Concert Photos by Beana Bern, Dorothy Hong. Portraits by Dylan Griffin
The patches are like something out of a sci-fi film, or at the very least the skin of a particularly pale redhead, lining the arms of the Boredoms’ small entourage like the nicotine-pumping birthmarks of a smoker who just can’t quit.
I know it’s not polite to stare, oh memories of mom, but it’s kinda hard not to when you’re squeezed into a motel hallway for a photo shoot with Japan’s most innovative and intriguing underground musicians, namely Boredoms mastermind Yamatsuka Eye (a.k.a. eYe) and longtime drummer/OOIOO frontwoman Yoshimi Yokota (a.k.a. Yoshimi P-WE).
The Boredoms perform the kind of trance-inducing music that is capable of making you (a) “see God” (b) feel high, naturally (c) feel high and “talk to God,” unnaturally, or (d) pass out in a puddle of bodily fluid.
“Excuse me, what are those?” I ask band manager Junko, who is tending to one of several kids tagging along the Boredoms’ brief early summer tour in the U.S. “They promote healing and help your circulation,” she responds, miming the flow of blood with a swift hand movement. The suggestion may sound strange to Westerners—or as some would say, hokey and ridiculous—but to suggest that is to miss the mark altogether before we even scratch the surface of what really makes the Boredoms such a delightfully strange revelation among musicians and artists. The most immediate indication of this is their euphoric, borderline religious performances, which have recently included three drummers, stacks of synths, and glowing Discovery Channel Store orbs that make Eye look like a six-figure magician crossed with a madcap composer hell-bent on destroying the very notion of classical music.
Beyond the loud, the oblique, and the visceral is a template-obliterating stack of LP’s, EP’s, and side projects, including a one-track hour of symphonic noise (Super Roots 5), an untitled collection of twisted jam band tendencies and guitar pyrotechnics (Vision Creation Newsun), and most recently, a two-song polyrhythmic psych meditation partially recorded on a beachfront among crashing waves and drifting sand that constantly coated the bass drums (Seadrum/House of Sun). Much of the music can be classified as challenging and/or annoying to the casual listener, but it is within these grooves that the Boredoms predicted and/or directly influenced such popular modern experimental groups as Wolf Eyes, Lightning Bolt, Black Dice, Deerhoof, Sonic Youth, and Boris. All while speaking, singing, and screaming in Japanese and “the language of the Bore,” an imaginary dialect like Sigur Rós’ own nonsensical but transcendent language.
In other words, the Boredoms perform the kind of trance-inducing music that is capable of making you (a) “see God” (b) feel high, naturally (c) feel high and “talk to God,” unnaturally, or (d) pass out in a puddle of bodily fluid. Consequently, going into one of their shows with a handful of circulation patches might not be a bad idea. And so here I am, feverishly scanning the room and an adjoining staircase for a stray sticker or two in preparation for a New York City performance at Webster Hall tonight. Unfortunately, I find nothing on the floor but expunged test-Polaroids from Theme’s photographer. That’s fine; I’ll ask Eye for a handful in a bit. As Yoshimi will tell me later, he’s more than a bit sore from three decades of leaping off stage and on—climbing, crawling, and committing such unbelievable acts as driving a bulldozer through a venue, when he was limber and leading the violent industrial noise collective Hanatarashi. The good ol’ days indeed.
“We were all blown away,” says Spencer, speaking from the road with his rockabilly side project Heavy Trash. “At that time, they were in full noise-rock/Butthole Surfer mode—just crazy, wild incredible energy.
