The Road to an Imaginary Temple: How Kikagaku Moyo Became the Most Exciting Psych Band From Asia

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03 августа 2020

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They've created an entire phantasmagoric world. One ruled by an imaginary language, filled with a blooming kaleidoscope of psychedelic rock, prog rock, space rock, krautrock, folk, ambient, lounge music, classical Indian music, and at the same time with a touch of something elusive and deeply Japanese, almost traditionally folklore.

Their subtle and unique musical charisma is visible both in a studio and on stage, which is why their extensive tours have included Europe, the Americas, Asia, Australia and Oceania for several years now. In summer 2019, Comma presented the first Kikagaku Moyo show in Kyiv in the welcoming walls of the Kurenivka art palace. Before the show, we talked to band mastermind and drummer Go Kurosawa about their success without a manager, creative methods, the contrasts in their most recent record ‘Masana Temples’, and a lot more.

Weirdos from the Streets

“I grew up listening to Western music, but naturally growing up in Japan has had an impact on me,” says Kurosawa. “Within the band, we’ve always tried to figure out what in terms of music only we could do, and no one else. Because we’re not an American band that aspires to find fame in the US and not a European band in a European context. I love it when you can understand, when you can feel the origins of the music you’re listening to…”

Photos: Alina Kuchma

Ironically, Go got first introduced to Japanese psychedelic rock while studying in the United States. He was 20 years old. “A close friend of mine had his own radio show about psychedelic music. He was always searching for interesting material from all over the world. It was him who told me about artists like Strawberry Path, Flower Travellin’ Band, or the Far East Family Band. I never heard of them while living in Japan. They were probably popular in their home country back in the day, but not now.”

While in the US, he first tried LSD and hallucinogenic mushrooms – in Japan, you can get sentenced to over a year in prison for consuming psychedelics. “I’ve been wondering what capacities and abilities you can achieve this way, and what is the connection to psychedelic music and art. I tried, and I saw. Whether this experience can be implemented in music? Relatively. But these substances certainly expand one’s worldview, one’s interaction with nature and other things – sometimes you feel as if you understand. I’m sure there are ways in which people can experiment and use this experience.”

Upon his return to Japan, Go couldn’t find his purpose for quite a long time. One day at a skate park, he met a guy by the name of Tomo Katsurada. The two connected over Tomo’s plans to go to the States and became friends. Two years later, when Tomo came back, they met up again and decided to start a band.

Go wrote his first song when he was nine: the boy made up and mumbled melodies in his room, talking to birds in the lush treetops outside his window; his mother, a music teacher, heard them and accompanied him on the piano. During school years he played piano and trumpet, but in his band for the first time he decided to try drums. Meanwhile, Tomo, who used to play the violin, started playing the guitar, even though he did it quite poorly.

Upon that, the guys started looking for other weirdos, anyone who looked mysterious and creative. Musical experience didn’t matter as long as the newbies were committed to playing. The two masterminds wrote an ad and made psychedelic posters which they put up and handed out to pedestrians on university campuses. This caused them a lot of trouble: teachers were outraged about two hippies wandering the halls and inciting others to self-indulgence.

At first, this was a collective with no obligations, members came and left, but over time a permanent line-up had formed. Go and Tomo met their bassist in the middle of the street, crouching over a vending machine with a recorder: Kotsu Guy recorded the sounds for his drone project. “What are you doing? Let’s jam together. – Okay.” Another band member, Daoud Popal, caught Tomo’s attention with his exotic looks at a college smoking spot – he had long hair and beard and rolled his cigarettes. “Do you play the guitar? – Well, kinda. – Wanna be in a band? – Yeah, sure”. The line-up was complete when Go’s brother Ryu Kurosawa returned from India where he studied – wait for it – playing the sitar under the renowned guru Manilal Nag.

