Interview by Jason Gross (November 1997)
If I say that she's a great, relatively unknown genius, what does that really tell you about Japanese drummer-turned-drum-programmer Ikue Mori? Maybe I could add that she started out in the seminal no-wave group DNA with Arto Lindsay but that's only a small part of her work. I guess the best way to explain what's so special about her is the fact that she's able to deploy drum machines more creatively, uniquely and innovately than just about any techno artist you could think of. Much as I like that style, Ikue ups the ante by shaping, stretching and shifting beats and rhythm so much that it's nothing like you'd think of to back up other instruments- instead, this is its own music and any musician who'd play with her has to fend for themselves and not think they could play over what she does. OK, how about I just say that she's easily one of the most breath-taking instrumentalists I've ever heard and does it on equipment that's not known for virtuosos? Yeah, I'll settle with that...
PSF: What music were you listening to before you came to the States?
I started listened to music in the late '60s- it was all rock music. Jimi Hendrix, the Doors. They didn't really influence me, I just listened to it. Then in '75, I'd listen to things happening in New York like Patti Smith, Television. I felt very close to that. There was a 'maybe you can do it too' kind of feeling to it. Then I got to actually see them when I got to New York in '77. When I saw them, I thought 'it's no big deal to do this.' When you're in Japan, it's like everything is more distant with the music, being far away. It really blew my mind though when I saw it.
PSF: Why did you come over here?
I always wanted to get out of Tokyo and in 1977, New York seemed like the most interesting place to visit. I didn't intend to live here- I just wanted to get out and see what was happening. I just happened to stay here then.
PSF: Did you play any music before you came to New York?
No, just basic things like piano when I was in school. I really didn't intend to be a musician when I left Japan.
PSF: How did DNA start?
Everybody started picking up instruments who weren't musicians. Arto Lindsay was a writer. Robin Crutchfield was an art/designer. They were trying to put a new band together. I just arrived in New York, going to CGBG's and Max's Kansas City. We met when I was with my boyfriend (Rick, now in Friction), who was asked to be in a band with James Chance and Lydia Lunch. Our technique was very limited so we just wanted to play and make sounds I think (laughs). Arto was already bringing this feeling and spice from Brazil. It was a very non-musical start (laughs).
PSF: How about your drumming then?
It's a very primitive way of drumming like the way you play with big sticks: this is called 'taiko.' That was a big influence on me.
PSF: What did you think of DNA's music?
The most important thing is that it's much more fun to play in a band than to be in an audience in a club. That's the main thing I think, that you can do it.
PSF: How were things different when Tim Wright joined the group?
He was a musician already. He was playing bass in Pere Ubu for a long time, so he was the most skillful member of DNA. Because of him, we moved to a more rock way, a more physical way than with Robin. With Robin, we were in the art scene.
PSF: They called DNA and other bands like Mars, the Contortions and Teenage Jesus 'no wave.' What did think of those other groups?
They were all very different and very exciting. Mars is really different, into art. Lydia Lunch is more energy. James Chance is more commercial in a different way, in funk and jazz. They were all doing original things, trying to create their own sound and music. I think they're all great.
PSF: Do you think it was a really different scene than the early punk bands?
I think we created a scene in New York. DNA wasn't as beat orientated as other bands. It's more like thrash metal music than rock music- it was very fast and the songs were very short. In that one minute, we would have a lot of different things happening. So it was more thrash metal than Television- they are really based on a rock beat. Then you have Arto's singing, which wasn't really lyrical. Now, he's doing more lyrical things. Then he was screaming more and now his voice is more important. Yeah, we were pretty different (laughs).
PSF: What happened to the group?
Five years together is a long time! (laughs) We couldn't create new songs and then we all had different interests in musical things. Arto was already with the Lounge Lizards. We just naturally played out.
PSF: What were you doing after the group broke up?
I was playing in other rock bands. Any of those bands didn't last long. Then I met John Zorn in '84, '85. He really opened up a new world for me. He introduced me to all those improvisors and downtown musicians that I never knew before: Wayne Horowitz, Tom Cora, Fred Frith. They were all part of the downtown scene for a while but I was too busy in a rock band to know them. Then I learned improvising and how to do the improvising, changing the way totally.
PSF: How did that change things for you?
With a rock band, you play the same things over and over and over. Improvising things is always changing. A lot of momentum. So that's a big difference.
PSF: You were going back and forth to Japan at that time.
I put together a band in Japan, just three girls and we made an EP (1984)- it was called Electrifieid Fukuko. It's like a mixture of DNA in a more rock way. I was only in Japan once a year. My base was New York like now.
PSF: What did you do when you were back in New York?
I did a band called Toh Bandjan which was mainly me with a bass player (Luli Shioi). We had the same kind of interest in music. She could sing and write lyrics. We started a unit together and different girls were involved as guest musicians. This was '86 to '89.
PSF: Was there a strong sense of involving other women with your work?
