Yamantaka // Sonic Titan played eBar (Guelph) on Jan. 17, 2013.
From singling themselves out as an “Asian, Indigenous, and Diasporic Art Collective” to inventing “Noh-Wave” (a pun on Nôh theatre and the stripped down, experimental No Wave scene of mid-’70s New York City) as a genre category to invoke when describing its style, Montreal and Toronto-based Yamantaka // Sonic Titan (YT//ST) like to have things on their own terms. The group’s been making waves since it landed a spot on the shortlist for the 2012 Polaris Music Prize, so when they came to Guelph Jan. 17, I had to get an interview straight from the source.
Tracking down YT//ST directors Alaska B. and Ruby Kato Attwood just before their performance at eBar (for the review, click here), I spoke with the group about its confrontation of the indie scene’s standards of authenticity, a video game the collective currently has in the works, their lack of enthusiasm for Wellington Trailhead, and their tongue-in-cheek affinity for “cerebral cougars.”
Tom Beedham: Welcome to Guelph!
Alaska B.: [Contemplating a bottle of Wellington Trailhead] This isn’t very good.
Ruby Kato Attwood: (Laughs)
TB: No, I’d drink the SPA instead.
AB: This is what they gave me when I gave them a ticket. It’s better than [Molson] Ex…
TB: Fair enough. Did you just get into the city? or did you have some time to explore?
AB: No, we just got in. Never been here before.
TB: Oh. Well, it’s a nice city. A little too much snow for my liking right now, but we get good music. I was talking to Ruby just before we sat down… you guys started sort of touring around Ontario last weekend, but you took the week off so you could work. Any memorable stories from the road so far?
RKA: People were crowd surfing in Ottawa. That was pretty cool.
AB: Security didn’t like that.
TB: No? Is that unusual for you? Crowd surfing at a YT//ST show?
AB: Um… I find that some people don’t understand what kind of band we are, so they get kind of confused. They’re like, “Am I supposed to? Am I not supposed to?”
I like it when people do, because it shows that they get that we are kind of like metal heads and punks under it all. Junior High never dies!
RKA: At the same time, though, there were some of our more sensitive fans getting squished. I felt bad for them.
AB: Nah, it builds character.
TB: It’s true. You learn a lot of lessons in the pit.
RKA: Yeah. Umm… there’s no more stories I can think of.
AB: Uhh… I met the parents of half of the band Boyhood. They were very nice.
TB: You just called yourselves a band, which is interesting because anywhere that I’ve read about you guys, you’re identified as an art collective.
AB: We switch with little-to-no notice.
TB: Besides obvious differences such as your performance work, why do you operate under that label rather than identifying yourselves as a band?
AB: ‘Cause we do more than what a band – in their right mind – would do. If we were just a band, we’d make more money and life would be easier, but then we wouldn’t be doing it for the glory. So… you get more babes when you’re a collective than when you’re a band.
RKA: Yeah. That’s the main reason.
AB: Cerebral babes.
O: Cerebral babes?
AB: Less cougars, more cerebral babes. Or cerebral cougars.
RKA: Cerebral cougars, best-case scenario.
AB: Smart, older women.
TB: So why has it been so important for you guys to take such a multi-media approach to this band, cerebral babes and cougars aside?
AB: Well, we started that way. We started as a performance art kind of entity.
RKA: And we were also in a band, but it wasn’t the same project.
AB: Yeah, we were in another band called Lesbian Fight Club.
AB: We have an EP online somewhere still.
TB: I haven’t heard it! I was looking for it – couldn’t track it down.
AB: It’s on MySpace I think.
RKA: Yeah it’s still on MySpace.
TB: Oh, MySpace. Okay. I just see MySpace links and I assume it’s dead.
AB: Oh yeah, it’s from a long time ago. You know, I think we should re-release it.
RKA: Yeah. That would be cool.
AB: Yeah it’d be cool! People would hear it and they’d be like “Oh…you guys totally foresaw this dubstep kind of hippy noise thing.” It’s really dancehall-influenced noise music from around the mid-2000s.
