Will Oldham Interviews Masaki Batoh

Here I was given the great opportunity to interview Masaki Batoh. I became aware of some of Batoh’s work in the mid-1990’s when a relationship between Batoh’s band Ghost was begun with the Drag City record label (I have had a long and satisfying relationship with Drag City dating back to the early 1990’s). When Ghost first came to the USA to tour, my brother Paul was hired to travel with them as a sound engineer. My friend David Pajo and I decided to follow the band for a few shows, and asked Ghost if they would mind if we recorded their sets. One of my favorite memories of any live music performances was Ghost’s show in Vacaville, CA, in a small space in the back of a standard strip-mall musical instrument store. Ghost had visited Haight-Ashbury that afternoon, and the set was wild and celebratory; it felt to me like we were in another dimension, in another time, on another planet.

This interview was conducted via email, as my Japanese is nonexistent and Batoh’s English is halting. Even written, Batoh’s English is not always ‘smooth’ and so what you will read below has been edited and polished by me with Batoh’s explicit permission. Here and there you will still find artifacts of our language barrier. Forgive and enjoy! – Will Oldham

Will Oldham: These questions, unfortunately, are not all simple. But they are what I want to ask you. It is easy to remember when we met, as I think that Princess Diana died while we (David Pajo and I) were traveling in tandem with Ghost. That makes it about 17 years ago. Is that possible? That’s not the question. The question is (and this is meant to contextualize our exchange here): what was your impression of Pajo and me at the time? I feel like I remember some misgivings on Ghost’s part about our request that we record a few of your shows…

Masaki Batoh: Hi, long time no see. Thank you so much …17 years!? I can’t believe it… Time passes so. Well, regarding the story of that trip, I remember your proposal to tape our performances. I must make it clear first that we didn’t feel bad about the idea of our shows being recorded, but were just wondering why you were interested in us, since our music was totally rough and broken. Actually we were afraid to confirm what we’ve done after the show; it was so rare to tape our performance before then. We were late-arrived hippies (from the early 80’s) unable to measure ourselves.

You impressed me as a modest person from the first. I remember the music you played during that trip was much different to your current style. But your voice was beautiful, same as now. David seemed to be a very talented musician. And we were impressed by his warm personality. Your brother Paul was quiet and cute. We really loved all the great American buddies on the road!

Will Oldham:
This is not a simple question. Please feel free to go into detail or to answer simply and broadly. How have the calamitous events at Fukushima after the earthquake/tsunami in 2011 infiltrated your musical life, if at all? (note: for this question, Batoh took an extra 24-36 hours to respond)

Masaki Batoh: First of all, I would like to thank you for being the first one to respond to the devastating earth quake in japan back in 2011 by sending courage spritually along with sizable donations. We will always remember your (act of )true compassion.

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We continue to suffer from the problems — there are still 20 thousand people taking refuge in temporary housing, including people who were evacuated from their homes due to nuclear radiation. Another significant issue is the new government who took political control after the earthquake. They began to promote the resuming, and expanding, the nuclear power plant operations.

However, I believe we can hope to recover. People are becoming aware of politics and watching the politicians and we continue to do what is right for the country, for nature, the people, and the earth.

I had become more aware of myself after these both natural – and human-created disasters. It increased my desire to create and communicate. I had to communicate my frustration, my sadness, my anger, my fear…and my soul…all to the world by means of music. Music was my only means to communicate to the world with any degree of fluency and experience.

Back then, I had no desire to promote (my activity as a leader of) the band Ghost. Ghost had stopped creating after a concert in Berlin back in 2009 and I was not able to even create any musical sound from my guitar, nor any melody from my throat. Luckily, I discovered a device which was under development back then, called a “Brain Pulse Machine”. This device had been developed as a self-training product for people with developmental disabilities such as ADHD, ADD, LD or Asperger’s. This device provides stable brain waves so that the user can carry on normal life without panic and with peace of mind. I won’t go into too much detail about the device, however I thought I could use this device as an improvisational tool using subjects’ brain waves to create music. The resulting work became a tribute album for victims of the earthquake, called Brain Pulse Music, and led me to participate in a tour intended to raise awareness about the danger of nuclear power. The tour took place in the United States, Canada, and Europe. (Drag City eventually sold Brain Pulse Machines; that limited run is sold out).

