Yesterday evening in Oslo, tonight in Bern, tomorrow afternoon playing at a festival on an alp in the Valais: Kikagaku Moyo don’t take it easy to bring their music to the people. "Last night we did not sleep at all," Go Kurosawa tells me before the concert at ISC in Bern, Switzerland. “We finished the concert in Oslo at 2am, at 4am we were back at the hotel and two hours later we had to leave for the airport.” "What do you do to ease the stress when touring? Working out?,” I ask Go. "No, I'm the drummer”, he replies, "that's already pretty physical. I relax when I play on stage. And when I'm really tired I tell myself that I’m extremely lucky to be able to do what I love to do."
Kikagaku Moyo have been around since 2012 when the band started out busking on the streets of Tokyo. Their last and best album so far, "Masana Temples", is from 2018, recorded and produced in Portugal. Besides Go, the band consists of his brother Ryu on sitar, Tomo Katsurada on guitar and all sorts of percussion instruments, Daoud Popal on guitar and Kotsu Guy on bass. Kikagaku Moyo play psychedelic music: they like to improvise and take their time for long songs.
Psychedelic music dates back to a time in the 1960s when artists believed that drugs would make their music sound better. Psychedelic drugs such as LSD led to an increased consciousness among consumers, which then had an effect on the music that was composed and played under the influence of these drugs. On the other hand, this music also had the effect of deepening and expanding the experience of the drugs. It was the classic example of a mutual leverage that was not always understood by outsiders.
"Can you play psychedelic music without drugs?”, I ask Go. "I think so”, he replies. "In the past I also took drugs, but not anymore. It's about experimenting with your consciousness. You can achieve the desired state without drugs. Sure, the drugs have played an important role in the history of psychedelic music, but reducing everything to drugs would be too much of a shortcut. Psychedelic is like a philosophy: it's also about the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it's about literature and also about fashion.” (Kikagaku Moyo are indeed a band with style and undoubtedly look good. GQ recently hyped them as “they might be the best-dressed band of the decade.")
"Everything is just music and there is no ‘me’ anymore.”
The desired mental state, however, can not be reached through two-minute songs. The true trip only begins when the music draws longer. Kikagaku Moyo then try to focus five individuals on one thing, to create something unique under this burning glass. This is a kind of collective meditation and as if in a trance the band shoves forward with their music. "For me as a drummer, this condition is relatively easy to achieve," says Go. "I'm sitting in the back of the stage, in the dark, and can plunge into my own zone, away from the audience. I stop thinking and my arms and hands work automatically. Everything is just music and there is no ‘me’ anymore.”
Right from the start of the concert the audience falls into an "instant trance". A repetitive bass line, strumming guitars, Go who sits at the drums and sings: The tense drowsiness of the band goes well with the sleepwalking spirituality of their music. A few minutes into the first song the heads of the listeners already bob dangerously. Kikagaku Moyo are constantly looking for a unification in sound until a groovy bassline sets in and leads the band out of their self-imposed impasse. For some songs the drums are left aside. Tomo has all sorts of sound gadgets in his repertoire - triangle, gongs, cowbells - and Go tries his hand at the flute. These are special effects almost like in filmmaking.
My imagination goes into overdrive as well with Kikagaku Moyo’s brand of music. And this not only in a concert setting but already when I listen to their album. Let’s take "Dripping Sun”, the second song from the Masana Temples album. It starts out as a Sergio-Leone spaghetti western and then quickly merges into a 1970s cop movie (it could also be something by Quentin Tarantino, "Jackie Brown" maybe). Later I see a car chase (or even a helicopter overflight?), just before the songs fades quietly back into suburban Japan, to people who wait for the bus while enjoying the sun (if they had the leisure to do so). The city pop of Tatsuro Yamashita trickles down their ears through their Sony walkmen. However the situation is more serious than one thinks. The guitars are racing in California and the last dolphins are dancing far out in the sea. At the end of “Dripping Sun” we are back in the police film which is slowly heading towards a showdown. The hero thinks back to Japan one last time. Then the sun goes down for him as well.
For once in Bern, Guillaume Hoarau, the star striker of the local football club, is not the favorite player of the masses. Tonight it's Daoud Popal, Kikagaku Moyo’s guitarist. His fuzz guitar keeps cutting deep furrows in the feel-good-field of non-violent music that his colleagues till with a smile. He is assisted by Ryu Kurosawa's sitar. "The sitar is really a special instrument, it could almost replace an entire band," says Go Kurosawa. "There used to be quite a few bands with sitars. But we want the sitar not to sound like Indian kitsch, but modern. That's why we use the sitar like a guitar, with amplifiers and effect pedals.
