INTERVIEW

TIMELESS MELODIES: Once a member of cult noise punk band Screaming Tea Part, London based musician Koichi Yamanoha wants to make space-folk that speaks to a feeling you once had

grimm-grimm

“Abandoned buildings make me very emotional,” says Koichi Yamanoha as he thoughtfully sips beer in a busy bar in Shoreditch. “It’s like the past, present and future all existing at the same time, and even though it now has no purpose, this house, office, apartment or whatever still exists. It’s quite brutal the way they are left there, broken.”

Sparse, mournful and in places starkly beautiful, Grimm Grimm’s debut album, ‘Hazy Eyes Maybe’, forms an almost perfect sonic companion piece for a visit to one of the fallen down buildings that its creator is so fond of. It’s no big surprise to find out that the music is at least in part inspired by Yamanoha’s fascination with deserted places. “I went to four or five countries to visit ruins” he continues, “I wanted to do field recordings, where I go there and play a toy piano or guitar and try and capture the atmosphere of these places”

Yamanoha; who is London-based but a Tokyo native, is probably best known for being one third of cult psychedelic punks Screaming Tea Party. Deciding to call it a day in 2010, he has spent the last few years running club nights, helping out friend’s bands like Proper Ornaments and The Go Team and perfecting the sounds that would eventually become Grimm Grimm. “Screaming Tea Party was full of a lot of strong personalities,” he explains when we talk about his former band’s split. “The songwriting was still there, but being in a band for me is almost jumping off a cliff together – you have to completely trust each other in everything. I feel like I’m standing in a different place now, like I’m still jumping off the cliff, but I’m doing it by myself now.”

In many ways Grimm Grimm represents almost the polar opposite to the chaotic noise that put Screaming Tea Party on the map. Due for release on ATP Recordings in the summer, ‘Hazy Eyes Maybe’ represents a much more pastoral and considered take on psychedelia. A squall of differing and often seemingly contradictory influences, it resonates with the melancholic beauty of Nico and the wide-eyed optimism of The Beatles during the height of their ‘Sgt. Pepper’ pomp, while being held together with the odd baroque flourish and classic pop hook. It’s a collection of songs that seem to warp and mutate every time you listen to them, morphing from Joe Meek to Brian Wilson like the shards of glass in a kaleidoscope.

It may be a radical departure in both sound and feel from Screaming Tea Party, but Yamanocha still sees a lot of continuity between his new work with Grimm Grimm and his previous band. “Screaming Tea Party came from a love of punk, so the music was pretty straight forward but the lyrics were quite abstract and sometimes very personal,” he says when I ask him what he feels are the major differences between the two projects. “I wanted to make something that was a lot more minimal, but even if the form is different, the process is almost the same. I just try to be honest with what I think and what I feel.”

Processes and techniques might stay the same, but it’s hard to deny that going solo is a very big jump from being in a band. Not only do you remove the emotional and artistic safety net that comes from being part of any collective endeavour, it also makes it very difficult to completely separate yourself from the output, with very few places to hide when it comes to questions about the intentions behind your music.

Yamanocha is quite literally in the spotlight these days, but he seems relatively undaunted by the pressure.

“It was a struggle to begin with,” he admits as we talk about how he has adapted to life as a one-man show, “for one thing it’s a lot different volume-wise, so when I was I playing at a pub no one would listen. I was quite scared to play just by myself. You can’t hide behind noisy guitars, and it’s quite worrying to think that every mistake you make people can hear. I saw this documentary about the Marx Brothers and Groucho Marx was saying how scary it was being on stage. Basically they had to make strangers laugh and he didn’t have any musical instrument to hide behind. They were naked and could easily fail. It really made me think, ‘fuck, I need to do something’.”

Another big adjustment that budding solo artists have to contend with is the loss of the positive atmosphere that is part and parcel of being in a band with like-minded people. While it can sometimes be tough to deal with the unavoidable disagreements and compromises, working in a unit does give you a ready-made soundboard for your ideas. You can bounce ideas off your band mates and edit down the things that aren’t exactly working. Even though the songs on ‘Hazy Eyes Maybe’ have been made with the input of various collaborators, including Le Volume Courbe, Serafina Steer and Bo Ningen, I’m still curious to find out how Yamanocha is coping without having the creative back and fourths that come from being in a band.

