Ikue Mori is a Japanese visual artist, experimental musician and drummer who shot to prominence in the late-seventies as the driving percussive force behind No Wave pioneers DNA, her metronomic drumming acting as the perfect bedding for Arto Lindsay’s jagged guitar lines and the minimalist keyboards of Robin Crutchfield. After DNA disbanded, Mori became a pioneering member of the international improvisation scene, hailed for her use of drum machines in experimental music compositions. With collaborations with the likes of John Zorn, Evan Parker, Zeena Parkins and Christian Marclay, as well as her solo ground-breaking music, Mori has developed a remarkable body of work across a wide range of genres. On March 30th, Ikue Mori will be appearing with Norwegian artist Maja S.K. Ratkje at London’s Cafe Oto, so the Liminal sat down for an interview to discuss her wide range of projects, her history on the New York No Wave scene, and on how preparations have gone for the London show.
You’re set to appear at Cafe Oto with Maja S.K. Ratkje. How did this collaboration come about? Have you worked with her before?
We first met in Sweden 2004, on a double bill tour in Scandinavia with Hild Sofie, Lindha Kallerdahl, Lise-Lotte Noreliust and Lotta Melin and it was a very special moment of a memorable tour. Since then I’ve collaborated with her many times, either with Fe-mail or her alone; we recorded with Otomo (note: Yoshihide) in San Francisco, and she appeared with Phantom Orchard (note: Mori’s duo with Zeena Parkins) for our Orra album. We were also both involved in the recording of Treasure Hunt, recorded with Simon Balestrazzi, Sylvie Courvoisier and Alessandro Olla which just released on Ticon Zero in Sardinia. Recently, we were invited to play a trio with Fred Van Hove at the Follow the Sound festival in Antwerp.
With Maja being based in Norway, and yourself in New York, how have you prepared for this tour?
Via the Internet, like everybody else!
Before getting onto your more recent projects, could you please tell me about how you got into music, and what made you decide to move to New York?
I came to visit NY in the late 70′s and many things happened within a 3-month period, including meeting Arto Lindsay joining DNA as a drummer. That was the beginning of my musical career.
How did you meet Arto Lindsay, Tim Wright and Robin Crutchfield and what led you guys to found DNA? Had you much experience of the drums before forming DNA?
First, Arto and Robin were trying to start a band and looking for a drummer and we held the occasional jam with Lydia (Lunch), James (Chance) and my friend Reck, who was a guitarist and had come to NY with me. I’d never played the drums before, but they asked me to I was the new drummer for DNA from then-onwards. Soon after, the No New York album was released, Robin left the band and we decided to go towards a more “rock” direction, with Tim Wright joining on bass.
Your style of drumming is very distinctive, even unique. How did you develop this style, and how did you work on it for recordings and gigs? Was it purely improvised?
My drum style was mixture of Japanese Taiko drumming, with some samba flavours through Arto’s influence. Actually, come to think of it, I played drums like a programmed drum machine would, not because my playing was precise but because I mentally constructed the way to play like programed drum set. Actually, none of DNA’s music was improvised. Each song was tightly constructed, with very few improvisation parts in them.
What was the music and art scene like in New York during the No Wave period? It must have been an amazing experience to perform alongside so many amazing bands! Stuart Argabright of Ike Yard told me there was something in the air in New York at the time – would you agree?
Yes, I agree. It was exiting and you felt that anything was possible. At the same time, it was also very dark and not a very safe place to be.
Like a lot of No Wave bands such as Mars, DNA was relatively short-lived. Did you feel that you had taken the project as far as you could?
I think we burnt ourselves out… And then we went in different directions.
Do you think the current New York scene can be compared favourably to what was happening in the late seventies? Do you think a band like DNA could exist today?
I think it was something that positively developed at the time. However, there’s still a very active music scene here, with many great musicians -old and young- living here and actively performing and creating music.
Since the end of DNA, you’ve become much more involved in electronic music. What drew you to this field? Would you consider it to be a reaction against the rawness of No Wave, or was it a natural evolution from what you were doing before? How did you go about bringing drum machines into improvised music?
It was a natural evolution for me. I got my first drum machine around 1985 and loved programming so much I started to use it with my drum set. Then, over the course of 10 years, it took over completely and I ended up playing 3 drum machines together, along with a mixer and multiple effects. I’ve always focused on playing these machines like “real” instruments, so I took programming and trained myself to interact and react instantly, with an aim to playing improvised music with others from the beginning, but using my drum machines and electronics.