I assume that Greta Thunberg listens to a lot of psychedelic music. If not, she should start to do so, to give her message even more depth. Mindfulness - towards fellow human beings, towards nature, towards oneself - is contemporary. In this sense, psychedelic music is also contemporary. The message of Kikagaku Moyo may be more necessary today than it was then, when this music had its big bang. It goes beyond a mere "Peace and Love". It means, in the truest sense of the Greek origin of psychedelic, to let the soul manifest itself and to develop the potential of the human mind further. Then we will be able to again give little things the appreciation they deserve. This may seem like little. But we have to start somewhere.
from The Open Enso archives.
Photos: May Arida
Three concerts in a row in one of the music capitals of the world: that’s why Sandra Arslanian and Sam Wehbi came to London in this early September of 2018. Sandra and Sam are members of Sandmoon, an indie pop/folk and sometimes rock band from Beirut Lebanon. Sandra founded the band eight years ago, a few years after she came back to Lebanon from Belgium where she grew up; she writes all the songs, sings and plays the ukulele, the guitar and the keyboard. Sam plays the lead guitar, particularly when Sandmoon perform live. The rest of the band couldn't make the trip to London, not least because of visa issues.
We arrive in a sunny but windy London on Friday afternoon. We: that are yours truly reporter from Switzerland and May, a photographer who is originally from Beirut, like Sandra and Sam. Both of us have known Sandra for quite some time, closely following her career, from releasing three albums and an EP to winning a Lebanese Movie Award in 2017 for composing the score of Philippe Aractingi’s Listen.
We meet Sandra and Sam in Katja Rosenberg’s apartment in Walthamstow in northern London. Katja’s flat is small and well stuffed, but this is London where space is rare and expensive. For this weekend the apartment is Sandmoon’s home base.
Yesterday’s concert in a chapel was amazing, Sandra gives us the update after we all sit down. Two dozen persons only, but the place was sold out. We played for eighty minutes and the people wouldn’t let us go. Now we are curious what tonight’s concert will bring. It will be a Sofar event at a private place in Bethnal Green.
"It is really nice to play in front of people who actually listen to the music."
On our way to the Sofar concert Sandra hands out Stimorol chewing gums to everybody. Tonight, Sandra says, I will be the great unknown. Nobody this evening will ever have heard of Sandmoon or Sandra Arslanian. I like the idea. Our music, she explains, might not work in Spain. But in Portugal, with all their Fado, it might. Here in London our music definitely works, people like what we do and how we sound.
Are you fed up with Lebanon and the Lebanese audience?, I ask Sandra. Not really, she says. But of course Lebanon is a very small market for English lyrics pop and rock music. And there is another thing: unfortunately in Lebanon only a few people go to see concerts because of the music. They go because others go too and it then becomes a social event. It’s like a herd moving from place to place. It is really nice to play in front of people who actually listen to the music.
Sofar tonight takes place at the loft style apartment of Casey and his girlfriend Rachel. Sandmoon start their concert with Home, one of their trademark songs. Sandra sings without microphone, without nothing, to an audience on the floor and on sofas with all eyes on her. Sam is her ideal musical partner, getting the best out of a rusty acoustic guitar that he had to borrow from a friend.
With the small combo, Sandmoon depend even more than usual on Sandra’s voice and performance. The audience is like spellbound, particularly when Sandmoon perform The Answer, a song from last year’s recording session in Berlin. Then they play Walk, an old favorite, but not Temptation, a newer song that wails like a prayer. It’s Friday night and the audience asks for something "more party".
After the show Sandra is sweaty and exhausted. The public slowly leaves the apartment, they very much liked what they got. We pick up some Chinese food at a takeaway in Walthamstow. Then we all huddle again in Katja’s apartment and eat.
"Me improvising on Bach, what the hell!"
The next day, when we meet again, Sandra is in a good mood, offering Belgian chocolate to everybody. Sam lies on the bed and fingers around on his electric guitar before he goes into a catchy rock tune from his own Uncle Sam band in Beirut. In the meantime Katja is busy doing some household work, watering plants and hanging laundry. Katja was born in Germany but lives in London since 1998, working as a freelance powerpoint guru and an organizer of art events. It is thanks to her that Sandmoon play three concerts in London.
Katja sits down at her piano, jammed between the bed and the wall, and plays Bach. Sam plays along on the guitar, still on the bed, his eyes staring at the ceiling. Me improvising on Bach, Sam says afterwards, what the hell!
