Having a session with Yoshimi of OOIOO

As a member of Boredoms alongside Eye and founder of OOIOO, Yoshimi has solidified her legacy in experimental music—of that we are certain. In 1997, OOIOO transformed from “fake band for a photo shoot” to an experimental entity that would go on to open for Sonic Youth later that year. A revolving cast has contributed over six albums that have come via labels like Kill Rock Stars, Shock City, Ape Sounds, and Thrill Jockey. This month OOIOO released its seventh album, Gamel, which envisions the group as a super tribe, improvising to the ancient orchestration of the gamelan.

The title is Indonesian for “have a session,” which is how OOIOO approached the recording session, electing to perform each track in one take. The result is a faithfulness to the improvisational spirit that has been representative of OOIOO’s live set. In the following interview, Yoshimi explains OOIOO’s absorption of the gamelan into its sound, the recording of Gamel, and shares her experiences with the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan as a resident of Nara.

[Ed’s Note: the following interview was conducted by Hashim Baroocha, who acted as interviewer and translator for Yoshimi.]

How did you become aware of the gamelan? And what made you want to incorporate it into your music? How did you decide to work with Kohey-Sai and Hama, the gamelan players on Gamel?

Kohey-Sai and Hama who are playing the gamelan on this record, have actually been part of our touring band from about two years ago. So recording with them was just an extension of that. It’s not like we suddenly decided to incorporate the gamelan. We were already incorporating the gamelan into our live shows to perform our older songs. We had been rehearsing with them a lot. So we have a conventional rock ensemble, but we just added gamelan to that.

So you already had a relationship with Kohey-Sai and Hama by performing with them on tour?

Yeah, after playing with them for about two years on tour, we decided to get in the studio and make an album that was recorded live in one take.

You recorded each song in one take?

Yes almost all the songs were recorded in one take. After we recorded the songs together as a band, we had the gamelan players add more layers of gamelan on top of that.

If you were to make a distinction between folk music and art music what would that be?

I haven’t thought about it in that way at all. The reason why I wanted to use the gamelan is because it’s a percussion instrument that you hit, but it is also a melodic instrument at the same time. On a drum kit, you can change the tuning of the drums, but with the gamelan, you hit the instrument and it resonates harmonic overtones, and you can play melodies on it. That’s why I wanted to incorporate the gamelan. In OOIOO, the rhythms we play give you a feeling of swaying from side to side, as if you’re seasick [laughs]. So I wanted the gamelan to be like the vertical thread in a tapestry, which would create the foundation. When I improvised with the two gamelan players, I thought they would be a great match with OOIOO. If the rhythms of OOIOO are the horizontal thread in a tapestry, then the Gamelan is like the vertical thread. I didn’t want them to take the role of playing the lower frequencies, and instead I wanted them to play the sparkling melodies in the higher frequencies. So I took a really “new wave” approach to the gamelan. The rhythms of the gamelan have a real punkish vibe to them, and I was really drawn to that aspect. It just happens to be a folk instrument [laughs].

OOIOO seems to blur the lines between art music, folk music, pop music and rock music. Are you conscious of that?

The way I see it is that traditional folk music is made on traditional instruments, which are made by local artisans of that country, and then they are played by expert musicians. It’s music that is dedicated to God. There is music that might take the form of art, or it can also be ceremonial. If you start off with the intention of making art music, it could end up becoming similar to traditional folk music, if the intention behind it is the same. So all of these forms of music are connected somehow… how should I say it… it just depends on the intention that the musician has.

If we are blurring the lines between these forms of music that’s great, but we weren’t conscious of trying to do that. If somebody sees that in our music,we will be like “oh that’s nice.” I was thinking more along the lines of using a traditional instrument like the gamelan because “I want those shiny sounds in the upper frequencies,” or “I want those sounds that can be the vertical thread in our music.” I didn’t use the gamelan just for the sake of using a traditional instrument. I just wanted those sounds and the special qualities that they have. The notes of the gamelan don’t fit into the western 12 tone scale. It’s a traditional instrument, so each gamelan also has a different key, depending on the craftsman who made the instrument. There’s a lot of notes on the gamelan that are right in between the white and black keys on a piano. I didn’t worry too much about whether OOIOO’s playing would fit with the gamelan. OOIOO’s music and the gamelan were a great match, and we even realized that the scales we play in OOIOO are actually similar to those of the Gamelan. We didn’t change the arrangements of the songs so they would fit with the gamelan. We fit the gamelan into the open spaces in our songs, and approached the instrument rhythmically.

