“I don’t really think I have any musicianship. I can’t play any instruments. I have no technique. I really can’t do anything. I have no professional skill at all. I’m also a crap DJ. I’m really not very deft! Really I’m crap . . . and I’ve been doing it for 10 years!” says Yamataka Eye, leader of the electronically infused drum circle Vooredoms, speaking to The Japan Times recently in New York.
Few would agree with Eye’s self-deprecation, but his humility is still one of the reasons why his fans like him. Since his start with the noise band Hanatrash (a shortened version of the Japanese for “snot nosed”), Eye has explored rock music’s further reaches. The foundations for such experimentation were set with the first recordings he made at home in Kobe while doing sound tests with a short-wave radio.
The squelching sound of the short wave has often featured in Eye’s many musical incarnations.
And there are many.
He has performed under a variety of guises: DJ Pika Pika Pika, Yamatsuka Eye, Yamantaka Eye and eYe, but he’s better known for the bands he’s played in. These include Z-Rock Hawaii (with Ween), UFO or Die, Hasty Snail Baby, Puzzle Punks (with Shinro Otake), Noise Ramones, Naked City (with the improvisational jazz musician John Zorn), Destroy 2, Triple Yama’s and Praxis, with avatar of the New York underground scene Bill Laswell.
Vooredoms was formed out of the ashes of Eye’s best-known group, Boredoms, at the end of the 1990s, and its latest lineup is comprised of Eye and three drummers: Yoshimi P-We, ATR and Yojiro.
From the 1980s to mid-’90s, Eye produced a seemingly endless barrage of avant-garde music, first in Hanatrash and then in Boredoms, characterized by heavily experimental sounds coupled with dramatic stage antics. Many of the Japanese noise artists associated with this scene — Monde Bruits, Masonna, Hijokaidan, the Incapacitants, Yamamoto Seiichi and Solmania — were most active in Osaka, which at that time could have been described as the lively center of Japan’s underground.
Eye says that’s not really true anymore: “I’m not really too aware of the differences between Tokyo and Osaka now. I used to feel it, but not anymore. Osaka used to have a lot of weird music, and a background where weird bands could play, and at the time I didn’t really see so much of that in Tokyo. But at the moment Tokyo is a lot of fun.”
Perhaps the influence of those original acts has spread so far that regional differences no longer matter. Recently, Eye was invited to New York to headline an improvisational music symposium hosted by the private nonprofit institution Japan Society, alongside other musical avant-gardists Keiji Haino, Koichi Makigami, Ikue Mori, Jim O’ Rourke and Mike Patton. Organized by Zorn, the event was a surprisingly adventurous project for an organization that usually promotes more mainstream Japanese artists working in areas other than music, such as Takashi Murakami, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Isamu Noguchi. While some in the audience wondered aloud why the Japan Society was hosting a cultural show with “rock stars” and why so many people in the music industry were interested in Eye in particular, for fans of underground music the event was a gorgeous celebration of noise.
Despite accidentally injuring his back at Narita Airport on the way to New York, rendering him slightly incapacitated, Eye met the crowd’s expectations with his unabashed stage presence, at one point stuffing several condom-covered microphones into his mouth while making warbling noises. Typically his vocals run the gamut from singing to grunts, screams, shrieks, yells, chatter and everything in between, and, to many, the Boredoms/Vooredoms sound — deconstructionist in the way it combines elements from various sources — is inaccessible.
Eye is quizzical when asked what kind of sounds he is currently listening to.
“Usually I don’t listen to music. I like ear plugs and buy a whole range of them. I listen to the sound of my own body and the ringing in my ears.” But when pressed, Eye concedes that he “listens to everything, especially ‘traditional music.’ ”
Perhaps this is the paradox of one of Japan’s most explosive performers — in his musical career, he has been just as likely to ransack a live house as he’s been to seek spiritual guidance from Amazonian medicine men or indigenous tribal sounds. He cites the solar eclipse of 1995 as a major influence on his life.
At his home in Japan, Eye lives a fairly quiet existence.
“I’ve been in Nara for three or four years. I pick out the weeds around my house, boil them up and eat them. I can get quite a lot of wild mountain vegetables there. It’s amazing how much I can eat.”
Such tranquillity is in stark contrast to some of Eye’s past antics. When he was on the road, anything could happen, and often did. He remembers one particularly destructive event from his early Hanatrash days.
“I drove a bulldozer into the side of a live house, one of those bulldozers that rotate 360 degrees. So I approached [the live house] when I was spinning it around and broke the side of the wall, making a huge hole. There was a lot of dust and because it was so dangerous everyone disappeared. I had prepared Molotov cocktails and I was thinking of throwing them [into the live house] and had them lined up. [But] when I went to pick them up I was stopped from behind . . . I had rehearsed it. Not at the studio but by the side of a river, seeing how far the Molotov cocktails travel before they explode. I practiced it and everything.”
While Eye is less belligerent these days, the combination of the unpredictable mixed with the contrived is what attracts fans to the Vooredoms’ live performances.
About their creative process, Eye says, “When I make a track there are times when it is already assembled to a degree inside myself. Then there are times when we are just randomly rehearsing and we will all agree that something sounds good. Or we just do it [record] and then just take the good bits. I can’t really read scores, and it’s not like we compose a track. I mean, we don’t even have a guitar or bass.”
Evidently, Vooredoms don’t need them either. They have just returned from a sold-out tour of Europe, and will be playing a concert (also sold-out) with psychedelic rockers Yura Yura Teikoku this weekend at Hibiya Yagai Dai Ongakudo in Tokyo before continuing on to the United States (where, confusingly, the band will perform under the Boredoms banner, since most American fans are still not aware of the name change).
In addition, Eye currently has an exhibition of illustrations at the Magical Artroom Museum in Roppongi in Tokyo through June 24, in a collaboration with VJ/graphic designer Nanohiro Ukawa. He also recently published a book of collages and has illustrated album jackets for artists such as Beck.
So what’s next for a musician who continually likes to test the boundaries? As Eye sees the band as some kind of feedback loop continually repeating itself, then any element from the past could be brought in. There are also large-scale plans on the horizon, with hopes to up the ante yet further: “At the moment we use three drummers, but we might increase it to 77 drummers and put on a drum exhibition.”
Eye may only be half-joking.