Kishi Bashi on the Past, Present, & Future of Music

Kishi Bashi photo by Shervin Lainez

Kaoru Ishibashi, stage name Kishi Bashi, is an acclaimed singer-songwriter and looping violinist.  His third studio album, Sonderlust, produced by Chris Taylor (Grizzly Bear) and engineered by Pat Dillett (David Byrne), launched on Joyful Noise Recordings on September 16th – along with an extensive tour of North America.

What were the challenges of bringing this new material to stage?

Well, what I used to do is make music on my violin – this time around, I got into Ableton Live, and took the approach of what music I thought was cool to my ears instead of what I thought people would appreciate on my album.  I was making these really cool, interesting loops chopping up stuff like string samples, and that’s what inspired the songs, these sounds.  And they’re all super dance-y and electronic, not like, “lush, orchestral textures” – kind of pop, upbeat sounds.  So in many ways I was breaking my own barriers, in that I’m swimming in this orchestral kiddie pool, and now I’m adult swimming in the rest of Music Land.

One of the great things about your work is that you include tempo changes and other temporal elements from classical music in there.  Are you getting more comfortable with that robotic groove element by now, three albums in?

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Sticking to the grid, you mean?  [laughs]  Yeah, I dunno, with Ableton you definitely want to be on the grid, because there are so many more possibilities.  Ableton is made for dance music, I feel like, and it’s geared toward that kind of creation.  There are some tempo changes on this new one, but…if you have a great drummer – I have Matt Chamberlain on this one, who is considered one of the great studio drummers – he can play with a click and sound like he’s free-forming.  If you play with a band, sometimes it’s better not to go with a click, because it’s more natural and you can get more groove-kinda things.  But you never know – in the digital age there are so many possibilities. If you stick to the grid you can do some amazing things.  There’s almost no point not to…but I don’t know, I’m still on the fence.

Well, Ableton Live allows pretty complex time warping on the fly.  So since you’ve moved onto that platform, you may have the opportunity to reconcile those two worlds. 

People say that classical musicians don’t groove.  Or that they rush everything, you know?  And it’s kinda true.  When you’re writing this kind of music, when you’re writing for a string section, there are some difficult things they cannot handle.  But time is a valuable thing.  I think I heard somebody say, ‘Time is a white man’s problem.’  [laughs]  I think Luther Vandross said that, whatever that means.

Kishi Bashi - photo by Shervin Lainez

Kishi Bashi – photo by Shervin Lainez

Have you read Douglas Rushkoff’s book, Present Shock?  He’s a New York media theorist who thinks the next few decades will be about us attempting to reconcile organic time with the infinite capacity of the digital world…

Yeah, I’m going to have to read that, because I’m thinking about technology all the time, and how crazy it is.  I read this book, not quite as academic, Ready Player One.  It’s this dystopia in the future where your VR world is definitely going to be better than your real-world life.  And that’s already happening in Japan.  I don’t know if you’ve seen these phones where, when you take selfies, they automatically update your eyes, they take care of your blemishes for you, so everybody’s perfect.  They look like a pop star in their photos that they send to their friends.  So that’s their image, and they don’t like the way they look in real life.

Looping that into the concept of “Sonderlust”…

Yeah!  Sonder is this word that’s made up, it’s a neologism by this guy, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. I fell in love with this guy.  His idea about language and the creation of language resonated with me, and who’s to say what’s a word or not?  I feel like I take that same approach to language, and who’s to say, ‘Is this good?’ or ‘Is this music?’  It’s not up to anybody to say what art is.  My approach is iconoclastic, I guess, in that I don’t care about punctuation, I don’t care what pop music is supposed to be, I just kind of do what I want.  And obviously, I’d like to make a living doing it, so I have to kind of conform, I have to make some decisions.  But I go with my gut.  And what my gut says, a lot of people agree.  Hopefully.  Or have so far.

One interesting thing I was thinking about the other day is the value of music, and a lot of people today don’t realize that a hundred years ago, the only time you’d listen to music is…probably not that much.  Before record players, you’d wake up and you wouldn’t hear music.  You wouldn’t hear music while you ate.  You’d be walking down the street to work, and you wouldn’t hear music. Maybe you’d go to the bar on the weekend, you’d see some guy hacking away at a Scott Joplin song.  And maybe your wife plays parlor piano or something.  And other than that, it’s all silence.  For the most part, music was a really special event.  But for the modern listener…not to say it’s any less valuable because there’s more of it, but we live in a completely different time, and I always reflect on that, to know that it’s a state that humanity was in less than a hundred years ago.

Kishi Bashi - photo by Shervin Lainez

Kishi Bashi – photo by Shervin Lainez

You’re one of these people who is trying to derive new grammars from different musical influences and traditions, and that sort of places you in this historical moment, you know?  Do you think about that?  Not just where we’re coming from, but where we’re going, and how your music might fit into this next thing?

