Floating Weightless in Mid Air: A personal essay by Benjo Kazue

Forgot password?

Delete Comment

Are you sure you want to delete this comment?

Floating Weightless in Mid Air: A personal essay by Benjo Kazue

A personal essay by Benjo Kazue.

This feature appears in the Asia Pacific Writers & Translators x Bengaluru Review Special Issue: Step Outside the Frame, September 2020.

The first time I speak to Go Kurosawa I’m at work. He calls me two hours early.

“Benjo? It’s Go,” he says. His soft Japanese voice surfs through telecom static and floats over me in a delayed wave of feedback.

He’s caught me off guard. After a fortnight of organising, finally arranging a time two hours from now, Go’s calling me early is because he and his bandmates have decided on a whim -- as if deciphering a message from God from the sound of the wind -- to trek off into the Japanese mountains and jam for a few hours before leaving Japan for their third tour of Australia.

Go Kurosawa does not care about time. At least not in the same way my boss does when I step off the factory floor. But my boss is not the 33-year-old long-locked and silky spoken drummer, vocalist, and kaleidoscopic ringleader of Kikagaku Moyo (“Geometric Patterns” in English).

The quintet cult of Japanese beatniks, Astro travellers and psychedelic music makers feature, on lead guitar, the flashy-dressed improvisational wildcard Daoud Popal; on bass, often barefoot, long-limbed-and-lanky sportin’ a pencil moustache it’s Kotsu Guy; on sitar and keys, Go’s brother Ryu, blissfully zoned out (or in) behind a chubby face, shoulder-length hair, hippie goatee and moustache, the most sensibly dressed (but just as stylish) member, joining the group of experimental misfits upon returning to Tokyo after studying sitar in Kolkata digesting the ancient secrets of prestigious master Manilal Nag; and, last but not least, there’s Tomo Katsurada, the patchwork-pant wearing rhythm guitarist who holds the flow of the ocean and the loose elasticity of a thick rubber band armed with a penchant for strange instruments, the first founding member of the band alongside Go, and half of GuruGuru Brain (“Spiraling Brain” in English) -- a Tokyo-born Amsterdam-operated psychedelic record label showcasing the far-out avant-garde of the orient and Asia.

The spontaneity of their experimental brand of free-flowing psychedelic-space-jazz blends influences from world music through folk-rock and krautrock and oozes like a technicolor maggot outta eternity through cosmic grooves and monumental moments of crash-and-boom juxtaposed against an elegant and precise balance between opposites. Its soars, and its slipstreams craft platitudes that make the most enigmatic truths palpable from the comfort of an armchair.

Kikagaku Moyo transcends time: Psychedelic Space Alchemists from Japan.

So when Go says, “Sorry I had to call you early… Is this a bad time?”

I look over at my boss, he’s staring me down. “Early?” I say. “Go, my man... you’re right on time.”

*

I’d first caught onto Kikagaku Moyo in 2017 on their second tour of Australia when they played Gizzfest. By then, their fifth year as a band, Kikagaku Moyo was already a burgeoning worldwide cult phenomenon in the School of Multi-Layered Psychic Genre Morphing, graduating alongside King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard and Khruangbin as the most mind-bending, talented, and illustrious bands to grace contemporary psychedelia.

The band’s first LP, a six-track self-titled thirty-minute masterpiece infusing elements of classical Indian, krautrock, traditional folk, and seventies-psych-driven rock-n-roll, set the tone for believers to interpret Kikagaku Moyo as architects of a bridge between the material and the supernatural: a gateway into the true nature of the universe, man.

It exerts an elemental power and showcases early moments of cosmic sonic genius transcending genres and bending traditional elements of music beyond a recognisable shape or structure. Rough, raw, and loose, it’s speckled with distinct periods of prominence, layered with theremins, sitars, percussive drums, and chimes; a delicate dance between spacious and serene, punctuated with ethereal trance-like nonsensical vocals.

"We sing in made-up words and sounds," Go says, leading into a story about ‘Can You Imagine Nothing?’ -- a song the band wrote over one night they spent jamming on a suspended footbridge in the Japanese mountains. “As we jammed, the bridge began to sway, it made us feel like we were floating weightless in mid-air”.

Only six months after the release of their debut self-titled LP, Kikagaku Moyo dropped their second, Forest of Lost Children, a face-melting thirty-minute courageous exploration of the outer reaches of Eastern-inspired psych sounds, and later the same year released a fifty-minute EP Mammatus Clouds.

