One of the most gratifying and exciting musical events of the last fifteen years has been the growing awareness in the West of Japan’s deep seams of underground psychedelic groups. We now have a fuller grasp of the roots and history of this music in Japan, going back to the Group Sounds boom of the late sixties. But at the tail end of the eighties, it seemed as though groups like High Rise, Ghost, Fushitsusha, and White Heaven had sprung fully-formed from some unknown dimension, hyper-charged with Marshall stacks and fuzz pedals, mainlining a non-ironic devotion to the giants of sixties psychedelic rock. For those of us investigating the music at the time, each new delivery from Japan seemed to bring a limitless supply of impeccable records.
Amongst these groups, White Heaven, with their magical blend of West Coast stoned cool and iced-out NY punk ire, were the most immediately accessible. You Ishihara’s deep, naive vocals formed a perfect counterpoint to some incendiary guitar slinging courtesy of a guitarist called Michio Kurihara. Kurihara’s presence seemed to kick any track into the stratosphere, with a sure grasp of tension and song-dynamics that recalled the great Cipollina at his best. Silkily smooth lines or rough-edged fuzz attack, all seemed to come equally easily to Kurihara. It was obvious that here was a very special guitarist indeed. Discographical exploration revealed that Kurihara’s career went beyond White Heaven, radiating out in many directions and encompassing stints with underground legends like YBO2, Ghost, Marble Sheep, and many others. More recently, on US and European tours with Damon & Naomi, Kurihara has dazzled audiences with his textural control and shading.
This, Kurihara’s first major interview in English, was conducted by email between June and September 2001. His responses displayed a rare depth of thought and courtesy, for which the Terrascope offers its heartfelt thanks.
PT: Tell us about your childhood. What were your early musical memories, early heroes?
MK: I was born on November 23, 1961 on the western edge of Tokyo, in a place called Nishi Tama. It’s a totally normal country town, with a few factories dotted here and there. Nearby is an American airbase at Yokota. During the Vietnam War there were always lots of military planes taking off and landing. I remember really clearly the awful racket they’d make. I first got interested in music in the third year at elementary school, when I was nine. I’d listen to the classical records we had at home. My favourites at the time were the "symphonic poems" composed by people like Holst, Smetana, Borodin. Just basic pieces that are simple for beginners to understand. As a child I remember being impressed by the way the music was able to express so many emotions and sights, and summon up so many mental images. As well as these pieces, I used to like listening to baroque music, especially chamber music (string quartets). By the way, even now I still like Pachelbel’s Canon and Aria on a G-String. Before I went to junior high I almost no interest in rock or pop – or maybe it would be closer to say that I didn’t understand them.
The first time I got into rock music was when I was thirteen, my second year at junior high. My elder brother, who was two years older than me, used to listen to The Beatles all the time. Out of all their music, the song that I picked up on and that got me interested in the electric guitar was "While my guitar gently weeps" from ‘The White Album’. I remember thinking that the lead guitar on that track was amazing, and wondering how I could learn to play guitar like that. I think that track was the reason why I first started wanting to play the guitar. So the first guitarist I liked was Eric Clapton. Other guitarists I liked during my mid-teens were Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix, Robby Krieger (The Doors), and Haruo Mizuhashi (Jacks).
Could you tell us a bit more about how you came to take up the guitar? What kind of music were you listening to during your teenage years?
I first started playing guitar in my third year of junior high. I would play this gut guitar of my brother’s that was lying around the house. I wasn’t really playing it – playing with it would probably be more exact. Then in the autumn of that year I bought my first electric guitar. It was a cheap, Japanese Telecaster copy.
Around that third year of junior high and the first year of high school, I was listening to stuff like The Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, Rory Gallagher. Then, in my second year at high school I started getting into Hendrix, The Doors, and The Jacks, and they had an influence on me. Around this time I also remember going to a club in Fussa, which was a larger town nearby, and seeing an early line-up of Fushitsusha with (Keiji) Haino, (Jun) Hamano, and Shuhei (Takashima). That was a real shock to me. Their sound was just such a deviation from the structured music that I had been listening to up until then. That experience taught me that music allows for so many different forms of expression. It also got me interested in freeform music. After this, one after another I started getting into the Velvet Underground, Blue Cheer, MC5, Peter Ivers, Tim Buckley, etc, and through them I learned about the unfathomable depths and mystery that rock possesses. I have little doubt that all the music that I listened to between the ages of sixteen and nineteen is still exercising an influence on me.
What was your first experience of being in a group?
The first group I was a member of was a covers group that I put together with some classmates for a festival at our school. That was during my first year of high school. It was only on the level of messing around though. The first real group I played in, playing gigs outside of school, was a group I formed with some older students in my second year at high school. We played a mixture of original material inspired by punk and 60s rock, and covers of songs by The Jacks and others.
