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  JERRY HALL
STEPHANIE SEYMORE
MARC JACOBS
  ASIA ARGENTO
DENNIS HOPPER
ABEL FERRARA
BRIAN WILSON
WILL OLDHAM
DJ SPOOKY

Kahimi Karie, 1999

WITH STEVE LAFRENIERE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY ANTHONY PEARSON


When describing the music of Kahimi Karie to friends, the story somehow always comes back to Mike Alway. While heading up his legendary Žl Records label in the '80s, it was the richly eccentric Alway who decreed pop to be the real virus from outer space, and sent it spangling forth to ambush the ruling armies of drone and beat. It was Alway too, with his reputation as a style gourmand given to strident pronouncements, who managed to seize an underground bully pulpit and prod Britain's shoegazer generation toward a different idea: a complex new music stitched from the whole of postwar pop. Under his influence, the forgotten genres of Italian cinŽbeat, California soft rock, Brazilian bossa nova, English mod and flower power, Japanese "lolicon" and, most importantly, the parti-colored ya-ya hit parade of swinging '60s Paris once more became essential listening. And as new worlds were distilled from old, the pop landscape gradually underwent another seismic shift. Alway himself set the standard high, and with Žl's roster of perfumed anti-conformists such as Louis Philippe, Momus, Simon Turner, and Vic Godard, he blithely launched a global underground whose tendrils reach even nowadays into the music of Beck, Cornelius, Air, Pizzicato Five, Philippe Katerine, Cibo Matto, Stereolab and, most tangibly, Kahimi Karie.
Kahimi Karie is the reigning queen of Japanese pop music. That is to say she easily straddles its most important and contradictory forms. One is an archly complex Alway esthetic with roots back to the existential theatrics of Jacques Dutronc and her idol Serge Gainsbourg, that can nail anything from cultural critique to lust to utter awe within its daffy grooves. And if Kahimi's childlike voice ("Claudine Longet at seven" — some wag) at first seems incapable of anything but rainbows and kittens, nosing only slightly deeper can reveal personal and millennial disintegration making surprise appearances too. The fact is, she wants it that way, and by working with a stable of sympathetic writer-producers that includes Nick Currie (aka Momus), Kenji Takimi, and Keigo Oyamada (aka Cornelius), she's created a brilliant pastiche, at once hyper-familiar and beautifully alien.
Dovetailed into this already layered story is the fact that in Japan Kahimi Karie is a teen idol. Thirteen-year-old girls mob her live appearances, and it's in this second world, the tumescent pastel realm of lolitapop, that her career becomes most interesting and difficult for western minds to fathom.
Recently in New York to visit friends before beginning a grueling Japanese press tour, Kahimi kindly took time for a chat at her favorite cafŽ ("I can smoke there"). Positioned at a tiny table with her manager, Fumiko, and friend, Hiroshi, the sharp chatter of the room seemed to relax her, and I noticed the one thing that doesn't successfully come through in photos — the absolute depth of her gaze.



STEVE: You've been living in Paris for the last few years.
KAHIMI: Yes. In Montmarte, in a kindergarten. Before that it was a factory. It's very nice, but very old, so I have to paint everything over.

STEVE: Everyone's always changing their furniture in France. In New York they just paint the walls. Philippe Katerine could write a song about that.
KAHIMI: Ah, yes! [smiles] I met him about four years ago, and we work a lot. My old apartment, he lives in it.

STEVE: Your collaborations with him have been beautiful. Abstract, but very sympathetic.
KAHIMI: Before we start, I talk to him about which kind of new sound I want to sing, and then we decide.

STEVE: Is he one of the reasons to live there?
KAHIMI: Mmmm, before I moved to Paris, I stayed there six months, and six months in Tokyo. For recording, I was always moving. When I am in Paris I have to study French, I am on new streets, I can meet new kind of people. Although I can do up more songs when I am in Tokyo. But I'm not in Tokyo very much, so it's complicated. In Paris everything is new, I am like a child there. Everything is very fresh for me, so it's really like a good exercise in my head. And everybody smokes cigarettes, drinks, nobody cares. Because of this, Paris is more like the countryside than Tokyo.

