Hegel, Godzilla & YBO2 Tokyo ? Despite his limited foreign-language skills, Japanese independent-rock linchpin Masashi Kitamura does not need a translator. "Put my ideas into proper form as best you can," he says, or anyway that's what I extract from his splendidly bizarre English, which pairs a scholarly vocabulary and sense of comprehension with skewed grammar and sentence structures. "You cannot misunderstand me," he continues, "because my views are open to interpretation. It's impossible to translate perfectly between two different languages. Something interesting may come from your supposed mistakes."
"I am looking up to Korean culture," he says, grinning. You don't hear that very often in notoriously nationalistic Japan. Nor do you see many 43-year-olds who sport mussed, shoulder-length hair and ratty Dallas Cowboys jackets.
"My words do not matter anyhow," he continues, returning to the issue of the kinks in his English. "I agree with Dr. William Burroughs that normative languages are the living dead, like zombies. We have to give them a cut-up operation to make them alive again."
True to this poststructuralism, Kitamura has reassembled and revived YBO2 (pronounced ee-boh ee-boh). A reckless, neo-progressive, psychedelic power trio, YBO2's predominantly self-released canon remains unavailable in the U.S.; their original LPs fetch up to $80 at collector record fairs, and their posthumous CD anthologies, Greatest Hits Volume 1 (SSE, 1992) and Volume 2 (1994), cost only a bit less. But given the American success of numerous offshoot bands, YBO2 have achieved mythical status among those who have been following the louder, weirder factions of the Far Eastern underground.
When the group went on indefinite hiatus in 1990, its personnel followed in the footsteps of the Boredoms and Shonen Knife and seduced the American indie scene. Drummer Tatsuya Yoshida masterminds the hypercomplex duo Ruins, who originally featured another YBO2 alumnus, guitarist-bassist Hideki Kawamoto. Original YBO2 guitarist Michio Kurihara abused his wah-wah in the esteemed White Heaven; he currently participates in Ghost. The best-known YBO2 slasher, however, is Kazuyuki "K.K. Null" Kishino, who has bashed out a host of crude avant-metal and ambient works both on his own and with the recently defunct Zeni Geva.
Meanwhile, bassist/keyboardist Kitamura began in 1979 editing Fool's Mate, a tiny rock magazine that would develop into one of Japan's slickest. In '85, he left that to concentrate on running Trans Records, the independent label that issued the first Boredoms EP. The company's output sold well for non-major label product. A YBO2 title could sell 10,000 copies during what Kitamura refers to as Japan's "indies boom" of the 80s, a time when monolithic entertainment corporations attempted to wine, dine and sign anything vaguely identifiable as postpunk. In the decade's final years, he also led a side project called Canis Lupus.
At the start of the 90s Kitamura founded SSE Communications, his still-extant label and distribution house, which has released more than 80 CDs, among them reissued portions of Trans' catalog. His primary musical outlet became the relatively tuneful, if wildly inconsistent, Différence (sic, as in Vive la...), in which he plays guitar and dabbles in skewed singer/songwriter pop, overamped psych and subtle, electric Asian-Celtic exotica. But while his ex-bandmates were signing to U.S. labels like Drag City, Shimmy Disc, Alternative Tentacles, Tzadik and Skin Graft, Kitamura couldn't rationalize promoting his work abroad.
"In the 80s and 90s, I was not interested in reaching an international audience like Null or Yoshida," he recalls. "Subterranean [Records] and Forced Exposure wrote to YBO2. Jello Biafra's Alternative Tentacles seemed very interested in working with us, but the band had stopped functioning by then, and my views about the evolution of Japanese music were too optimistic."
Kitamura has since rethought his isolationist policy. "I want to create intelligent rock that can be identified as 'Asian,' without seeming conceptual or unnatural. I've realized that Americans can identify with what I'm doing. They live in such a fusion culture?they're Europeans, whose music clashed with Africa to create a new identity, which is now the new tradition. I want to turn that into something relevant to Japan."
YBO2's reformation is likely to renew interest in the band, whose live spectacles often included alien outfits, elaborate makeup and blood-smeared Disney toys The name YBO2 itself caused some stir. It's derived from a comic book character, but it also stands for Yhwh Black Omen II and, most notably, Yellow Biomechanik Orchestra2. The latter signifies the antithesis of Ryuichi Sakamoto's hugely popular 80s new-wave act, Yellow Magic Orchestra.
"Now YBO2 and Différence are called 'alternative' rock, but I cannot accept this term, because it has gotten away from its original meaning," Kitamura tells me. "It implies some kind of falseness. My music, like any good music, is just human. Music must belong to nature. Whether we like it or not, every good musician pursues a real, not altered, 'nativity.' Perhaps it's better to call it 'sur-native' or 'ultra-native.' 'Alternative' sounds like some kind of make-believe."
Last week, when YBO2 performed at Tokyo's La Mama, fans didn't see the band's best-known lineup, but the obscure and unrecorded first incarnation of the group. "In October of 1999, when Différence played at a Tokyo independent rock festival, I ran into many old friends, including YBO2's original drummer, [Yoshiki] Uenoyama. We discussed playing live with the first guitarist, Kurihara. Most people know Yoshida as the YBO2 drummer, so we're stubbornly referring to this as the 'earliest and original YBO2.' It should be an interesting historical digest." Kitamura, Uenoyama and Kurihara formed YBO2 16 years ago; they haven't played together since the rhythm section's 1985 resignation.
