It took Oren Ambarchi more than a decade to approach his hero, the eternally mysterious Japanese improviser and avant-garde icon, Keiji Haino.
In the late '80s, Ambarchi was a fledgling free jazz drummer in New York City. He was obsessed with the outermost edges of experimental music, reading the zines of the day and going to the downtown shows that seemed strangest, no matter how little he knew about who was playing. One night, he slipped into The Knitting Factory and was stunned by the sight onstage — a beautifully rail-thin man, with a porcelain face framed by impenetrable sunglasses and straight black hair that matched the color of everything else he wore, from his shiny boots to his collared shirt. It was Haino, playing solo electric guitar.
"I thought 'Who is this person?' His presence was riveting, and what he was doing was so personal and unique," Ambarchi recalls nearly thirty years later, from his home in Melbourne. "I remember confusion and not knowing if it was good or bad. I was baffled by this person: What did I just see? What did I just hear?"
Over four decades, Haino, who will turn 66 in May, has thrived at the fringes of improvised music, becoming both a pioneer of and paragon for turning rock music inside out. An early student of primitive blues and classic rock staples, Haino earned attention during the '80s for Fushitsusha, his on-again, off-again psychedelic powerhouse. Across the next quarter-century, he steadily emerged from Japan's underground as an experimental extremist, often pitting torrents of distortion and walls of noise against shards of poetry that he would shriek and repeat like some coded prayer. After a string of cutting-edge labels in the United States and Canada began to catch on and issue his music in the west during the '90s, his reputation as one of music's most electrifying and enigmatic guitarists and one of its most oddly evocative singers spread to the point that he even became a model and muse for fashion designer Marc Jacobs. For some, working with Haino — or, for others, simply seeing him live or finding one of his albums — has became an avant-garde holy grail.
But just as Ambarchi realized the first time he saw Haino play, his music and visage have always been hard to parse. Where his look is fixed, his music is anything but: It can rage and lash like an extreme whitewater rapid or unfurl into seemingly infinite trances, like the same river opening into a placid downstream pool. He has made tempestuously quiet solo guitar music and performed intensely personal a cappella sets. Like his predecessor and inspiration Miles Davis or his contemporary and collaborator John Zorn, Haino is a perpetually restless and prolific force, his art offering no neat resolutions or easy answers. His music often feels like a direct challenge — to himself, to his listeners, to his collaborators — to listen more closely.
Perhaps that demand is what hooked Ambarchi so long ago, despite his admitted confusion. During the next few years, he saw Haino in New York every chance he got in several configurations — playing solo percussion, collaborating with the likes of composer and saxophonist Zorn and sound collage innovator Christian Marclay, or performing with the blistering Fushitsusha. Though he had pestered Zorn and others for lists of recommended records for years, he never spoke to Haino. Even after Ambarchi returned to Australia and saw him several times in Tokyo, he kept his distance.
"I thought, 'I can't talk to this alien being from another planet,'" he says, laughing. "It never even occurred to me to approach him."
Even among Haino's closest collaborators, which Ambarchi has been now for more than a decade, this sense of initial intimidation is a refrain. Haino cuts a striking figure, as if he's always just slipped silently from some unknown underworld. And his music, at least at first blush, is inscrutable, from those electric guitar squalls and wailed vocals to his luminous hurdy-gurdy drones. His obtuse poetry has become something of a minor meme in the experimental underground, as has his seemingly self-serious appearance.
That mystique is a key part of his allure, the bait that draws in the uninitiated. Still, it can be off-putting: Stephen O'Malley, the robed guitarist of the formidable drone metal band Sunn O))), first balked at the idea of collaborating with Haino because he seemed too important, too isolated. Aaron Turner, best known for the band ISIS but a member of a dozen esteemed experimental projects, managed a meek compliment the first time he encountered Haino in a backstage catering area. But mostly, he wanted to stay out of the way of a genius often portrayed, as he puts it to NPR Music, "a black-clad wizard."
But Haino, turns out, is a conscientious and sensitive bandmate, driven by the compulsion to collaborate and the earnest need to exchange musical ideas. He's vulnerable and funny, a longtime vegetarian who loves sweets and doesn't really use the Internet. All of which is to say that, beneath the obsidian specs and dagger-like boots, Keiji Haino is a human, too.
"I'm embarrassed to say this, but I was shocked that he was friendly," admits O'Malley, who first met him at a Sunn O))) festival appearance in a Canadian hockey arena. Ambarchi had suggested Haino sit in with the band, but O'Malley was afraid to ask. Haino ultimately jumped at the chance. These days, he, Ambarchi, and Haino share a noisy power trio, the great Nazoranai.
"I was afraid of him," O' Malley continues. "But he's actually a beautiful person, with many layers. We enjoy teasing each other, and, in 1999 or whenever I saw him for the first time, I would have never teased him. I would have worried he would have cast a spell on me."