Their early material initiated a dialogue between mind and body, inner and outer. A lexicon sometimes delicate and tender, other times explosive and emotional, but always evolving.

“Making a song is like a breath of wind through the leaves, or a fish jumping out of water,” Go says, sounding like a hallucinogenic flower with XRAY vision and a strawberry flavoured thesaurus.

*

Kikagaku Moyo was born in a strange place. The paradoxes of Japanese culture have depths unknown to the most frequent visitors and adapted foreigners. The beauty and truth embedded in Japan’s irony are mind-bending: a cauldron of diverse ingredients, and although the surface reverberates a draconian gleam of inoffensive and oppressed obedience, it’s what bubbles underneath, when the sun goes down and the neon fumes of the underbelly flick like glitter across the galaxy, that gives the potion its potency.

The sheer number of people means entire subterranean subcultures can exist outta filtered repression that has a home in the strange, fetishized underground of Japanese extremism. Pornography; sex; drugs; psychedelic music; a selective obsession for Western consumerism; complete social withdrawal and never leaving home (there’s even a name for that one: hikikomori); buying used panties from vending machines; getting jerked off by robots etc. -- that kinda stuff really gives Japan its spice: the strange and exotic flavours not shunned from Japan’s magic potion of hyper-adrenaline and bizarro charm.

Kikagaku Moyo -- and psych rock in general -- are allowed to exist but aren’t allowed to grow. Such an enigma wouldn’t (couldn’t) survive in Japan. Kikagaku Moyo is not an endorsed export (but I mean, ‘dja ever hear about Acid Mothers Temple or Flower Travellin’ Band either?).

“We formed as a reaction to the rigid laws we experienced growing up,” Go says about forming the band when he returned from studying music business in Denver. “There was nowhere for us to feel at home, so psychedelic rock was our expression, it helped us be free.”

“We tried to make a scene, doing our own shows, organizing our own festivals with different labels and bands, but we could tell pretty quickly it would take longer trying to make it in Japan compared to if we went somewhere where there was a healthy scene with bands and promoters who were encouraging,” Go says about the band needing a central hub to operate from that gave easy access to touring Europe and the US, especially if they were to have any chance at riding the kaleidoscopic rainbow of psychedelic livelihood to the grave.

“I felt like overseas we can make it much faster, rather than invest our time in making it happen in our own country.”

Early incarnations of the band were days busking outside busy train stations in Tokyo and in outer realms of the prefecture jamming in the mountains, swaying on suspension bridges in forests for hours. “We could play anywhere we wanted, for any time, however long we wanted,” Kurosawa says about the early days, “but we would always have to finish the song somewhere and stop so people knew it was over.”

Armed with an innate passion for igniting spiritual endeavors through music and the DIY ethos embedded in Japanese counterculture, Go and Kikagaku Moyo were trying to colour outside the lines and comply to a country that demanded the free-flowing nature and spontaneous expression of consciousness be confined to a small sanctioned part of a subterranean community.

“It wasn’t good to be considered experimental in Japan,” Go says about how such an extemporaneous and transcendental rollercoaster-like Kikagaku Moyo can evolve when attached to such strict and censored roots.

“People didn’t understand us in Japan. We’re Japanese, but we are still foreign there. Nobody gets it… gets us.”

In 2015 Go and Tomo moved to Amsterdam, establishing a home for the band and their label. No way these poets of extraterrestrial interpretation could be contained to a country too stringent to recognise the holy irreverence of God in a Guitar Riff. Committed to levitating GuruGuru Brain to the next level and help fellow Asian musicians talented enough to garner global attention, but where home countries like Japan are too restricting and censored a market to give them a chance.

The rest of the band? They still live in Japan, but by no means is it their home, Go says. “Kikagaku Moyo isn’t a Japanese band so much as they’re an American band or a European band.” They aren’t defined by cultural constraints of nationality or spirituality.

*

By the time I turned onto them, Kikagaku Moyo already turned on America and Europe through constant touring on the back of House in the Tall Grass -- a folk-driven dreamy soundscape that floats through the sky like a lost stray helium balloon -- and Stone Garden -- a heavy-hitting powerful display of the band’s capacity for hard riffs and loud noises.

The move to Amsterdam had paid dividends. Kikagaku Moyo had become Kikagaku Moyo. They toured at head-on full-throttle, had a central hub for GuruGuru business operations, and carved reliable touring circuits and enthusiastic fan bases across Europe and America.

