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Phew: There and back again

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Hiromi Moritani looks like a typical, well-heeled matron. Her chic black ensemble is a touch artier than the average mother’s wardrobe, but sitting in her record label’s office, her conversation dwells on the perils and pitfalls of being a mom. Hearing her fret over her young son and the evening’s dinner menu, it is difficult to reconcile the suburban mother with the wailing siren of the punk rock band Most.

Punk, with all of its simplicity and vigor, is usually the music of one’s youth. How many fortysomething ladies play the live-house circuit?

“It’s true that there is an age gap,” says Phew of her audience. “Some of these kids are young enough to be my children.”

But Moritani has always been an iconoclast. As Phew, the nickname under which she performs, she has forged an eclectic musical biography that spans the spectrum from punk to poetic, avant-garde rock. “It’s like [French chanteuse] Juliette Greco and Johnny Rotten,” she says in a recent interview. “For me, there is no difference.”

Phew isn’t Most’s only music veteran, however. Drummer Masayuki Chatani played in the well-respected garage group The Jasons, while bassist Yusuke Nishimura was a member of The Stalin. Guitarist Hisato Yamamoto played with avant-garde rock group Friction. Most is also yet another of Boredoms’ guitarist Seiichi Yamamoto’s projects; he co-founded Most with Phew and is its second guitarist.

The group has barely been together for two years, but their eponymous first release is razor-tight, the sound angular and thick. Unlike the bubble-gum pop-punk that has characterized the genre of late (think Green Day), Most is a little tenser and a little harder. Imagine Patti Smith without the earth-mother vibe.

They are also — given the current revival of more complex, headier New York-style punk rock — a little hipper. Like Marianne Faithful, whose strident, gravelly voice is somewhat similar, Phew has an innate cool that rivals the most trend-conscious teenagers.

It is this sensibility, a subconscious ability to latch onto the musical zeitgeist, that characterizes her entire career. Phew’s first band, Aunt Sally, was one of Japan’s earliest punk groups. Though formed in 1978, in the wake of the Sex Pistols, the group’s look and sound derived more from New York’s more intellectual take on the genre.

“We were an unusual presence in that three of the members were women, and we dressed in regular clothes,” she says.

The end of Aunt Sally spelled the end of Phew’s infatuation with punk, too, for a while. Phew had always looked more the poet than the punk anyway, her eyes dreamy, her beret askew. If her singing derived equally from Rotten and Greco, for the next few years, Greco’s influence would be in the ascendant. After hearing the Flying Lizards’ bizarre, hypnotic cover of “Summertime Blues,” with its chirping electronica and deadpan Edit Piaf-on-Valium vocals, Phew decided to move in a more electronic direction.

Ryuichi Sakamoto, bored with his experiments in fusion, was moving the same way. A mutual friend put them in touch, and a single, “Shukyoku,” released in 1980, ensued. This in turn led to an album with the members of German prog-rock giants Can, recorded with Kraftwerk producer Conny Plank. For Phew, it was a musical high point, and for audiences it sealed her reputation as an avant-punk icon.

“For me, this experience at Conny Plank’s studio came a little too soon,” explains Phew. “The music that came out of that was already too accomplished, too perfect, so I wasn’t sure what to do next.”

Thus, in 1982, just as she seemed poised to make a breakthrough as a new-wave icon, Phew quit the music business and went home to Kobe.

Her return to music in 1986 was typically well-timed. The Kansai noise-rock scene was just gaining notice, and it was a more comfortable environment for her increasingly experimental sensibilities. Though Phew released several solo, critically well-received albums and ran one of Japan’s more interesting record labels, Alida, for a while, like so many innovative Japanese artists, she was much better known abroad.

Friends suggested she try making it in Europe, but with a child, that just wasn’t an option. A continuing lack of record sales and a limited audience left her wondering about her direction. Strangely, it was an encounter with Elvis that led her back to punk.

“I tried to cover a song by Elvis Presley,” she relates, “and it just didn’t work.

“Real singers are able to communicate things and incite feelings within the listeners. I realized, I’m just not a singer in that sense. I started to think about what I was, and I realized that rather than try to be a singer, I could do punk.”

Her new plan took a while to germinate. Though she had worked with Seiichi Yamamoto on a number of experimental/improvisational music projects, including her own Phew Unit and the group Novotono, she had never thought of the guitarist as a possible partner in this new pursuit. Another chance convergence of circumstances made her realize that Yamamoto was also the perfect partner for a punk band.

“We were playing together, opening for [prog-rock icons] Slaphappy. The whole scene was kind of a drag,” says Phew. “There were all these . . . freaks in the audience. It pissed us off, and . . . having that sort of vibe, we turned out punk.”

Consciously deciding on a particular direction and treating her music as a job was a big step for Phew. Most has a volition about it that her other projects have lacked.

“What I do as a singer is maybe not that accessible” she says. “But I feel a responsibility, having chosen music as my work, to make a greater effort to be understood, and punk is a way of doing that.”

Unfortunately, this change of tune doesn’t sit well with her little boy. “He finds it frightening,” she says. “It’s ironic because it pales next to the sound of my son screaming.”

Spoken like a proud mama.