Within the band, we’ve always tried to figure out what in terms of music only we could do, and no one else

Go, drums

They all listened to entirely different kinds of music and weren’t really accepting of each other’s tastes: Go lived by psych and krautrock, Tomo brought his love for power-pop and heavy 80s from the States; Kotsu Guy was a fan of black metal, Daoud listened to hip-hop, and Ryu listened exclusively to folk music. However, free improvisation gave them some common ground. Well, “improvisation” – they hid their lack of experience behind extensive meditative buzzing. And on stage, they obscured themselves in the fog of two smoke machines they bought with their own money. Most of the band members had a somewhat distant idea of harmonies, tones, and chord sequences – instead, they tried to embody sensations in the sound.

The band’s initial sound has been heavily defined by being only able to afford cheap night rehearsals, from midnight to 7 am. They came to the rehearsal space already tired after work, sometimes to the extent that only allowed them to squeeze out one single note, spending a long time making it as grim as possible. As in really long time, the same way bands did it during the numerous drone shows the guys saw. The first one to stop would be the loser; the last man standing would be the true artist. Once, being especially washed out during a jam session and almost falling from his seat behind the drums, Go closed his eyes and saw geometric patterns – “kikagaku moyo” in Japanese. This way, fractal hallucinations gave the five-piece a name.

There's Only One Way Out

Playing shows was difficult. According to Kurosawa, Japan still has a ruthless system: if a band wants to play at a venue even just for 100 people, they have to pay the club owners $300–$1.500, depending on the day of the week and the duration of the show. Accordingly, there are no local promoters who would work with aspiring artists. All this makes a healthy growth of independent music almost impossible. Kikagaku Moyo chose to play small cheap venues, rehearsal spaces, and quite often in the streets. Live sets in the streets of the student district of Takadanobaba or outside the city train station allowed them to play as long as they wanted. When pedestrians stopped to listen, they paused to let people applaud and put money into the guitar case – in such manner the band learned how to engage with the audience.

In 2013-2014, Kikagaku Moyo put on the monthly Tokyo Psych Fest at the Ruby Room bar, a popular refuge for artists without a penny to their name. Even though the bar held only 150 people and was located in Shibuya, the heart of the Tokyo’s nightlife, the entrance fee was under $5, and the promotion was held in both Japanese and English, the event came unstuck. The small audience that came was mostly comprised of tourists, and it seemed that locals didn’t acknowledge psychedelic music at all, as if for them, it didn’t exist. At this point, going abroad was the band’s only option.

Daoud, guitar

It was at this time when the band recorded and published their eponymous debut album on Bandcamp: a series of first take jams recorded with basic equipment. Realizing the low quality of the record, Kikagaku Moyo had no high hopes. But music blogs started picking it up one by one, and all hell broke loose.

A Greek label offered them to release the music on vinyl; Australian band Dreamtime invited them to join them on tour through eight Australian cities. Later on, they were offered shows in Europe and a slot at the Austin Psych Fest 2014 (now known as Levitation). There, they met local rock heroes King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and finally realized that an entirely DIY approach is the right way to go.

The Japanese five still do everything on their own; they even tour without a manager or a crew. “The five of us do everything that concerns the band, while Tomo and I handle our label”, says Go. “We manage ourselves, and I love how it works out. On top of this, people are more likely to help you when do everything yourself instead of going, like, ‘Oh, you need to talk to my manager’. Yes, it means more meetings, more emails, more responsibilities and risks, but at the same time we rid ourselves of excuses like ‘Our manager sucks’, or ‘If only we had a manager’”.

Talking about the label, Kikagaku Moyo got their inspiration from the ecosystem King Gizzard created around themselves and the Flightless Records community under the guidance of their drummer and started Guruguru Brain, a kind of launchpad for Pan-Asian experimental music. Their first release was a collection of Japanese psychedelic music that included 21 artists, mostly Tokyo Psych Fest residents. Since then, the label has introduced a wider audience of music lovers to a whole bunch of incredible musicians. The list includes 破地獄 (Scattered Purgatory), a drone-ambient trio from Taiwan, psychedelic folk-rockers from Indonesia named Ramayana Soul, Vietnamese folk singer J. William Parker, Pakistani producer Nawksh, Thailand rock band คณะ เบียร์บูด (Khana Bierbood), South Korean rock band Tengger, and the Japanese krautrock band Minami Deutsch.