Saturday night’s venue is the Hornbeam Café, an organic, authentic neighborhood café and also a community center. The Hornbeam is a place similar to the Onomatopoeia in Beirut where Sandmoon like to play. What is Sandra for you?, I ask Sam outside the café, just before the show. Sandra is like a mother to me, Sam says. She is a great teacher; it’s three years now that I am playing with her. She makes me control myself better, musically and also in general. I am still relatively young, Sam explains, and therefore I have a tendency for wanting to storm the sky.
Even without the full band, Sandmoon cover a lot of musical ground with their performance this evening. Sandra clearly has made the transition from recording artist to performing artist. She is at ease on stage, displays a lot of self confidence and is closer to the audience than I had ever seen her.
During Sandmoon’s concert all their videos are projected in an endless loop on a screen behind Sandra and Sam. The audience sees images of Beirut in the 1960s and of people protesting the political order in recent years. The video of Sandmoon’s 2017 single Shiny Star passes by and Pierre Geagea dances in Beirut Mansion to the music of Time Has Yet To Come. Seeing it like this, from A to Z in one sequence, it is an impressive body of work.
On our way back to the apartment we stop for a late night dinner at Thainese, an Asian restaurant on Walthamstow’s main road. We talk about Prince and Bowie, Sandra’s musical heroes, and also about Fentanyl and discuss if pain killers should be classified and treated as drugs.
For Sunday lunch we again go to Walthamstow’s pedestrian area and to a Bulgarian steakhouse. What is the way ahead for Sandmoon?, I ask Sandra. Could hiring local musicians in London be possible, to play future concerts here with a full band? It could, Sandra replies. However it is hard for me to play with strangers. Sam and me for instance, that’s like an osmosis.
In addition to not being strangers, Lebanese musicians are all shaped by the same experience: Lebanon. Could musicians from London emulate this experience? Often this is an experience of war and it is also reflected in Sandmoon’s current setlist going from songs off the first album raW to Masters of War, a Bob Dylan cover. I don’t know the war that well myself, Sandra says, at least not first hand. In 2006 I was abroad and when my family left Lebanon because of the civil war, I was only seven months old.
Does it matter? Despite not personally being there, war and the consequences of it are profoundly anchored in Sandra’s DNA.
Back in Switzerland Sandra messages me that Sandmoon will soon start to record new songs, with an aim to have a new album out in 2019. Sandra has been very creative lately, also inspired by the good experience she had playing in London. She was in a flow and has written many songs that now need to be developed, refined and recorded. And: We clearly aim for an another Sandmoon visit to London soon, Sandra says.
Londoners dig the melancholic side of Sandmoon’s music and they always love a good storyteller. And that’s precisely why Sandmoon came to London: to find a new audience and new opportunities to spread their message and their musical love. Sandmoon will be back in London; new concerts are scheduled for August of 2019. As for the new album: all the songs have been written - it will be somewhat of a new direction for Sandmoon - two songs have already been recorded and "Fiery Observation", the first video off the forthcoming album "Put a Gun/Commotion", has just come online. For Sandmoon, it's a road that never ends.
"Good thing that I am tattooed. Because from what I read and saw, the women of Velvet Two Stripes, who I will meet in an hour for an interview, appear to be a lot of trouble. On band photos their arms are covered with tattoos, cigarettes are dangling from their mouths and they seem to drink beer and fancy whiskey a lot. I will have to show off my own tattoos to be credible enough to talk to them halfway at eye level.
These are the kinds of clichés that really piss off Sophie Diggelmann, Sara Diggelmann and Franca Mock, the three women of Velvet Two Stripes. Yes, we drink a shot of whiskey from time to time and we smoke cigarettes. Yes, we are loud and we like to laugh. So what! More annoying than this is only another widespread platitude: that Velvet Two Stripes is an all female band (or even worse: a girl group). Excuse me? Has anyone ever called the Rolling Stones a boy band?
Let us better talk about music and "Devil Dance” then, the new album by Velvet Two Stripes, before VTS will hit the stage tonight in Berne, Switzerland. The album was recorded in Berlin, in the famous Hansa Studios; it is the temporarily summit of a road that Velvet Two Stripes have traveled since their first EP "Fire". "The songs of 'Devil Dance' sound different than you used to sound,” I ask the band, “how come?"
Sara is the quickest to reply. “We are better at songwriting now. We have learned how to write better songs. This was the biggest step for us compared to before. Our new songs are very differently constructed than the previous ones."
Songwriting by Velvet Two Stripes is often the result of jam sessions; everyone joins in and eventually, somehow, a musical idea emerges which is followed up. Most of the times a guitar riff coming from Sara is involved. "How many riffs does a guitarist’s life have?,” I ask Sara.
