Pottering around with pop music

Maher Shalal Hash Baz record and play with no expectations

by David Hickey

When Tori Kudo was a 13-year-old growing up in Matsuyama, Shikoku, he didn’t spend his evenings at cram school like classmates, but instead played cheesy piano in nightclubs as a member of a professional big band.

“I didn’t analyze the chords or practice for hours on end,” he explains via e-mail from his home in Tobe in Ehime Prefecture, not far from Matsuyama. “I improvised.”

Fast-forward 30 years and he has made a career out of not practicing by becoming the band leader — and only remaining original member — of pop primitives Maher Shalal Hash Baz. Since its inception, Maher has had a shifting lineup that included musicians such as Saya and Takashi Ueno, who have gone on to make Maher-inspired music in the Tokyo-based band Tenniscoats.

Maher became known overseas when Stephen McRobbie of Scottish indie-pop group The Pastels signed them to his Geographic label. The band’s first release on the label, the 2000 compilation “From a Summer to Another Summer,” was described by The Wire magazine contributor David Keenan as “the most unimpeachably outside set of humanly breathed joy this side of [Captain Beefheart's] “Trout Mask Replica.”

But the band, who are named after a line about stealing in the Bible’s Book of Isaiah, hasn’t always had an easy ride.

“One member quit music, another became an alcoholic and was hospitalized,” Kudo tells The Japan Times, “and two members died.”

One of the deceased, with whom Kudo had also played in a band called Tokyo Suicide in the 1970s, killed himself. In the late 1990s, Kudo decided to move to London and study pottery, and ended up working as a builder and gardener there.

Though he has not become widely known, Kudo has picked up some well-known fans, among them Teenage Fanclub and Belle and Sebastian, whose early, broken-down chamber-pop arrangements owed a debt to Maher. He has a mystique around himself the likes of which would make Bob Dylan proud — when asked about his affinity — or lack of — for the Glasgow indie scene, for example, Kudo goes off on a lengthy rumination on the role of Celtic folk songs in Japanese education during the Meiji Restoration.

The rhythmically unsturdy, lyrically opaque two-disc set “L’Autre Cap,” released last month, is only the band’s fourth proper studio album since their 1991 debut. Many of the songs are inspired by biblical texts (it’s widely reported that Kudo was once a Jehovah’s Witness), so it’s appropriate that the album resembles an under-rehearsed Salvation Army marching band brought up on The Velvet Underground, Syd Barrett and free jazz.

“[Tori] has a gift for writing beautiful, simple melodies and witty lyrics and performing free improvisation with seemingly any instrument, which is a rare combination,” says the Scottish jazz pianist Bill Wells, a frequent collaborator with indie musicians. “He also is one of the greatest piano players in the world, but I don’t know if anyone has realized this yet.”

“L’Autre Cap” saw Kudo enlist some help stateside. The 27 songs on the first disc were recorded in two days last summer in Olympia, Wash. with a cast of 19 musicians “who barely knew the songs.”

“I had no expectations for them,” says Kudo. “We just stuck this expensive mic up on high, spread ourselves around it and recorded.”

So the listener isn’t left in doubt, the second disc is a live version of the album recorded live a week later at Shinjuku Jam with a different band that included Tokyo-based musician-producer Jim O’Rourke roughing up the album’s edges on guitar.

There are rough edges too, in Kudo’s other vocation, handmade ceramics, which go far in explaining his approach to music. He once described his own raku ware pots as “always unsuccessful.” Both he and his father, also a ceramicist, don’t see themselves as technically able craftsmen, just as Kudo doesn’t see himself as a proper musician.

“My father worked in a pottery workshop doing designs. During the off-season, he would teach ceramics painting to the wives of mandarin farmers and they would mass produce handmade everyday items,” says Kudo. “They made some good works, but they also produced some that were rife with inconsistencies.”

This naivete — finding worth in something riven with errors — has influenced Kudo’s approach to making music. On “L’Autre Cap,” as on previous albums, songs sometimes seem to halt in mid-duration. And Kudo is known for recruiting nonprofessional musicians who are often much younger than himself — and people who aren’t musicians at all — into his band.

“I can’t make music with professional musicians. I’m not a pro musician either,” he says. “Perhaps I should’ve formed a band with a bunch of proper musicians like The Beatles did, but in my experience, it’s difficult for me to make music with these types. I can’t play what other musicians tell me.”

Asked if he thinks leaving a mistake in a recording has become a cliche, Kudo chooses to reveal the thinking behind his latest album.

“Even if I know I’ve made a mistake, I’ve arrived at some sort of conclusion,” he says. “I wanted to make an album to encapsulate this.”