Fixer plays it by no rules

by David Hickey

You might have heard of Boredoms, the anarchic noiseniks from Osaka who toured with Nirvana, signed to major label Warner’s and became the most written-about Japanese band in the West in the 1990s.

You may also have heard of Rovo, who regularly play their self-styled “man-driven trance” to sellout crowds in Japan.

But you probably haven’t yet heard of PARA, a quartet that has survived the death of a founding member, and who explain the arty concept behind their “chamber music” in arcanely Baroque terms.

Like Rovo always have, and like Boredoms once did, PARA feature Seiichi Yamamoto, one of the most prolific forces over the last 20 years in the Kansai music scene, and whose idiosyncratic musical path has seen him straddle the worlds of rock and improvised music with the same restlessness as Jim O’Rourke or Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.

PARA’s debut album, the four-track, 50-minute “X-Game,” came out last week on the P-Vine label, although the band — originally only a duo of Yamamoto and the late drummer Mana “China” Nishiura — formed in 2001.

“I’m still trying to work out how it took so long,” says Yamamoto, who learned guitar in his early teens playing along to T. Rex (“I had the long hair, but you couldn’t get the platform shoes in Japan back then”).

The very unglam Yamamoto of today, with short hair tucked under a nondescript beret, is speaking ahead of PARA’s two live dates — including their first Tokyo show — flanked by his much younger band mates, Ieguchi (synthesizers) and Muneomi Senju (drums). Yoshitake Expe (“space guitar”) and the second synth player, Ryota Nishi, absent for the interview, complete the lineup.

“For five years, we were only working on two songs,” Yamamoto comments on the album’s slow gestation. “The recording took a long time. It was fun, but there were moments of tension.”

There was also the death of Yamamoto’s girlfriend, China, in a car accident in November 2005 while on tour in the United States with rock group DMBQ. Naturally, the absence of China, who also filled the drum stool for Shonen Knife in the early 2000s, altered the band’s sound.

“When China was in the band and we had two drummers, we had a polyrhythm thing going on,” says Yamamoto, who has an unnerving knack of questioning his own statement immediately after making it. “It was ‘one beat’ with no groove. Actually, maybe there was a groove.”

This indecision is baffling when, on his own Web site, Yamamoto describes PARA (with a hint of mischief) as “chamber music with a groove.” To see for yourself, listen to the hypnotic swirl of “Cube,” the 12-minute opener on “X-Game,” propelled by the metronomic pulse of Senju’s drumming. Yes, there’s a groove. “Cube,” one of the band’s earliest compositions, is constructed around a simple keyboard melody repeated at intervals by the other band members. This repetition became the core concept — what Yamamoto calls the “game theory” — underpinning the album.

As he explains: “We were each playing a single phrase of music, so that it resembled a composition made up of counterpoints — that’s what we were going for. It [PARA] started out as a game. And we were playing a game on this album, too.”

Elsewhere, the album takes in dubby electronica and ambient textures, while “Crystal Code,” with its quease-inducing arpeggios, can’t decide if it wants to soundtrack a low-rent 1970s TV buddy-cop series or a futuristic sci-fi thriller.

In PARA’s universe, the groove is not something that evolves organically from intuitive improvising or endless jamming. Nothing is left to chance. “Everything is decided — when we play live, too. We know who is going to come in and when, and what they’re going to play.” says synth player Ieguchi.

This precision is in stark contrast to the barely controlled chaos of Yamamoto’s other projects over the last 20 years: His “rock” side was at its most visible in the years after 1986, when his 15-year stint with Boredoms began. His piercing, squalling guitar did much to define the Kansai noise aesthetic to Western ears. Yamamoto might also have been the chief architect of the band’s Zen humor, if the online footage of him playing guitar with a toilet roll over his instrument’s neck in a water closet is anything to go by. Asked if it rankles him that he’s been largely written out of Boredoms’ history, Yamamoto is philosophical, stating simply, “It can’t be helped.”

But in parallel with his Boredoms stint, and right up to now, Yamamoto has continued to work with improvisational and avant-rock bands he formed (Live Under The Sky and Omoide Hatoba, respectively). As well, he joined the experimental pop supergroup Novo Tono (with guitarist/turntablist Yoshihide Otomo), and released a handful of solo albums — some featuring scratchy, improvised guitar music, some song-based. And if the online chroniclers are to be believed, there was also once a project called Flying Testicle and a band called The Enban, in which sole member Yamamoto called out “enban” (meaning “disc”) once every 25 minutes.

Since 1987, Yamamoto has also been involved in running the live house Bears (think of it as an Osaka CBGB, with a booking policy that “has nothing to do with the artist’s technique”), and he also runs his own label, Umma Records, that puts out Kansai bands. But he scoffs at the notion of being labeled the “godfather” of the Kansai rock scene.

“Perhaps it’s because I’ve been around for such a long time,” says the 47-year-old. “But there are people who have been around in Kansai longer than I have — bands like Hijokaidan and Shonen Knife. If there are godfathers on the Kansai scene, then they come from those bands. I’m only the fixer.”

Nonetheless, the fixer has a word of advice for the new crop of emerging Kansai bands, such as Osaka’s Afrirampo and Kyoto’s Limited Express (has gone?) that have been making waves, and not only in Japan.

“In 1987, you had bands like Boredoms and Merzbow making this strange, primitive music. There are bands today that really sound like those bands from 20 years ago, and because they weren’t around 20 years ago, I think they’re trying to express something for themselves. I think today’s bands are very good. But I think they can go further, do better. They’re not going into the red zone. It’s safe. They’re smart. But of course they’re stupid. Only it’s not the same kind of ‘stupid’ as before.

“These bands are more musical. And for me, if a band’s not playing ‘music,’ then I’m fine with that. I think the people in today’s bands impose a limit on themselves.”

Sermon over. But Yamamoto has one last piece of music theory he wants to impart when asked if the next PARA album will also take six years to surface. “It’s all a game. And when we make some new rules, then I’d like to make a new record.”