When did you develop your guitar style? You have often been compared to John Cipollina from Quicksilver – when did you first hear his playing?
My current guitar style is something which kind of developed naturally. So there’s no point I can say that this is when it began. The first time I heard Cipollina’s guitar was on Quicksilver’s second album, ‘Happy Trails’, which I think I bought when I was twenty. The first couple of times I heard it, it didn’t make much of an impression on me, but then the more I listened to it the more I began to see how amazing he was. Then I went out and bought Quicksilver’s first album, and that just totally knocked me out. Just the beauty and the sexuality of his guitar, and his use of space and timing, they’re all superlative. He’s one guitarist who is truly worthy of respect. I think that my current style is made up of elements from Cipollina and all the other great guitarists of the past which I have naturally absorbed and digested. But either way, I think that my playing is still developing. I want to keep on applying myself and studying so that I can play better, get better sounds out of the guitar.
Have any Japanese guitarists been inspirational for you?
First and foremost, Jun Hamano from [late 70s acid punk splatter kings] Gaseneta. I only know one song by them, but Hamano’s guitar work in that song is so impressive – tension, power, speed of intelligent response. Actually, I haven’t heard that many Japanese guitarists, but maybe Shigeru Suzuki when he was in Happy End, Hideki Ishima from the Flower Travellin’ Band, Susumu Hirasawa from P-Model (actually, his entire musical vision is wonderful). And there are a lot of great guitarists on the scene at the moment - people like Sakamoto from Yura Yura Teikoku, Narita from High Rise, Koji Shishido from Katsurei, Sei’ichi Yamamoto’s playing with Rashinban.
You talked about seeing Fushitsusha and getting into more freeform music earlier. What kind of stuff did you listen to? Do you still have an interest in that music?
When I first started listening to free music after seeing Fushitsusha, the first record I listened to was the ‘No New York’ compilation. The Contortions had a great impact on me. After that I spent periods listening to Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, James Blood Ulmer, those guys. Aside from the guitarists, I was also into Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, Art Ensemble of Chicago and stuff like that. But for some reason I hardly heard any Japanese stuff, not even [Japan’s greatest freeform guitarist] Masayuki Takayanagi. But I got to see Bailey, Blood Ulmer and Sun Ra when they played in Japan. The beautiful tensions in Derek Bailey’s playing made a deep impression. I remember really enjoying the Sun Ra gig too – it was like a carnival or something. At the time, in my twenties, I liked music that combined songs with improvisation, stuff like Sun Ra and the ‘Comme a la radio’ album that Brigitte Fontaine cut with the Art Ensemble. One of the reasons why I was so enamoured of freeform music at that time was that I heard a violent sense of tension in it, something that I couldn’t find in more orthodox music. But now I hardly listen to any freeform stuff at all. Just some Eric Dolphy now and again.
Quite a few Japanese guitarists, for example Narita from High Rise, take their inspiration from freeform music. What about you, or has rock always been your main love?
I think that freeform music did have some kind of impact on my playing. But rock has always been my foundation, even if it doesn’t make up the entirety of my music. I have never really examined or dissected my own playing, but your question made me think a bit about it. The conclusion I came to was that my playing can perhaps best be described as something that it built on rock foundations but which combines influences from free music and all the other musics or sounds that have ever touched the strings of my heart. Amongst the other music and sounds that have touched my heart are English trad folk and Asian ethnic music (Mongolian music etc), traditional Japanese songs like nursery rhymes and school songs, and the classical music I listened to as a child. Then there are sounds that I heard as a baby, the sound of wind chimes or rain dripping from the eaves (though these sounds have doubtless expanded and mutated in my memory). I believe that all of these sounds (their melody, tone, emotional impact) have played on my heartstrings, and all of them have had an influence on my guitar playing.
I’ve found that those sounds that touch me deepest are ones that call up images from my memory or subconscious, those that invoke a vague sense of nostalgic sadness. My playing is based on those musics I mentioned above, and through the guitar I try to express or incarnate my feelings in sound. And what I most want is that the sound of my guitar touches even for a moment the heartstrings of even one person who hears it.
What’s been occupying your turntable recently?
I still love Tim Buckley and Love, and I listen to them a lot, especially the early stuff. Then there’s Robert Wyatt and that whole so-called Canterbury thing. Early Steeleye Span, Milton Nascimento’s ‘Clube de Esquina’. Sometimes I break out the classics – the first Blue Cheer, the first Quicksilver, the second 13th Floor Elevators. These records are like a fountainhead to me, and anytime I run into a musical wall I tend to go back to them as the ultimate source of nourishment. On the recent European tour [with Damon & Naomi] I was given a copy of a solo album by a Spanish guitarist called Ibon Errazkin. Don’t know if you’ve heard of him? It’s all instrumental but it’s totally great. Recently that’s the only thing that I’ve been listening to. Actually, I’m quite surprised myself to realise that my listening habits have changed so little over the years.
