Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Il a un bon tete, Yximalloo: the head of a clown on the wiry body of a circus acrobat. In the fierce afternoon sun of Tokyo he looks unlike anyone else, though his shy, apologetic air belies this distinction.
Just as I write this an e mail comes in from him: 'The reason why I did hesitate to meet you was I would destroy your imagination. Because I'm such a man you can see everywhere in a street.'
This is far from true. He resembles other people I've met -- Howard Devoto, perhaps, or the rock writer Kris Kirk -- but nobody on the Aoyama Dori. He's neither salaryman nor consumer. His look is as 80s as the day-glo record sleeves Jad Fair designs for him. He's wearing a sort of garish B movie top and heavy beige pleated trousers with a big-buckled belt.
He's waiting for me on the steps of Spiral, the slick Tokyo department store with its art spaces, ambient music and curated record store full of Neu! reissues and bossa nova. They don't carry Yximalloo's records; these odd self-published releases fall into no existing genre, and have never attracted influential curators. He presses the CDs himself. One thousand of each title, of which, he tells me, he's sold about one hundred so far, mostly to Other Music in New York. His only source of exposure seems to be WFMU, the eclectic college radio station based in New Jersey.
Yximalloo asks me to suggest another cafe: 'Perhaps somewhere cheaper!' On the walk to Nadiff he tells me that he's been living with a man in Tel Aviv, but that he outstayed his welcome and was chased out. As the conversation goes on, it transpires that this is a pattern in Yximalloo's life. Far from the recluse I imagined, living chained to his home studio, he leads a life of constant globetrotting: from Israel to London, from London to Denmark, from New York or Oregon, from Oregon to Philadelphia. He forms friendships with people, moves in, and, finally, when their patience wears thin, moves on.
We sit at a table in the basement courtyard of Nadiff, soothed by a big yellow wall and the faint sound of minimalist electronic music. Yximalloo produces a box containing a dozen of his CDs: two collaborations with Jad Fair and several of the 'Worst of ' series, one for each year of the 80s, all released on his own Sakura Wrechords. He also presents me with a pair of panties. 'Most artists make T shirts,' he says, 'but I make panties.' These ones are very skimpy indeed, and are printed on the bum side with the names of Yximalloo and Costes, the French performance artist.
It seems unsurprising that Yximalloo should have performed and recorded with Costes, a man I saw perform in Paris the most extreme live show I've ever witnessed. Writhing naked dancers splattered the audience with spinach disguised as shit, and sprinkled us with real piss. The first six rows of spectators took flight half way through the show, and cowered at the back, eager to avoid more body fluids and physical impacts. I interviewed Costes afterwards, and he was as shy and self-effacing as Yximalloo. The demon came out only in his art.
Yximalloo pieces his English sentences together carefully, with closed eyes. (Later he tells me 'If I like a man, I cannot look at him'. Most of our conversation he's able to look me in the eye, though. I don't think I'm his type.)
Of course, I try to bully him. He gives me an inch -- agreeing with my classification of his work as Unpop, and my definition of Unpop as a kind of Pop -- and I try to take a mile. I tell him what's important in his work is this double identity he assumes: part anthropologist, part tribe. I try to get him to admit that his aesthetic choices are in themselves political, the result of his being Japanese and gay. I suggest that his longevity as an artist, and the odd emotional tones that come through on the records, must be related to the fact that, at the age of 46, he's still single, still unrooted, with no vested interest in pop's usual lexicon of normative, reproductive values.
But he's having none of it. His work is intuitive, he says. He stopped working with other musicians not just because they all got married and settled down years ago, but because he knew he couldn't offer them any kind of security. His sound is original because he's very poor and can't afford to keep up with what other people are doing. And he's a country boy from Kyushu, and doesn't keep up with the urban trends.
When he started in the 70s he used to hang out with YMO. He even worked for a spell programming live shows in Shibuya, but this only convinced him that the live format was boring. Now, when people ask him to play live, he likes to work for a week getting together new backing tapes of his songs. His most recent shows in the States were cancelled because he couldn't get anyone to give him a week of studio time to do this. He's toyed with the idea of putting on more theatrical shows in the Costes tradition, but he's too shy to get naked in front of people.
Yximalloo's favourite film director is Charlie Chaplin, and his favourite band is The Beatles. He also likes Mel Brooks, Cliff Richard, and Greek music from the 1920s. He makes his records by singing ideas onto a microcassette. Then, when he's actually in Japan long enough and has a place to stay, he puts his little home studio together and records. If it sounds like African music it's not because Yximalloo is a World Music fan, but because poverty forced him to build his own instruments. He tapes huge amounts of stuff, bouncing back and forth between two 2-tracks, then curates it all years later (that's how the 'Worst of the 80s' series got made). Now he's upgraded to four track. He's never heard of Harry Partch, although he could be his Japanese pop brother. He's a pop anthropologist meeting a pop tribe. He's got an army of me.