Body of Evidence
The documented history of the Boredoms is surprisingly hazy, given that they’ve been active in the States and Japan for the past two decades. And that’s not even counting each member’s previous stints in such Japanese acts as UFO or Die (Eye, Yoshimi) and the aforementioned Hanatarashi and Yoshimi’s longtime role in OOIOO (pronounced “oo-loo”). What we know for sure can in fact be fit tidily into this paragraph. Eye, a Kobe native, founded the Boredoms in Osaka, Japan, in early 1986. The original lineup included Hanatarashi drummer Taketani, as well as guitarist Tabata Mara, and bassist Hosoi. It didn’t last. Yoshikawa Toyohito replaced Taketani, Hosoi was dropped in favor of Hira, and Mara quit for the better when longtime member Yamamoto Seiichi (a.k.a. Yama-Motor) snagged his spot. This quartet released the first Boredoms EP, Anal by Anal, in 1986. A full-length called Onanie Bomb Meets the Sex Pistols followed in 1988, the same year Yoshimi joined. Numerous lineup changes, role reversals, and more than 15 records have occurred in the years since, but suffice it to say that Yoshimi and Eye now perform as the Voordoms (credited as the Boredoms here in the U.S. to “not confuse anyone,” according to Yoshimi) along with percussionists ATR and Yojiro. Eye and Yoshimi offer some hints to their past, present, and unclear future during a brief and rare in-person interview after their photo shoot, but these hints are delivered in cryptic, misleading phrases. We’ll attempt to assemble those puzzling puzzle pieces into a complete picture later. For now, I’ve hunted down two people who’ve gotten to know the Boredoms better than most—Jon Spencer of Pussy Galore/the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Birdman Records founder David Katznelson, a former VP of A&R at Warner Brothers that signed the Boredoms to its Reprise contract in the States and ended up being one of their foremost supporters here over the years.
Spencer was one of the earliest witnesses to the Boredoms’ sensory overload shows in the late ’80s, well before the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana would name-drop the band in interviews and on tours. Having brought them along for two direct support slots on a Pussy Galore tour of Japan, Spencer was enamored with the Boredoms immediately.
“We were all blown away,” says Spencer, speaking from the road with his rockabilly side project Heavy Trash. “At that time, they were in full noise-rock/Butthole Surfer mode—just crazy, wild incredible energy. My drummer Bob [Bert] fell in love with Yoshimi; they gave us records and even those were beautiful, just absurd covers to puzzle over and more bizarre sounds.”
Katznelson was just as intrigued as he stumbled upon the Boredoms’ Shimmy Disc debut Soul Discharge and a Los Angeles show during a “legendary tour with [the grindcore band] Brutal Truth” in 1993. Luckily for him, he met their manager afterwards and found out they were already signed to Warner Japan. The record hadn’t hit the U.S. offices of Warner simply because Japan’s branch assumed “no one would be interested.” Now that someone from the States was about to sign them to a domestic contract, Japan responded to the enthusiasm by extending the Boredoms home deal for six more records and taking Katznelson to what he calls “one of the best dinners of my life—a $1,000-a-head place with Kobe beef that they took Phil Collins to the month before. They treated me like a star, as if I had just signed the Beatles or Eric Clapton.”
Before he knew it, Katznelson was accompanying the Boredoms on the Chocolate Synthesizer tour and a slew of support dates, including a hand-selected offer to open for Nirvana. It was here where Katznelson says he had his most memorable Boredoms moments of many. One especially striking stop was on Halloween in the former tire industry capital of Akron, Ohio.
“Generally speaking, Nirvana’s fans included a lot of lug-head fraternity boys by then,” explains Katznelson. “I was standing behind about five or six of them that night. One of them was booing while another was like, ‘You know, I kinda like this.’ And the other guy was like, ‘No you don’t! This is fucked up!’ The other one agreed and they immediately started throwing pennies at Eye’s forehead.”
Expecting gory details due to Eye’s confrontational past with Hanatarashi—a trail of broken bottles, Molotov cocktails, and general wanton destruction—I ask him how the frontman responded, which was by playing on.
“Eye is a suave motherfucker,” says Katznelson. “I’ve never seen him get mad.”
He may be suave but the Boredoms have always been an esoteric, off-putting presence, even during their heyday of press accolades and playing the main stage of Lollapalooza in 1995. (Katznelson says Warner paid $35,000 just to fly them over and play the traveling festival.) As a result, their shelf life was not unlike that of other “alternative music” casualties, signed for label legitimacy at the height of Gen X-era grunge and dropped as soon as sales didn’t pan out.
