Acid Mothers Temple and the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. is arguably one of the most influential Japanese bands in the world at this moment.
But want to read a review of one of their records? You’ll have to find a copy of The Wire or some other influential foreign music magazine. They barely get a mention in the Japanese music press. Want to buy an album? Look on their Web site or search in the smallest of specialty stores. And gigs? Try London or New York. Though they tour prodigiously in Europe and the United States, with occasional shows in their hometown, Nagoya, they haven’t played Tokyo since 1999.
“The last time we played [Tokyo] there were less than 20 people in the audience,” says the group’s founder, guitarist Makoto Kawabata via e-mail from Nagoya. “On top of that, everyone in the band is from Kansai so we already dislike Tokyo. . . . In my case, Tokyo’s bad vibes have a detrimental effect on my health so there’s no way I can stay there for more than three days.
“We just go to where people want to hear us. Our first three albums were released in Japan, but no one in Japan seemed interested in us and we weren’t getting invited to play gigs. But abroad, there were magazines and radio shows that were picking up on the records. Sales in Japan were bad on the one hand, but on the other, [the records] were selling well abroad even though they were expensive imported discs there.”
Since their debut album made The Wire’s top 50 in 1997, AMT (as they are usually called) has played London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2001 and were voted by audience members as one of the top three groups at the influential South By Southwest Music Conference in Texas in 2002.
They’ve also continued to garner rapturous reviews for all six of their full-length recordings and their seemingly endless cassette and side-project releases, most on their own AMT label. Kawabata, obscured by his long frizzy hair, even graced The Wire’s cover in August 2001.
Admittedly, the foreign press has a weakness for Japanese exotica, and AMT — a hippie-ish collective complete with references to UFOs and alternative states of consciousness — neatly fit the bill.
Yet their music — wild mixes of electronica, noise and hard rock leavened occasionally by poignant moments of quiet, even dead silence — is truly unlike anything else. AMT have referred to themselves as cosmic troubadours and their music has the effect of a rocket blasting off — a terrible roar that still manages a soaring lightness.
Many Japanese icons — from Akira Kurosawa to Issey Miyake — have started the same way: popular abroad before gaining acceptance at home. But rather than bemoaning their low profile in Japan, Kawabata revels in the group’s outsider status.
“During the Edo Period, actors, musicians and prostitutes were referred to as riverbed beggars [kawara kojiki],” he says. “Rockers and people who play rock music are exactly the same. People whom society has no use for, who are referred to as scum, these are the people that become rockers.
“This defines AMT perfectly. None of us work; we just drift along living for pleasure. Since we contribute nothing to society, the only route left to us was to become contemporary riverside beggars. We may have lost all social trust and financial security, but in return we have regained dreams and freedom.”
AMT’s rather eccentric, countercultural lifestyle has led to some misconceptions. In fact, they were once mistakenly identified as Aum Shinrikyo members and evicted from their home. Foreign fans have also often read religious undertones into their music, an interpretation that Kawabata himself has rebutted at length on their Web site (www.acidmothers.com).
Kawabata describes AMT as a “soul collective,” which people float in and out of according to their desires and chance. The group has claimed 30 or so members (including Father Moo, a mysterious figure with a harem of female attendants) in its seven-year existence. It currently has a core of five musicians, including Kawabata.
Though uncomfortable with the term leader, Kawabata is most definitely the group’s central figure. The grandson of a noh performer, Kawabata has been making music since 1979. But “making” music is perhaps a misnomer in Kawabata’s case.
Describing himself as a “radio receiver,” Kawabata has been trying to re-create the sounds that he has claimed to hear in his head since childhood. More mundane individuals would have called this tinnitus; Kawabata called it music.
His work as a musician has been to approximate this “pure music” ever since.
“I believe there are only two types of music: good music and bad music,” he says. “Other people would simplify this into a like/dislike dichotomy. However, I don’t necessarily like everything that I think of as being good. The one thing I am sure of is that good music is wonderful and bad music is boring.
“Inside my category of good music, there is a type of music I refer to as ‘pure’ music. I can develop this idea further into music where purity is in the soul of the performer, or where the music itself is pure.
“For the type of music that is itself pure, I always think of a performance of a heavenly orchestra. The music I heard in this dream was immaculate and simple, with endlessly repeating melodies more beautiful than anything I had ever heard before. It’s hard to explain, but I have always wanted to try to give form to that kind of music.”
Though his solo work is Kawabata’s primary vehicle for achieving “purity,” AMT also tries to embody “sounds that move toward the cosmic principle.”
Their sixth full-length record, “Univers Zen ou de Zero a Zero,” released on the French label Fractal, begins with the group’s paeon to 40 years of acid rock, “Electric Love Machine,” a cut that brings to mind “Interstellar Overdrive”-era Pink Floyd . . . put through a meat grinder. Clocking in at over 10 minutes, it is one of the shorter tracks on the album.
The faux classical guitar and otherworldly vocals of singer Cotton Casino (Grace Slick meets Stereolab’s Laeticia Sadier) creates an oasis of calm on the second track, “Ange Mechanique de Saturne,” before the deluge begins again with the operatic, 18-minute “Blues pour bible noire.” The album ends with the cacophony of “God Bless AMT,” which is the culminating track at most of the group’s live shows.
“Of course the music is constantly changing,” Kawabata says of the album. “Especially when I listen to the mix on our first album, it now sounds flat and without depth. Also, I have more clarity regarding what I hear from the cosmos.
“At the moment I am most interested in the depth of sound. Sounds that are reproduced from just two speakers are able to vibrate with the space and create a sensation of depth. I am also very interested in harmonics and overtones. I don’t deliberately use harmonics, but those created by the layering of sounds as they die away are like the magic of sound.”
Although often dubbed psychedelia, Kawabata calls AMT’s music “trip music.” Psychedelia, with its allusion to drug use, is too narrow for Kawabata.
“If you’re taking drugs your senses become so much more acute, and it’s possible to discover new shocks from the noise that we hear around us every day,” he explains. “My discoveries are similar to that kind of experience, but the difference is that there is a limit to the level you can reach through drugs, whereas there is no limit to discoveries made possible by the senses that have been sharpened and purified by your own will.”
Kawabata seeks the same level of discovery during the group’s live performances, focusing, he says, on “catching the sounds from the cosmos as sensitively as possible and reproducing them with the greatest fidelity. It is my mission in life to deliver these sounds as faithfully as possible to the listener, and this is the only reason I play live.”
Unfortunately, Japanese audiences who have missed out on the full AMT experience will have to wait awhile. Although Kawabata will play several shows with side projects in Japan over the next few months, as well as in Europe with the Japanese New Music Tour, there are no plans for domestic AMT shows anytime soon. And Tokyo can just forget it.
“In the States and Europe, we’ve had fans drive more than 400 km to hear us play,” says Kawabata. “There was even one person who flew from the States to England to see one of our gigs. In Japan, if you live in one of the provincial cities like Nagoya or Osaka, you think nothing about going to see a group that are only playing in Tokyo. But Tokyoites have this weird pride where they think they can see everything in Tokyo so there is no way they would even consider going to a gig in Osaka.
“We get criticized because we only play one or two Japanese gigs a year,” says Kawabata. “But we play a similar number of times in New York or London, so at least we are fair.
“AMT is no longer a Japanese group. We’ve responded to what people want, so now we belong to the people, the People’s AMT, rather than the Japanese AMT.”
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