The trouble with Japanese pop, Yximalloo says, is that Japanese are brainwashed by caucasian culture. In Japan, 98% of people are following trends and only 2% of people are setting them. He recently heard Pizzicato 5 for the first time, and looks disappointed when I tell him they've split up. But he's not a holy innocent or wholly ignorant. He's heard of Oval and likes Mouse on Mars, the Ata Tak label and the Cologne sound.
When I get the CDs home and put them on I'm not disappointed. Yximalloo is the closest thing we have in pop music to a visionary outsider artist in the manner of Howard Finster or Henry Darger. Like them he's compelling because his lack of any sort of training or socialisation, his failure to follow any of the 'rules' of pop music, brings him directly to the centre of its innate strengths and primary colours: idiotic repetitions, primal grunts, chants, children's songs, simple splashes of tone colour put together in unexpected ways, odd but successful combinations of ethnic music and synthesizers, covers of Springsteen and the Stones which restore the rough, sexy, baroque angularity of rock all the parodists usually lose in translation. He's John Lee Hooker with a synth, Wild Man Fisher with a bone. He's totally central and totally unknown.
He's too fresh to die, Yximalloo, and one day, I'm convinced, more than 100 people will hear him. Let him be your kitsch shaman. Or at least let him stay a month in the spare room.
Zuihitsu: Random Notes and Scribblings
I was supposed to be in the studio this week making a mini-album with Emi Necozawa. But Emi's step-father fell ill and she had to fly home, so we've had to postpone until the end of the month. This may mean a switch of studio as well, since the 3D Studio was only free for a three week window between the final mixing of Cornelius's new album 'Point' (due in the autumn) and preparations for sessions for the new Kahimi Karie album in August (my contribution this time is a song called 'Frilly Military').
I made several demos for the Emi project in New York back in April, commercial-sounding tracks with witty concepts, cute lyrics and a style somewhere between 80s revival and medieval music -- half way between crumby-corny and krummhorny. But since arriving in Tokyo my musical taste has turned a different corner, and I want to try something a bit more experimental.
I arrived here in May with no records, and have slowly been building a small collection of CDs and MP3s, trying to find music which is essential, which takes me somewhere worthwhile, speaks to me, intrigues me. The records which have impressed me the most since May have been Nico's John Cale-produced 1972 album 'Desertshore' and the debut album, released in May 2001, of a couple of Belgian brothers who call themselves Scratch Pet Land.
Both of these releases are only tangentially 'pop music'. Nico pumps at a harmonium and drones about a 'janitor of lunacy', while Cale hammers angrily at the low notes of a piano or scrapes his viola in sulphurous little spits around her. I bought the CD after seeing Philippe Garrel's film 'La Cicatrice Interieure' on video. I'd seen it before, in Paris, but this time it seemed to sink more deeply into me, and I had to have the CD.
Scratch Pet Land are a little like Yximalloo in that they make a kind of homemade ethnic music, full of interesting textures. These young Belgian brothers are much more Cute Formalist, though, editing their electro-acoustic sounds by computer. They also have a side project called Fan Club Orchestra, which came out of a live event they organised in which Nicolas conducted, via an overhead projector, a number of DJs playing on Gameboys. Laurent mixed on a small hand mixer. There is a parallel Fan Club Orchestra in Kobe, run by their friend Ari Morimoto. It's called Fan Club Orchestra Japan. Scratch Pet Land will appear on Nanoloop, a Gameboy compilation, later this year.
Talking of game culture, the new Sony Playstation 2 game Remocolon (which means remote control [rolling sound]) is a kind of God Game where you can zoom in on any one of 400 characters walking around a Japanese town called Ahoville (Numbskullville). You can change people's lives, making them drink sake until they vomit, or rolling them down the sidewalk like barrels. The style is cute and flat, a bit like Groovisions. It looks like fun.
My Relax piece came out, and I was on the Yamanote line one afternoon when I noticed the man sitting next to me -- a shaggy-haired skate style guy -- was reading the magazine. He spent a lot of time on an article about Theremins, then skipped over a photo feature about Tokion magazine's move from LA to New York. He pored over my feature for several stops, even holding the magazine close to his face to see exactly what brand of bicycle I was riding. I was pleasantly surprised to see how interesting he found it. I think the Japanese love to read foreigners' impressions of Japan, especially when they're positive and make the everyday seem exotic.
