Kishi Bashi on learning how not to get pushed around by jaded New York Broadway types
Kaoru Ishibashi (aka Kishi Bashi) came straight out of Berklee with a degree in film scoring and went right into performing, first with Barnum's Kaleidoscape and then with his own group, Jupiter One. Along the way, he had stints with Regina Spektor and Sondre Lerche, and he was also a touring member of Kevin Barnes's experimental pop band Of Montreal. These days, Ishibashi focuses on his Kishi Bashi project, for which he has crafted simple songs with a symphonic, elevated feel: Think the kind of colorful, energetic music that Dan Deacon would write, but even more pop-oriented.
Kishi Bashi's 2012 album, the critically acclaimed 151a, is the kind of record that could only be produced by someone with a solid background in music, someone who's also willing to use that knowledge creatively. We recently spoke with the bright and affable Ishibashi about his earlier projects, the relation of the title of 151a to Noh theater, and how seeking a male singer to do harmonies eventually led him to Elizabeth Ziman.
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Kaoru Ishibashi: I started with Suzuki method, then I branched out into chamber music study and jazz violin later.
Do you think it helped you long-term in making your own music?
Yeah, Suzuki is great because it's ear-training based, so it makes you memorize a lot of music by ear. There's some criticism of it from traditionalists because you start learning to read music a lot later in Suzuki, so the reading is kind of weak. But I think learning by ear is the best thing that anybody could do, because you really internalize the music.
You got a degree in film scoring from Berklee. How do you approach writing a score differently than writing a song, as you would for your band?
It's different because it's subservient to the film. It can be frustrating, too, if you put your heart in the music and the director doesn't like it or turns it down. [That's why] I don't really work in film. I did a couple of documentaries when I was in Boston, but for the most part, I don't really like doing it anymore. It's like a service industry.
Are there films you feel are scored especially well or that have good music direction?
Hollywood is great at it. I'm always surprised. I think John Williams is great; Hans Zimmer, too. I like the old-school people, too, like Alan Silvestri and Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein -- they're great composers.
With what seems like a strong classical background, what got you interested in playing more pop-oriented music?
I had a band called Jupiter One when I moved to New York, and I worked in that for a while. It started off as instrumental, but then I got into singing and writing songs. People paid more attention to me when I started doing that, and I developed myself as a singer. It was a pretty natural progression.
What made it more appealing, other than getting some positive responses to it?
I like to make people happy, and when I write my songs, I like to inspire or provoke people, and I think when you write a song and you add a story, you add another dimension to the music, and I think that's why I really like songwriting. The song has a more personal meeting, and instrumental music is more difficult to attach to emotionally.
How did you meet and come to work with Of Montreal?
I was on tour with Regina Spektor, and I think we played a festival together, in England, I guess. I was a huge fan already of Kevin Barnes and the whole band. I didn't realize Of Montreal was just Kevin Barnes, really. He makes all the music by himself. I offered to play strings for him, and he took me up on the offer and sent me tracks that I was supposed to put orchestral sounds on. We started collaborating, and eventually he ended up hiring me for his band. I played guitar and violin and sang background harmonies. I'm pretty lucky to have been able to work with him. He's very inspiring.
What did you find inspiring about working with him?
He's so creative, and he embodies the artist. He feels compulsive and provoked to keep creating. He's very prolific, and he's always writing music and experimenting and trying new things and evolving.
What do you enjoy and find interesting about collaborating with other musicians, whether it's on your own music or theirs?
Right now, all I do is play my own music, which is a great position to be in. Up until now, I've been lucky to participate in Regina Spektor's band; she is a great artist in her own right, and just to be around that kind of presence and see how she connects with her fans. I've worked with a lot of solo artists, like Sondre Lerche, and Of Montreal is almost like a solo project. It gave me a lot of confidence to go out on my own and be in charge of my own destiny, just like those guys do.
What was it like playing at Morph in Roppongi last August?
That was pretty cool. It was a small rock club, and it was packed. Probably 250 people there, maybe. A lot of people came to see me because I have a song in a commercial over there -- a cell phone commercial [for Docomo]. So everybody was really familiar with the song. Almost everybody in Japan knows this song, whether they know my name or not. But they know the sound of the song because they've seen the commercial so much. I have a manager over there who is really pushing me, so I charted on the radio a little bit. There seems to be a lot of interest about me over there because I'm a Japanese guy who is doing it over here, which is rare, I guess, for Japanese people.
Tokyo has that strange phenomenon of a thing like 7-Eleven being on the third floor of a huge commercial building. Was it in a place like that?
Oh, no, it was a really modern rock club. It wasn't midtown or anything. It was in the basement of a small building. Pretty cool place.
How did you get involved in Barnum's Kaleidoscape?
It was like this really expensive circus. It was my first post-college job. I made a lot of money. Barnum & Bailey's tried to compete with Cirque Du Soleil with a boutique art circus. Everybody was overpaid, and it folded after a year. But it was fun, and it was my first salaried music job, which was great. Then I lived off of unemployment for like half a year after that.
What did you learn from that experience that was perhaps important for you later on?
I learned some life lessons. It was my first time dealing with strange people. I learned some conflict-management techniques and how not to get pushed around. The band was kind of interesting because it was a mix of New York musicians and Broadway-type people and younger people like myself. So the older Broadway guys were kind of jaded and not very nice. Some of them were nice, but there were a lot of personalities in that band, and you travel with them. So I learned how to communicate very well. Musically, I don't think I really learned much. It was like a rock fusion band. I made great friends there, too, and that's where I met Zac [Colwell] from Jupiter One, so that's how he and I got together.
In an interview with a publication called Tokyo Weekender, you mentioned that you had relatives in Okinawa. Have you been there?
Yeah, my mom is actually from Okinawa. She's actually from Naha.
How would you say it differs from Japan proper?
They're really laid-back. They don't wear watches. Everything's "later." People get together really late into the night. They're loose with the time, which is kind of unusual for Japanese people, I always thought. It's really laid-back, which I like a lot. It's also beautiful.
Does the title of your album, 151a, refer to a Japanese term?
Oh yeah, it's "ichi-go ichi-e," which is a Japanese phrase that means "one time, one meeting." It's a pretty popular phrase, and it refers to the beauty of a unique performance. Like Noh theater actors when they get together. They'll learn the stuff on their own, and I think they only get together once before the performance so that they have a unique experience to that one performance. So it's like, "Enjoy this moment, because it will never be the same again." I think Sen no Rikyū, the famous tea ceremony creator, coined the phrase.
How did you meet Elizabeth Ziman?
I've known her for a while from playing with bands in New York. She's great. I was looking for a singer who really likes my music. I was looking for a male singer who could sing my harmonies and play percussion. I really couldn't find people who could sing as high as I do for a guy. So I was looking for girls, which made more sense after the fact. She's a great singer and a great musician, and she has a great positive spirit, so it worked out perfectly.
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