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Whatsa Matto?

Shortly after moving from Japan to the United States in the late Eighties, Yuka Honda landed a job writing about American food for a Japanese magazine. On the surface, the position seems to have little in common with her current role, as half of a resolutely eclectic band known as Cibo Matto, but Honda knows better. In her world--a world like no one else's--the connection is astoundingly obvious.

"I'm kind of doing the same thing now that I was doing then--writing about different cultural things," she notes in heavily accented English. "Like, one time, I wrote something about burgers, which are very differently perceived in Japan and in the United States. If you ask for a burger in Japan, you get meat mixed with onions, bread soaked in milk and all these extra things; it's like a meat loaf. And in the United States, it's just more like chopped meat. The same thing is true for sandwiches. In Japan, sandwiches are more like English sandwiches. Very thin. And here it's more of a substantial meal. So I wrote about that, too.

"But when I was writing those things, I wasn't only writing about burgers and sandwiches. I was writing about America through burgers and sandwiches. It's not that it's my unique style, but I found out that it was a really good way to understand another culture. Because everybody eats."

If this explanation doesn't fully underline the correlation between ingestibles and Cibo Matto, the act's CD, Viva! La Woman, released by Warner Bros., will. The roster of songs reads like a slacker's grocery list: Selections include "Apple," "Beef Jerky," "White Pepper Ice Cream" and a cover version of the Sammy Davis Jr. smash "The Candy Man." However, a look below the surface shows that these tracks are not entirely gastronomical. Take these lines from "Artichoke," which Miho Hatori, Honda's partner, delivers in extremely idiosyncratic English: "My heart is like an artichoke/I eat petals myself one by one.../Your hands are like a rusty knife/Are you gonna keep on peeling me?"

In short, Cibo Matto (an Italian phrase, lifted from a Seventies flick, that roughly translates as "crazy food") uses metaphors that taste good. But verbally and musically, what the act is really about is juxtaposition. Honda, a keyboardist who wields her sampler like a light saber, thinks nothing of slapping together rock, punk, hip-hop, jazz, house, techno and other assorted avant-gardeisms. Rather than jab these styles into a listener's ears one by one, though, she blends them together so thoroughly that they wind up sounding like a completely fresh entity. Hers is a mysterious recipe--one that she's not about to share. "People mention that I'm putting different things together, but they really don't know what those different things are," she says. "All they know is that I'm mixing up a lot of things."

Honda has been dealing with disparate societal input since shortly after she achieved consciousness. Because of her father's work with an international trading firm, her early years were spent in Germany and Denmark, where she got her first taste of prejudice; she told Option magazine that her parents pulled her out of one kindergarten because of racist remarks flung at her by the other children. When she was seven, the Honda clan moved to Tokyo, where young Yuka's European manner was fused with the mores of Japan. As a result, Honda emerged with a personality that was not wholly of any specific land and an uncommon worldview that's turned out to be a valuable aid to her music-making. "I've never really tried too hard to think about how I see things, because it's normal to me," she claims. "But I guess because I've seen so much, I'm kind of used to putting things together in my mind that other people wouldn't."

Given her melting-pot childhood, it was only natural that Honda would gravitate to New York City. She arrived there in 1987 and before long began working with an astonishingly diverse array of acts, including Brooklyn Funk Essentials, hip-hop's Sha-Key, and Cobra, a brainstorm of forward-looking jazzbo John Zorn. Hatori joined this list after emigrating from Japan in 1993, and within a matter of weeks after she and Honda met, the pair were part of Leitoh Lychee, a punk combo frankly inspired by the Boredoms. When the group ran its course, Honda and Hatori started engaging in the casual musical experimentation that finally birthed their current group.

Although the complexities of Viva! La Woman suggest otherwise, Cibo Matto "started as a live band," Honda says. "A lot of the songs that we ended up recording we played pretty much like they are at live shows. We did a slight tweaking of things here and there and changed some things, but they basically sound the same. I played all the samples live, and that's what we're still doing--because I think it's more interesting."

In Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom, who produced the CD, Honda and Hatori found the ideal collaborators. Between them, the two have overseen several of the most sonically intriguing discs to appear in the last decade, including offerings by Los Lobos, the Latin Playboys, Tom Waits and Soul Coughing. The combination of their playfully inventive approach to the studio, Honda's skilled manipulation of previous recordings (Ennio Morricone gets a co-writing credit on "Sugar Water") and assorted found sounds provides Viva! La Woman with more atmosphere than is present in most solar systems. You don't merely listen to the album; you tumble into it. After spending 45 minutes or so in this intricate environment, you may never want to leave.

By the same token, the album is not so highbrow as to be off-putting. Its accessibility was not an accident. "That was one of my goals," Honda admits. "I've been involved in the downtown scene a lot and have seen a lot of amazing musicians, but I'm not that academic myself. I always thought it would be the greatest thing to do something that maybe Miles Davis would have loved, but also something that my mom would love. Not like she's dumb or anything, but she doesn't have a musician's ear. And I'd want her to like it, anyway.

"I don't want to go in and say, 'This is really amazing because I did five-four over three-seven and it's an impossible thing to do, blah-blah-blah.' If I have to explain why something is good, then it's not that good. I feel like if something is good, you should be able to hear that it's good right away and enjoy it. I feel the same way about the movies or books that I like. I want something that's entertaining and there's a plot that totally makes sense to me, but at the same time I like to have all these other things that I can look around at. I find that very exciting."

With their current tour, Honda and Hatori aim to bring this vision to a wider audience, in spite of problems that threatened to keep them off the road. Specifically, the two had arranged for Sean Lennon--the son of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, whom they'd met while remixing one of Ono's recent recordings--to back them up on their cross-country journey along with another member of his band, Ima. But at the last minute, Yoko intervened. "Yeah, Sean's mom took him this time," Honda reveals. "She was playing New York, and she needed him with her. I couldn't really say anything." A quick scramble resulted in the hiring of a new rhythm section consisting of Maki Takahashi, a veteran of the act Blonde Redhead, and Laura Cromwell, from God Is My Co-Pilot. According to Honda, "They're both my friends. I just really like to play with people that I know. I believe in relationships."

She's less thrilled by the press the band has been getting lately; journalists hesitant to plumb the depths of its sound have instead dubbed Honda and Hatori "cute." They are, but to concentrate on this attribute to the exclusion of musical analysis is belittling, as Honda acknowledges. "'Cute' is a tricky one," she says. "To some people it means different things. But I think on a certain level, it's demeaning to us. It has a lot to do with appearances, and that makes us conscious about avoiding certain things." When asked for a specific example, Honda responds with disarming simplicity: "Whatever appears cute. You know what I mean?"

Still, Honda puts her foot down at the suggestion that she stop writing about food--because in her mind, she hasn't been. "None of our songs is about food," she insists. "They just have food titles. The Rolling Stones had a song called 'Brown Sugar,' but it wasn't about food, either."

Cibo Matto, with Babe the Blue Ox. 8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 23, Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street, $6, all ages, 294-9281 or 830-