What’s your main guitar at the moment?
At the moment, the one I use most is a 1968 Gibson SG Standard. I bought it in 1991, at a guitar shop in Kunitachi [a western suburb of Tokyo]. Just one look at it and one listen to it had me hooked. Going right back to my second year of high school, I have mostly always played SGs. This is a bit off the topic, but Cipollina plays the same Gibson SG Standard, but his seems to be a very heavily modified early sixties model. I know, because last year I went to have a look at his guitar in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
Your earliest released recordings are with a group called ONNA, with the cartoonist Keizo Miyanishi. Tell us a bit more about that group.
I first got involved with ONNA in the spring of 1983. A friend of mine at the time was in a band with a manga artist and illustrator called Mafuyu Hiroki. Hiroki had just recorded and released the ‘Onna’ single with Miyanishi. It seems that Miyanishi then wanted to start playing gigs seriously, but Hiroki was too busy with other stuff so he left the group. So then Miyanishi started looking for a guitarist to play these gigs with him, and he asked me through a friend. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I went for an audition / rehearsal. Anyway, it seems that there was no one else who was interested, so I got the job straight away.
The line-up at the time was Keizo Miyanishi (vocals and guitar), Ken Matsutani (drums), and a bassist whose name I’ve forgotten. The sound was repetitive and heavy, but quite orthodox. This line-up played maybe five or six gigs during the summer and autumn of that year. This was the first time that I met Ken Matsutani [leader of Marble Sheep & The Rundown Sun’s Children, and proprieter of Captain Trip Records], and we’re still friends today. But anyway, in the autumn Matsutani and the bassist decided to quit, so from late autumn till spring of the next year, Miyanishi and I gigged together as a duo. The CD that was released recently is a document of one of the gigs we played as a duo. The sound of the group at that time was dark, like an emotional vortex. I feel that it probably came closest to the world of Miyanishi’s pictures.
Next, in the spring of 1984 we started looking for a new drummer, and Yoshiki Uenoyama, who was still a teenage student, joined the group. We played several gigs together as a trio until that August. Because of the drummer, the sound had become much more easy to listen to, pop in a certain sense. But in the end, Miyanishi and I had an emotional falling out, and at the end of August the group split up. So, I played with ONNA between the spring of 1983 and the summer of 1984, about a year and two or three months.
Tell us about your involvement with YBO2.
There are some links between YBO2 and ONNA. Kitamura, the vocalist and bassist leader of YBO2 started a magazine called Fool’s Mate in 1979. The magazine covered European rock music, especially progressive stuff. At the beginning of 1984 I went with Miyanishi to a meeting with Kitamura. At the time, Kitamura had stepped back from editing the magazine and he was trying to start his own record label. I can’t remember all the details exactly, but I think there was some plan to release a cassette book by ONNA on Kitamura’s label. In the end though the plan came to nothing. Anyway, Kitamura and I then knew each other because of this meeting.
Then, in the summer of 1984 after ONNA had broken up, I got a call from a friend of mine who also knew Kitamura. Kitamura was planning to start a rock band, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in helping out. So that’s how me and Uenoyama, the drummer from ONNA, came to join YBO2. At the beginning there was a female bassist - a friend of Kitamura’s - and Kitamura himself played mellotron and keyboards. The bassist soon left, which is why Kitamura ended up playing bass.
The sound at the beginning was very simple, especially compared to the complex rhythms that YBO2 became known for using later. As well as our own original songs, we also played Steeleye Span and Jefferson Airplane covers. The main thing was the volume though – it had to be massively loud! I believed that rock had to be loud, and it was about this time that I started playing through Fender and Hiwatt amps simultaneously. Still today, I basically use two amps, though it does depend on the group. The YBO2 performances were artless and rough, but I think we had a power all our own. In the end, that trio of me, Kitamura and Uenoyama played together until June 1985.
Was anything recorded by this early line-up? I think the earliest YBO2 stuff released so far was the Null, Kitamura, Yoshida trio.
We didn’t do any proper recording, and it seems that there aren’t even any live recordings still in existence. So there probably won’t ever be any releases by this line-up.
You’ve recently played again with YBO2. How did that come about?
After Kitamura dissolved YBO2 in 1990, his main group was Differance, which is based around Celtic music. I heard that when Difference were playing at some club in the autumn of 1999, Kitamura totally by chance bumped into Uenoyama. For some reason they got on like a house on fire, and they came up with this idea of roping me in and playing just one gig as a revival of the original YBO2 line-up. I got a call about it, and I agreed to do it, but only as long as it was just the one gig. So that was how I wound up meeting up with Kitamura for the first time in fifteen years. In February 2000 we played a gig at a club in Shibuya [a district of Tokyo] under the name "The Original YBO2", playing some of the same pieces from back then. At the end of the gig, the most famous line-up of the group – Kazuyuki "NULL" Kishino (guitar) and Tatsuya Yoshida (drums) joined us on stage, and we played one song as a quintet. That was the first time that I played together with either Kishino or Yoshida, but I felt that they were both great musicians.
