Interview: Masaya Nakahara

The artist sometimes known as Violent Onsen Geisha and Hair Stylistics talks about his (lack of) music gear, writing novels, and experiencing the emptiness and absurdity of life.

Yusaku Aoki

Masaya Nakahara started releasing records as Violent Onsen Geisha in the late '80s, and as noise music became a huge musical export from Japan, he started to become well known internationally from the '90s. Luminaries such as Sonic Youth and Beck even showed interest in him, and after embarking on a US tour in 1995, he started performing abroad regularly. However, the label of a “noise music artist” is only one side of his multifaceted career. In the late 90’s, he became well known as a novelist as well as film critic. But that’s not all. As he continued creating music as Violent Onsen Geisha and later as Hair Stylistics, I saw him being influenced by a multitude of genres during the 80’s and 90’s and evolve musically. That era was a golden age for music and culture in Japan, and was also the era of the bubble economy. This interview is a journey into Nakahara’s personal history, as well as the history of left field music and culture in Tokyo.

Nakahara was born and raised in a wealthy district of Tokyo called Aoyama. The apartment that he and his family lived in was close to Roppongi, where a huge record store called WAVE opened in 1983. Roppongi WAVE played a central role in the music and culture of Japan in the 80’s to the 90’s, and the whole building was like a massive musical library. WAVE stocked the latest 12 inches alongside records by 20th century contemporary composers and rare world music records. They even had a vast selection of art books. The Cine Vivant Roppongi movie theater was located below the building, and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Passion” was the first film to be shown at the grand opening. Ropppongi WAVE was an irresistible sanctuary for those of us who were involved in music and culture in Tokyo in the 80’s. My conversation with Nakahara started from this topic.

Violent Onsen Geisha - Otis

How old were you when Roppongi WAVE opened?

I was in junior high, and I remember that the store had so many different kinds of records. Now that I think about it, there were so many records there that I wished I would have bought. But my family wasn’t experiencing the benefits of the bubble economy of Japan back then. That created a huge dilemma for me. We lived in Aoayama, but my family was going in the opposite direction. Our family was poor and down and out. That dichotomy was mentally unbearable for me. But looking back on it, that experience is what made me who I am now.

But your friends had the money to buy records?

None of my friends were interested in that kind of stuff. Nowadays there are people who live in the countryside, but they know about this kind of music.

For someone who has no musical talent like me, the only thing that I could naturally create was noise.

You started buying equipment and making music back then?

This might sound childish, but I had lots of relatives. But my parents wouldn’t give me an allowance, and my relatives barely gave me otoshidama [translator’s note: “otoshidama” is a traditional gift of money that relatives give to younger children on New Year’s Day]. They only gave me 1,000 yen [translator’s note: approximately 10 dollars] every year. That continued for years, and I found out later that my parents were hiding money from me. So I got in a fight with them, took the money that they were hiding and bought some music gear.

I bought a multitrack recorder and some effects. That’s when it all started. But I couldn’t make any music with the gear. I bought a cheap guitar and sampler, but I couldn’t make any music out of that. You need real talent to make music. I still don’t know how to make music, but for someone who has no musical talent like me, the only thing that I could naturally create was noise.

You were listening to hip hop at the same time you were listening to noise?

I liked the music coming out of the UK more than hip hop back then. Stuff like Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Art of Noise, and a little later songs like “Pump Up the Volume.”

So you were listening to big beat music?

Yeah, that kind of music. Roppongi was close by, so I would go not only to WAVE but to a record store called Winners. They had lots of obscure 12-inches there. I found stuff like “Rappin’ Duke” there. Winners went out of business, but when they would have sales, I would find a lot of unexpected records like stuff from the Pop Group.

Yes, I remember that store selling post-punk and industrial records.

I would also go dig for records at Disc Port which was inside the Seibu Department store. I also found good records at Janice. I found good noise records at Disc Union inside Harajuku Lafore, the Cisco record store in Shinjuku Alta, and CSV in Shibuya. When I’d go to CSV, they would have lots of noise records out on display.

CSV was unbelievable. They had a big store on Koen-Dori in Shibuya.

Next door to CSV was Hunter Records. So I could find all kinds of weird records by digging at these spots.