“Things got bad for the Boredoms the same time it got bad for Mudhoney, Tarnation, and other artists I signed to Reprise,” explains Katznelson. “It was a free, great thing before, during the pinnacle of Nirvana-dom, when the [Reprise] publicist loved me because he got more press out of the Boredoms than he got from Eric Clapton because they were such an anomaly—the [P-Funk] Mothership or [Sun Ra] Arkestra, basically.”
The anomaly angle is part of what’s kept the Boredoms relevant despite failed record deals and waning interest. After all, how many bands can claim to write without pretense in a faux language and possess an “invisible extra member” on top of it?
“That’s the thing—he was real but invisible,” says Katznelson. “You have to get into this mindset and once you do, it’s killer; a wonderful, surreal place to be, a very crazy yet very logical approach to art.”
If nothing else, Vice Records saw the potential of this “place” when they signed the Boredoms to their first U.S. deal in years, covering the expansive 2005 release Seadrum/House of Sun and a two-tiered round of reissues for the ridiculously experimental Super Roots series (volumes one, three, and five are out on November 7, while 6–8 are set for December 5; Eye has also hinted at the possibility of a 12-inch). Label manager Adam Shore is a longtime fan of the group and made sure they also had a spot on the Vice-curated Intonation Festival in Chicago earlier this summer.
“I wouldn’t expect them to ever be big, but their influence is everywhere and I’d expect these releases to expand that influence,” says Shore. “Once people consider the entire breadth of their work I hope they’ll get the same consideration in the larger arts world that they get underground.”
“These reissues will hopefully solidify their position in history more than anything,” adds Katznelson. “It’s not like they’re going to tour behind those records and play those songs again, since they’re constantly changing. But like a painter or conceptual artist, they aren’t meant to be in the Top 10 of a radio station; the longer they exist, the more important they get.”
More Than Words
Ask the Boredoms about the breadth of their work and abstract concepts like their overall importance and they’ll respond kindly but curtly. Basically, every question is met with a variation of “I don’t remember,” or, as Yoshimi claims in several instances as we sit down in their manager’s hotel room: “Everything dates back to like 20 years ago, when I was 18, so the details are sketchy,” “I think there’s something, but I can’t remember,” and “our music constantly changes, so naturally our audience will change with it.”
She does share one insightful story, however, involving the Boredoms’ mess of a first run in the U.S., when avant-garde music icon John Zorn invited them over in 1992. Apparently, guitarist “Yama-Motor” lost his passport the day before they were supposed to leave Japan. As a result, the Boredoms’ bus driver Tim claimed he could “play the chords note for note” as a temporary solution. He actually was awful, which has its own benefits in the skewed universe of the Boredoms. Even so, the band was happy to welcome Yama-Motor back for the final date of the tour, only to find their luggage—including his new passport—stolen soon after in a New York City airport.
Yoshimi laughs it all off now and claims she did then, which is commendable since most bands would have taken such a series of events as reason to never return again. It’s a perseverance that remains steadfast to this day, although the Boredoms play U.S. shows sparingly compared to the mid-’90s, when Warner was flying them to many cities several times a year.
“We’ve actually been more nervous playing in Japan,” admits Eye. “When we first played Texas, someone yelled, ‘You guys are so acid punk!’ That made us so incredibly happy.”
One of the major reasons Eye says he’s stuck with the Boredoms, aside from encouraging crowds, is the surreal moments music has triggered in his psyche over the years. Like the time he saw an alien appear “right before my eyes” while DJ’ing on a mountain range.
“There were other people there to confirm this fact, so I know it wasn’t a dream,” explains Eye. “It was very clearly reality. The alien would stretch and shrink like chewing gum.”
There are no guest appearances by aliens at tonight’s show, but the sight of three drummers and a very commanding Eye—swinging a handful of lit-up orbs, pounding on keyboards, and generally jumping around too much given his sore back and hips—is powerful indeed. To be honest, it’s no small wonder that Eye’s still standing by the end of the evening, regardless of age.
“Things have gotten easier because I know what I can handle,” says Eye when I catch up with him weeks later. “Before I would just be chaotic and hurt myself…or use a bulldozer as an instrument.”