erasing clouds

Tokyo, Okinawa, Scotland: Meet Tori Kudo's Maher Shalal Hash Baz

by anna battista

Tori Kudo, the man behind Japanese band Maher Shalal Hash Baz, is sitting at a piano, tuning in. The few notes that come out of the instrument are muted by people's loud voices. After a while Tori stands up, walks to a rattan armchair placed near his wife Reiko's, sits down and closes his eyes. Perhaps he's dreaming of new songs to compose, perhaps he's thinking about being at home in Japan, more certainly he's dreaming of having a rest after the British tour Maher did, a tour that took them around Britain with fellow musicians The Pastels and other Geographic/Domino bands and musicians such as Twitch, Movietone, Empress, Deerpark and Directorsound. Long minutes pass, but Tori seems to be still asleep. Then, suddenly, he wakes up, magically stands up, puts on a black jacket and sits down at the piano again. When Tori starts playing it's silence all around. His music is at times melodic, at times fast and aggressive. Reiko is standing near the piano, ready to sing when her voice is needed. The set is short, but it leaves the audience bewildered. We're in Glasgow's café-cum-restaurant-cum-record shop Mono and this is not a proper Maher gig, just the opening of a Project Ability exhibition (with paintings selected by Alison Mitchell, contributor to The Pastels and Maher Shalal Hash Baz). Established in 1984 in Glasgow, Project Ability is an Arts Company and a Centre for Developmental Arts for people with learning disabilities. Tonight's exhibition also features "Finnieston Crane", a painting by Jim Hillis, chosen by Tori as the cover of Maher's latest album, Blues Du Jour, recently released on Geographic.

"Touring Britain has been very nice and The Pastels have been taking good care of us," Reiko says, nodding and smiling, at the end of their musical intro to the exhibition. The Pastels and Geographic aren't the only reasons that tie Maher to Scotland: Blues Du Jour was actually recorded by David Scott, of The Pearlfishers' fame, at the East Kilbride Arts Centre. "It wasn't difficult to record it at all…" Tori starts, while Reiko finishes his sentence, "…it was very good and it was fun because David is a nice person and made us relax and laugh a lot…" "But one year has passed since we recorded it," Tori continues, "and so many things happened to us during this last year that we feel already nostalgic…"

He pauses and remains silent for a while, then resumes talking about the album art cover. "Stephen Pastel and I went to a Project Ability exhibition near here this spring and we found this picture. We were both very interested in it, so Stephen bought it and I strongly recommended him to use it as a cover for Maher's album. There are centres in Japan similar to Project Ability and there is a gallery near my house similar to it," Tori looks at Jim Hillis' painting hanging a few metres from him, "'Finnieston Crane' is a very industrial picture. I know many people with learning disabilities who live near my house in Japan and some of them are friends of mine and I also know many of their mothers. I know they often love to draw things such as trains, traffic scenes or industrial and urban landscapes. I think Jim's painting fits the album. When I saw the picture, I thought it was a sign. I know a boy in Japan who likes to do that sort of thing and it reminds me of him, it's a very familiar image." As if conjured up by our words, painter Jim Hillis arrives to greet Tori and Reiko. Both stand up, bow and thank Jim profusely. "Jim is a genius," Tori tells me when Jim is gone, "He's forty, like me…" "…he's a bit younger than you," Reiko corrects him, "…you're 45!" Tori nods, then smiles, "You're right, sorry, I'm 45!"

At 45 Tori is now far from the political events that took him away from Japan to live in London for a while. Now he is considered a cult figure of the Japanese music scene, a status achieved mostly thanks to his 83-song legendary album Return Visit To Rock Mass, a 3 LP/CD box set released on Osaka imprint Org Records, to the fact that his name was often associated with the rock scene centred around the café and venue Tokyo Minor, to his Alan Vega tribute band Tokyo Suicide and to his friends, Nagisa Ni Te, a psychedelic folk band.

