Oren Ambarchi’s Five Essential Records By Keiji Haino

Words by Elissa Stolman

About a month ago, I hopped on Skype to chat with Oren Ambarchi about his favorite records by Keiji Haino. The premise was to have Haino experts create a guide to help new fans navigate the iconic musician’s expansive discography, so we hit up two artists who have recently collaborated with the Japanese psychedelic rock legend. One of them was, obviously, Ambarchi, an Australian drummer who picked up the guitar after he saw Haino play in New York in the early ’90s and later collaborated with him and Sun O)))’s Stephen O’Malley in the band Nazoranai, which is gearing up to release a new album in a few weeks. The other was Reinhold Friedl, a German pianist and composer who founded Zeitkratzer, an outfit that recently released a CD of live recordings featuring Haino’s haunting vocals.

While we waited on answers from a very (and understandably!) busy Friedl, we were scooped by RBMA, who posted their own guide to Haino’s catalog last week. For a minute, we considered throwing out the transcript and coming up with a new idea, but after some intense debate, the EB staff decided that Ambarchi’s perspective on one of Japan’s most legendary experimental musicians is pretty unique and interesting, and his thoughts add a special angle to the original concept. Basically, we think this interview is worth reading, even if there are other handbooks to Haino’s work floating around.

不失者 (Fushitsusha), 不失者 (PSF 1991)

His trio, 不失者 [“Fushitsusha” in English], was a huge life-changing thing when I first heard it. It’s the guitar, bass, and drums format, which is the classic power trio rock format that has been done a thousand times, but I think when Fushitsusha came out, they completely took that language and that context that we’re all so familiar with to a completely different place and level. The two Fushitsusha releases on PSF don’t really have titles, they just have catalog numbers, and they’re also just known as Double Live. That’s a desert island disc. It’s totally deconstructed, it’s got everything that I love. It’s got psychedelia—and when I say psychedelia, I don’t mean it in a cliché way. It sounds like it was recorded in a cave or something. It’s got these solos that go on and on, and plodding rhythm sections, repetition, and the solos kind of go nowhere, which I love. And the atmosphere is so incredible; it’s dark, but it’s mystical, and it’s rock at the same time. There’s a rock or punk vibe to all of those things. And his vocals are absolutely beautiful and gorgeous as well. You can’t ask for more.

不失者 (Fushitsusha), 悲愴 (Pathétique) (PSF 1994)

The first track on PSF-50 is a five minute piece that I think is called “Pathétique.” That’s one of my favorite Fushitsusha/Haino releases ever. It’s got this huge monolithic riff, and it’s repeated over and over again. Once, I was playing a solo guitar set in Tel Aviv, and at the end of the set I was asked to do an encore. I never do encores, because I hate to play again after doing a huge solo set. I didn’t know what to do, so I did a cover of that track, because I love it so much. I actually had a band in Australia for a while, and once in a while we would only play that track for a whole set, and constantly repeat it. So, that’s a really important release for me.

Keiji Haino, Mikami Kan, and Yoshizawa Motoharu, Live in the First Year of the Heisei, Volume Two (PSF 1990)

There’s an early collaborative release that was also on PSF, which he did with a folk icon from Japan called Mikami Kan and a legendary free jazz bass player called Yoshizawa Motoharu. It was a record called Live in the First Year of Heisei, and there were two volumes. That was one of the first Haino records that I actually heard.

When I saw him in New York in ’91, he hadn’t released a lot of stuff; he’d only released an LP in 1980, which was really limited and not distributed very well. When I came back from New York to Australia, a friend of mine happened to have two or three PSF releases, which was completely bizarre in Sydney for somebody to have in the early ‘90s. One of them was that trio release, Live in the First Year of Heisei. It just blew my mind, because it was Mikami Kan playing very rudimentary folk guitar and folk vocals with this bass player adding a free jazz commentary. Already, those two were just really weird, and then Haino would come in with insane guitar blasts that absolutely annihilated everything that was going on. It was so alien and completely from another world. The combination of those things was so alluring to me at the time, because I’d never heard anything like it.

Keiji Haino, 慈 (Affection) (PSF 1992)

There’s another Haino release called Affection, which is an early PSF release that’s just a solo guitar and vocal thing. That’s a nice one for people who don’t really know his work, because it’s got a real late-night vibe. It’s kind of mellow, and very drift-y and psychedelic, and it’s so Japanese. It really has that sound, that Tokyo early ‘90s PSF sound. I’d recommend that.

Keiji Haino, Tenshi No Gijinka (Tzadik 1995)

His solo percussion CDs on Tzadik—I recommend that for sure. It’s purely acoustic, it’s not electronic at all. It was just a CD, and it was called Tenshi No Gijinka, and it was from 1995. That’s the percussion one. It’s got this ritualistic thing about it, and I think that’s really a part of everything he does. I love long sounds, I love the sound of a bell or percussion instruments where sounds are allowed to ring out. I love composers like Alvin Lucier or Morgan Feldman where there’s a piano piece and the chords are struck softly and you listen to the resonance and the way the notes hang in the air. A lot of that ritualistic percussion stuff, is from a similar world to me.

Ideologic Organ will release Nazoranai’s The Most Painful Time Happens Only Once Has It Arrived Already…? in November.