In the poorly annotated history of Japanese rock, Hikashu are one of the true oddballs. Led by actor-turned-vocalist Koichi Makigami, the group first coalesced around the underground theatre scene of late-'70s Tokyo, but by the end of the decade they were widely recognized as one of the key bands in Japan's new wave movement. Together with groups including P-Model and Plastics, they briefly infected the pop charts with skewed, postmodern synthpop that was distinguished by Makigami's theatrically mannered vocals. But while their peers soon disbanded, Hikashu would soldier on, getting steadily weirder as they went. Even when they found themselves without a record deal in the 1990s – leaving a more than decade-long gap in their discography – the group remained active on the live circuit.
Since releasing Tenten on Makigami's own label in 2006, bringing an end to their album drought, Hikashu have been performing with a renewed vigor, even snagging a slot at Fuji Rock Festival in 2010. The synthpop is long gone: Makigami likes to describe their music now as 'pataphysical songs and impro', and their concerts often sideline the hits (such as they are) in favour of lengthy improvisations and jaw harp solos. This week, they'll release their 15th album to date, which was recorded last May in New York. Uragoe is a mixture of songs and improvised pieces, and comes with cover art by the high-profile artist Tabaimo – an old friend of the band's, it turns out.
Outside of Hikashu, Makigami is also a prolific figure on the improv scene, popping up in sessions with local and international musicians as well as conducting occasional performances of John Zorn's famous ensemble piece, 'Cobra'. He's also one of the main organisers of the annual Jazz Art Sengawa, an avant-garde alternative to the more mainstream Tokyo Jazz festival, which this year takes place from July 20-22. And that's to say nothing of his yearly trips to Tuva, where he's been studying throat singing since the '90s...
You're releasing Uragoe now, but it was recorded only a couple of months after March 11 last year. Do you think that had any effect?
‘I think it did, though at the time I didn't think it would. I felt uneasy immediately after March 11 happened, like, "What should I do now?" Some of the songs were already finished at that point, but the ones that we made afterwards were definitely affected. Would they sound different if we recorded them now? Yes. So I think what we captured was really interesting – because we made it straight after such a traumatic event. I think that's the most important thing.’
This is the latest in a series of albums that you've recorded in New York. What made you go there originally?
‘About 5 or 6 years ago, I curated this live space run by John Zorn for a week, and I booked Hikashu to appear as one of the bands. John was totally against it: "I don't have that kind of money!" (Laughs) He didn't have enough to pay for everyone's flights, though he did cover some of it. I'd decided beforehand that if everybody came, we'd do some recording while they were there. That was actually the first time we'd recorded with the current lineup, and I wanted to see how it all went. It turned out really well in the end, so I decided to stick with New York after that. Everyone in the group's over 50, you know. If you want to get them revved up, it's better to go somewhere different, to take them out of their usual routines. There are too many distractions in day-to-day life, but if you get away from all that, you can focus. The energy and concentration you had when you were young comes back again. Also, I've got lots of friends in New York and there's plenty of music going on, so it's a really stimulating place to be. Anyway, that's been the plan every time we went there, but maybe we should try somewhere else?’
You went on tour to Siberia last year – how about that?
‘There aren't any good studios there! It's too bad. If there was a good studio, I'd want to record there. We were the first Japanese rock band ever to go to Siberia, actually. There's a group based in London, a couple of women called Frank Chickens, who I think went there on tour once. But Frank Chickens aren't really a rock band, are they? (Laughs) They're a bit different, more like performance art.’
What was the response like when you played in Siberia?
‘It was a lot better than I'd expected. I was a bit worried beforehand. Moscow was no problem – we've played there lots of times before – but it was our first time in Siberia, and I wasn't sure who would come. In Barnaul and Novosibirsk, where there are a lot of Russians, the response was great, but in the Tuva and Altai republics it was hard to get people to come. That was a real worry. We're a rock band, and even some of my friends who live there wouldn't come. And I've got a lot of friends there: I've been going every year for over a decade. In the end, the audiences were just like in Japan. When we started, they were really quiet, but when we finished there was loads of applause. I think it'll be even better the next time, but I don't know if there'll actually be a next time. We certainly didn't make any money off it.’
How did you first get into Tuvan music?