I’ve been in this rat race, as a songwriter, for a long time, you know?  And it’s basically anything you can do to inspire someone else, and is a little unique, to stand out, is something I’ve been looking for, for a while.  So when I found out that not too many people are writing songs on violin and pursuing these orchestral textures – they take a little bit more effort, I think – I’m very lucky that it’s afforded me the ability to pursue this.

That being said, I feel like people are constantly innovating, and human beings are SO creative, that I’m excited to see where the world is going, all the time.  Because some day someone will take some stupid software and turn it into an amazing creative tool.

I also had this thought the other day that in the future there may not be any music.  Neuroscience will be at such a point where, I feel like within my generation, we’ll be able to recreate the effect of hearing a great song in our head. That little dose of that Dylan song you love and gives you goosebumps?  That feeling will probably be able to be recreated, and there’s going to be people who will be able to map out the emotion of a great song, or a great movie, or a great book.  Some of them will probably be more complicated than others, but I think people will start combining THAT with new visual and physical experiences.  It’ll be a weird world by the time I’m dead.  [laughs]But I think the emotion of the song, we’ll be able to figure out chemically by the end of this century.

Kishi Bashi on the cover of Performer Magazine

Kishi Bashi on the cover of Performer Magazine

So much of your work draws from this sense of yearning for intimacy, and it’s going to be a really weird world where we’re capable of communicating our inner state with that much speed and fidelity, and yet WHAT we’re communicating is a Kishi Bashi album where the whole emotional theme is, ‘I’m yearning for you.’  That’s simulated yearning in a world that you’d think would be OVER it, right?

I think people always desire something.  And things ebb and flow, just like the tides.  So even this thing where you think, ‘God, music is going to shit,’ I don’t think it is.  It’ll probably just go in another direction.  I also feel like playing a live instrument is going to make a comeback.  I think in a few years, people are just going to get bored of not playing music.  And when you can play music again, dexterously, and have that kind of ability to share an instrument with another person as a form of communication, I think people will realize what they’ve lost.  Right now, musicianship is kind of waning, I feel like it’s a little dip.

When I was in music school – I graduated in ’99 from Berklee – it was still the height of what they called ‘New Jazz,’ and now it’s like jazz is dead.  And I feel like jazz is the highest form of the study of improvisation, and in twenty years, the next generation, there’ll be an itch for just, like, SHREDDING again.  There’re going to be some serious, either metalheads, shredding, or some kind of new weird instrument online, and there’ll be some kind of technical masters, they’ll worship gamers.

I’m into soft synths, now.  I’ll basically get a soft synth if there’s ONE usable sound that’s cool and will inspire a song.  I also get a lot of different instruments, I have a lot of keyboards, and basically, if it makes me want to play music, if it makes me want to noodle around and come up with a new idea, or inspires a song, then I think that’s totally worth the instrument. 

So for any songwriter who’s stuck on their guitar, it’s really cool to play other instruments.  Just get a new instrument to learn.  There’s nothing more beneficial than trying to learn a new instrument.  It will inspire you in a new way, and probably re-inspire your old instrument in a new way.

Do you have any parting thoughts for other musical performers? 

One thing I’ve noticed a lot of performers take a while to realize is that sometimes a solo voice is even stronger than a rocking band on stage.  If you have an awesome band, that’s one thing, then you’re already on the right track.  But if you’re a songwriter, if you add a drummer, you add a bass player, you add all these other elements to it – if you’re not careful, each of those things can completely take away from your song and your voice, and if you’re a songwriter especially, you have to be really, really careful of that.

As a solo performer, when I started Kishi Bashi, I came from a rock band, Jupiter One, where it was just Testosterone City, to going solo, to being more intimate.  I kind of learned that from Regina Spektor when I was touring with her.  I could really see how she completely HAD the audience.  She had them by the throat.  She knew how powerful her voice would be, just having mostly her voice cutting through the PA and her piano as a spare, but powerful, accompanist.  So as I started doing Kishi Bashi stuff and with my loops, I was really conscious of making sure to add only what was needed.

The other thing is, if they’re silent, it means that they’re listening.  Always remember that. It took me a while to get used to.

There’re other things…I don’t take the mysterious approach.  I just say what I want, and I drink a lot, [laughs] and people really like that.  Some people say you should be really mysterious and be above your audience, you know?  Cuz you’re on stage, and you should be this ‘experience’ as opposed to a person.  And that’s one approach.  A Bowie, or somebody – a pop star – will take this ‘fantastic’ approach.  And that’s amazing to watch.  But my approach is more intimate, where I kind of bring them into my own personality.  And then I share my songs with them.  So it’s kind of a communal experience, except I’m on stage with a microphone.  But I give them that experience, and I let everybody know that I’m SO appreciative of them.  That I’m there for them, to perform for them.  Because without them, I wouldn’t have a tour.  Or a career.  Or anything.

Kishi Bashi SonderlKishi Bashi "Sonderlust"

Kishi Bashi “Sonderlust”

Kishi Bashi – Sonderlust

Standout Track: “Say Yeah”


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