Blues Du Jour is the first Maher new album since the 2000 retrospective From A Summer To Another Summer (An Egypt To Another Egypt) (Geographic). There are 41 tracks on Blues Du Jour and, like on the Geographic retrospective, 5-second tracks are alternated here with longer pieces. "I always put lots of tracks in my albums because I don't want to waste anything of what I compose," Tori says, "I think the best track on Maher's latest album is 'Bus'. I love buses and that's why I wrote it."

Kudo's band has got one of the most complicated biblical names around, meaning "the spoil speeds, the prey hastens", in the Bible the name of Isaiah's son, but, as Tori explains, he just happened to find it by complete chance. "The name for the band came while I was reading the Bible: I found this name and I thought it was interesting. I really like the sound of it. Some names such as Taj Mahal are very musical names in Japanese, so I thought that the sound of 'Maher Shalal Hash Baz' was cool. I sometimes find the word 'Maher' in Arabic newspapers."

When Maher play live, Tori often turns to face the rest of the band rather than the audience, as if he were directing an orchestra. "I always feel like I'm directing an orchestra," he nods, "If there are problems and the musicians aren't co-ordinated enough I try to cover everything. But basically Maher's music is based on punk and this means that it is easy for everyone to play it. Everyone who hears Maher should say 'I could do it!'" During the recent tour, Tori played the guitar and a bizarre instrument that was part violin, part keyboard which enthralled the audience. "That's a Japanese instrument and it is called Taishogoto. 'Taisho' is a historical period, an era, like the Victorian or Edwardian eras, and 'goto' means harp. It was invented one hundred years ago. It is a beautiful instrument and I have it because my mother just bought it. Usually elderly people like this instrument because it is easy to play, but I play it with a bow since once I saw a picture of a person playing the Taishogoto with a bow in a library near where I live and I wanted to revive this tradition. The Taishogoto is an amazing instrument and I think that when you play it, it sounds like you're playing your own heart."

On stage during live gigs, there is usually also a member of the band fiddling with a laptop; Tori reveals that's his son and that he himself likes using the computer for a particular reason. "I love playing the guitar which is my favourite instrument, but I like to make a proper noise through a computer, a noise which is not so perfect or developed. I like to express through my music and through these noises love or peace, joy or kindness, goodness or self-control, good qualities anyway. Music is always a variation of the 'do' or 're' or 'mi' or 'sol' or 'fa' notes, but what I like to do is different. I like improvising using proper noises, so when I express kindness maybe you express joy or peace, and in this way we exchange good vibes. Maher's sound is very coloured, it's red, black, white, green and so on. I'd say that my way of making music is a good way to express emotions." At a recent Maher gig at Glasgow's School of Art, Tori did not only try to express emotions through his music, but also through the story of one of his tours: during the gig, Reiko read a story about Tori playing across the States, travelling and getting new inspirations for his songs. "You see, she can't do anything," Tori jokes, while Reiko laughs, "She can't read scores and she can't play any instruments, she just sings. But I gave her the job of narrator because she was invited by Geographic and she had to work!"

"I don't know a lot of Japanese bands because we moved from Tokyo for a while," Reiko starts talking again, "but we like Yumbo's music." "Among our favourite bands right now are Movietone and Empress, which are on Geographic," Tori adds, continuing, "They are Maher's brother and sister, they are our family. Maher found relatives here in Scotland…" "Yes, we did," Reiko continues, "For example, on our EP Open Field, released before the album, apart from members of The Pastels playing with us, there is also Bill Wells on piano and this is very special to us."

There are gigs in Tokyo waiting Maher once they're back to Japan, but there are also other duties to fulfil for Tori, "I'm going to write more music once I'm back there, so I will be very busy again." Looks like we will soon see another Maher Shalal Hash Baz album really soon then. After all, Tori Kudo seems to have immense sources of inspiration for his compositions, apart from mighty talent that is.


Issue 18, December 2003

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Pics by Anna Battista