Name: Merzbow / Masami Akita
Occupation: Sound artist, improviser
Nationality: Japanese    
Current release: Merzbow has been hailed as possibly the greatest noise artist of all time, reaching a remarkably wide audience with a vast and ever-expanding catalogue of extreme soundscapes. While his aesthetic may seem strict and hermetic, it was based on a wide range of influences, including rock and jazz, and has always sought to break down barriers rather than building new ones. On some of his most accomplished releases Masami has even sought for fascinating overlaps between the world of noise and ambient, creating spaces that are alienating and strangely comforting at the same time.

Surprisingly, in the public eye, the radically improvisatory nature of his music has frequently been neglected. Every Merzbow piece – be it on record or at a concert – is built on a foundation of “jams”. As he points out in this interview, preparation and a degree of post production are involved, but at its heart, this music is created from the moment in a splurge of energy, and as an exploration of time, tools and ideas.

In the past few years, and through a series of collaborations, the outside perspective is starting to shift little by little. An important project in this regard where his releases on Rarenoise Records with iconic vocalist Keiji Haino, Hungarian drummer Balázs Pánd and saxophonist Mats Gustafsson which combined the energy of jazz with an intense metal focus under a shield of noise. Suddenly, the entire Merzbow catalogue could be listened to and appreciated with an entirely fresh mind.

[Read our Mats Gustafsson interview]

In this interview, we shed a little more light on his own views on the nature of improvisation. It was conducted on the eve of another big Merzbow project: A 10 CD box with early Merzbow tracks, when the project was still a duo with Kiyoshi Mizutani. (Available via Soundohm, for example)

If you enjoyed this interview with Merzbow, visit his official website for more information. He is also on Facebook, twitter, bandcamp, and Soundcloud.

If you'd like to keep reading, visit our earlier Merzbow interview, where he expands on a wider range of topics.

In our previous interview for 15 Questions, you mentioned Albert Ayler's Bells as one of the albums that piqued your interest early on.

Bells is an important part of the Merzbow story because the material on it was part of our band's first live concert in 1975.

At the time, in a trio with Kiyoshi Mizutani and another bass player, we arranged and played songs by Gunter Hampel, Albert Ayler, King Crimson, Velvet Underground, and Elvis Presly. Bells was an improvisational performance only in the theme part.

From your experience, what do the terms "improvisation" and “freedom” mean
in relation to music?

I was working with improvisation in the late 1970s, really early in the 1970s, before I started Merzbow. It was closely related to the kind of music I was influenced by during that time.

I first listened to Rock and only later started getting into Free Jazz and Free Music. So at first I was improvising in a Rock idiom, and then it began to sound a little more like Free Music.

But you never considered what you do jazz?

No, I always felt like I can't play Jazz because I'm originally from a Rock background. In my case, I basically, I considered myself a Punk person who hadn't received any academic musical training. When I tried to improvise in the strict definition of that word, it simply ended up being a mess.

So there are rules to improvisation.

Yes, there is a norm. And I did not want to break it by my way of “improvising”.

Instead, I thought about playing music "freely" as an immature young man. I was particularly influenced by performances by artists like Han Bennink and Toshinori Kondo. I was shocked to learn that some performances were not played.

[Read our Eraldo Bernocchi interview, in which he shares his memories of playing with Toshinori Kondo]

I thought it very interesting that you mentioned how you were first drawn to free jazz, then ended up rejecting any kind of performance for a while. Can you talk a bit about why this happened?

I was playing the drums but had no technical aspirations. I thought that playing that was influenced by technique and habit was not "freedom". I wasn't particular about the instrument, and I had doubts about the act of playing, so I stopped playing “properly”.

Instead, I played an instrument that I couldn't play, or played a pre-recorded tape without playing. In other words, I gradually went into a conceptual direction.

You have just released a 10CD box with early Merzbow pieces, many of whom feature Kiyoshi Mizutani. How did you meet and what did he bring to the table that made it interesting for you to work with him?

Kiyoshi Mizutani was a junior high and high school classmate who initially played in a blues rock cover band with other members. I, however, wanted to do something avant-garde. So I started playing a band with King Crimson's “21st Century Schizoid Man” as part of the repertoire in a trio or duo with Mizutani and a bassist.

We did one or two live concerts with the trio. Mizutani played the guitar at first, but gradually the keyboard became the focal point, and the duo became more like Free Music. I think this was around 1978.