I did an interview for Shibuya TV, which is the network that programs those huge screens at the Hachiko crossing. They put me in front of a bluescreen and projected Florian Perret's Folktronian forest onto it. Since my eye patch was blue too, it looked like I had a forest in my head. I want to walk across the Hachiko crossing at the end of this month and see myself up there in lights!
Florian is in Tokyo just now, looking for a job in 3D design. He's actually got one already, on condition that he can learn Japanese in three months. I'll be jealous if he does, because my Japanese has hardly progressed at all since I arrived here.
Toog arrives from Paris tomorrow, and we're doing some shows together. Toog originally intended to bring a mime, but he and the mime fell out. (I can't help imagining a kind of slow motion Marcel Marceau food fight.) We'll be playing shows in Kyoto and Tokyo, so if you're in the archipelago do come and see us.
I may be touring the US with Stereo Total at the end of October, beginning of November. Their new album, 'Musique Automatique', is due soon on Bungalow Records.
Records I've been enjoying recently:
Scratch Pet Land 'Solo Soli iiiii' (Sonig)
Cantigas de Castilla, Spanish vocal music from the 13th Century
John Cage Prepared Piano
Antitheater's Greatest Hits
(Fassbinder and Peer Raaben's music for the radical Munich theatre)
Brigitte Fontaine (70s)
Nico (Cale period)
Best live performance I've seen in Japan: Delaware at Milk, Ebisu. They're now performing at PS1, New York.
Alan McGee invited me to his Radio 4 club event at Ebisu Garden Room last month, but I managed to miss it, not realising that the doors closed at 9pm. Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.
Things that saddened me: the death of Delia Derbyshire, and the lonely 1981 suicide of Jean Eustache, an excellent director I've only just discovered, who made only two features, 'L'Ange et La Putain' and 'Les Amours Enfantines' (both mid-70s). Although he won the director's prize at Cannes, nobody went to see the films.
I can finally give you a release date for the Rroland and Phiiliip records on my new label, American Patchwork: September 21st.
I had a couple of stupid ideas about future projects. One, I wanted to propose, seriously, to Sony a new game called Shakestation which would 'port' all of the Bard's plays to the Playstation. And two, imagine an album called Super Madrigal Brothers in which madrigals are arranged entirely with the sounds of vintage computer games! Wouldn't that be -- wonderful?
Animation seems to be trendy in Japan. Not anime, but European and American animation by the likes of Suzan Pitt (New York) or Paul Grimault (Paris). Then there's
Russian character Cheburashka, a strange animal from Africa. Nobody can tell his age. He falls suddenly and like a spoiled child with his eyes turned up.
His friends are the crocodile Gena (a gentleman with a full sense of justice) and Shapocliak, an old lady, formerly a spy, whose best friend is her pet rat Lariska.
Speaking of cartoon characters, I saw the inventor of Postpet, Kazuhiko Hachiya, a small cute man, though not pink, dancing at the Delaware show. He must be so rich, and have more teenage girl fans than Morning Musume! No wonder he was dancing.
My summer reading recommendations:
Chromophobia by David Batchelor. A book about how colour has been feared and repressed in our culture, from Plato on down. Batchelor sees the use of colour -- and particularily its repression -- as a political statement, although one whose meanings are not fixed.
Something I'm trying to work out just now: is there a politics of aesthetic choice? Is Design Zen utopian in a political way, for instance? Is the use of the colour orange an expression of worldview? Is there a politics of urban texture? For instance, doesn't the fact that the seats in the Tokyo subway are soft and clean, and the air conditioning efficient, bespeak a benign view of human nature on the part of the authorities? A view that even people who ride public transport deserve comfort?
Some say (Kojin Karatani, the neo-Marxist literary critic, for one) that the Japanese are a communist people working in a capitalist economy.
There's a new book called
Empire written by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri. It's currently reprinting, so well has the first edition sold in the US. It's been described as 'nothing less than a communist manifesto for the 21st century'. Hardt and Negri (who's currently in prison in Italy) argue that globalism, far from preventing revolution, presents unrivalled opportunities for international solidarity amongst 'the multitude'. They also argue that Empire (or capital) is no longer geographically specific. Like the internet, it's everywhere and nowhere. The US is not its hub. Nobody is in control. Except, perhaps, us.
And with that reassuring thought, and one more book recommendation, The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery, which I recently reread in the waiting room of an eye ward, I'll leave you, my dear friends, for another month.