Originally published in Terrorizer magazine, May 2008.
Boredoms: dance for the dead
Latterday psych-trance drum troupe Boredoms have been beating out the rhythm of the unknowable for 20 years, set against unbearable noise, incomparable riffs, and now pastoral-classical minimalism. Ringmaster Yamantaka eYe talks to Petra Davis about history, purity, and music as violent ceremony.
More than five centuries ago, Mokuren, disciple of the Buddha, was concerned about the fate of his dead mother. He had become convinced that she was suffering in the afterlife. Mokuren used the powers he had acquired in his studies of the Buddha’s wisdom to gaze into the afterlife and discover the fate of his mother. He found that she was, indeed, suffering greatly; she had fallen into a shadow realm, becoming a preta, or Hungry Ghost – a restless, vampiric spirit envious of the living, suffering insatiable hunger for human substance.
Horrified, Mokuren returned to the Buddha to ask for help in liberating his mother’s spirit. On the advice of the Buddha, Mokuren made offerings to the priests returning from summer retreat, and by means of his work and sacrifice, saw the spirit of his mother released. In his happiness, he attained realisation of the many sacrifices his mother had, in her turn, made for him, and the great love she had borne him all her life. Transported, he danced with joy, his feet beating an ancient rhythm on the ground, giving rise to the bon-odori dance.
The bon-odori is still danced today all over Japan, at the summer festival of Obon, the Japanese equivalent of Mexico’s Dia de los muertos, which sees families visit the shrines of their ancestors to tend the graves of those gone before, to celebrate their lives, loves and achievements, and to save them, through careful ritual, drumming and dance, from the fate of the shadow realm.
“Bon-odori dancing is what makes our shows so physical,” explains Yamantaka eYe, singer, programmer, choreographer and master of ceremonies for Boredoms, referring to the intense physical discipline of their shows. (For the uninitiated, Japan’s Boredoms, consisting of three drummers – Yoshimi P-we, Muneomi Senju and Yojiro Tatekawa – as well as eYe, can perform their tribal ecstatics for hours at a time, facing one another in a circle they liken to a spinning turntable of energy, drumming constantly.) “The way these drummers utilize the space in between sounds and their breathing techniques inspire me. Sometimes during a performance, I feel like I am in contact with my deep inner self. When I’m able to do that it is very liberating.”
The bon-odori carries connotations both of celebration and of mourning; it is a rhythmic sacrifice to the elders, an acknowledgement of their work and an amelioration of their suffering. The rhythms of the bon-odori, the insistent pounding of its drums, are designed to transport living and dead alike, to distract the pretas from their longing by sheer percussive bliss. Similarly, Boredoms seek to move the hungry ghosts of their audience to the altered states to which they themselves aspire.
Throughout their 20 year career, through numerous changes in line-up and a near-constant evolution in their sound, Boredoms have retained an unshakeable faith in the spiritually transformative properties of ancient forms of music, perhaps akin to the faith inherent in nationalist pagan or Odinist metal traditions, though more open to adaptation. “Music can’t be seen or touched, and it passes you by. But it has the power to leave an imprint and keep on reverberating in your mind,” says eYe. “When you’re communicating with an animal, it feels natural because you’re not in a surface level of consciousness or using verbal language. You’re communicating through your mind, which is the same power that is inherent in music.”
From such transcendental musing, one might suppose that the roots of Boredoms lie in meditative, gently synaesthetic traditions, but the reverse is the case. Bon-odori may be a celebratory form, but it is also fierce and deathly, its polyrhythmic attack considered a highly effective means of communicating with Japan’s most fearful ghosts. In more modern terms, too, Boredoms spring from the gritty theatre-of-cruelty experimentations of no wave. eYe’s former incarnation was in peerless thrash confrontationists Hanatarash (with Mitsuru Tabata, latterday axe-maniac of Zeni Geva), whose performances pushed sonic and physical boundaries to the extent of imperiling both the audience and themselves. One memorable show saw eYe hot-wiring a bulldozer which he then used to demolish the room; another involved chopping up a dead cat with a machete. Recordings were sporadic, sometimes consisting of a limited edition of one, packaged with a tooth pulled from eYe’s mouth. Shows were equally confrontational sonically. Preempting the Japanoise movement by several years, Hanatarash used machinery and power tools to produce almost unbearable frequencies, extending them far beyond the comfort zone of their audience. Boredoms sprang from that same wish to jolt the listener out of an imaginary safety.
