In Conversation With Japanese Catastrophic Noise Metal Band ENDON
“The Most Extreme Band in Tokyo” talks about transcending noise rock clichés and their local scene.
The first time I went to Japan on tour, I was treated to a performance by an opening act consisting of two tiny Japanese girls at a small club in Shibuya. One girl played acoustic guitar and sang in a cute, sweet, elfin voice not unlike Satomi Matsuzaki from Deerhoof. The other girl was playing some sort of motion-activated sampler device. She would make karate chop movements over the small glowing piece of equipment that would trigger samples of gong hits. It was the most Japanese thing I’d ever seen. I just wished there was a hologram Anime character doing lead vocals.
I toured Japan again earlier this year and our host informed me that we would be playing with “the most extreme band in Tokyo.” More extreme than the girl duo with the gong sounds and the martial arts moves? Doubt it. But then I bore witness to ENDON.
I can’t say how the band weighs up against other acts in the region—this is a culture that birthed Melt Banana and Masonna, after all—but I’d be hard pressed to envision any other Tokyoites coming close to their level of aggressive dissonance. The drummer plowed through the set with an unrelenting barrage of blast beats. On stage left, a guy was beating a black box strapped to his chest. At first I thought it was old piece of stereo equipment—an old CD player, perhaps—but on closer inspection I realized it was some homemade device with a series of springs stretched across the front. He was beating the springs the way a heavy-handed guitarist strummed guitar strings. Harsh noise thundered out of his amp. Stage right, a guitarist churned out a caustic wash of distortion that sounded Burzum’s Filosofem and the Mohinder discography getting sucked into a turbine engine. Next to him, another band member hunched over a bank of blinking lights, cranking out electronic squalls. At the front of the stage, vocalist Taichi Nagura loomed over the crowd. Built like a tank with a shaved head and a well-groomed moustache, Taichi would be perfectly cast as the intimidating bodyguard Tamaru in a movie adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. While the band doled out their sonic punishment, Tamaru shrieked, howled, whinnied, growled, and bellowed his way through the set, occasionally chucking a beer cans at the audience along the way.
I was shell-shocked by their set. A few weeks later, I was able to get a hold of Taichi to talk about what I’d witnessed.
I remember talking to you over dinner before seeing you play and you described ENDON as “noise metal.” That’s probably the most straightforward description of what you do. But in the States, noise metal usually refers to bands like Today Is The Day, Dazzling Killmen, or Deadguy. Those bands seem tame in comparison. For the sake of not confusing or misleading American readers, we need to come up with a different genre name for you guys. How about power-electronics-violence? Or white-noise metal?
Taichi: I love both of the suggestions, really appreciate it. They hit the mark. I know I should be modest, but how about “catastrophic noise metal”?
“Catastrophic noise metal” it is, then. So how does a catastrophic noise metal band like ENDON even start? Did you have an idea of what you wanted to sound like when you first got together?
Originally, we started ENDON in order to make noise music more functional on an entertainment level. In the extreme music scene in Japan, combining general rock sounds and noise has been a very popular subject for many years but it has mainly been made through collaborations between established bands and noise musicians. We were not satisfied or comfortable with it, because there were very few bands that focused on it as one unit. I think there should be more artists with these terms. Typically, these collaborations tend to add harsh noise as an addition to the higher frequencies of the guitar, like a shoegaze sound. We would like to stay away from that. We wanted to offer listeners a different style. And there is another reason we wanted to make our own sound: general noise and avant-garde styles in Japan have been too close to free-jazz or free music. We still like that stuff, but it’s gotten to be too much, too limiting in its criteria.
I would guess that the songwriting originates around guitar riffs, since the guitar seems to have the most concrete and recognizable structure. Am I right? Does the creative process ever start around the noise elements? Lou Reed has that famous quote about cymbals eating guitars—do you ever run into the problem of the noise eating the guitar?
