Interview: David Novak on Noise, Fukushima and More

October 14, 2014

David Novak is Associate Professor of Music at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an ethnomusicologist who explores global circulations of popular music – particularly the development of noise in Japan and its reception in the United States. As the author of the 2013 book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, which draws on two decades of multi-site fieldwork, there are few people with as holistic a view of the genre and its place in the world. In this conversation, Novak spoke with Todd L. Burns about how he began his research and some of the surprises he encountered on the way, before moving on to discuss experimental guitarist and composer Otomo Yoshihide and his important work in Fukushima.

Masonna – Festival Beyond Innocence, Bridge, Osaka 2002

I wanted to start by asking you how you came in touch with this music in the first place.

I moved to Japan in 1989, and at the time I wasn’t necessarily cognizant of any kind of experimental music or avant-garde music going on in Japan. It wasn’t easy to find. So it was really only when I went back to the US and became a college radio station DJ and all of these records started coming in, CDs, cassettes… they were all things that you would never really be able to attach to Japanese culture, or have any sense of where it came from. They were mostly very obscure packages that didn’t have any information on them. And at the same time there were all these people that started to really geek out on this stuff and get really interested in it, and called it “Japanoise.”

You couldn’t really set out to write straightforward history of noise without bending the facts a lot; it’s more of a feedback loop than a linear narrative.

I didn’t go back to Japan for another eight or nine years, when I was starting as a graduate student in ethnomusicology. In between, I had lived in Indonesia and I studied gamelan and played in rock bands and a whole bunch of other things. But then I decided to find out what was going on in Japan, because I had this vision that there was this really big underground music scene in Japan… and of course there is a really big music scene in Japan. But noise is a very small scene and that made it really easy for me to do my work. I do ethnographic fieldwork, and as an anthropologist, a lot of what I do is hang out with musicians and hear what they have to say. That wouldn’t have been feasible if these people had been super famous; I couldn’t interview the audience and get the same sense of things if there were 10,000 or 20,000 people at a concert.

So, in some ways, my book is a very straightforward ethnography, but it’s not a very straightforward story about noise, because noise isn’t a straightforward genre of music. You couldn’t really set out to write straightforward history of noise without bending the facts a lot; as I say in the book, it’s more of a feedback loop than a linear narrative.

Masonna – 120 Min (Intro by Thurston Moore)

When you went back, you obviously had expectations as to what it might be like after spending some time listening to this music in the States. You already mentioned that you were kind of surprised that it was as small as it was. What were the other surprises?

Well, there were several. One of them was that the music was going to be about a very specific aesthetic, that people were going to care about only a certain kind of thing. And in fact it was fairly diverse, the kinds of music people made and called “noise.” They could play electric guitar or just pedals or just smash something on stage. There wasn’t a consistent sound or style that you could really hold up, more of a general quality of feeling.

Another thing I was surprised about was that performers didn’t really want to call it noise, especially not “Japanoise.” They didn’t really want to embrace that idea. They just didn’t want to call it anything. I thought maybe they would be proud of having created this world-famous genre, but they thought that name was a huge mistake, and that Americans had the wrong impression. A lot of people said things like “You shouldn’t take it too seriously.” And I thought that was interesting because I could see that they took themselves quite seriously and they were making really powerful art.

There were people at shows who had come straight from work, in suits sometimes, and some of the performers had come straight from work too.

Another thing that surprised me is how overwhelming and mind-blowing these performances were. They were much, much louder than the noise shows you would see in the United States, where someone had a crappy guitar amp for amplifying everything, or a really cheap PA. These were real professional PA systems with trained sound engineers, front-of-house and back-of-house sometimes. In a place where there were only 50 or 100 people, they’d have the kind of systems that you would see in a venue that would hold 1,000 people in the US.

Another thing that surprised me was that the crowds weren’t necessarily wearing some kind of underground lifestyle on their sleeves. There were people at shows who had come straight from work, in suits sometimes, and some of the performers had come straight from work too. So there were quite a few differences from the noise subculture in the United States. It’s a different kind of oppositional spirit, and sort of more of a long-term thing.

Hanatarash Live

You mentioned that people said you shouldn’t take it so seriously. What did you mean by that?

First of all, it’s really fun. It’s really funny music. Like, the Incapacitants are probably one of the most famous noise groups, right? And they are actually quite moving and very intense performers. But they’re also very funny. Every time I show a video of Incapacitants at a conference or in a class, people will laugh because there’s something really funny about they way they move their bodies, and the intensity of their sound. And these guys are always cracking jokes. They’re quirky, mellow, laid-back people. Violent Onsen Geisha is very funny, and has done a few practical jokes on the media in Japan.

