In conversation with three of Japan’s finest purveyors of innovative heavy music.
When we leave our teenage years behind and reach that landmark twentieth birthday, people celebrate in all manner of ways, from huge parties and pub crawls to crying under the duvet because you finally have to start growing up and taking some responsibility. If legendary post-rock quartet Mono were a person, they would be coming of age this year, and to celebrate, they’ve curated two days of music to take place in London. Time moves so fast that such accomplishments are often overlooked – for most fans of the Japanese stalwarts, it probably doesn’t feel like a decade since they first heard Hymn To The Immortal Wind, much less that it was two since the band began.
Twenty years and ten albums in, the band are still going strong, and still finding time to release majestic albums with remarkable consistency – the talent this exemplifies cannot be overstated. It’s fitting, then, that the band have seen fit to mark the occasion with Beyond The Past. Crucially, though, as the name implies, this is not an event purely about looking back with nostalgia, so much as it is paying heed to their longevity – marking a landmark before moving on to the next endeavour. Nothing exemplifies this better than the fact that the show comes before the band have even finished touring their latest album, January 2019’s Nowhere Now Here.
The show, which will take place in London on December 13th and 14th, features a host of talent, from Svalbard and Alcest to Årabrot and Nordic Giants, but is to be spearheaded by sets from Mono and their countrymen in Boris and Envy. As two bands who have also broken out of Japan and survived for over two decades, all the while maintaining a resolute devotion to innovation, it’s fair to say that these shows will be somewhat of a celebration for Boris and Envy as well.
“We’re really glad we could welcome our 20-year anniversary,” Mono guitarist Takaakira “Taka” Goto tells us. “We don’t think our music is easy to listen to. The fact we can continue doing what we do is because of our fantastic fans and trusted supporting partners throughout the world who understand our music. We’re very thankful. Even now, we have the same hunger as when we were young. ‘This is not enough’, ‘we want to explore deeper’ and ‘we want to keep on moving forward’ are our most important motifs, not just for music, but for life.”
This attitude is prevalent in everything the band do. This may have been a reflective year for them, with a show at Roadburn where they performed Hymn To The Immortal Wind in full for its ten-year anniversary and now Beyond The Past marking twenty years for the band, but they also released a new album and toured it extensively.
“We plan to make Beyond The Past a compilation of our 20-year history,” Taka continues. “Ever since the beginning, we’ve been looking for a new musical style that incorporates both noisy guitars and orchestra. We feel that this will be the time that this style is completed.” That Taka views their career thus far as a twenty-year experiment, and one that is only just reaching the heights of its potential, is indicative of a band who always keep an eye on the future – it’s no accident that Beyond The Past’s line-up is completed by younger and upcoming artists. Taka even hints that the band have more collaborations with such artists planned for the future, though he remains tight-lipped on details.
The roster for the shows is filled mainly by “fantastic new and old talented artists we met through our European booking agent Haydn from NMC Live,” the guitarist explains. “Some of them we’ve become friends with from touring together. Our old best friends Envy and Boris from Tokyo will join as well. They are the two bands we respect the most from Japan. They are like our comrades from the old days who helped each other with releases and tours for overseas. We’re really happy and proud that they can join this event. The shows will be some of our best days, which will be unforgettable for the rest of our lives.”
It seems important to the band that they bring both Envy and Boris along for such a landmark occasion, and indeed it is a chance for all three acts to reflect on storied careers. “We’ve played with Mono many times in Japan,” Boris’ Takeshi Ohtani tells us over email (answers translated by Kasumi Billington). “But when we both played at a festival in New Zealand before, we got a moment of realisation where we thought, ‘Oh, Mono is greeted by the audience because of this kind of sound and atmosphere.’ Taka from Mono actually said the same thing to us about Boris. On the surface, our activity and musical styles are different, but we share our pure attitude and feelings towards music. It’s been a while since we last performed with them overseas, and we look forward to it.”
Envy’s Tetsu Fukagawa (translations by yOshi(gu)) speaks similarly highly of Beyond The Past’s curators: “Mono and Boris are both good friends of ours. We always stimulate each other and have a good relationship. Taka contacted us to help make Mono’s 20th anniversary an awesome one and in order to obtain a wonderful experience together. Of course, we accepted the offer. Since all three bands started overseas tours in a similar environment, there are many things that can be understood between each other, and we always keep in touch while updating information and going to dinner together.”
