The best Canadian metal/dreampop band named after the Buddhist god of death ever interviewed in full
One of the lesser-known acts to be nominated at this years Canadian Polaris Music Prize was YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN, a duo who combine metal riffs and dreampop melodies in their unique-sounding album 'YT//ST'. Alaska is Chinese and Ruby is Japanese, and the pair perform a "culture-jamming" of their heritage with face-painting and switching between English and Japanese lyrics. Their beautiful video for 'Hoshi Neko' was also inspired by a Buddhist parable. As our Asia Issue spends its last week on the shelves, Dazed Digital presents a stream of the band's acclaimed album, and I caught up with Ruby and Alaska find out more about their relationship with Asian culture.
So, you describe yourselves as a "cesspool of 'east' meets 'west' culture clash in giant monochrome paper sets"?
Alaska: I compared our culture-jamming to a sewage pit because we embrace the detritus: old discarded ideas and real physical garbage. All of my early instruments and sculptures were made with trash and a lot of our current costumes are made out of trash as well. As far as it being 'taboo', we really do believe that discussions of immigrant belonging, mixed-race america and indigenous issues are largely viewed as uncomfortable and inappropriate. Still, the issues themselves are perhaps more pertinent than they have ever been.
Is it true that you take your name from the Buddhist god for death?
Alaska: I am a practicing Buddhist. Yamantaka is not exactly the god of death, but rather the wrathful deity that terminates Death. I love black thrash and the doom and gloom imagery in certain aspects of Buddhism.
How did you initially meet?
Alaska: We met at Concordia University, in an interdisciplinary studio arts class. I had built a portable electric guitar out of an old megaphone and some broken guitars, and modified it to give it a tamboura/sitar kind of tone. I installed it as a sculpture and asked for volunteers. Ruby was the first to try it.
Your makeup reminds me of Kabuki performers. Is that an intentional reference?
Alaska: Yes, but it is a combination of Kabuki, Chinese Opera, KISS and traditional Native imagery. So it is intentional but also not all there is to it.
Why do you choose to sing in Japanese rather than English in 'Hoshi Neko'?
Alaska: Hoshi Neko was about a cat named Hoshi who ran away from Ruby years back. It's about him running into trouble across the galaxy. An anime-themed song wouldn't work as well in English would it?
Ruby, you co-directed the video for 'Hoshi Neko' with Emily Pelstring. How did you initially conceptualise that project, and what was the nature of the collaboration?
Ruby: I wanted to work in a hybrid technical paradigm, grappling with issues of translation, transmission, psychosis and cyclical rebirth. I created the drawings, photocopy art and 3-dimensional pieces. Alaska contributed some of her drawings and her insight on the rushes and edits. I wrote the story, and Emily shot and animated the pieces, using her expertise to bring the story to life. The film is entitled Little Star, and combines a renewed sense of psychedelia, nostalgia and mystery drawn specifically from American Film Noir.
The revenge and ensuing chase narrative is based loosely on "turning away from the bone", a Buddhist concept derived from a parable where a Dog ceases to gnaw at his bone and leaves the scene to find another bone or perhaps take a nap and then find another bone. Dog's realization that the bone has no more meat causes the cessation of his gnawing.
The mythscape within Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is derived over time, and through characters that wander aimlessly throughout whatever given parameters they have. Each work we create adds to this universe, parallel to our own.
Was it exciting to be nominated for the Polaris prize this year?
Alaska: For sure, it was definitely an honour to share the short list with so many talented musicians, like Fucked Up and Grimes, but also sharing the longlist with many other great groups I actively listen to, like and Azari & III and A Tribe Called Red. I haven't exactly been keeping my finger on the pulse of what is new outside of my Montreal/Toronto bubble, so I ended up learning about a lot of great groups on the long list that I had never heard of prior, and some we ended up making good friends with, like the awesome Shooting Guns.
I keep hearing about rent increases pushing artists out of Montreal. What's your experience?
Alaska: I lost my job in the recession back in 2009 and ran to Toronto (which has even higher rent) for a myriad of reasons (opportunity, love, some stupid reasons too). I see the same issues with rent increases in Toronto, but here it is at least 10 years ahead in the continuing de-culturalization of the city. Montreal is slowly losing the environment in which artist lofts are cheap and shitty, you can smoke weed almost anywhere, and beer is cheap and plentiful. Cheap rent, weed, and beer is the fuel on which many artists tend to run on.
Are you guys into anime, and what are your favourites?
Alaska: I am selectively into manga and anime, I would never call myself an Otaku or even an Anime nerd or anything. My favourite anime would have to be: Bubblegum Crisis, Dragonball, Akira, Mononoke Hime, My Neighbour Totoro, Sailor Moon, Slam Dunk, Galaxy Express 999, Astroboy. I also love Anime style art in video games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger. In the fine art world, Takashi Murakami is mindblowing, and I enjoy the style of Tatsayuki Tanaka.
What's your ultimate J-jam?
Alaska: I love Kyary Pamyu Pamyu because of how oddball it is, but I grew up around a lot of Chinese pop. I love C-Pop because of how cheeseball the ballads are, and frenetic the pop singles can be. My favourite recent Chinese pop hit is Wilbur Pan Wei-Bo's 'Bu de Bu Ai'.
I read that you guys are working on an opera called STAR?
Alaska: Well right now the storyline from STAR is being repurposed for a video game that we are working on that we plan to release for late 2013. We put up an Opera entitled '33' twice in 2012, but the reality is that people can't afford to attend Opera productions, and lowering our costs enough to allow the average concert goer to attend, makes it a time-consuming and very unprofitable venture. Until we can secure funding and interest, putting on an Opera the size of STAR has to wait, so until then, we keep writing music for it and our next record.
Your term 'noh-wave' obviously references Japanese theatre, but is it also a nod to NYC No Wave?
Alaska: In the words of Bugs Bunny: "The pun is mightier than the sword"