?
I: At the time, very few people listened to rock music from other countries. There may have been one, maybe two other people in my whole class who shared my interest in foreign groups. Access to information was really limited, and we got all our leads from magazines. We’d pore over our music magazines and track down all the groups and labels that were mentioned.
S: Which magazines did you read?
I: Music Magazine is still around, but back then it was called New Music Magazine. Also, Ongaku Senka. And Music Life, that one was really popular. Also Plus One, and Rocking On in its early days. I read all those. I also had a couple friends who were deep into music, so they told me about bands.
S: You didn’t form a band until much later, right?
I: Yeah, way later.
S: So you didn’t play music at all in junior high?
I: I was totally uninterested in playing music back then. [laughs] I just wanted to listen.
S: And you didn’t play an instrument as a child?
I: Nope. The idea of making music myself never occured to me.
S: You were just a fan.
I: Yeah, and the deeper you get into music, the more obscure your tastes get, you know? You start wondering if there isn’t more interesting stuff out there. Eventually, some friends introduced me to progressive rock and krautrock, and I started listening to those kinds of records. I had such a great time listening to those albums, as soon as I got home from school I’d throw them on and listen for hours.
S: Did you listen to progressive rock and krautrock in junior high?
I: Yeah. T. Rex was one of the first groups I got into. They had a song at the top of the charts when I was in junior high. So I became a huge fan of theirs. And then I got into hard rock like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and then progressive rock like Pink Floyd and King Crimson. And from there I got into weirder German progressive rock, stuff like that.
S: So you went deep pretty quickly.
I: All thanks to a couple friends of mine. They were serious music heads and had a ton of records I’d never heard of.
S: Were these friends your age?
I: Yeah. I’d go over to their houses after school and they’d play me their records.
S: Did you go to any concerts back then?
I: No. Because foreign groups never came to Kochi. But I wasn’t dying to see live shows back then, I really just wanted to listen to the records. I guess I feel pretty much the same way today. [laughs]
S: You went to college in Tokyo, right?
I: Yeah. Well, my school was in Yokohama, in Kanagawa prefecture.
S: Did you start playing guitar once you got to college?
I: Not exactly. I didn’t spend a lot of time on my college campus, and I headed back to Kochi as soon as my first summer break came around. I didn’t know what to do with myself when I got home, so my dad suggested I get a part-time job to save up some money. He found me a place to work, and when I showed up on my first day I discovered that the old record shop I used to go to had relocated to the same building I was now working in. So the manager of the record shop and I got caught up, and he asked me what I was listening to. This was after punk broke, and I told him I was listening to a lot of groups out of New York, like the Velvet Underground and stuff like that. He said there was a guy who ran a cafe in town who was really into that kind of music too, and suggested we visit the cafe together. So he took me there during one of my breaks from work. All of the people working at the cafe were older than me, and they were into stranger stuff like free jazz and “new music.” This was the post-punk era, around ’78 or ’79. I was really into all the music they were playing, so they got a real kick out of me. I started going there on all my breaks, and at one point they told me they were gonna put on a show in the cafe, and they asked if I’d perform. I told them I’d never even touched an instrument before, but they said that would only make my performance better. [laughs] So me and my brother and a friend from highschool played the show. That was the first time I ever performed.
S: Did you play guitar at that show?
S: And you had no idea what you were doing? You were just winging it?
I: Yeah. [laughs]
S: What was the name of the cafe?
I: Kamuna. Back in the day Kamuna put on shows for Milford Graves, Toshinori Kondo, Takehisa Kosugi, Danny Davis (who played with Sun Ra) and other artists of that ilk.
S: Is it still around?
I: No. But the guy who ran that little bar you guys went to when you were in Kochi last year - Nagano-san - was the manager of Kamuna.
S: Oh, really?? Wow, we met a major figure in your life!
I: Yeah! [laughs] He ran the cafe with his older brother.
S: He must have been really young at the time, no?
I: I was around 18 or 19, so he must have been 23 or 24.
S: Were you hooked after that first performance? Was it fun?
I: I think the timing was right. Post-punk and noise were in full swing. So I figured it was the sort of thing I could do too. If I thought I had to stay home and practice for hours on end I don’t think I would have been very enthusiastic. But I felt like I could just rely on my instincts.
S: Was that Ken’s first time touching a drumset?
I: He had taken some lessons after school, so he could already play a little.
S: And did Ken go to Tokyo for college?
S: When did you start playing music in Yokohama?
I: Some time during college, I think. But whenever I was home I joined the jam sessions at Kamuna. Some of the other people there could actually play their instruments, and I teamed up with them for performances on summer and winter breaks. And then when I was 21 or 22 I started playing with a guy I met in Tokyo. But this time the plan was to play actual songs.
