Sigh – Mirai Kawashima
Interviewed By Hanntu
Japanese metal band (I can’t tell you what category they fit in, because honestly, there’s no genre name that’s wide enough for them.) Sigh are set to release their 7th full length studio album, HANGMAN’S HYMN, which should be released this summer. I caught up with Sigh’s frontman, keyboardist and founding member, Mirai Kawashima, who gave his eloquent and deep thoughts on the new album, crappy record labels, religion and tomato sauce.
Hey Mirai, firstly let me congratulate you on Sigh’s new album. I definitely think it’s my favourite of all!
I suppose the first noticeable thing about HANGMAN’S HYMN is that you’ve abandoned the clean vocals that were on GALLOWS GALLERY. Can you tell us your reason for doing so? By the way, I must say that it’s good to hear the old Mirai snarl back again!
GALLOWS GALLERY and HANGMAN’S HYMN are two albums that are poles apart. GALLOWS GALLERY is about sadness and depression of our lives while HANGMAN’S HYMN is full of anger and hate. So obivously the expression of the vocals should be different. The GALLOWS GALLERY vocal style would not fit HANGMAN’S HYMN’S music or atmosphere at all. We always choose the best means to express our feelings.
The straight balls-out thrash of HANGMAN’S HYMN warm the hearts of people like me, but why have you decided to do a relatively uncomplicated album this time? I mean ‘uncomplicated’ in the best possible way of course, but in view of your earlier work which is eclectic and varied, the new album focuses purely on the heaviness of the thrash guitars and drumming, with added epicness of the symphonies and choirs, I think it’s fair to ask?
Well, HANGMAN’S HYMN may be the most consistent album by Sigh, but at the same time, it is the most complicated album by us. It may sound pretty much straightforward and simple, but musically each song is woven together and connected together. As you hear on the last track, lots of the themes are layered with the complicated counterpoint technique. The album has 10 tracks but it can be taken as 1 track that lasts 45 minutes.
The Hangman’s Hymn is a book by Paul Doherty, inspired by the Tales of Canterbury by Chaucer. We don’t want to give too much away to the readers yet, but is this the closest Sigh have come to a concept album?
No, actually I’ve never read the book and I was not aware of this when I gave a title to the album either! After that, I found out about the book on the Internet.
What’s the story behind Tim Conroy and Aurielle Gregory contributing to HANGMAN’S HYMN? Also how did Rob Urbinati from legendary Canadian thrashers Sacrifice come into the picture?
I was looking for a trumpet player who could play on the album, and the label introduced Giant Squid to us. Definitely the trumpet and Aurielle’s vocals are great additions to HANGMAN’S HYMN. Last year Shinichi and I went up to Toronto to see the Sacrifice reunion show, and I can safely say it was one of the best concerts I had ever seen in my whole life. There I met Rob and thought of asking him to do a guest appearance. He was kind enough to accept the offer! It was a big honor for us.
Which tracks do you forsee as being crowd favourites in live shows for years to come? Are you planning on touring extensively in support of the new album? I know you’re lined up for a few shows in North America, but can you tell us a little about tours in the future, or even where you’d like to play?
I don’t know, so far we have played only Death with Dishonor live. The crowd favorites are often different from ours, so it’s really hard to foresee. In July we’ll tour the US/Canada for two weeks including two shows with Mayhem in California. After that we’ll have a few shows here in Japan, but other than them, no tours are being planned at the moment.
What attracted you initially to the type of sound you have become so famous for, like the pianos and the orchestration, and the sound effects that you incorporate into your music, even from your very first demo DESOLATION?
The reason was very simple, I was/am a pianist/keyboardist, and I can’t play the guitar very well. So I usually compose on piano, and when I was writing songs for DESOLATION, naturally I came up with the idea to use the keyboard phrases as they were, I mean, not converting them to the guitar riffs. Also I never thought mixing keyboards with heavy stuff unusual as there were many pioneers like Black Sabbath, Warfare, Bullozer, Bathory etc. It was nothing new to me.
You have been described most commonly as “avant-garde Black metal”. How happy are you with this description? Is it overly simplistic? How would you describe Sigh’s music?
Basically it’s not easy to describe music with words, also it is the fans to decide how to define our music. Our music definitely has something more than just black metal and I really am not sure if we’re avant-garde, but if still “avant-garde black metal” is the closest to describe our music than any other terms, it’s all right with us.
I see your influences include the usual suspects like Celtic Frost, Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and most especially Venom. However it’s your non-metal influences that interest me. Can you explain a little about how such completely different bands like The Beatles and Queen and Charlie Parker have shaped your musical vision and direction?
