Psych Out

The extraterrestrial sound of Acid Mothers Temple defies words. Especially "psychedelic."

It came from the cosmos: Kawabata Makoto hears - strange sounds in his head.
It came from the cosmos: Kawabata Makoto hears strange sounds in his head.
When it comes to rock music, Japan is a fountainhead of extremes. As far as we know, there are no Rising Sun equivalents of Coldplay or Dave Matthews Band (thank Buddha for small mercies). Instead, Japan produces artists like the Melt-Banana, Merzbow, and Guitar Wolf -- all of whom represent an aesthetic so over the top, it verges on the cartoonish.

Like many within Japan's febrile underground-music scene, Kawabata Makoto is an astute historian of psychedelic music; he says that his mind was blown when he heard classical Indian tamboura drones at the age of 10. As leader of Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., a hippie-like collective of up to 30 members, he has explored the most mind-altering musicians with a cultish zeal. (Album and song titles reveal many of his obsessions.) Through immersion in these transcendent artists' work -- and transmissions beamed into Kawabata's brain, as we shall see -- Acid Mothers Temple transforms its influences into outlandish homages that are at once reverent in spirit and mutational in practice. The band improvises and extrapolates on themes, weaving them into sprawling opuses that are the most effective way to travel outside your body and get out of your head this side of the Boredoms' back catalog.

Speaking of back catalogs, it would take more than 24 hours of continuous listening to absorb the entire Acid Mothers Temple canon (along with Kawabata's solo and collaborative efforts). Assuming you have the stamina to undertake such a heroic endeavor, you are likely to emerge from it like Charlton Heston's Moses after receiving the 10 commandments from you-know-who.

If you need an entry point to the band's massive oeuvre, try New Geocentric World (Squealer, 2001) or Absolutely Freak Out (Zap Your Mind!!) (Static Caravan, 2001), which encompass the group's molten and mellow sides with perfect yin/yang balance. If you prefer your head music gentle and flowing, dip into La Novia (Swordfish, 2000) or the new Mantra of Love (Alien8). If you like Terry Riley's minimalist classic In C, check out Acid Mothers Temple's awesome version of it on Squealer Records.

Considering that the band's sound covers so much territory -- including heavy dirge rock, krautrock, free jazz, and various types of folk music -- does Kawabata see any uniting factors behind them all?

"All we want to do is play music that rocks and is cool," he says. "The only way to categorize music is into cool and uncool. We just play what we believe within ourselves. If anyone looking from outside perceives that music to fall into one genre or another, that is their problem, not ours."

Acid Mothers Temple's music is obviously geared toward transporting minds to other dimensions, but Kawabata rejects the term "psychedelic."

"The music we play is 'trip music'-- and I don't mean that as a synonym for psychedelic rock. Listen to our music, and everything should become clear."

Trip music, psychedelic music -- we're talking semantics, really. The point is, the band has found many fascinating ways to make listeners feel an otherworldly power and beauty that, according to Kawabata, is literally a gift from the heavens.

"I constantly hear sounds in my head," Kawabata says. "I don't know whether they come from the cosmos or somewhere else, but I have heard them constantly since I was a child. All I do is become a human radio tuner in order to make these sounds audible to other people. So as long as I keep hearing these sounds, I will keep on making releases."

Acid Mothers Temple has been chastised by some for releasing too much music, no matter how sublime, bankrupting its fans with a monthly output in limited-edition fashion since emerging on record in 1997. Perusing our own voluminous AMT/Kawabata collection, we marvel at the consistently brain-warping and diverse music contained therein, as well as at the eye-dazzling artwork in which it's housed. Yes, it was worth missing a few meals to accumulate this stash.

"I am not a famous musician, and only tiny labels will release my music," Kawabata says somewhat defensively when accused of flooding the market with product. "The more records I release, the more chance that people will have to come across at least one of the records. Besides, it's not like I am releasing a mountain of records that all sound the same, is it?"

True. Though there's bound to be some repetition in the Acid Mothers Temple catalog, it does reflect an ensemble with roots in the distant past (Kawabata admits "troubadour music from the Middle Ages" is his favorite), but with ears also tilted futureward. In press releases, the band is billed as "A Freak-Out Group for the 21st Century," though this doesn't totally square with the band's love of medieval Occitan ballads.

"The reason why I said '21st century' is that our music is 'trip music' -- not psychedelic rock," Kawabata reiterates. "The surface style of our music may resemble that old-fashioned rock music that we love, but its core is neither a copy nor a facsimile. We borrow no more than the outer form. Twentieth-century music has always centered around and emphasized musicological structural elements like melody, harmony, and ensemble. But our music rejects these in favor of musical vibration. In this sense melody, harmony, and ensemble no longer matter."

Or concision, for that matter. Some listeners bemoan the band's marathon song lengths. Kawabata?

"In order to accurately reanimate the sounds that I hear from the cosmos and reproduce them as earthly 'music,' a certain amount of time is essential," he says. "And what can one truly say about 'sound' in just three minutes? Sound is like film or the flow of a river, like waves approaching and retreating. It is also something that is eternal, but which changes over the course of time. In order to reproduce the original power of these phenomena, the question of duration is one that cannot be avoided. Could you really say that you have understood a film just from watching its last five minutes?"