The Beauty of Noise
An interview with Masami Akita of Merzbow
by Chad Hensley
------- Merzbow was born in Tokyo in 1981, the bastard son of Masami Akita. Inspired by Dadaism and Surrealism, Akita took the name for his project from German artist Kurt Schwitters' pre-War architectural assemblage "The Cathedral of Erotic Misery" done in his "merz" style-- a confluence of the organic and the geometric. "Merzbau" referred to his houses. Just as Schwitters attacked the entrenched artistic traditions of his time with his revolutionary Avant-garde collages, so too would Akita challenge the contemporary concept of what is called music. Akita would draw further influence from the Futurist movement. Not only would he embrace the Futurists' love of technology and the machine civilization, but he would push their fondness for noise to the very boundaries of the extreme.
------ Working in his ZDF studio, Akita quickly gained notoriety as a purveyor of a musical genre composed solely of pure, unadulterated noise. Consequently, in 1982 Masami founded the first Noise label, Lowest Music and Arts. He would eventually coin the phrase "Noise Composition" as a description for his sound, and display his pre-
recorded Noise via live performances. These presentations have included Akita's electronics battling with traditional instruments like drums and guitar, as well as solitary shows with nothing more than the man standing before a table strewn with homemade equipment.
full extent of Merzbow's discography is probably only known to Masami
himself, but the unofficial count has now surpassed 170 releases on cassette,
vinyl, and CD on a diverse array of labels worldwide. In addition to Merzbow,
Akita has performed with other Noise entities including Masonna,
Melt Banana, Discordance Axis, Gore Beyond Necropsy, and Cock
ESP. Besides creating Noise, he's authored two books on extreme
culture and is a freelance writer for Japanese pornography magazines.
He has also scored Ian Kerkhof's film, Deadman 2.
------ Tauromachine is Merzbow's latest collection of otological incendiaries. Released by America's own Relapse, tauromachine is the sound of machinery operating on full speed in a mad scientist's laboratory. The seven digital experiments presented run an aural gamut between hypnotic pulsations to violent dissordance. Each track offers the listener a disturbing journey into the deepest extremities of Noise with such 'songs' as "soft water rhinoceros", "heads of clouds", and "wounded cycad dub".
------ Some people claim to thoroughly enjoy Akita's orchestrated cacophonies. Rest assured, his Merzbow project is not for the weak-willed or faint-hearted; a listener must be able to savor hissing static, grinding feedback, and almost unending distortion. Noise can be difficult to digest even for those who are appreciative of musical extremes, but it all comes off with a sinister ambiance that attracts as it repels. Given his commitment to and consummate production of Noise, the sonic artwork of Masami Akita is sure to usher in the savage sounds of the next millennium.
What first attracted you to Noise?
I was influenced by aggressive Blues Rock guitar sounds like Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Robert Fripp and fuzz organ sounds such as Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine. But the most structured Noise influence would have to be Free Jazz such as Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, and Frank Wright. I saw the Cecil Taylor Unit in 1973 and it was very influential. I was a drummer for a free form Rock band in the late '70s and I became very interested in the pulse beat of the drums within Free Jazz. I thought it was more aggressive than Rock drums. I also became interested in electronic kinds of sounds. I started listening to more electro-acoustic music like Pierre Henry, Stockhausen, Fancois Bayle, Gordon Mumma and Xenakis. Then I found the forum for mixing these influences into pure electronic noise. I was trying to create an extreme form of free music. In the beginning, I had a very conceptual mind set. I tried to quit using any instruments which related to, or were played by, the human body. It was then that I found tape. I tried to just be the operator of the tape machine-- I'm glad that tape is a very anonymous media. My early live performances were very dis-human and dis-communicative. I was using a slide projector in a dark room at that point. I was concentrating on studio works until 1989 then I assembled some basic equipment before I started doing live Noise performances. Equipment included an audio mixer, contact mike, delay, distortion, ring modulator and bowed metal instruments. Basically, my main sound was created by mixer feedback. It was not until after 1990, on my first American tour, that I started performing live Noise Music for presentation to audiences. The first US tour was a turning point for finding a certain pleasure in using the body in the performance. Right now I'm using mixer feedback with filters, ring, DOD Buzz Box, DOD Meat Box, and a Korg multi-distortion unit. I am using more physically rooted Noise Music not as conceptually anti-instrument and anti-body as before. If music was sex, Merzbow would be pornography.