From a cursory glance it’d be easy to assume that there’s little affiliation to be found between these three acts. Most notably, their respective styles differ greatly, from Mono’s cinematic post-rock to Envy’s abstract approach to hardcore, not to mention Boris’ vast and ever-changing sonic pallette, which has drifted so readily from noise to sludge to psych-doom and beyond that most have taken to calling them “experimental metal” just for simplicity’s sake. But speaking to each band reveals an obvious connection, perhaps a result of their having risen and evolved together. Though their sounds differ, they share an unwavering commitment to innovation that is truly commendable. So similar is their approach that it’s miraculous how often the three artists’ answers mirror each other, even though Astral Noize spoke to each band individually to get their thoughts on the upcoming Beyond The Past shows and their amazing journeys thus far.
In the West, we can often be guilty of neglecting acts from further afield, but all three of these bands emerged from Tokyo in the ‘90s and found an audience in Europe and America. “When we formed the band 20 years ago, just because we were an instrumental band, we couldn’t be booked. That was one of the reasons we started our activity in the US,” says Taka. “I believed that music can surpass everything from races, countries, history, politics, religion and languages. I still believe the same. If you play shows that are new, unique and fantastic, people just come by word of mouth. Every time we toured, the number of audiences increased.”
Takeshi notes more surprise at Boris’ success overseas, however: “We don’t know why we’re so accepted in the West. The lyrics are consistently in Japanese. However, in Europe and the Americas, there is a wide range of heavy music and listeners are familiar with it. So it makes us happy to see those kinds of people naturally enjoy the music and bring themselves to shows in each region.”
Still, stepping into previously unknown territory must have been a challenge for the bands, as Fukagawa admits: “Going to a country other than Japan was our own challenge. At that time, we were exhausted physically and mentally, but now I think it was a good experience that I couldn’t buy with money, and it has become a humorous story. At that time, we went on a journey believing in letters and faxes from people who we had never met before. Touring with the help of local friends was hard sometimes. The driving was long and frustrating, and once a show finished, we got back into the small van and moved to another city again. The first few days were always terrible. But Envy were really supported by the people around us, and if they weren’t there, there would be no Envy right now. We really appreciate all of you who have supported us up to here.”
A key factor in each band’s rise was undoubtedly their unique styles. It doesn’t matter where you come from if you make music that sounds unlike anyone else on the planet. All three strive for innovation at every turn, even reinventing themselves mid-career at times, and this endearingly creative spirit is the bedrock that has led to such impressive longevity for Mono, Boris and Envy. “We don’t deliberately try to challenge ourselves,” Takeshi explains of Boris’ creative process. “We just purely pursue sounds we feel are new. We still haven’t been able to reach a point that feels complete or feels like a final destination, and decoding the mystery of music will likely always continue.”
Boris, he explains, are always looking forward: “Both Boris and Mono have toured overseas for many years, and have survived by breaking through various situations and blocks. We aren’t rivals, rather comrades. Rather than looking back and reminiscing about the past, we’ve been active for a long time so we’ve learned to view our history from an objective point of view. We want to keep doing new things. I’m sure they feel the same way.”
And as you might expect, Envy share a similar goal: “We have never thought about how long to be active for, but only thought about how to make great music and play it. I guess that is the only secret. We have a new line-up now and a new wind is blowing within us. The band is in good condition, and all the members are working very well with an image of the future… For Envy, originality is very important. Being unique is also the purpose of the band and I think it is an important element for a band to be proactive. I think it is boring and tiring to follow the same trend. Envy always want to express and pursue new and unique music.”
This shared commitment to originality and expression seemingly inspired the line-up for Beyond The Past, as well. There’s A.A. Williams’ serene gothic folk, Svalbard’s razor-sharp blackened hardcore, Nordic Giants’ cinematic soundscapes and Jo Quail’s experimental cello-based compositions. “All these artists are truly pure,” Taka tells us. “They create unique and original music that does not exist anywhere in the world, which is the most important element out of anything. On top of it all, they’re the type of artists who try to express and communicate human emotions and psychological experiences through their music, unlike techno music or DJs, who can’t do that.”
