White Heaven: "It was always completely silent in between songs, like a wake"

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 Ishihara performing with White Heaven, at Gospel, Tokyo, December 30, 1990. Photograph by Sachio Ono.

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?

I: Yeah.

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?

I: Yeah.

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?

I: Yeah.

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