Interview with Kazu Matsui

Interview by Paul Adams
Paul Adams Music

My main job is working as a composer, but I do album reviews on a sparing basis. I'm especially drawn to write about music that I feel has great potential to counterbalance some of the "sameness" I hear in some music today.

Narada sent me Kazu Matsui's album Stone Monkey awhile back and I admit I put off listening for awhile. My mistake. This is interesting, creative, and risk taking in it's boldest sense. We spoke by phone when he was in LA working on a movie soundtrack with James Horner. Talking to the guy made me feel a sense of simpatico. He is forthright, open, and hasn't let the "business" end of music temper his attitude. Supported by charming bits of elfish laughter, this review/interview was a gas!


PA: You are in the USA doing music for the Zorro 2 soundtrack?
Kazu: Yeah, It’s called Legend of The Zorro, with Katherine Zeta Jones and Antonio Banderas.


PA: I got a hold of you because of the excitement I felt when I heard your new album Stone Monkey. The thing that excited me was that there doesn’t seem to be much risk taking in Instrumental or New Age music. There does seem to be a “sameness”. But you threw everything in this album but the kitchen sink
Kazu: (Laughter) Right


PA:Why did you take such a risk?
Kazu: Well if I am making a living ONLY on my music it might be risky. But, I write books and produce, and my living depends on those things (Kazu produces all of the recordings by his wife Keiko Matsui). Fortunately I have a deal that the record company (Narada) allows me to make all the creative decisions


PA: That was a very good deal
Kazu: Yeah (Laughter) I don’t know if I can continue that, but anytime they can cut me! (Laughter)


PA: Well, I find it an irony that we live in a time where we have very sophisticated composing tools, but I don’t see music in the market place pushing artistic boundaries. Matter of fact it seems less “chance taking” now than 25 years ago. I’m excited to see people push parameters and hope that there will be a place for those who want to do that.
Kazu: I hope so too. But now the outlet of music is shrinking in some ways. They only seem to want certain types of music and that’s a problem.


PA: Another interesting irony is that you mentioned that you don’t make a living from album sales. NOW, if you don’t have that market already defined and you have other means of support, this allows you more freedom in composing. So, lack of success in sales can foster more creativity! There are no executives telling you what and how to do something!
Kazu: Yeah. We used to make albums in one or two months in the studio. However we don’t need it anymore. You can have five thousand dollars worth of equipment and you can make an album. Technology has advanced so much that ones creativity can flourish. Unfortunately the market system is in the middle of a maze. We don’t know what to do. Internet is helping and killing part of the industry too. WE are in transition. I think we’ll be OK. And again, we are able to create using this technology and come up with great stuff. We may need to work on something else to make a living so it is a special time.


PA: I agree with you 100%
Kazu: Of course we need an (marketing) outlet because we want other people to listen. We haven’t figured out what to do, but this internet is either killing us or make us flourish. It can go either way


PA: Well it’s filled with irony

Kazu: Exactly


PA:What is going to happen? It’s such a blessing and I curse. I’I've always believed that the internet was going to be a continuation of the same. Most folks will drift to Rolling Stone or People magazine. Pop icons will attract the most attention. BUT, there’s going to be a place where you can find something different. Something more unique. They cannot make us go away
Kazu: Yes, exactly


kazu_matsui.jpgPA: I had a friend in a band called Gentle Giant. Another in a band called Happy The Man. Of course progressive rock died a painful death and these groups couldn't’t make music after they were dropped by the label. Because of this revolution in technology They can NOW record their own albums. So we have guys like you who can take these tools of MIDI, DIGITAL RECORDING, SAMPLING, COMPUTER AND LIVE INSTRUMENTATION and make a complete cool mix of that.
Kazu: Yes, um hum. Yes, exactly what I was talking about. It is a great time.


PA: I want to make a turn and ask about your interest in the shakuhachi flute which you blend with this technology. How old were you when fell in love with this instrument
Kazu: I think I was about 16 or so.

PA: Some find that the pentatonic scale of the flute may pose a limitation (Pentatonic scale has 5 notes and is usually in a fixed scale ).
Kazu: I like limitation


PA: Tell me more about that
Kazu: If I have more talent in western music some may find the Shakuhachi to be at a disadvantage. However my music taste and ability is limited. I love music, but I don’t read western notation. I’m more like a “street player.” For a street player, limited technique is our “ballpark”. We stay there and we remain in the true character of the instrument. This limitation is a cultural thing in Japan - like Kabuki (Kabuki theater is an old and established performance and theatrical art form) In the last 300 years we don’t change or evolve. Even in the limited thing, there is so much depth. Like a comedian in Japan, he is saying the same joke for years. Everybody knows how the same joke goes. This comic theater called Kyogen has played the same joke for years and still people “dig it.” Like Shakespeare, many people know the story or the lines, but many people go to the theater to hear an artists interpretation of it.


