Halfway through my conversation with Atsuo, drummer and spokesman for drone metal trio Boris, I bring out an original CD copy of the group’s 1996 release, “Absolutego.”
“This sure brings back memories,” he says, looking at his band’s self-released debut. The record is, in a way, relevant to the group’s latest release, “Dear,” because depending on who you ask, this may or may not be the band’s 23rd studio album.
“That depends on whether they count this as an album or not,” says Atsuo with a smile, pointing to the CD in question. According to him, the 60-minute, droning one-track release is actually a single, not an album. He’s also the first to admit that even he has lost count of how many albums the famously prolific group has released in its 25-year history.
The original “Absolutego” was Boris’ first release as a trio. Starting off as a quartet in 1992, the record cemented the group’s decision to become a band as the three current members: Atsuo, guitarist Wata and guitarist/bassist Takeshi. (All three provide vocals and prefer to go by one name only.)
Making it to 25 is a remarkable feat for a band that has retained an independent and do-it-yourself attitude toward its music. Originally inspired by heavy, droning Seattle bands like Earth and the Melvins (whose song “Boris” inspired the trio’s name), the group has morphed through psychedelic rock, shoegaze, noise, hardcore and everything else in between. Consistently touring outside of Japan on a regular basis for the past two decades, the trio has gained a large following around the globe, winning acclaim from critics and notable artists like Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.
“We didn’t even know what mastering was in the beginning,” says Atsuo, speaking to The Japan Times at a coffee shop in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku Ward. “We’ve been DIY this whole time, with the same three people. We couldn’t perform under the name Boris if any one of us left. I think this new album really reflects that.”
For its latest effort, “Dear” (out today from Daymare Recordings), the group wanted to say thanks to all of its fans for supporting the band for the past 25 years. However, what ended up as a letter of gratitude didn’t start off that way.
“In the fall of 2014, there was a period where the future of the band became unclear due to personal and family issues,” Atsuo explains. “So we decided to keep it simple and just started writing songs. As we were working, we were thinking that these songs may end up becoming our big finale.”
A big turning point for the band was the re-release of its seminal 2005 album “Pink,” and the subsequent 2016 tour in which the group performed songs from it. Considered by many to be the band’s greatest album, “Pink” was what introduced many Western music fans to Boris in the first place.
“When our agent first brought the idea (for the tour) up, we immediately refused,” Atsuo says. “We’ve never really looked back on our past. Sure, with ‘Pink’ the circumstances surrounding the band really changed for the better, but to us our albums are like children. We don’t really have a favorite.”
As time went on though, the band realized it needed to take control of its own legacy.
“When the re-release started happening, we decided that we should do the tour in that context,” Atsuo continues. “We discovered that information on us on the internet wasn’t as organized as we thought. We felt that we needed to organize and tell our own history.”
As the band members settled their own personal issues and set out on tour in 2016, they found that the reaction to the “Pink” material was overwhelmingly positive. When the tour was over, the trio, inspired by the response, reconvened and decided to cull together the songs they had written earlier into a new release. There was three albums’ worth of material to choose from, but the band chose those that just naturally sounded good together and that’s why “Dear” has ended up heavy on drone and slower tempos, perhaps similar to earlier records such as 1998’s “Amplifier Worship” and the aforementioned “Absolutego.”
“We didn’t consciously decide to make an album with only slower songs, but the songs called to each other and became the album,” he explains. “During the ‘Pink’ tour we could imagine ourselves playing the new songs on stage. It was all very organic.”
“Dear” opens with the track “D.O.W.N. -Domination of Waiting Noise-,” starting with Atsuo’s snare hits before slamming the listener in the face with Wata and Takeshi’s massive down-tuned chords, each droning on into oblivion for the next six minutes. While every Boris release has at least one lengthy slow song, “Dear” revels in this style and explores it in depth.
“The more you make music simple, the more the player comes through,” Atsuo says. “Anyone can play notes. Where one’s artistic nature comes through is the space in between one sound and the next. The relationship between the three of us also influences that. The phenomenon of how the vibrating air around us turns into music through our bodies. Even if someone uses the exact same equipment and plays the same notes, it probably won’t be the same. It’s about the space we create in between the sounds, rather than what we are actually playing. The ma (space), as we say in Japanese.”
Among the slower tracks is a lone mid-tempo rocker, the lead single “Absolutego,” which borrows the title of the trio’s 1996 debut. While the new “Absolutego” shares traits with its 1996 forefather, such as the heavy, crunching guitar riffs inspired by the Melvins, the song is a much more straightforward, fist-pumping anthem, with a soaring guitar solo courtesy of guitarist Wata and a climactic vocal trade-off between Takeshi’s powerful vocals and Atsuo’s sinister howls. It’s the sound of a confident band that has blazed its own trail these past two decades.
The focus on slow tempos and drone is somehow fitting for the group’s 25th anniversary. “Dear” may be one of the most straightforward albums Boris has ever released, one that’s packed with the fundamentals of what makes up the group’s ideology. On it, we’re listening to a band perfecting and refining its core elements.
Never a band to take the easy road, it will be interesting to see what other sounds the prolific musicians conjure up down the line, considering all the ground they’ve already covered.
“I want to have fun,” says Atsuo with a smile. “I haven’t been able to say that I want to take it easy, but I do want to have fun.”
Boris plays Daikanyama Unit in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on July 15 (7 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; 03-5459-8630). The band tours Europe from Aug. 3 to 23 and North America from Oct. 3 to Nov. 17. For more information, visit www.borisheavyrocks.com.