Ghost Stories: Masaki Batoh on Life, Death, and Stormy Nights
Japanese psych-folk master Masaki Batoh of Ghost talks life, death, improvisation and plasma balls ... and why he and his band won't be touring the US any time soon.
For more than 20 years, Masaki Batoh's Ghost has skirted the outer edges of psychedelia, playing their improvised folk-jazz-krautrock grooves in abandoned temples and open air ruins. The band's US performances have been widely spaced but memorable, the latest at this year's Providence-based Terrastock, where Ghost played alongside long-time collaborators (Damon & Naomi), inspirations (Tom Rapp of Pearls Before Swine) and fellow travellers (pretty much everyone else there).
In January, Ghost released Stormy Nights, whose airy folk meditations, tribally-drummed celebrations, and industrial abrasions are bisected by a critically divisive 28-minute mind-melter called "Hemispheric Anthelion", which was constructed from three separate live performances. "Every work we have made is quite different, you know," says Batoh by email, in an interview that, while not exactly in standard English and sometimes opaque, frequently turns poetically evocative. "We never do the same expression again."
The album takes its name from a verse fragment written by Batoh that says, "In stormy nights, we live and survive, seeing through the darkness, the wind and the rain to another dawn and a new day." By email, Batoh explains that the word "survive" was the best approximation for a concept that doesn't really translate into English, but that the verse, and the album, is all about the interplay of life and death, the mundane and the extraordinary.
"When you give careful consideration to death in Eastern thought, there are two approximate classifications -- big death and small death," he says. "Big death means the general death of the human body and soul. Small death means meditation, ecstasy, sleep, awake, and sleep again. We get through small deaths every day and come back to dull secular life again and again. Finally we reach to Shumi Mount and gain big death. In this album, you can experience these processes of life and death."
The album reflects turbulent times -- Ghost has famously refused to play in the United States while Bush is still in office -- but Batoh says it is not meant to be a commentary on current events. "Always we are beside this worn old world," he says, when asked what frame of mind he was in when he created these songs. "Lots of sad matters cannot be ignored ... just as lots of grateful, beautiful creatures, human and nature-made cannot be ignored. Important matters -- for example, Sudan, Niger, Somalia, North Korea, the Middle East wars led by a crazy American hero -- are reflected through our mind filters. But understand that this album is not a political one at all. I'd like to put an opinion that music could be a symbol of this world's thanatology." (Thanatology means study of death.)
Conceived in the mid-1980s, Ghost has continually evolved, with members coming and going. Its latest line-up, for instance, fairly consistent with the band from 2004's Hypnotic Underworld, includes Batoh, as well as long-time guitarist Michio Kurihara, keyboard player/multi-instrumentalist Kazuo Ogino, contrabassist Takuyuki Moriya and drummer Junzo Tateiwa. Founding member Taishi Takizawa, who returned after a ten-year absence to play on Hypnotic Underworld, again makes an appearance, playing saxophone, flute, vibraphone, and theremin. "The current formation of us is the best," says Batoh. "I have been looking for these ghosts to create our music for long years. Now it's done. They are very skilled, except me, and have special sensitivities to express themselves in any musical style."
In addition to a large array of conventional instruments, the band performs on its own unique musical inventions like the "springer" and the "plasma ball". What, exactly, is a plasma ball? "Plasma oscillates with a high frequency pulse," Batoh explains. "Static electricity is born when a human's finger touches the plasma ball, then the pulse makes a resonance. It is highly boosted by a buffer through very long sustained steel springs. A machine rotates the spring boosters as the finger moves. The short circuit from the plasma unit through my arms to the springs brings about a Theremin-like crazy sound."
Ghost's music is all based on improvisation, rather than preconceived compositions, making it even more important to have a band comprised of people who understand each other and the group's aesthetic. "If we have any ideas before we play, the music would never appeal to us or to other people," says Batoh. "We just become 'empty' when we play spiritually."
Perhaps the best expression of Ghost's free-ranging, improvisatory ethos comes in "Hemicyclic Anthelion," the album's longest cut at 28 minutes. Named for a meteorological phenomenon in which two halos, or phantom suns, appear beside the sun as it is rising, the track was composed out of several different live performances in the US and Japan. "Hemicyclic Anthelion" contains some of the album's harshest, most industrial sounds, the creak and crash of large machinery embedded in its monolithic rhythms. Yet the piece also has spookily beautiful passages, where wind instruments and strings carve out an unhinged sort of tranquility from primordial chaos. Writers have been sharply divided on this cut with some calling it the album's weakest and others (well, this one) singling it out as In Stormy Nights' artistic core.
Ghost also continues a fairly well-established tradition of including at least one cover per record, this time of the way-out, 1960s folk/metal experimenters Cro-Magnon's "Caledonia". Out of the whine of what sounds like bagpipes (it's actually Kazuo Ogino on Kaval) comes a spritely pipe melody, backed by pounding timpani, with metal-roughened shouting over the back. It's much like the original, out in 1969 and way ahead of its time, but wilder, more ecstatic and crazily celebratory. Batoh calls obscure Cro-Magnon "one of America's greatest bands", and says that he and his compatriots "could not be happier to introduce them to the world with a cover track".
Batoh has no immediate plans to tour the US, waiting not only for an end to American misdeeds from the Kyoto Accord to the Middle East, but also for an end to what he calls hegemonism. "We love the American people very much, but hate every American politician," he says. "It's not only Bush who is the problem. Ordinary voters' optimism may be a big enemy." He adds, "We come to the states never more until these HEGEMONISM is gone, even if Bush is gone."
In the meantime, Batoh is mixing the next Ghost album, due out later this year. Recorded live during a concert at a shipbuilding factory in Yokohama, the new disc documents hours of improvisation. CDs will be bundled with DVDs for the next release, offering visual images along with sounds, but Batoh cautions listeners not to abandon their own inner visions as they listen. "Music must recollect visual images already inside of listeners," he says. "Don't you think so?"
Maybe so. Maybe we all have images of grassy hills and flower arbors, tossing seas and communal gatherings, little deaths and cataclysmic disasters waiting to be liberated by albums like In Stormy Nights.