Enter The Black Fire
ISSUE 151, September 1996
Photo: Hiromi Wakui
Words: Biba Kopf
Of all the Japanese musicians now coming to prominence in the West, Keiji Haino is the most extraordinary: his music, shrouded in mystery, describes a personal quest of withering complexity and intensity. Biba Kopf talks to Haino in Tokyo
Dressed in black from head to foot in the style of a 19th century French dandy, Keiji Haino knows how to make an entrance. In another time and place you could imagine him walking a lobster on a lead, but in this PC age he'll settle for a cane to complement the long silver-flecked hair falling midway down his back, his black lace cuffs, winklepickers and ever present dark glasses. If the waitresses of this Euro-Tokyo cafe, located down a side alley of one of the technopolis's quieter suburbs, haven't seen his like before, they're not letting on. As for Haino, he almost sniffs the air like a cat as he takes in his surroundings. Once seated, he exchanges smiles and words with his manager, the benign, Buddha-like Tanaka-san, and then raises his hand and starts clicking his fingers furiously in what seems to be for Japan, or anywhere else come to that, a shocking outburst of rudeness which the waitresses contrive not to notice. "Don't worry, he's not after service," intercedes interpreter Alan Cummings. "He's checking out the room's acoustics in case he wants to play here. He lives just down the road."
Now aged 44, Keiji Haino is one of the most vital figures within and outside contemporary music. It might have taken him 20 years to release his first two albums (his first solo release appeared in 1981, ten years or so after he first started performing; the first release by his power trio Fushitsusha took almost as long to arrive), but since 1990 - in Japanese terms, Year One of Heisei, the new era following the death of Emperor Hirohito - the world has been deluged by Haino recordings. These include, appropriately enough, two Live In The First Year Of Heisei volumes, featuring Haino alongside folk-blues singer Kan Mikami and improvising bassist Motoharu Yoshizawa, who was a member of legendary Japanese noise guitarist Masayuki Takayanagi's New Directions group. Whether they document his solo works for guitar, percussion and hurdy-gurdy, or groups projects with Fushitsusha, Vajra and Nijiumu, each of Haino's releases holds true to a singular musical vision, a vision whose intensity is partially indicated by a Haino title: "Further, Further Into The Twilight". Haino's music is the blues on a Wagnerian scale, where the struggle between the forces of light and darkness is kept in a precarious balance (and the outcome always remains in doubt). In the process he generates a heat so intense it burns itself into the consciousness, not to mention the conscience, of the music world. Haino isn't so much a direct influence on any one individual or scene - his vision is too personal, his guitar sound, in particular, too determinedly self-immolating for others to tamely follow him into the flames - but rather he is a tremendously invigorating force whose life's work is amassing an immense body of music that demands to be reckoned with. Though the great, gleeful guitar racket of the self-proclaimed Tokyo psychedelic garage underground (High Rise, Musica Transonic, Mainliner) is inconceivable without him - you could say his presence both legitimises and adds depth to it - his relationship to the younger groups is tangential. His position to the rest of the world is something akin to John Coltrane's, Cecil Taylor's or Evan Parker's relation to jazz and the free music scene: Haino's way into the music is through himself, his vision personal in the extreme, and for that reason it burns so brightly it is capable of illuminating the listener's darkest, most intimate hours.
In conversation, Keiji Haino speaks a maddening mix of mysticism and methodology, Zen sense and nonsense, clarity and contradiction. He is particularly winning when he tightens his whole being to squeeze out laughter, or hisses to express his love or hate of something. Regardless of the fact his meaning often evades ready comprehension, he takes great time and care in explaining himself. "I am extremely aware now," Haino told fellow guitarist/singer Yoshiaki Takahashi, of These, in a 1991 issue of Imperial Theatre fanzine," because I don't want to be misunderstood. It doesn't matter whether you like me or not, just don't misunderstand me. I don't want people to like or hate me for the wrong reasons." If Haino's music is equally hard to define, its impact is both immediate and indelible. As a guitar player he produces the most astonishing elemental noise this side of his acknowledged heroes Blue Cheer. His is a dense, reverberating mass of sound impacted from wave-lapping-wave of metal screes into which he sears guitar hieroglyphs marking his journey towards the core of his being. Or else he threatens to engulf the whole in flames of feedback. The noise is unceasing, his songs seemingly never-ending, sometimes sustaining levels of intensity for 40 minutes and longer, with no exit in sight. And at the moment you feel you can endure it no longer, the sound suddenly explodes into light, and what was seconds ago almightily and unbearably oppressive is now carrying you to ecstasy. This is probably what he meant when he said, in an unpublished interview with the American magazine Forced Exposure, "The goal of my music is not to go beyond psychedelic music but to deepen it. There are many people who call my music psychedelic. My music is faster. Unlike psychedelic musicians who stop because of their desire for easiness, for shortcuts, I do not stop."