Violent Onsen Geisha - Milkcow Blues

Along with WAVE, CD stores such as Tower and HMV, as well as the countless tiny record stores in the Udagawa-cho district of Shibuya formed a musical microcosmos which gave birth to the term “Shibuya-kei.” “Shibuya-kei” (Shibuya style) was an important keyword in the popular music culture of Japan in the ’90s. Nakahara’s Violent Onsen Geisha was described as “Death Shibuya-kei,” because the album Que Sera, Sera (Things Go From Bad To Worse) released on the Toshiba sub-label Rail Recordings in 1995 featured iconic Shibuya-kei artists such as Keigo Oyamada of Flipper’s Guitar/Cornelius. Nakahara, in turn, remixed artists such as Cornelius and Scha Dara Parr, establishing him as a noise artist in a unique position. The fact that he was digging at these record stores allowed him to share the “Shibuya-kei” moniker to some extent.

When did you release your first record?

It was probably the late ’80s.

Did anything change for you after you released your record?

The big change happened when Sonic Youth listened to my record. When they came to Japan, I was helping out at the show as a part time worker, but the next day I was opening up for them.

It was that quick?

Yeah, it was strange.

Back then in the early ’90s, you didn’t own tons of synthesizers?

I had hardly any gear. I would borrow gear from people, but I could never figure out how to use it. I did buy a drum machine, but I got bored of it because I didn’t know how to use it.

I hate the idea of the “talented artist” that does everything.

When did you start buying more equipment?

After I released records on a major label and had money to spend. Back then, record labels still gave artists a production budget. I did crazy things with my budget like buying an EMS synthesizer. I also bought an MPC3000 and SP1200 back then. I had this German rock kind of notion back then that music wasn’t about creativity, it was about how much gear you had. I hope I don’t sound like I am making fun of German rock. But I had a sort of romanticized vision of all this equipment lined up at your disposal. Now I don’t care about gear because it just takes up too much space.

Though it might take up a lot of space, the equipment you used was also a big part of Violent Onsen Geisha and Hair Stylistic’s sound. Your fetishism of sound seemed to be more important than the ideas or concepts behind the music.

Yeah, that’s true. Back then I wasn’t conscious about it, but I didn’t like portraying the image that I was the one who was making the music. I liked the image of the machine making all the sounds. I hate the idea of the “talented artist” that does everything. I like listening to regular music, but I have no interest in coming up with melodies or arranging songs in a traditional way. It’s boring for me. That’s probably why I was drawn to hip hop. In hip hop it was clear what gear they used, like the TR-808.

You were drawn to the idea that all the sounds were coming out of one machine in hip hop?

When I realized that all the sounds in a song were coming from one machine, it was really fascinating to me.

Clockwise from top left: Vanilla Records / Boid / Rail Recordings / Hair Stylistics

The Violent Onsen Geisha remix of Scha Dara Parr’s “0718 Anisolo” was a humorous track based on loops and collages, with an old school hip hop flavor reminiscent of Schooly D. From that point forward, the music of Violent Onsen Geisha and Hair Stylistics became a place where noise music and DJ culture co-existed in a peculiar symbiotic relationship, where tracks would often feature obtuse breakbeats and anemic four-to-the-floor rhythms.

How did you learn about beat production?

In my 20’s I bought a drum machine and learned the basics of programming. I bought an MPC after that, and since I knew the basics of making a beat, I just expanded from there. Everything I do is an expansion from what I learned before.

So you weren’t just making noise music.

I always disliked the image of people making “funky” music. I’ve always hated it when people said to me, “You were probably influenced by this artist right?” So I’ve always wanted my music to sound like you don’t know where it’s coming from.

But as a music listener, you listen to a wide array of music.

I’m kind of ashamed of being a person that’s listened to so much music. Even though I’m an avid listener of all kinds of music, I’m not an authority of any genre, and I am not part of any scene, so I don’t feel like I’m entitled to talk about any of those genres.

So the more you know, the harder it is to talk about music.

That’s right. The more I listen to music, the harder it is to act like I know anything. If I focused on one artist and only listened to that artist, maybe I would have something to talk about.

So you would have to become an expert of a certain genre.

