Interview: Damo Suzuki

The other week I met up with Damo Suzuki and chatted about art, politics and… well, those two things really. You can read the full article on The Japan Times web site, so you should do that right now.

It was a really interesting interview for me, partly because he has such a different view of the world from most of the musicians I meet in Japan (he says it comes from having a European perspective, and his attitude does seem quite similar to the way a lot of my German friends think, but I suspect he was always a bit out of the ordinary by Japanese standards) and partly because he didn’t need much prompting to go into quite a lot of depth about his music and opinions, which made my job very easy.Damo Suzuki with Nanao Tavito

He expresses some opinions that look a bit harsh on the page, but you have to appreciate how good humoured his whole demeanour is, which is why towards the end of the interview, when my hastily-scrawled list of topics had run out, I felt comfortable challenging his statements. Usually if I don’t really agree with someone I’m interviewing, I just nod and let their words speak for themselves, but in Damo’s case, I thought there might be a bit more value in probing his statements a bit more to see how deeply though-out they really are.Damo Suzuki with Tenniscoats

I wish I could have got into religion more near the end there, because I’m curious how someone who has so little regard for rules and pre-defined forms can reconcile that with religious belief, where rules and pre-defined forms are integral to the structure of the organisation. I know about his history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and I’ve read things he’s said about religion before and I guess his answer is along the lines that for him it’s more the spiritual and moral principle that he follows rather than any particular doctrine. Still, in the context of the interview, it feels like an omission that we didn’t go into it. My only excuse is that we were getting near the end of the interview and the direction that thread of the conversation was going didn’t naturally lead there. Also, I suspect that even though I brought up religion, I wasn’t really thinking specifically about religion in a formal sense when I mentioned it, and my pre-programmed reaction to his response, like many British people confronted by a directly stated belief about religion, was to just inwardly clench with sudden social anxiety and let the conversation move on to something else before, I don’t know, before what? Before I get stabbed or something? I’m pretty unflappable about most topics, but religion is a topic I still have to overcome anxieties about discussing in person and the moment just passed.Damo Suzuki with Maher Shalal Hash Baz

Finally, as a fan of The Fall I liked how he just came right out and said “I am Damo Suzuki“.

Anyway, here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

I think the last time I interviewed you was about five years ago I think. Has the way you approach your performances changed much in that time?

The concept isn’t changed so much, just playing with local sound carriers.

The musicians you play with seem to be getting younger though.

There is one reason why I’m playing together with the younger generation. Because if I play with the younger generation, then I get younger audience as well. That means I can play music for another forty years. (Laughs)

You’re playing with more than twenty musicians over seven hours at your next show. How are you going to work that?

If I say it now, it’s no good because you’ll know the concept. Actually there’s not so much of a concept, but I had to make some sort of a timetable, because SuperDeluxe isn’t such a big place, capacity is about 250 people, and also we have technicians, we should know about the technical things. So actually it could be better with 25 sound carriers onstage at the same time, but we weren’t able to make this so I must make some sort of timetable, a kind of storyboard.

Actually it’s OK, because always a new approach is not so bad. Last year at the Reykjavik Film Festival I performed a live soundtrack playing music for an old movie from 1927 (according to the RFF web site, the film was Metropolis by Fritz Lang – IM). This was also planned because the film is never going to change, so there was kind of a system, although actually I like to make much more free stuff.

How did that work? Did you watch the film beforehand?

If I see it before, it’s already kind of a system, so I didn’t see it. We had monitors and some of the musicians watched the monitors, but I didn’t because if you watch the monitor, you react a little bit later than the rhythm of the movies.

So for you, what makes a good show? What kinds of things have to fall into place for you?

Firstly if the sound technician likes the concert, because he’s controlling the sound communication between the musicians on the stage and the audience, so he’s quite important and if he likes the concert, it’s always a good concert. Secondly, after the concert if lots of people have smiles on their faces, it’s also a good concert. And also the sound carriers who joined in the concert, if they have good energy and chemistry, it’s also a good concert. But during the concert it’s quite difficult to explain, because you have to be on the stage. It’s emotion, and there’s some kind of energy between us.

It’s quite different from a recording.

Maybe recording’s not as good as live, because with regular recordings, you can’t catch the atmosphere of the place, but with the live show itself, everybody is living in this time together in the same space and creating, and also the audience is not just listening, but also we can get some sort of feedback from them, so we are creating a kind of quantum field and everybody is involved. With a recording, you listen alone at home and it’s already a material thing and it’s nothing to do with your real involvement.

