Rock muse, drummer, singer, she fronts her own all-girl noise band, OOIOO, scream for the Boredoms, and lives in a little house on a hill near Nara where she listens to Ainu folk music. Old friends Yoshimi and former Black Dice drummer Hisham Bharoocha caught up when she passed through NYC on tour with her band at the end of last year.
HISHAM: You're not one of those musicians who thinks about music 24/7.
YOSHIMI: I spend most of my time at home taking it easy with my husband, Shoji, our daughter, Uta, and our dog, Spy. Thoughts about work don't enter my mind when I'm at home only when I am at the rehearsal space.
HISHAM: "Uta"is Japanese for "song." How old is your daughter?
YOSHIMI: One-and-a-half. She's always playing with our instruments at home, picking
up the guitar, hitting the xylophone, banging the drums. She's a natural! Whenever
her father plays the guitar, she grabs the
guitar stand as if it were a mic stand
HISHAM: Do you listen to a lot of music at home?
YOSHIMI: Yes a lot of Japanese folk music by the Okinawa and the Ainu peoples. I feel there is a similarity between the two, even though they come from opposite ends of the country.
HISHAM: I once watched an amazing video about the Ainu culture, which showed footage of a bear sacrifice.
YOSHIMI: Did they eat the bear meat?
HISHAM: I think so. The ritual had such beauty the costumes, the dancing, the singing.
YOSHIMI: A woman named Umeko Ando was well known for passing on the Ainu tradition through storytelling. Sadly, she recently passed away. Just hearing her voice gives me goose bumps. It's so beautiful.
HISHAM: You've been playing drums with the Boredoms for close to twenty years. Eye, who founded the Boredoms, always imagined the band as a record player for the audience to play, with you all positioned in the center of the room.
YOSHIMI: We always try to perform in the middle of a room, facing one another in a circle, so the audience can walk all the
way around us. We want the audience to feel the radiance, and we want to feel like the audience is watching us as one entity. We usually put a plexiglass wall around us, as if we're in a fish tank. In Japan, we can set that up pretty easily, but it's harder to arrange in the U.S.
HISHAM: It must be hard playing in a circle, when you're playing with two other percussionists.
YOSHIMI: It's much easier to make eye contact with each other in a circle. But since I always have my butt to the audience, I often forget I'm on stage. I'll look up and realize there are actually people there. Sometimes I feel like I go into outer space. The best shows are the ones where I look back and I realize that I wasn't thinking about anything.
HISHAM: You first worked with Eye on your collaboration, UFO Or Die. At that point he was already pretty famous in Japan for his now legendary noise project, Hanatarash.
YOSHIMI: I hadn't heard of him before I met him, but I had heard of Hanatarash. I'd never even played the drums before Eye asked me to play a show with UFO Or Die! After that, he asked me to play drums in the Boredoms. The original drummer, Yoshikawa, became the percussionist. His drumming is crazy I've never seen anything like it. He always misses the drums and hits the rims, making a bunch of clicking sounds. All you see is sweat flying everywhere. Even now, he goes to drum school and practices with a metronome, but he still really sucks. In a way, he's a genius because he doesn't make any progress. A few years ago, another drummer, Atari, joined the band, and Yoshikawa started doing vocals instead of percussion. So the Boredoms changed into a twin-drummer, twin-vocal formation. As time's gone by, we've gotten better at playing the drums as a unit. The more we play together, the more integrated we become.
HISHAM: What inspired you to start your all-girl noise-rock band, OOIOO, back in 1996?
YOSHIMI: A Japanese magazine called Switch wanted to do a story about me, but I didn't want to be photographed by myself, so I took a bunch of girlfriends to the shoot and pretended we were a band. We thought it would be fun to make that fictional band into a real one. I'd never played the guitar before, and neither had the other guitarist. The bassist had never even touched a bass. Ai, the drummer, was the only person who could actually play her instrument.
HISHAM: I noticed how good she is on the hand drums when I saw you play at the Knitting Factory last November. Her movement was really graceful.
YOSHIMI: When we started out, Ai played the congas and the djembe, but she had never played a proper drum kit. When I suggested assembling a new type of drum set, she got interested in joining the band. The high-hat is way left of the kick drum, and the snare is to the left of the high-hat. There's a djembe where the snare should be, and above that, timbales and cow bells. Two congas stand where the floor tom should be.