After that, Kitamura reformed YBO2 with Kishino and Yoshida. Masami Akita from Merzbow joined them for a quartet gig they played in May 2000. I heard that there some kind of friction between them, and the group soon split up. So Kitamura then got back in touch with me and asked me to join the group again. I agreed, under the condition that it was just until that December. So for the latter half of that year, the YBO2 line-up was Kitamura (vocals and bass), me on guitar, Kishizawa (drums), and Morikawa (vocals, keyboard, guitar). Kishizawa was the drummer from Differance, and Morikawa is the singer with a band called ZOA and she had played with a late eighties line-up of YBO2. From that summer until the end of last year, we played about ten gigs. Kishizawa and Morikawa are both very accomplished musicians. Kitamura tends to be up and down technically, but when it comes down the gig he can really turn on the tension sometimes. When everything comes together, the group’s performances are really satisfying. Our Osaka gig, with Masonna guesting, was interesting too. I think that YBO2 have found new members and that they’re still playing.
Tell us about White Heaven. How did you first meet Ishihara?
I first met Ishihara in December 1985 at a small studio in Kichijoji [another Western suburb of Tokyo, with lots of music venues and record shops], where his band was staging a private gig. I seem to recall that his band at the time was called White Poppies. Ken Matsutani was playing guitar in this group, and since we’d become friends in ONNA, he asked me along to the gig. I was late arriving so I only caught the tail end of the gig, but I still felt that they were a great band with a unique atmosphere. The band changed their name to White Heaven soon after that and started playing gigs. I saw them play several times, and it seemed that every time I went to see them their sound was just getting better and better. Compared to after I joined, their early sound was a lot simpler, with a strong New York punk or rock ‘n’ roll feel. Matsutani and the other guitarist, Sakamoto, had this symmetrical thing going on between the two of them, but they both played great guitar. Ishihara was singing in English and he produced this unique sense of coolness. I think I only talked with Ishihara once during this period. I think we talked about music, and I remember thinking that his taste in music was very similar to my own. Around the autumn of 1986 Matsutani wanted to concentrate on his own band, Marble Sheep, so he left White Heaven. I was asked to take his place. At first it wasn’t an invitation to join the group – more like, "come on down and jam with us, and see how it goes". But that first session together was just so exciting. I remember thinking that it’d be great to join the group. Anyway, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, somehow I found myself a member of the group. I played with White Heaven from late 1986 until 1991, then again from 1994 until 1998.
You also play on Ishihara’s wonderful solo album ‘Passivite’.
The line-up on that record is Ishihara (vocals and guitar), Chiyo Kamekawa (bass – member of Yura Yura Teikoku), Koji Shimura (drums – ex-White Heaven drummer, currently sticksman with Mainliner and High Rise), and me on guitar. It’s the same line-up as that Ishihara with Friends group track on the et cetera video. Almost the same line-up as Stars too, only the drummer is different. You could probably look upon there being a direct link between Ishihara’s solo record and Stars. I think that on ‘Passivite’ Ishihara really captured well a certain kind of sound that he’d always wanted but had been unable to find with White Heaven. I think that Kamekawa’s [from Yura Yura Teikoku] contribution brought great musical dividends as well. He’s a great bassist. As for my contribution, I tried to play in a totally different way to my guitar parts in White Heaven.
You seem to have a lot of side-projects and other groups you play with, the most famous of which is probably Ghost. How did you first meet Batoh from Ghost?
I think it was sometime around 1987. I was at some gig, and I saw a band that Batoh was a member of at the time, called Pierrot Manzoni. That was probably the first time I saw him. The line-up was Batoh on vocals and guitar, Taku Sugimoto on guitar, and some drummer whose name I’ve forgotten. I remember that they played in an avant-garde improv style. Then, one time when I was round at Ken Matsutani’s place, I bumped into Batoh again. That was the first time that we talked.
Did you play together with Batoh in Marble Sheep?
I have never been an official member of Marble Sheep. Unofficially, last year at a small club in Tokyo I played a gig with them at a party celebrating Batoh’s wedding. That was the first ever Batoh/Kurihara/Marble Sheep show. But it was just a one-off, for the party, so it probably won’t even be listed in the Marble Sheep records.
When did you first play with Ghost?
I first started playing live with them in 1994. But I didn’t play at every gig, so I really only became an official member during the August 1997 tour of the USA that Drag City arranged.
You’ve played on a couple of records with ha-za-ma. Who leads that band?