If you’re watching a soccer game on TV, the TV is already controlled by a cameraman who has these same angles and you can only see these angles, but if you’re in the stadium, you can see all the atmosphere, you can see how they are moving on the field, so it’s totally different. You have much more intense feeling and you are together in this.

Do you have any places in particular where you enjoy playing?

Everything has an influence on how things happen. SuperDeluxe is a good space and a difference audience because it’s in the middle of the city, so it’s quite different from the UFO Club. The UFO Club is in Koenji, which is quite a special place and not really like Tokyo. It’s a kind of province, and I’m not saying that in a negative way, it’s a good thing because Koenji has its own atmosphere, but Roppongi is quite commercial and I think quite mainstream, although I don’t know what kind of people are going to come to my concert.

Also at a place like the UFO Club, they don’t need so much advertisement because the people are living near there and people know each other, and there’s much more communication because it’s a small cosmos.

Koenji’s a place where a lot of fringe activities take place. It was also the starting point for the antinuclear protests in 2011, which I know was something you felt strongly about.

It sucked. It’s not only musicians, but Japanese people generally don’t like to talk about politics. I know why this is, but I don’t want to get into conspiracy theories. Japanese society is like a pyramid. Each stone is exactly the same, and it’s built up into a pyramid. Each of them is able to function but all together, it’s not very flexible to react to something, so they must be part of this society but out of the society they cannot do anything. Because I live in Germany, seeing Japan is totally different if you are involved in the society, but if you’re outside, you can see much more clearly.

One example of this is the case of (Fumiaki) Hoshino. He’s innocent but he’s been in jail for 39 years. He’s something like the beginning of the ‘Occupy’ movement in Japan. He was the leader of a student demonstration. Two people died and one was a policeman. He was the leader of this movement, so that’s why the police got him because if you cut off the head, then it’s much easier to control. He’s been in prison for 39 years and many people don’t know about this story. And even if they know, young people they don’t have any interest. Fukushima is the same: there’s not so much interest for young people. I don’t like to say why, but people are manipulated, mind-controlled even, because of control over the information. For them it’s quite difficult to say ‘Help Hoshino’ because Hoshino’s movement is kind of Communist, which is a kind of dirty word in Japan. Information is controlled by the Japanese government and the Japanese government is controlled by the USA because we lost the War, and things go this.

Last year, a number of lost Can recordings, some of which feature you, were finally released. Did you listen to them or is that part of your past that you feel a bit shut off from?

It’s like talking about my schooldays now. I was eighteen when I came to Germany. Sometimes I work with the drummer of GuruGuru or some members of Faust — the Hamburg Faust, not the Hanover Faust. The ‘French Faust.'”

It seems that in the last few years some of the Japanese music from that period has been getting more attention, partly thanks to Julian Cope’s book, although some people have complained about his habit of making stuff up.

He’s an interesting person because he wrote this kind of book, but he’s also writing about stones. He’s OK. Everyone has freedom to make anything, even wrong stories, because sometimes wrong stories are more beautiful than the truth, so it’s OK. It’s only a problem if people believe all of this. Me? I like the truth, it’s much more interesting.

It’s interesting that it took a book by a British writer and all the attention in the West before Japanese people really started to rediscover bands like Les Rallizes Dénudés and all the others.

Talking of the mainstream media and thinking of the 70s, the Japanese music scene didn’t communicate so much with the rest of the world because record companies weren’t so tied to the musicians. British people are always more open to any kind of music, so now there’s some interest in Japanese music too because the British have a basis for this kind of (progressive) music but the Japanese don’t really have this basis. Most bands from the 60s were just cover bands of The Beatles or something and didn’t do something original. But if I compare Japanese music now and ten years ago, Japanese music is really getting interesting. Young people have developed their own styles, they’re not copying too much from British or American bands and that’s a good thing.

The same thing happened in Germany as well at the end of the 60s. I don’t like the name ‘Krautrock’ but they just avoided any kind of Western culture, especially Anglo-Saxon, and I think a similar thing’s happening with young Japanese people’s music. If you’re a creative person, it’s important to break rules. If you’re in the middle of the system, you can’t create much, but if you’re on the outside, you can just avoid it, start from zero and make your own stuff with no influence at all.

I feel that British musicians tend to see Krautrock and automatically gravitate towards the Klaus Dinger-style Neu! beat while Japanese bands are a bit more likely to ore complex, looser beats that Can used to do. You play with musicians from a lot of different countries so have you noticed differences in the approach of musicians from different cultural musical traditions?

