Kawabata Makoto, the high priest of Japan's Acid Mothers Temple & the Cosmic Inferno, conducts English-language interviews via e-mail with the help of a translator, and that's appropriate. After all, his livelihood is founded on translation, albeit of a different sort. "My music is something that I constantly hear from the cosmos," he declares, "and I merely re-create it so that others may hear it, too."
As this statement implies, Makoto sees recordings such as IAO Chant from the Cosmic Inferno, a new Temple masterwork on the Ace Fu imprint, in mystical terms. He didn't conceive them. Instead, they came to him as gifts from infinity. Far from being a songwriter, he's more akin to the Ark of the Covenant as described in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Think of him as a transmitter, a radio for speaking to God.
Said Deity clearly had a lot to say prior to Chant, since the album consists of a single song -- "OM Riff From the Cosmic Inferno" -- that clocks in at more than 51 minutes. Nevertheless, Makoto believes that when judging "OM," size doesn't matter nearly as much as excellence does.
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"People don't think that Beethoven's Ninth is wonderful just because it takes over 70 minutes to perform, or that a Beatles song is fantastic because it's over inside three minutes," he maintains. "Each piece of music has an integral and necessary length of performance time. Compared to ordinary rock songs, our music seems to be long, but that is only because the music itself demands that specific length. Its length or brevity has nothing to do with its quality. A worthless piece of music will sound painfully long even if it lasts for less than a minute. And a great piece of music can sound too short even if it lasts for over an hour."
"OM" falls into the latter category. The piece shifts and undulates countless times over its span, with aggressive guitar patterns, hyperkinetic beats and other standard rock elements rubbing against drones, polyrhythms and otherworldly effects conjured by the Temple's current congregation: Makoto, bassist Tabata Mitsuru, electronics expert Higashi Hiroshi, and drummers Shimura Koji and Okano Futoshi. The results will strike most listeners as mind-bending, but to Makoto, they're as natural as can be.
"I never deliberately search out the new," he stresses. "I just try to live fully from moment to moment, but somehow new things come to me, even without me wishing for them. That's what makes life interesting."
Makoto's background is equally intriguing, in part because his influences cross all national and cultural boundaries. He grew up in Osaka, where he was regularly exposed to native Japanese artistic styles. For instance, his grandfather was a Noh theater performer, and Makoto's father often sang songs from this tradition around the house as his son was growing up. His mother, in contrast, was a fan of Western classical music and had a personal bias against pop tunes. Her partiality may explain why Makoto eventually gravitated toward prog, proto-metal and experimental electronic works, as well as the efforts of classicists unafraid to juxtapose beauty with dissonance.
Still, Makoto's biggest influence could be found inside his own head. From his earliest memories, he heard a type of ringing in his ears that he initially thought was "messages from UFOs." An auditory specialist might suspect pseudacusis, a malady in which individuals suffer from mistaken or false hearing, but he doubts that there's a medical explanation. According to him, "Hearing tests have never uncovered any problems. In fact, I have very good hearing, so I don't believe that there is anything physically wrong with me."
Whatever the case, this condition turned beneficial after the ringing mutated. "Now I don't hear it as sound, but rather as a clear form of music," he reveals. "Sometimes it even sounds like it's being played by an ensemble." The persistent sonic bombardment has its negative side. Because "the nature and purpose of the sounds is unknown to me," Makoto notes, "there is nothing I can do to control them." But by opening himself up to the experience, he discovered a bottomless well of material. All he needed to do was listen.
His first musical endeavor, Ankoku Kakumei Kyodotai, or Dark Revolution Collective, which he formed in 1978, had a couple of strikes against it: The players didn't have proper instruments (for the most part, they made their own) or anything beyond the most rudimentary knowledge of recordings. Thanks to their navet, AKK recordings such as Psychedelic Noise Freak were wildly spontaneous, breaking rules that Makoto regularly ignored as the years wore on. Yet he's no basher of music education.
"I am not jealous of musicians who have formal training, nor do I think that I am in some way superior to them because I don't have that knowledge," he insists. "If I were to think that way, it would merely be a case of the grass always being greener." In his opinion, "technique is only useful insofar as it allows me to precisely re-create the sounds I hear. Technique that goes beyond that, then, creates a desire for the musician to show off his chops. But if I had less technique than necessary, I wouldn't be able to re-create precisely the sounds I hear, and I would be forced to make more simplistic arrangements of them.
"Music came first, then the theory," he goes on, "and in a similar way for me, my own interpretation of these sounds doesn't matter. In addition, there is no need for me to reproduce songs written by other people, so I have no need for a grounding in musical theory. I may love contemporary composition and Frank Zappa, but I would never think to play music by the same methods they used."
Likewise, Makoto cut his own quixotic career path, moving from AKK to a dizzying number of groups, including Hedeik, or Headache, which teamed him with future members of Japan's foremost sonic anarchists, Boredoms. He didn't earn much in the way of international acclaim, though, until 1996, when he launched his first Temple, dubbed Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O. (Underground Freak Out). A self-titled disc hit these shores in 1997, and subsequent tours, not to mention a blizzard of additional releases on a slew of labels, established Makoto as a crazed psychedelic visionary. Not that he's into psychedelics anymore.
"During my teens and twenties, I tried every drug I could lay my hands on," he concedes. "I take the view that life is one time only, so you should try to experience everything once. But drugs have given me enough hints, and once I was able to create that effect through my own consciousness, then drugs themselves became unnecessary. Or, to put it more extremely, if you start relying upon drugs, then I believe that you will never be able to reach that unknown next stage beyond."
To ready himself for this phase, Makoto remains attentive, diligently transcribing all the data that flows into his skull. "I always try hard to duplicate the sounds I hear faithfully," he asserts. "But on many occasions, I have no idea how to create those specific tones. That's why I am so interested in different instruments and ways of playing. Also, sometimes the music changes dramatically, so trying to grasp and remember it is extremely difficult. At times like those, all I can do is create an edited digest and try to get close to the impression of the music. But I try to go beyond my own subjectivity, because concentrating just on faithful reproduction of the sounds is not at all a Ôcreative' act. Maybe you could think of me as a realistic painter, trying to put down precisely on a canvas what I see in front of me rather than creating paintings that express something personal."
And if the strange transmissions cease? "I believe that as long as I keep hearing them, I will keep playing music," Makoto contends. "Once they stop, then I know that my mission has been completed, and I will stop."
Until then, he'll continue to be lost in translation.
Zen and the Art of Makoto
Like any philosopher worth his salt, Kawabata Makoto speaks in aphorisms. Not all of them make sense, but they seem like they should, and that's what matters. Some examples:
"What is sound but the vibrating of air molecules? The only question is your own sensitivity to those vibrations."
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"I am not that interested in what other people are doing. If there are interesting musicians out there, eventually and naturally we will find each other."
"At the moment, I live in a temple on top of a mountain. The cries of birds and insects from neighboring mountains, right down to the trees in front of me, all seem immensely solid."
"Scenes? What is a scene, anyway? Do you think they still exist in our multidimensional 21st-century society? Wasn't it just a 20th-century hallucination?"
"People say that drugs make you hear things, but I believe that you are not hearing anything that wasn't there before -- merely, you weren't listening properly."