Yamamoto Kyōji's Dream Session Interview Vol. 20 / Guest: Matatabi

Yamamoto Kyōji (山本恭司)

Leader, guitarist and vocalist of the hard rock band BOWWOW. With superb and overwhelming sound and technique he became a pioneer of the Japanese heavy metal movement. At the time of his debut he got into the news with tours with KISS and Aerosmith. Later he was active in Europe for over three years, with London as his base. He was popular overseas also, his song entering charts in England. Besides his band, he has been active releasing guitar instrumental albums and touring with Yazawa Eikichi.
More info (BOWWOW official site)
Matatabi 【瞬火】(1) (Onmyōza)

Leader, bass player and vocalist of Onmyōza. He formed Onmyōza in 1999 in Ōsaka. Not changing their stance as a live band, in 2004 they were the first rock artist to hold a concert at Nohgakudō. In 2005 they performed in Europe. The next year they toured all the prefectures, and like the year before, performed again in Europe. Their activities don't fit in any existing framework. They are a heavy metal band that has a unique world view. For 2007 they plan to release an original album after about two years since the last one, and they also have a countrywide tour planned for promoting that new album. Also, Matatabi set up the band's concept and writes most of the lyrics and music, and also designs the artwork to a print-ready level. He is also a bassist with a great deal of personality, unleashing unique surges from his instrument, and whose intense performances during live shows overwhelm all those who see them.
Onmyo-za Official Website

An office worker and a bandsman at the same time, and then, major label debut!

First concert on the bed of a truck.

Yamamoto: Today's guest is Onmyōza's key person, Matatabi. Now, in these interviews I start by asking about the guest's first experiences with music. You are from Ehime, right?

Matatabi: That's right. I'm from the city of Yawatahama; you may not have heard about it.

Yamamoto: Sorry, honestly speaking, I don't know where that is. What kind of a city is it? Is there sea or mountains near it?

Matatabi: It has both, and my parents' home was in the mountains. It seems that living in the country has become a boom lately, but I was already living in the countryside ahead of the boom. (laughs) I must live in the workaday world in order to do the work that I now do. But when I go back home every once in a while, it gives me a warm feeling when I think that this is where I was born.

Yamamoto: Yeah, I know that feeling. When I'm on the train heading back home to Matsue, I can feel my heart rate getting slower. (laughs) It makes you feel warm and relaxed. But anyway, where did you discover music?

Matatabi: When I entered senior high school, one of my friends got a used electric guitar from his relative. He played it for a while but couldn't get anywhere, so he asked me if I would buy it at a cheap price. Although it was a telecaster, it was strangely thick. It was a dubious guitar.

Yamamoto: I see, I see. I also had dubious guitars until my third one. I didn't have a proper amplifier either, and I would connect my guitar to a stereo and I got a natural distortion sound because of the input overload. I got a little excited about that.

Matatabi: Oh, I also used a radio-cassette recorder as an amp. (laughs) The sound did get distorted in a nice way. Unfortunately however, for the first few weeks, I didn't know about the thing called tuning. I would look at tablature and play along with the recording, but it sounded completely different, and I would think that the score was all wrong. Then I searched the same note that was on the record and play that. Even if I practiced all evening and learned to play the piece fairly well, the next day, when I tried to play it again the notes would be in different places.

Yamamoto: Wow, that must have been tough. But you could say that you played in a special tuning, without knowing it. (laughs)

Matatabi: Yeah, I was tormented by how difficult an instrument the guitar was. (laughs)

Yamamoto: Hahaha, did you feel that being in a band was out of the question then?

Matatabi: That's right. I was lucky back then to have friends with whom I could talk about Western rock. But to have a band you need a drum set, right? There really weren't many people who had such a thing in their home.

Yamamoto: They are big in size and loud too.

Matatabi: Yeah. But I heard a rumor about someone in high school in the neighboring city who had a drum set. I somehow managed to get him along and we started doing stuff that resembled a band. I only had a 15W amp to use for practice and the sound of the drums would drown out my guitar, so I would ask the drummer to play a little quieter.

Yamamoto: Uh-huh, that's a nice story. I'm sure that your picking also got stronger automatically. Ideas born from those kinds of hardships will cultivate you as a musician. (laughs)

Matatabi: We performed live only once, at a summer fête. We used the bed of a truck that carried tangerine containers as the stage. Because it was unstable, the drums would move when we played. In the middle you could no longer hear the sound of the bass drum. That was one of the few experiences I had of performing in front of people when in high school.

Resigning of your own will because of a major label debut.

Yamamoto: You used to work as a designer, right?

Matatabi: Yes, I studied designing at college in Ōsaka. Right after that I got a job in an advertising agency.

Yamamoto: Did you also manage a band at the same time?

Matatabi: No. When I went to Ōsaka from Ehime, I experienced a culture shock because of the huge number of music shops, bands and live houses. Until then I had had trouble just getting instruments. Music was a hobby for me – the spice of life – and I devoted myself to studying or working.

Yamamoto: Is that so? So you were mainly an office worker?

Matatabi: That's right. Though it was a job where holiday work was expected, I would properly rest from work on weekends and work on a band. On the other hand, I never used the excuse “I have work, so...” when with the band or “I have the band, so...” when at work.