HISHAM: Despite OOIOO's amateur origins, your first show was opening for Sonic Youth in Japan.
YOSHIMI: Yes, but we had to put stickers all over our guitar fretboards because we didn't know how to play the chords. It turned out the stage lights were so bright that we couldn't see the stickers, so we played all the wrong notes! It was so messed up that it became interesting. I still have stickers on my fretboard.
HISHAM: Really? But you're good at the guitar now.
YOSHIMI: I'm not good. My playing is still pretty forced. I hold so much tension in my body when I play. I always stand on the tips of my toes so the backs of my calves get really tense.
HISHAM: Do you invest the same amount of energy into both OOIOO and the Boredoms?
YOSHIMI: Absolutely. But I'm up front with OOIOO, singing and playing the guitar, so I feel everyone's attention directed at me. It's so intense I get physically sick from it. I feel more protected behind a drum kit.
HISHAM: Growing up, did you have any formal musical training?
YOSHIMI: When I was four or five, I asked my mom if I could take piano lessons. She said I could if I first took Cho-on lessons.
HISHAM: Cho-on is Japanese church choir-singing, right?
YOSHIMI: Yes. The training is based on
listening. A sister would play the piano, and we'd learn to score the notes from the harmony she played. It was fun in the beginning, because it was like a quiz but it got so boring. I don't enjoy working from sheet music.
HISHAM: I feel that way too.
YOSHIMI: I took piano lessons until sixth grade, but none of that knowledge made a difference when I joined the Boredoms. I do play the piano on the latest album. I used rags to stroke the strings inside the piano like a harp. I used only the strings connected to the black keys. It's not really playing it's more like cleaning the piano strings.
HISHAM: The tone of those black keys must match the tone of your being. When I play the guitar, I always play only the high strings at the bottom of the neck the thin ones. Maybe each person has his own frequency.
YOSHIMI: I think that's true. Everyone in the Boredoms has a strong personality we've all been involved in many different projects. I think that lends depth to our music.
HISHAM: You're connected to a lot of New York musicians, like John Zorn.
YOSHIMI: Eye-chan collaborated with John on a band called Naked City when John lived in Japan. He speaks Japanese so well. John was also the first person to bring the Boredoms over to the States. He booked our first tour. We used to play at the old Knitting Factory space together in the early '90s. He's an important person in our lives we owe him a lot. Actually, we're having dinner with him tonight.
HISHAM: Had you always been a fan of his music?
YOSHIMI: When I first met him, I didn't know his music at all. I just thought, "Wow, this guy is really good on the sax."As we became friends, I discovered how well respected his music is.
HISHAM: The new Boredoms album, Seadrum/House of Sun, has only two tracks.
YOSHIMI: Both tracks on the album are pretty old. The drone track, "House of Sun,"is maybe five years old. "Seadrum"is from two or three years ago.
HISHAM: Didn't you record "Seadrum"on the beach at Wakayama a few years back?
YOSHIMI: Yeah. We set up our drum kits on wooden boards on the sand, and we didn't stop playing until the tide came in and the drums started getting wet. Then we submerged a mic in the water to record the sound of the drums under the sea. We set up so many mics there was no way we could ever listen to all the tracks. But we used the essence of that recording in "Seadrum."
HISHAM: What's the story behind your collaboration with The Flaming Lips? They reference you in the title of their latest album, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
YOSHIMI: I was surprised! The first time OOIOO toured the U.S. in 2000, we played the South by Southwest Music Festival. The Flaming Lips were recording in Texas and asked me to come over to the studio to play some trumpet and sing. People always remember my early days with the Boredoms, so I did some screams for them. I didn't hear anything from them after that. Then one day I walked into the Rough Trade record store in London while touring with the Boredoms, and I heard "YOOSSHIIIMMMEEEEEE" blasting from the speakers. I was so startled! The guy in the store told me it was a song on the new Flaming Lips album. Then I saw my name in the title.
HISHAM: I like how they sang "Yoshime"instead
YOSHIMI: Yeah, they sort of messed up
the pronunciation of my name. That cracked me up.