"We all liked 60s and 70s rock and punk, but I also liked house music and Einsturzende Neubauten. They wanted to play straighter. I put together a new lineup with Null and Hasegawa. I borrowed two metal percussionists from [the band] Zeitlich Vergelter, who recorded for Trans. In the 90s, one of them, Chu Ishikawa, did the soundtracks to the cult film series Tetsuo the Iron Man. This lineup played three or four gigs of our most noisy, deconstructed junkyard music. Null didn't know any chords?he couldn't even tune properly."
In early 1986, Trans released Dogla Magla, YBO2's debut 45, followed by Alienation, a bleak, violent concept album about war and insanity, and the similar Taiyo No Ouji EP. Null's grinding, deviant guitar collides with Yoshida's technical savvy and Kitamura's collagist songwriting, which borrows lyrics from sources as varied as horror novelist Kyusaku Yumeno, Steppenwolf and various Anglo-Celtic traditionals. Alienation's centerpiece is "Amerika," a crawling, 12-minute demolition of "Scarborough Fair," Melanie Safka's "Beautiful People" and the Mouseketeers' theme. Kitamura's anguished howl fully deconstructs Western pop culture, paying grim homage to it while shredding it to ribbons.
"It's rumored that Alienation shocked Sonic Youth and Steve Albini," he claims.
And yet, surprisingly sentimental Oriental melodies carry other songs. "When I was a child," Kitamura explains, "the most exciting music for me was Akira Ifukube, a famous classical composer who wrote the original Godzilla movie soundtracks, and music for monster, war and samurai movies, probably some of Kurosawa's films. He was a friend of Stravinsky's. They were both influenced by primitive and ethnic music. Ifukube's compositions used irregular rhythms and Asian harmonies, learned from Shinto ceremonies, gagaku and ancient Japanese traditions. I believe he is a monster, just like Godzilla, YBO2 and the kamikaze warriors. Something in his music comes from the ancient Japanese monster gods, who are still very mysterious to us. Good music requires a timeless and ancient intensity, which, in modern society, is often viewed as crazy."
YBO2's transitional second album, the disorienting, slightly goth-damaged Kingdom of Familydream, expounds on the subject of Tokyo Disneyland, which Kitamura views as the ultimate symbol of the Americanization of his homeland. By 1987, YBO2 grew increasingly unpredictable, mixing dissonance with tricks learned from 70s art heroes like King Crimson, Hawkwind and Magma. Combined with Kitamura's increasing fondness for global folk music, these influences spawned the landmark 1988 double LP, Pale Skin, Pale Face. By '89 YBO2's popularity had skyrocketed; they recorded the mixed-bag Starship for the Japanese major label Victor.
"Starship was the name of the studio Victor put us in. I read a Sonic Youth interview where they disparaged Swans, comparing their old records to their major-label stuff. They likened the change to Jefferson Airplane turning into Starship. It was a well-turned phrase." The album was marred by synth overdubs and tinkering from what Kitamura calls "quite fuck-headed studio operators," and predictably the group fell apart.
Now YBO2 rises again. In addition to Tokyo, they've got tentative dates in Osaka and Kyoto. When the band enters the studio, they will?of course?mutate yet again. Kitamura doesn't plan to record with Kurihara and Uenoyama. "My main undertaking for 2000 will be a YBO2 studio album, Hegel's Last Stand. I hope to do it with Null and Yoshida, the most spontaneous people I've ever played with. They push the music forward because they have such different, customized musical vocabularies... The title is a play on Led Zeppelin's 'Achilles Last Stand.' Hegel is the semiotic symbol of the 20th century?the modern and logical world, dialectical materialism, reason, language and an ultimate reality. Rationality. He was born the same year as Beethoven. In Japan, people go to concerts of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony every Dec. 31. This is a strange and symbolic phenomenon for me.
"The record will have the same lineup as Alienation, only updated for the present," he continues. "Michel Foucault used the term 'alienation' as a key word in Histoire de la Folie, where he noted that all antilogical things?monsters, life from outer space, madness?are considered 'alien' in Western society. But until the 16th century or later, Western society simply ignored these things. In ancient times, they were not considered 'others' that needed to be eliminated. The term 'alien,' Foucault says, was invented to control the substances and properties of ancient gods and monsters?Godzillas, schizophrenia and lunacy. These were objects of worship in ancient times, just like the images of Satan and demons, whose iconography is derived from the pre-Christian monster gods of the Indo-Europeans. The power of music exists within these things, within insanity, which was equated with religious ability in the ancient age. Hegel is about everything that is not considered insane."
Smiling, Kitamura puts down his drink to emphasize his ultimate goal. "Hegel, the father of dialectical materialism, was living in the world of logos made by the God of Christianity. He believed in categories?good and evil, God and Satan, men and women plus minors, sane and insane. I want to reanimate the dead beings and forces of Western society?things that were viewed as wicked, evil and impossible to represent by Western logical thinking and its common languages. Hegel symbolizes the inner conflicts we have when we play music. He makes our logic and judgments constrict our artistic behavior. Uptight John Cage was the ultimate musician to follow this logic. I love him, but he appeals to the limits of 20th-century logic and academic musical composition. I see him as an example of how not to behave. Musically, I want to call for the deconstruction of all conceptual thinking about music between Beethoven and Cage. We live in the postrock era, and rock must evolve. If you apply the deconstruction of logic to rock, you'll end up with something greater. The intensity of it will come from the ancient past, but the end result will be thoroughly relevant to the future."
Contact Masashi Kitamura at www2.gol.com/users/sseinfo/