I wasn't really thinking that but we were probably interested in having a girls band. Actually, there was another band where we were three girls, around '84 when I met John Zorn, called Sunset Chorus. It was just bass and drums and guitar- we didn't make any records but we played a lot of different clubs in New York.
PSF: Are you working with groups anymore?
In the '90s, it's really much more collobation projects. I really don't have any bands.
PSF: What do you think your input for these collaborations is?
I don't want to say 'noise-maker' but that's part of it (laughs). I think some people want to have some weirdness or intensity in their project, then they ask for me.
PSF: How did you go from playing drums to working with drum machines?
It happened gradually. Somebody gave me this drum machine and somebody else asked me to program something for a project. I really liked programming and I was really interested in using the drum machine. Come to think of it, the way I play is like a drum machine- very mechanical. The transition took a couple of years- I had more and more drum machine and less and less drums. I'm more interested in making pieces and songs than in becoming a good drummer. Here in an apartment, you can't really practice drums but I can write music with a drum machine and headphones.
Then I found this drum machine that allowed me to control pitches and different manipulations that makes sounds more like a synthesizer does- not just beat-beat-beat. I got tired of different drum sounds so you buy different effects for more manipulation. So now I don't have time to practice drums. It's been five years since I've touched the drums.
PSF: How do you chose the other samples you use?
The sound source is from the drum machines. You just use different reverbs or delays and multi-processors that totally twists the sound and makes it come out really different. I still think that I'm playing instruments, not just pushing buttons and there it goes. It's interactive and alive with the sound and the manipulation and it plays like instruments.
PSF: What equipment do you use?
I've always used Alessis drum machines, HR-16 A and B and SR-16. When they released the HR-16 A, I immediately fell in love with this machine. The next model was HR-16 B and then they released a new model and I had to buy everything new. I use three drum machines together with a mixer, then adding a pedal with pitch control and a Sony effects processor.
PSF: How do you compose your work?
It's all from different movies I see- a very visual inspiration. The way I create music is maybe like a painting, to compose in a more visual way. Basically it's the music that I want to hear- that's my inspiration and bottom line. I just try to get ideas from books, movies, paintings.
PSF: What in particular?
This Japanese artist, Yostoshi. Lots of inspiration comes from mysteries. My inspirations are usually pretty dark things (laughs). Blood and death. That moves me. I just find it really interesting. I'm interested in stories and the dark side of peoples' minds. Hitchcock is always great, probably because of the music of Bernard Herriman. I've been very interested in working on music for films. I've done some music for films and I really enjoy doing it.
PSF: Could you talk about your solo CD, Garden?
I like that very much. That was the most I could pull out from these three drum machines with sound and texture and orchestrations- that's what I'm trying to do.
PSF: What about Painted Desert? That was a little different as you were working with guitarists.
That's a little different project. The drum playing is just like typami beating over and over. It's because John Zorn was producing this CD to bring me and Bobby Quine together. To do that, Bobby cannot really play over my crazy changing stuff so I made it subtly changing and repeating so he can play over it. I played on the tracks fast and then gave the tape to Quine and he played on the tracks in studio with Marc Ribot. They really created this mood and color, which sounds like Western, cowboy music. That's a really special project for me.
PSF: Could you talk about Death Ambient and Hex Kitchen?
Hex Kitchen was the first CD that made under my name and took 3 years to make, so this is a very special one for me. The combination of songs by different combinations of musicians and drum machine solos, and the group include Zeena Parkins (harp), Kato Hideki (bass), Han Rowe (violin), Catherine Janeur (vocal) and special guests Jim Staley (Trombone) and John Zorn (clarinet). I sang on 2 tracks.
Death Ambient was originarly formed with Kato Hideki and myself to create sounds and texture extravaganza and we invited Fred Frith to be a soul in it. We will record a second volume in later this year. PSF: Techno/electronic uses a lot of drum machines. Since you use them also, what do you think about this music as compared to your work?
I haven't heard a lot of it. I heard some really great things but for me, it's repeating too much. Because it's dance music, you can't really have a lot of changing in there. It's really not for me because there's too much repetition. I like more diversity.
PSF: What are you working on now?
I did film music for Abagail Childs that's coming out in January, called B Side. This invovled Zeena Parkins, Anthony Coleman. Those people are the ones I want to continue to work with in the future. I just got a grant from the artists space, Roulette. It's for chamber music, electronics and percussion. That's going to be my work for next year. I like to work with Eric Friedlander (cello) and Eyuind Kang (violin), who's actually recording with Arto at this moment. Maybe a vocalist- I have some ideas but I don't want to say it now.
PSF: What else do you have planned?
In March '96, Fred Frith and John Zorn were planning to do a tour of Europe but then he (Fred) got sick. John had to instantly put together a band. He asked me because we're friends and we like to hang around together. He also asked Mike Patton. He toured for two weeks and then we went to Asia. Maybe next year we'll go to Israel and Argentina. It's improvised but very diverse because we bring out soundtrack music, thrash hardcore music- all different things happening and really fun to play with. We may put out a CD from a live show next year.
See Ikue Mori's favorite music
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