I’m a music lover. I listen to any kind of music as long as it sounds good to me. And I personally think all the genres are basically the same, namely a few cool originators and lots of worthless imitators. So I’ve been trying to listen to those cool artistes rather than rejecting any particular music categories. As a musician, it is good to have lots of colors on my palette. Mixing lots of genres is not our purpose at all, but we always choose the best way to express the feelings. It’s all spontaneous.
What would you say to people who see Sigh as a Mirai Kawashima band?
Well, they’re absolutely right! I trust the other members and they trust me as a leader. That’s how Sigh works.
What was it like starting out as a black metal band in Japan back in the early 90s? Was it difficult to get gigs, record deals? How did your demo manage to find its way to Euronymous and Deathlike Silence Productions, and do you see that as the event that ‘made’ Sigh and brought you to the attention of many? Also, how do you feel about being one of the very first black metal bands from Asia to crack Europe, and be one of the flag-carriers for the Asian metal scene?
It was not difficult to get gigs back then as we had the bands like Abigail etc., so we could organize gigs together. We sent out our demos to many labels, but Euronymous was the only person who was interested in the thrash-influenced band from the Far East when almost everybody was enthusiastic about Floridan death metal. Yes, definitely being on DSP was something special. It sure drew more attentions than being on other labels. We don’t care about being the flag-carrier or not. We’re just ourselves.
How has your Japaneseness shown itself in your music? Eastern occultism is obviously a major part of your lyrical content as well, but would you ever consider doing an album completely in Japanese?
As far as music goes, we never tried to sound like Japanese on purpose. But definitely there would be some differences between the western people and us in capturing music mainly based on the language difference. Every Japanese letter has a vowel in it, and we stress intonation instead of accents unlike in English. Rock was born with English so it’s got a different sense of rhythm than a Japanese language, so it is not easy to do an album completely in Japanese that sounds cool.
Also most of our fan base is from abroad, so I don’t see any point in bothering to sing in Japanese. I, as a music fan, like to sing along to my favorite songs, and when they’re sung in a language that I don’t understand, I’m kind of disappointed!
You play some of the most eclectic music I’ve ever heard, with a whole array of different and completely ‘un-metal’ instruments (eg sax and slide guitar). I suppose you could say it’s part of your creative vision, but are you always on the lookout for different sounds that you can incorporate into your music? (I’m sitting here at the moment listening to ‘Scarlet Dream’ from IMAGINARY SONICSCAPE, and if I’m not mistaken there’s a little reggae section in the middle!) How do you feel about musicians who limit themselves to what their genre dictates? As a related but separate question, is there ANY form of music you DON’T like??
Sometimes I compose music for TV shows, video games etc., so I need to learn varied forms of music. So I have lots of colors on my musical palette. But as far as Sigh goes, I never intend to make it musically varied or weird. I always choose the best way to express the feeling. Sometimes it could be heavy guitars while sometimes it could be a classical piano solo. And as a result, sometimes the song has lots of different elements. It’s just a result, not a purpose.
It’s all right if some musicians limit themselves to their genre. The albums like REIGN IN BLOOD by Slayer sounds the same from the beginning to the end, but it is an excellent album. I don’t hate any form of music. At least it does not depend on the genre. I even hate some thrash metal bands. I hate some classical compositions too.
Who would you most like to tour with?
Hmmm, it’d be cool to tour with my idols from the 80s such as Venom, Mercyful Fate, etc.
I see on your Myspace page that horror movies are your favourites. I think Asian horror films (the Old Boy trilogy for example, or The Ring) are miles more disturbing than European or American horror movies. How would you compare Japanese/Asian horror films to Western horror?
Well, I personally feel that the Japanese horror movies of today are kind of over-hyped. The Ring was pretty good, but the ending was stupid. Ju-ons are not bad but not great either. I prefer Italian classic horror movies a lot more.
What is strange is a censorship here. You can’t show genitals even on porn movies in Japan, but there’s no censorship on violence, that’s why there are lots of violent horror movies here.
Where do you see Sigh going? It’s been 17 years since you last started out as a high school band in Tokyo, do you think you will have the drive to keep this band going and continue to make the groundbreaking music that your fans have come to expect? When would you finally know that “Sigh is over” and that it’s not worth continuing any longer?
I guess it’ll be pretty much spontaneous. I won’t say “Sigh is over” at some point, but probably we’ll be losing motivation and creativity as we get older, and gradually the pace is slowing down. Or maybe if we come to the point that we can’t find any label that wants to release our album, that’ll be the time to put Sigh to an end.
Are there any plans for Necrophagia at all? The official website states that you’re still playing keyboards for them, whereas another site claims that you’ve left the band or are no longer participating. Can you give us an answer on that as well?
I’ve been out for a year now. I just can’t stretch myself thinner as Sigh wasn’t productive enough when I was involved in Necrophagia, which is not good at all.
