An Interview With Kishi Bashi

Kaoru Ishibashi of Kishi Bashi.

There’s an undeserved stigma attached to Japanese musicians, which is that they can’t break into the western music industry. Take Namie Amuro as a prime example. She hot, sexy, sells millions of recordings, and has had fourteen consecutive years with at least one top ten hit, and her rags to riches story is inspiring. Yet, she remains virtually unknown outside of Asia. Hopefully, that is all about to change!

Cut to summer 2012.

There’s a new talent emerging in the west, and his name is Kaoru Ishibashi. (K., as he likes to be called), is a Japanese-American, who is currently making huge ground swells, while on tour with the popular Athens, Georgia group, of Montreal. K’s music is fresh and has an original sound that is aurally pleasing, and easy to attach oneself to. His music blends lush layers, powerful harmonies, an innocence derived from his falsetto, and ambient tones that fit nicely with classical, pop, folk, and tinges of other-worldly inspirations. K’s live performances have been described as so powerful that tears have overwhelmed some members of the audience. If the rumors are true, then that a pretty good sign that K’s efforts are baring fruit, because that is what good music is supposed to do. Fine music is supposed to stroke the listener’s sentiment. So, if you find yourself listening to a Kishi Bashi tune, and it just so happens that a tear manages to fall down your face, then don’t’ take it too hard, because if you agree with Teenage Fan Club, then tears are cool.

In reality though, tears are merely a salty fluid that dilutes or washes away things that are problematic. They can also help to promote healing for what it is that is ailing you, and thematically K uses liquid as a medium to project that message. In that, those that feel alienated to their surrounding would probably appreciate the video to K’s single, I Am The Antichrist To You, which can be viewed online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EewB7xHHIvE.

The video is a stop animation that was directed by Ishibashi himself. As I watched it for the first time, I was lulled into the allusion that the cute puppy, with a bunny’s tale, had merely bit off more than he could chew of his oversized floppy ears, and really nothing more. However, that initial impression changed, and changed dramatically as the hidden objects, and metaphors reveal a strange and uninviting environment. Soon it becomes apparent that the puppy is unwanted, unloved, and an outcast who is stranded on an unfamiliar island, and somehow manages to befriend a bunny. Despite their horrific surroundings, the characters endure it, embrace it, and explore it stoically, almost successfully. Almost!

As cute as these characters are, the unforgiving and harsh atmosphere that surrounds them doesn’t give the viewer time to focus on those attributes. Eventually, the puppy and bunny are bombarded by hoards of flaming numbers, and other unfortunate outcasts that fall from the gray, and unforgiving firmaments. Overwhelmed by all the chaos, pain, and suffering that surrounds the frail, and impressionable little puppy, he’s had enough, and begins to weep woefully, and finally drowning in a pool of his own tears. But, don’t worry, this is not a spoiler, and it is not all that the story has to convey. You will have to see the video yourself to understand what it is that Ishibashi is trying to convey. Ishibashi stated, “There is death, but the cycle repeats itself. The world comes back like a Phoenix rising.”

I Am The Antichrist To You

I Am The Antichrist To You, is dedicated to Ishibashi’s deceased friend who had a chance to view the video before his untimely death. Anthony Scott who had worked for Pixar on Henry Selick’s, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and who had been the lead animator for Selick’s Coraline, animated the video.

Kishi Bashi’s debut album cover for 151a.

Now we come to Ishibashi’s debut album titled, 151a, which has been released on the experimental, Joyful Noise label, under the artist name of Kishi Bashi151a has a fresh, often upbeat, and high-energy quality to it. The album has layers and layers of variables that aren’t often found in the myriad of trite and formulaic offerings that the listener is often compelled to endure. Ishibashi says the album title was derived from the Japanese expression, ichi-go ichi-e, which is translated to mean, one timeone place. Ishibashi states that, “The saying reminds me to embrace my mistakes (during a live performance) and move forward.”

