Rave Magazine March Cover Story: Boris
JAKEB SMITH talks to ATSUO MIZUNO, drummer and vocalist of the indefatigable, genre-hopping, Japanese experimental rock trio BORIS; a band who are constantly calling into question the nature of who they are, what they do and what our roles, as listeners, should be.
There is no band. There are no musicians. There is no music. There is only Boris, a Japanese experimental rock trio who have, for the past two decades, coolly challenged every accepted notion of their being. The result has been a recorded output that spans drone, doom and sludge metal, hardcore and crust punk, heavy and stoner rock, a large dose of noise and, most recently, an earnest foray into radio-friendly J-pop. It is often brilliant, occasionally baffling, but always thought-provoking.
Boris force the listener to ask: is this music?
I talk to drummer Atsuo Mizuno through a translator (who is also their manager). I start by asking about the band’s beginnings, at a Tokyo art college in 1992. “We had been making music in separate bands, but we were very close to each other,” he says. “We talked and decided to jam in a casual, hobby kind of way. After we did this a few times, we decided to start a band.”
This loose, freeform ethic has informed their creative approach ever since. “Back then, we were just jamming around together … That’s pretty much what we’re still doing now.”
The band are always neck-deep in live recording sessions, cataloguing sporadic sonic experiments that may one day end up on a record. “There are not many cases in which we start a recording by preparing the songs in advance,” he says. “So we don’t book a studio for a certain period of time just because ‘we want to record an album’.”
Instead the band record when and where they can, whenever they feel the need. “We are always doing the pre-production part of the recording process.”
It is only later that they sit down to edit, to discover new songs and ideas hiding in the recordings. There’s no room for overdubs. “There aren’t so many cases for us to go back and re-record something which has already been composed and arranged,” Atsuo explains. “In many cases, we are producing songs by editing the sessions we had a jam in, trying to capture the atmosphere each time.
“Sometimes the sessions are already songs as they are. Farewell [from 2006’s Pink] is a good example of that. When we listened to the session later, the song already existed within it. Not editing something is also a kind of editing.”
This constant outpouring of ideas means little gets wasted. Indeed, the band’s output numbers 17 LPs, 11 full-length collaborations, three live albums, at least eight reissues and more splits, comps, EPs, singles and demos than even die-hard fans can count. With much of it out-of-print, limited edition, or consisting of multiple versions, collecting Boris’s music is an experience far removed from the modern ‘click to buy’ paradigm.
“I am simply happy that people collect our works,” Atsuo says. “I’ve always enjoyed seeing records and CDs in the shop, selecting them with very little information about the artists. I remember looking for and buying a compilation with the Melvins on it, which had a song called Nothing … actually it had no sound,” he laughs.
“A long time ago, an acquaintance of mine, who is a car dealer, bought our CD and listened to it. He told me he thought his CD player was broken.”
This idea, of any noise existing as music, is central to Boris’s output. In 2005, they released Dronevil – a double LP, where both discs are played together to achieve different albums. It challenges the form of ‘the record’ and subverts the roles of artist and audience.
“Dronevil left us with the enjoyment of being able to watch the listener mix it before our eyes. One disc keeps some outline of a rock format, while the other one gives off a more ambiguous impression. They also give different impressions according to the volume of the sound playing at the time. By changing the timing or changing the disc, they can have a new meeting point, calling each other, starting a new rhythm. Each time it can be established as a different song.”
This fluidity of form and meaning resonates with Atsuo. “I think that music in this world can only be expressed within the range of: ‘the possibility of what music can be’,” he says.
In 2002, Boris collaborated with Japanese noise artist Merzbow (Masami Akita), releasing Megatone. The album is a sometimes-grating mix of Boris’ drone/doom sound with Merzbow’s wilful exploration of disconcerting noise. “I can understand that some people might take his work as a kind of ‘music’, and others as a kind of ‘noise’. I think that everyone has their own sense of what music is and what noise is. It’s subjective. But, ultimately, the work itself makes people decide which one it is for them.”
Megatone offers shades of juxtaposition. It mixes the abrasive with the beautiful. A buzzing static is given equal focus as a lonesome wail; a crushing electrical wave is veiled by a celestial warble. It’s a contrast that empowers so much of Boris’s music. “I think Boris has a process of making opposites coexist, in order to strengthen the musical work. For example, we think about things such as ‘Beautiful vs Ugly’, ‘Slow vs Fast’, ‘Long vs Short’.”
Atsuo says of Akita: “He made us realise that there’s a tone before it becomes music.”
“However,” he says, “speaking in the extreme sense, I feel there really is no such thing as music.”
It’s extreme wording perhaps, but reasonable sentiment. The Cambridge Dictionary rather broadly refers to music as ‘sound intended for pleasure’; if the listener doesn’t like what they are hearing then, logically, it ceases to be music … for them at least.
“I wonder if anyone who listens to our music thinks of it as ‘music’?” Atsuo muses. “A long time ago, an acquaintance of mine, who is a car dealer, bought our CD and listened to it. He told me he thought his CD player was broken.
“Some people still don’t know where an entrance to our music is.”
The band are hoping, Atsuo tells me, that 2011’s imaginatively titled New Album provides that entrance. Produced by Shinobu Narita, it takes Boris’ more accessible ‘heavy rock’ music and adds pop sheen and colourful, radio-compatible reference points. “I think Shinobu’s work is adding the signifiers of music. He is good at burning the phenomenon of attractive sounds. In other words, he is a good translator for Boris.”
Last year saw Boris release no less than three studio albums. Even now they are working towards another and, hoping to “make an announcement about our new release soon”. So for a band that never stops working: does it ever feel like a job? “No, no, it is a job … Does the word ‘job’ sound negative to you? We do stuff that we like, and lots of people enjoy it. Having a life like that, to be able to call that our job, it’s wonderful.”
With Atsuo’s work waiting, I have time for one last question. He was once quoted saying: “…I don’t even think of myself as a musician, or of us as a band, or even what we create as music”. So I have to ask: what are you, and what do you create?
To which he replies simply: “The reflection in the mirror called Boris”.