I: Both covers and originals.
S: Who was in the group?
I: My brother played drums. And the guy I met in Tokyo was named Tetsuya Sakamoto. He wrote the songs. He had been in punk bands since highschool. Coincidentally, he was also from Kochi. And Takayuki Nakagoshi played bass.
S: What year would that have been?
I: Probably ’81 or ’82.
S: Was that the group that became White Heaven?
I: Yeah, but at first we called ourselves Living End.
S: And did Living End perform mostly in Tokyo? What sorts of groups did you play shows with?
I: At first, we just got together at rehearsal spaces and focused on writing songs. And then I got to know Ken Matsutani from Marble Sheep, and he joined the group. That was when we changed the name to White Heaven. We became a five-piece at that point, and started playing our first shows around Tokyo. Initially we just played with bands that Matsutani was friends with. The first band we ever played a show with was called Mutant Monster Beach Party. [laughs]
S: What a name! [laughs]
I: Yeah. [laughs] Mutant Monster Beach Party’s singer Kumi had been in a Tokyo Rockers group called Boys Boys. And Hige from Friction had played drums for them. But White Heaven didn’t play too many shows with that line-up. We ony played three or four shows with Matsutani. Then he left to form Marble Sheep and Kurihara (Michio) took his place.
S: What year did Matsutani leave the group?
I: Maybe ’86?
S: Tokyo Rockers was more of a late ‘70s, early ‘80s scene though, right?
I: Yeah, it was over by ’86.
S: Did you catch any of those bands in real time, like INU?
I: INU was a Kansai band, so I never saw them. Ah, but you know that group that Machida Machizo did called People’s Olympic Show? I saw them play once. And there was a Pass Records showcase with Phew, Totsuzen Danboru and Friction that I saw in Aoyama when I was still in college.
S: Wow. Did you see anything else in college that left a strong impression?
I: At the time there were a ton of underground groups playing the university festival circuit. New Wave groups and lesser known groups. I remember seeing Merzbow and Kudo Tori’s “Noise” project at one of those shows. And Friction, Yoshino Taisaku, Dada (Vanity Records) and a bunch of other groups at Kanagawa University in 1979. Metro, another group that played that day, was particularly memorable, but they never recorded anything.
S: Did you see Les Rallizes Desnudes?
I: I saw them a bit later.
S: I see. So Matsutani leaves the group and Kurihara replaces him. Kurihara is such an amazing guitarist. How would you describe his unique sensibility?
I: For me, it’s the way he interprets the songs you give him. He has an uncanny ability to find the heart of a song. I think other guitarists can replicate his sound with the same equipment and settings, but they’ll still never sound anything like him.
S: How did White Heaven change once Kurihara joined the group?
I: I think we were able to take the group to the next level.
S: Did you already have a relationship wtih Ikeezumi at this point? I know Matsutani worked at Modern Music for a while. Did Matsutani first introduce you to the shop?
I: No, I had already been going there for a while. But after he got hired as a clerk, I’d often chat with him at the shop. One day he mentioned that his band at the time wasn’t going so well, so I invited him to join our group. That was how he ended up in White Heaven.
S: What was Modern Music like at that time?
I: It was completely unlike other record shops. Modern Music had records no other shop had, like New Wave, avant garde stuff, and rare progressive rock. It was a really interesting place.
S: And was Ikeezumi choosing all the stock at that point?
I: Yeah, I think so.
S: Were there many employees then?
I: There were a handful. I guess the stock may have reflected some of the other employees’ tastes as well.
S: Can you recall any particularly memorable moments from your time at Modern Music?
I: There are so many, I wouldn’t know where to begin. I don’t think there’d ever been a record shop like that before, and I don’t think they’ll ever be another like it again. Working there was a blast.
S: I interviewed Hirano Go recently, and he told me there were some really frightening record shops in Tokyo in those days where the owners would regularly scold or even throw out customers. Did you ever go to any shops like that?
I: I wonder which ones he was referring to?
S: He didn’t mention any names, but he said there were some really scary dudes running record shops in those days.
I: Actually, yeah, I remember hearing about places like that. Shops where you’d ask the price of a record and the owner would snap at you, “That’s not for sale!” And in those days record shops had stronger personalities. Some shops copped a bit of an attitude, like “If you’re into normal music, stay out.”
S: But Modern Music didn’t have an intimidating vibe?
I: I’ve heard some people say it was intimidating. How every time they went in the employees were playing some weird music they never heard before. In retrospect, it might have been kind of an intimidating place for newcomers. But I don’t think they ever threw anybody out. [laughs]
S: I can’t picture Ikeezumi shouting “Get out!” at somebody.
I: Definitely not.*
(*for more on Ishihara's experience with Modern Music, Hideo Ikeezumi and P.S.F. Records read his recollections here.)