Keiji Haino has more to offer than deep, enriched, psychedelic experiences. His solo electric guitar/vocal music veers from soul-pulverising heaviness to haunted songs where he sounds faint chords inside a tunnel of gently ringing feedback harmonics, from which his high keening voice emerges, expressing who knows what anguish. They suggest a soul even more troubled than Alex Chilton's on Big Star's broken-backed third album, or Neil Young's sweet, cracked alto elegising dead friends on Tonight's The Night. The difference with Haino's songs is that they're arrived at with their singer fully conscious and capable of making some kind of sense of the despair they encapsulate, no matter how shredded full of holes they may be. Whatever condition they describe, Haino's works don't swell in misery. "It comes from prayer," he tells me, explaining his music's origins. "The ripples from that place and those reverberations then become music. That's what I would like the best music to be. . . The reason why prayer exists isn't so much a matter of bargaining for something. It exists because everything isn't perfect, because there is sadness and pain. People have a longing for something and pray to make it complete. . ." So is his music a healing process, a balm for the soul? "I'm talking about where the music comes from, not how it enters into the world, so I can't really say whether it's a tool for prayer, or how it works on the spirit, or even where it goes in the world." Rather than the healing power of music, he talks of it as a struggle between black and white magic. Though he's cautious about the description, he believes his music is a "diagram of white magic", but if his effort falls just short, it will remain as black magic; the transference will not occur. He explains his take on white magic thus: "Say if we were sitting here talking and for some reason you actually hated Haino, but while you were talking your hate evaporated and you grew to like him, well, there's got to be an equal volume on both sides, as it were. I can't change your hate into like unless there is an equal amount of like corresponding to your hate. Basically, white magic is the power to change something negative into something positive." And what does that mean, sonically speaking? The way Haino engages in a struggle to control the elemental forces he unleashes from his guitar can sound like the dramatisation of the struggle between the forces of light and darkness. "I'm not thinking of guitar or any particular type of sound as having black or white properties, "he corrects. "As far as I'm concerned the black magic/white magic thing will be determined by the listener. The ultimate switchover will be made by him. It is something that will be judged later, as it were."
Come judgment day, the gods have got their work cut out sorting Haino's uncategorizable, ever-expanding body of work. Aside from his solo material and Fushitsusha, there's Nijiumu, which creates a timeless "global ancient music" using electronics and antique instruments and percussion. Commenting on a Nijiumu performance he's seen, Alan Cummings says he's reminded "about something Kunio Komparu wrote about Noh theatre, about how it doesn't matter ifyou fall asleep because Noh is not of this world entirely and so is best appreciated in a trance state somewhere between wakefulness and dreaming." Haino also plays solo percussion or hurdy-gurdy sets, and participates in various ad hoc improvising units (duos with bassist Barre Phillips, saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors). His other groups include Vasara - Sanskrit for the gods of lust and anger; the combustible electric blues trio he shares with Kan Mikami; and the slow-burning improvisations of the guitar/violin trio Black Stage. Solo percussion allows him to isolate and explore the totality of a single sound, something the hum of Marshall amps renders impossible with electric guitar. He was drawn to the hurdy-gurdy by the simple fact that he knew of no other instrument where the sound is produced by turning a handle. The paradox that guides Haino's musics on these various instruments is his signature, and is somehow sonically inscribed in the very first sound he makes on them. You probably won't be surprised to hear this, but Haino doesn't differentiate between his various activities. "Everything I do is the same," he emphasises. "As far as I am concerned, there really isn't any difference, because it's all really expressing the same thing. There may be certain changes in what I actually say, I may say something before and something after drinking this tea, and in the course of something entering my body, there may be a difference in the content, but nothing has really changed at all. Basically, I haven't changed since Lost Aaraaf." (Haino's first group from 1970-71, an Albert Ayler influenced piano-led outfit with Haino's voice standing in for saxophone.) Change, it transpires, is anathema to Haino. Change equals bad faith, a lack of courage in seeing things through to the last. Popular music, from punk through psychedelia, is scattered with part-explored paths or prematurely spent ideas. Projects are begun and ten abandoned for want to will-power; musicians buckle under the pressure of the marketplace, where the idea of permanent change is essentially a way of talking up novelty product.