If one was to categorize Ishibashi music, you might say it was alternative, or world in its origin. But, you’d be mistaken to stop there. Ishibashi is an artist who performances include looping, psychedelia, ambience, clean doo-wop, beats, moog and other stylizations that have become commonplace in contemporary music. But, the one thing that makes Kishi Bashi stand out from the contenders, and pretenders is that Ishibashi is a classically trained violinist, and it is in the four strings of that instrument where Ishibashi’s strength, creativity, and originality lies.

Brett Vaughn and K. Ishibashi accept Film Athens Judges Choice Award for Best Directed Music Video, Bright Whites.

I personally became familiar with Kishi Bashi’s music through an odd twist of fate. Brett Vaughn, my nephew, had directed Kishi Bashi’s music video for the song titled, Bright Whites. On June 21st, 2012, Bright Whites was announced as the Judges Choice, Best Music Video in the Film Athens, Sprockets Music Video Competition. Bright Whites can be viewed here: http://vimeo.com/40012008.

151a has some really outstanding tracks. In my opinion the standout tunes include, Bright WhitesI Am The Antichrist To YouIt All Began With A BurstAtticus In The Desert, and Beat The Bright Out Of Me. However, there are no weak, or filler tracks on this album. 151a is a recording that should stand that test of time, as trends come and go, and fall by the wayside, like coins that are lost through the holes in the pockets of old clothes. If you happen to have a chance to catch one of Kishi Bashi live performances, I highly suggest taking that opportunity. Mark it on your calendar, and don’t forget!

The following is an interview between Stack Jones and Kaoru Ishibashi.

Stack Jones

Where were you born?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I was born in Seattle, Washington.

Stack Jones

Have you lived anywhere else besides Washington?

Kaoru Ishibashi

New York, and Virginia. Virginia is where I grew up. I also spent some time in Boston for school.

Stack Jones

What’s your citizenship?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I had dual citizenship since the beginning, but when I was 18, I gave up my Japanese citizenship in favor of the American one, which made more sense.

Stack Jones

Since you were born and raised in the states, I’m curious if you speak Japanese?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I do. I always kept it up through immersion in manga and anime growing up, and then periodic visits to Japan throughout my life. My wife is a Tokyo girl, and she keeps me bilingual.

Stack Jones

To what extent do you speak Japanese?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I’m fluent enough to have negotiated my record contract. It was quite a hassle though.

Stack Jones

Tell me what it was like growing up in America as a Japanese?

Kaoru Ishibashi

It was quite uneventful. I grew up on the East Coast, so as much I was a novelty, I never faced any kind of racism, or maybe I just tended to ignore it. One thing that I always was jealous of regarding the West Coast is that there are large Japanese communities over there. We don’t have any on the East Coast.

Stack Jones

Do you feel like you’re Japanese, or are you more comfortable with being dubbed an American?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I consider myself pretty considerate of others, which I think is a very beautiful Japanese trait. I do however believe that I am American at the core, in my views of personal freedoms, individuality, and being flamboyant.

Stack Jones

Have you traveled to Japan?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Many times throughout my life.

Stack Jones

Do you have family in Japan?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Yes, lots of relatives.

Stack Jones

What communities do they reside in?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Tokyo, Mie-ken (Iga-Ueno), and Okinawa.

Stack Jones

What does your family think about you dedicating yourself to being a performing artist, and not seeking security in the corporate environment that the Japanese seem to flock to over here? Are they supportive?

Kaoru Ishibashi

They are, and have always been very supportive of me all my life. They are non-traditional in every sense because they decided to emigrate to the U.S. They’re very happy now that my album’s doing well. I also realize that a lot of Japanese who come over here tend to want to return to Japan.

Stack Jones

When did you begin playing?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I started playing a Suzuki violin in school when I was about 7.

Stack Jones

What kind of formal education do you have?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I studied classical violin all my life. I also have a degree in film scoring and composition.

Stack Jones

Who’s music influences you?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I listen to everything, but for the latest album, 151a, I tried to model my sound after what I consider lighter albums, like Pink Floyd and E.L.O. There’s a hefty dose of synthesizers and strings in those artists.

Stack Jones

What are your future recording plans?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I’m hoping to start on working on another album very soon. I’m well aware that album cycles are getting smaller.

Stack Jones

Do you have any plans to perform in Japan at any time in the near future?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I’m looking into performing in Tokyo, sometime in August.