She laughs. "I do not know if there is a limit,” she says. "RPL, riffs per life, so to speak. You can always play the same riff, but when the bass does something else then the riff itself will sound different as well."
Sara started her life as a guitar player with a Fender Stratocaster and later switched to a Telecaster. Today she plays a Gibson ES-335 from the year 1968. Big guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Dave Grohl play (or have played) the same model.
Franca’s bass, a Fender Precision, is vintage too and dates back to 1972. "Only your voice is relatively young and is made in 1993,” I am teasing Sophie. "Who knows,” she answers slyly, "maybe it is the reincarnation of an older voice."
"Janis Joplin maybe?"
"In any case, I already shouted in 1993."
Sophie Diggelmann knows her raspy rock voice well and knows how to keep it in shape. The important thing is, says Sophie, that she listens to her own body. Sophie senses how much her voice can bear and thus gets through the concerts without becoming hoarse. And should her voice nevertheless be a little knocked out then there is always tea. The cigarettes she smokes are not really good for her voice, Sophie is well aware of that, "but what else can you do if you must kill time before concerts?”
Sophie studies art and is also responsible for the artwork of Velvet Two Stripes. The cover of “Devil Dance” is her work. And she also designed the VTS T-shirt that was a goodie in the band’s crowdfunding campaign last year and which I am wearing for the interview tonight. "In Beirut they almost wanted to rip your T-shirt off my body,” I say, "my friends there loved it that much."
“Yes exactly, Beirut,” says Sara. “In one of your messages you asked us about the oriental-sounding guitar solo that I play on 'Sister Mercy'. The reason is that a few years ago I visited Beirut for two weeks and got to play the oud, the Arabic lute. I was inspired so much by this that I have played some oriental sounds in the studio when recording the album, but with an electric guitar.”
Indeed: the oriental notes of "Sister Mercy" could indicate a future progression of the band. And also the noise elements that are present in several corners of "Devil Dance", especially in the last 30 seconds of "My Own Game”. Sure thing, the blues will always be the musical root of Velvet Two Stripes, but if we dive into the blues even more that we already did, the band says, "we can soon collaborate with Philipp Fankhauser."
Anyway, Velvet Two Stripes don’t see themselves as a blues band, but rather as a rock band. As a blues garage rock band that likes to play hard and loud. With "Devil Dance" they have created the essence of this style, they have found the state they desire. The songs of Velvet Two Stripes have become more straightforward, without background vocals, pop elements and drum computers. VTS achieve a maximum effect with a reduced-to-the-max attitude.
“With Velvet Two Stripes there is an ongoing development happening from the inside."
Where is the musical journey of Velvet Two Stripes heading to? What's next in their career? I'm getting a rudimentary graphic out of my pocket that I drew in preparation for this interview. It shows Velvet Two Stripes in search of their true sound - which they have now found with "Devil Dance" - and the possibility, starting from this reference point, to further develop the sound of the band.
The three women like the drawing. "On the new album,” says Sara, "we've become bolder and dare to try out new things. Take 'Lizard Queen’ as an example: I have been playing this rolling guitar part with the deep bass sounds for ages at our soundchecks. So far, Sophie and Franca always found that it was boring. But now the time was right and we tried to build a song around this part."
“With Velvet Two Stripes there is an ongoing development happening from the inside,” Sara continues. "We find each other more and more."
Hell would rather become Antarctica than "Devil Dance" not becoming a success. Songs from the album can now be found on various playlists on Spotify. As a result, the number of monthly clicks for Velvet Two Stripes has jumped from 800 to 82,000. The band has only a limited idea of how this all happened, who in the world of Spotify digs Velvet Two Stripes so much and integrates them into playlists, even in Canada. They also don’t know who is responsible for giving VTS airplay on a Dutch radio station. They didn’t pay anybody to do this. But by all means it’s great.
At the end of our conversation Sara returns to my sketchy mind map. "Nobody has ever made such a drawing for us,” she says. "Now I'm really excited to find out where our journey will lead us."
Velvet Two Stripes will be on tour all summer in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. For details and dates check out the band's website.
“Let me tell you a crazy story”, says Taka Goto, head of MONO, the Japanese post rock band, shortly before their concert in Zurich on April 28, 2019. “A story that happened a long time ago. First I received an email from a fan in Iraq. He wrote to me that he is listening to MONO all night long because only thanks to our music he is able to cope with the American bombs that strike his city incessantly. One week later I got an email from an American soldier stationed in Iraq. He told me the same thing: only thanks to MONO he endures the war in Iraq. Crazy, no?”
