The following interview was excerpted from the book Salad for President, a conversation between the author Julia Sherman and the musicians Shinji Masuko and Maki Toba.
Shinji Masuko and Maki Toba are members of Boredoms, one of the loudest bands I actually enjoy. As longtime leaders in the underground Japanese noise music scene, Boredoms scream and moan at a decibel that makes your organs tremble. The band’s chaos is balanced by its rhythm; the energy goes up, up, up, until it melts into a million pieces. It’s an artful analog to my own manic energy. In 2008, I lay on the grass at the La Brea Tar Pits and listened to the band’s 88BoaDrum performance. Eighty-eight exceptional musicians drummed in a massive circle in a spectacle that transcended space and time. This was one of the most memorable musical experiences of my life.
So I was honored when Shinji and Maki picked me up in their white tour van and drove me to their home on the outskirts of Osaka. What I didn’t realize was that along with lodging came Shinji and Maki’s undivided attention and services as tour guides, including countless home-cooked meals and a three a.m. escort to see the fishermen’s auction.
Julia Sherman: What was your first memorable sound experience?
Shinji Masuko: I had trouble with my ear when I was a child, so I had monthly checkups at the ear clinic. I would go into a dark, small, silent room alone and put on these oversize headphones. A tenuous high-frequency sine wave would come from a mysterious vacuum through the head-phones, like a sound from outer space—scary but special at the same time.
JS: Is it strange to be an internationally acclaimed musician whose work is lesser known at home than it is abroad?
SM: By the time I discovered noise music, three or four generations of Japanese noise artists had already released great albums with small music labels. These artists gained more recognition overseas than they did in Japan, so I thought maybe I could do that too.
JS: Is it a challenge for contemporary artists to live in a culture that values tradition and craftsmanship over the avant-garde?
SM: Yes, it’s different than it is in the U.S. and Europe. Japanese contemporary artists have always been in a very difficult position since contemporary art is too abstract and inaccessible for the common people in Japan. Avant-garde music and art are especially unpopular.
JS: Why do you find it healthy and necessary to make noise?
SM: Noise is not an irregular element for me. However, my purpose is not to just make noise—sound has to have both tonality and atonality.
JS: You seem to live by that same principle. I was surprised to find two artists who play in a band often referred to as “nihilistic” could also be the most polite, civilized people I know. How do you negotiate the clash between your onstage personae and the people you are in everyday life? Or is it a clash at all?
SM: [Laughs.] Um, I can’t answer that question because this is just my life. And most of the Japanese musicians I know are exactly the same way!
JS: Well, I love your shows, but I really loved spending so much quiet time with you at home with your cat. This book is less about artists’ salads and more about artists’ pets...
SM: Please don’t ask me about my cat. I can’t answer calmly because I am crazy about my cat. [Laughs.] My cat always accepts me generously. But sometimes it feels like I am kept by him, more than he is kept by me.
JS: I know the feeling [laughs]. You guys have traveled the world playing music. I like to imagine touring the world not “site-seeing” but “site-listening.” What sounds in the world excite and inspire you?
SM: These are some of the places I would like to hear again: Distorted azan calls to prayer and Koran chants piping from cheap speakers in a Cambodian village. Mockingbird songs that sound like car engines in Nevada; a squall over the rainforest in Thailand. Sea waves in the mechanical room of a big Russian cruiser boat; uproarious crowd-sounds in the Moroccan market; water rushing into a cave in Wakayama; a lightning storm erupting around our tour van in Missouri.
JS: Wow, you have an incredible catalog of sound memories! Do you ever get sick of all the touring?
SM: Touring and traveling are always exciting for me. I have never gotten sick of it, and at the same time, I love my daily life in Osaka equally. Maybe my life’s ambition is to position myself at the intersection of the everyday and the extraordinary.
Julia Sherman is the blogger behind Salad for President, and the author of a new cookbook by the same name that publishes next week. Snag a copy to get the recipe for the salad that Shinji and Maki made for Julia (pictured above!) during their visit.