Interview: Taka Goto (Mono)
Mono have never been afraid to aim big. For the last 15 years the Japanese instrumental act have records that alternate between delicate melancholy and thunderously loud catharsis. Their newest record, Requiem For Hell is a reminder that post rock used to have more in common with noise rock than the Levi’s commercial brand of sentimentality that it gets associated with today. Their music is still gorgeous and dramatic, but they’ve aren’t afraid of making it ugly when it fits the occasion.
The stakes feel higher on this record than Mono’s last few, possibly because it reunites them with Steve Albini. Albini’s hands-off approach is a significantly better fit for the band than more involved production. Mono have such an innately expressive sense of melody, and the lack of bells and whistles makes it easy to hear the nuances of their tone and performance.
When I spoke to Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Mono’s guitarist, he had more on his mind than simply making aesthetically pleasing music for the sake of it. When discussing the influences on Requiem For Hell he brought up heavy hitters like Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and Stravinsky’s “Rite Of Spring.” Over email, Taka talked about the story the album was meant to evoke, as well as its more aggressive sound, and the band’s creative relationship with Steve Albini.
Requiem For Hell is Mono’s 9th album. What motivates you to keep creating music this far into your career?
Composing is my day-to-day activity, and it comes naturally. In previous times there were some struggles to make things perfect, but this time around my mind was more free and relaxed, so when I finished composing the songs I didn't think too much about using them or not using them.
When I had most of the new songs ready, I stumbled upon "Divine Comedy". After reading the book, it felt like all the roads opened up suddenly. All the pieces suddenly came together like a jigsaw puzzle and created one world. I was also fascinated by the story—going through afterlife; hell, purgatory, and heaven—and I felt very empathetic towards the theme of soul's salvation. On top of it all, I ended up really liking how the story was in fact, a grand poetry written for love towards one woman.
For the album cover, we used Gustave Doré's illustration from "Divine Comedy"'s last scene. At the end of the album, I want the listeners to wonder and feel what awaits at the end of pure white vortex for the two characters.
Has there been a change in the way that your music is received as time has gone on?
For this album, I didn't think about what I must do, should do, or anything like that at all. I just kept on writing following the flood of inspirations in my head, and wrote down every single melody, rhythm and sound I was hearing in my head. At the same, I started to feel as everything was already existing deep inside my heart. With melodies coming over my head, it was a series of really pleasant experience of my emotions getting released from inside. Even during travelling the world, in cars or hotels, I kept getting the same feeling.
Why did you decide to work with Steve Albini again on this record?
For this album, I really wanted to leave the sound as a band, as a group who had been together for 17 years. I was picturing something simple and organic, with no unnecessary elements, and leave the burning chemistry between the four of us as our 9th album. From those feelings, I started to want to record with Steve Albini once again. The last time we recorded with him was in 2007, for Hymn To The Immortal Wind.
The recording session started in March this year, at Electrical Audio in Chicago, which is Steve's studio. Like all the other times, we did a live recording of us four. Traditional ways of recording may be the most difficult ways, but if everything goes as planned we will be able to leave a miracle-like take, hence we always chose to do it this way. We always use analog tapes for recordings as well, so we will be able to leave every single screaming of our souls that you can't simply fit in digital formats. Steve Albini is a magician when it comes to analog tapes. With no doubt, he captures everything perfectly from our air shaking sounds as a band, to our emotions, feelings, and even our wordless communications between us during the performance. We think he's truly the best engineer there is for this.
Even though it has been a long time, I was reminded that he's the best understanding person for Mono's music once again.
For mastering, we got Bob Weston to do it, who [the bassist in] Steve's band Shellac. This time, we also had the privilege of sharing Shellac's Japan tour, which was their first time in 22 years, and also their North American tour straight after. We felt extremely honored to be able to spend time with our longtime indie heroes and also be able to create a new album with them.
Your live shows are known for being very intense and Steve Albini is famous for recording bands with minimal overdubs. Do you write music with live performance in mind, or is the recording your main focus?
That may be right. I think I wrote a lot of the songs imagining our live performances. Actually, we tested and performed a lot of the new songs prior to the recording on tour.
Did those live tests change the songs in any way?
The actual song arrangement or the song structure didn't change vastly, but the small things like dynamics, ensembles and tones did. We talked about this almost every night during the tour, and we played with a different approach in every show. When we record in the studio, we always record in one take with four of us, like in our live shows, so I think this allowed us to do even more delicate and aggressive takes for the album.
It’s been 10 years since you released You Are There and Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain. How has your view on those records changed over time?
Right now, I'm constantly repeating destruction and construction between things that should continue to change and will not change. We just had our 17th year anniversary. Instead of getting softer as we get older, we feel as we should get more violent.
What does hell represent to you?
That would be a loveless world in this material world.
I personally live my life every day thinking "we only have limited times in our lives". Things you can only take to your afterlife are beloved, positive memories; not your rank or honour. I think this really is the true wealth that will forever stay with you, give you strength and continue to shine your path.
I’ve always loved songs like ‘Stella’ that barely feature any guitar. What is the band’s process like for arranging songs like this?
"Divine Comedy" is a 3 part story. Dante himself goes down to hell alive (where people who have committed eternally unforgivable sins gather), then to purgatory (the place where people go to before heaven after atonement of their sins), then he goes back to earth through heaven (where people who have been blessed go). Each story's final song's distal segment is joined by the word, "Stella" (star). In the story, whenever Dante gets lost, he uses Stella (star) as a base and keeps moving forward.
The 2nd song "Stella" is written imagining soft ephemeral strings and glockenspiel, like hopeful stars in a silent night sky, and piano like ticking time. Cello was recorded by Alison Chesley (Helen Money). She's been a good friend of ours since 2003 and has played in numerous Mono albums. I feel as her cello is like Jacqueline du Pré's. I pictured her beautiful, yet sad like deep night sounds and wrote this song.
There’s a moment in the title track that’s probably the most dissonant piece of music in your career. What was the intention behind this section?
This album title song is an 18-minute long lyrical poetry.
It's a 3-part song. A man starts his adventure seeking light and walks through the field strongly while holding onto something faintly, but when he thought everything was going according to the plan, all of a sudden, he loses hope, like the moon getting covered by the night's fog. The middle part is an absolute darkness and solitude. His small glimpse of hope fades, and even the hands that were holding him together disappear like fingers going through your body. Then in the last half, through despair, fear, and confusion, he continues to just scream and runs through this hell-like nightmare.
For the first half of the song, we used simple 8 beats, which was the first time to ever use since we formed Mono. I was picturing a man lifting his arms to the heaven, dreaming of hope. We tried using trombone for the first time as well. It's a fanfare of joy, like dancing your heart out believing everything is going to work out, everything is definitely going to work out.
But when the hopeful fanfare once disappears, it turns into a fanfare that sounds like opening the gate to hell. At the same time, uncertain dissonance and echoing noise starts like Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" in the last half. It's a saga of extremely cruel humanity's greed, like two egos crashing each other, like they will never go together. An endless darkness which even screams get drowned out. I was picturing a man who's trying to escape this hell, with feelings of never wanting to rust away and give up, and just go forth. I was picturing something like this while writing this song.
How would you like listeners to interpret your music?
I believe amazing music is something that lets you feel something you have never felt before, or gives you the power to see different perspectives in life. I think they can be as equivalent as philosophy, and should be able to exceed languages, religion, countries and cultures.
We can only express the way we can, but we receive a lot of messages from our fans saying that they were saved by Mono's music, they could overcome their painful times, and those moments make us truly feel that we're glad we could help someone in some way, from the bottom of our hearts.