S: Getting back to the group, which clubs did you play in the early White Heaven days?
I: In the early days, Loft in Shinjuku and Yaneura in Shimokitazawa. Later on, we often played at Gospel in Sengawa and Silver Elephant in Kichijoji.
S: Who did you share bills with in the early days?
I: Early on, when Matsutani was in the group, it was mostly bands he was friends with. Later on, mostly other P.S.F. groups, or bands who were in that orbit.
S: Was there a group or artist that White Heaven had a particularly close relationship with?
I: We played with Yura Yura Teikoku, Haino Keiji, and Mikami Kan a lot.
S: And how did audiences react to White Heaven?
I: It was always completely silent in between songs, like a wake or something. [laughs]
S: How did P.S.F. end up releasing the first proper White Heaven album?
I: One of those three or four shows we played with Matsutani was at Shinjuku Loft. And Ikeezumi came to check out the show with one of the guys from High Rise. I guess Ikeezumi had heard that we were a good psych group, and he wanted to see for himself. He ended up taking a liking to us, and for a long time after that repeatedly asked if he could release a record of ours on P.S.F. This was around ’86 or ’87.
S: Electric Cool Acid was your first album though, right?
I: It was, but Out was actually released first.
S: But Electric Cool Acid was initially released on cassette, no?
I: Ah yeah, that’s true. The Electric Cool Acid cassette was the first thing we put out.
S: Who else was on the bill at the Yaneura show where you recorded the Electric Cool Acid cassette?
I: Marble Sheep.
S: And how did you distribute a tape in those days? Were there distributors for underground music at the time?
I: There were probably distributors of undergound music that dealt with large record shops like Disk Union, but I didn’t know anything about those distributors back then. I just took the tapes to record shops and asked if they’d consign them.
S: Did you play any shows outside Tokyo?
I: No, in those days we only played in Tokyo. We didn’t play outside Tokyo until much later.
S: I see. So you sold your tapes at your shows in Tokyo and to local record shops.
I: Yeah. And after Matsutani started Marble Sheep, he’d often play in Kansai and sell White Heaven tapes alongside Marble Sheep tapes at the venues. So they had copies in Kansai as well.
S: What a good friend! [laughs]
I: [Laughs] Yeah, he was.
S: By that point Matsutani was no longer in White Heaven, right?
I: Yeah, he wasn’t playing with us anymore at that point.
S: I noticed that Nakamura (Soichiro) was in the group in the Electric Cool Acid era, but didn’t play on Out.
I: Yeah, Nakamura played bass in the Electric Cool Acid days.
S: So he left the group temporarily?
S: I see. So at what point did you start thinking about recording after Ikeezumi expressed interest in putting out your record?
I: I can’t remember exactly, but sometime in ’89 or ’90 Ikeezumi suggested we make a proper recording, so we booked some time in a studio.
S: Did you have all the songs from Out written before you went into the studio?
I: Yeah, they were all songs we’d been playing live.
S: Is the studio you used still around?
I: I think so, but I’m not sure. I only went there that once. The reason we ended up at that studio was that an acquaintance of Ikeezumi’s was working there, and he had recorded a bunch of other records for P.S.F., like Mikami’s (Mikami Kan). Ikeezumi suggested we record there, so I said sure.
S: Was it a typical professional recording studio?
I: Yeah, just a regular, pro studio.
S: How many days did you spend on the recording?
S: Did you record it all live at the same time?
S: No overdubs?
I: We overdubbed some guitar solos but that was the extent of it. Most of the songs were recorded in a single take. We didn’t use the studio in any sort of elaborate way.
S: What was it like to record in a studio for the first time? Was it fun?
I: Hmm, not really. [laughs] We had always used a boom box to record ourselves, so it was the first time hearing our music properly recorded, and the first time hearing each individual instrument. I was used to hearing more of a blurry wall of sound, and I remember feeling kind of uncomfortable hearing the studio recordings.
S: Were you unhappy with the way the recording came out?
I: I wasn’t unhappy per se. I guess I just understood for the first time what a proper recording actually sounded like.
S: It’s ironic that you had that reaction considering how much time you would go on to spend in studios as a record producer later in life.
I: [Laughs] That’s true. But at the time I was just focused on my playing. I didn’t have time to think about much else during those sessions.
S: What sort of music were you listening to when you made Out? Do you think you were influenced by anyone in particular?
I: I was listening to what in retrospect I guess I’d consider to be our biggest influences - underground New York rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s and obscure psych groups from the ‘60s. I was also into free jazz, chanson, contemporary classical, and more. I wouldn’t say that we were strongly influenced by any one particular group, but on the whole, I think we were influenced by the kind of stuff I just described.
S: How many copies of Out were pressed?