This article is part of The Avant-Guardian no. 8.
Group A is a Berlin based Japanese duo that has been travelling from Tokyo to London, back and then to Berlin. Throughout their 80ties inspired sound and dadaeske performances they are seeking for freedom. Having found it in a big German city, they are on the verge of struggling with the consequences of being a free mind, that seems hard to persue without the limititations full time jobs.
NL How long does group A exist? How did it started?
sayaka botanic (violin): Four years and half in total.
tommi tokyo (electronics): We started out just for fun. Originally it would be a one or two off thing. Luckily we know a lot of people who are involved in the Tokyo music scene, so somehow we kept on doing it and now we are here (laughs). Back then it hadn’t much to do about music, really. We just wanted to be a bit silly, for fun, take off our clothes and paint each other. We actually couldn’t really play any instrument. It was more a performance thing, in which we made noise, screaming and so… We started out as a trio, but in the beginning we already knew that she would go back to London. When she left, we still had some gigs, and realized that we haven’t anyone who did the vocals. Then it became something more musical, in which we started really playing. It didn’t really change the style, although it sounded more minimal back then.
SB We couldn’t play any instrument properly.
TT I couldn’t play any either! I brought my first ever tiny synthesizer, which I didn’t even know fuck about. We just played around with whatever we had. So it was natural to focus more on the sounds than on music.
NL Sayaka, did you played the violin before?
SB as a six year old girl, my mother put me in lessons, because she wanted me to be a classical violinist. But I hated it.
TT how many days did you actually go? Not just one day?
SB No, it was once a week, but I often skipped. I sometimes told I did go, but didn’t.
TT and your mom found out? They usually find out really easy, isn’t it?
SB Yeah. I knew how I have to hold it, but I can’t play proper songs.
NL The music reminds me of eighties industrial music. Are you actually influenced by that music, given the fact that you didn’t know in the beginning what or how to do it?
TT No, it wasn’t consciously. It had everything to do with my personal musical interests. My background is in post-punk bands. That’s what I’m still doing in one-way or another. It hasn’t bored me yet.
NL What about the performative aspect of your music?
SB We always want to create total experiences, in which sound, space and visuals come together. It’s taking people into this utopia we create.
NL How come you move to Berlin? It’s a pretty long way from Tokyo.
TT Last year we toured Europe twice. Actually, when my band split up, I wanted to make music again in order to go back to Europe. Even though we started it just for fun. We were in London, and when we came back, we got really bored by Tokyo. group A was a way to get back to Europe. Boybands are always touring around, and we thought we could do it as well. After the tours last years we thought it was the right moment, as we created some kind of base here.
SB Tokyo hasn’t got such a lively or exciting music scene.
TT The big thing is that you cannot make any money out of it. We were putting so much energy into it, which makes that it gradually needs more time, because you release more, you play more gigs, … If you then don’t make any money, you’d have to have time as well to do a dayjob. And it became a bit too much, you see.
NL Even though the Japanese noise scene is pretty big and well known, you cannot make money out of it?
TT That’s definitely one thing that makes Japanese music so interesting, because not so many people are actually professional musicians. In Europe and The States it seems to be otherwise, if people form a band, you get pretty easy signed on a record label. Japanese musicians all are for example salary men until 7 o’clock, and then they start making music. I quite like the idea of having a full time job and then creating being your side project. That you don’t have to think about money. That’s maybe why people create weird things.
SB When I was starting with Group A, I was working full time. After my job I just grabbed my violin to rush to the studio. Fridays we mostly had a show and then Monday I got back to the job.
TT Like two different lives.
SB yeah. The job caused a lot of stress that I could use in Group A’s music.
NL You decided to move to Berlin to become a full time musician. Has your attitude towards music changed, as you don’t have the stress dayjob from which you’d have escape through Group A? I suppose it’s a difficult question as you feel that the weird and good things come out of the fact that you don’t have to make money out of music?
