Not Your Typical Blues Guitarist: Our Interview With Suzuki Junzo

Suzuki Junzo is not your typical blues guitarist – actually, he’s not your typical guitarist, full stop. Raised on a diet of blues, psychedelic rock, pop, cinema, beer and cigarettes, the Tokyo-born musician’s style is both muted and ecstatic, using drone and enveloping minimalism before rushing the ears with flurries of noise, speed and white-noise bliss. He’s that kind of guitarist, and that’s just his solo work. As he ventures across the Pacific for a hefty UK and Europe-wide tour, we caught up with him to talk toot and discover the puzzle pieces that have slotted together to make this most extraordinary of artists.

Starting early, what was your childhood like? Was music always an important part of your life?
When I was a child I was totally into comics like Fujiko Fujio’s stuff and some other nonsense gag comics like those of Dookuman, Fujio Akatsuka or Tatsuhiko Yamagami, and also I was into sci-fi TV series like Ultraman, Kamen Rider or the Godzilla series. With music, of course, I was very into the theme songs and soundtracks of these TV series and I watched pop TV shows all the time!

How did you learn to play guitar and when did you begin to develop a sound that you could call your own?
At first, I was just a singer in the band, but in high school I got deep into blues music like Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and BB King so I wanted to play guitar with singing. Some years later, I started listening to Velvet Underground, early Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Terry Riley and John Fahey, especially John Fahey’s 90’s works like Womblife or City Of Refuge and Terry Riley’s CDs from Organ of Corti, like Reed Streams and Music For the Gift, which totally blew my mind . I started playing electric guitar with delay, and some pedals – I think this is the actual beginning for my music.

Movies seem to be a big part of your life, especially a lot of the Toei classics. Has Japanese cinema had any influence on your music?
Yes, I was totally into Toei movies, ‘70s Pinky Violence or yakuza movies, and some Pink movies are very important for me, but in the early ‘60s Teruo Ishii’s gangster movies and Jushiro Konoe’s samurai/ninja movies are my most important Toei stuff; also Zatoichi, Sleepy Eyes Of Death and Ayako Wakao’s work with Yazuzo Masumura too. I love that old classic era. On the other hand, it’s kind of running away from the terrible world just now. They are, especially Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi series, a big influence on my music – no, my life; my way of thinking, how to manage things.

Would you like to compose or perform any work for cinema, or have you already?
If I had any chance, of course I wanna do it!!!

Is there any one element or emotion that is most important in your work?
Mmm, difficult question… resignation, like Ichi in Zatoichi.

Do you feel any connection with artists who like Kazuki Tomokawa and Kan Mikami, guitarists who have their roots in blues but still keep a very Japanese sensibility in their sound?
Yes, they are great figures, as singers and guitarists. Their lyrics are beyond my description. Respect. I very much appreciate if you feel some connection between me and them. I once went to every one of Kan Mikami’s gigs through the years – totally impressed.

Through your work with Tabata Mitsuru and Kawabata Makoto, you are sometimes seen as an extended member of the Acid Mothers Temple ‘soul collective’. What is it about that large group of musicians that is so unique and open to collaboration?
Yes, I know, I owe them very big and many things. When I was young, I was looking for friends who knew music, movies and novels more than me. I couldn’t find anybody in my generation, but when I met them – oh! WTF! They know a lot more than me.

They are very open to hanging out or sometimes playing together with me, so now I feel like they – Acid Mothers crew – are like teachers, or elder brothers, for me.

Photo Credit: Kwark Frietveld

“I don’t believe any philosophy or some kind of religion. But when I play/use ‘drone’, it feels like saying a prayer. But this kind of thing is not only from using ‘drone’. I believe music itself contains spiritual meaning.”

You are known for heavily featuring improvisation in your live shows. Do you also improvise a lot when recording and writing or is it more structured?
Yes, every time I try to improvise. In recordings, sometimes I have a song, but mostly, first, I improvise, then listen many times and do overdubs like a DJ makes their mix. I think it’s kind of making structure. When I improvise, the very important thing is the images of some movies or sights which I see when I am traveling.

Is there any change in your playing style when performing solo as opposed to with Miminokoto or 20 Guilders? Does performing with other people change how you feel about music?
Of course, when I play in the band, we have the ‘song’ to communicate with each other like ‘languages’. It’s very fun for me. Also, I am a big fan of classic era rock/folk records like in the ‘60/’70s. I totally enjoy playing like that. That’s why I can be more abstract and have a freer approach when I play alone. These two things are both important.

The use of drone in music is often given spiritual meaning and sentiment. Do you see anything religious or spiritual in the music that you create?
I don’t believe any philosophy or some kind of religion. But when I play/use ‘drone’, it feels like saying a prayer. But this kind of thing is not only from using ‘drone’. I believe music itself contains spiritual meaning.

One of the luckiest discoveries I ever made was picking up a bootleg copy of Ike Reiko’s album Kōkotsu no Sekai. What hidden gems are there in Japanese music that you wish more people knew about?
Ah, I know people recently are very deep into Japanese underground music from the ‘60s and ‘70s but we have tons of great music! Like kayōkyoku or enka – not just in the ‘rock’ style. I recently got deep into ‘mood-chorus groups’ like Mahina Stars, enka like Toru Funayama, kayōkyoku like Yoshio Tabata and Kazuo Funaki, Jap-chanson, and 70’s pop songs sung by female actors, like Ayumi Ishida. If we are talking about rock/folk music in Japan, I made a playlist for another interview. Please check it out if you have some interest.

You also run Plunk’s Plan Records. What are the benefits to self-releasing music and what are the drawbacks?
Sometimes I heard some complaints about albums being deleted and companies having disbanded, so there’s no way to get them back in their own hands… I hate this kind of situation, so I started my label only to support my releases. This means I can release any time I want, there are no deleted albums and it’s always in my hands. Those are the benefits. The drawback is that it is very hard to distribute the release world-wide.

Anyway, recently, I fortunately have been able to put out my albums on LP. I’m very glad, I am a very big fan of LPs and have tons of vinyl in my house but there is still the fact that some people still choose CDs, so I still release CD editions from my label now.

You spend a lot of time in Europe and the US. What things do you prefer over here and what do you think is done better back home?
When I started touring, I used to go for a walk around town after soundchecking; it’s a great experience for me to see the city – drink local beer, buy LPs from the local record shop! Watching movies or reading books is better to do when I back home, but recently I feel that I am just what I am, wherever I am. I simply do what I must do wherever I am.

You mention on your upcoming tour that you will be recording with The Cosmic Dead. How did this collaboration come about and do you have any plans for how it will sound?
Yes, The Cosmic Dead is one of my favorite bands on this planet right now and their guitarist James (T McKay) is like another brother from a different country! Every time I play in Glasgow, we drink all through the night and it’s always great fun! Luigi (Pasquini), their engineer, asked me if I would record stuff with The Cosmic Dead so then we came to think about collaborations. So I am very excited about recording with them in this tour! I have some plans but I would like to see what happens when we play together.

Finally, an easy question – what is your favourite thing do to when you are not on tour?
Watching movies, reading books, listening to LPs at midnight alone in my house!! And drink BEER with my friend in Izakaya Restaurant!! [laughs]

Words: Dave Bowes // If I Die Before I Wake is out now via Utech Records.
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