“When you drop a physical object on the ground, it makes a sound. Confrontation is similar to that,” explains eYe, linking the shock tactics of Hanatarash to the more conscious challenges of Boredoms. “It’s something that I perceive as being percussive – like drumming. We’ve been screaming and banging on stuff for the past 20 years! And we still play tricks and games on the listener, when it comes to the way we record. We definitely explore those dimensions. “It’s a paradox, but extremity will eternally exist in all things that are universal. It’s possible to feel unbearably loud in perfect silence, or you might feel complete silence in noise,” he muses. “Such extremity might be a doorway in getting closer to a state of nothingness, a zero point.” The earliest Boredoms shows expanded on the idea of that nothingness, either pushing feedback so far that the signals flatlined at the boundaries of human sensory possibility, or else evoking the shock of silence (one show consisted of eYe gesturing with a hooked hand over a near-imperceptible drone).
These more conceptual live performances (eYe admits to being influenced by the media art concepts of Laurie Anderson) gradually settled into their noise/thrash sound, showcased on the early Anal Series recordings and their first studio album, Osorezan no Stooges Kyo. At the same time, the band began quietly releasing their more thoughtful, musically referential series of EP’s, the Super Roots releases. This series, now in its ninth incarnation, swiftly began to borrow from a wide array of traditions and genres, including deep house, techno, doom, and free jazz, as well as more traditional drumming styles such as oodaiko, wadaiko, and gagaku, all Japanese classical or shinto ritual forms.
“I see ‘Super Roots’ as a blank canvas, that’s the only thing those recordings have in common,” says eYe. “They’re a place where I can freely experiment.” In fact, while mid-period Boredoms albums began to move gradually away from the abrasion and fracture characteristic of Osorezan no Stooges Kyo or second album Soul Discharge, Super Roots was already preempting the band’s latest incarnation as a psychedelic-tribal drum troupe led by eYe’s tape-loop manipulations. “We’re still influenced by no wave,” insists eYe. “But it’s more the DNA-type stuff, that tribal percussiveness. Our sound has grown organically; we’ve never really concentrated on any one style or genre. I’m as influenced by Merzbow as I am by early hardcore techno. People can categorise us as they wish – noise, alternative, whatever.”
Boredoms’ latest release, Super Roots 9, sees Boredoms look to classical minimalism for inspiration. The EP’s single 45-minute track sees an expansion on the band’s celebratory psych, incorporating new structural games borrowed from Steve Reich and Jon Gibson, and eYe’s pitch-shifting tone generation gives way to a live choral arrangement throughout the piece, consolidating eYe’s role as composer and conductor of a very measured chaos. “I was messing around on a turntable with a Jon Gibson record, and changing the pitch to make different phrases,” explains eYe. “It started to sound like human voices to me, so I decided to have those sounds written out as a score, and actually have a choir sing the score for a performance.” The confidence and complexity of Super Roots 9 is the mark of the band’s increasing ambition. On 7th July 2007, in Brooklyn, Boredoms played their ’77 Boadrum’ show, performing for 77 minutes with 74 other drummers (including, among a considerable cast, Andrew W.K., Taylor Richardson of Sunburned Hand of the Man, and Lightning Bolt’s Brian Chippendale) arranged in a perfect spiral of 77 drum kits, playing a composition which was (did you guess?) a meditation on the number 7. The effect was mesmerising, a twisting harmony of rhythms and tones giving way to a stunning unison of beats. It is Boredoms’ most ambitious project to date, and one that eYe is keen to expand upon. Though critics had expected a ’88 Boadrum’ for the 8th of August 2008, it seemes eYe has even grander designs: “Doing ’77 Boadrum’ was one ambition of mine it was important to fulfil. Now I want to do a ‘777 Boadrum’ show. That would be incredible,” he enthuses. Presumably, decoding the relation between numbers and dates, that would place the performance on the 7th July 2077, making Boredoms almost 100 years old, and its members considerably older than that. Perhaps Boredoms have chanced upon a rhythmic alchemy, the secret of immortality, training their hearts to beat out an unending dance; or perhaps, finally, Boredoms will take their place once again at the centre of the spiral; this time they themselves will be the hungry ghosts of the bon-odori, immortally pining for the pounding drums which are their solace, and their salvation.