After the earthquake, I was fortunate to get to know some new people. I started to wonder, “What if I can create music with a fresh approach, a new form?” Originally I thought about creating my own 4th solo album, and began to work towards that end. But since the musicians who were contributing to the recording were so marvelous, we agreed (decided) to form a new band, The Silence. Ghost completed (closed its history with ) 9 albums in their 30 yrs of creation. Soon after the announcement of the dissolution of Ghost, it took only one month to complete the songs which became the first album of The Silence. Last November we started the recording of the second album; it was completed in February. Now we are on our third album…which scares the hell out of Drag City!

Will Oldham: On a purely logistical level, are there significant differences in the manner in which The Silence composes, records, or performs from how you have worked in the past?

Masaki Batoh: Let me explain about the recording method of The Silence. We went back to our starting point: full analog recording. In 1984, when Ghost started recording , the main recording devices were analog MTRs (magnetic tape recorders) with 4, 8, 16 or 24 tracks. Ghost recorded its first two records on analog 8 and 16 MTR . But from the third album, Temple Stone (1991), to the last album, Overture (2007), we used new devices always: hard-drive recorders, A-DAT and Pro Tools. We used these technologies because Ghost needed many tracks for multi-instrument players and for our very knotty arrangements.

The Silence is simple. Even 16 tracks are too many sometimes. Of course we refuse sampling, copy-and-paste, pitch-shifting or any other digital cheap tricks . We just love old instruments, aged the as same as us, that we grew up with. In the 70’s, in our childhood, the organ to use was the Hammond with a Leslie speaker. It was never a Nord Lead! Like this we are happy to make music with our cronies, our old instruments.

Will Oldham: What are some of the more fulfilling experiences that you have had as an audience member in the past year?

Masaki Batoh: Well… besides Japanese traditional music…Mostly my happy experiences in the 80’s in London, US and Tokyo: Gong, Roy Harper, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch, Tom Rapp (Pearls Before Swine), Helen Merill, Hadaka no Ralizes, Otis Rush and Stevie Wonder!

Will Oldham: My question about your audience experience was specifically referring to the past 12 months or so. But you brought up a couple of interesting things. One is Japanese traditional music. If you can, would you go into recent experiences witnessing the performance of Japanese traditional music, and/or contextualize a bit for me your relationship to this music? For example; do you mean vocal music or instrumental music, or do you mean music from particular traditions, time periods or regions? And are there good practitioners working today that you could mention?

Masaki Batoh: Oh sorry! In the past 12 months… Well a recent one was 10 months ago, last May, in the garden of a temple in Tokyo. I went to see a Noh performance. It was a special “Takigi Noh”, meaning Noh theater performed at night by a bonfire. It is dedicated to god and to a shrine at the same time. I really like Takigi Noh. When I was young I used to travel around Japan just to see local Takigi Noh. There are many variations actually. The one I saw in last May was an especially traditional one. Two dancers who speak or sing, with their band behind them. The band was formed by one Noh kan ( Noh flute ), one big high-pitched percussion instrument, one small low-pitched percussion instrument, and one low drum. Dancers perform an old story and sing with the band. In the black night, the sound reflects from the temple woods, the big shadows of dancers are projected behind them. The music is quiet but hypnotic; a complete Japanese heterophony. To Western ears, it may feel discordant and wild (Batoh writes : “wolf note” which I have translated to “wild”).