In America, pornography is often viewed as vulgar and offensive-- especially to women. Are you implying that Merzbow is for men?
No. I mean that pornography is the unconsciousness of sex. So, Noise is the unconsciousness of music. It's completely misunderstood if Merzbow is music for men. Merzbow is not male or female. Merzbow is erotic like a car crash can be related to genital intercourse. The sound of Merzbow is like Orgone energy-- the color of shiny silver.
How did you get involved with tape trading through the mail in the early '80s?
When I started Merzbow the idea was to make cheap cassettes which could also be fetish objects. I recorded them very cheaply and then packaged them with pornography. I got very involved with the mail art network which included home tapers like Maurizio Bianchi, Jupitter Larser of Haters, and Trax of Italy. Just as Dadaist Kurt Schwitters made art from objects picked up off the street, I made sound from the scum that surrounds my life. I was very inspired by the Surrealist idea "Everything is Erotic, Everywhere Erotic". So, for me Noise is the most erotic form of sound. The word "noise" has been used in Western Europe since Luigi Russolo's The Art of Noises. However, Industrial music used "noise" as a kind of technique. Western Noise is often too conceptual and academic. Japanese Noise relishes the ecstacy of sound itself.
You have been quoted as saying, "There are no special images of ideology behind Merzbow"-- unlike the early Industrialists such as Throbbing Gristle, SPK, and Whitehouse that used shocking imagery . Yet you have repeatedly used pornography. Isn't pornography a shocking image that creates a certain ideology, whether intended or not?
I have two directions in the use of pornography. In my early cassettes and mail art projects I used lots of pornography. I made many collages using pornography as it was a very important item in my mail art/mail music. I thought my cheap Noise cassettes were of the same value as cheap mail order pornography. These activities were called "Pornoise". In this direction, I would say that I used pornography for it's anti-social, cut-up value in information theory. I soon started to release Merzbow vinyl which was very different from the cassettes of this same time period. I think my vinyl works concentrated more on sound itself because I think vinyl is a more static medium. So, Merzbow went in two separate directions in the '80s- a cassette direction and a vinyl direction. In the '90s, these directions were mixed for one Merzbow. I know you're thinking I'm still using porn images like bondage but these images are not porn to me. I use bondage images only for the release of connected works like Music for Bondage Performance I and 2 and Electroknots. My reasons for using bondage images are very clear- not for shock element but for documentary value. In fact, all bondage pictures I use are taken by myself. I know who the models are and who tied them up. I know the exact meaning of these bondage pictures. This is very different from people using Xeroxed bondage images from Japanese magazines. I know that there are many bondage images associated with Merzbow releases. But many of these releases use stupid images without my permission. I should control all of them but it is very difficult to control all products abroad. I don't like the easy idea of using images without the knowledge of the image itself. So, it's meaningless to create ideology by using pornography without the correct knowledge of the image itself.
What kind of reaction did you get when you started performing in Japan?
In Japan, the Noise audience looks very normal. I think most of them are middle-class salary men. Recently, we have more young, underground music types coming to a show. In the early days, the reaction was nothing. People thought that the music was just too difficult and loud. Recently, more people know how to comprehend my music. Many people have said they could get into a trance from the music. This is a better way of understanding Merzbow. Now, Grindcore and Techno people come to see Merzbow. It's not a very large Noise scene in Japan but we have been getting more places allowing a performance than ever before. Fortunately, many other people in the genre know about each other and perform together. I have also been playing a few Techno events. Right now, the Merzbow live unit is myself, Reiko, and Bara. Reiko is not into music nor is she a Noise player. Bara is performing Noise as his art action. They play a very physical kind of music meaning that they always struggle with sound. It's like the idea of playing with street noise, construction noise, ambient noise, and machine noise. That separation creates a very static feeling and that is my intention-- I don't like to play with musicians in Merzbow. They bother me. Last year, the three of us finished an American tour. We played in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Cleveland. American audiences are nice and clever. The audiences were very crowded. I met some interesting people like Elden of Allegory Chapel, Ltd., Dwid from Integrity, the band Smegma, and all the people who helped organize these shows. The audiences contained many great fans
What other bands involved with Noise have you collaborated with?