STEVE: Another good song topic.
KAHIMI: Already I have it. "Orly-Narita." This is with Katerine too.

STEVE: Oh, that's right. You've recorded lots of songs in French, like Gainsbourg's "SŽrieux Comme le Plaisir" — a raucous rock version and then a lovely lilting one.
KAHIMI: About ten years ago, I started to listen to this music. Serge Gainsbourg, Franoise Hardy, Jane Birkin, you know, this kind of '50s, '60s music. After the '70s, it's so-so for me. Although there is Mikado — I worked with them too. I like French music, but not only French music.

STEVE: You've been mostly identified with Shibuya-kei, the highly accelerated Japanese pop movement. Musicians like Cornelius, Takako Minekawa, Buffalo Daughter ...
KAHIMI: I think when people first started to say "Shibuya-kei," it was not popular. It was underground. Now it's mainstream. But when I started to make music, I didn't think about underground or not. Some people said it was. If I can make nice music, I don't care if it's under or ... it's not important. Always I am making music for myself. It's one kind of escape, maybe, but it's a good escape. It's very important, not only to make music, but for my life. So it should be sad. Something sad, but also ironic, very pop, very ... humorous, and very dramatic. When I was a child I decided if I become adult, I want to open the door. I want to make music, I want to listen, I want to do what I want. Everything.

STEVE: There is a feeling of melancholy in your songs that's quite separate from what I hear in other contemporary music. It's the sort of contained sadness of movies like Red Desert, and of the Mods.
KAHIMI: It's true, I was thinking about it last night. I feel the same way as they did. I don't know why, but since I was about fifteen years old, when I read European books or heard Western music ... I really understood it. I said, "I am the same." Since I started, I never changed. I think I never changed.

STEVE: Well, artists are finding it feasible again to use the pop music grid. You're a good example of the sophistication coming through this new pop. The production is so emblematic.
KAHIMI: Yes. I like this kind of pop because for me I can make my world.

STEVE: So in music you create a perfect place for Kahimi.
KAHIMI: Yes.

STEVE: I saw a special from Japanese TV of a concert you gave in Tokyo. This big audience, teenagers pressed against the stage.
KAHIMI: It is very strange! Some girls talk with me on the street, and we are just talking. And they say, "Ah, Kahimi Karie, she is so niiice!" [laughs] Girls more cute than me! And a lot of girls send me letters — "Many joys!" Teenage girls, under thirteen. It's very national.

STEVE: But didn't you have a hit radio show in Japan before? I don't imagine they expected you to stick to a playlist.
KAHIMI: I could play any records that I wanted. And I didn't need to talk so much, so I was more like a DJ. I wanted to do this because when I was a child I didn't have money. I couldn't find records. People who lived in the countryside couldn't find these records — there are no record shops. They can find only Michael Jackson CDs, no small ones. I was always checking the radio to record interesting songs. So I wanted to do the same for young people, and I played many songs that are difficult to find. Also, I didn't put my voice over the music.

STEVE: Oh, so it wouldn't get recorded too.
KAHIMI: Yes.

STEVE: That was kind of you. But Japanese radio is quite traditional and strict. How did you get a show like this?
KAHIMI: There is one crazy radio producer, and he was very interested about me. So, because of him. He was very cool, not the sort of typical people that work in this kind of radio station. When we started, he said I have to play Japanese music 80 per cent, and I can play 20 per cent foreign artists. But even if I played Japanese artists like Cornelius or Pizzicato Five, they don't know if this is Japanese or foreign. And the people working in this radio station, they couldn't understand French. [laughs]

STEVE: The rules got broken.
KAHIMI: Yes. And the program was getting really popular, so then the producer couldn't say anything to me. But it was very, very strange on this radio station!