Since 20 years the Japanese of MONO save the world. During this time they have released ten albums and played 1368 concerts. The concert in Zurich is number 1369. It is a special mix that distinguishes MONO and has always fascinated their fans. A mixture of breathless melancholy full of dramatic melodies paired with deafening musical climbs towards ecstasy. The music of MONO works on the principle of hope: our world is evil, but MONO gives you the weapons, gives you the therapy, to defeat the evil.
Also Taka is saved by his own music. When he composes, he tells me, he dives deep into that damned darkness that sometimes surrounds him, trying to find a light. His songs have become his own medicine. ”Why do you need so much salvation?”, I ask him. "Because the world is so complicated”, he says. "Actually, the recipe in Buddhism is quite simple: respect each other, love each other, help each other. However this can be very difficult. That's what I try to explain with my music.”
“I don’t trust what I see. There are things that we only can feel.”
MONO is an instrumental band but on their website (one of the richtest and most informative I've ever seen of a band), they are very eloquent with words. Here Taka describes the idea behind “Transcendental” in words that would suit a church chaplain. The track is about life and death and regeneration, Taka explains. When our bodies decay and decompose in death, and thus become the seeds for future generations, our souls will journey together into our new eternal life.
“Where does your spirituality come from”, I ask Taka.
“I don’t trust what I see. There are things that we only can feel.
The new album from MONO is called "Nowhere Now Here" and for Taka it feels like a second debut album. Two years ago MONO had huge problems with their management and at the same time the drummer left the band. The future of the band was seriously threatened; MONO was like a tired creature, Taka says: "No drummer, no management, no money." This dark period is also the reason why on the new album for the first time in the career of MONO there is singing. "One day Tamaki, our bassist, called me and told me I can’t breathe anymore, there are too many stories going around. And I told her, everything will be fine, trust me. The band will live on and we will also find a new drummer.” Finally, Taka wrote the song" Breathe”, based on the idea that Tamaki cannot breathe. And now she sings this song on stage!
The new drummer’s name is Dahm and he is American. He fits frictionlessly into the well lubricated musical clockwork of MONO, also at the concert in Zurich. The stage is dark and the musicians can be recognized only dimly, they are shady faces in the backlight of the spotlights. The concert starts with a crashing noise storm, with thunder and lightning coming from "After You Comes the Flood". We have just celebrated Easter, the feast of silence, where deep mourning is followed by the joyful resurrection. And now MONO come to us with their din close to the pain barrier. Are these opposites? No, not at all. The latter is just a loud version of the former.
Taka’s idol is Ludwig von Beethoven. “I understand each of his works”, he says, “and why he needed to write it.” Taka writes music because he must. Because he wants to create something, even as a child, that only he can create exactly like that. And even today, after 20 years of MONO, he is still grateful that he can fully concentrate on the arts with his life. He enjoys every day, even the days on tour, and there are many. "At the beginning of our career, in the early 2000s”, says Taka, "we played a large number of concerts, over a hundred a year, especially in the USA. At that time there was no MONO website, no social media and we had to somehow make a name for ourselves.” Only in 2008 did Taka Goto take a six-month break to compose "Hymn to the Immortal Wind," the album that fans almost unanimously call MONO’s masterpiece.
How does Taka survive MONO’s never ending tour? He doesn’t go to the gym and he is not twenty anymore either. “True", says Taka, "my body is slowly getting older. It is the energy of our audience that drives us forward. Sometimes we go on stage super tired and boom!, the energy hits back at us from the public and we go again. Maybe we will even reach a new record of concerts played this year.”
The French composer Nadia Boulanger once said (to Quincy Jones), "your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being". Nadia Boulanger could have said this to Taka Goto; he is a prime example of her theory. Taka (and Yoda and Tamaki and Dahm) is MONO and MONO is Taka. There is no difference between the artist and his art, everything is one, everything is melting.
However: with MONO there is no difference between the artist and his audience either. Anyone who attends a MONO concert comes out a changed person. It is this destructive yet creative power of their music that grabs you. After all the frustrations and the fear they went through, the band entered the studio to record their current album with a lot of rage; when MONO play live this anger is still perceptible today. But there is also this catharsis, through silence and through volume, that MONO creates and which lets you see the white light at the end of your own black tunnel. MONO concerts are mind blowing, in the truest meaning of the expression. You believe your brain is going to explode. You are transported and distorted, blasted and lambasted. You walk through damnation and receive salvation. You too are saved by MONO.
Kurt is based in Bern and Beirut is his second home. Always looking for that special angle, he digs deep into people, their stories and creations, with a sweet spot for music.
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