TT Definitely. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or not. No we’re in the field that everyone is trying to get better, to get a better deal with labels. In a way it’s good to be in that world where everyone is making music. You have to push yourself to do it, but at the same time I’d have to control myself to not to think too much about that, because it stops to experiment. You start to think about your music in terms of selling, which I don’t like, I’d rather work in a café. Although it’s a lot of fun to be a full time artist.
NL It seems your music is about freedom. What is that for you?
SB For me group A is the place called Utopia, where I was free from stress. Group is my freedom yes. Even in Berlin, I’m all the time free. But I struggle a bit with this freedom now.
TT I always question myself why I’m doing this, and I still don’t know why… We always try to do something a bit different. I didn’t listen to experimental music before group A started, so there is no influence. So that’s maybe what makes it free?
We actually never exchange music. We do whatever we want in the studio, instead of talking how and what we should do. That ‘normal’ thing, that bands seem to do, we don’t do. Our taste in music are completely different, we don’t have anything in common. We share more about anything but music really — art, politics, films. That’s why we maybe sound different than bands of which all the bandmates listen to the same types of music. Those bands become bands about the music itself.
SB I try to avoid shared music, otherwise it’s gonna be boring.
TT We communicate through the music, rather than talking about the music.
SB I feel fun to have this chemistry.
TT It’s more a collaboration then a group.
NL Are you friends?
s&t Not really. (laughs)
NL In Japanese noise, I’d always found it interesting how it has a dimension of Zen in it? It has the same aggressive quality as Western noise, which is more inspired by the anti-art ideas of Dadaism, but there is this more immersive and meditative side to it. How do you feel about that?
SB I don’t know, I never though about it in that way, actually. I don’t know how European people think about Zen, what Zen means. I think we perceive this idea quite different. The idea of zen is ‘what’? How do you use ‘zen’ in Europe?
NL I would use the metaphor of the ‘drop in the ocean’. The live performances of Merzbow makes you feel that you disappear in the sound, I think. But maybe this is a sort of exotism towards Japanese culture, and maybe I see more in it then there effective is?
TT No, I think it’s true.
SB I haven’t really seen the European noise music, so it’s hard to compare.
TT Do you think noise started out in Japan?
TT Where did it come from actually? When I went to Berghain, I felt the same thing about people dancing about minimal techno. The dj suddenly played a 15-20 minute piece of ambient music. It felt that for the crowd techno isn’t just about dancing, but that they feel it as some sort of yoga. A more spiritual thing. I thought ‘hm, techno is interesting, but I don’t get into it’. Maybe that’s because I’m Japanese.
NL It’s interesting that you mention the Berlin Techno scene. How do feel being framed in the new electronica wave, started out by noisers gone into techno?
s&t We don’t feel part of it.
SB We don’t feel part of any scene actually.
TT I do struggle when people ask what sort of music we make. I become speechless then. I don’t think we sound that weird, but it’s quite hard to describe. We don’t feel of being part of the Japanese noise scene, nor of the European dark wave scene — although I dig that music a lot. We don’t really fit in one genre or scene. It’s a good thing though, because we played on same nights with a lot of different sort of different acts.
NL You released yourself the 70 + tape. Any plans for new stuff?
TT The album will be released in vinyl on Mechanica records on 26th September. Afterwards we record release something new. Although we want to stay DIY for a little bit longer. It has to do with our freedom, we don’t want fit into the format of labels. My interest in music started by listening to self-released stuff of obscure indie bands who released, let’s say only one 7 inch in 1978, rather than listening to big bands. I love the feeling that you can have that you are the only one knowing this band.
NL How do you feel then about the second decennium of 2000, in which all music is instantly available through the internet?
TT I hate internet. It definitely destroyed a lot of cultures. Before that we were more hungry about discovering something valuable. That was a pure joy. Now you only know about something you discovered on the internet, which is not real, and superficial.
NL Why do you release stuff on bandcamp then?
TT Otherwise we couldn’t make any money. You can’t just deny the times we are living in now, I suppose. I’m trying not to overuse it, and still go to gigs and record shops.
SB some people don’t go to gigs…
TT or wear t-shirts of bands they never heard or saw live.
SB We are from a generation who experienced music without the internet. So we still take that to 2016.
— Niels Latomme