RKA: But then we did just performance/underground/weird stuff for a long time and then we made the record.
TB: There’s been a lot of talk of the cultural aesthetics that you guys appropriate within your project.
AB: Mal-appropriate. We mal-appropriate. [Ruby laughs.] It’s like a malapropism. It’s like where you quote something and you quote it wrong.
TB: As a group that describes itself on its website as an “Asian, Indigenous and Diasporic Art Collective,” has there been any concern with exoticising yourselves or the cultures that you say you mal-appropriate?
AB: Yeah! I think that’s the question. I think that’s literally a bullshit catch-22. It’s this game of like…you police expression and then you selectively grant – based on your political opinion – what is appropriate, authentic, or real. And I think that’s a trap that you fall into automatically, based on your ethnic background, cultural appearance, et cetera. And that’s something you can’t escape from.
If you’re a band from Japan and you play very Western music and there’s really nothing specifically Japanese about it, people will still call you a Japanese band from Japan. And what I find funny is how whenever we played without saying who we were, people say it anyways. And so, it was like, ah, we’ll just say what it is and that means that we can have the conversation on our terms.
When it comes to authenticity and appropriation and exotification, I think that…to exotify means that you have to distance yourself from what you’re doing. We’re not distancing ourselves at all. I feel like what we do comes from…you know, I don’t think what we do is any more offensive, culturally, than punk rock is offensive in a class sense. How wearing the signifiers of a lower class is considered somehow revolutionary no matter who you are, while to knowingly don cartoon kind of costumes of your ethnic identity is somehow offensive. It kind of puts us in a position of like, you better dress traditional like it’s 1850, or you better dress like a white boy. Otherwise you get no space in between or you’re somehow gonna be racist.
I find it funny that we have to have this conversation while bands like Indian Jewellery, Indian Handcrafts—
TB: Neon Indian…
AB: Neon Indian! Gang Gang Dance… there’s so many bands that just kind of get away with whatever. And they just say it, they do it, they appropriate, and ’cause they never ’fess up to it, people can dodge the conversation; we are insisting on having the conversation, because by critiquing us, you’re inadvertently critiquing the entire indie scene.
TB: Very cool. I like you a lot.
RKA: [Giggles.] It’s a little trick.
TB: Besides all of the Eastern cultural aesthetics, where else do you get your inspiration? You mentioned punk and metal.
AB: We live in an area post-boundary. When we were in high school in the ’90s, you needed to wear the uniform of the kind of music you listened to and it had to be the version from the specific year, or you had to be super old school, date someone in their 20s, and dress like it was 10 years prior. And then you had to talk about how you saw this band when you were 12 or whatever.
Nowadays it’s so much more… everything is worn and discarded – like an outfit. So it’s like right now this band represents what I’m feeling but tomorrow I’m gonna put something else on my Tumblr that’s nothing to do with that. Because we’re actually very nuanced, complicated human beings, not genre archetypes. And I think that because we live in that kind of age, and the same way that we look at culture as nothing sacred, that would go for all cultural expressions.
There’s kind of ’scuring and lampooning of many things that we definitely have our specific focuses [on].
I think people are… they hear a lot of words and then they immediately start assuming a lot of stuff, and then for us it’s like, “No, no assumptions.”
I hate when people hear [our music] and they’re like, “Well where’s the Peking opera influence?” It’s like, what the fuck do you know? When’s the last time you saw Peking opera and could tell what influenced me? Like, I’ve actually seen it performed. In China. “Tell me when you did that.” When I did that, it inspired certain elements of rhythm and performance that…you don’t get? Too bad – it’s not my problem you don’t get it. You know? And it’s like trying to find these signifiers…just ’cause you put a name, doesn’t make it… your interpretation of what that means may not be what we mean when we say it.
TB: Of course.
AB: If someone were to say, “Oh that’s proggy,” what does that mean? It’s got synthesizers? Or is it that it’s got all kinds of motivic composition? or weird time signatures? What does that mean?
People wanna gatekeep and we’re just kind of more interested in kind of… You know, you point in a billion directions at once and they’re too busy looking, and by the time they look back you’ve already stolen everything.
