By Patrick St. Michel August 09, 2022
“Then we realized that we had pretty much done everything we wanted to… actually more than we hoped for,” said drummer Go Kurosawa via video chat from his home in Amsterdam.
“So many American bands say, ‘Grow up, grow up! Next! Keep going, never stop and never end,’ adds guitarist Tomo Katsurada, laughing from his place in the same city. “I find it so capitalistic. can’t you just finish and do some new stuff?”
That’s exactly what Kikagaku Moyo decided while recording his fifth and final album. Kumoyo Islandreleased last May via their own label Guruguru Brain. Over the past ten years, the quintet – Katsurada, Kurosawa, his brother Ryu, Kotsu Guy and Daoud Popal – have become global representatives of Tokyo’s underground rock landscape thanks to their penchant for never settling down. They created smoky folk jams, slow-burning sitar epics and sultry rock eruptions delivered under waves of commentary.
“We felt like, yeah, we’ve already done one thing. It’s natural for us to think, ‘OK, when we do this, let’s do something different,’” Kurosawa said.
The couple spoke to Daily Bandcamp days after the end of their last European tour, including a set at Glastonbury Festivalof the West Holts stage. “We were told that we had the highest record sales in the history of this stage,” says Katsurada of the most special memory of this last jaunt across the continent, proud of the way they managed this as a DIY operation.
“Our show in Amsterdam…it felt like the European loop was closed,” says Kurosawa. “The first gig we played in Europe was in the Netherlands; that’s how we started.
Kikagaku Moyo still has a series of live shows ahead of them ahead of their closing North American tour this fall. After that, the group ends and everyone can explore new ways of expression. A well-deserved opportunity, because the band has created one of the strongest discographies of 21st century psych rock.
Katsurada and Kurosawa met shortly after the former returned to Tokyo from studying abroad in Portland. “We had a lot of mutual friends where Go was from…[Tokyo neighborhood] Takadanobaba…and I was studying at nearby Waseda University,” he says. “I was on a skating team made up of elementary and middle school friends from Go.” The two bonded over music, movies, and food, spending a lot of time hanging out.
“There are not many Japanese people we found who could communicate with the outside world. The language barrier is such a thing, and if you don’t live outside of Japan, the world seems really closed,” says Katsurada. “For example, I have to do everything in Japan. But there are so many options, and we talked about all our ideas.
The two found they had good energy and decided to give music a try. The only catch, Kurosawa notes, is that neither of them really knew how to play an instrument. “I didn’t know how to play drums,” he says, while Katsurada likened their debut to “a high school opening band.”
They brought the other members into the band soon after and got down to business playing gigs. Despite their supposed lack of technique, they had lots of ideas and spent a lot of time jamming and figuring out what kind of sounds they wanted to make and how to approach the vocals. “We thought we didn’t have to sing the lyrics specifically; we can use it as a melody or an instrument that includes a feeling,” Katsurada says, comparing it to growing up in Japan and listening to Missy Elliott despite not understanding a thing she was saying.
“The first record we made was almost like a demo,” Kurosawa says of their titular 2013 debut. Duo Moon, and they told us to record something that we could give to people. If you just play a lot of shows, you’re not going anywhere. The resulting release led them to explore sounds they would tinker with for the next decade, including fast rock blazers (“Zo No Senaka”) and strands of folk (“Lazy Stoned Monk”). Their relative lack of technical mastery was not a deterrent, but rather an asset allowing them to experiment freely.
They might have said they weren’t technically strong, but that only allowed them to spread their sound more.
Kikagaku Moyo continued to play live shows across Tokyo, focusing on smaller venues that did not follow the pay-to-play model common in the country (with some busking added). The five musicians, however, wanted to start touring outside their home country.
“We found out that we needed an album to tour internationally,” laughs Katsurada, explaining how the second album, Forest of the Lost Children, came together. “It was us who were rushing.”
Despite the breakneck pace needed to set it up, their second album showcases both their conceptual dynamism and myriad global influences. “We wanted to make music that came from an imaginary tribal island, all these sounds mixed together. Like Calcutta’s stress with rural areas,” says Katsurada. Many were written around the time of their debut, but gelled well together on Forestbrought to light by psychomorphic rocker “Smoke And Mirrors”.
