LONDON – The story of Cibo Matto’s return to the public eye is, thankfully, not one powered by cold, hard cash. Not for these two, the cynical resurrection of a successful youth in front of a high-paying audience — anyone lucky enough to have seen the London show last summer, where the duo played vast swathes of its new album, can attest to that. With the exception of a handful of shows supporting the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, it’s notable that Cibo Matto has chosen to return on the back of a strong new collection, made with the support, and in the bosom, of good friends. Tsunami relief, a passion for creating something new, and what amounts to a family album: You might say that Cibo Matto’s comeback is sponsored entirely by love.
Love is certainly at the heart of the conversation when I chat with Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori shortly after New Year’s. It was always going to be the case, of course — unavoidable when your album is titled “Hotel Valentine” — but they’re clearly over the moon about being back in each other’s company. “This time around,” gushes Honda, “I’m aware of how important Miho is to me; how special our chemistry is. It’s not just coincidence.”
For anyone needing a quick recap, Honda and Hatori formed Cibo Matto in New York in 1994, having met through their involvement with noise band, Leitoh Lychee. Things happened incredibly fast for the duo, signing quickly to Warner Bros. Records and pumping out two albums, two EPs, a series of singles and a groundbreaking Michael Gondry-directed video for the track “Sugar Water,” before collapsing in exhaustion in the early 2000s. Never what you’d call a mainstream band, their mix of off-the-wall samples, hip-hop and pure melody had an interesting influence, and they’ve since been called upon to collaborate with some fairly diverse names. Most famously, you’ll find Hatori’s voice behind Gorillaz’ character Noodle, while Honda is a partner in Sean Lennon’s Chimera Music label venture (“it’s like a soba shop run by a family”), as well as occasional musical director to his mother.
On their split, Honda says only that, “We needed to have some time apart from each other. I had a lot of personal, family crises that I needed to attend to, which took me away from New York for a while. (Then) we dated other people before we came back to this second marriage.” There’s a hesitance to the way Honda tends to speak; she carefully deliberates any response before speaking. It is balanced perfectly by the more spontaneous Hatori, who has only one word for this period of extracurricular collaboration: “Slutty!”
The pair reconnected shortly before the earthquake and tsunami struck in March 2011. The disaster in their homeland sped up the reunion process, and they took to the stage that March for a series of charity concerts. During one of these initial meetings, on Valentine’s Day, Hatori recounted a peculiar experience at a hotel. She won’t go much further than to say that she felt “a weird, strange energy,” but it was clearly enough to pique her creativity. Honda, who says her supernatural experiences are limited to, “you know, why is one of my socks missing?”, was astute enough to feed off her partner’s enthusiasm, and duly began contributing her trademark samples and ideas. A collection of songs began to emerge around the themes of romance, the supernatural and hotel work — not the most obvious bedfellows, but fans of the band are used to their quirks. At least there’s nothing untoward in the birthday cake this time round.
“Hotel Valentine” is an extremely strong return, which finds the duo adding a mature melodic coloring to its usual arthouse hip-hop palette. They’re justifiably proud of their work — and with tracks such as “MFN,” “10th Floor Ghost Girl” and “Emerald Tuesday,” it’s easy to see why — but they’re also very protective of what they have.
“The first time round, we’d just started the band and everything happened really fast,” Honda recalls, “so it was kind of like being high school sweethearts who got pregnant, got married and jumped into life.” She laughs as the obvious metaphor surfaces again: “This time, because it is ‘a second marriage’, we really wanted to make it the Miho-Yuka sound. If it was a building, we built the columns and structures ourselves.”
Inevitably, finding that Miho-Yuka sound required making certain sacrifices first. Cibo Matto was famously Sean Lennon’s cram school (he is on record as saying he learned much of what he knows from his time with the band). Was there no room for his involvement? While Honda clearly thinks the world of their former bassist (“from the first day we met, he was our biggest supporter”), she says that the duo were adamant about finding their own way. “We still have his full blessing,” she adds happily. “We are on his label and he is very understanding of our choices, which are often based on our art desires.” And the Lennon family support doesn’t stop there. “We watched the ‘MFN’ video with Yoko (Ono) during the Christmas holidays, and she loved it! It means the world to us whenever she approves of what we do.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t guests on the new album. A host of friends and admirers decorate the pair’s bare-bones structures, notables including acclaimed Wilco guitarist (and Honda’s husband) Nels Cline, Reggie Watts, Japanese drumming powerhouse Yuko Araki, and Invisible Familiar’s multi-instrumentalist Jared Samuel, who brings the kitchen sink. Indeed, Samuel confirms the familial atmosphere into which “Hotel Valentine” was born, delighting in the duo’s “childlike sense of simplicity, boundlessness and musical adventure”, and noting (fans of their earlier food-themed albums will be pleased to note) that they “have the same approach to dining, too. We laugh a lot.”
And so, for once, we’ve a musical tale that ends not with the cynical ringing of the cash register, but with the joyous sound of two good friends finding each other in song once again. And if that’s not a Valentine’s story to warm your cockles, then you’ve come to the wrong hotel.
“Hotel Valentine” will be released worldwide through Chimera Music on Feb. 14, and domestically March 3. For details, visit www.yeahbasicallycibomatto.com.