Roku is the leader. Then I suppose that Kaoru Onuma (drums) is like the sub-leader. The group started in 1988when I first jammed with a group that Roku and Onuma had back then, Dragon. Almost simultaneously the other members of Dragon quit, so we changed the name to ha-za-ma and started playing some gigs, just jamming and improvising. The original idea of the group was to be a session unit with an open policy so that anyone could leave or join. Recently the line-up has become fixed, and it’s a shame that we lost the energy that we used to have. But at the same time, sometimes there are moments where we naturally drift into an amazing ensemble thing that can take your breath away. It’s a strange group. Roku used to be an artist type, making stained glass and stuff like that. Now he runs a club for Deadheads and hippies called Yukotopia in Umejima in Adachi-ku [in northern Tokyo. The club was the venue for the Mike Wilhelm gigs documented on the ‘Live in Tokyo’ disk]. He also owns some land in Hawaii, so he’s only in Japan for six months of the year usually. It looks like he’s going to turn into a hippie himself.
Then there’s the "super-group" Cosmic Invention. Batoh also plays on that- was he the leader?
Batoh came up with the concept for the group, so I suppose that he’s the leader. He wanted to play a purer form of rock music than he does in Ghost. The group is centred around people from Ghost, but he also recruited some friends from other groups like Kakashi and Subvert Blaze. The original idea was for the group to be a recording unit, and there was never any intention of playing gigs. The line-up was slightly different for every track.
You also showed up on the most recent Overhang Party album. Are you an official member or just a sideman?
I just help out occasionally and have never been an official member. I’ve played with them on and off since around about the start of 1999. I think that year I played the most times. Last year Fukuoka from Overhang invited the Boston band Major Stars over to Japan. I played twice with Overhang on those dates. And I’m due to play with them again this September. I got involved with them because their drummer, Yamazaki, used to be the drummer in Ghost too. So we knew each other and he invited me to play. I think that they wanted me involved because they wanted to add something to their usual band sound. Actually, to tell the truth, before I started playing together with them I didn’t know much about them. I’d probably only heard their tracks on the PSF Tokyo Flashback compilations. But once I started playing together with them, I understood that they possess a unique dynamism within their decency. They’re a very good band.
One of the bands you sometimes play with, Yura Yura Teikoku, have become very popular in Japan recently, selling out massive outdoors shows. Tell us a bit about them.
It’s unbelievable how big they are now, especially compared to before. I think I jammed once with their leader Shintaro Sakamoto (vocals and guitar) and the guys from ha-za-ma around 1988, before he’d started Yura Yura. I have this clear memory of it being an extremely exciting session. Then in the mid-nineties White Heaven started playing a lot of gigs with them on the same bill. Between ’96 and now I guested at a few of their gigs. Playing with them always gives me a real rush, and we have a great time. The reason for that is that the three of them have totally equal chops, sense, and power – they’re in exquisite balance. And then there’s Sakamoto’s songs. I think that he’s my favourite out of all the current Japanese singers. Some people have said that compared to the emotionally thrilling power of their early performances they’ve got too pop now. Personally, I really love the stripped back quality to their sound. It’s a real pity that they’re aren’t more people outside Japan who are into them.
Do you see any difference between your role in say Ghost or ha-za-ma, and your role in White Heaven or Stars? Are you more like a sideman in some of your groups?
I have never devoted a lot of thought to my role in each group. My basic approach to producing sounds is the same in every group. Though I suppose you could say that in White Heaven and Stars my sound is more to do with creating the framework of the songs, whereas in Ghost or ha-za-ma it’s more often, comparatively, to do with creating a background or adding tonal colour. But of course this varies quite a bit depending on the stage of the group’s development and the particular song. In terms of synaesthesia, you could say that White Heaven and Stars have a monochrome sound palette (albeit like really intense daylight), and Ghost and ha-za-ma have a more colourful sound.
Also, each group has its own unique direction and tendencies. For example, in White Heaven a sense of tension has more important to us than creating a perfect ensemble, and we tended to pursue certain sounds very stoically. In Ghost though, Batoh has his own unique sound aesthetic, and so we tend to concentrate more on creating a polished ensemble. Ha-za-ma was the freest out of these three, more like a laboratory for sound. So I have to adjust my playing to make it suitable for the direction of each group. But in reality, when playing in a group we are all touched by the other member’s sounds and via a natural process like chemical reaction, our own sounds alter and change. This, for me, is the most enjoyable part of playing with so many different groups.
Now to your most recent group, Stars. What’s the story?
The first gig we played under the name Stars was in November 1999 in Kichijoji. We’ve played a few gigs since then, and in January this year we released a 3 track CD called ‘Today’. And that’s all.
Surely you can tell us a bit more than that. Let’s go back a bit. Could you talk about the break-up of White Heaven?
