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Approaching infinity with Keiji Haino

Keiji Haino
Keiji Haino (The Tokyo Reporter)
TOKYO (TR) – The lilting house music stops. Keiji Haino picks up his guitar and the screeching wail begins. There is no buildup; it just starts.

It is something like a freight train hurtling through a tunnel, the blasts of the diesel engine mixing with the clash of steel wheels upon the rail.

Leading his two-piece band Fushitsusha, one of his many musical incarnations, Haino and his bass player generate an escalating, monstrous roar for an audience of 20 people in this matchbox-sized basement club in a western Tokyo suburb.

Attired entirely in leather, Haino whips his long black hair — streaked with gray — back and forth as he strums away, the house lights reflecting off his bug eye-shaped black sunglasses.

Minutes pass. The merciless chaos then climbs even more, creating what almost literally is an onrushing breeze. It is a tornado mix of howl, resonation, and hum – and it doesn’t stop.

“Everything can be infinite,” Haino says during a recent conversation at a Shinjuku coffee shop. “A lack of boundaries means something can go anywhere; that’s why my music is loud.”

Haino’s proclivity for piercing eardrums is based on the general concept that he can extend the feeling of his music beyond his captive audience — in other words, onwards toward infinity — the louder it gets. Through this, Haino says that he envisions, in a spiritual sense, the ancients listening to his “timeless” music.

Whether they are thanking him is another topic entirely; Haino’s work is not for the thin-skinned. His abrasive assault is indeed an acquired taste.

“I use the electric guitar as a weapon to express myself,” he explains. “It is one of my tools.”

Since starting over 30 years ago, the 52-year old Haino has generally kept his same “loud music” philosophy and amassed quite a resume in rock. Through his extensive number of live appearances and continual album releases in Japan and abroad, he has become one of the most respected figures in the Tokyo underground rock scene.

Haino’s recorded output comes in many different ensembles. His solo work typically features searing guitar improvisation atop Haino’s anguished delivery of lyrics, which often center on themes of frustration and yearning.

“Black Blues,” an album that comes in both an acoustic and electric version, is his latest solo release. Both sessions capture Haino tearing himself open through hushes, shrieks, and guitar work.

Collaborations with musicians locally and overseas have provided Haino a chance to explore a different mix of sounds.

His 1996 joint effort with Peter Brotzman, “Evolving Blush or Driving Original Sin,” pits Haino’s guitar and yelping vocals against Brotzman’s screeching saxophone.

“I’m basically a vocalist and not a guitarist,” explains Haino, who has learned to play roughly 80 instruments himself and maintains that audiences only see a small fraction of his arsenal at any particular live show. “By knowing the music of many instruments it helps me to collaborate with others. When I understand an instrument being played by another person it is easier for me to understand what is happening when we play together.”

Though there are not many, Haino does have his moments of relative subtlety. While still tinged with his own unique tortured twist, his work with the traditional shamisen or his near acoustic jazz guitar playing (as demonstrated in “Hikari Yami Uchitokeasishi Kono Hibiki”), show a quiter side of the man in black.

Fushitsusha and Haino’s cover band, Aihiyo, give him the opportunity to rock with a full band, the arrangement he says he finds most enjoyable. But finding a lineup to match his style has never been easy.

“They were not my friends,” he says of the gathering of the original members of Fushitsusha in the late ’70s, “but all the people who told me they wanted to play with me.”

Haino’s first proper band was Lost Aaraaf, which provided tracks to the 1971 compilation album “Sanritsuka Genyasai.” During this period, Haino was caught up in the lyrics and music of Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan. His first solo album, “Watashi Dake,” came 10 years later. Even though Fushitsusha formed during this gap in recordings, Haino says there was a general lack of interest in his brand of music in Tokyo.

“When I played back then,” he remembers, “everyone became angry and left. People didn’t like my music. There was no demand for me to play; I was not wanted. But I would like to believe that that wasn’t true.”

Today, Haino is prolific on the live scene, often exposing sparse audiences to his power chord attack a few times a week in the Tokyo area. As well, he occasionally takes his show overseas to Europe and the U.S.

“I don’t think it (the scene) has gotten better,” he says of today’s Tokyo scene. “Even though the live scene has expanded the Japanese mentality has not changed.

“We (Japanese) are brainwashed,” he says of Japan’s tendency towards collectivism. “We don’t have an antenna to capture other interests and expand our minds.”

Haino has found international audiences much more receptive. Though he was able to sign a recording contract with major domestic label Tokuma Japan in 1997, his respect overseas has been much more substantial: John Zorn has produced and released albums; members of rock band Sonic Youth have shared a stage with him; and guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors has joined him for recording sessions.

Like his dark and mystical album covers, which usually feature a dark, grainy photo of Haino with guitar and glasses, Haino speaks in mystic phrasing. In discussing why his music has been of roughly the same style during his three-decade career, he begins by saying, “anger will never be put to rest,” yet he will never directly say that his music is rooted in anger. He adds, “The surface level of my music might have changed but the core, or origin, has not changed.”

In fact, he maintains that words are not the best way for him to express himself. “Music is my best expression of my mind.”

Achieving an appropriate mood is a key to proper expression, Haino says. “To understand the air, or atmosphere, of a club leads to an understanding of the whole experience. I will breath in and exhale as I play an instrument live. I will then repeat that process with this circulation of air slowly expanding and surrounding the entire audience as the show proceeds.

“I don’t want this air to be trapped in this live venue; I want it to float all over. It’s not a matter of the music volume; it is more about spreading this feeling. That’s why my music feels loud.”

The impact Haino has had on Tokyo’s underground rock scene, largely comprised of the roster of bands on the PSF (Psychedelic Speed Freaks) label, has been undeniable. But he is hesitant to take any credit for being the elder member of the movement; he is more interested in continuing with his musical compositions than commenting on his impact. “Actions speak louder than words,” he says.

Haino is showing no signs of slowing down. Presently he is learning to play the Nyckelharpa, a 16-string Swedish folk instrument. Keys set atop the roughly guitar-shaped body are played with the left hand while a bow is moved over the strings with the right.

January will see Haino embarking on the recording of an electronic solo album. “I’ll be using a new weapon,” he says.

And onwards toward infinity…

Note: This article originally appeared in December 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.