PA: I have an injury to my left hand and have found that the limitation may have helped me to paint with a different color on the guitar and not fall into the trap of playing the same thing everyone else.
Kazu: Yeah, because of my limitation I never really go for the technique. I never wanted to play faster or jazzier, it was never fun for me. But at the same time, the music depth is so wide and deep, even with the limitation, one can go very far. There is an analogy to Indian Raga scales here. I have tendency to go to a theatrical emphasis on the music. I always like going into some world or different dimension or other world.



KM-Keiko-Kazu.JPG PA: think that’s evident for you, as well as your production of your wife Keiko Matsui’s albums. I’ve seen your stage shows and there is definitely a sense of cinema or theater there.
Kazu: Yeah. I like to create imaginative stories with the music. The music as a journey.



PA: You have had the opportunity to play with some of the finest and best trained musicians in the world. Explain how you marry your sense of “street playing”simplicity with their trained virtuosity.
Kazu: Well, as I said, I am a visual player. I can’t explain to them in western harmony what to do. But often I ask them to use their imagination. For example I’ll ask them to imagine an elf sitting on a mountain top. Good musicians understand this and they can bring out their own creativity to adapt to this. We both create an atmosphere.


PA: So there is an openness to those musicians you play with
Kazu: Yes. Their ability and knowledge of theory will not inhibit their use of simplicity.


PA: So, if a well schooled musician modulates to a different key because he wants to make change this is a problem?
Kazu: Yeah, I’m not a fan of this. I appreciate their vocabulary but it may be that keeping things simple within the key may be necessary for what I am doing. I am looking for emotion. Limitation helps to create space. Sometimes when I produce Keiko, I tell her to cut notes. I ask her to listen to silence. I want to feel the silence between the notes. I think I have a problem when a jazz player uses too many notes.


PA: find there’s an analogy w/ pop music - say Rap or Hip Hop - music simple in form. My problem is that there is no space. Everything both vocally as well as rhythmically is constantly busy. I think they and their producers realize that all this activity does all the work for the audience. It doesn’t force them to use their imagination. It almost grabs you physically and pulls you in - it does all the work so to speak. What’s your feedback on my little theory?
Kazu: Simple music is popular. Some Rap is very creative. Sometimes I just want to listen to the groove but I can’t hear the words.


PA: Lets take a turn. Here. You took up with the Shakuachi flute when you were younger. What pop music influenced you when you were younger?
Kazu: When I started to produce my own album, I asked others to tell me what I should listen to to get a good example of contemporary music. I was told to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I listened to them hundreds of times. I listened to Quincy Jones' productions.


PA: Ah, Here we are back to the visual cues of music
Kazu: Yeah, I imagine visuals of watching the moon or traveling through the jungle. If you listen to Stone Monkey, it is very visual. It all comes from my travels. Twenty years ago I drove from England to India and this left a deep impact on me. All these experiences come back to me and I want to express this in my music



PA: Stone Monkey is very cinematic. I am thinking of the Cirque Du Soleil.
Kazu: Yeah I love them.


Kazu01.jpgPA: When you were a very young man, what other music did you listen to?
Kazu: Well, like in high school I listened to Santana, Coltrane, The Doors and anything theatrical. Anything that told a story.


PA: Tell me about your interest in Coltrane
Kazu: Others introduced me to him. I especially like the simple work as on Love Supreme. Sometimes he played many many notes but he used space very well, You can feel the silence behind it. I don’t know how he does it (Laughter). I liked him more than other jazz musicians


PA: Isn’t it great to live in a time with this digital chip? At one time people argued that it was evil, but it can be a marvelous tool.
Kazu: Yeah, those people don’t understand. Like, I love the use of the drum machine. I believe these digital tools have spirit. I believe everything has spirit, and should be seen as this. Sometimes machines makes more sense. I don’t like it if a live drummer doesn’t feel or connect with the visual aspect. Sometimes these machines can express what we want to say. They are part of the universe.


PA: So, it’s how we USE those machines that makes the real difference as to their validity?
Kazu: Yes, to use them, you have to feel as if you and the machine are part of the universe. There is a relationship there. The creative mixture of human and machine is the way to go. After all, nature, the universe, includes the computer


PA: So if it’s here, it’s part of nature, otherwise
it wouldn’t be here?

Kazu: Yeah, (Laughter). Exactly. Certain people block themselves into a narrow interpretation, but sometimes a narrow thing can go deeper.


PA: Once you put up rigid judgment, there is an opportunity to miss something. This takes me back to what you said about time and space in music. Of not playing. Those moments can allow deeper penetration what you have created
kazu03.jpgKazu: Yeah, and people should judge from what they hear and not be negative about what tool was used to create the music. There are times when I even use sample CD’s to cut and paste into the music I compose (Many top musicians have out CD’s containing grooves they have played - allowing you to paste them into your project)). AND, if I do this, it is almost like I have involved this musician in the album. It’s like having another player easily accessible.