After a couple of years playing and releasing music, including Kikagaku Moyo’s House In the Tall Grass, Go and Tomo moved to Amsterdam. The rest of the band still live in Osaka, Tokyo, and Fukushima, but the Netherlands became an integration point for the band and the label. Go says that this was a strategic choice: here, it’s easier to start European tours, receive vinyl runs from the Czech factories, the indie scene has more freedom, and flocks of tourists spread the news about you all over the world. On top of this, from their Amsterdam base, Kikagaku Moyo help other Asian bands to form by providing them with a place to sleep, backline, and useful booking contacts.

Kotsu Guy, bass

Welcome to Masana Temples

Kikagaku Moyo used to live in one house, share everything, feel each other. Now, being 9.000 km apart, they try to keep this approach. The band’s fourth most recent record ‘Masana Temples’ started with a shared Dropbox folder. Each of them had to upload at least one idea per week: melodies, rhythms, chord combinations, or even mumbling. Anything goes. Whenever one of them, mostly Go, wanted to write a song, they would dig through this pool of ideas, developing them and combining with their own. This way, they worked out a moderate virtual jam. Also, the guys would talk over Skype, sharing their discoveries. Later, they would get together, and as soon as a song was at least 60-70% done, they would try it out on stage. The reaction from the audience would shape the final form of the composition.

On the road, going from one fiery show to another, Go would listen to something calm and relaxing. Brazilian songs, a lot of ambient and experimental music played on the tour bus while the landscapes outside the window changed from Reykjavik to Bali, from Beijing to New York. All these polarities came together in the album, turning it to a book of travel stories. “The things that we went through together, as a band, were our key inspiration. The scorching places and the really cold ones, Australia, New Zealand, snow-covered States in winter, all these contrasts are on this record. Sometimes it sounds sweet and juicy, sometimes really harsh, sometimes you can relax, and the other time you dive into it”, says Go.

The contrasts continued when the artists started recording: after having caught a cold touring the US in March, they were welcomed by warm and sunny Lisbon. A studio along with a sound producer, Portuguese jazz guitarist Bruno Pernadas were already waiting for them. This collaboration was also Go’s idea: “I love his solo albums a lot. I played his music to the boys when we were on the tour bus, and they loved it too. We decided to ask him to produce our record, even though until then he only produced his own stuff. He’s from a jazz background, he plays nu-jazz experimental music, combining it with indie, electronic, and hip-hop. Thanks to him we added some jazz to the record as well. He’s a great composer, and he helped us make our music more accessible to those who don’t listen to psych. In the end, some people like 20-minute jams, and some don’t”.

At that point, the band knew what the record should sound like, while Pernadas added some spice to the mix. Typically, Kikagaku Moyo record everything from the first or second take to preserve the most genuine feeling of the song, and ‘Masana Temples’ followed that tradition: Bruno would often say “Guys, that was awesome!” after the first take, and the band agreed, even though they knew where they messed up. But if Bruno says it’s awesome, then it must be true.

Ryu, electric sitar, keys

Tomo and the rest of the band sing imaginary lyrics and sounds suggested by the song (except ‘Nazo Nazo’, their first track in Japanese). Thus, you can’t make out details of their physical or mental journeys, but you can feel them, and become an active participant. Even Masana is a word created by the band and roughly translates to “nomadic, transnational, a cross-boundary utopia”.

Album tracks such as ‘Nazo Nazo’ and ‘Orange Peel’ sound delicate like ripples on a lake. In ‘Dripping Sun’ and ‘Gatherings’, the quiet turns into tumultuous waves of riffs, guitar and electric sitar solos. Yet still, even in the most brutal moments, the world of Kikagaku Moyo remains bright, melodic, and soft. ‘Fluffy Kosmisch’ stays true to its name and pays tribute to the fathers of krautrock; ‘Blanket Song’ adds some folklore flair.

