Interview by Jason Gross (May 1998)

I first heard about turntablist/guitarist Otomo Yoshihide through one of his many projects, Ground Zero. Plays Standards amazed me- he led his band to tear apart and reconstruct "Those Were The Days," John Philip Sousa, Victor Jara, Brecht, soundtrack composers and Burt Bacharach. Like any great interpreter, he loved all the songs while at the same time, made them his own. This was just the tip of the iceberg for him- a culmination of his work and tribute to his heros. Otomo has been releasing material for about ten years now through dozens of projects and collaborations including work with Lawrence 'Butch' Morris, Carl Stone and Eye from the Boredoms as well as movie soundtracks. His work is made of complex sound collages, samples and abrasive sounds, mixed and remixed together. His equally impressive recent work is found on Gentle Giant on his own Sound Factory (1997) CD and on the wild Miracle of Leviation compilation (along with Ruins, Jim O'Rourke, Melt Banana and others).

Enormous thanks go out to Christian Marclay, Yoshiyuki Suzuki and Michael Hartman for their help with this.

PSF: When you started making music, you were doing tape collages. What led you to doing this?

Most influence comes from French musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Also, there was some kind of rock stuff like Pink Floyd, always tape effects. Mostly contemporary composer's tape work, also Japanese '60's music. I really loved music when I was a teenager but I had no idea about how to play any instruments. My father is an electric engineer. Naturally, I knew how to make an analog system from my father. My mother was a big fan of jazz and rock. So, between my mother and father...

PSF: Jazz has been pretty important to you also as an influence.

Yes, the biggest! In the '70's, especially the Japanese free jazz music. It's not only music, it's also philosophy. I read about the free movement and the underground culture and theatre. I just looked up to that.

PSF: You studied ethnomusicology at school- did that effect your work later?

That was eighteen years ago! I almost forgot about that. (laughs) Maybe it had some effect, especially when I was thinking about music. I tried to be a musician but I couldn't. I went to one teacher and then another teacher and then another, trying to get something but I couldn't. The teacher of ethnomusicology really liked me and helped me a lot. He gave me room and that really helps.

PSF: Were you self-taught with music then?

I got my idea almost by myself. Maybe some great books, great records, some great live music was my teacher, especially Masayuki Takayanagi, the Japanese free music pioneer. I haven't covered his material yet myself- he's too deep for me.

PSF: When does free music work for you?

That's a philosophical question. I think I'm always which direction each part is going. It's really difficult always. My ideas are changing. I can't say exactly what way but for me, the most important thing is the process. Maybe if I tried to make coffee but I couldn't and I made tea, the process is still important and WHY I changed to go this way. So I'm always thinking about process. My CD's are each one of these processes.

PSF: You've had video artists work with Ground Zero. Is visualization an important part of your work?

Hideaki Sasaki is a video artist and he was my neighbor at that time. I tried to make a joint (collaboration) between Ground Zero and visual images. But when I played at shows, I really couldn't see the videos. That was always a problem. Maybe if I put the music and video together, the audience could see something between the video and music, visual and sound for some kind of effect.

For me, I don't want to give an answer for the audience so I have some answers in my music but the video has a different answer. So the people have to think about these kind of different answers. Maybe sometimes it's really against each other but I try to make this kind of situation. Sometimes it's successful, sometimes it really doesn't work. It's a process between coffee and tea! (laughs)

PSF: Plays Standards was full of some of your favorite music. What led to do that project?

When I made that, I was really down, in some kind of slump. Always thinking of negative things. I tried to rethink again, so that I had to think about my past. I tried to research my past and listened to a lot of music. So, that gave me a new idea, Plays Standards. After that, I decided that I didn't need Ground Zero anymore. That's not the only reason. Also, the Consume project came along. I didn't want to do this because I wanted to be open to processes with other people.

PSF: The last part of that Consume project was where people then sent in remixes.

Yeah, I got 200 tapes and I listening to everything without seeing the names. I just listened to the music and chose 14 or 15 tracks. It was like a cycle, where I had sampled music, then remixed it and then had other people remake the music.

PSF: You've done a lot of soundtrack work. How do you work on music to match the film?

That's a very different story for me because with the film music, I'm usually working with mainstream films, not avant garde films. I have to make some kind of good soundtrack for effect for the film. The most important thing is how to make a good effect for the film. I don't want to do the same thing always for this kind of typical film. I try to change. I have some switches and patches in my head that I change. This side is Ground Zero side and this side is film music side. (laughs) Sometimes they are mixed up.

Usually I'm making music for Chinese and Hong Kong films and they really don't know about avant garde music. They just only know my soundtrack work. It's too bad. I always give me Ground Zero CD's but they always say 'my CD player must be broken... it just makes noise, no melody, no rhythm' (laughs) But especially in Japan, last year, I did some good work with some directors who really know about my 'dark' side.

PSF: One of your projects is Mosquito Paper where you've said you wanted to bring together music and speech. What were you trying to do exactly?

For me, it's almost finished. One of these is one actor reading a documentary novel, a diary of a man who did a starvation diet. He didn't eat anything for three months. The actor reads the novel and I'm conducting for orchestra, a very strange type of orchestra, with acoustic and Japanese traditional instruments and jazz instruments. All the musicians didn't know about the story before the recording so all the musicians had to listen to the story. They didn't about the next pages so they had to think about what was going on about this strange guy who did this suicide. But in this suicide, he didn't write any reason for it. He wrote about the process of dying, not why he did it. I still don't know why (he did it).

PSF: Could you talk about the Sampling Virus project?

I started that about eight years ago and made one CD for Extreme in Australia. This is for use by anyone. If someone wants it, I can sent them the sampling tapes and they can sample anything from me and make anything. Then they get something just from the material. So it's kind of a virus, influence process. Still now, I can hear my virus from CD's. I'm happy that Stockhausen will be using this. I'm just happy that everyone can use it. It's never my music because the sampling virus is sounds from TV. I think it's almost finished because everyone can sample very easily.

PSF: You've also promoted some concerts and festivals.

I was a member of the board to put together the Music Merge Festival (in Tokyo) but it's really difficult and it was a financial disaster last year. We tried to make some kind of meeting from the different worlds, different music styles where everyone is an avant gardist but from a different world. That was our dream but reality...

PSF: You've written some articles about what you call 'noise' music.

I've written some things because I wanted to introduce Japanese music fans to new things. That's the main reason why I write articles. I never wrote about 'noise' music but I use the word sometimes. Usually Japanese people think of it as Merzbow but I really don't want to say that it's junk. Everybody has different possibilities and Masami Akita is making a different type of music. If I write for the typical music audience, I have to say 'this is kind of noisy.'

PSF: How do you see the music scene in Japan?

The underground scene is not big, it's never big- that's why it's underground. I really don't know about the Japanese pop music scene. The underground scene isn't big but it's very interesting, especially with all the young people. They just start and make CD's, like Kazunao Nagata who does the Zero Gravity label. Okura Masahiko, he's a saxophone player. Also, Taku Sugimoto and Yoshide Ami. More and more, there's a lot of young kids making new, strange music. Also, the Japanese underground club scene is very energetic, like DJ LKO. It's really interesting.

PSF: What are planning to do in the future?

I just started a project called ISO. It's not only my project, it's with Yoshimitsu Ichiraku who's a drummer and Sachiko Matsubara, who's a sampler player. Filament is another project with Sachiko and we'll release a CD soon on Extreme.

See some of Otomo's favorite music