A label expressed interest in their follow-up and enthusiastically sent it in. “Everyone said ‘No. I don’t like it. And we lost the deal!’ said Katsurada. Still hoping to fulfill their international hopes, they founded a small label in New York, Beyond, beyond, it’s beyond the records, to turn it off. This helped them land dates in the United States, including an appearance at the 2014 Austin Psych Fest, one of their dream gigs. While still a niche band at home, Kikagaku Moyo were beginning to make a name for themselves with their meditative and mind-blowing music.
Whatever attention Kikagaku Moyo received was somewhat countered by their continued frustration with the labels. “With our third album, we were really looking forward to signing with a record company, but no one was interested,” Katsurada says of what would become House In The Tall Grass. “They were like, ‘That’s not my cup of tea.’ I heard that so much on Facebook Messenger. ‘Not my cup of tea; Not my cup of tea…”
“So we decided to publish it ourselves,” he concludes.
In 2016, Katsurada and Kurosawa had already launched their own label, Guruguru Brain. This emerged from a regular party they held at Shibuya Ruby Room venue. They decided to create a compilation album of psychic acts playing up the event, releasing it as the first offering of the imprint in 2014. It quickly became a place where they could showcase the music of Japanese psych rockers like SUNDAYS & CYBELE and inspired by Krautrock Minami Deutschas well as groups of on the other side Asia.
“When we started, it wasn’t for personal outings, it was separate from our band,” Kurosawa says. “But when we couldn’t find a label, naturally we decided to do it ourselves. We had no choice.
House In The Tall Grass has become important for both. Kurosawa remembers creating the album — getting out of work, heading to a studio, creating it for two or three hours, and listening to raw mixes on the train home — better than any other.
“At that point, we finally started shooting internationally more than ever before. That’s when we realized we could make the band financially stable for everyone, and we could do that without having to depend on another label. House In The Tall Grass that’s when we decided to do things on our own,” Katsurada says, noting that he felt his songwriting was growing alongside this recording.
This album marks the arrival of the famous Kikagaku Moyo, free to do what he wants without worrying about the reactions of the labels to the demos or anything else. “If all five band members think it’s okay, there’s no need for a conversation after that. There is no filter,” Kurosawa explains. After that, the group released EPs, collaborations and a full album all on their own terms.
Many of Kikagaku Moyo’s albums stem from touring, with the members drawing inspiration from jams and memories made on the road. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, interrupted this creative pipeline.
“It all comes from our imagination, from how we’ve been playing together since we couldn’t shoot,” Katsurada says. “Half the songs, probably, were written remotely.”
Unlike previous albums, Kumoyo Island boasts what Kurosawa describes as a “home recording feeling”, as each member can take their time to write due to the limitations presented by the state of the world. “It was a good balance between the five of us having to imagine how these songs would sound together, but also allowing us to experience each. I think it shows.”
“But I’m glad that in the end it still sounds like a band sound,” Katsurada says. “We tour so much and play so many shows together; even when we write music at home, it becomes a group thing.
They all returned to Tokyo for a month to complete the album, recording their finale in the same recording studio where they started, which resulted in freer sessions for the band than usual. “It was comfortable. We know the studio, we know the sound engineer, we can screw it all up, we can do trial and error,” Katsurada says.
Kumoyo Island is the band’s most left-leaning set of songs to date, merging their psychedelic side with funk (“Dancing Blue”) and a soothing soundscape (“Daydream Soda”). Musical periods from all their time together emerge, from fuzzy rockers like “Cardboard Pile” to sitar meditation on closer “House Silk Road.” Their Japanese roots even feature more prominently in opener “Monaka”, which is inspired by Minyo music that Katsurada says he often heard growing up in a “not great” hot spring and ski resort in Ishikawa Prefecture.
It’s a fitting swan song for the band and one Katsurada and Kurosawa are proud of, describing it as the album that means the most to them right now.
After their last round of live dates, the pair will focus on Guruguru Brain, which has plenty of releases planned for the future (while also requiring them to deal with all sorts of small Kikagaku Moyo details such as sending money to the members of the group, because they have all their rights). They will also continue to make music, both on their own and eventually together in new formations. But first, a few more farewells.
“I appreciate it a lot, I’m very emotional,” Katsurada says of the farewell tour. “It’s the best experience I’ve ever had playing music.”