I don’t see so much difference, because the musicians I perform with are already open-minded to create something together and create time and space in the moment. Japanese musicians have a lot of ‘kaizen,’ where you take something, add a little bit and create something new. Japanese music is quite like this at the moment, a lot of bands have a lot of originality, but the trouble is that major labels don’t support them. They like to have Japanese bands playing like American or English bands, or to have them looking good or stylish and things like this. But the good thing is that there are quite a lot of indie labels in Japan over the last ten years so maybe they’re going to make something.

It’s interesting that Bo Ningen recently got signed by Sony. They’re sort of between two cultures in a way but they’ve also become a bit of a bridge.

They’re quite outstanding. They’re a Japanese band living in London and they’ve managed to get an agent supporting them to get work permits to work in the UK so they’re quite different from Japanese bands living in Japan.

So moving back to your own performances, I know you never rehearse with your sound carriers beforehand, but do you ever worry that they might be preparing secretly by themselves?

I get in contact with them, ‘Don’t practice anything!’ Because I don’t like to make music, I like to make energy. Energy itself is more interesting than to make music. Music is just a way to get energy, so why not just make energy?

Would you notice if they did?

Maybe they do, but if they do, I feel like I’m singing karaoke. It’s not really my style.

And you still organise everything by yourself?

Even though there’s a lot of things to do, it’s the price of freedom. This is the only way you can find yourself.

I guess that also requires a lot of goodwill from others.

Sure, because music is communication.

So what are your plans after Japan?

I’m going to Switzerland for one concert and then one in Italy.

You’ve had problems playing in America before, is that right? Any plans to go there?

There’s no difficulties. I just don’t like to go there. It’s a political problem. If I go to any country and I cannot talk about my opinions freely, I don’t like to go. It’s a hard country and people aren’t really free.

I’ve never been.

That’s good. You don’t have to! (Laughs)

But my brother-in-law and my niece and nephew live in Hawaii!

(Laughs) No, I’m not against Americans, I just don’t like the political style. They’re playing world police and why should they have more than 700 military bases all over the world? It’s just controlling people.

It’s a shame that the American government gives the country such a bad name in the rest of the world, because there’s always been so much great American music.

I don’t think so. It’s important for any country and it’s important for them to have a domestic music scene, but the reason American music is popular is that it’s pushed by the mainstream. They won the war, and that’s why American culture is everywhere. Winner takes it all, you know!

Given the range of different musicians you play with, do you have to adapt your own performance sometimes?

No. I’m Damo Suzuki and I play Damo Suzuki. I’m happy to be Damo Suzuki. Sometimes I play together with free jazz musicians, and this year in Sheffield I performed with 40 musicians, 35 singers onstage at the same. Because I’m making energy, it doesn’t matter what kind of musicians are onstage with me. Sometimes the guitarist is playing lots of technical stuff, sometimes he’s not able to play so quick, it doesn’t matter when you’re making energy. I have to accept every kind of music.

There are some approaches like this, but it’s OK because I’m also living my life process. I don’t have any answers, so the answer’s not important so much as the process. You have to be able to break stuff. You build up, break, build up, break, always this kind of process. Look at any painter, they have different periods, they’re not always painting the same stuff.

It’s a bit like the Derek Bailey approach, where even mistakes just get incorporated into the performance.

There is no such thing as a mistake. I don’t know what a mistake is. A mistake makes you able to create the next step and if there is no mistake, you cannot create, it’s such an opportunity.

That’s an almost religious way of looking at art.

I’m quite religious too, yes. Why can’t people accept mistakes? Especially in Japanese society, everyone’s trying to be perfect, they always like to have answers. Perfect stuff always has some sort of structure, but if we are creative enough and free, then you don’t need any answer. If you have an answer, you are isolated from everyone, but if you don’t, we can still be going the same way. Not only music, but this is what we should do.

Isn’t that true in almost any capitalist, consumer society where the economic model is built around mass production though?

Yes, but I think Japan is more extreme. If you’re five years old, you should learn violin, you should get into a good kindergarten, you should go to a better high school than other people and a better university to get into a big company. But if you live in this kind of society, you’ll always be a slave and you can’t develop anything. Europeans are a little bit different. They like to have perfection, but not on such a large scale — their own perfection. I think that makes you more creative, or at least that’s how I see it with my own eyes.

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