STEVE: One of the things I love best about Kahimi Karie are the songs about cultural icons. "Mike Alway's Diary" caught my eye the first time I saw your records. Have you met him?
KAHIMI: I met him maybe ten years ago, before I started Kahimi. I went to see Louis Philippe and he knew Mike Alway. So I went to see cricket with Mike Alway in London. For me it was very boring. [laughs] But I was happy because I love Mike Alway. He was dressed as an English gentleman, with nice suit, cufflinks, a hat and a stick. I was very shy, but it was okay.

STEVE: You appreciate his music very much, I assume.
KAHIMI: Ah, for me his records are perfect. Everything is perfect. Mike Alway is like a hero ... like a guru. More like a guru than a hero to me. He is very strange, though.

STEVE: How so?
KAHIMI: Like, he can't eat food in front of people. Even if he just drinks coffee, he becomes nervous. Umm ... [speaks Japanese to Hiroshi]

Hiroshi: She says he feels like it's an invasion of privacy to see him eat.
KAHIMI: I love all records from Žl Records. And design is perfect too. And concert is perfect too.

STEVE: Is his music well-known in Japan or France?
KAHIMI: No, not at all.

STEVE: Will he still work on new projects?
KAHIMI: He is making a new record with Milky. I saw Milky's singer, Shazna, last week in Paris. Because of Momus, she is making music too.

STEVE: You have another beautiful song, "David Hamilton." What is that about?
KAHIMI: I made a t-shirt with a picture of David Hamilton on it. So I sent it to Momus. After that, he wrote the song for another singer called Laila France. And Laila wasn't interested in David Hamilton. I'm very good friends with Laila, but because of my t-shirt he wrote it. So I called Momus and said, "Why did you write that song for Laila?" [laughs] He said, "Okay, okay."

STEVE: I'm beginning to think Momus does his best work with you.
KAHIMI: He's a very strange man. A little like Mike Alway. Sometimes we have a catfight, but it's for fun.

STEVE: My favorite new song of yours is "Harmony Korine," probably because of its ambivalence towards its subject. But then I heard Momus was writing a song with him.
Hiroshi: I took Kahimi and Momus to Harmony's house.
KAHIMI:
Yes. They were making something together, but I don't know if they are serious or not.

STEVE: Kahimi Karie music and lyrics are becoming more complex. On K.K.K.K.K. there's this wobbling between subject and object.
KAHIMI: But to me, to make music is like to make films too. I'm acting other people ... it's hard to explain. [Japanese to Hiroshi]
Hiroshi: When she's singing about someone else, she's creating a different person than she is. But then she is using the voice and mannerisms of this character to act as her. STEVE: So it's a circle.
KAHIMI: Yes. And sometimes I am her. I'm not acting.

STEVE: Well, at first your live show seemed quite straightforward. But there's the question of your voice, and what on the surface is a childlike demeanor. Yet the lyrics are at times exploring very complex themes.
KAHIMI: Some people think my singing is like a child. Now I am older, so for me it is strange why my voice is like this. But it is very natural for me to sing that way. In fact, I am not thinking about a singing style at all. Depending on the lyrics and the sound of the instruments, I change. So my emotion then changes my voice.

STEVE: And this is the other quality that's so interesting. The setting of the music is formal, highly burnished. But your singing is beautifully off-hand, as if you're in a musical.
KAHIMI: Why I decided to start making records was that, before, I was always listening to someone singing in a film. I like normal people singing. For example, in one movie is a boy singing, not good, but ... la la la la la ... on his bicycle, you know. I was always recording songs like this from the video, and when I was walking to school I listened on my Walkman.

STEVE: And the child's voice comes from this?
KAHIMI: Hmmm ... Many times when Momus writes a song for me, it looks like it is about me. Especially with "Lolitapop Dollhouse," many people think it's about me. In fact this is about him. Serge Gainsbourg wrote many songs for Jane Birkin. In one song she is singing, "He went out to buy cigarettes." But it's meaning, "He wanted to say goodbye to me. He never came back to me." In fact, Jane Birkin said goodbye to Gainsbourg. At that moment Gainsbourg was very afraid that Jane Birkin wanted to finish with him. So sometimes I don't agree, but I understand.