That’s not necessarily what I thought of when I went to Japan. I thought it was going to be very serious, very political... explicitly, overtly political. I thought it was going to be dark, and that there was going to be a lot of violence. But that’s not what I found at all. Sometimes I found people who were more like middle-aged parents than revolutionary punks.

But there’s a lot of diversity here. Merzbow is one of the more famous people, and he’s another sort of story, which represents a lot of the way that noise was understood in the United States. One thing people in Japan were afraid of – and this is one of the things that interested me and made me want to study it – was that people were misinterpreting what they were doing. There were people in America and in Japan who think noise should be part of an academic or sort of Art History-type movement. And the people who made it were usually saying, “No, this is just like a kind of rock music. If I’d had the money to buy a synthesizer in 1977, I would have bought one, but instead I got these guitar pedals and tried to make the most horrible racket I could.”

Guilty Connector – Japanoise 2012

You said that Merzbow was a different story. Why is he a different story?

For one, he lives in Tokyo while a lot of the other famous musicians came from Osaka. Also, he was really successful in reaching out of Japan to the rest of the world. He would perform in Japan, but he was interested in releasing as many records as he possibly could and on as many labels as possible.

He was also sort of exceptional for his intellectual, political, and personal agenda and his idiosyncratic interests. He was very interested in things that became strongly tied with Japanese noise in the American imagination like bondage sex and S&M. These are things that Merzbow had at the very least an intellectual interest in. He wrote the introduction of a photography book about it; he titled some of his music Music for Bondage Performance and he used pornography on his album covers.

He also did critical theory and cultural histories of sexual imagery, but this was only in Japanese, so his theoretical perspective was opaque to the American audience. Sometimes they only knew that noise was like, this crazy Japanese shit, and it came packaged in some kind of Japanese bondage images, and that reinforced a lot of stereotypes that “the Japanese are crazy.” There was a whole bunch of Orientalism tied up in that foreign vision of Japanese sexuality, which Merzbow kind of fell into for a while until it spun out of his control.

Americans are not always at fault for knowing very little about Japan per se; but the media they encounter shows them very schizophrenic visions of Japan.

Merzbow is actually a very sophisticated thinker about these issues, and his thinking has changed a lot – he now disavows his earlier work and regrets the way that his interviews in English were misinterpreted. Anyway, his sexual history is not something that I have knowledge about, but it doesn’t equate to the kinds of things that were happening in the American imagination. But because of these problems, I became interested in the disconnects between what Merzbow was doing and the ways that Japanese society and its presumed sexual mores were represented among his fans. For me, it was an opportunity to explore the transnational imaginary that was being built around this music.

There is this tendency in the West to attach really general expectations about the culture as a whole to any particular cultural form that comes out of Japan. A lot of it comes down to what Americans don’t know about Japan, and what they think they know about it. Americans are not always at fault for knowing very little about Japan per se; but the media they encounter shows them very schizophrenic visions of Japan, and they imagine the culture through these materials.

A lot of these impressions stem from the ’80s when noise was starting out, and the reactionary fear of Japanese economic power at that time. Some of the retaliation against that in the US characterized Japanese people as robotic or enslaved to a very powerful corporate society, as having no individualism. So if you’re interpreting something like noise through that lens, you might see it as some kind of involuntary social catharsis – someone who was a drone in the society exploding because they were subject to too much pressure or something like that. That’s a very attractive and powerful vision, especially for those invested in an anti-capitalism perspective, but you wouldn’t see its creators for what they are, as very idiosyncratic, creative, individuals who had developed their own styles as part of a global dialogue about experimental culture.

So even if there are some reasons why noise could be considered a Japanese product, there’s absolutely nothing natural to most Japanese people about noise. They would hear it and think it’s totally crazy that some Americans would consider it representative of Japanese society.

Nowadays, there are noise scenes in many places around the world. What are the differences you’ve seen between how it’s performed in America and Japan?

One thing is the sound. Japanese people don’t think it’s cool to not take a performance seriously. In America, you’ll see a gig in a warehouse, and there’s nobody there to make it sound good. Whereas in Japan, the promoters actually are trying, and putting their own meager financial resources on the line for the show. So the level of work in the Japanese scene tends to be higher – these clubs make sure that the performances are sounding their best.

Otomo Yoshihide / Ground Zero

You just recently spent some time with Otomo Yoshihide. Tell me a little bit about him. Where does he fall into all of this?

Otomo’s a really fascinating person. I’ve known him since 1998 when I went back to Japan to start my research; he invited me to play with him, and I watched his music develop over the last 15 years. He’s one of the people who really made inroads into the European and American improvisation music scenes by touring overseas. He had a successful group called Ground Zero, and he did a lot of important early work on guitar and turntables at a time when there were very few people experimenting with them.

