BXI: The Secrets of Rock

BXI is the union of Japanese rockers Boris and Ian Astbury of the Cult. An unlikely pairing that makes more sense with each listen, the band melds its heavy squall with Astbury’s wizened baritone to create something simultaneously familiar and new.

Boris’ drummer/vocalist Atsuo and Mr. Astbury himself were kind enough to spend nearly an hour with us last week, just a day before the collaborative project made its debut at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. In a conversation that threw small talk out the window, Atsuo and Astbury shared their eloquent perspectives on the creative process, the ritual of live music, the wisdom of age – and the awesome power of the sun.

Mister Saturday Night: Ian, you once said of [labelmates] Sunn O))) that there is “no language to explain the experience.” Can a musical experience ever be captured in language?

Ian Astbury: It’s a cul-de-sac. I think the cultural language available is very limited. Pop is easier to talk about – we all understand the sentiment. But once you cross over into something so emotive, layered and diverse – that textured spectrum of light and shade – that’s a very difficult thing to articulate, especially in print. I just point and say: “Listen to it.”

MSN: Is BXI a different process for you as a songwriter?

IA: They gave me the music! [Laughs] Initially, I was presented with ten pieces of music and I wanted to do everything. But I began to think that I needed to focus on just three pieces and really find myself in the text. In this case it was an emotional text, a sonic text. There was no lyrical intention.

There is something intimated through the music of Boris – a connection to the disharmony of modern culture through these organic, tonal elements. I think Boris reflects the zeitgeist. It evokes certain emotions in me and allow me to access different senses and ideas. The music makes it easy to find myself inside of it.

MSN: Boris is an incredibly prolific group that tends to cut records quickly. Is it liberating to work at that pace?

IA: I think you’ll find that a great album recorded in a few days will often have years of experience behind it. These experiences have taken decades to accumulate, so the idea that you’re going into the studio unprepared is not necessarily the case. Being a little bit older, your life experience allows you bring that much more into the room.

MSN: Does experience help you to recognize when you’ve nailed a take?

IA: Nailed it! [Laughs] That’s a very rare feeling. You don’t have the objectivity. That said, working with Boris gave me that sense from the moment I first heard the music. I remember hearing “Magickal Child” and thinking… [Ian inhales deeply with upturned palms].

A friend of mine committed suicide last year. The experience gave me insight into an individual who feels disconnected from society – the alienation and longing for something more than material things. I was also thinking about the Korean model Daul Kim [who also committed suicide last year] and of certain states I’ve experienced myself. A blend of these things together with the music…

Atsuo [in English]: He is… gravity.

MSN: Did you discuss the lyrical process with Ian?

A: When we’re writing our own songs, we focus on ways of using the Japanese language in our lyrics. But with this collaboration, we just trusted Ian – we didn’t offer suggestions. During this process I thought about the differences between Japanese and English. There are different possibilities opened up by the English language. I feel a little more restrained when using Japanese. Listening to Ian and his music, it feels as though he is improvising with himself. The way he uses words is such a personal process and I didn’t want to lose that. I wanted Ian to follow his own lyrical path. Working with Ian feels like discovering one of the secrets of rock.

IA: Thank you. I hope I get discovered soon… [Laughs]

In terms of process, Atsuo indicates his feelings just via his energy – he doesn’t have to say anything. Just with a look… [Atsuo cocks his left eyebrow behind his sunglasses.]

MSN: Is it different for Boris to work with a frontman who is free to roam the stage without an instrument?

IA: What, you mean like this? [Mimes diving recklessly into the crowd]  It’s a different kind of performance. I think you’ve got to pick your spots. You have to get grounded. When I was a kid, I was full of beans – you start to run around the stage, trashing everything. But as I got older, I began to realize that, for example, Bowie has as much power just by pointing one finger…

You can do something very small and the whole room erupts. Stay grounded and let the music do the work, let the text do the work. I understand the theatricality of a pop performer, but to watch a rock singer run around the stage like a chicken with his head cut off… I think they’ve taken themselves out of the music, the material. If the music is powerful enough, you just need to play it.

MSN: Atsuo, you’ve previously expressed the idea that “rock history should always be revised.” Do you still feel inspired by the past?

A: I’m influenced not only by the music I’ve encountered from the past but from my present situation. Not only music but life – everything around me. It’s all just one big mass of inspiration.  Often, we don’t begin with a specific idea for a song. Rather, I feel that our interactions with other people guide the process and shape the music.

IA: Each new moment has infinite possibilities. I might take notes about a piece of music and write down certain impressions. But I like to keep the process as fresh as possible for the moment when I walk into the studio. Sometimes I write something that looks really beautiful and quite poetic, but when I try to make it fit it suddenly becomes too flowery. Or I’ll write something that looks on paper to be simple and clichéd, but with the right emotionality it will just work.

The Cult is a different process. It’s become almost like a machine and that led me to walk away and become more involved with collaborations, whether it be with the Doors guys, or Unkle, or even Tony Iommi. But walking into the room with Boris was the first time I’ve felt that I was with like-minded, tribal family members. I felt that I’d been lost for many years and was suddenly at home.

MSN: Ian, you described working with Boris as a feeling of tribal belonging. Does that feeling reflect the spirituality and mysticism of your work with the Cult?

