"Creating Harmony Between All the Different Sounds"- Rock Guitar Master Michio Kurihara

Kurihara and sunset Michio Kurihara is one of the most revered electric guitarists in the world today, though outside of his native Japan only the closest followers of psychedelic rock might even know his name. For over 20 years Kurihara has honed an approach that's equal parts scorched earth and cool breeze. His tone exists with and apart from nature, its effects felt clearly whether serving as a melodic compliment or a central focal point. The dense fuzz-tone blasts he's known for have rightfully earned comparisons to Cream era Clapton, Jimmy Page, and perhaps most of all the late great John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Virtually every one of Kurihara's performances over the years has reflected an innate understanding of the nature and energy of the chosen material. His abilities have graced classic albums by White Heaven, Marble Sheep, Ghost, The Stars (not to be confused with the Canadian band of the same name), Damon and Naomi, Yura Yura Teikoku and many more. In 2005 he recorded his first solo album, the exceptional Sunset Notes, which was released in Japan at the time on Pedal Records and just issued domestically on Damon and Naomi's 20|20|20.

My initial exposure to Kurihara and his trademark Gibson SG first came upon hearing the Ghost single, Moungod Air Cave / Guru in the Echo, released on the Now Sound label in 1994. Kurihara's blistering wah-wah freakout towards the climax of "Guru in the Echo" basically changed my life. Up till that point, I had no idea that modern rock musicians still played music like this. Its lacerating, melting groove whipped and whirled like a diamondback in a dust storm. It remains to this day one of the most mind blowing electric solos I've ever heard on record. From there I went directly to White Heaven's debut album, Out, the quintessential PSF heavy psych platter. Tokyo's revered PSF Records has released hundreds of psych/avant-garde releases over the years, including blown out head-feasts by Fushitusha, Acid Mothers Temple and High Rise. The raw garage excesses of Out stand out not only as a definitive example of the label's uncompromising vision, but also as one of its most influential releases whose shockwaves can still be felt in the sedated scorched psych punk of more recent Japanese ensembles like LSD-March, Up-Tight and Miminokoto.

Ghost - Lamarabirabi Aside from appearing on a track on Ghost's self titled LP, Kurihara didn't become a full time member till the release of 1996's Lama Rabi Rabi (PSF in Japan/Drag City in the US), a masterful combination of progressive hard rock workouts and mystical Japanese folk ballads. He's appeared on every Ghost album since then, including the brand new In Stormy Nights, just released on Drag City.

In the mid 90s Kurihara also befriended Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang of Damon & Naomi, Magic Hour and Galaxie 500. The duo invited Kurihara, along with Masaki Batoh and Kazuo Ogino (also of Ghost), to expand the lineup to a quintet for the 2000 album, Damon and Naomi with Ghost (Sub Pop). An extensive world tour followed, a portion of which can be glimpsed on the live Sub Pop CD/DVD Song to the Siren: Damon and Naomi Live in San Sebastian, which features tracks from ...With Ghost as well as reworkings of earlier D&N songs with Kurihara's deft touch in full luminous form.

Since the dissolution of White Heaven in the mid 90s, Kurihara has also been a full time member of his heavy psych unit The Stars with old friend You Ishihara (of White Heaven) and guest performing with Japanese garage psych pop masters, Yura Yura Teikoku, a band whose records are next to impossible to find outside of Japan but come more highly recommended that just about any other hard psych group on the planet today. Most recently Kurihara has joined forces with Japan's premier prog/doom/psych trio, Boris, for the trance inducing heavy space psych opus, Rainbow (Pedal/Drag City). With Rainbow it's apparent that Boris has largely dropped the doom of earlier workings and focused more on the shimmering side of things with a fantastic mix of soft dreamy pop nuggets and stomping West Coast psych workouts, galvanized by some of the most intense, blistering guitar playing that will be heard on any album in 2007. It is our great honor to present an interview with Michio Kurihara, not just an amazing guitar player and composer, but also an incredibly warm, accessible and humble soul.

DW: Could you tell us a bit about your childhood and early life? You were born and raised in Tokyo? When did rock'n'roll first capture your imagination?

Up until my first couple of years at junior high I hadn't listened to much rock or pop at all. In elementary school by chance I heard Deep Purple's "Black Night" (I learnt the title many years later) on the radio, but all I remember thinking was, "what on earth is this horrible racket with the scary singing..." If I think back now I realize that I probably hadn't yet learnt to like rock and blues chord progressions (the so-called pentatonic scale). It took me a long time before I came to understand the feeling behind those progressions - probably because I spent my childhood listening to nothing but classical music.

In my third year at junior high, my elder brother introduced me to the Beatles. I really loved their songs, but at the time I wasn't able to understand the quality of their guitar sound. The first guitar solo that really impressed me was the one on "While my guitar gently weeps" from the White Album. I learnt later that it was Eric Clapton who played that solo. So that was my first experience of the possibilities of rock music and the electric guitar. That was my entrance into rock.