But that’s boring, and the more you talk about music, the more superficial you start sounding. I think it’s more important to forget what you’ve listened to, or to not listen to a certain kind of music altogether. So you can listen to all kinds of music, but it’s good to forget it all.

How about your own music?

Even I get moments of thinking that the music I made is great. But I forget that feeling pretty quickly.

Your recent Hair Stylistics album Dynamic Hate is a beat album, but before you made the album, you said that you were a little embarrassed about making straight beats.

Ultimately I was able to make the record. I found out that I could make beats, but there is something embarrassing about it.

Is there something that changed, that made you want to make the record?

I wonder what it was. I really don’t know. It might be that the vibe in clubs have changed, and I felt that maybe the kind of music I make, could also be played in clubs nowadays.

I’ve always wanted my music to sound like you don’t know where it’s coming from.

You realized that because you play all kinds of genres when you DJ?

No, when I DJ it’s just whatever, but for example, the Thai funk that Maft Sai plays, would have sounded uncool a few years ago, but now it sounds really cool. Maybe it sounds good because it’s been remastered for clubs. Yann Tomita always said you can play any kind of music you want when you DJ, but now I’m at the point where I feel like I can REALLY play anything I want.

So playing whatever you want isn’t just a slogan, it’s a reality.

You could say that. In the past, if I intentionally played a crappy song during a DJ set, then the crowd would get mad. But now you can do that and it’s normal. I didn’t believe it for a while, but clubs are really becoming more free than before.

It also might have to do with the fact that there’s a lot more smaller clubs where you can DJ.

Yeah, that’s true. Bonobo is close to my house, and when I go hang out there, the DJs really play anything they want. Before, there weren’t that many clubs that really felt underground. Clubs used to be part of the commercial entertainment industry, but now people do whatever they want, and I can really see that happening.

So that also affected your music production?

Yes, it might be reflected in my music.

At the height of his music career as Violent Onsen Geisha in 1998, Nakahara published Mari & Fifi No Gyakusatsu Songu Bukku (Mari & Fifi’s Massacre Songbook) and made his debut as a novelist. In 2001, he received the 14th Yukio Mishima Award for “Arayuru Basho Ni Hanataba Ga” (Bouquets of Flowers Everywhere), and became increasingly active as a writer and movie critic. Though I have known him for a long time, I’ve never asked Nakahara why he started writing novels. He has been known as a noise artist as well as a sampling and collage artist for many years, but it seemed as if he made his debut into the literary world out of nowhere. At a time when the golden age of Japanese music was nearing its end in the ’90s (it was at least becoming apparent in the music scene), and some music industry people were still trying to cling on, Nakahara must have calmly assessed the situation, and prepared for his next form of creative output. Obviously he isn’t the type of person to make highly calculated moves, but he was following his gut instinct.

What made you want to start writing novels?

At first, I thought it would be easy to do.

You were already writing film reviews, so it was an extension of that?

Yeah. My film reviews were more impressionistic, and I wasn’t following the normal guidelines for writing them. But the times changed, and the magazines wanted more standard critiques, and asked for accurate data in the articles, which was something I didn’t want to do. I thought that if I write a novel, I could write whatever the hell I want, which is why I started writing them. But later on I found out that it wasn’t going to be that easy.

My belief is that you have to transcend loving or hating something when you do it.

Writing film reviews is similar to music reviews.

Yeah, it’s the same thing. Whenever I write reviews, I always stray as far away as possible from the actual subject I’m writing about. I’m the kind of person that’s not going to make music that’s going to be loved by the masses, or be played in big clubs. Similarly with writing reviews, I also wanted to take an underground approach.

I heard you saying in the past that you hated writing, but you had fun making music.

That’s true. But recently it’s been the opposite.

You like writing better?

I wouldn’t say that I like it better, but I need to transcend the feeling of hating writing, in order to continue. I can’t be caught up in whether I like or dislike doing something. It’s actually more important to do something because you hate doing it.

So you’re not always making music just because you like it.

Other people probably do something because they enjoy it. But I don’t think it’s important whether you enjoy what you’re doing.

That sensibility seems to be a motivating force in your art.