He’s always changing. At the time I met him, he had a noise record out, and he was often described as a noise artist – but he’s a very sophisticated musician, which is a problem for noise. He’s just too good at his instruments; he’s a great jazz guitarist, and he composes music for film and TV... He did these very sophisticated, complicated, large ensemble groups and improvisation groups, and then he got involved with this thing called onkyo, which is a kind of electronic music that started around this tiny club called Off-Site based around quiet sounds. The international reaction to it was a lot like noise, where people imparted a Japanese aspect to it, like this was some sort of “Zen minimalism.”

I just came back from this festival he runs in Fukushima. There were tons and tons of volunteers making it happen, and they were working their asses off, and really bringing things to the public at large. Do you know about the Project Fukushima! festival?

No, can you tell me about it?

Otomo’s from Fukushima City. The tsunami and earthquake are a very big deal, of course, and it affects a lot of what’s happening in Japan right now. It’s kind of unavoidable... But because of his local connections, Otomo and another Fukushima exile named Michiro Endo, who was in a famous ’80s punk group called The Stalin, hooked up with a local poet, Wago Ryoichi, to start a festival in Fukushima.

Otomo’s been an avant-garde, on-the-fringes guy for a long time. Very successful at being on the fringes, but still, his music is hardly mainstream. He brought all these people to Fukushima at a time when it wasn’t necessarily considered safe to do that, and they had this big festival with thousands and thousands of people in 2011, then did it again in 2012 and 2013, and then just now again in August 2014.

Interestingly, Otomo became pretty famous in the last year. He wrote the theme song for a TV show called Amachan, which is about a young urchin diver girl in the rural coast of Japan, in the disaster region, who moves to the city to become an idol singer. He wrote this theme song for the show and you can sing it to anyone in Japan and they’ll start singing along. Everybody in Japan watches this show over their breakfast. It’s like a soap opera, with little daily episodes.

So when they did the festival in 2013, he and Michiro Endo wrote a Bon Odori song for dancing, and people get together and celebrate Fukushima. He really wanted to make Fukushima a positive word again and not have the place be equated with nuclear disaster forever, like Chernobyl. Almost all of his efforts now are about trying to rejuvenate and bring some positive energy to Fukushima. He’s also been doing a lot of work with kids. He does improvisation workshops with disabled people and groups who are displaced from the nuclear zone.

From what you can tell, were musicians politicized beforehand, or is this something that’s really been pushed by Fukushima?

I would say Fukushima has pushed everyone to think differently about Japan. So politics is a funny word. One of the things I try to push forward in my book is to question, “What are the politics of noise?” The answer to that, if you ask a noise musician, is going to be “It’s not political.” Because they think that what you’re asking is, “Are you writing songs like ‘No More War,’ or are you writing songs like ‘Stop Nuclear Power’?” Well, they’re not, and they never were.

It’s political just to describe the situation of people in Fukushima.

At the same time, there’s an aspect to their kind of cultural work that’s very political, and so I talk about their resistance to technoculture, which is a pretty radical thing to do in Japan, in a country that has very strong societal associations with technological progress. And then there are the sort of anti-capitalist aspects of circulating a noise record as a commodity. So I talk about those kinds of politics that emerge from a counter-cultural art scene, which are not explicitly political but have a kind of political resonance.

Actually, direct politics are very submerged in Japan right now. But it’s political just to describe the situation of people in Fukushima. It’s political just to bring people to this place. I mean, the media blackout is pretty extreme. There were massive protests of hundreds of thousands of people, and they will barely report it in the news. There’s a lot of public resistance to nuclear power now after Fukushima, so in some ways, they’re not political radicals just for being anti-nuclear. They just represent the public, who mostly support a nuclear phaseout, but don’t know how to get into dialogue with government and corporate energy policy, so they can only show how they are being hurt by what’s going on.

I’m curious as to what artist or what event happened where noise just “clicked” for you?

I don’t know if there was a single moment. It was the work of a very long time. One of the things that made noise rich for me was that it was like a continual unfolding and recirculation, like a feedback loop that didn’t have a single point of origin. It keeps clicking after more than 20 years of doing this research and being involved with noise in various capacities, and just watching it circulate from lots of different angles. It’s multi-dimensional and there are many perspectives on it. Nowadays I think what’s so amazing about it is that, against all odds, this thing is still going. It’s been how many years now – 30? – and still this tiny little subculture reproduces itself as a global form. It’s like what Burroughs said about language... it’s a virus, something that continues to evolve and spread and transform itself and inhabit the people it touches in its travels.

On a different note