TB: That’s a very cool way to put it. Now, this is switching gears, but let’s talk about this video game you’re putting together. I was reading about this today. It comes out this weekend – is that correct?
AB: No… that’s the confusion. Okay. The weekend is actually… We have a closed group of people who have signed up for our mailing list. So people can sign up for the mailing list and then we have these audience engagement events. The one this Saturday is a private event for a small number of people but – kind of shout outs for whoever signed up – we’re currently full. And what we do is we do series of interviews and presentations of work-in-progress.
Making a video game isn’t something you just fart out in a weekend. It’s a very long, drawn out process.
We’re in the early design phase, so Saturday will be the first time we engage with anybody from the public and start talking about what we’re making and basically canvassing our fans and people’s interest in games so as to see what they want to see out of it or what kind of systems they prefer so that we can make the best educated decision on how to move forward with creating a game for our fans and for people who haven’t discovered us yet.
TB: What’s the vision for the game, so far (if there is one)?
AB: It’s kind of like a side-scrolling shooter that’s designed to be for PC, mobile, and possibly… You have to get special approval for anything Xbox, PS3, or Wii. And it’ll be partially high speed arcade shoot ’em up kind of like a Contra or Metal Slug mixed with more of a side-scrolling shooter like Gradius-style sections that are set to music so that the enemies as well as reactions to the environment are responsive to the music that plays.
It’s like a full-on little rock opera with a narrative that you play through.
TB: Aside from being a sort of rock opera that features your music, how else does the game fit in with everything you’ve done as a collective? How did you arrive at the idea for the game?
AB: Well, we’ve been doing a lot of new media since the beginning of [YT//ST]. We have our own lighting system – which is actually down tonight; it needs to be repaired, cared for – and we’ve worked with robotics right from our first performances, on-and-off.
I have an animation degree, and the other collaborative member, Aylwin Lo, is a programmer, so he’s working on the game, mostly in time with me.
It just seemed like a logical next step. I think that the visual art, jumping to music, back to visual art is a much bigger jump than from any of those media to a video game. I think a video game is one of the only forms of media that incorporate not only audience interaction, but also sound, time, visual, and animation, all into one package. So instead of trying to make a theatre event that people have to show up to, or having to tour to all these different places, we decided it’d be best to make something like a game where people can actually engage and play it over and over again.
And I think we’ll also be the first band to make their own video game. There are bands that’ve had video games based on their franchise, where they order them like an advergame – like theSkrillex Quest. The difference is, is that as far as I know, none of them actually took the time to sit around and fart out code. So we’ll be probably the first band to ever make our own video game from start to finish.
TB: Who from the collective is doing what specifically with the game?
AB: I’m lead animator and designer.
The rest of the band are on as consultants. So they work on certain sections. There’ll be a lot more [information] once we enter the full-on process.
We’ll probably be hiring animators and so on. There’s just no way you can finish a game in a reasonable amount of time [with YT//ST’s personnel]. So when we enter full production we’ll probably be hiring people out or working in time with another studio; at this time we’re just making a demo.
RKA: And the art and all the designs and everything are coming out of our sketchbooks.
TB: Not that a video game isn’t ambitious enough, but what comes next after that? Can we expect a follow-up to your debut?
RKA: Well we’re also recording our second record.
AB: Yeah! We start recording in the next couple months. I don’t know what the timing’s gonna be… In the next year or two. We hope to have a record out by the end of the year, and the video game’s aimed for early next year. It’s a long process.
RKA: We have some performances coming up, but we can’t announce them yet. So just touring and our record and—
AB: Binge drinking.
RKA: Binge drinking, thrill seeking… the cerebral babes take up a lot of time. I’ll tell you that much. A lot of talking.
AB: Cerebral babes smoke a lot of weed.
RKA: They smoke so much weed. [Laughs]
TB: Wrapping up, can we expect to hear any of the new material tonight?
RKA and AB, in unison: Yes!
TB: Awesome. Thanks for your time. Looking forward to the show!
(Originally published by The Ontarion on Jan. 23, 2013)