Will Oldham: You also mention Helen Merrill.   I don’t know if we’ve spoken about her before, but I don’t think so.   I listen to a lot of her work, and I’m aware that she had a special relationship with Japan.   Did you see her perform more than once?   Would you describe one of them, just a little? For my own guilty pleasure…

Masaki Batoh: Oh what a coincidence. I feel glad that you love her likewise because contemporary Americans don’t seem to know about their own great music, for example Helen, Nancy Harrow(Damon’s mom), Carmen McRae, Patty Waters, Ella, Etta , Nina etc etc. The most impressive concert of Helen that I witnessed was probably in 1977 in my home town in eastern Japan near Osaka. Merrill had married a Japanese man and had a child in the 60’s. She often toured locally in Japan solo. She played piano and sang, I remember.   I was too young to understand Jazz completely, but could know that that beautiful lady was a perfect artist. I still have Nearness Of You LP (Jap press of course) signed by her. My treasure.

(I asked my brother Paul (who traveled with Ghost as their sound engineer) for a question, and he said “Ask Batoh about his needles”.)

Masaki Batoh: You mean “Needle and Spoon”? Haha just kidding. My main occupation is as an acupuncturist and oriental medical arts practitioner, as you know. I work in a hospital in Tokyo. Thursdays are the one day a week that I have off. I used to work from 8:30 in the morning until 8:00 or 10:00 at night. Such long hours. I take many patients who are suffering from various kinds of mental and physical ailments. The most common symptom I treat is muscle pain (sprain, lower back ache, neck&shoulder pain, muscle rupture, etc). Second is neuralgia and headache. Third is sterility and agrippa(breech baby) cure. Fourth is mental illness.

I use acupuncture needles (which are finer in gauge than a human hair) and moxihibustion (which involves the burning of special Japanese herbs). It’s a gentle treatment. Why won’t you try me?

Will Oldham: As an acupuncturist, you treat all of the various complaints from the same office/hospital? How effective are the mental illness treatments?

Masaki Batoh: Usually I have my own patients along with some patients referred from the hospital. It’s so hard to explain in English but I will try… In the oriental medical theories and practices, the causes of illness can be very broadly divided into two. One is from evil coming from outside of the body. The other one is the lack of sufficient chi. These are based on the cosmic dual forces (yin and yang) and the five element (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) concepts formulated in China by or around 1200 BC. We Japanese imported Chinese medicine in 720 AD and modified it using a Japanese methodology in order to fit to our own peculiar constitution.

So we check the patient first, using our methods. Then we do a treatment for each diagnosis. In Japanese acupuncture the needle is a very thin, stainless, sterilized,  disposable needle, as thin as a hair. Sometimes a Japanese herb is burnt over a pressure point (the skin is not burnt during this process). Plus Shiatsu acupressure can be utilized. All approaches correct the patient’s chi and blow evil or evil chi away.

Will Oldham: I have a lot of words from you, that I can now arrange into something.   However, I want to ask one more thing of you, which is would you write a line or two about your colleagues in The Silence? Okano I have met before, and he has gone through an evolution since I met him, I think?

Masaki Batoh: Thank you for asking about them. Futoshi Okano you know. Undoubtedly he’s one of the greatest drummers in this world. His father was a professional jazz musician. Okano was a well-skilled and amazing player. But he had been very interested in drugs since he was young. Too rock & roll to survive in the current era. Now he’s clean and sober. His technique is based on jazz and the old rock we love, augmented by his technical strong style. He’s a charming person actually.

Kazuo Ogino is a very talented person, like David Pajo or you. He was brought up listening to classical music, Japanese traditional music, Occidental medieval & middle eastern music and classic Rock including Prog or Kraut. He plays all kinds of pipes, keyboard, ethnic instruments and sometimes sings in a strange manner. Ryuichi Yoshida plays baritone sax and flute. He used to play free music. He is technically   a great musician with amazing ideas. He sings well and speaks well in public. Jan is half-blooded with a Dutch father and a Japanese mother. He used to play guitar and sing in bands. He’s our youngest colleague at 24 years old. He’s a brave-hearted man to already be working with Okano! I feel much happiness to work with them in this band. Thank you, God.

Will Oldham: Also, would you like for me to make grammatical changes to your responses so that the English flows fluently, or do you prefer that your English be presented as-is?   I don’t want to presume.

Masaki Batoh: Oh, please arrange my broken English into ‘normal’ English, at your discretion. I don’t mind at all. Thank you, Will. Hey take care!

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