Uncovering the ancient ruins of Japan's Ghost
A hollow clang seals the iron door. No one will enter or leave the facility until the task at hand has been performed.
Darkness permeates the converted warehouse on Japan's Yokohama Bay, thickening the intrigue and confusion. The members of Ghost – vocalist/acoustic guitarist Masaki Batoh, percussionist Junzo Tateiwa, electric guitarist Michio Kurihara, contrabassist Takuyuki Moriya, multi-instrumentalist Kazuo Ogino, and saxophonist/flutist Taishi Takizawa – are arranged in a straight line onstage at a distance that prevents eye contact. A lace curtain separates band from audience.
What transpires constitutes a call to prayer, a completely improvised and near-90-minute metamorphosis of sound that hazily transforms from an Oriental, ambient hum to discordant free jazz. Movements rise and fall with tidal serenity and deeply poetic restraint, recalling some sort of sonic séance or archaic burial ceremony, complete with Tibetan chants. Ogino's lute lingers like an apparition. There's comfort amidst the chaos and confusion, which erupts 48 minutes in with the force of Mount Fuji behind Kurihara's bayonet guitar.
And then there's silence.
"No aim, no thought, no trick, no goal, no intentional method," recites Batoh, who co-founded Ghost with Takizawa, via e-mail. "Music is the mirror to express ourselves. It is born from depth of our spirits always. Listeners can extend their own impressions into the mirror."
The event, held at sunset on Oct. 9, 2006, and released the following year as the CD/DVD package Overture: Live in Nippon Yusen Soko 2006, bottles the mystique of Ghost. For the past quarter-century, the Japanese collective has lived a shadowy existence, exploring an ancient naturalism that imports elements of West Coast psychedelia and the British folk revival but remains grounded in the traditions of Japan's original rock & roll awakening.
In the wake of the Vietnam War and mirroring the West's counterculture revolution, a wave of Japanese nonconformists began experimenting with and incorporating psychedelic sounds into traditional music forms. The results were radically profound and distinctly Japanese: the long-form, experimental drones of Taj Mahal Travellers; Flower Travellin' Band's heavy blues; the confrontational dirges of Les Rallizes Dénudés; and Far East Family Band's progressive sorcery.
Likewise, Bob Dylan's pop-ularization of protest music found a peculiar parallel in cult folk figures such as Kan Mikami. Yet, with the noted exception of Flower Travellin' Band's South by Southwest 09 reunion (see "Live Shots," March 20), these artists rarely left Japan while receiving little recognition in their native land.
Ghost could be considered the revenant of these Japanese luminaries.
The collective's cleansing alchemy of indigenous folk idioms, Can-inspired Krautrock surrealism, and incensing avant-garde meditations is unlike anything else in music. As evidenced by the band's recurrences on PSF Records' remarkable Tokyo Flashback series, Ghost isn't only the torchbearer for the country's second generation of underground psych music. It's the reason so many of these groups, most notably High Rise, Acid Mothers Temple, and Boris (see "Mabuta no Ura," June 27, 2008), are making waves on this side of the Pacific.
"We just do what we want to express ourselves," Batoh insists. "Destructive construction is what we want."
After all these years, the history of Ghost remains as elusive as its name suggests. Batoh contends the band spent its formative years largely in a nomadic existence, varying in numbers and wandering from old subway stations and primitive caves to the ruins of ancient temples and abandoned ashrams. The earliest known footage of the group, uncovered on Metamorphosis: Ghost Chronicles 1984-2004, comes from a demonstration at the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in Tokyo, 1984. Other videos from the late 1980s find the band improvising both on the streets and in the metro after nightfall, while 1994 compilation Temple Stone collects Ghost's burned offerings, recorded at the Seiryu Temple and Waseda Salvation Church, from the previous two years.
"We treated our performance as some kind of ritual initiation," Batoh stresses. "We tried to keep spiritual unity."
Batoh ultimately took up residence in an apartment on the outskirts of Tokyo, which came to be known as Ghost House. The decrepit building served as a communal bunker, filtering through a steady stream of band members and associates, a time period captured by the pensive and provincial folk of Ghost's eponymous debut and follow-up, 1992's Second Time Around, both originally released by PSF Records. It was at Ghost House that Batoh also recorded his two solo LPs, 1995's A Ghost From the Darkened Sea and the following year's Kikaokubeshi (later packaged together as Collected Works 95-96). Like Butthole Surfers' infamous "1401" dwelling in East Austin, Ghost House was demolished by the city in the late 1990s.
"Crazy egoistic hippies who thought themselves very intellectual did whatever they wanted; we were happier than usual rock band," summarizes Batoh, whose accent often masks his English lyricism. "It's over. When people have a new dawn they are re-born. When they sleep they die once.
"So something happened in your history means nothing."
Ghost may have never materialized in the States were it not for Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang. The former Galaxie 500 duo discovered the band's music through an associate at the distribution company Forced Exposure and even wrote the group a fan letter, though it was never received.
"It had been a long time since we had heard a living, working band that made us as excited about music as Ghost had," recalls Krukowski fondly. "Then a promoter wanted to book a tour for a band that we were in at the time called Magic Hour. We weren't sure if the promoter was for real, so we laid down what we thought was an impossible stipulation: If you get our favorite band in the world to co-headline, we'll do it. A month later, he called us back and said: 'Okay. Ghost is coming.'
"Sure enough, we went to the airport and picked them up, and there they were. Their English wasn't that good then, and our Japanese was nonexistent at the time, but we became really good friends."
Chicago's esteemed Drag City label caught one of the shows on that landmark 1995 tour and signed Ghost, subsequently reissuing the band's entire back catalog. With each successive reincarnation and corresponding album, Ghost has introduced new elements to its dialect, from the political unrest seizing Tune In, Turn On, Free Tibet to the progressive tension rippling through Hypnotic Underworld. After both an American and Japanese tour together, Krukowski and Yang collaborated with the group for 2000's Damon & Naomi With Ghost (Sub Pop), a melancholic melting pot of rare pop elegance, with arrangements courtesy of keyboardist Ogino.
Longtime guitarist Kurihara is the hidden fortress behind Ghost's scenic explorations. A deft sonic contortionist with a deeply impressionistic style capable of both sensual beauty and profound abrasion, Kurihara is best known for his recent collaborations and touring with Boris, but his legacy looms large in the Japanese underground for his work in heavy psych luminaries White Heaven and offshoot the Stars, not to mention appearances on Damon & Naomi's Song to the Siren: On Tour With Kurihara and 2007's Within These Walls.
"He works really hard to adjust himself to whoever he's playing with," surmises Krukowski, whose label, 20/20/20, reissued Kurihara's scenic solo bow, Sunset Notes, in 2007. "There's a whole process that he's going through to shape the sound. I've heard him say in interviews that he's not a technical player, but he's so skilled. I think he means that he doesn't play for technique's sake. He doesn't assert himself that way. The playing comes out of an emotional core."
With the addition of Tateiwa and Moriya, Ghost solidified a permanent lineup for 2007's In Stormy Nights, arguably the group's most ambitious work. The band vowed not to tour the States in support of the album until President George W. Bush was no longer in office. After administrative succession and in the midst of a global psychedelic renaissance, perhaps new weird America is ready for the return of Japan's most venerable transcendentalists.
"Why is not music a healing?" Batoh asks emphatically. "Sometimes it can be a tour guide to inner trip – to see inside of them what they are. I want to provide an opportunity for them."
Ghost manifests at Mohawk on Saturday, May 16, with Rob Lowe's Lichens.