“I don’t want people to treat me like a god,” says Keiji Haino, chuckling. “I want to be a bad boy, right until the end.”
An audience with the 65-year-old iconoclast, a towering figure on Japan’s underground music scene, is always memorable. When I meet him at a coffee shop in Kawagoe, ostensibly to talk about the vinyl reissue of his 1981 studio debut, “Watashi Dake?” (“Only Me?”), the conversation sprawls for well over two hours.
With the patience of a Zen master tutoring a slightly dopey pupil, Haino explains his singular philosophy in a series of bold pronouncements and unlikely analogies, comparing it to birds, eggs and coffee beans.
“I want to play all music,” he says. “Not rock, not jazz, not classical: everything. Once you’re aware of this, the only answer is total freedom.”
And freedom, for Haino, doesn’t come cheap. He views formal training as a hindrance rather than an asset, and speaks dismissively of musicians who see free improvisation merely as a skill to incorporate into their vocabulary. Given the option to play without any constraints, he says, most musicians run into a wall.
“It’s because they can’t start completely from scratch,” he continues. “This is a joke, but have you seen the kanji for Haino? They read ‘ash field’ — there’s nothing there. That’s why I can improvise.”
Haino was 28 when he released “Watashi Dake?,” which appeared on the short-lived Pinakotheca Records label and was later reissued on CD by key underground imprint P.S.F. Records. The album’s sparse, violently abstracted blues miniatures suggest that Haino’s musical language emerged fully formed. (His distinctive dress sense — long hair, black clothes and ever-present sunglasses — certainly hasn’t changed.)
“It’s like a Zen riddle,” he says as he sketches a sequence of eggs and birds on the back of my coffee receipt. “There was an egg, which became a bird, which laid an egg. It’s a never-ending process.”
“When ‘Watashi Dake?’ came out 35 years ago, I was here,” he continues, indicating the first bird. “I’m probably here now” — he points at the egg, then moves his finger along to the next bird — “but then I’ll become this. The word for it is ‘universality.'”
Asked to explain what’s changed over the years, he grabs the receipt again and draws a straight line in a quick, fluid motion, then repeats the gesture more deliberately.
“The difference is awareness,” he says. “I used to write that line unconsciously, but I’m writing it consciously now. I was Keiji Haino before, but Keiji Haino understands who Keiji Haino is now.”
“Watashi Dake?” was the opening salvo in a discography that has since swelled to nearly 200 releases, including solo and band work, DJ mixes and collaborations with musicians ranging from free jazz saxophonist Peter Brotzmann to electronica duo Pan Sonic. The various incarnations of Haino’s longest-running group, Fushitsusha, have pushed the language of the power-rock trio further than almost any band on the planet.
Although his music is entirely improvised, Haino has often preferred to use the word nazoranai (not repeating) instead of sokkyō (improvisation). It’s a way of disassociating himself from the free-music scene, which he says can be just as predictable and convention-bound as the established genres from which it promises escape.
“People who’ve studied music say they can do anything,” he says, and he sketches a box filled with coffee beans.
“‘I can do anything, I can do improvisation too,'” he mimics. “But these people can’t do this” — meaning truly free playing — “because they’re a blend. You’ve got your Ethiopian coffee, your Brazilian, your Mocha — all kinds.”
Returning to the theme later in our conversation, he grounds it in more musical terms: “For example, there’s some bossa nova, there’s some medieval music, but when I hear those mixed together it’s not interesting, because I can just pick them apart … but when I hear something completely unfamiliar, someone that’s pure rather than a blend, it feels incredibly fresh. I’m still looking for that, all over the world.”
Does he often find it?
“It’s about one out of every 200 CDs,” he says, laughing. “But I’m always happy when I find one: They’re my friends.”
When he recorded “Watashi Dake?,” Haino was already a notorious figure on the wild fringes of the Japanese music scene. He made an indelible impression as vocalist with the group Lost Aaraaff in the early 1970s, and was a regular presence at Minor in Tokyo’s Kichijoji district, where he played both solo and with an early incarnation of Fushitsusha.
When Minor closed in 1980, the venue’s owner, Takafumi Sato, asked Haino to make an album for his new Pinakotheca Records label, apparently convinced it would be a hit.
Sensing that listeners would expect the record to be two sides of sustained sonic violence, Haino opted for a different approach. Channeling the ghosts of early country-blues pioneers like Blind Lemon Jefferson, he performed a series of eerie, extended improvisations on voice and guitar then filleted them into shorter songs.
“If you want a simple explanation, you can think of it as an unusual kind of singer-songwriting,” he says.
The album became his international calling card, after improv guitarist Fred Frith requested 15 copies and gave them to avant-garde heavyweights including John Zorn and Christian Marclay. It also paved the way for a fruitful relationship with P.S.F. founder Hideo Ikeezumi, who ordered 50 copies to sell at his Modern Music store.
Not surprisingly, Haino doesn’t have much truck with nostalgia, but he says he’s happy to see “Watashi Dake?” become widely available again. For one thing the new reissue, courtesy of American label Black Editions, finally makes good on the metallic artwork that he had originally wanted, but had to abandon because of the cost.
Haino views the reissue as a “present” to curious listeners who can’t afford the exorbitant sums charged for original editions of the album on Discogs.
“What I most want to say is this: Don’t charge high prices for my out-of-print stuff,” he says. “Make sure you print that.”
“Watashi Dake?” is out now. Fushitsusha is currently on tour in the United States. For more details, visit www.fushitsusha.com.