In high school I had more friends who were into rock and they introduced me to lots more bands - first Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, then the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Japanese groups like the Jacks and Happy End. Thinking about it now, these were all groups from the late sixties and early seventies. But either way, hearing these groups was a decisive moment in my headlong slide into music.

DW: Were there any specific musicians or mentors in the beginning that inspired you to pick up a guitar?

There wasn't really anyone I can point to. There just happened to be a guitar lying around the house, I picked it up and the sound of it touched something within me.

White Heaven - Next to NothingDW: How did you meet You Ishihara? It seems you two have an almost spiritual connection on your recordings.

I met him through Ken Matsutani, who currently is the leader of Marble Sheep but who was also the original guitarist in White Heaven. After Matsutani left, I replaced him on guitar in White Heaven. Thinking about it now, it's been twenty years since I first started making music with Ishihara-san. It's been a long relationship... (laughs) I don't know if we have a spiritual connection or not, but my real connection with him is through music, and he is definitely one of the few people with whom I share a "common language" where music is concerned. I think you could say that we both understand each other's sounds. When I was recording my solo album, as a producer he was immensely understanding of the kind of sound and feeling that I wanted. It was thanks to him that I was so happy with the particular sonic universe that we managed to create.

DW: Was the raw fidelity of White Heaven's Out by design or more just a result of limited time and money? It's a rough production, but there is something incredibly immediate and pure about it all. It's one of the great "garage rock" records of all time.

Thank you for your kind appraisal of the record. At the time it's certainly true that we were unable to spend much time on the recording. The recording, mixing and mastering took just four days. In particular the last track, "Out", was recorded in one take with no overdubs at all. It was also the first time we'd recorded properly so none of us was relaxed enough to get involved in the technical side of it. But perhaps all of those negative factors came together to create that raw, live fidelity.

DW: One thing I've always admired, whether playing lead or rhythm, is your ability to compliment whatever ensemble you're playing with. Performances with Ghost and Damon & Naomi come to mind. How did you develop such a sympathetic ear in supporting roles such as these?

I'm very happy that you think so... Though I think that it is probably more likely to be due to the wonderful songs written by Ghost and Damon & Naomi than by anything that I might have contributed. In answer to your question, it might be too obvious but I think that it all depends on listening carefully to what other people are playing. And then creating harmony between all the different sounds, including your own. And getting on good terms with your instrument... Making sure to whisper a few words of encouragement to it before each show. And thanking it for its hard work after the show. That's all you need do.

Ghost - Moungod Air CaveDW: The first performance I ever heard by you was a smoldering lead on a single by Ghost, "Moungod Air Cave" / "Guru in the Echo" on Now Sound. I'll never forget the first time I heard that solo. It's so intense! Do you remember anything about this recording you could share with us?

Thanks! Those tracks were recorded live at a temple in the suburbs of Tokyo. I think it was also the first temple gig I played with Ghost. The venue had a unique sacred atmosphere that you often find at shrines and temples in Japan. The reverberation of the sound was miraculous and unique and this was the first time I experienced that too. I am sure that many holy objects of worship had to be moved in order to build the stage in the temple's main hall (though of course we had the head priest's permission!) As is usual in Japanese temples, no shoes are allowed so we had to play in our bare feet. I remember that I was hesitant to be in my bare feet in such a holy place, so I rushed off to a nearby Japanese clothes shop to buy some tabi (traditional split-toe socks, worn with kimono) and played in those instead. Anyway, it was an important experience for me.

DW: How did you meet Masaki Batoh? The new album In Stormy Nights is darker in places, especially on the epic second track, "Hemicyclic Anthelion." It feels like a kind of encapsulation of all the Ghost albums that have come before while still branching out
into newer territory.

I first met Batoh-san when he replaced me in Marble Sheep, probably around 1988. Matsutani-san introduced us. As with my meeting with Ishihara-san, Matsutani-san (who I met when I was playing in a band called ONNA) proved to be an important intermediary. But as for why Batoh asked me to play with Ghost, I still have no idea...(laughs) In 1989 I played on one track ("I've been flying") on the first Ghost album, and I've been playing live with the group on and off since 1994. I began to participate more fully in the group from the time of the 1997 US tour. In recent years the line-up has stabilized (previously touring and recording line-ups were quite different), and I think that the group's sound has also become refined. The second track on the new album was recorded live and I think it captures well the unique expressive powers of the current members.

DW: Will you be playing on Damon & Naomi's next album? Their music seems to have really opened up since Damon & Naomi with Ghost was recorded, and your contributions seem to be a big part of this. The performance of "Eye of the Storm" from the live CD/DVD comes to mind.

I play lots on their new album, which should be coming out this autumn. Playing with them has taught me so much. But musical influence between performers should always be a mutual thing, so if you feel that their music has indeed opened up I think that would be a wonderful thing. "Eye of the storm" is one of their older songs and one that I personally love deeply. It was a great song to begin with, but I think that the arrangement on the live version with that central axis of harmonium and e-bow drone was a decisive stepping stone in the development of our approach to expressivity as a trio. When we truly came together as an ensemble, with the vocal harmonies and the instruments just melting together... it was just such an ecstatic moment.