Since 2000, you’ve been working with laptops. What do computers bring to your music?
It’s not only to music, but for the whole world of art creation. Laptops open up the a door to more possibilities. In music, it made things more portable, which made travel easier, and that is the biggest advantage. Also, the easy processing of sounds made it possible to create different atmospheres, and more “colours”, all of which add a lot to my sound pallet.
Along with music, you have worked a lot in the world of film and video, specifically soundtracks. Do you have to approach your performances and composition differently when working with film than when your focus is solely on the music?
My solo works are often like imaginary soundtrack music to me, and many of my musical pieces are inspired from the different visual elements. So guess the approach is not so different!
Can you tell me a bit more about your Kibyoshi project? How did it come about and how were the music and video created? How did you go about creating the very distinctive animations for Kibyoshi?
Kibyoshi means “yellow cover” in Japanese, and it’s kind of an original manga from 300 years ago, from the Edo period in Japan. These stories would create the most preposterous views of art, culture, religion and all aspects of people’s daily lives. I’ve owned one Kibyoshi Book for about 30 years, and it’s one of most outrageous books I’ve ever read and always wanted to do a piece about it. Time passed and I started to work with visuals and became interested in creating animations. I actually released a DVD before this using Balinese paintings. Then Kibyoshi came across my mind, and I processed it the same way, using cut out characters that mixed with my own environment, using music to tell the stories. There’s a website for the Kibyoshi project here: http://web.me.com/ikuem1/Site/KIBYOSHI.html
You’ve mentioned that you’ve been making dolls recently. Is that for a specific project? Japan has a very unique tradition with dolls and puppetry, such as in Bunraku theatre, as seen in Kitano Takeshi’s film Dolls. Was this facet of Japanese culture a key influence on your own doll-making?
It’s not only the traditional Japanese influence but a long-standing fascination of mine before I moved to NY, one that I put on hold for about 30 years… After working with everything digital these days, and finishing my second animation, I was searching for a new medium and it came back to me. It kind of brings analogue processing into digital processing, and I feel that the two are well-balanced now. I would like to make another DVD or story picture book with music…
Your most recent album, Class Insecta, is very much focused on percussion and electronics. Can you please tell me a bit about the concept behind the record, and how it was made?
That’s most recent solo album yes. However, my most recent album is Near Nadir with Evan Parker, Mark Nauseef and Bill Laswell… The Class Insecta album is about beats. I created several beats and percussive elements, then combined them with noise, melodies and colours.. The theme was that each song imagined different insect sounds.
It feels very much on Class Insecta that you’re subverting the conventions of dance music in very inventive ways. Is that a fair description? Were you keen to push the boundaries of dance and perhaps incorporate or juxtapose them with more experimental elements?
Perhaps you can say that too, although I don’t really know much about dance music from a commercial point of view…
How did you go about creating the dense atmospheres and ambient passages that also feature on Class Insecta?
It was all created, layered, processed and edited on one computer.
As well as your ground-breaking solo material, you’ve collaborated with numerous and varied other musicians, from Christian Marclay to John Zorn. Is it a challenge to adapt your musical approach when working with other artists?
It is always challenging. But Christian or John are not very difficult to play with as we speak pretty much the same musical language.
As an improviser, how do you keep coming up with new ideas and ways to make music? It seems that you constantly have new and diverse ideas. Do you prefer improvisation to recording pre-prepared pieces?
Thanks for your comment. Its both important for me to improvise live and to create and record pieces. Creating new pieces sometimes gives me new ideas for sounds that could improve an improvised set, and vice versa.
Finally, do you have any new projects we can expect to see released this year? Are there any plans to record with Maja S.K. Ratkje in the studio?
With Maja, as mentioned before, there’s the Treasure Hunt CD which we were both involved in and was just released on Ticon Zero. Phantom Orchard Orchestra was commissioned to record twice by SWR, and both projects involve either Fe-mail or Spunk and are in the process of being released on CD someday. We are also trying to record all the live sets during the UK tour and hoping to get a good performance on tape, if possible. For myself, last time I was in London, I recorded a set with Steve Noble, produced by Trevor Brent that should be coming out on his label later this year. I also plan to have another improv recording with Sylvie Courvoisier and Jim Black soon. Finally, I’ll be leaving soon for Dubai for the “Revising Tarab concert” produced by Tarek Atoui and the Sharjah art foundation. So lots going on!