Merzbow – Japanese Noise Guru

November 9, 2013
5 mins read

merzbow-1Prior to Merzbow’s first New Zealand tour, Gary Steel sent the Japanese noise guru some email questions.

WHEN IT COMES to what has become known as the noise music scene, Merzbow (aka Masami Akita) is the Godhead.

Since the late 1980s, Merzbow has pumped out a prolific series of tapes, CDs and vinyl with not even a whiff of conventional song structure.

While you won’t find a hummable melody, or a danceable rhythm on a Merzbow recording, the rich torrent of sound he produces can be an almost Zen-like experience. It takes quite a commitment to sit in the eye of a raging storm, but the payoff can be tremendously immersive. While to the casual observer one Merzbow album might sound similar to the next, Akita’s soundworld is, in fact, remarkably diverse from one project to the next. But one thing’s for sure: once the commitment is made to subject yourself to the Merzbow experience, it is a world unto itself.

There’s an oft-quoted line from a late-1990s The Wire article about Merzbow where he claims that he wants, on an experiential level, for his music to sound like the most extreme, exciting moments of some of the best bands like Hendrix and King Crimson to all occur simultaneously. Or something like that. And it’s certainly true that there are few ‘ballad’ moments on a Merzbow record, if any.

Merzbow has mapped out his own territory in the post-industrial electronic landscape, and there’s absolutely nothing else like him on the scene, so his New Zealand tour is an especially rare chance to experience something beyond conventional music making.

I asked him the following questions, which were laboriously translated into Japanese by my wife Yoko, and then back to English again. Thanks Yoko: coffee’s on me!

people-singer-merzbow-p1-mask9Witchdoctor – Can you describe the work you will perform at your NZ shows? Will it be all new, or more like a ‘greatest Merzbow hits’?

Merzbow – It is a new set.

Witchdoctor – Will you perform exclusively with laptop?

Merzbow – Although I have tried the equipment introduced recently, equipment used is by trial and error. Arrangement and connection are changed little by little. Probably laptop is not used. I’m planning to use all analogue equipment.

Witchdoctor – Is it recommended for audience to wear ear plugs?

It’s up to you. I myself do not use earplugs.

Witchdoctor – It is said that music is not “about” anything in particular. But your projects are often attached to a meaning – for instance, animal rights. What are your views on the expressive potential of music?

Merzbow – Music has meaning, it’s not just a message. Inspiration, sensuality, feeling and experience.
Also, through my music, understanding about animal rights and veganism. If already understanding about animal rights and veganism, if coming to my music, if happen that way it makes me very happy.

Witchdoctor – Many people think all “noise” music is the same. Obviously, this is not true. But how to explain that your noise is so different from someone else’s noise?

Merzbow – Noise music is not just noise music. Each music has different character. Noise music is the same: it has a different character. My music is my character.

Witchdoctor – Is your music and your writing all part of the project? In other words, do you recommend your books and stories to Merzbow music fans? Is the music and writing related? And is any writing translated to English?

Merzbow – I used to write, but at the moment I have stopped. I wrote about my music in my book, but mostly I’m writing on a different theme or not connecting to Merzbow. Late 1980s to early ‘90s I wrote about sexual culture, that era of post-structuralism. I wrote about gay or sexual minority freedom, because it was believed that sex had effective value as a problem of one dimension of a class struggle. Many people believed in that way, especially in that era. I’m talking about sex minorities and underground noise music. But now it’s all changing. Because of internet, everything is global, there’s so much information, and sex is not hiding, not secret. So I think the next is animal rights and the abolition of speciesism. I released the last book, My Vegan Life. That book talks about animal rights, but at the moment there is no English translation.

merzWitchdoctor – Do you describe your live performance as improvisation?

Merzbow – Although there are improvisatorial elements, it is not improvisation, and even if it aims to be, it is not.

Witchdoctor – Is your studio and live method very different?

Merzbow – The live expresses the whole surface of the music of Merzbow. The simple things which can be carried out only live are done. In the studio, the live is a different method and it is performed using multiplex recording, for example. Since it is possible to use more equipment, complicated creation can be performed rather than live. Of course, an explosion like live cannot be made with a studio and an audience is not in it, either.

Witchdoctor – You have described your music as trying to capture the most intense moments of
King Crimson, Hendrix, etc. Is this quote about a particular part of your music, or is it something you always aim for?

Merzbow – [We found a direct translation of this part impossible, but to paraphrase, he is always looking for that accidental ‘peak’ of what he calls “thrilling noise” that can be found on Hendrix’s Live At Isle Of Wight and King Crimson’s Earthbound albums. He feels that a portion or element of his work in performance should be to capture that ecstatic noise.]

Witchdoctor – Would you, therefore, describe your music as a kind of “rock music”?

Merzbow – Since my family line is rock, it is also possible for my music to realise it as that from which rock evolved (degeneration?), but I do not dare to claim so.

Witchdoctor – Are you still actively vegan, and is it easy to eat vegan in Japan? Can you describe a little about what motivated you to give up meat and caring for animals?

Merzbow – I am vegan, although dining out is difficult in Japan, some vegan restaurants are located in Tokyo. It is seldom in rural areas. Since I am cooking for myself fundamentally, there is no problem in particular. I got interested in Animal Rights around 2003. Since the human being who lives has many choices of food, the eating habits are at the sacrifice of the lives of other kinds of species. The reason to perform is said morally and thinks that there is nothing. The earth is not only man’s thing. A symbiosis with other kinds of species and coexistence is required.

R-183696-1264521964Note: I first came across Merzbow while running an experimental music shop, Beautiful Music, in the late ‘90s. The Merzbow ‘best sellers’ were called Music For Bondage Performance, in two volumes, and the inner packages featured photographs of comely Japanese maidens tied up artfully in all manner of poses. It turned out that Masami Akita, amongst other things, wrote the encyclopedia on the art of rope bondage. It’s a pity that there aren’t English translations of this, and others of Akita’s extensive writing, because then the politics behind this unusual individual might become more apparent. What is apparent is that the guy, when he’s not being a noise musician, is something of an academic, and as the above quotes indicate, he has long been interested in matters of gender equality and sexual freedom in a society that is quite beyond western understanding in many ways. Certainly, as Akita indicates, his sense of morality and meaning in music has now been turned on the issue of speciesism (that is, the issue behind animal rights: that animals are “people”, not “things” for humans to do with whatever they like).

Merzbow NZ Tour

Saturday 16 November, Kings Arms, Auckland
Sunday 17 November, Bodega, Wellington
Tuesday 19 November, Chicks Hotel, Dunedin
Thursday 21 November, Dux Live, Christchurch

More details at

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

1 Comment

  1. This is gonna be a killer show. Not for everyone that’s for sure, but anyone curious in the outer limits of sound creation. Interesting that he himself does not wear earplugs! I have very fond memories of another Japanese sound explorer Keiji Haino playing at Auckland’s Herzog Bar back in the the day – like Merzbow, a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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