Yes, it’s a difficult relationship. Life’s not about always doing what you want. My belief is that you have to transcend loving or hating something when you do it. But the world believes in the exact opposite.

The world thinks that you should do something because you love it.

That might have always been the norm, but when people do that, they force other people to like what they do.

If somebody talks about doing something that they really love, then they can just do it as a hobby.

That’s true. If you really love what you do, then you should be able to do it without getting paid. For me it’s unbearable to watch people like that.

In society, the norm is for someone to have a day job, but their hobby is where their true passion is.

Some people put all their energy and money into their hobby, but that form of self-expression doesn’t really stem from your lifestyle. Some people might say that my way of thinking is old school, but it’s a little sad to me.

YMO - Rydeen (Budokan 1980)

Japanese pop music and YMO unmistakably formed the music culture of the ’80s. The technically proficient producers and engineers who knew about underground music entered the pop scene, and created pop music before modern day J-POP was even around. At the same time, the melodies from YMO’s “Rydeen” could heard on the streets of Tokyo everyday. Nakahara lived through those times, but wasn’t influenced by that scene of music. There are actually many musicians who felt alienated by ’80s music culture in Japan. When the foreign media talks about Japanese pop culture, they always lump together YMO, Japanese pop, anime, and manga as a major influence, but there are definitely artists who were walking along a different path. That is true not only of noise musicians such as Violent Onsen Geisha, but also early Japanese techno (not techno pop), and hip hop artists.

Do you know any of the younger writers in the literary world?

A little bit, but I don’t fit in with them. I might be biased, but I have a better connection with musicians.

There aren’t any young writers that you can connect with?

No. The fact that you want to be a novelist is already uncool to me. Other novelists read a lot of books, and they’re probably really intelligent people, but I don’t have anything in common with them. I have a feeling they like reading manga more than watching films or listening to music. I don’t look down upon manga, but I have a hard time understanding people who come from that background.

That’s probably the same for people from other countries. A lot of people say they’re influenced by manga and anime.

I have a hard time relating to that. I’m not making fun of manga, but it’s not my background. But I actually started studying manga and anime to know more about that world. I do know that Japan has a world class level of anime.

I wonder if it’s a generational thing whether or not you’ve been influenced by manga?

I don’t think it’s a generational thing. My older sister was into manga so I read most of them, but I didn’t like them or get into them. I always felt like all the manga that were really popular had traditional Japanese values, or a jock mentality, or an indigenous element embedded into them. And I actually don’t have much fondness for anything from the ’80s.

Do you mean ’80s music?

I meant all ’80s Japanese culture. That whole era is missing from me. My biggest problem is that I never liked YMO. If I say this, it might cause problems. Of course I did listen to all that kind of music as it was coming out.

YMO’s music was on television and it was even played in schools, so everyone heard it.

Yeah. I got interested in other kinds of music at that time. I didn’t have much of a fondness for Kraftwerk, but I really liked Devo. This might be difficult for foreigners to understand. When my novel was written up in an American literary magazine…

Your book was translated into English?

My book was translated once into English, but in the US, someone wrote that my novel was influenced by manga culture, which made me furious.

That’s how they perceived your book?

I really hated that, and after that I refused any offers for my books to be translated into English. I had offers from other countries, but I refused them all.

It’s offensive when people think that everyone who grew up in Japan in the ’80s was influenced by manga and anime.

Yeah, I hate when people do that. I guess people don’t understand that there were people that weren’t influenced by that stuff.

You can’t make generalized statements about ’80s Tokyo culture, which is probably true about today’s Tokyo culture right?

Yeah. I don’t have any connections to younger people who were born and raised in Tokyo, but I hope they experience the emptiness and the absurdity of life. I hope I don’t sound condescending, but if you don’t understand that, then it’s going to be hard to live in this crazy world. I’m serious. You have to figure that out as early as you can.

You need to understand that to avoid mental damage, and people might see right through you too.

Yeah that’s right. These days there’s no romanticism in anything. I wish there was more of that.

There is something romantic about the fact that you’re making music though.

I hope so.

The fact that someone like you is still making music is hopeful.

I sure hope so.

Translated by Hashim Bharoocha

By Masaaki Hara on October 14, 2014

On a different note