Formed in Tokyo in 1999 by guitarist Takaakira Goto, instrumental rock band Mono released their debut album ‘Under The Pipal Tree’ in 2001.
Although the band had always used classical instruments in their music, it was on their 2006 collaboration with World’s End Girlfriend, aka Japanese multi-instrumentalist Katsuhiko Maeda, that they began to embrace classical music more. Three years after this they returned with ‘Hymn To The Immortal Wind’, which saw them performing with a 27 piece orchestra.
In September this year the band released their sixth studio album ‘For My Parents’. Having worked with Steve Albini on their most recent long players, this one was recorded with producer Henry Hirsch, who set them up in a converted cathedral overlooking the Hudson River. The resulting album saw the band further blur the line between post-rock and classical music.
The band kick off a tour of the British Isles this Friday with a performance at the Shellac-curated ATP Nightmare Before Christmas event and winding up at London’s Village Underground on 8 Dec. Ahead of that CMU’s Andy Malt spoke to Taka Goto about the album and the work that went into making it.
AM: There were three years between ‘Hymn To The Immortal Wind’ and ‘For My Parents’. When did you start working on the new album?
TG: I started writing songs between the tours for ‘Hymn To The Immortal Wind’, but it became difficult to stop and start all the time, so we took an extended break from touring and I spent a solitary time back home in Tokyo writing.
Sometimes we go into an album knowing exactly what it is that we want to do, but for this album, while we had a sense of the kind of melody and emotion we wanted to create, it took longer to shape our vision. I found myself asking if I’d been truthful enough, if the music was actually close to the way I heard it inside my head. I imagine it’s like this when any writer composes a piece of poetry or a story.
I had all these pieces floating around and wanted to understand the emotion behind them. I hoped the first song (‘Legend’) would eventually begin to write itself and take a life of its own. It was a way of learning how to think less and feel more. To conclude, making this album challenged us, but in a positive way! It was an unforgettable experience.
AM: What are the themes addressed on this album? Who are the parents alluded to in the title?
TG: We try to leave enough room for our listeners to interpret the music however they choose. But the story behind ‘For My Parents’ came from the understanding that we all eventually lose the ones that made us. It’s the way of nature. How do you stand by the one that created you? How do you stand next to your home, the place that created you? For this album, we went back to our roots. It’s something that we wanted to do while we still had the chance.
AM: You worked with producer Henry Hirsch on ‘For My Parents’. Why did you choose him and what did he bring to the process?
TG: We developed a great respect for and trust with Steve Albini over the years, but we thought it was important for us to try something unfamiliar, to get out of our comfort zone. So this time we recorded with Henry Hirsch in his gorgeous studio and we are happy with what the album became. Henry has a lot of experience with rare, vintage tape machines and speakers, and we were very curious about this kind of recording process, though eventually we realised that these didn’t work with our songs. Nevertheless, it was a pleasure to work with Henry and his team.
AM: How did recording in a cathedral compare to being in a studio?
TG: There was such a rich inspiration, history, and spiritual energy in the cathedral that it was impossible not to soak it in. Recording in a studio is something we’re used to, but recording in a cathedral became one of our most memorable experiences. There was definitely something special about playing our new songs there.
AM: The orchestral parts of your music are obviously key to the finished recordings, but as a band you have a typical ‘rock’ set up. When you’re writing your music, at what point do the orchestral instruments come in? Do you always have the orchestral parts in mind throughout the process?
TG: Yes, I usually have the orchestral instruments in mind when I first imagine a song. Then, once we’ve fleshed out a track with our instruments, we weave in the classical elements. Though I have to be conscious, as I write the classical scores, that we will still have to play the songs live as just a band, without any orchestral accompaniment.
AM: Particularly since ‘Palmless Prayer/Mass Murder Refrain’, your music has seemed more classical than rock (or at least a more balanced combination of the two). Is that a direction you were always interested in going?
TG: I think it was a natural evolution for us. The classical sound was always something we wanted to explore, so we just kind of dove into it. But in our early albums we only experimented with classical strings on certain songs; we weren’t really ready to compose larger scores until ‘Hymn To The Immortal Wind’. By then I had spent more time learning orchestration.
I think classical music was just part of our childhoods in Japan, which is why it appealed to us. There were always pianos and classical records at home, and some of that influence has surfaced in our songwriting. But each album has been a new chapter, so I cannot say for certain whether or not we’ll always make the music of a modern symphony. I think our sound will continue to evolve as we are inspired by different stories and emotions.
AM: There are marked differences between Japanese and European classical composition – both of which are apparent in your writing. Is that a conscious combination?
TG: Not really. We are definitely inspired by both European and Japanese classical music, but we unconsciously combine the two while writing.
AM: The number of orchestral instruments has increased with each of your albums. Do you ever see yourself performing with a full orchestra? How would that affect the dynamics of your music?
TG: At this point, I would say that it’s too early to tell. We are actually still just as interested in the rawer, rougher sounds of songs like ‘Com’ and ‘Kidnapper Bell’. But the possibilities are endless. The classical sound was right for this particular album, but I can’t say where we’ll go in the future.
AM: Your music is very cinematic, is scoring films something you hope to do?
TG: Yes, we hope to collaborate with filmmakers who share a similar vision as us. We enjoy films that are poetic, epic, but still somehow subtle. A film with powerful storytelling would be amazing to contribute to.
AM: You start a UK tour at the end of this month with a performance at the ATP festival. For people who haven’t seen you play live before, what can they expect from your shows?
TG: I hope the show creates a frequency of reaching for joy through a moment of darkness. It may trigger a dream you had, something you regret, a moment of sadness that you overcame, or something spiritual that cannot be explained. For me, instrumental music creates the energy that helps me confront these emotions.
AM: How important is live performance to you as a band?
TG: Even though long tours can be a bit difficult, our live show is very important to us. There is an exchange of energies in the room that just cannot be replicated on a recorded album. Perhaps it’s a combination of the volume, crowd, and being present in the moment, but all I know is that we feel a rush of euphoria during our shows. This is why we love to play live.