Yamantaka//Sonic Titan Interview
In case you haven’t heard yet, Montreal/Toronto theatrical-prog-art-rock band Yamantaka//Sonic Titan has been getting a bit of attention lately from the likes of Pitchfork and such for their badass music and unique live show. Gold Soundz managed to snag a phone interview with the core duo of Ruby Kato Atwood and Alaska B to talk about Noh opera, comics book, and giant plant things that fly through space.
GS: How did the band begin?
A: We met in art school (at Concordia University). We were doing experimental performance art meets music using junk instruments I would build out of random trash. We started a band called Lesbian Fight Club.
R: We were on hiatus for a while, and then we formed this band.
GS: So, you were friends and then one day you were like, “Let’s start a band”?
A: That’s how we became friends.
R: We were in a class together and we just started collaborating in the class. There was nobody else in the class that we wanted to work with. Or we were working on sort of the same thing serendipitously and so we started to collaborate.
GS: And how long have you been playing as Yamantaka//Sonic Titan?
A: It’s been about five years. Since 2007.
R: For our first show we did one really big one with a lot of installations. It was at an art gallery in Montreal. Maybe six months after that we did a window installation. We maintained that we would do musical performances but also installation art and performance-y, music theatre type stuff. So I don’t really know if it was a band, you know?
A: It started with just like a crew of two and a lighting person, and then it just kind of expanded with guest musicians until we settled down on playing as a band more often than doing art.
GS: I heard you guys are influenced by Noh opera. Were there any specific Noh operas you guys drew on for inspiration?
A: One that really touched me was a Noh version of Macbeth. I’ve actually seen two Noh version of Macbeth, one was more traditional and one was a little more experimental. There are a couple other ones that I’ve seen parts of. We don’t purport to be Noh practitioners; it’s just something we draw influence from. For me, I’m interested more in the visual aesthetic of the performance, the kind of movements they do in Noh.
R: Our other Japanese influence is Butoh, a more contemporary form of performance and dance. It’s not really related to Noh but the reason why we’re interested in it is also because it has a certain kind of movement – [it’s a] very minimal, slow kind of movement.
A: I’m also really influenced by Chinese opera, being Chinese. Though Japanese opera is much more restrained, while Chinese opera is really loud, colorful, and over the top. So [what we do is] kind of this combination of a really morose kind of appearance with a really maximalist, intensely bright show based on a Chinese opera influence.
GS: Are there any other Noh plays that people coming to it through you guys should check out?
A: I wouldn’t recommend any Noh plays if you’re going directly from us. But another group that was definitely influenced by Noh and more along the lines of what we do is a group called Tenjo Sajiki, which was an experimental group led by J.A. Seazar, and a writer (Shūji Terayama). It was kind of a rock opera, spiritual, political theatre group from Japan in the 1970s.
GS: Ruby, you said you get a lot of ideas from comics: what comics do you like to read and what ideas did you get from them?
R: Well, formally I’m interested in the visual presentation of narrative that’s not necessarily linear. Dream sequences and stuff like that in comic books really interests me. But right now I’m really influenced by the work of Osamu Tezuka.
A: Me too…
R: And so is Alaska.
A: I just read MW, which is his darkest one about a serial killer and a priest.
R: I read the Buddha series a couple years ago and now I’m reading Phoenix. It’s really interesting because you can read one chapter and it spans like five million years. So there are generations, and generations of characters that come up and it’s this really grand scope. You can’t keep track. The other thing about those kind of serials is that stuff like Barefoot Gen or Japanese compilations from the 50s, 60s or earlier – they’ve been put out over a long period of time. It’s kind of like reading Calvin and Hobbes. It came from the newspapers, so it’s cool to see how these characters have these longer lifespans. I think that’s what really interests me in the style of serial storytelling. Also the 2D black and white – it’s very minimal but there’s a lot that can be drawn from that.
GS: What are you trying to invoke in the imagery you use in Yamantaka//Sonic Titan and specifically, what is going on in the album cover for your guys’ S/T?
A: [You know] how children deal with trauma and they make themselves their own kind of universe? We’re kind of doing the same thing. Kind of disassociation with our actual world. That concept, like, if you take issues and you put them into outer space then you don’t have to deal with real world problems, you can just talk about the issues.
The cover is a play on the imagery of neo-Tokyo being blown up in the book Akira, and the image was kind of like – you know there’s a kid who’s been injected some drug that makes him psychic? And he ends up blowing up and people think it’s an atom bomb but it’s really a psychic disturbance?
GS: When I was looking at the image I thought it was a kind of Noah’s Ark thing going on – is that just me?
A: Mmm, I don’t know, maybe. I’m not a Christian, I’m a Buddhist.
GS: It just looks like there’s some kind of big boat in the middle of everything. Maybe that’s just the way I’m seeing it.
R: Well, it’s trippy, I’ll give you that.
A: Oh, that’s the head of Blastro, I know what you’re talking about. He’s a character in our logos. He’s a giant plant with his brain blown out who flies through space and he’s completely braindead.
R: That was heavily influenced by Osamu Tezuka’s Astroboy. That was the subject of one of our first installations.
A: It was about how as kids we were associated with Sailor Moon and Astroboy. (laughs)
GS: Final question: what’s going on with this larger work that Stuart Berman mentioned in his review of your guys’ album?
A: We have an opera called Star that we’ve been working on. When we were asked to record the record we basically compressed the ark and took the main themes and put them on the record. So a lot of those songs were written to go into that opera, but the opera itself is still being worked on. We did a smaller one that’s running right now at the Rhubarb Festival at the Buddies In Bad Times Theatre called 33. That’s kind of our test to work towards bigger operations. We’ve done our own work with just a couple people involved in art venues but we’re trying to work our way more and more into theatre. So we’re hoping to secure funding and a venue and start getting all the stuff together to do that show probably in a year or two. These things take a long time; the theatre world is not fast.
Photo: Max Attwood