The Stars - TodayDW: Are The Stars still an ongoing concern?

Yes, the group is still very active within Japan. We have yet to play outside Japan, so it's a pity that not too many people know about the group's music. So far The Stars have released a mini album called Today, and two full albums, Will and Perfect Place to Hideaway. But again these records have all been Japan-only releases, so probably only the most committed overseas freaks will have heard them. I would really love for more people to hear the records and to give them the chance to experience the group's music live. In the last year or two, we've greatly progressed as a live ensemble and we've managed to really ramp up the tension. Our bassist, Kamekawa (from Yura Yura Teikoku) deserves special comment. I really hope that we can play some overseas dates in the near future.

DW: Sunset Notes is an incredible piece of work. Was it recorded over a long period of time, or did it come together relatively quickly? Can you tell us some about the composition and recording process for this record?

High praise indeed, thank you.

This was my first experience of recording a solo album, but it all came together a lot quicker than I had imagined. When we decided to record the album I had literally nothing prepared. But as I worked on each track, the images in my mind expanded and became more vivid, and I was able to create a sonic world that contains many things I think of as important. It was an album that came together in a very natural way, even though the preparation period and recording period were both comparatively short. Such a strange experience. It was also thanks to my friends who helped out with the recording, with the notes and the translations, that I was able to take this expressive world of mine and turn it into an album. I hope that the album interacts freely with the imaginations of those who hear it and that they enjoy listening to it.

Michio Kurihara - Sunset NotesDW: Will there be a follow-up someday?

I feel that various factors came together by chance to make the album possible. So, in that sense, I don't know when the constellations might next align in the right way to make a second volume possible. I'm making no promises, but if the right chance arises naturally in the near future, I would definitely love to try to make another record.

DW: How was working with Boris? Your tone compliments their sound so well. Will you be playing any live shows together?

It was a great experience. Especially since they seem to have steered their sound several steps closer to mine, and that made the recording process both painless and enjoyable. I think that we managed to capture a good balance of both of our flavours on the record. Then this February past we played one gig together under the title Boris with Kurihara. Of course this was the first time we had played together. The thing that most surprised me at the gig was just how loud their low-end roar is (laughs). But while it's loud it doesn't strike the ear in an aggressive, annoying way - it's more like the whole body becomes wrapped in the vibration. And at the same time there's a sense of song and of poetry about their sound. They have a very sincere, serious attitude towards music and that made it even more rewarding for me to work with them. It was a really enjoyable gig. We're due to tour the US together this autumn. I'm very much looking forward to it.

DW: We're covering much ground in this interview and I'm curious how do you make time for so many different recording projects?

Luckily, the various groups I work with are willing to be flexible and work around my schedule. Without their cooperation it wouldn't be possible, and I am grateful.

DW: In terms of influence and sonic kinship, John Cipollina is almost a musical ancestor to you. Could you tell us some about his tone and technique and how they have influenced you over the years?

The sheer expressive power of his sound and his phrasing are constantly amazing to me. There's a wonderful lustre and eroticism about that sound. Basically, as far as I'm concerned he's incomparable, a true original. But out of everything, it's his playing on the first Quicksilver album that hits me the hardest - it's just staggering! Of course I respect his guitar playing and it has had a big influence upon me, but rather than his technique per se, it's the sensations and the feeling embodied in his sound that are most important to me. Somewhere along the line I think I have absorbed some part of the feeling of his sound, and it has become a kind of sustenance for my own playing. But at the same time, I suspect that I have absorbed something from every guitarist with a wonderful sensibility that I've ever heard, not just Cipollina. And all of them are acting as subconscious sustenance for my music.

Selected Discography

  • White Heaven Out (PSF)
  • White Heaven Levitation 12" (Now Sound)
  • Ghost Moungod Air Cave / Guru in the Echo (Now Sound)
  • Ghost Snuffbox Immanence (Drag City)
  • Ghost Tune In, Turn on, Free Tibet (Drag City)
  • Damon & Naomi with Ghost Damon & Naomi with Ghost (Sub Pop)
  • Damon & Naomi/Michio Kurihara Song to the Siren: Live in San Sebastian (Sub Pop)
  • Damon and Naomi (featuring Kurihara) The Earth is Blue (20|20|20)
  • The Stars Today (PSF)
  • The Stars Will (Pedal)
  • Michio Kurihara Sunset Notes (Pedal/20|20|20)
  • Boris with Michio Kurihara Rainbow (Pedal/Drag City)

Special thanks to Naomi Yang and 20|20|20 for making this interview possible, and also thanks to Alan Cummings for his excellent translations. All photos by Naomi Yang. For a complete discography, refer to Robert Lim's invaluable Michio Kurihara Discography, originally constructed for a Ptolemaic Terrascope interview.