Smile Politely

Making orchestral accessible: Kishi Bashi

Kaoru Ishibashi makes beautiful music. Seriously. That’s almost all I need to say for this one. I mean, his records have a ton of stuff going on: looping, harmonizers, beat-boxing, Japanese lyrics layered in for their rhythmic value, banjo riffs, soaring synths, you name it; but it all comes together in a cohesive and beautiful whole.

Ishibashi started out life as a classical violinist, but ended up at Berklee studying jazz violin and film scoring. The past few years he has spent time touring with Regina Spektor, Sondre Lerche, of Montreal, and his own band, Jupiter One. Ishibashi’s solo project, Kishi Bashi (a clever play on his own name), got a lot of play with the release of his debut album 151a in April of 2012. The title, pronounced “ee-chee-go ee-chee-eh,” translates roughly to “one time, one meeting” and references the Japanese tea ceremony, and is a reminder that each meeting, each moment, is unique and to be treasured. That’s some beautiful stuff right there, man, and that’s how the music feels. 

A lot of folks (or maybe just me?) discovered Ishibashi through his Tiny Desk concert. You should check it out right now. He made the top of NPR’s “Best New Artist” list last year.

Ishibashi took a few moments out of his day a couple of weeks ago to talk with me. 

Smile Politely: How’re things going?

Kaoru Ishibashi: Pretty good. Right now I’m in the studio mixing a live album. It’s a new experience for me.

SP: Something from the spring tour? 

Ishibashi: Yeah from one show, live in Chicago on Valentine’s day. It’s been a tough thing to do, its pretty rough.

SP: Capturing all the in-the-moment stuff?

Ishibashi: Yeah, and there’s just a lot of mistakes (laughs).

SP: And now you’re gearing up to head out on tour again right? Taking off next week?

Ishibashi: I am! The band’s coming in tomorrow and we’re going to get rehearsing. I have a drummer this time, which is super exciting.

SP: That’s great! The same trio as the spring tour, or a little bit more?

Ishibashi: Yeah, it’s a four-piece band. Elizabeth (of Elizabeth and the Catapault) is not with me this time. Daniel Brunner is playing bass, Dave Heilman, from my band Jupiter One, on drums, Tall Tall Trees (Mike Savino) on banjo, and me. So it’s a pretty exciting line-up!

SP: So will it be all the four piece all the time, or will we get some solo work? I know a lot of people know you from your solo work. Are you getting away from that or…

Ishibashi: I think I’ll always have a section that’s solo. I think that’s enough for the fans who really want that. To some extent these songs really need a beat and a full band to be as exciting as I want them to be. And you know I can always reserve the option to strip it away just to give people the idea of intimacy that you can reach just as one person. I kind of learned that when I toured with Regina Spektor, she’d a have a full band for maybe two-thirds of the show and then finish solo, kind of like you get the best of both worlds.

SP: You get more options.

Ishibashi: Yeah it adds variety to the show, it’ll be fun.

SP: I noticed you haven’t been through Urbana in a while, I think I found a pic of you playing Pygmalion with Of Montreal back in 2010?

Ishibashi: Yeah that was my first tour with Of Montreal and it was a life changing experience for me. This is how great a band can be, because that band is dedicated to just being an exciting sensory assault experience for their fans. So, to go from being with my own rock band, Jupiter One, and we’re just trying to have a good time with our fans, to Regina Spektor, which wasn’t a very visual thing, to a complete party extravaganza crazy band. It was mind blowing to be part of that, one of the funnest shows on tour.

Kishi Bashi with of Montreal, Pygmalion 2010

SP: Yeah it seems incredible. I didn’t make it to that show, but it looked like a good time. So are you heading back into the studio at the end of the tour to do some new stuff? 

Ishibashi: Yeah I’m basically in the studio right now. I moved to Athens and I have this house, and I had Drew Vandenberg, the engineer who mixed my debut album, come and record me in my house. So, he kind of set up my studio for me, and helped me get sounds and recorded everything for about two weeks. So its kind of getting done, I’d say its about 70% there. All the songs are done at least.

SP: That’s the live album or this is new material?

Ishibashi: No, its my next album. So I’m going to probably mix it after the tour in October and November. Then I’ll finally get to take a break.

SP: That’s great, I’m looking forward to hearing that! So, like you, my own background is in classical music and I always really enjoy seeing classical musicians make a successful transition into pop music. Did that come naturally for you or is it something you had to seek out? 

Ishibashi: You know I came full circle actually. In high school I was way into chamber music, classical music, contemporary classical music, and then I studied jazz violin for a while and jazz improvisation, and all the while, you know, I was in crappy bands singing songs not very well. And then I came full circle and asked how I could stick out? I was really desperate to have a life of making my own music for a living. So I asked myself, “What can I do better than anybody else?” And I definitely couldn’t play guitar better than most people, so I really started to dig into the violin. And I realized that this was an approach that hasn’t been touched upon as much. And I dug into my classical roots because I can compose and stuff like that. So the orchestral textures are a result of me forcing myself to use all my abilities.