Yamamoto: Oh, that's great. I'm sure that your experience as an office worker is useful for you now, as the producer of the band. What was the point when you decided to quit your job and concentrate on the band?

Matatabi: The band I was in when I was an office worker had Kuroneko, who is now in Onmyōza, as a guest singer singing background vocals. Up until then I didn't have much interest in female singers, but after hearing Kuroneko, it hit me that I just had to work with this singer! And after that first band broke up, I formed a band with Kuroneko as the vocalist.

Yamamoto: That was a fateful meeting. And that leads to your major label debut, am I right?

Matatabi: Yes, two years after forming Onmyōza, someone from King Records happened to make us an offer. Until that, work was work and the band was the band; I thought I was giving 100% of my effort to both. But when the major label debut came up, I was taken aback, thinking: “Oops, did I try a little too hard?” (laughs)

Yamamoto: No, you should be praised for that. But I guess you eventually had to choose either one?

Matatabi: I wasn't certain about it. I think that had I chosen my job at that point, it wouldn't have worked out if I had then later said that I wanted to debut. Instead, with some effort I can return to being a designer if I so wish. I thought that I would do the thing that was only possible at that time.

Yamamoto: Didn't your superiors and colleagues resist the idea?

Matatabi: No they didn't. It was a major label debut so they were congratulating me instead. I finished the transferring of my duties and could resign of my own will.

Your words on the stage are a primitive shout.

Yamamoto: The music of Onmyōza, while being heavy metal, does have some pop melodies. And the costumes and the concept of the band are indeed unique.

Matatabi: The voice of our vocalist Kuroneko is not out-and-out shouting; it is full of expression, so that was the natural result. At bottom our music is heavy metal, but the basic philosophy of Onmyōza is the curious combining of the opposites: men and a women; hard sound and elegant melodies; Japanism and rock.

Yamamoto: I see. It's exactly like the balance of 'Yin' and 'Yang'. Do you yourself switch fiercely between Yin and Yang? (2)

Matatabi: Yes, of course. On stage, as Matatabi, I'm 'Yang'. I'm trying to put out all I have when performing. But normally, I'm exceptionally 'Yin'. (laughs)

Yamamoto: That's what I thought. (laughs) To tell you the truth, I'm like that too. When playing music, you don't have to use words. Words are often misinterpreted. When you're trying to tell something with words, you have to be careful and sometimes that slows you down.

Matatabi: I can totally understand that.

Yamamoto: Speaking of words, you write most of Onmyōza's lyrics, right? You use awfully lot of words with difficult kanji in them. I was saying that you must have level one in kanken. (laughs) (3)

Matatabi: Noo, I'm completely dependent on word processors. I'm losing my proficiency to write kanji. When I write lyrics, I'm constantly looking up words in the dictionary. However, what I felt from what you said before is that even though I use difficult words in the lyrics, I tend to only utter simple words like, “You guys are great!”, while on stage. Since there is no need to use fine language or suppress facts, like in business talk, it feels like my words become very simple.

Yamamoto: Yeah, you could call them a primitive shout. (laughs) It doesn't matter which country's words they are. That reminds me, I heard that the year before last you had concerts overseas?

Matatabi: Yes. One day, we suddenly got a call from a promoter in Europe. There is a Japan boom going on over there right now, because of the influence of anime and such. I think that they called us because we are a very "Japan" band.

Yamamoto: How was the reaction?

Matatabi: We went to Germany, France and Belgium, and we were very surprised. In France people were singing the lyrics together with us. For good manners, I used only simple greetings in the local language and English, but when I talked between songs, I mostly used Japanese. But the people had fun despite of the language barrier.

Yamamoto: Words are like the instrument of an artist on the stage. You express yourself with nuances.

Matatabi: You are absolutely right.

Yamamoto: Well then, let us hear your future ambitions here at the end.

Matatabi: Ambitions, huh? Um, firstly I want to make our activity within the country secure. And now that I know that there are so many people overseas waiting for us, I would like to answer to them as best as I can. However, I don't really have any specific ambitions. While heading forward with my feet on the ground, I would like to answer the hopes of our fans, beyond everyone's expectations.

Yamamoto: OK. Those are wonderful ambitions. Thank you very much for today!
Interview postscript

Here is a man who is cool in every way, from his way of talking to his appearance. While hiding a silent fighting spirit within him, he performs a thoroughly 'Yang' dance when on stage. This was the first time I met him, but while sitting in the car on the way home I kept thinking, “Why do I have this familiar feeling of having met him somewhere before?” “That's it, he's a samurai!” Every man secretly longs for the world of Bushidō and Matatabi was exactly like the image of samurai in my mind. Wielding a bass in the place of a sword, and always playing in earnest. I look forward to the next battle he will lead Onmyōza into.
(BOWWOW Yamamoto Kyōji)

(1) Means 'silvervine'. The kanji in his stage name read 'flickering fire'. All members of Onmyōza have names that have something to do with cats. On their radio show Matatabi mentioned the proverb 猫にまたたび、お女郎に小判 (Silvervine for cats, coins for prostitutes) which means something that has a remarkable effect.
(2) Yin: the dark negative feminine principle in Chinese dualistic cosmology
Yang: the bright positive masculine principle in Chinese dualistic cosmology. (Wordnet 2.0)
(3) "kanken": Kanji Kentei - Japanese Kanji Aptitude Test. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanji_kentei