MOTHER discuss' performance, witchcraft & apparition with anarchic Berlin-based synth duo: GROUP A. Spawned in Tokyo's underground scene pre-2012 TOMMI TOKYO & SAyAkA BOTANIC's climactic shows blend performance with live music; violin, synthesizer & cassette tape, invoking ineffable experiences unique to each whom witness them.
Interview by Natalie Wardle & Melanie Khorshidian
Photography by Kiril Bikov
How would you describe your unique sound?
Tommi: If I tried to describe the sounds, I think it was very experimental and noisy when we started in 2012, by the time we released our first album “A” at the end of the year it had got drum machine sounds in it and become more like experimental minimal synth in a way. The second album that we released the following year was heavily inspired by Shinto, nature worship, Japanese traditional rituals and ceremonies. I find it difficult to put this album into any genres actually. And, our third album often seems to get described as experimental industrial. This year our sounds have become more like industrial and a bit electro maybe. I don’t know if everyone agrees to how I described, but genre really doesn’t matter to us. It’s the music of our soul, it’s our brains and it’s our blood.
Sayaka: The repetition of construction and deconstruction. I always be conscious of the word-deconstruction when I create something as groupA. Something harmonised is beautiful but I’d rather prefer to have doubts to it and be challenging.
What made you want to form a group together, are your backgrounds similar?
T: I was looking for someone who had never been in a band before and could not play instruments to break the fixed ideas of music. The previous band I formed had naturally disbanded after a member moved out of town and I was becoming a bit bored of the whole underground post punk revival scene in Tokyo. They all sounded same to me, used instruments and performed on stage like everybody else. It wasn’t fun for me. I wanted to seek for my own way of doing it and I believed the way to do it was to find someone who had no clue about making music and had different tastes in music and art, so that we could start from zero without any stereotype ideas. When I met Sayaka and her friend (we were three-piece at the beginning) I thought they were perfect, so I asked them to go into the studio with me the night we met.
S: Envy towards boys in the bands, we wanted to have cheerfully-irresponsible-fun that those boys were having, play music and hang out with friends. With no anxiety for present or future. Each other’s backgrounds are different but we shared the same feeling at the time.
What were your influences when growing up?
T: My family I guess. My mother was always working with her sewing machine, my paternal grandmother was making Tsumamie (one of the Japanese traditional handcrafts), my maternal grandmother was a Nihon buyo (Japanese traditional dance) dancer, my father used to take me and my sister to the mountains and rivers near our house and teach us the basic knowledge you can learn from the nature. My whole family loved making stuff. My DIY spirit comes from them and it’s a big part of me.
S: Modern literature from Germany, Russia and Japan, conversations with grandparents, 60/70s Japanese underground films, classical music as well as, on the contrary, noise and other underground music, krautrock, etcetera etcetera.
Were female musicians who incorporate performance art into their work such as Björk, Cosey Fanny Tutti and Lydia Lunch a reference point?
T: I can’t remember what exactly inspired us at the beginning, but definitely not other performing artists. I’ve never been interested in performing arts that much. We started all those things we used to do on stage (half nude live painting/spraying on our bodies for example) because we started playing in front of audience before we were even able to play our instruments. It wasn’t about music at the beginning. We didn’t have songs either. It was just our own way of performing. We didn’t think too much. We never used to call it performing art either. That being said, I am a big fan of Cosey. And the way No Wave musicians experimented the sounds and art definitely inspired me to form a band with non-musician friends.
S: Not really to me. Of course there are lots of female musicians who I have been influenced by, but I do not want to bring up genders on that. No matter what genders are, amazing performances are impressive and inspirational. Wouldn’t get influenced by anything anyone you won’t be able to respect.
What do you think of performance artists such as Marina Abramovic? Why do you think performance has become a relevant part of the human experience for contemporary artists?
S: If the experience of artist’s personal experiences gives you room for fantasy/inspiration or any thoughts, I think that it is wonderful and meaningful as art. I’d rather believe that there is no art that doesn’t contain personal messages of artist’s own, other than the art which religiously inspired or political propaganda.
As now like now you can watch and listen to anything through internet and pretend to know everything from your bedroom, I appreciate the performance art that gives you the whole experience-take a train to the venue and share the space and the time flow in the space with others, feel the artist’s message directly and tell each other’s thoughts with friends on the way home.
Your shows are atmospheric and emotive; can you describe what feelings you're channelling and why?
