Parallel Dimensions in the Analog Era
Damon Krukowski on White Heaven and their debut album Out
White Heaven's You Ishihara, Ken Ishihara and Naohiro Yoshimoto at Gospel, Tokyo, December 30, 1990. Photograph by Sachio Ono.
Damon Krukowski is musician who first came to prominence as a member of the American rock group Galaxie 500 in the late 1980's and later the group Magic Hour. His longest running group is his duo with Naomi Yang, Damon & Naomi, which is active to the present day. Krukowski has also established himself as a profound thinker and writer in the realms of music, sound and their evolution in the constantly changing social/technological landscape. Over the years, he has collaborated with White Heaven's Michio Kurihara.
You know those old Star Trek TV episodes where they discover a planet that resembles Earth but doesn’t, because it’s taken an alternate path through history – the Roman Empire never fell, or some such. That’s how I felt about OUT when I first heard it. There was that same familiar stew of 60s US/UK influences that all my college rock cohorts and I knew so well, and yet... this isn’t the way they sum together! And it’s from 1991? How could this have happened in our own time, and we didn’t know?!
White Heaven are my exact contemporaries, bandwise, but to understand how thoroughly we didn’t know White Heaven, and White Heaven didn’t know us, you have to put yourself back in that analog world of the 1980s. Bands communicated long distance, if they did at all, by postcard. We knew one another through physical proximity on our local scenes; sharing bills on the road when we visited one another’s local scene; and through the record store. Meaning: if your band didn’t tour to my area, and your record wasn’t available at a store within my reach, there was no way to hear your music. We might hear of it, through fanzines or rumor. But the sounds themselves had to remain in our imagination. Which is how I first encountered OUT – as something I imagined through various bits of description. After all, only 500 copies existed. But everyone who had heard one, said it must be heard.
White Heaven's debut album "Out" was first released by P.S.F. Records, Japan in 1991 in an LP edition of 500. A newly mastered vinyl edition is now available from Black Editions.
This gets back to that Star Trek conceit. Our imaginations may be powerful when we manage to set them free, but mostly they are limited to the world we already know. And so when I finally did hear OUT, on a CD reissue years later, it blew my mind. And yet… White Heaven and we did know the same world - that is, the same world of US/UK 60s records. But it was like we were making music in parallel alternative rock universes. I felt like Kirk looking to Spock for explanation. How…?
New interviews conducted by Black Editions with singer-songwriter You Ishihara and lead guitarist Michio Kurihara provide some answers. First, there are the many parallels – like starting a band in the early 80s with no training, no prior experience, but fueled by listening to a lot of records. Specifically, it was the No New York compilation, and the postpunk moment in general, that gave both them and us the permission to pick up instruments without preparation. But it was the classic rock of the 60s that filled our heads with the sounds of those instruments that we loved: for Ishihara, “T. Rex…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… After punk broke…I was listening to a lot of groups out of New York, like the Velvet Underground.” For Kurihara the list is similar, although interestingly with a few more singer-songwriters thrown in: “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.”
What happens if you want to make a sound like Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” or Ritchie Blackmore on Made in Japan – two early influences Kurihara mentions in particular - but you’ve never been in a recording studio before? What happens if you want to sing like Marc Bolan or Robert Plant – or even Lou Reed and Tom Verlaine - but you’ve never been on a stage before?
This is pretty much what everyone in my generation of bands found out, one way or another. We had a lot more sounds in o
ur heads than we could express through our bodies. But punk gave us the confidence that one would somehow lead to the other, at least if we turned up loud enough.
Which brings us to the differences. On our parallel alternative rock planets, we listened to mostly all the same records but did not see the same live bands. Ishihara’s first experiences on stage were at a café in his hometown - which also hosted shows by avant-gardists like Toshinori Kondo and Takehisa Kosugi, and visiting Americans from the outside jazz scene like Milford Graves, and Danny Davis of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Ishihara also saw some radical bands playing the Japanese university circuit at the time, including Merzbow, Noise (with Kudo Tori, later of Maher Shalal Hash Baz), and even the mythic Les Rallizes Denudes. Meanwhile, Kurihara’s first experiences on stage were also at a local venue in his hometown (called “Chicken Shack”), but where he saw Keiji Haino’s band Fushitsusha as early as 1979! In the early 80s, he also remembers seeing a number of avant-garde players including guitarists Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, and James Blood Ulmer.