‘The first encounter I had with it was in 1994. It was at the Hakushu Art Festival [Dance Hakushu], which the dancer Min Tanaka organises. Every year you get all these different artists taking part – Cecil Taylor's been there, Derek Bailey, it's a really stimulating event. A khoomei ensemble had come from Tuva that year, and that was the first time I ever heard it. I'd seen Mongolian khoomii lots of times before, and I'd found it really impressive, but I'd never tried to make that kind of music myself or felt like I wanted to do something similar. I was impressed by it, that's all. When I heard that Tuvan ensemble, though, it was totally wild – the singing and the melodies felt just like rock music…’
It's a bit like metal, isn't it?
‘Right, right. I loved it, and I became fascinated by that kind of singing. I love the way it's blended together. With Mongolian singing, it's like they just use khoomii in one particular song, and only to carry the melody. It's a bit traditionalist – it's like Japanese minyo [folk song] – but the Tuvan one feels really alive. So that was what got me interested, and from 1995 onwards I've been going there every year.’
What do you get up to when you're over there?
‘The first time was in 1995, when I went over to take part in the 2nd International Khoomei Symposium and Festival. It was a lot harder to get there than it is now: they didn't have any computer connection to make airline bookings, so you couldn't get tickets. And even when you got there, the only tickets they sold were one-way. It was a big adventure: you'd get a return ticket to somewhere in Russia, in Siberia maybe, and then when you got there you'd check if there were any flights [to Tuva], and then get a ticket. It was really tough. When I was trying to go home, I went to the Aeroflot office five times to try and get a ticket, but they wouldn't sell me one. "Nyet, nyet, nyet" – that was all I heard. (Laughs) It's a lot easier now: you can get there in a day, if you go via Beijing.’
Going back to Hikashu, Uragoe is the first of your albums to feature shakuhachi. When did you start playing it?
‘I blew one for the first time last year. I've got a flute that I sometimes play at home, but I bought my shakuhachi last year. I found a good, cheap one, made from plastic rather than bamboo, and I thought I could take it with me on tour. Some noise came out when I tried blowing it, so I was like, "Okay, I guess I can use this." Sometimes no sound comes out, but… (Laughs) It's like, "Damn!" ’
So what made you feel the urge to play it?
‘I went to Tuva on March 12, the day after the earthquake. I'd been invited to a Japan-Tuva exchange association there. I thought it'd be nice to take a Japanese instrument with me, and the shakuhachi is convenient: it's small, and you can take it apart. I couldn't play it, mind you. If you watch the video of the performance, I can't play it all. (Laughs) I've slowly got the hang of it since then, but I really couldn't play it at first. I can do proper melodies now.’
Did you feel that you were able to express something with it that you couldn't do with other instruments?
‘I don't know about that – but there aren't many rock bands that use shakuhachi, so maybe it's okay. (Laughs) You used to get these fusion bands with shakuhachi, and there are a lot of jazz players who use it, but you don't hear it in rock music. Besides, I didn't want to play it as a shakuhachi: I'm using it as a voice resonator. That's the key point.’
When you've been going for such a long time, what motivates you to make a new album?
‘The way we make it is really simple. I always write the lyrics, and sometimes I'll give them to the other members. We don't normally have much material at that point, so I'll fix a day for the recording, and that normally speeds things up. Sometimes it turns out well, sometimes it doesn't. We'll try out the new material during shows in order to decide the arrangements. That takes a long time, arranging. We've fixed the recording day, but we'll keep postponing it… We don't normally start with a fixed concept: I want to have a concept that nobody notices. If you have a big concept, what you do often falls short.’
Some of the tracks on the album are improvised, too. How do you start your improvisations?
‘Just like that. Maybe everyone's already got some idea of what they're going to play – I'm not sure. The key thing is the atmosphere in the studio. It's important that we can start recording as quickly as possible. We'd get to the studio at 10am and be able to start recording almost immediately. It's amazing. (Laughs) That's the most important thing. We'd be able to record five songs in the space of a single morning.’
Hikashu have been popping up in some interesting places recently: you played with electronica artist Oorutaichi, and appeared with a bunch of younger bands at the "Minna no Senkan 2012" event...
‘We've been really lucky: we've had a lot of young people saying they want to play with us recently.’
So that's just a recent thing? Why now?
‘It's odd, isn't it? I'm not sure. I think YouTube's got something to do with it. People who've never heard of us before can watch lots of old footage of us, and say, "Oh, there were people doing this kind of thing too…" ’
Do you think YouTube's been more important than all of the album reissues?
