Psychedelia, for most people, was all about bad fashion and, of course, bad trips.
The loud paisley ties long ago made their way to secondhand shops, though. And with a few exceptions, the music has been consigned to “influence” status. An astute listener can detect a psychedelic tint in everything from the Happy Mondays to Sonic Youth to the burgeoning American folk-rock movement, but as a scene unto itself, it is pretty well dead.
Except in Japan. You might not be able to score the drugs that give psychedelia its name, but musical freak-outs abound. Nurtured by a network of indie record labels (most notably PSF and Magick), it has arguably become Japan’s most thriving alternative scene. Nagoya’s Acid Mothers Temple is its most brutal, cacophonous purveyor. Tokyo’s Ghost is their gentle folky counterpart.
That is, if you really can call them psychedelic. The group’s leader, guitarist and vocalist Masaki Batoh isn’t really sure.
“I never really considered it that,” says Batoh, “If the end result feels that way, OK, but [the music] isn’t conceived as psychedelic. I write the songs as folk songs or chants, but when it gets into production, it seems to always turn psychedelic.”
Batoh, tall, thin and intense, is an acupuncturist by trade and he seems more at ease discussing Chinese philosophy or the Tibetan problem (Ghost released a record called “Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet” at the request of the Dalai Lama’s Office in Japan) than playing the music-biz game. Indeed English trad rock is the only influence he’ll cop to. Ghost’s otherworldliness is more a glance backward, time travel to an age of Renaissance ladies and troubadours — or Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones.
“Snuffbox Immanence,” their 1999 album and generally regarded as one of their best works, floats into the listener’s consciousness with stately poetry and heartfelt folkiness. The instrumentation relies as much on harps, lutes and chimes as it does on guitars, and all of it is woven into a gauzy, polyphonic web.
However, fans who buy the new album, “Hypnotic Underworld,” which is their seventh release and due out early next year, could be forgiven for thinking that they’ve got the wrong record. Instead of the mellow vibe that Ghost has become famous for, the first track is a sprawling, improvised free-for-all.
“It’s the acid guru,” says the group’s leader, guitarist Masaki Batoh. “He does this to everything he touches.”
No, the acid guru isn’t a freaky cult leader or a new designer drug, but a term of endearment for another of Ghost’s members, Taichi Takizawa. With Batoh, he founded the group together nearly 20 years ago while in college (“To cover The Doors,” says Batoh with a hint of embarrassment), and after a period of estrangement, Takizawa is back with the band.
“Yeah, the members are really weird,” says Batoh, claiming the band, which currently consists of six members, has included more than 100 people at one time or another.
“He’s the weirdest,” he says gesturing toward guitarist Michio Kurihara with a laugh.
Kurihara is forgiven any personal idiosyncrasies the moment he picks up a guitar. In a country where young musicians routinely woodshed their way to technical prowess, able to throw off imitation Eddie Van Halen riffs with a flick of the wrist, Kurihara’s offhand flourishes have the feel of genius.
Kurihara is the group’s music geek, eager to talk about his god (he “worships” John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service) and the lesser members of his guitar pantheon (primarily Can’s Michael Karoli — “Not quite God.”) The New York Times has called him Japan’s Jimmy Page, and it isn’t hyperbole.
In a reprise of Japan’s ’80s noise-rock scene, psychedelia has been more acknowledged abroad than at home. Ghost has released its records primarily through Chicago’s Drag City label since 1990 and has toured the U.S. frequently, most notably with indie legends Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang of Galaxie 500 fame. Kurihara has virtually become Galaxie’s third member and Ghost recorded an album with them.
“Naomi wrote us a fan letter,” explains Batoh. “But honestly, I didn’t really read it, even though I held on to it for a while. Then a college kid in the U.S. offered to put a tour together for us and it ended up being with Damon & Naomi.”
“We first heard Ghost shortly after their second album was released, around 1994, and they quickly became our favorite band working today,” says Damon by e-mail from his home in Boston. “Since then they have continued to amaze us, both live and on record, as they never repeat what they do and yet always sound uniquely like themselves.”
Unlike Acid Mothers Temple, which has assertively pursued success outside of Japan, Ghost has been rather more easygoing.
“It’s good we’ve gotten attention in the U.S.” says Batoh, “but it’s surprising because the response we get from the audience [there] is like that at a classical concert. It’s not like Acid Mothers where everyone goes wild. What really puzzles me is that they are just like the Japanese.”
Japanese gigs have been few and far between. “I just can’t find any place that fascinates me enough to play,” says Batoh. “And the hassle, compared to playing in the U.S. where even a kid can put on a show, is just too much.”
“Temple Stone,” released in 1994, documented a series of shows Ghost did at Buddhist temples throughout Japan. That, and the legend of Ghost House, a musical commune in western Tokyo, have added to the group’s exotic reputation abroad.
“The temple shows were done because one of our members is a monk,” explains Batoh. “His dad is head of a monastery and in general I try to avoid live houses.”
The story behind the Ghost House is also a fairly mundane one. “Ghost House was in Ogikubo, next to an old gaijin house. People would just float between the houses. It wasn’t really a commune, but a community, a little scene. The house was finally knocked down two years ago, but even when I lived there, if you moved suddenly, the whole house would vibrate.”
Batoh still sees Ghost as a community rather than a rock band, one that includes their fans.
“I remember chatting with [Can lead singer] Damon Suzuki about this,” says Batoh. “And he said that what kept him going is the relationship with fans, and that is what keeps my playing music too.”
This desire to include his fans in the music-making process, not the fact that their records are released overseas, is the root of Batoh’s decision to sing in English rather than Japanese.
“Japanese is too direct,” says Batoh. “We leave it up to the listener’s imagination. I want the listener to create a vision within the song.”
Visions? Hmmm. . . . Sounds almost psychedelic.
“Yeah,” says Batoh considering it carefully. “Maybe so.”