T: When we were in Tokyo group A was the way to relieve boredom and express our anger towards Japanese politics and society full of lies. I have been feeling calmer since we moved to Berlin but I am still motivated and inspired to make music and perform by politics and the world situation more than listening to other people’s music or watching amazing shows or any other art related stuff. And I write songs based on these subjects that as soon as I start playing on stage my strong feelings come up and I never hesitate to let it go and control my body movements.
S: I express forth feelings which comes from deep inside myself on the stage. When we feel the inconsistencies on the scheme of society, we create music or we perform very honest and straight to the doubt or a sadness. I believe that it becomes a statement to people/society through our expression and I am happy if that becomes for someone the one of the triggers to think about something.
Would you define your aesthetic as macabre?
T: No at all, but we do work on theme like war and genocide that sometimes the outcome might be macabre. But when we deal with these subjects we don’t use disturbing imagery or straight words that would just give people fear, instead we use images or words or sounds that would remind people of the theme, and try to tell our message indirectly.
With references to the occult and an all encompassing rejection of mainstream aesthetics, GROUP A disobeys formal forms of communication, speaking in a language calling on all the senses. How would you describe your work? Are you comfortable with the ways in which your work is interpreted by others?
T: I like it when I see confusion in people after they watched our shows. Some people may find it hard to find the right word to describe it or explain their feelings but that’s a compliment to me in a way. I don’t deliberately try to make our sounds or performances difficult to comprehend because I don’t like it when art or music is too accessible, it’s probably just the results of ignoring common sense and trying to make it in our very own way.
S: As I mentioned earlier, I believe that giving a room of imagination and discussion to people is magnificence and the job of art and music, so I do not really care how our work is interpreted by others. If there are specific opinions and messages we really want to tell in songs and performances, we try to express in a way that concretely convey them.
Are you inspired by butoh performance art?
T: I have no clue about Butoh, people ask me all the time but I can clearly say that I have never been inspired by Butoh.
S: I am very influenced by the imaginative training of Butoh for example - erase yourself, erase your identity and make your body an empty object and become something completely different or something that doesn’t exist in the real world. The performance by Tatsumi Hijikana and Min Tanaka grabs my heart, how they move the body according to the spirit very honest rather than showing off the splendid techniques.
Is Genesis-P-Orridge an inspiration?
T: Genesis is one of my most favourite artists of all time, I’m not sure if he is an inspiration, he’s more like a god to me.
What is your relationship with the occult, witchcraft and ritual practice?
T: I was a graphic design student when I started group A and there was a Japanese cultural history lecture to understand the modern/contemporary design. It was a lot to do with Shinto and a worship of nature. It was inspiring me a lot that I naturally brought that in and blended with my other influences into our sounds and performances.
S: Where my inspiration comes from. If I were in Japan I’d frequently go visit a grave of my ancestors and try to talk with my family in the spirit world. I’d go participate in the chant ceremony of the temple and try to purify myself on a new year’s day. Not exactly talking about the occult or witchcraft, but the spiritual view that a spiritual being exists is commonly present in religions and folkways in Japan I think.
You’ve been associated with The Horrors; what is your connection to the band?
T: The Horrors were pretty much the first people I made friends with after I moved to London when I was 20. Post-punk revival and new rave scene was big that time, I was reading NME to check new bands and gigs every week and that’s how I discovered them. It was the early days of their career and was very, very exciting. They blew my mind when I went to see their gig for the first time and got obsessed afterwards and started going to every single gig they played in town. Soon after they asked me to model for the cover of their 2nd single “Death At The Chapel” and since then we hung out pretty much every weekend. I still remember how excited I was to be around them everyday, it was just the best time in my entire life. They gave me a bloody good musical education. I formed my first band with Rhys and Joe too.
What is it like living and working in Berlin?
T: As a musician, it’s great to live in Europe where we can concentrate more and live on what we are doing. There are much more demands for things we do here than in Japan where the scene is way smaller. But Berlin is where everyone is an artist. We were the minority in Japan but here we are the majority. It is a bit overwhelming to me sometimes. I need to find the right distance to the whole music scene.
S: Very easy and comfortable. People are helpful and appreciate music and art. The city is yet an open utopia for the people like us.
Please tell us about your upcoming release.
T: New 12” single is coming out from Berlin based Mannequin Records in October. All the three tracks were recorded a few months after we moved to Berlin last year in my first studio with a couple of drum machines, a synth, a plenty of effectors and a sampler we brought from Japan.