“It took a while to figure out. In a band, when things are going good it feels like there’s this chemistry, like you don’t know why, but you seem to be riding this wave of ‘magic’,” he confesses thoughtfully. “I found that you can get the same thing as a solo artist. When I listen to Graham, a pianist, even though he was playing by himself I could hear a whole orchestra because each note has lots of meaning. Bands are the same, even if it’s loud, you have to make sure you mean it or people won’t connect with it.”

In spite of the challenges, Yamanocha has taken to being a solo artist like he’s been doing it all his life. Freed from the expectations that come from being in a group like Screaming Tea Party, this has allowed him to really rip up the blueprint when it comes to making music. Dabbling in field recording, found sound, luscious psychedelic folk and even the odd bit of Baroque, David Bowie-esque pop, he seems determined to push the boundaries to what a solo performer can achieve.

One of the more intriguing elements of ‘Hazy Eyes Maybe’ are the subtle, almost chamber choir-like arrangements on songs like ‘Robert Downey Syndrome’ and ‘Transcript’. Yamanocha’s eyes instantly light up when I ask him about it; “I’ve always been influenced by classical music – I used to play violin and cello in an orchestra in Tokyo, but I couldn’t get along with the conductor so I quit and started to play guitar. I still listen to a lot of Bach and Haydn and I think subconsciously they’re always there.”

For all its experimental elements, the thing that keeps grabbing you about ‘Hazy Eyes Maybe’ is the strong sense of melody that seems to run through every song on the record. If you scratched away at all the minimal noise and bizarre instrumentation, you’d still be left with a collection of pretty decent pop hooks. “I think on this album I wanted to write very straight-up pop songs,” remarks Yamanocha as we try and figure out the reason behind the album’s rich vein of melodic pop “You know, like the kind of songs you listen to when you’re 6 or 7 years old that you can’t ever seem to delete from your brain.

“I think that the strongest thing about a song is the melody ­– even when you’ve forgotten the words and can’t remember who wrote it, the melody always seems to remain. I remember when I was kid and I was in my mum’s car on the way to my grandmother’s house my mum played ‘Please, Please Me’ by the Beatles, and whenever I hear that song it always takes me back to that time. It’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s more like déjà vu; a very deep connection. I wanted to make an album like that; one that is connected to a sense of feeling.”

The thoughts, ideas and sense of place that Grimm Grimm is trying to achieve are highly ambitious, but to Yamanocha at least, they represent a relentless and often brutal pursuit of something that is personally truthful. With both our beers running low, the talk turns to one of the big, unsolvable problems that lies at the heart of a lot of indie music; namely how songs have to reconcile the tension between being having to work as ‘art’ with personal and sometimes very abstract intentions but also having to operate as entertainment that connects with listeners on some fundamental level.

“I think music and art can exist as one,” offers Yamanocha, almost without hesitating, “but it has to be honest when you do it. I saw this Japanese band recently at Cargo. It was amazing – the drummer was playing almost for the world. It was very funny, very intense, and actually quite shocking. When someone is giving everything on stage, they almost disappear from the stage and form a physical connection with the people watching. It takes you out of a way of viewing a band and makes it into something that is a lot more profound.”

This begs the obvious question – does Yamanocha always write with an audience in mind? He is quick to clarify that Grimm Grimm taps into something that is much more ill-defined. “It’s strange – songs come to me almost at random. When I’m walking down the street or taking a shower, a melody will pop into my head. I have over 800 sound files on my computer and it would take so much time to listen to them all back, but a strong melody will always keep coming back. It’s odd, because when I try and write hooks, I can’t – it’s a very unreliable process, but I think a good song works like that though; it’s an emotional or subconscious thing.”

That is the strange, alluring power that lies at the heart of Grimm Grimm’s sound. There is something reassuringly universal about it. Whether it’s abandoned buildings or a half-forgotten pop song, the music somehow manages to link you with a shared sense of experience and collective remembrance. “Even though I hate the term, I think it’s almost like outsider art,” explains Yamanocha. “That stuff is really pure and honest – like a child’s drawing that is spontaneous and unpredictable but designed to be interacted with. I think entertainment should be like that, if you do it for other people it can be bigger than yourself. You just have to find people that are ready to accept the message.”

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