‘For young people, yes. They have to have the option of listening to something for free. If it's not free, you won't get anywhere with young people. (Laughs) Well, sometimes they'll pay: if they really want it, they might buy a CD.’
You've been reissuing a lot of your albums recently, though...
‘That's something I wanted to do a long time ago. We had lots of plans, but we couldn't make it work. People couldn't listen to our old albums, and even if you wanted to buy them, they cost a fortune when they sold on auctions. ¥5,000 was normal, the most expensive was ¥20,000, and people who wanted to hear them would actually pay that. I thought it was a waste, and obviously we weren't getting any of that money (Laughs). We'll be finished soon: we'll have reissued everything to date.’
If someone hadn't ever heard Hikashu before, where would you tell them to start? With the new album, or an old one?
‘They've got to get the new one. Forget about the old stuff! (Laughs) Well, you could say that we're a different band now. There aren't many bands like this in Japan – we're lucky, in that respect. We don't have many rivals, which is a shame. I'd like it if we had more, but there aren't many.’
I think you had more when you were still a 'techno-pop' band, but since your third album you've been on your own.
‘That's right, we're trying to do something only Hikashu can do. Truth is, when we started out our gigs were half improvisation. Even further back, the band only played improvised material. After we signed to a major label, we ended up just doing songs, and we gradually accumulated a lot of them. We've been slowly getting closer to the original idea since then.’
It's pretty rare for a band to keep going for over 30 years, though. What's the secret?
‘It's because we've been taking it easy, I guess. Also, because we stopped working with production agencies. When you've got a manager, you have to work for that person's sake. I prefer it when it's okay not to do any work. I don't want to do work [just for the sake of it]: I just want to make art. We started doing that from an early stage: we were only at a major record label for about a year, and after that we handled the contracts ourselves, on a one-off basis. With all the albums we made in the late '80s and the '90s, we decided when to record and booked the studios ourselves – it was all very self-sufficient. We paid the costs, too: we split it half and half with the label. I thought that was the only way to go. It's easier now: there's no longer such a big difference between the indies and the major labels, even in Japan. You didn't use to get any attention [if you were on an indie], but you can get picked up now.’
I wanted to talk about your work with John Zorn. How did you first meet?
‘That's a long time ago now. It was in Tokyo: he used to have an apartment in Koenji, and he'd spend half the year here and the other half in New York. We first met when we were performing a theatre piece by this composer and pianist called Yuji Takahashi – I was acting, John was playing, and as we were seeing each other every day, we became friends. We didn't have much opportunity to make music together after that, though I did see him a lot, and he played as a guest with Hikashu for a show we did in 1988. From the start of the nineties, around 1994 or 1995, there were a lot of changes going on in my life. Hikashu weren't playing much, we didn't have a record deal, so I was doing a lot of solo work. That's when John suggested that I do a solo voice album, which provided the impetus for me to start going to New York every year. That's where I've been going every year since: to Tuva and to New York. (Laughs)’
Was that where you first took part in a performance of 'Cobra'?
‘The first time I played it was in New York, at the Knitting Factory. John wasn't the prompter that time: it was a guy called Norman Yamada, who did it every month back then (I think this was in around 1992). The Knitting Factory was my first time, and I remembered most of the rules then. Later on, John came to take part in a performance of 'Cobra' at Hosei University, and I think I'd mastered all of the rules by then. Seeing as how I'd done it every month in New York, I suggested to John that we might be able to do it in Japan, and he said "Sure, go for it." So I did it every month at La Mama in Shibuya, for three or four years… That was pretty tiring. (Laughs) Nowadays, I do it about twice a year.’
You had people like Shugo Tokumaru taking part in it last year, which I thought was pretty interesting.
‘That's how I set it up. You're taking lots of people who like music and you're showing them: you can make music this way too. It's also a chance for people like Tokumaru-kun to meet other musicians they haven't heard of before, from different genres. They get to know each other, they get to make a different kind of music – that's why I do it. To make it interesting, you know. The Tokyo scene needs to be interesting. There are lots of events where people get together at the same old live houses, with bands who sound the same as them, most of whom are their friends. Rather than do something like that, I thought it would be interesting to get people from jazz, rock and other scenes and play together.’
Hikashu play at Star Pine's Café, April 5, and La Mama, May 2, followed by dates in Osaka, Kyoto and Nagoya. The Hikashu Appreciation Society blog is the best place to go for English updates on the band's current activities
By James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.