IA: As you begin to experience other places and other cultures, you find that words that appear simple can suddenly become profound. I think one of the critiques of me, especially when I was younger, was that of a romantic with my head in the clouds, that this spirituality was somehow contrived. But not many people are aware of my life experience.

MSN: What don’t people know about your life that has nevertheless shaped your work?

IA: It goes back to when I was a baby. I grew up in a household with a grandmother who was clairvoyant – she was a member of the Spiritualist Church. I was raised in a pagan household outside the Judeo-Christian tradition. That sort of expanded consciousness was right there in my home. This was in a working-class neighborhood in the 1960s, with a father who painted and wrote poetry – he was a working-class Renaissance man. Then when we moved to Canada I became interested in Native American spirituality and philosophy as a teenager, then psychedelic music. At 18, I began to contemplate Buddhist philosophy, Hindu texts – and it goes on and on. In some ways, I’m most at home in the Himalayas – or Japan.

MSN: Atsuo, do you feel similarly about your upbringing in Japan?

A: It’s very important for me to leave Japan, in order to gain perspective on Japan. I find that moving back and forth, going abroad and returning, allows me to better appreciate Japan. By the same token, when I’m back in Japan, it feels like a welcome break from America and other countries. It gives me space to reflect. The most important thing is that give and take. I don’t like being trapped in one genre, one place or one experience – it’s movement that’s important. Not stopping.

MSN: By combining this constant forward momentum with an interest in revisiting and revising the past, do you find yourselves learning from yourselves?

IA: That’s fascinating. Yes, I’ve learned a lot just being in the room watching Atsuo’s process. I love the way Boris works – they’re far more in tune with the process of coming together, picking up their instruments and moving the energy forward. With my band – forget about it! [Laughs] I have to massage everybody, make special accommodations… [Mimes giving an extremely delicate neck rub]

A: Our career is definitely not a linear thing. [Atsuo begins to draw a series of overlapping circles with his finger on the table] We’re always referring to the past while moving forward. Resisting the past itself becomes a lasting source of inspiration. In a sense, working against the past keeps it in constant communication.

MSN: The BXI record revisits the past in the form of an amazing cover of the Cult song, “Rain.” Was it difficult to cede control of the song to [Boris guitarist] Wata?

IA: I was honored. To hear Wata sing it, with her ethereal voice – it was beautiful. Her voice is both very fragile and very strong. I wasn’t aware that Boris was planning to do it, so it was a gift that they shared with me when I got there.

MSN: The Cult seems to have enjoyed its greatest success at home in the UK, while Boris is most popular outside of Japan. Do these dynamics continue to influence your approaches to music?

A: To me, the Cult was just as famous in America as it was in England! [Laughs] In general, recognition is never really on my mind. With respect to this collaboration, it felt like destiny, although that may be a corny word to use. I’ve been following Ian’s career since the Death Cult days and it seems like our different paths have converged organically.

IA: This was a very organic… [Ian is interrupted by the sound of very loud vacuuming] This is the part where you write, “Atsuo begins to vacuum.” Or maybe that’s just the Sunn O))) soundcheck. [The vacuuming stops]

MSN: What’s allowed you to maintain your openness to new musical possibilities?

IA: I think that when I’ve been in resistance in my life it’s caused great pain to me and those around me, and when I’ve been open to life it has presented me with amazing and unexpected situations. You never see a straight river – it meanders. When you feel that resistance… it’s ego. And it causes damage. I have no master, I’m like ronin – a masterless samurai.

As for Boris, I came into this experience as a fan, a devotee. I tore the Pink album apart. I was like, “What the fuck’s this?” I had to know what was going on.

MSN: How do you encounter new music?

IA: Everywhere. If I’m walking by a bookshop and see an old record, I’ll pick it up. People give me things, I hear things… I don’t just go on Pitchfork and see what scored higher than a 7.1 – I’m just open to hearing new things constantly. And I like going to shows!

MSN: Do you have a sense of how BXI will work as a live experience?

IA: Well, you have to understand that we’ve had one rehearsal, played a single show in Sydney in May. Although I have the strong feeling that this will work. There is a lot of experience in there…

It’s really gratifying when some take it in the spirit in which it was intended. But others don’t and that’s fine.

MSN: It’s intriguing to hear all of the sounds between the words, your adlibs and exhalations. Is this a conscious decision?

IA: At this point, I know it when I feel it. As rock music grows more and more homogenized, it loses many of its blues elements – the organic ingredients of sound. Year Zero for rock and roll used to be Chess Records. Now Year Zero is probably what, Factory Records? The blues now is Joy Division. I’m not sure if younger musicians now have the same reverence for earlier music – maybe the image has replaced it.

There’s a very ageist aspect to our culture. We tend to denigrate older modes and worship youthful sensuality. But there is no substitute for the lived experience that is channeled into a live performance.

The music that gives me hope goes deep – it’s as much a part of shared human experience as the sun coming up every day. 100 million miles away is a giant flaming ball of hydrogen that’s the reason we’re alive. And we don’t even acknowledge that. I think it’s amazing to think that a culture might once again build pyramids and worship the sun – and listen to music like this.