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The hypnotic underworld of Ghost

Masaki Batoh
Masaki Batoh

TOKYO (TR) – It was the band’s blistering 15-minute sonic blowout performance to conclude the first night of Seattle’s Terrastock music festival four years ago that blew a few minds.

“We were told there was no time,” remembers Masaki Batoh, the tall and angular singer and guitar player of Ghost, a six-piece band based in Tokyo. “Maureen Tucker and Country Joe were supposed to join us for a live jam session but it didn’t happen because of the lack of time.”

But they made do anyway.

Though missing a chance to share a stage with the former Velvet Underground drummer and member of Country Joe & the Fish, Ghost’s fast and furious set showed fans of psychedelic rock that they were more than exotic hippies from the east, something previously not completely apparent upon giving a listen to the varied acoustic rock and chants contained in their first few releases to that point.

Turning heads in their home of Japan over their twenty years in existence, however, has not been as simple. While not an ongoing concern for Batoh and the rest of his ever-changing band, the mix of guitar rock with an assortment of acoustic and ambient elements showcased in their latest release, “Hypnotic Underworld,” may just change accomplish that.

The album, released earlier this year, opens with a track broken into four movements. A gentle bass throbs amid wispy random bits of electronic sounds to start the piece. This segues into a looping bass progression resembling a snippet from a movie soundtrack. Then a standard ’70s prog-rock segment, with guitar and Batoh’s first vocal appearance, lifts the tempo just before the closer, a fiery drumming free-for-all.

Though the track has a birth-to-death sort of evolution to it, “there is no connection,” Batoh maintains. “It is just a matter of getting all the different styles in there.”

A variety of styles are on display. This is partly the result of the utilization of so many instruments. A cello, harp, tabla, theremin, flute, and tin whistle are all featured. While this mix might make for something that might seem a tad pretentious, they were all necessary, explains Batoh. “Those are the instruments we felt were needed to express what we wanted to say. It wasn’t an attempt to experiment with different instruments.”

After the opening track, the album meanders back and forth between a number of varying genres. Some pieces contain straight-ahead guitar rock power chords (“Piper”) and elements of an Irish jig (“Dominoes”), while others feature time scales and intervals typically reserved for such traditional Japanese string instruments as the shamisen and koto.

Hypnotic Underworld
Hypnotic Underworld

Of the latter — and the mention of the appearance of an ukiyo-e woodblock print on the album cover — Batoh insists that Japanese culture of the past doesn’t hold a particular influence on Ghost’s music.

“Traditional Japanese drawings might have somewhat of an inspiration,” he says in reference to the cover work by Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi of the priest Mongaku paying penance under the icy waterfall, “but in the case of the cover there is no relationship with the songs. When you talk about cultural influences, everything – literature and art, for example – all have an inspiration.”

But temples can sometimes be inspiring for the band. “Temple Stone,” recorded in, as Batoh says, “the right atmosphere” when compared to a smokey and crowded Tokyo club, features live renditions of songs primarily from the band’s first two releases, “Second Time Around” and their self-titled debut.

“Recording and playing live are totally different. So we have to rearrange the songs and improvise for the live shows. But even in recording the title track [of “Hypnotic Underworld”] we did a lot of improvisation. We can’t recreate it live. We’ll just have to improvise again.”

“Hypnotic Underworld” also almost never happened. After releasing “Snuffbox Immanence” and “Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet” on Chicago-based label Drag City in 1999, Batoh contemplated calling it quits. This would have been no big deal, he explains, because he thinks of Ghost not really as a rock band, but instead as a community.

“We are like an amoeba. There are members who fluctuate in and out. For me, I am an acupuncturist first,” he says of his main means of employ, “and a member of Ghost second.” The current lineup also contains a monk, photographer, and three full-time professional musicians.

In fact, the movement to liberate Tibet appears to be more of a concern than music for Batoh. In addition to the previously mentioned album, which was to raise awareness, Batoh has been involved in raising money for people who have emigrated from Tibet to India.

But what kept Batoh in music at that time was the nudging of Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, formerly of the indie-rock band Galaxie 500. The result was “Damon & Naomi With Ghost,” a blend of shining guitar and folk harmonies.

“Tokyo Flashback Volume 1,” released in 1991 on Japanese label P.S.F., was Ghost’s first appearance on record, and also was around the time the band got lumped into Japan’s underground scene — one which almost goes unnoticed at home, yet generates a relatively large amount of respect abroad.

As a result, Drag City has been the primary means for Ghost to release its music. It has also shunned playing live in Japan in general. “The venues are big in the U.S., and you can relax,” Batoh says. “The Japanese audience also is shy. American and European audiences give larger reactions. When you get a lot of feedback it is a lot of fun.”

That is, until now. “Hypnotic Underworld” has started to build up a small domestic following.

“Once this album came out, we did a performance in Koenji [western Tokyo] in November and we had to turn people away at the door. The fan base is increasing. In the beginning, we were stoner hippies, but now we’ve added technology to the music and started promoting over the Internet. That has helped.”

The future for Ghost is not certain. There will be a tour of the U.S. in September. Then in the fall a DVD documenting their two decades in existence will be released.

Beyond that, though, “nobody knows,” Batoh laughs.

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