PA: So, even though they are samples, you are still communicating with him
Kazu: Yes. I spoke to a number of well known musicians that have sample CD’s of their work and phrases. They assured me that using their samples and phrases was OK.


PA: in Stone Monkey you have a lot of mixes with grooves that involved a bit of sampling.
Kazu: Yes, I was helped with the project by Hajime Hyakkoku who was able to paste many musical statements using the Macintosh computer. I didn’t want to use JUST drum machine, but to mix all the elements together of machine, sampler, and live individual voice. I am influenced greatly by this new technology


PA: Yes, you might say it is like being a sculptor - working with clay. You can place your sound, stand back, take some away, add proportions, ad infinitum. It’s a joy
Kazu: Exactly, and these techniques are there for everybody. For a few thousand dollars you have your own studio. This is a time that so many people - who didn’t have a chance to be in music - can now create. Anybody who is interested can create music. It’s a great time


PA: Everything we do can be done in the living room. We can exchange files with others, and the creative process unfolds.
Kazu: Yes yes! Actually I am now making a documentary about the Dali People in India. I can shoot - edit - and do everything by myself with hi digital quality. This is the first time I have made a film - apart from Keiko’s DVD’s. Again, I can do it all myself.


PA: Well you have an album that is much like a story or film. You’ve been talking about theater and as I previously remarked, your music is very visual.
Kazu: Yeah, I love our imagination


PA: I’ve been taking your album with me on my journeys to the river where I lay and allow my imagination to flow. I find the varied elements to be calming - even in their most dynamic sections. As I said previously, you threw everything in this album but the kitchen sink.
Kazu: Yeah but you know - some of the critics say I went too far (Kazu is laughing as he says this), I was not as New Age as I was supposed to be - but why not (More laughter)?


PA: Exactly!!
Kazu: the music industry is doing so bad right now and everybody is trying to chase the same rabbit. Everything sounds all the same. It’s OK to try to make a living, but the industry is killing creativity because they don’t budge. Sometimes artists produce work that doesn’t reach full appreciation in their time


kazu02.jpg

PA: Yes, that means we need a day job
Kazu: Exactly


PA: An interesting irony here. As I said earlier, perhaps it’s the guy who is somewhat unsuccessful, that is more successful. He doesn’t have the bound duty to produce for the market. His day job allows him to paint his pictures the way HE see them
Kazu: Right . And many times, people have quit music because of the business difficulty. Well, because of the new technology, they can now come back and continue to produce. We don’t have to rely on the money from the record companies. AND, they don’t have the money anymore anyway. What we have to do is to find a market on the internet - I don’t know how to do it - but we need to develop new marketing strategy


PA: I’m really glad we had this time to talk. I feel a connection with your creative process because you seem to be drawn to the idea of making passionate interesting music, rather than just commercial music that can get boring and lackluster over time
Kazu: Yeah Yeah Yeah. And I hope XM radio will do great (Referring to the new satellite radio subscription services like XM and Sirius that are not as bound to the same play lists as commercial radio)


PA: OK, AND THIS LEADS TO THE QUESTION: Where does your album Stone Monkey fit? In what genre is it placed? New Age, World Fusion?
Kazu I’m not sure. Narada is a good label and well recognized. I just hope everybody will, get further into this subscription radio and listen to music that is good


PA: This leads to some of the new internet stations like LIVE 365
Kazu: Yes, I am hopeful to see how these stations develop


PA: Again, they don’t have the same constraints as commercial radio.
Kazu: YES exactly As long as people have choice. If they choose me or they don’t choose me that’s OK. I just want them to have choices available. I want to see stations available that will offer something different


PA: When will you be done with your current work on the James Horner soundtrack ?
Kazu: I will go back to Japan next week.


PA: What was it like working with James?
Kazu He is great. AND, he knows how to work with “street Players” which is what I consider myself. He uses ethnic players very well. When we did Legends Of The Fall (Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.), James brought in many folk players to work with the symphony. AND the orchestra members really appreciated their talents. The good composers let the street players play (Within their styles). And the blend of the folk and orchestral traditions add a great deal to the overall sound of the music


PA: Well, thank you for the interview. It was so good to talk and hear you speak of the unique approach of blending technology and street playing, with schooled and traditional orchestra. Your album Stone Monkey is truly daring and I think one of the most adventurous albums I’ve heard in a long time. It is a melting pot of the worlds sounds and traditions. I think many will appreciate your courage in making an album that truly pushed boundaries
Kazu: Thank you

The last 3 pictures are by Jun Sato, used with permission. Thanks Jun!