Since leaving home, Kikagaku Moyo has a lot to owe to the rest of the world. Internationally they've been embraced far wider than they would be at home. And before they tour Australia for the third time, Go tells me they owe a lot to Australia as much as anywhere else.

“Australia was our first international tour,” Go says. “Playing Australia is really nice because it was the first place we ever toured outside of Japan. There’s a feeling that we started there, that it was the beginning for us. It’s our home outside of the home.”

Talking about playing Gizzfest in 2017, Go says, “it helped a lot in the approach to DIY and led me to be more confident to run a label, do warehouse shows, help bands, open record stores.” It was monumental for Kikagaku Moyo and Kurosawa moving forward with GuruGuru Brain. “How they manage to organise a tour in their home country and invite and encourage foreigners and host it on such a big scale… I can not really imagine how that’s possible to do that in Japan,” he says, resigned.

But King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are professionals in the business of trance-inducing multi-faceted progressive psych-jazz and rock and roll (and promoting DIY festivals, and running record labels) and Kurosawa gleaned all he could from the experience. “How King Gizzard and Flightless [records] promote and support their community -- their home -- that's something I wish I could do in Japan.”

Kurosawa realises that's a dream that might never happen, no matter how hard he tries to morph and mutate reality, there’s a limit to his powers, and arbitrary Japanese censorship against the foreign and unknown is an entity that cannot have its face melted off by wailing guitar sirens and pirouetting loops of eternal feedback.

Not even Kikagaku Moyo’s current record, Masana Temples, is enough of a sitar quenched cascading flow of spiritual funk to overthrow the bureaucracy of Japanese conformity. Shame really, ‘cause the record sounds like lapping waves of enchanting lullabies that open the third eye and massage it with visions to eternity. It’s Kikagaku Moyo at their most assured, most comfortable, most brilliant; and has all the energy of the atomic bomb, racing full-throttle on a celestial speedway through the inner dimensions of consciousness.

*

A week later I’m in Brisbane at the Nine Lives Festival at The Tivoli. It’s 9 pm. Kikagaku Moyo plays at 10 pm. I meet Go and his band of merry men briefly before their set. His brother Ryu is with him, sipping green tea from a paper cup, and Kotsu is there, draped in an embroidered silk jacket.

“Did you guys rehearse?”

“No, we never rehearse,” Go says, like it should be obvious. Like I should know they channel the music in the moment, man.

"There are no rules. We focus on experimentation and improvisation... how we can play something out of the ordinary. We want to flow with what’s going on in the environment we’re in. We try to communicate with it… create a dialogue.”

*

Later, on stage, Go is tuning his kit with a drum key and rolling wrists across snares and toms and symbols that stutter, boom, clash, and gallop. Wrapped in purple floral pants embossed with geometric patterns, chunky-heeled black boots, and a green wool-knit short-sleeve-shirt he saunters across the stage near Tomo, who’s assembling chimes, gongs, flutes, and strange instruments, cloaked in patchwork-pants, multi-coloured chevron-patterned long-sleeve-shirt and high top Chuck Taylor sneakers.

I’m front row, left of centre. Ryu Kurosawa is an arm's length from me in a fresh ironed pale-lime-green short-sleeve business shirt, pleated white pants and ankle-high retro leather boots with the sole worn outta them; his hair in a ponytail, moustache on full display, still drinking hot green tea from a paper cup tuning his synth and sitar, organising multitudes of distortion pedals at his feet and wires flowing from assorted gadgets: paraphernalia he could’ve salvaged from a flying saucer.

Behind me: a room full of people; punters hanging off the balcony. The first few rows exchange customary lashings of sweat from hair flicks and loose t-shirts. Drinks spill, people moan; clap; chant. Suddenly, there is silence. Lights dim. The crowd thrusts in a surge of anticipation. The opening sitar riff from ‘Entrance’ floats around the room lingering for two-and-half-minutes before Dauod Popal and Kotsu Guy appear from behind the dense rivalry of smoke machines to lead the band into ‘Dripping Sun’, gleaning their guitar lines straight outta a second rate seventies detective show before transforming itself into psychedelic drops of static in an ocean of fuzz, breaking into a howling spacecraft at hyperspeed breaching the outer limits of the stratosphere.

Ladies and gentlemen, you are now floating in space.