Around the middle of the nineties there appeared a growing gap between the sound that Ishihara was searching for, and the sound that the group members wanted to play. This was nothing to do with them not being good enough – Shimura and Nakamura are both very accomplished musicians. I think that it was more to do with musical differences appearing between us. And when I think back now, I’m pretty sure that Ishihara was always imagining some ideal sound, one or two steps ahead of where we were at the time. So, from around 1996, Ishihara started up his own solo project to run simultaneously with the band. I’ve talked a little about this previously, but I believe that this was to be entirely a solo unit, and something totally separate from the music we were making with White Heaven. But as you know, both groups contained Ishihara, Shimura and me. It’s hard to deny that it started to become slightly difficult to distinguish between the two or to achieve a proper balance. However, that didn’t mean that White Heaven was becoming less stimulating musically, indeed I think that we’d entered a period of maturity and the music we were creating was very satisfying. Some months later, after our September 1997 show in Osaka, all the members of White Heaven together decided that we should split up. I remember that it felt weird – on the one hand there was something nihilistic about it, but at the same time I felt oddly satisfied, that we had done everything we possibly could as a group. Two months later, after a gig in November, Ishihara also called a halt to see his solo unit.
How did Ishihara come to form Stars then, with virtually the same line-up? How do you think the two groups differ?
One day about a year and a half after the break-up of White Heaven, I got a message from Ishihara. He was talking about forming a new band, and he wanted me to join. This new band would have the same basic members as his solo unit, but with a different drummer and a new sound. And Ishihara said that this time he wanted to work as a proper band, not as him plus some backing musicians as had been the case with his solo unit. So, we started playing as Stars from our first gig in November 1999. As an aside, Ishihara said that he had decided to name the band Stars because they’re the one thing that existed above White Heaven.
Especially towards the end, White Heaven was largely controlled by Ishihara. But in Stars, each member is able to contribute much more equally to the overall sound. Or as Ishihara would explain it, each member’s consciousness of the sound has to be at a far higher level. As well, we’ve gone back to the start. All the sounds that we’d dragged around with us for years in White Heaven have all been totally reset, and we've tried to reconstruct a new band sound. Anyway, that’s what we tried to do on that Stars CD that was released earlier this year. I wonder how it sounded to everyone? Or maybe you can’t tell the differences from before? I suppose that we have invited a lot of confusion, since ex-White Heaven members like Nakamura engineered and played guest keyboards on the CD, and our old drummer Ishihara (the younger brother) has played as a guest with us as well. But they’re both still close friends, as well as being great players (Nakamura especially has a marvellous sense on many different instruments) – and that’s why we asked them to play.
Personally and honestly, I don't care about the self-promotion. As long as we’re a band and we create some positive and great music, the rest doesn’t matter.
I think that the new EP is great. Are there any plans for a full album any time soon?
We had originally planned to start recording an album this autumn, but it looks like the start will be delayed for various reasons. One problem is that we still don’t have a regular drummer. But we still hope to start recording some material before the end of this year, at the latest. And we hope to have a release ready as soon as possible.
This May you toured Europe with Damon & Naomi. How was that? Any stories of rock ‘n’ roll excess?
For me personally, that was the most satisfying tour I’ve been on in years. We toured the States together last autumn, but this time our communication through sound was so much deeper. Their live sound is extremely delicate and it already feels very complete in itself. I was worried about adding anything to it that would damage their original sound, so the first few times we played together were very much trial and error. It took a bit of time before I could accommodate my sound to theirs. But during the tour I was gradually able to grasp their unique sense of timing and breathing. Particularly from around the middle of the tour on there were a number of amazing moments when we got this real synergy between the vibrations of the audience and the vibrations that we on stage were putting out. I guess that’s what people mean when they talk about "magic". These kinds of experiences are irreplaceable. On the best things about long tours like that one (well, it was only a month) is that you can feel the quality of the band’s sound getting better and better with each performance. I liked Damon & Naomi’s music before, but on this tour I was reminded of just what is great about them. I don’t think that they’re technical players, but they’ve transcended that and they have a deep sense of song. That’s what this tour showed me again.
We were fortunate in the choice of support acts on the tour – they were local groups, but all were individual and amazing. In London we had Clientele, in Manchester Rheinalt H Rowlands, Richard Youngs in Glasgow, Paloma in Paris, all were striking. This was the first tour I’d been on where we had to haul our amps and other equipment around, jumping on and off trains all over Europe. It was a bit tiring at times, but still a good experience. I was especially struck by the scenery we saw from the train window: pastoral in the UK, and the desolate mountains in Spain.
We’ve talked about the many groups you’ve played with, but they’ve always been other people’s projects. Have you never wanted to lead your own group? And what about songwriting? I think the only writing credit I’ve seen for you so far has been on the recent Stars release.