STEVE: Can I ask what films influence you?
KAHIMI: Many. Do you know a child actress, Ana Torrent?

STEVE: Spirit of the Beehive.
KAHIMI: Yes. She made three movies I love. And I like very much John Cassavettes. A Woman Under the Influence, Minnie and Moskowitz ...

STEVE: But these films aren't musicals.
KAHIMI: Yes, but the talking!

STEVE: Ah, oui. I want to ask you about your CD covers and promotional images, they're so consistently forward-looking. I knew you did your own art direction, and then I found out you were a photographer at one time.
KAHIMI: Yes, for music magazines — concerts or for interviews. But not for Japanese artists, only foreign artists. For example, in the moment that Acid Jazz was starting, I photographed many DJs. I was only 18, so in this magazine they would say, "You should go take this kind of artist." In fact, I like this kind of artist, so I was very happy. But it wasn't my choice.

STEVE: Cornelius once had a band called Flipper's Guitar. I love that name. Did you ever take their picture?
KAHIMI: I think a few times. We were friends back then, but they were a small band. After, they became very popular.

STEVE: In the beginning of your career, you worked with him quite a bit. Now that you're both considerably more prominent, do you think it will happen again?
KAHIMI: I really don't know. I want to work with him because I'm a big fan of Cornelius. But also I was his girlfriend, so at this moment it is very difficult.

STEVE: Well, as your music becomes more layered and complex, so does his. He's trying to keep up. You could maybe do a concept album about Cornelius.
KAHIMI: [laughs] I have a lot of ideas, but Larme de Crocodile and Leur L'Existence are only the two concept albums. Before, with Larme de Crocodile, I wanted to make really, really melancholic music, to be alone. Now with K.K.K.K.K., I make an album to dance, or I could play in a party and be happy.

STEVE: But the songs still have a double edge. In "One Thousand 20th Century Chairs," you sing of being angry after a fight with a lover and ripping up his stupid design book and throwing it into the wind. But when the chorus comes in — "How satisfying it feels/To tear a thousand chairs/One Thousand 20th Century Chairs" — the utter glee in your voice. [laughing] I hate that book too!
KAHIMI: Ah, good!
STEVE: And I see for the first time you've allowed other artists to do remixes of your songs. The original productions are so precise — did it make you nervous?
KAHIMI: It was like I have a child and I say to him, "You have to go." And when he came back, he's grown up. Sometimes I am surprised, and sometimes I am very happy. I especially like "What Are You Wearing?" by Shinco. Also, Add (n) To (x) remixing "The Symphonies of Beethoven" was very interesting. I went to their concert last time in New York. They played with twin drums, real drums. It was very cool.

STEVE: You've done one with Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, the Japanese girl band. Are you a punk fan?
KAHIMI: Yes, yes. I really like noise music too. I love Boredoms — we are friends, Yoshimi and I. And Jamaican dub — I love Prince Buster. I wanted to make one song like Jamaican ska, but it's difficult to find artists interested in doing this. I want to make a record with The Mad Professor.

STEVE: You're going to Tokyo next to do promotion?
KAHIMI: Yes, I am going to do interviews. I must do about fifty.

STEVE: Fifty? Wow. Is it different when you go back now? I imagine it's changed quite a bit.
KAHIMI: Tokyo is always changing, changing, changing. But always changing is not change. You know?

© index magazinegelatin1
Chan Marchall by Matt Jones, 1998
© index magazinegelatin1
Chan Marchall by Matt Jones, 1998
© index magazinegelatin1
Chan Marchall by Matt Jones, 1998
Copyright © 2008 index Magazine and index Worldwide. All rights reserved.
All photos by index photographers: Leeta Harding, Richard Kern, David Ortega, Ryan McGinley, Terry Richardson, and Juergen Teller