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.