The only time I’ve been officially credited as a songwriter has been that one track on the Stars EP, and "Out There" on White Heaven’s "Next to Nothing" album. I only write songs when a suitable image comes to me. But I am far from prolific, and on top of that so many of my songs end up uncompleted or never getting released. Back when I was in White Heaven, there were some songs that I composed together with Ishihara or that I helped him finish. One example would be "Fallin’ stars end" from the first album, ‘Out’. I’ve also written some new songs for Stars, and we’re working on them in rehearsal. Hopefully they’ll get released one day.
As for leading a group, yeah, it’s true, I haven’t yet led my own group. I would like to have the chance to do it some time in the future. But at the same time, I’m not the sort to push ahead with an idea. Looking back, I’ve always gone with the flow, responded to whatever other people are doing. Probably because I have certain negative elements to my character. In some ways, I think that my current position is possibly the best one for me. But whatever way a group comes into being, creating a tight ensemble with a good singer and good musicians is important to me, and it’s a real source of happiness too. I’ve been lucky enough in my life to meet many wonderful musicians and play in a lot of different groups. And it’s beyond doubt that these experiences have shaped and improved my own playing.
Do you think that there is anything unique about the way Japanese play rock music? If so, what is it?
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have very much knowledge about Japanese rock music. And I’m just a musician and not an academic, so it is very hard for me to reply to this question. All I can say is that not just Japan but every country in the world has its own traditions, culture, customs, climate, food, etc, and I believe that all of these things are reflected in that country’s music. I am aware that some Japanese groups create a certain emotional world or sense of humidity that might be considered uniquely Japanese. And I feel that the unique rhythms and melody of the Japanese language must also provide a defining characteristic of Japanese rock. But nevertheless I feel that it is not cultural factors, but rather the character of each individual group and musician that creates the greatest differences. But then again, as I said before I have little knowledge, and thus little confidence in my conclusions.
Finally, and you can feel free to tell to get lost if you want, how do you support yourself? Can you make a living just from music?
At the present time I am unable to support myself on music alone. I do earn some money from playing music, but it’s not a regular income by any means. So, I help out at a small company that my family owns. They’ve been very understanding and supportive about things like going on long tours, and that’s what has enabled me to keep on playing music. I know quite a few people who’ve been forced to give up music because of their personal situations. In that sense, I do owe a lot to my family and the people around me, because it’s thanks to them that I’ve been so free (comparatively) to play my music.
By Phil McMullen, based on an interview & translation by Mr. Alan Cummings (c) Ptolemaic Terrascope, September 2001. With thanks to Damon and Naomi. Photos: Naomi Yang
Michio Kurihara Discography (All recordings as guitarist unless otherwise noted)
With White Heaven (1984 - 1997)
Out No label, 1989 CS promotional version with different recordings than the LP
Out P.S.F. Records PSF-11, 1991 LP- 1995 CD reissue (PSFD-11) uses a different mix of ‘My Cold Dimension’
Next to Nothing Noon Disk NOON CD-9401, 1994 CD
‘Threshold of the Pain’ b/w ‘4 Hours (in the afternoon)’; H.G. Fact HG-014, 1994 7"
Electric Cool Acid Noon Disk NOON CD-9502, 1995 CD- live recordings 87-88. Originally issued as cassette in edition of 100-150
Next to Nothing Noon Disk NOON-LP9601, 1996 LP- includes the contents of the CD, plus two additional tracks and an extended version of one song
Levitation The Now Sound TNS 09, 1997 LP live 1988
With The Stars (2000 – now)
Today P.S.F. Records PSFD-1001, 2001 CDEP
Ha-za-ma no catalog no., 1988 CS
Ha-za-ma II no catalog no., 1989 CS
Ha-za-ma Captain Trip CTCD-007, 1995 CD- contents drawn from two prior cassette releases
Once Upon a Time Captain Trip CTCD-174, 1999 CD- recorded 1996-1999