SP: You can definitely hear that, the richness of the textures. Even the form, the album has this nice craft from beginning to end.

Ishibashi: [Laughs] Sonata form? 

SP: Does it follow sonata form? I didn’t get that deep.

Ishibashi: No, but there’s definitely some classical references, and I’m not afraid of orchestral textures at all. I think its underused and its not something a lot of people can do. So I just kind of use it. People love the sound of orchestras, whether or not they go to symphonic concerts regularly or not, so I definitely am aware that people enjoy that sound. 

SP: Yeah that’s what comes across in the recording, the lushness and beauty you don’t get a whole lot of other places, which I really love. You know we kind of joked about sonata form, but have you thought about that? Bringing some longer form compositions out? Is there a suite in your future?

Ishibashi: I was thinking about maybe after this next album maybe I’ll do a symphonic Kishi Bashi tour, you know it would take a lot of work and preparation but I’ve been thinking about it. I can write for full orchestra, but it would definitely take a lot of resource. I see that a lot of orchestras are really opening up their programming on a regular basis to survive, really. So I think it might be a good time, especially since I know how to do it. Maybe next year?

SP: That’d be a beautiful thing. You know I’ve heard you talk a lot about exploring the violin, that there hasn’t been enough of that. And you’re making it happen. Is there anything coming up next for you on the violin, any seeds of ideas for what the violin can do? What’re we going to hear your violin do on the next album?

Ishibashi: I’ve been really trying to record my violin more direct rather than relying on pedals, more direct violin stacking. I’ve also been exploring a lot of double speed stuff, kind of crazy electronic sounds with the violin. Some Mahavishu orchestra type stuff, do you know Mahavishnu orchestra?

SP: Embarrassingly, no.

Ishibashi: They’re this famous fusion band from the 70’s with John McLaughlin, this crazy guitar player, but they also had Jean-Luc Ponty, who’s another well-known fusion jazz violinist who uses his violin more direct, or through a phaser. So there’s more of that this time, a lot of more psychedelic violin sounds on this next album.

SP: That’s great. Did that group have any of the Carnatic violin sound that you bring out on some live recordings?

Ishibashi: A little bit, well John Lo Ponti didn’t do too much Carnatic violin, but John McLaughlin was definitely aware of that as a jazz-fusion guy, but yeah I used to study Carnatic violin but I really don’t do much of that on the next album at all. I hadn’t really thought about it, maybe I’ll throw in a bit here and there. I can. 

SP: OK, so this is a bit of a stretch this question. But I was digging around on YouTube watching the videos. And I enjoyed the “Bright Whites” video, and then I ran into the “It All Began With a Burst with… who was that group?

Ishibashi: Cheer Cheer Party?

SP: Yes. Tell me about that, what did I just see?

Ishibashi: My sister-in-law is my manager in Japan. You know they’re really trying to push me in Japan because I have this story, how I speak Japanese. And so I had this idea, there are these idol groups that are kind of exotic, those girls in the video are from a genre called idols, they are supposed to be pure and innocent, they all sing unison and have these cheerful personalities. So, I really wanted to get a video where they were lip-synching to one of my songs. So, since my sister-in-law is part of the Japanese entertainment industry, she was like, “Yeah we can find you a group.” So she found this group for me and she choreographed these dances, and make fake Japanese words so they could actually sing along. And the translation is actually a translation of their fake, whatever they had to learn. They can’t speak English very well so she had to make up something they could sing.

SP: That explains a lot, it was kind of a surreal experience for me. I thought I lost something in cultural translation.

Ishibashi: Yeah I’m really into film-making, stuff like that. So things that are jarring, provocative or weird like that I think are pretty exciting. I thought it might be interesting.

SP: Yeah I can tell! You studied film scoring right? 

Ishibashi: Yeah, that was my job for a good 10 years, off and on.

SP: Have you ever thought of bringing that on tour with you? I have this vision of like improvisatory video with the music. Is that something that’s ever crossed your mind?

Ishibashi: Maybe, that’s something I’m getting into when I have a chance. I have some pieces where I improvise, I’m actually working with a glass studio in Norfolk and they’re going to build these beautiful rondel projections and I’m going to improvise with them. Maybe bring them on tour with me (here’s video of that event).

SP: That sounds really cool. Hey I know you have to run, thanks so much for taking a few minutes out to talk with me, and good luck with the tour!

Ishibashi: Yeah, no problem! Take care. 


Kishi Bashi plays the Highdive, Stage 2 outside at 7:50 on Saturday. If any town can appreciate this film-scoring, loop-pedal using, classical/jazz/pop/Carnatic violin playing, pop-music writing, Japanese-American force of nature, its Champaign-Urbana. 

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