Indeed, it is clear what the band hope to take away from these shows. Beyond The Past is a landmark event, but like any other performance from these artists, it’s mainly about a connection with an audience. It’s about expressing human emotion through sound with people who can relate to those same feelings – transcending the mundanity of day-to-day life through a shared musical experience.“When we formed the band, we were nobody and had no place in the world,” Taka admits. “Through music, we gradually met our fans and people who understood us, and because of their support, we started to be able to find a place where we could exist. At the 20th anniversary celebratory show in London, we want to express all of our everything from ‘nowhere’ to ‘now here’ and walk towards the new chapter. For people who come to the show as well, if it can help them escape from the darkness in their life, it’d make us happy.”
To help them with this goal, the band will be joined by the Platinum Anniversary Orchestra, a step up from the string quartet who accompanied them at Roadburn: “The spiritual and majestic worldview you get from extreme noise guitars and strings getting entwined is something we sought for the last 20 years and found as one of our original styles. We’re really looking forward to this orchestra show.”
“We are very excited to share the same stage with all the bands!” Fukagawa explains. “It will definitely be a wonderful show of all genres.” The Envy vocalist/programmer tells us that he thinks one reason they were invited to play the show was to help represent music from Mono’s home country. We touch on this point with the hosts as well, with Taka telling us, “Japanese hardcore, independent, punk and underground scenes are extremely small and weak, and 99% of the bands don’t play outside of Japan. In that sense, Envy and Boris are completely different from all the other Japanese bands. When I actually saw them live for the first time, I was blown away. I could understand why they had fans throughout the world immediately; they were just intense.”
He notes that Mono initially had trouble getting booked, largely because of their instrumental nature: “Now with terms like ‘post-rock’ existing, instrumental bands can easily be active in Japan, but if you compare it to the rest of the world, it’s still filled with music like J-Rock and J-Pop; the genres that are boring, childish and haven’t really changed for many years.”
Envy and Boris differ greatly from the Japenese scene Taka describes, which Fukagawa refers to as “a strange scene where only similar bands attract attention.” For Boris, their ability to stand out seemingly comes down to the way they operate as a group. “It was fun to put out sounds that felt interesting and new to us, so we weren’t too aware of the scene, and we’d rather deviate from it,” Takeshi claims of their early years. “The Japanese music scene back then was chaotic, there were a lot of people that didn’t make sense. Even now, there are a lot of musicians who do not know the world. Exiting and entering borders can open the door to consciousness, and will change the way music is played. They should all keep going outside.”
The pioneering trio seem to have long since transcended any local scene: “We’re not conscious about whether we are overseas or at home. Rather than a Japanese band, we feel like we’re Earth’s band. It’s playing sounds with friends we get along with, enjoying it with our audience. That’s it.”
This is an approach that is mirrored in Envy’s origins: “At first [in Tokyo], I think that there was such little interaction with bands of different styles that they were subdivided by genre. In such an environment, Envy decided to go isolated and make our own path. Some people disliked our different approach, but fortunately it wasn’t too long [before we could] spread the sound. However, it was a very tough era. I don’t think there has been much change in the band itself. Certainly you can see the sonic change, but the mind hasn’t changed.”
This final statement is surely applicable to Boris and Mono as well. This trio of artists have now each lasted for more than two decades, and they’ve done so through a fierce and unflinching commitment to innovation. We often think of inventiveness and new ideas as something that new acts with a fresh perspective bring, but there are plenty of upcoming bands who can’t hold a candle to Mono and their countrymen in this department. These are three acts whose capacity for creativity runs unfathomably deep, and imagining a time where they’re not around to innovate seems impossible. Their pioneering spirit is indefinite, and the music scene is all the better for their continued existence.
Beyond The Past is a chance to celebrate that, and importantly also a time to reflect on three remarkable careers, but these aren’t bands all that concerned with what’s behind them – as soon as they hit curfew on December 14th, you can rest assured that their minds will instantly turn towards whatever lies ahead.
Beyond The Past takes place December 13th and 14th, with two evening shows as well as a matinee show on the Saturday. Find out more here.
Words: George Parr