PSYCHED TO MEET YOU: MASAKI BATOH
Interview by Gareth Thompson
Masaki Batoh grew up in Japan and began playing the guitar aged nineteen. He was a founding member of experimental band Ghost, who often lived a nomadic existence. Batoh’s solo albums are a labyrinth of sound, drawing on classical, folk and psych-rock themes. His recent album, Smile Jesus Loves You, is a real career highlight. The title track alone embraces a woodwind prelude, rustic shamanism, spiritual jazz and a piano recital. Batoh himself plays nine different instruments on the record and sings lead vocals. His earlier repertoire includes two mesmeric albums with the cellist Helena Espvall. Batoh lives in Tokyo and is signed to American label Drag City, also home to Meg Baird, Circuit Des Yeux and Six Organs Of Admittance.
MOOF: Can you tell us what ideas you address on the new album, both in the lyrics and music?
MB: It is partly based on yin/yang and the Five Elements (wood, fire, earth, metal and water) which are basic concepts in Oriental medicine. Within these I see many aspects of the global situations that are currently surrounding us. A human’s yin/yang organs, life force, blood and fluids are just like the world in microcosm. For this new album, I comprehensively appraised these global phenomena and distilled a new creation like you never heard anywhere!
MOOF: You play a wide array of instruments. How many of them did you learn with a teacher?
MB: I learned all of them by myself. Really, no one else was involved.
MOOF: Are there any Eastern scales or open tunings you use as a guitarist?
MB: Yes, of course. My banjo-playing style, especially, is based on Eastern scales, but also on Eastern medical principles.
MOOF: How early on was American folk music an influence?
MB: My albums have featured banjo, harmonica, pedal steel and slide guitar. I grew up with music from the 1960s, when so many musicians played these instruments in the UK, U.S. and elsewhere.
MOOF: Do you follow any particular faith or spiritual path?
MB: Not especially, but I’m a doctor of acupuncture that offers spiritual treatment for my patients every day. I’ve been curing people and society itself for thirty years.
MOOF: We loved your albums with cellist Helena Espvall. How did you set about fusing all those traditional styles?
MB: I met Helena through my label Drag City a long time ago. Her group Espers often opened for my band Ghost in the U.S. She comes from Sweden and married an American artist. I really like her classical method, using Swedish traditions and her own experimental expressions on the cello. It was Drag City who came up with the idea for us to work together. I love them as people too.
MOOF: What led you into exploring alternative health treatments?
MB: I developed an interest in literature as a child. I had encountered Eastern philosophy while I was majoring in philosophy at college. And then I learned that Eastern philosophy and Oriental medicine are, in many ways, identical. They share a vivid viewpoint that I could actually perform to help others, unlike one that you merely study with contemplation. I became convinced it was my mission to practice my knowledge and skill to help people and society. I consider music to be just like Oriental medicine; another of my methods of self-expression.
MOOF: What are the most far-out films or books you’ve enjoyed?
MB: Films: Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa (1950 psychological thriller about truth and justice) Ugetsu by Kenji Mizoguchi (1953 supernatural drama).
Books: All the works of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (short story maestro); Hyakken Uchida (author and academic); and Torahiko Terada (physicist and author). I also like some works of Junichiro Tanizaki (famed for his ironic and erotic writings).
MOOF: We offer you a time machine for 24 hours. Which cultural or psych events would you travel back to witness?
MB: To the American labour disputes where Woody Guthrie joined in with his acoustic guitar as shown in the documentary Woody Guthrie: This Machine Kills Fascists. Or the day the Chinese People’s Liberation Army invaded Tibet, where I would’ve protested with the Tibetan people. Or on 7th December 1941, when Japanese bombers attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. I wish I could have prevented it. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki likewise. All these moments when crazy politicians ruled.
MOOF: Tell us a mind-blowing album we might not have heard.
MB: Kyotaku by Koku Nishimura. ‘Eternity’ is the word which seems to best fit this music. There’s an instant connection when you to listen to this genuine sound that seems to last forever. It has nothing to do with states of being trippy or awake. It exists somewhere far out. It’s a creation of the soul which goes beyond art.
(MOOF notes: Near impossible to find even a CD copy of this. Nishimura began playing the bamboo flute aged twenty eight. He gave the name ‘kyotaku’ to the type of bamboo flute used by himself and his pupils. Nishimura was also a woodcarver, painter and a black belt in karate. Much like Masaki Batoh, he spent many years living a wanderer’s lifestyle).
(The secret realm of question eleven)
MOOF: What’s in your saucerful of secrets?
Masaki has given us exclusive use of the English lyrics on his new album. Here they are with musical links.
In the Hour Of Serpent // Smile Jesus Loves YOU
Smile Jesus Loves YOU! was released on the 8th May 2020 and is available on vinyl, CD and digitally on Drag City records
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