Masonna, Hijokaidan, Aube, and Monde Bruits. Maso of Masonna came to see my first live performance in Kyoto. I met Mikawa, who played in both Hijokaidan and the Incapacitants, at a record shop and we went to have a few drinks. Alchemy Records started a CD series dedicated to pure Noise called Good Alchemy and I played as a guest drummer with Hijokaidan. Iwasaki of Monde Bruits organized my first Merzbow show in Osaka. Then we played together at some point.
Tell me a little about your books Scum Culture and Bizarre Sex Moderne.
Scum Culture is a compilation of articles including such topics as bad taste art, Satanic Heavy Metal music, scatological performances of Vienna Aktionism, music of Art Brut, Adolf Wolfli, and work of Social Patient Kollective. After I published this book, the term "Scum Culture" became a little bit popular in the Japanese media. Bizarre Sex Moderne is a cult study and history of sex magazines of pre-World War II. This period was synchronized with world modernism culture. Large chapters are dedicated to the topic of Japan's premiere sex magazine Grotesque. There's also an article about some pioneers in Japanese sexual research such as Hokumel Umehara, Seiu Ito, and Tetsu Takahashi
I understand that you currently write for Japanese pornography magazines.
I started writing articles about S/M and fetishism. I've been very fascinated by surrealistic erotic literature as well as psychoanalysis. People like George Bataile, Andre Breton, Sigmund Freud, and Kraft Ebbing. I'm also interested in Nudism culture and nude photography from the 1920s.
What are the differences between Japanese and American pornography?
The definite difference is that there is no genitals or intercourse in Japanese porno because of our censorship laws. Of course, we have ratings as does the US. Though there are no S/M or scatological magazines in convenience stores, our society has a tendency to make concessions for politeness in respect to sexual violations. Most of Japan's sexual trauma is high school girls. High school girls are a very powerful sexual icon in our society. High school girls are also very powerful in regards to fashion and social behavior.
Mainstream Japanese culture also seems more accepting of bondage films and women having sex with an octopus. Why?
We have no deviant sex because we have no Christianity. That is, until the end of the Tokugawa era in the 1800s. We began to import Western scientific theory and our sexuality began to Westernize. We also imported Western sexuality without knowledge of Christianity. The reason for women having sex with an octopus is because of our censorship-- her genitalia is covered. We have censorship of the genitals and no censorship of any sexual image without genitals. In the Japanese tradition, we have lots of strange sex images such as women with octopi. I think our present sexuality is influenced subliminally from the times before Tokugawa sexuality. It's a kind of mental pleasure- a sense of humor in sexuality. Presently, Manga and Owarai entertainment is also the same reconstructed traditional culture. In this culture, sex is not a matter of politics or science as is AIDS., the Gay movement, and sexual harassment in Western culture. Japanese sexual culture is a world of the imagination.
What is the difference between Japanese and American Pop culture?
I think that American Pop Culture has more variety. Japanese society is a television community. The most important thing for most people is doing the same things most other people do. No individuality exists in this society with music, fashion, and language. The Japanese government thinks Japan is one nation of one race. But that is a lie. This same theory applies to the Japanese media.
Has American culture had any negative effects on your country?
Yes, AIDS and coffee. For me, American Pop Culture was a stigma when I was a child in the 1950s. America won the war so maybe "U.S.A" is a symbol of power and big dreams. Japanese culture has also had effects on America. A negative effect is the economy. A positive effect is food.
How has growing up in Japan effected your Noise creation?
Sometimes, I would like to kill the much too noisy Japanese by my own Noise. The effects of Japanese culture are too much noise everywhere. I want to make silence by my Noise. Maybe, that is a fascist way of using sound.
Article first published in EsoTerra #8, 1999.