The foreign music press has a weakness for weird Japanese music.
While recent pop idols like Hikaru Utada release albums abroad to resounding yawns, records by Acid Mothers Temple (who claim to channel UFOs) or Boris (whose longest track is 65 minutes of drone) are routinely raved about in Western music rags.
The group Ghost, standard-bearer of Tokyo’s psychedelic scene and godfather for the current freak-folk revival, has certainly benefited from this fascination, sometimes painfully so. A cover photo for U.K. music magazine The Wire showed its leader, Masaki Batoh, wearing faux Mongolian clothes and staring glassy-eyed at a religious text in a syncretic, Oriental fantasy.
Not that Ghost’s music isn’t otherworldly. Their dense songs have a droning transcendence that owes as much to German progressive rock and avant-garde classical music as to psychedelia. Much of it is improvised, but with a precision and muscularity that seems almost psychic. Their lyrics are obscure, sung in semicomprehensible Japlish. Their live shows have the solemnity and portent of a religious service.
On a recent evening, however, founder Masaaki Batoh seemed more world-weary than otherworldly when he turned up for our interview. Batoh has a newborn baby at home, and dark circles under his eyes attested to the rigors of working parenthood. He arrived at the rather traditional cafe (lace tablecloths and Wedgewood china) on a bright-red motorcycle, looking more beatnik than hippie in a black turtleneck and jeans.
His band has been uncharacteristically busy lately — playing several shows last year, releasing their eighth album, “In Stormy Nights,” last month and preparing to release another live album in May. They will also tour Europe this year. For Ghost, this is a veritable frenzy of activity.
“I hate live shows,” says Batoh. “I can’t be at home and I have to deal with too many people.” The singer is distinctly uncomfortable with most of the trappings — interviews, shows, even recording — of having a successful band. Despite a fanatic cult following, in their more than 20-year history they have released only eight albums and their live gigs number in the low double figures. Ghost almost never practices. Batoh claims to not own a guitar. “I think this is as much as we can do,” he adds on a pleading note.
For Batoh, Ghost is an intimate undertaking, a chance to commune with a like-minded group of musicians that he refers to as his comrades. “We don’t really meet or maybe even consider each other friends, but there are no other people that I can make this music with. This group is ideal.”
For the first time in successive albums, Ghost’s lineup is unchanged. Besides Batoh, it includes founding member Taishi Takizawa, guitarist Michio Kurihara, contrabass player Takuyuki Moriya and keyboardist Kazuo Ogino. But if the album belongs to any one musician, it is percussionist Junzo Tateiwa. Much of its atmospherics derive from his assortment of drums, as do the driving rhythms that underpin much of it — most notably the middle three tracks built around his timpani playing.
Batoh has a weakness for obscure instruments (zithers, lutes, celeste), and in the hands of a less disciplined group, their music could end up sounding like discordant sludge, especially as it’s largely based on improvising. The longest song, and centerpiece of “In Stormy Nights,” “Hemicyclic Anthelion,” is one long improvisation. Yet it retains a distinct tightness.
“The beginning of Ghost came out of denying the song structure, to make something without shape, so improvisation is the most natural way of expressing ourselves,” says Batoh. “I use the word sokyo purposefully,” he says, referring to the direct translation of improvisation, “because I think it has a different nuance to the word “improvisation.” It isn’t really a jam session. It is about having the same state of mind and expressing that state of mind at that exact time or period. It is to know each other and converse, to have a spiritual conversation that might include the audience as well.”
Otherworldly yes, but not entirely. An anomaly in the Japanese music scene, whether underground or above ground, Ghost has never shied away from making political statements (the band recorded a charity CD for the Dalai Lama, “Tune in, Turn On, Free Tibet”). Also, the title “In Stormy Nights” is a very specific reference to the state of the world since the beginning of the Iraq war, and the album’s distinctly uneasy music can be read as the band’s reaction to events in the Middle East. They have publicly stated that they will not tour in the U.S. until George Bush is no longer president, despite being much more popular there than in Japan.
“We didn’t say it because Bush is a bad person. That is obvious,” says Batoh. “Rather, the ambience of the times conjured him. What we wanted to point out was that the people who voted him in, who actually chose him, have some responsibility. They were too relaxed about politics and were too lazy about who they were going to vote for.”
According to Batoh, there has been little interest in the Japanese media exploring their reasons for not going.
“Out of all the developed countries, Japan is probably the most politically apathetic,” he says, “and a lot of mainstream artists have connections with politicians in the background. Even in Ghost, we tend to avoid discussing political matters. But I think politics is not beyond daily life but an important part of daily life.”
Which isn’t to say that the album is entirely gloomy.
“Most people only look at the surface of Ghost,” says Batoh. “The cover and the lyrics look a little dark, and so people describe our music as really negative. But we are interested in generating a positive energy.”
“This may sound uncool, but every Ghost show, every CD, wants to have a happy ending. Even if you are overdosing, you will never die listening to our albums,” says Batoh. “There is always a sense of being saved.”
Even after the stormiest of nights, a new day dawns.