If Haino's attitude strikes Western ears as strangely conservative, it perhaps requires a leap of imagination to fully understand what he means. Haino belongs to that diaspora of rock-damaged souls brought up on Highway 61-era Dylan and The Doors. Rock's impact on those young Japanese willing to receive it was as great as anywhere else in the industrialised world, maybe more so, whatwith distance allowing for some of the music's dafter excesses to be dumped overboard en route. Japan in the 60s was undergoing the same kind of upheavals as Europe and America: student unrest, anti-war demos, and local issues like the protests over the renewal of the Japanese-American defence treaty and the pitched battles taking place over the construction of a runway at Tokyo's Narita Airport. The airport protests, periodically acted out to this day but with considerably less impact, marked the beginning of the end of serious student activism in Japan. From 1969 on, large conglomerates systematically excluded militants from jobs, where before their behaviour would have been accepted as part of growing up. Once the practice became apparent, potential activists had to weigh up their political commitment against the long term damage to their career prospects. Inevitably, the majority of students conformed, thus contributing to Japan's increasingly consensual society. And the more wealthy Japan became, the greater the consumer choices, the harder it was for anyone to resist going with the consumer flow. Ex-hippies like the members of Yellow Magic Orchestra took the path of least resistance into the realm of playful postmodern irony that seemed the most suitable, not to mention pleasurably safe, if ultimately hollow, critical response to Japan's rampant consumerism. For someone like Haino, for whom play, postmodern parody and irony represent the antithesis of the spirit, 70s and 80s Tokyo must have been limbo or worse.
If not directly caused by socio-political changes, Haino's public disappearance in the 1970s nevertheless coincides with Japan's slide in to a one-size-fits-all consensual culture. Musically his career had barely got off the ground when the clampdown in the universities and the corporations began taking effect. Lost Aaraaf had contributed a few tracks to the 1971 double LP compilation Sanritsuka Genyasai, which documented a concert and violent demonstration against the new airport. Then Haino disappeared from public view for the next ten years. He told Forced Exposure he confined himself to a room in his parents' house in the suburbs for three or four years, studying Chinese breathing and the blues rhythms of Lightnin' Hopkins and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He slowly returned to view with a few sessions, formed Fushitsusha in 1978, released his indispensable first solo album Watashi Dake?/Only Me? in 1981, then suffered an illness that kept him out of action for another three years. How did he keep the faith that fuses all his works through the years of sickness and silence? "Basically doing a lot of thinking about music and where it comes from..." Perhaps this is how the magic Haino talks about works: his struggle to keep the faith constituted a strand of resistance within Japan and the industrialised world, where peer group and economic pressures conspired to silence all voices and noises unwilling or incapable of consenting to the spreading blandness in worldwide popular culture. "I am not an anarchist, I am Anarchy," Haino is fond of saying. He expands: "Anarchy, if you are talking about anarchy... When Buddha meditated he achieved satori [spiritual awakening, or enlightenment], and the body disappeared, that would be the end. But what physically remains after satori is what was written up by the Buddha's pupils, not the satori itself. Buddha said he's got something that he cannot understand or express in words. My job, my anarchy, which is political only insofar as not being interested in politics at all is political, what I am trying to do is to express in music the satori that the Buddha achieved but couldn't explain."
This article originally appeared in The Wire 151, September 1996
© The Wire
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