Michio Kurrihara at Peace Music, Tokyo 2019 recording overdubs for the forthcoming 2020 Damon & Naomi album. Photo by Naomi Yang
These kinds of live shows have no parallel in my own 80s experiences – just as the future members of White Heaven wouldn’t have had the chance then to see bands of the Paisley Underground from LA, Père Ubu from Cleveland, Mission of Burma from Boston, or the UK postpunk bands that came to the US in droves at the time looking to break big in America. The bands we heard live by sharing bills early on were similarly different. White Heaven began gigging alongside a number of artists associated with the record store Modern Music and its label PSF, like Keiji Haino, Mikami Kan, High Rise, and Yura Yura Teikoko – a highly adventurous and often difficult music that most of us in the US and UK wouldn’t hear till many years later. (Meanwhile, we were crossing paths with “indie rock” stalwarts like Sonic Youth, Dinosaur, Yo La Tengo, Beat Happening…)
When we each stumbled into recording studios for the first time, then, in the late 1980s, something related but wildly different would happen. I won’t bore you with my own results. But listen to what happened on OUT: a wide knowledge and love of classic rock sounds fused to a freedom of expression based not only on punk, but on avant-garde experimentalism. It isn’t that these young players had chops like that at the time. But neither did they need them to hit heightened moments of what I can only describe as rock rapture. The screaming first bars of the album, on “Blind Promise,” are like opening the door to a frenzied gig already in progress – the band on stage is full of their newfound powers, surprising themselves with the sounds and energy they generate together. They immediately take it down in a very VU-Third-album way, with “Dull Hands,” exposing themselves in a spare arrangement that places Ishihara’s vocals forward with an
almost Tom Verlaine-like whine, followed by a sweetly simple lead by Kurihara. And then the 9-minute close to Side A, “Fallin’ Stars End,” stretches the band in a manner that I think begins to push them toward a unique sound, a combination of musical instincts and personalities that is theirs alone: Ishihara’s dry yet emotive delivery, Kurihara’s stunningly lyrical vibrato, and a rhythm section that carries a groove with understated confidence through a variety of dynamic sections in a single song.
These skills are all pushed further on Side B’s epic “Mandrax Town,” a signature tune of the band for me. What starts as an easy mid-tempo rocker explodes into wild twin leads split hard left and right (one of many mixing risks/triumphs taken by producer Taishi Takizawa, who would go on to take similar chances for his remarkable albums with Ghost). But the song doesn’t end there, as many bands would. Instead, “Mandrax Town” dares to top itself with a second set of screaming leads – followed by a drop down to what sounds like a coda – and then a third lead, this time abandoning the stereo effect for a muscular center channel struggle alongside Ishihara’s now feverish vocals. And that’s not all, as the late-night commercial would say. The song breaks down completely midway, and proceeds to rebuild itself from scratch like an alternate take, or maybe a more avant-garde approach to the same material. Ishihara changes his vocal manner, wailing almost like Jandek over a minimal bass backing. And yet the song is still carrying its same momentum from the very beginning, always ready to break out yet again…
As for the closing, title tune – one that Kurihara recalls being a first take, without any overdubs, where “we were able to get close to the sort of sound we were reaching for” – what more could a band dream to have happen in their first studio outing? And it is, for me, a familiar dream: this track also comes the closest to our respective worlds colliding. Those dramatic drum flourishes, melodic bass, and extended lead guitar…? If only we might have been able to meet back then. I would have treasured the chance to see them play live, and trade influences. (I feel blessed that a version of that meeting has since happened.)
I envy your first visit to the surprising world of OUT!
Damon Krukowski, Naomi Yang and White Heaven's Michio Kurrihara Live in Tsuruga, Japan 2019. Photo by Susanne Sasic.