Each gamelan is tuned differently depending on the craftsman who made it?

Yeah. Gamelans are made of bronze, and the blacksmiths who make them each have their own tunings. So each gamelan is going to have a slightly different tuning.

Did you tune the guitars so they would fit the tuning of the gamelan?

No. As long as the notes of the guitars and gamelan somewhat fit together it was fine. If the notes were off, we enjoyed the dissonance.

So you intentionally kept the dissonance created between the notes of the gamelan and the guitars?

Yes. As long as we thought it sounded good, we kept the dissonance. There are some people who might think it sounds gross though [laughs]. But we don’t care.

Did the recording process for Gamel differ in any way from previous OOIOO records?

In the past, we would record the songs that we had been playing together at our shows. The band would record the songs together, and after that I would have all the members go home. Then I would stay in the studio and add all the overdubs on my own. I would also mix the record myself, and also be present for the mastering process. I was very involved in all of the small details of the recording process. But for Gamel, I didn’t overthink the process. Almost all the songs were recorded in one take.

Was there a particular reason why you decided to recorded these songs in one take?

No, we just didn’t have the time [laughs]. And we didn’t have much of a budget. Plus we were only able to get the studio for 3threedays. When it comes to recording live drums, normally I am very meticulous. I take a lot of time in mixing the sound of the drum heads and the room sound. But we decided to remove that element this time. So we only used live drums on two songs. For the rest of the songs we used the Roland Handsonic. We don’t use the Handsonic in the live shows, but on the record we used it. We decided on the drum tones, and our drummer played the Handsonic with her fingers. Could you tell that it was the Handsonic we were using?

I had no idea. The whole album sounded like it was played on live drums.

You can’t tell right? It’s being used a lot on records these days. Since you don’t have to take that much time in setting up the drums, it saves a lot of time.

I think you live in Nara, but how have the natural and nuclear disasters in Japan affected you creatively and personally?

It hasn’t affected just my art, it has changed everything. It has changed how we live, it has changed me on a personal level, it has changed the way I think, it has changed the way Japan as a country thinks, it has changed the way the US and all countries think. It’s not about pointing fingers about whose fault it is, but we have just been in shock. It’s really shock city [laughs]. That’s not why we named our label Shock City though. We named it that in an artistic sense.

Anyways after 3.11, what I have been thinking is that we have to live strong like cockroaches. Humans will have to adapt to turn radiation into nutrients, or our DNA won’t be able to handle the contamination. After the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the radioactive contamination has already altered the genes of Japanese people without us knowing it. Since the Japanese have been in so much contact with radioactive contamination, our genes may have become more tolerant to radiation. But if you start thinking about why a nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, you start to understand that humans are trying to alter the genes of other humans, which is really scary.

So now there are more people in Japan that are choosing to live self-sustainably by doing organic farming, while on the other hand there are people that are just living to make money. After 3.11, it’s really getting more polarized in Japan right now.

I really wonder what’s going to happen to the world. Nuclear experiments have been taking place all around the world in all kinds of forms. People think that Fukushima is far away so that they are safe from the radiation, but once the radiation is carried by the wind, it can go to the other side of the planet. So it isn’t just the people in Japan that are being affected by the radiation, it’s everyone in the world. Anywhere a nuclear bomb has been dropped, it really ends up affecting the whole world. It affects the person who dropped the bomb, the person who decided to drop the bomb, and it affects everyone on earth. So no matter what you are eating, our genes have to adapt to it. Why have these nuclear experiments taken place in the world? I can’t understand the reason why anyone would do anything like that.

Have there been any other events or experiences since the recording ofArmonico Hewa that have changed the way you create that you would care to share?

I haven’t been able to figure out what has happened in my life that would make me want to choose to use gamelans on this album. There wasn’t anything dramatic that happened in my life that I could point out. For me music is the direct opposite of radiation. Both music and radiation are invisible to the eye. But the difference is the intent behind both of them. I don’t understand it when there is a sad incident that happens, and then someone makes sad music to express that. I feel that music exists on a different and higher dimension. And I want to connect with other people on that higher dimension. So for me, I don’t think that incidents in our lives affect our music.