Help Your Satori Mind The Now Sound TNS 13, 1997 CD
With You Ishihara(solo album between White Heaven’s breakup and founding of The Stars)
Passivite Creativeman disc CMDD-00035, 1997 CD
With Marble Sheep & the Run Down Sun’s Children (member of original line-up in 1987)
1. July 1987 at Yaneura Marble Sheep’s Live Cassette MSLC-01, 1987, One-sided C-46
7. July 1987 at Yaneura Marble Sheep’s Live Cassette MSLC-02, 1987, C-46
7. August 1987 at Yaneura Marble Sheep’s Live Cassette MSLC-03, 1987, One-sided C-46
17. October 1987 at N.Y. Anti-knock Marble Sheep’s Live Cassette MSLC-04 1987, C-60
Live 1987-1988, Marble Sheep’s Video (MSV-01 60 minute VHS)
Old From New Heads Captain Trip CTCD-002, 1993 CD (live/studio demos, apparently compiled from above live cassettes)
With Henkyo Gakudan (1991 - 1992)
1991.6.15 no label or catalog no, 1991, CS
With Ghost (1993 – now)
Ghost PSF PSFD-9, 1990 CD - appears on ‘I’ve Been Flying’ only (this album also reissued on CD by the German label Strange Ways [WAY 72 CD], and on LP and CD by Drag City, DC127)
Temple Stone PSF PSFD-37, 1994 CD - appears on ‘Giver’s Chant’ only (this album also reissued on CD by the German label Strange Ways [WAY 78 CD], and on LP and CD by Drag City, DC129)
‘Moungod Air Cave’ b/w ‘Guru in the Echo’; The Now Sound TNS 05, 1995 7- appears on b-side only, recorded in 1994
Lama Rabi Rabi Drag City DC113, 1998 CD/2LP
Snuffbox Immanence Drag City DC148, 1999 CD/LP
Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet Drag City DC165, 1999 CD/2LP
With Damon and Naomi (1999 – now)
‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ b/w ‘Yoo Doo Right’; Grimsey GR-011, 1999 7’ - as Damon & Naomi & Batoh & Kurihara. Also known as ‘Live at TTs’ . Recorded live in 1998
Damon and Naomi With Ghost Sub Pop SP-501/Drag City DC206, 2000 CD/LP- CD on Sub Pop, LP on Drag City
With Overhang Party (guest member)
Otherside Of Pataphysique Records DD-008-009 EP-1, 2000 2CD+7’ - appears on three tracks of disc
With Yura Yura Teikoku (guest member)
Yura Yura Teikoku Kangae Chu MIDI MDCS-1046, 2000 CDS- appears on track 3 of three-track EP
Rame no Pantaron etc. MIDI MDCS-1050, 2001 CD- appears on tracks 3-5 of five-track mini-album
Yura Yura Teikoku 3 MIDI MDCL-1405, 2001 CD- appears on tracks 1 and 3 of ten-track album
The above plus attendant singles were reissued on 2 separate LPs in 2001:
Yura Yura Teikoku 3 (1), Midi CXLP-1037, 2001 LP
Yura Yura Teikoku 3 (2), Midi CXLP-1038, 2001 LP
With YBO2 (founding member from 1984 – 1985, member of 2000 incarnation)
Deijchu-Ling (Songs From Higurashi Woods) Fractured Sisters’ Secrets FSS-01, 2000 CD- also sold with accompanying video FSSV-01
Heaven Fractured Sisters’ Secrets FSS-05/06, 2001 2CD- compilation of live tracks from 2000 reunion tour
Untitled (No label, 2000 CDR)- Live recordings from Antiknock (10/4/2000) and The Loft in Shinjuku (8/12/2000). Free three-track CDR given out at 11/30/2000 Tokuzo performance by "Telle" Kumazawa. Tracks possibly included on Heaven.
YBO2 at Tokuzo (No label, 2001 CDR)- Live recordings from Tokuzo club (11/30/2000) in Nagoya. Free three-track CDR given out at 5/1/2001 performance by "Telle" Kumazawa. Tracks not included on Heaven.
With Loud Machine 5000
‘Go Grace Go’ b/w ‘Lord of Nothing Pt. 1’; H.G. Fact HG-002, 1992 7"
Note that this band also played under the name Loud Machine 2000, most notably evidenced by their compilation track under this name
With Onna (member in the early 80s, prior to TBO2)
Eros Onna No Sekai Bloody Butterfly ZIKSBB-026, 2001 2CD- Release date 5/25/01. This release is a 1983 live recording.
Deki no label or catalog no, 1991 CD (Kuri plays on two tracks)
Dead Tech II Dossier ST 7541, 1988 LP. As part of Marble Sheep & the Rundown Sun’s Children.
Tokyo Flashback PSF PSFD-12, 1991 CD. ‘Blind Promise’ remix as part of White Heaven.
Red Zone Disc Vol 0 R.B.F. International RBF2001, 1992 CD – plays on one track as a member of Loud Machine 2000.
Red Zone Disc 2nd edition (reissue of above)
Tokyo Flashback 3 PSF PSFD-34, 1994 CD, ‘Midsummer Stroll’ as part of White Heaven - same version as on ‘Next to Nothing’.
Audible Rumbles Vol. 1 Ptolemaic Terrascope POTCD 2, 1996 CD. ‘Gravity’ live in Brussels 1995 as part of White Heaven.
Etcetera vol. 3 part 1 Etcetera no catalog #, 1998 VHS. ‘The Last Door’ as part of White Heaven
Etcetera vol. 3 part 2 Etcetera no catalog #, 1998 VHS, ‘Strange Bedfellow’ as part of You Ishihara & Friends.
Discography compiled by Rob Lim