The cross-boundary utopia speaks through the least notable track ‘Amayadori’: in the minimalistic sketch, you can hear the rain and thunder near Kotsu Guy’s house in Fukushima, as well as birds and winds recorded during international tours. Together, they take the listeners to the temples of Masana.

To be continued

With the new album, the quality of the live shows improved as well. The five toured North America with the hyped-up Khruangbin, while none other than Connan Mockasin joined them at the show in New York’s Central Park. For the European tour, Kikagaku Moyo invited their friends, the British band Vanishing Twin. By the way, it was their flutist and percussionist Elliott Arndt who filmed the debut video for ‘Nazo Nazo’ for the Japanese group, using wacky images and aesthetics reminiscent of Alejandro Jodorowsky. The band also presented ‘Masana Temples’ live at the famous KEXP radio station. However, Go couldn’t say if this gave them a particular push: “We tour constantly, and when you work consistently, things like the KEXP live just happen”.

At times, Kikagaku Moyo not only play on tour but also jam with other musicians. Be it a split show with their friends from Minami Deutsch and random people at an underground club in Brooklyn, or an improvised set with bands they share the stage with at Desert Daze in California or Le Guess Who? in Utrecht. A jam in countries like Ukraine could be of interest as well. “It’s purely a question of time. If we came to Kyiv for a week, we’d love to jam. Usually, every day on tour costs us money, and this is hard; but if it was a residency, if someone paid our expenses, we’d be happy to do it. It’s very refreshing. When you play hundreds of shows with one line-up, even one new person can change everything”.

Despite the time pressure, the Japanese band doesn’t want to stop. They want to record covers of Brazilian songs, maybe even in Japanese, create movie soundtracks, collaborate more with painters and merchandise designers, release more music by female solo artists and bands. Working on their original music doesn’t stop either. Just the other day, the band released a double single featuring an unexpected cover of an old Scottish folk song ‘Gypsy Davey’ with female English vocals and a lullaby with a folkloric charm ‘Mushi No Uta’.

Sometimes our record sounds sweet and juicy, sometimes really harsh, sometimes you can relax, and the other time you dive into it

On stage in Kyiv, Kikagaku Moyo sound comfortably at ease and perfectly well-knit at the same time. As if they were just jamming, especially on older songs, but they always know when to change the tone. Their music floats on waves and takes one on an exciting journey. After every high tide comes a low tide. After every storm in their guitar amps, their long hair, and the audience’s roaring comes pure Zen and rare moments of silence.

You can barely hear the rolling thunder of guitars and drums in the middle of the age-old ‘Tree Smoke’ through the audience’s exuberant applause, the hot from the press ‘Dripping Sun’ gets its fair share of loving numerous times before it even ends. Closer to the encore, Go takes the floor: “Thank you for being with us today. It’s an incredible place to play music. It says ‘Welcome Home’”, – Go points to the neon sign on the wall. “And we do feel at home. Thank you for making this possible”.

Another highlight of the evening and another reason to dance is the cover of ‘Streets of Calcutta’ by Ananda Shankar, a piece of lively 70s rock’n’roll, focused on catchy guitar solos. The Japanese dreamers forget themselves in playing music inspired by the American revolution in music and Indian traditions, for three hundred music lovers in a warehouse in Kyiv, proving that there are no limits or boundaries.

After the show, the heroes of the night hang out with the people in the audience bumming smokes, exchanging music, telling tales from the road. Later that night, they return to their hotel to get some sleep before jumping on a plane and continuing with their tour. To live like that, you have to truly love music, people, and the road. Lastly, I ask Go where on this planet, he felt most peaceful and in harmony. Where was his point of reset? “I like soft things, I feel best on a soft couch, with soft clothes and good speakers, smoking a joint and drinking juice”, he says.

Photos: Alina Kuchma

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