We played decently at first, but gradually we got tired of it and began to play by intentionally switching between each other's instruments. I tried to get a different vector by playing an unfamiliar instrument.

After that, I stopped using the instrument itself and we started playing noise together. I put a string on a tin case with a contact microphone and played it with a violin bow. Mizutani also played with a contact microphone attached to the curtain rail.

Was there any kind of discussion between you and Kiyoshi about the direction you wanted to take? In which way did it feel different from the jazz experience you had made so far?

We talked a lot about records and music that affected us both. Mizutani taught me about Messiaen, Scriabin, Dieter Schnebel and so on. Mizutani was learning classical composition at the time, and since I was into Rock from the beginning, I didn't have much knowledge of Jazz. But we did often go to jazz cafes where, at that time, they'd often play free jazz.

After starting Merzbow, we decided on the spot to bring tapes and we discussed what kind of instrument to play. Mizutani's performance was not always in harmony with what we'd agreed on. But it always exciting.

What were your very first performances like? I'm curious as to whether you felt like this was more of a “duo” or more two individuals playing at the same time in the same room?

I mentioned the first performance as a trio before becoming Merzbow earlier, in 1975 at a local community center. Our first live gig as Merzbow took place on March 22, 1981 at Kid Irac Hall in Matsubara, Tokyo. It was a duo comprising of me and Kiyoshi Mizutani, entitled "Paradoxa Paradoxa". About half of this recording was later released on cassette by Lowest Music & Arts under the same title.

The performance at this time made use of multiple tapes, Mizutani's violin, and keyboard for the first hour. A slide was shown at the back of the stage. Another hour was an improvisation where I played the drums and the guest saxophone came in.

The Collection series documents your development. How did you experience it yourself?

The Merzbow Collection series was originally planned to be released as a cassette on the independent label YLEM. The first part of the Collection Series was to be done at Ylem's studio for a studio session with Mizutani and as a duo. However, because Ylem was crushed, the studio couldn't be used halfway. So from the middle, I decided to finish it as a solo at home.

So it went into a different direction from there ...

For my solos, I had a tendency to use industrial sound sources, rhythm boxes and electronics. At the same time, as Merzbow we made a work called Yantra Material Action in another studio, which can be said to be the culmination of this period. It included all of the hallmarks of our sound, such as improvisations with Mizutani, tapes brought by both of us, and industrial tape processing.

Many improvisers have an intimate relationship with their instrument, but you have always made use of many different sound sources. Tell me about your tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with them? What are their most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?

The problem is the sound itself. After all, as Merzbow, we precisely started out abandoning the focus on instruments and tools. Our first attempt was to rub a condenser mic against various things to record destructive sounds by maximizing the mic's input level. We called this Material Action.

After that, the audio mixer feedback and primitive destructive sounds like scratching and hitting strings, and electrical sounds like amp and mic feedback were the source of all ideas.

Since the 90's, I mainly used homemade musical instruments that can be played by attaching contact microphones to spring-loaded metal junk. The ones I'm using now have been maintained and used for over 20 years. The sound from this instrument is special and certainly indispensable. However, there are times when you use a computer or completely different equipment.

Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?

It's not an exaggeration to say that each live performance is almost one song. But I do prepare some sampled bass patterns in advance and decide on the overall flow.

In other words, first there is the overall composition and order, and then there is improvisation. In the studio, improvised performances are combined on a computer, so it can be said to be more organized.

What qualities attract you about playing with specific performers? I'm particularly interested about your view of your partners in bands like Merzbow, Haino, Gustafsson, Pándi or Jazzkammer, which all have very distinct musical personalities.

In my case, the way I deal with it is completely different depending on whom I play with. Balance is especially important because of volume issues.

Anyway, when playing with someone, you need to think about what kind of instrument you should use, what kind of equipment you should use, and how you can enjoy it.

Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting compared to a studio situation?

When I was playing with Mizutani as a duo, I was certainly working on improvisation. However, we had doubts about the act of playing, and began to use noise such as tapes and non-instruments to deny his physicality. It is a feeling of spatially modeling the sound as a material, rather than making a sound that is influenced by reactions and emotions.

So now I'm not thinking about the problem of "improvisation".

How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?

The important things in Merzbow's live performances are volume and sound pressure. To my mind, they have a great influence on the space, the bodies of those present in the audience, and their emotions.

Conversely, if I can't achieve sufficient volume and sound pressure, its nature changes. You only get half of the impact of the Merzbow experience.