Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bloody Ears 'n' Beer with Zothique

The Tokyo band Zothique was first described to me as “psychedelic/sludge/doom/noise nightmare music”, which gave me pause since I was asked to interview them and could not for the life of me imagine what kind of sounds those words described. The first three descriptors I could maybe manage, but given my ignorance of and distaste for noise music in general, I accepted the assignment with reservations.

I was told to bone up on their two albums, 2013’s Alkaloid Superstar and the self-titled Zothique, released this year. “Listen to it immediately,” I was told. “I’ll listen to it tomorrow,” I promised.

Three weeks later I finally got around to visiting their bandcamp page and listening to their self-titled sophomore album Zothique. By then I had already been introduced to their vocalist Shusuke outside Ruby Room, where we had both just finished listening to a killer set by our mutual friends in one of my favorite Tokyo bands, GUEVNNA. Despite the relative length of the conversation that night, by the next day I realized that I had formed only the singular opinion that Shusuke had an appreciation for denim that I respected, which was hardly enough to go on for an interview. It was time to actually give the album a listen. I swept denim out of my mind and cued up Zothique’s first track, “In the Shadow of Linxia”.

The name “Linxia” sparked my curiosity so I looked it up. I half expected it to be a city from a fantasy novel, but Linxia is indeed a real place -- it’s a semi-autonomous area in China famous for being the center of Islam in all of Asia for the last three or four centuries, so much so that it’s occasionally named as “Chinese Mecca”. It was such an obscure reference that I wondered if one or more members of the band were muslim, which just goes to show that I was still drunk from the night before. Still, how had they heard of the place?

On bright Sunday morning not long ago over a charming picnic of fried chicken and beer held outside Nakameguro Station, under the critical eye of passing Tokyoites wondering why the gang of dirtbags chugging beer and licking chicken grease off their fingers had chosen their station to sit in front of and waste their lives, Shusuke revealed that they hadn’t just heard of it of Linxia -- he actually lived in the area for a bit while working on a cabbage farm. He said this casually, as if spending a season working a cabbage farm in muslim China was something a lot of people do, this being just one example of a dozen he could name. I was suitably impressed.

The first half-minute of “In the Shadow of Linxia” is a recording of street noises Shusuke brought back from his time on the mainland, a mix of horns honking, speakers blaring, and presumably muslim Chinese people calling to one another across a busy street. It provides a nice counter-weight to the intro of the song, which, already heavy and oozing, is given more depth by the oscillating wail of some electronic device I cannot name. The buildup is appropriately foreboding, but my favorite part of “In the Shadow of Linxia” is the last third or so, a faster psychedelic guitar-based movement still augmented by the oscillating screech. While I’m no fan of noise music, Zothique uses it well and has a very well balanced sound capable of a wide range of movement: it can creep and ooze, crash and scream, wail and growl, occasionally all at the same time. The guitar part reminds me a lot of some of Hendrix’s later tracks, and I could swear that I hear something from the 90’s there, and in fact in my notes I’ve got “90’s influence?” written in a margin with the question mark underlined. I asked Shusuke about a possible 90’s influence, nervous at first that he would look at me like was an idiot, but he did admit to having his early taste in music shaped by the 90’s with bands like Sonic Youth and The Pixies.

Also scribbled in my pre-interview notes is the question “who is Darklaw?” written a number of times. Darklaw is actually Kenji Kuroda, who handles the synth and a lot of the noise aspect of Zothique while at the same time performing with three or four other bands around town. He speaks English without an accent, having grown up on the west coast of the US. The band was getting photographed that morning so we all decided to make a day of it and get more beers for the shoot. The members of Zothique seemed eager to drink cold beers on a brisk Sunday at eleven am, so we grabbed a six pack from 7-11 and went down the street to hunt for a better location.

Darklaw -- Kenji, rather -- speaks English without an accent, having grown up on the west coast of the US, and I asked him about the significant differences between Zothique and their first album Alkaloid Superstar. Superstar has much more of a hardcore feel to it, which makes sense given that Zothique had just been formed from the remains of Shusuke and Koji’s previous band Holy & Blight, which they described as hardcore with noise elements (interesting side note: Shusuke and Koji met at Kabukicho hole-in-the-wall Mother, which is just small enough to feel private and takes requests for the music constantly playing at volumes too loud to allow conversation. I enjoy this bar, and if you ever see me there don’t talk to me). Kenji hooked up with Shusuke and Koji while they were just a two-piece group, formed after Holy & Blight’s bassist, who was actually the woman tending the bar at Mother the night Shusuke and Koji met, left the band due to a case of pregnancy.

Kenji, Shusuke and Koji all frequently attended an underground extreme music event in Koenji (“Kozomo”) and knew each other casually, so it wasn’t completely out of the blue that the remains of Holy & Blight approached Darklaw. When I asked Shusuke and Koji why they had originally decided to ask Kenji about a possible collaboration they laughed and replied “Our sampler broke one night and we needed a live noise-maker.” They had seen his solo performance and asked him to sit in on their set and improvise, asking him soon afterwards to join full time (he still does his solo stuff, of course, with shows on the 6th and 13th of December at Golden Egg Shinjuku, and on the 20th in Nakano at Club Heavysick).

Rounding out the band is bassist Jah Excretion, himself a noise musician of some repute playing at events big and small like Ochiai Soup, Roppongi Super Deluxe, Egota Flying Teapot, etc. Knowing Jah had once played bass in a hardcore band, Shusuke must have figured he’d be a solid addition to the rhythm section. There’s obviously a lot of noise experience in Zothique. A lot of extreme music
experience in general, actually, and it shows. They have a solid range and an eclectic but confident repertoire. Their sound turned out to be exactly as described: psychedelic/sludge/doom/noise. It’s nightmare music, the kind that you can’t forget, but it’s also the kind that a certain kind of person will keep coming back for again and again.


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