Here are some really personal questions, you don’t have to answer if you don’t feel comfortable with them. What are your personal religious beliefs, if any? Black metal has always been linked with Satanism, anti-christianity, and pagan beliefs, but Sigh’s music has never overtly had a Satanic message.
I am agnostic. Living in Japan should be quite different in the US / Europe as most of us never believe in Jesus Christ. And it is true that Satanism always has more or less an anti-Christ view, there’s no point in being a Satanist here in Japan where pious Christians are kind of taken as weirdos. I don’t know if Gods exist or not. They might do, but anyway we can’t perceive them!
Are you a very politically aware person? Do you have any social/political issues that you feel strongly about?
I call myself de-political. I feel there’s no difference between democracy and communism. Most of the people are strictly controlled and brainwashed by the government, but unfortunately I really don’t see any way to change the world.
I read on your website that you still hold a day job. Tell us a bit more about the job, and does this conflict at all with your music?
Yes, I still have a day job. Of course it’s really boring, but it is also good that I can do anything as I like musically, as I’m not living on it. If I did, I’d have to care about the sales etc. Obviously it’d be cool if I could live on music by making music as I like, but it’s tough, you know.
You, Shinichi and Satoshi have been together for quite a long time, Satoshi since the very beginning. How do you guys get along so well? What are their personalities like, how in tune are you guys with each other that you can keep going together for 15/17 years?
I don’t know, we’ve been getting along very well from the beginning. We used to hang out a lot when we started the band, but now we don’t see each other much privately, probably it’s good as if we meet too often, we could get sick of each other very easily.
Tell us a bit more about Junichi, what’s he like as a person and as a creative input in the band. Obviously being a four-piece allows you to expand and do more, especially live. How well did he fit in in the beginning?
I think he’s the best extreme metal drummer here. I leave all the drum parts up to him. He fit in the band from the very beginning.
How did Mikannibal get recruited into the band? Sax players in metal are almost unheard of! Will she be a permanent member, or only as a touring musician?
At first I met her through one of our friends and she modeled for HANGMAN’S HYMN’S artwork. Then she told me that she was in a band too and gave me a CD. To be honest, I was not expecting much, but after giving it a listen, I was totally blown away. Then I saw her on stage and came to the conclusion that she was the one I was looking for. She can sing, growl and scream. She speaks English. And she plays the saxophone. Moreover, she looks good! Yes, definitely she’ll be a permanent member. She’ll take care of lots of vocals too.
Well, sax may be a bit unusual for metal bands, but it is a 100% basic instrument for rock music.
What are jam/writing sessions like with you guys?
We don’t jam sessions to write songs at all. Usually I write riffs and give them to Shinichi to expand them, or he writes riffs and I arrange them. We never go into the studio to write the songs. Of course we change some parts during the rehearsals, but basically all the songs are written before we go into the studio to rehearse them.
Obviously you have had tons of shit with record labels in the past, Cacophonous Records especially and even with Century Media. How do you feel about The End Records so far, how supportive are they of you, creatively, financially and in promotion? (As a side note, the production on the new album is fantastic! I’m guessing you weren’t under any pressure by the label to finish it on a deadline?)
Craphonous Records were terrible and still they claim the rights to the album and are pestering us. We had no problem with Century Media Records. They were just very strict about business but they do it very well. I have no hard feelings about them at all.
The End Records are very supportive. GALLOWS GALLERY was mastered by an amateur guy who does mastering as his hobby, to cut cost, so it sounded horrible, but this time, The End introduced us to James Murphy to master the album properly. Also we used the same studio where we recorded GALLOWS GALLERY, so they knew how to handle our sound better this time.
Lastly, some stupid random questions that are completely non-serious!
What are your thoughts on: credit cards, tomato sauce and losing car keys?
Credit cards: Well, I use them but I can live without them too.
Tomato sauce: Not my fave.
Losing car keys: I have never ever lost any keys in my life!!
Why is your official website named gospel-virus?
I don’t know! It was taken by the moderator, not us.
Corpse paint: Good, bad, ugly?
It’s good. It fits musical styles like black metal, it’s the same as long hair and leather jackets which are the symbols for heavy metal. Nothing to be slagged off.
If you could re-record ONE album in the world, any album at all, which would it be and why?
I want to re-record early Sigh albums with the new members and the new technology, but I have no will to re-record other artistes’ works at all.
What do you do in your spare time?
I always do something to do with music if I have some time like writing songs, reading books on music, practising instruments etc.
Thanks for your time, Mirai, best of luck for the new album and Sigh!
HANGMAN’S HYMN will be out on June 12th, 2007 on The End Records. Thanks to Adrian Bromley at The End Records for setting up this interview.