One of Haino's most consistent collaborators is Jim O'Rourke, most familiar for his stint in Sonic Youth, his production work with the likes of Wilco and Stereolab, and his exquisite songwriting for the label Drag City. Since 2005, O'Rourke has been an American expatriate living in Japan — first in Tokyo, now in a little town less than one hundred miles north of Mount Fuji.
O'Rourke first heard Haino in 1989, on a three-minute track from Welcome to Dreamland (Another Japan), an obscure, but influential, compilation. It was Haino's first widely available music, and O'Rourke was hooked. Just twenty-years-old, he asked his growing network of collaborators what else they knew about him. Five years later, they were onstage together, playing as a duo in Tokyo during O'Rourke's debut Japanese tour. The connection was immediate.
In the quarter-century since, O'Rourke has released nearly a dozen records with Haino across two trios; one with Ambarchi, another with saxophone iconoclast Peter Brötzmann. After O'Rourke spent a year learning Japanese, the pair became closer friends, better able to tease one another, O'Rourke says. Indeed, though they've never issued an album as a duo, that remains O'Rourke's favorite way to engage with Haino, because it feels like their real conversations.
"It's a little more like 'let's make something together' than other things we do," says O'Rourke. "He will throw a wrench in whatever you are doing, and you don't know when it's coming. He knows I have no problem with that. There's a new possibility for framing what we were already doing."
Over the years, O'Rourke says, Haino has softened, more willing to show his humor to strangers and more open to a wide range of projects. He has, for instance, recorded a set of Stockhausen pieces with European classical ensemble Zeitkratzer and launched a new trio with Japanese electronics titan Merzbow. As his reputation as a person and a player has spread, O'Rourke says, his potential pool of suitable collaborators has expanded, making him more versatile.
"He is very focused on maintaining his personal standards and aesthetic, and he is finding himself in more situations where he can work with people who meet those standards," O'Rourke says. "In the '90s, it was mostly, 'Who is this alien?' But he's become less of a mystery or abstract idea, more of an actual person."
Aaron Turner recently had the same experience. Nearly twenty years ago, Turner heard a set of Haino's hurdy-gurdy improvisations and was drawn into the mystery of the musician behind it. Turner remained a fan from afar for years, until a few friends suggested he simply email Haino's manager and ask if he would record with his new band, the thundering and athletic metal trio Sumac.
Haino said yes, with stipulations. In Japan, they would rehearse once and then play something altogether different live. The rehearsal would become the record, released in late February with a prototypical Haino title, American Dollar Bill - Keep Facing Sideways, You're Too Hideous To Look At Face On. One of the year's best rock records, it is a five-track behemoth that includes quarter-hour tessellations of tortured guitar and explosive drums. Above the melee, Haino howls tormented poetry, grappling as he always does with complex feelings that seem just beyond clear expression.
"He does have a stern appearance — all black artwork, sunglasses all the time. And that is there in person, some kind of screen," says Turner, who was stunned when Haino arrived at dinner wearing black sneakers, not his customary boots. "But as much as the language barrier would allow, he was immediately cracking jokes with us. After our soundcheck, he looked at Brian our bassist's pedals and said, 'Very heavy! Everything you do is very heavy!' We weren't expecting him to be cracking jokes, but it put us at ease."
Though Haino is often the marquee attraction in whatever context he plays, he worries about his bandmates and their well-being, sometimes a little too much. During long flights, he's been known to give Ambarchi back massages. He detests smoking and, for years, chastised O'Rourke about his habit. Once, when O'Rourke had excused himself from dinner to have a secret smoke, Haino caught him in a parking lot. He strolled by nonplussed, as if he hadn't noticed; suddenly, he whirled around to pretend his cane was a gun—capital punishment for O'Rourke's capital offense. He always pokes O'Malley in the stomach and tells him to shed some pounds. He'll even ask friends to punch him in his own stomach so they can properly understand his fitness and vitality, the implication being that they should strive for the same.
"He'll tell me to punch him in the stomach, and I always say, 'I don't want to punch you, man.' But then I'll agree," says Ambarchi. "He clinches his stomach and yells about how firm it is, then picks on us for putting on weight."
That's ironic, given the way Ambarchi was eventually forced to break his reverent silence with Haino so long ago: A decade after Ambarchi first saw Haino onstage in New York, he walked into the same Tokyo convenience store where Ambarchi was shopping. Cloaked in black and toting his cane, he was there to buy a snack cake.
Without a word, Haino walked toward him and bowed. Awestruck, Ambarchi mustered the courage to say something, even inviting him to play the What is Music? Festival he was organizing back home. "Why? Haino asked. Ambarchi reflexively responded, "Kangaroos." Haino laughed and said yes.
A few months later, he was in Ambarchi's apartment, watching bootleg Scott Walker videos and listening to Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Winter jam. They've been working together ever since.
"It is weird to play with someone you have admired for 20 years, but the most important thing I've learned from him is to not think about anything," he says. "Just be right there, right then."
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