Stack Jones

That’s great! I’ll definitely be there. Look, this next question is a bit odd, but I’ve been asked it on numerous occasions. Ad nauseum! I honestly don’t know why this is important for the Japanese to know. So… What’s your blood type?  (Laughing)

Kaoru Ishibashi

I’m not sure but maybe B?

Stack Jones

That’s really funny because everybody in Japan knows his or her blood type, but none of us from the west does. Anyway, so, why did you become a musician?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I’ve always loved playing and performing, so it was never a question of whether or not I would be a musician. Or, whether or not I would have a career in it, that’s always been a struggle (even in America).

Stack Jones

How did you get on tour with, of Montreal?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I met them at a festival in England. I was touring with Regina Spektor at the time. I was a huge fan, and I started arranging string parts for them.

Stack Jones

What kind of reception are you receiving, as it is usually tough for opening acts.

Kaoru Ishibashi

When I open, I sell so many CDs. I get an incredibly huge response.

Stack Jones

What advice do you have for Japanese musicians?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I would say that for Japanese musicians, creating and keeping at what it is you do best and love is what will eventually be recognized and rewarded. In the studio, I’ve found that the less I worry about commercial success, the more interesting the music becomes, and the more people get excited about it.

Stack Jones

On a more personal level, do you have a girlfriend?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Even better, or worse, I have a beautiful Japanese wife.

Stack Jones

So you’re married?

Kishi Bashi on tour in the U.S.

Kaoru Ishibashi

Yes.

Stack Jones

How did you meet Brett Vaughn and what was the brainstorming process for the concept of the video Bright Whites?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Danielle Robarge, who first contacted me, put me in touch with Brett. We really hit it off by coming up with some solid ideas.

Stack Jones

What was the budget for the video?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I think I capped it at one thousand dollars.

Stack Jones

How did you learn about winning the Judges Choice Award for Best Music Video at the Film Athens, Sprockets Award?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I was there at the awards ceremony with your nephew. (Smiles)

Stack Jones

Has that helped you gain more recognition?

Kaoru Ishibashi

In Athens? Yes. Now all musicians (in Athens) know who I am, but it is a small scene. Now, I’m not just the “Asian guy in of Montreal” anymore.

Stack Jones

Let’s talk about Japan’s triple disaster. Has any member of your family been affected by the 3.11.11, earthquake, tsunami, or nuclear disaster?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I haven’t had anyone, but a friend of mine lost people to the tsunami.

Stack Jones

What’s your position on nuclear power?

Kaoru Ishibashi

I grew up in the 80s so I always thought it was fairly safe when used for non-destructive purposes. Even Chernobyl didn’t change my opinion on that for some reason. Now, I think oversight should always be factored into the cost, and we should definitely reconsider whether or not it’s worth it. I was also extremely disappointed with the Japanese government’s slow reaction to the nuclear crises.

A promotional shot for Kishi Bashi.

Stack Jones

Japan has a stigma attached to it that Japanese artists can’t break into the mainstream western music scene. Why do you think that is?

Kaoru Ishibashi.

You mean the American mainstream? I’m sure it’s not any kind of racism (because African Americans dominate pop music here, obviously). There are so many more people in America, so the competition and level of pop music is a lot higher. I think Japanese musicians should just keep doing what they’re doing and not worry about being represented (or misrepresented) over here.  There’re plenty of Japanese golfers and baseball stars over here.

Stack Jones

Are you interested in becoming mainstream?

Kaoru Ishibashi

No. I would like to be a known name in the more select indie rock scene, like of Montreal for example.

Stack Jones

Are you interested in scoring plays, or musicals? Something like Hedwig and the Angry Inch for example?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Not at this time. I just want to make albums and play shows.

Stack Jones

Is there anything you’d like to say before we end this interview?

Kaoru Ishibashi

Yes, I’ll be playing a show in Tokyo sometime in mid-August, so stay tuned! Also, my album 151a is coming out in Japan this fall. And, thanks!

This article originally ran in the August, 2012 edition of the Tokyo Weekender magazine. http://tokyoweekender.com/2012/08/kishi-bashi-interview.

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