They’re sloppy but can afford to be. The nature of the music hides it. Energy buzzes back-and-forth in a furious velocity like razor-sharp lazers rendering ripples through seams of consciousness. Songs flow in-and-out of tempo, in-and-out of time, existing as one life force, always evolving: a dialogue. And Boy Howdy ain’t it groovy, man! Ryu’s warped mystic sitar twangs are galactic transmissions piercing visions of Japan, navigating chaotic networks of neon-lit signs down dinky anachronistic bars bordered by bonsai trees turnin’ ‘round temples wound in wisps of incense where lantern-lit yakitori stands to illuminate the surrealism of a lonely foreigner combing for belonging in the anonymity of the universe.

Go is the ringleader, counting, shouting to the band, keeping it all together in a loose hand, allowing for things to fall and flow into place, but still pounding on the pigskin and riding his drum stool like a pony on an intergalactic carousel, tongue hanging outta his mouth, eyes rolling in his head, moving the band through ‘Kogarashi’ and into a long free-flowing rendition of ‘Tree Smoke’ and seamlessly into ‘Orange Peel’.

They sculpt soundscapes that feel like going for a long walk through enchanted forests. Music that’s raw and rigid in spontaneous conceptualisation, clear and precise in vision and execution, but free and loose enough to not be burdened by perfectionism. Never the same twice, even if it is. Kikagaku Moyo makes you feel like you are completely in the moment, absorbed in reality, but at the same time somewhere else completely, surfing wormholes through doors to new dimensions.

Songs rock-and-roll like a rattlin’ runaway boxcar. They slice together, moulding and morphing into each other, each flowing in-and-out of the next.

It’s clear why GQ called them The Best Dressed Band in The World: Kikagaku Moyo collectively share a wardrobe that Austin Powers would be proud of, and Boy Howdy! Look at them move. From the front row, they shine like a holographic aperture to the mystery of the universe: Mystic Mutants From The Sonic Dimension.

Their guitars have wider lexicons than Stephen Hawking. They’re entertaining a dialogue with The Matrix; they’re the cheat code for an illusionary world confining us to its strict and rigid rules, systems and structure. We can rewrite the programming of our heritage. We are The One.

They shimmy through ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ then ‘Streets of Calcutta’ prompting Tomo to thrust demented jabs with his guitar at the ground. Kotsu’s tall frame and bare feet are lurking back of the stage; his long, thin hair flows over his nipples and bounces nonchalantly on his GuruGuru t-shirt, bopping his head to the groovy funk of his own bass lines.

Then, Dauod flicks off his old moccasin boots, leaping photogenically across the stage in his pearl-coloured skin-tight jeans with scattered white spiraling patterns, his hair stuck to his face with sweat, black stone necklace bouncing outta his chest like a cartoon heart, bracelets jangling while he holds his guitar like a shield, welding the space in front of him as the band close out their sixty-minute set with an extended instrumental jam of ‘Gatherings’ that creates so much sonic sensation The Tivoli is orbiting the atmosphere and we’re surfing wormholes through corridors of cosmic mystery, rupturing the fabric of consciousness.

*

The venue clears out. I wait around to see Go, but he is elusive.

On the street, everything is illuminated under the snowglobe of the universe: people hanging Kikagaku Moyo merch off their shoulders or carrying GuruGuru Brain records under their arms.

Tonight, forever, now -- The Tivoli, Kikagaku Moyo, these people I don’t know smoking cigarettes under street lamps -- this is all that exists in the universe. All of it is foreign, but it’s home. All any of us are doing is floating weightless in mid-air.

I’ll try to remember this feeling on the warehouse floor tomorrow.

*

Benjo Kazue is a no one from the dregs of gonzo rock n' roll. A lousy beatnik lost in the dim lit autobiographical alleyways of creative non fiction and narrative based new journalism. He writes pop journalism, travel journalism, music criticism and creative non-fiction with a potent combination of sensorial force, vivid language, philosophical meandering and gonzo poetry in an inimitable style.

His fiction, non fiction, journalism and music criticism and commentary have been published across a number of publications; and his short stories have been rejected by numerous acclaimed literary journals.

Everett True once said he could be Lester Bangs incarnate.

Support our literary endeavours by subscribing to the FREE Newsletter service of Bengaluru Review here. Reach out to us with any queries or ideas of your own at reviewbengaluru@gmail.com.

Like
Comment
Loading comments