Exactly. In most cases we wrote music with guitar riffs first just because metal and hardcore music was a major reference for most of the songs on this album. However, the guitar in “Pray For Me” was written last. For our previous EP, we did lots of jamming and improvisation over and over again to arrange and shape songs. But now we write more with the guitar first. When there is no context or specific ideas, a tiny little motif from an instrument is a great lead. With the invention of black metal, combining noise and metal is not so difficult to imagine anymore. Harsh noise and black metal have an affinity. At the same time, an affinity means a competitive frequency level, especially between guitar and noise. It is very important how we control and arrange them. That’s fun though; we never feel that the structure between guitar and noise is annoying. It is the best part of our songwriting. We usually adjust the equalization between noise and distortion, which leads to a definitive result for listeners. For example, we adjusted our amplifiers a little bit before a recent show and played our usual set. We saw a review later that said ENDON played a bunch of new songs that night.
I know Atsuo from Boris helped record your new album MAMA, and I could imagine there being some crossover between ENDON’s audience and Boris’s audience, just because you both have one foot in the metal world and one foot in the experimental music world. And Boris obviously has the occasional collaboration with Merzbow to add the noise element. But aside from that, ENDON and Boris are very different beasts. Do you feel like you have any musical peers in Tokyo? Do you feel a kinship with the Japanese hardcore scene?
Atsuo knows exactly what we would like to do, even more so than us! I am so proud of our first full-length being so well made despite our noisy and complicated style. I know we are absolutely in Atsuo’s debt. Yeah, Boris and ENDON have similar tastes in some ways, though they are the pioneers of this genre and no one can be like them. We respect them a lot. ENDON has also been very good friends with a sludge-core band called Zenocide and an industrial unit called Carre. They are the same age as us and we have done some collaboration with them. We also have lots of friends in Tokyo’s grind and noise scenes. Personally, I don’t think ENDON belong to the hardcore music scene in Tokyo, though our favorite venue Earthdom is a mecca of the local hardcore scene. You can still see legendary Japanese hardcore bands there, bands we grew up seeing over and over again. My impression is that the cool and interesting bands at our age used to be hardcore bands that then try to do another thing. Zenocide, who I mentioned earlier, used to be crust punk guys, for example.
I think the hardcore vibe I was picking up on comes from the strong antagonistic vibe to your live show, as if the music and performance is meant to punish the audience. Do you feel hostility towards the crowd? Or do you ever feel like the crowd is hostile towards you?
No, it’s not intended to be against the audience at all, but against myself. It’s me against the world. In order to act like that, I prepare songs without words. I have no idea what makes me so irate. I see no difference between other people and me besides an unspecified mental condition. I try to put myself in that headspace for the purpose of the show. It is not only a punishment but also a sweet pleasure to me. When I act like a master and try to pretend to punish the audience during our show, I feel like I am released from my sin and am buried in happiness. My shows with ENDON are kind of a tragedy in that way. In fact, during the early days of ENDON, there was a lot of fighting between the audience and me…
A lot of singers in the world of extreme music tend to fade into the background on record because they have a limited vocal range. With ENDON, it sounds like you have five or six different singers because the timbre of your voice changes so much. It literally sounds like an entire family—father, mother, son, daughter, family dog—attacking each other. Is this a response to the monotonic quality of metal vocals? Or is it just what naturally came out of your mouth at the first practice?
To me, screaming and shouting within the limited range of extreme music sounds so boring. It’s just laborious, a kind of duty they have to fulfill. Of course, what I do is partially a response to monotonous metal vocals, but more than that I would like to keep myself happy as opposed to responding to or attacking others. In that sense, my vocals need to be done unconsciously. Most importantly, ENDON as a whole should prepare our sounds and arrangements to make our music operate unconsciously. As you’ve pointed out, I have tried to do several vocal styles, like one voice that has multiple characters. And I show a relationship among those characters in a psychoanalytical way, like family therapy role-playing. Certainly, there have been good examples of other people doing this. A few singers from great depressive black metal bands have an impressive scream that has both the characters of victim and assailant in one. Multiple characters in one voice… I wanted to move ahead in that direction.
Speaking of family therapy, have any of your parents ever come to see you play? And are you still welcome in their homes afterwards?
It’s annoying to say that my parents don’t recognize I am crazy, even though I am doing crazy stuff in ENDON. They are baby boomers that enjoyed Western art, culture, and music during their youth, and they view themselves as the first generation that brought that Western culture over to Japan. They still try to tell me what is best when it comes to music. That is one of the major reasons why everyone in ENDON and I try to focus on musical and cultural “parricide” with songs like “Parricide Agent Service” and “Etude For Lynching By Family”.
So I take it that’s a “no” then.