keiji haino
[an interview by alan cummings]

The main body of this interview was conducted on 29th July 1996, in a cafe near Haino's home in a suburb of Tokyo. Iced tea and cakes were the refreshments of choice. Also present was artist and "Taji" zine contributor Naomi "MU" Murakami. This was supplemented with segments from another interview, conducted on the 25th October 1994 at the Columbia Hotel in London, on Haino's first trip to the UK. His appearance there at the Disobey club was later documented on the "Saying I love you, I continue to curse myself" CD on Blast First.

Alan Cummings : I’d like to ask you a bit about your childhood first. What were you like as a child?

Keiji Haino(1) : I was definitely different from everyone else. Looking back now it sort of seems to have been inevitable, but I was different from everyone else. My first memories are from around the time I went to kindergarten. It seems very symbolic now, but I remember that when all the other kids were playing in the sand pit, I’d be playing with building bricks. And when they were all playing with the building bricks, I’d be in the sand pit.

AC : So you always played by yourself?

KH : Yeah. But the thing was, the kindergarten I went to allowed me to do that(2). I don’t know whether it had a positive or a negative effect on me, but thinking back now, that kindergarten gave me preferential treatment. They let me do what I wanted. That system really suited me and I really liked kindergarten. I could do whatever I wanted. But when I went to elementary school I had a really hard time. Japanese schools are totally regimented–they’re always telling you to do this or do that. So coming straight from a kindergarten where they let me do whatever I wanted, looking back now and using modern terms, it was like experiencing culture shock. I probably never recovered from that. (laughs) I really hated school.

AC : When you were a child were you conscious of being different from everyone else?

KH : It wasn’t so much that I felt I was different from everyone else–just that what I liked to do always seemed to be different from what everyone else wanted to do.

AC : Did that make you feel lonely?

KH : I didn’t feel at all lonely at the start. I was doing what I wanted to. This doesn’t just apply to childhood, but you only begin to compare things when there is some restriction imposed upon you, don’t you? You should just do whatever you want, whatever feels good to you–and if you’re doing something that doesn’t feel right then you should be able to change direction. When restrictions exist, you’ve got to try and get past them. You’re being limited so you should change. And by doing that you begin to learn what doesn’t suit you, what isn’t natural.

AC : What are your earliest memories of music?

KH : I liked singing. I remember singing with my mother. I liked songs, rather than just some abstract idea of music.

AC : Did you hear a lot of music at home?

KH : Both my mother and father loved songs so . . . .

AC : What kind of songs?

KH : Just normal Japanese contemporary songs.

AC : Did they play any musical instruments? Or did that come later, at school?

KH : No, no, not at all. At primary school I loved music, but I absolutely loathed the music lessons we would be given. This is one of my really strong memories of school–when I’d just started primary school, you know how there’s a platform in front of the blackboard so the kids can reach the board? I remember that the teacher would always make me lie under that as a punishment, because I was always kicking up a fuss.

Naomi Murakami : That’s pretty extreme.

KH : Maybe it was only once or twice, but the memory of it is still really powerful. Because I had been so free in kindergarten, I’ve always hated being forced to do anything. I think I was probably born with that side to my character. I’m sure of that.

AC : What was the first instrument you learnt how to play?

KH : The harmonica(3)–I could really play it. I’m very confident on the harmonica–no matter what melody or rhythm, if I hear it just once, I can play it on the harmonica.

AC : Do you still use it in performance?

KH : Occasionally. Play me any folk song or symphony or whatever just once, and I’ll be able to blow it right back to you on harmonica.

AC : You play some harmonica on "Live in the First Year of Heisei," don’t you? When did you start learning it–did someone teach you?

KH : I learnt at school. I think it was in the fifth grade at elementary school. We started on harmonica and then moved up to the recorder. Later on, I had absolutely no interest in the guitar. All I ever imagined myself doing was singing.

AC : Did you have any kind of reaction against the type of music that you were being taught in school? Was there some part of you that was thinking, this isn’t really music?

KH : I liked singing, I liked playing instruments, but I hated class. It was that clear to me. This is something that a lot of people have remarked on–you know how you have music appreciation classes at school? The teacher asks how a particular piece of music sounds, what kinds of feelings it arouses, what the composer was thinking about–I always knew the answer before anyone else in the class.

AC : What age were you then?

KH : I was in the first grade.

AC : I think most people, for whatever reason, start taking a more active interest in music around puberty–you start investigating stuff for yourself, listening to new music. Did your attitude to music change around that time?

KH : I’ve talked about this a lot before. The Doors were the first big turning point for me. For some reason I had always wanted to do drama (4). So there I was in the second or third year of junior high school and I was very interested in theatre. Just around then rock, or "new rock" as they called it back then, became popular and I heard The Doors for the first time. It was like I had experienced something that had elements of both music and theatre, the two things that I was most interested in at that time.

AC : Were you attracted by that fusion of music and theatre?

KH : I suddenly realized that this was far cooler than straight theatre.

AC : Was that what made you want to become a musician? Rather than an actor?

KH : I liked The Doors and I liked what Jim Morrison was doing, so... I didn’t lose all interest in the theatre, but I just no longer felt like going that way.

AC : Did you hear any sense of musical progression from The Beatles to The Stones to The Doors, and then stuff after that like The Velvet Underground? Or did you just hear everything as pure music?

KH : That’s where I think I’m different from a lot of other people. I totally ignored all musical criticism–The Doors just gave me a real rush. Everyone is too aware of history and criticism when they listen to music and that’s why they don’t understand it properly. They read that someone is amazing, then they go out and buy that record–it turns into an academic exercise. I just liked The Doors without any outside influence. I had listened to a lot of stuff and they just really grabbed me. Stuff like Cream was totally tedious. I listened to Jimi Hendrix but I was more interested in the drums than his guitar. (laughs) Probably because I didn’t play guitar then I didn’t understand fully what he was doing. Music criticism gets in the way of feeling and understanding the music.

AC : Do you think then that it’s totally unnecessary?

KH : It’s OK to think about music after you’ve heard it. But first you’ve got to experience it. There’s no one who truly understands what Jimi Hendrix was doing. Most kids who get into Hendrix hear him as a progression from the blues. They don’t try to understand why he wrote those kinds of songs. So after they’ve listened to Hendrix for about ten years, they move on to better guitarists–people like Django (Rheinhardt) or Charlie Christian. But I think they’re entirely different. I’m not especially a fan of Hendrix though. I like Django and Charlie Christian–they did some amazing stuff.

AC : Did you hear any Velvet Underground stuff back then?

KH : The records were impossible to get hold of here at the time. If you weren’t living in the centre of Tokyo and involved in the art scene, then there was no way to get them. So I didn’t know anything about The Velvet Underground–none of the magazines did anything on them at the time. At least if any of them did, I never saw it. Just one more example of how idiotic Japanese rock critics and magazines are. (laughs)

AC : Were any Western groups playing in Japan back then?

KH : None at all. All there was was "group sounds" stuff. You know, Japanese versions of ‘60s pop–"I love you" and that kind of thing. Once I’d heard The Doors I lost all interest in that kind of pop–especially in the way it was presented. All these people flopping their fringes around–like, give me a break. (laughs) I’ve changed a bit now, but twenty years ago I never had any intention of playing music and making money that way. I just loved music and wanted to play live. Now there are a lot of young musicians who want to become stars from even before they start making music. That’s ridiculous. There’s no way you can make interesting music if that’s all you’re concerned about. Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison never started out with that intention, it was something that happened along the way. At the start I wanted to be an actor rather than a musician anyway.

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Photograph by Hiromi Wakui.

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