Interview: Akatombo

Photo by Paul Thomsen Kirk

Pollution takes so many forms, and the music of Hiroshima’s Akatombo (aka Paul Thomsen Kirk) is like a filthy assemblage of all of them. I’m not just talking about cityscape smog (of which there is plenty here, albeit translated into white noise and the echoes of concrete spaces) – but also the pollution of mind and distraction, with the voices of news bulletins, estranged radio music and shitty TV shows persistently forcing entry into my consciousness, often battered and decayed by the jagged toxicity of their surroundings, gutted of meaning and dehydrated by the harsh winds. Beneath it all, throbbing like the headache that won’t leave, are rhythms that merge the bass-driven vigour of underground dance clubs and the clangs of ritualised construction work. For some perverse reason that I won’t over-analyse, I’m more than glad to occupy these soundscapes by choice. 

The latest Akatombo full-length was released in March this year. Titled Short Fuse, and released on Kirk’s own Hand-Held Recordings, it contains some of his most boisterous and nauseating collages so far. Check out three preview tracks here, and then head over to either Tedium House or Midheaven to grab your copy. Below, Kirk and I discuss the new record, dodging the CCTV cameras of data storage facilities and his creative relationship with Wire’s Graham Lewis.

How did the writing process work for Short Fuse? We exchanged a few emails around the release of your album Sometime, Never back in 2015, and you mentioned that your method involved “five-hour sessions armed with cd-r’s of rough ideas”. Was it a similar deal this time round? 

I simply begin each Akatombo album at home by listening through headphones to such things as short and long wave analogue radio, random clips from YouTube from such sources as long-forgotten TV programmes, odd black and white B-movies, foreign language films, radio bulletins/news broadcasts/snippets of bad dramas, non-English-speaking talk shows, unknown radio stations spanning most of the globe. All recorded, with no effects, straight to CD-R in my small studio set-up (aka “Crow Hill”). I repeat the process for instruments and random sounds that possess something, say a certain frequency, that I like and record them straight to CD-R too. When I’ve filled about 3 discs – 297 tracks in all – I then listen to each disc and pick out the ones I like and jot the track number down in a notebook that I’ve had since the very first Akatombo recordings. I can pick up any CD-R and then check the corresponding page in the notebook by disc number and I know what is on that disc. Perfect for finding out whether any of the samples have been used on a previous track or not. No repetition is allowed.

The “five-hour” thing is still my modus operandi – take a bag of CD-Rs and said notebook and construct the tracks in five-hour sessions. I usually manage to get three tracks done per session, so multiply that by four and I’ve got all the tracks – nearly there. I then have one month away from the studio to solely listen to each recorded track in order and make notes on edits, drums, effects, vocal samples, field recordings that I’ve captured downtown or further afield, say a business park full of little workshops and factories all making distinct noises, or one of the big electrical superstores that has everything turned up to 10 so that you cannot think. I just press record on my SD-card recording device and wander about for a bit, before my slightly agoraphobic tendencies come into play and I have to get out the infernal place. Those field recordings also get the headphone and notebook ‘treatment’.

Usually by this time a month has past. Then I go back into the studio and finish off the recording and mix the album consulting the book and CD-Rs. I see whether a certain passage needs a certain type of sound. Then there’s a fortnight of listening, track by track, notes again being taken, and it’s mastering time. Album done. The next project beings.

I love listening closely to the rhythms at the core of your tracks. They’re like junkyard sculptures of welded scraps and discarded noise, and the beats on this record are some of the most urgent and aggressive I’ve heard from you. How do you go about building these beats, and is there any reason for gravitating toward dirtier, more boisterous forms of rhythmic propulsion?

Thanks. I’ve been playing drums since I was 14 years old – Rat Scabies, thank-you! – so I’m very quick at programming and adding percussion. Due to the number of years I’ve been drumming, I know near-as-dammit what type of a kit sound I want and what percussion instruments I want to add on each track. I just keep adding layers whenever I feel there’s a lull in the track or I take layers away when I want other sounds to be of greater prominence. Great fun, and no blistered hands.

You’re correct in saying that this album, Short Fuse and the previous album, Sometime, Never, do have very dirty, boisterous, distorted frequencies. I added even more EQ to the main rhythm tracks than usual – mostly a layer of three or four interchangeable patterns – and then percussion taken from field recordings. Small boat-yards are plentiful around Hiroshima, as are repair workshops, so I spend a day cycling around there with my portable recording gear. There are some great metallic sounds to effect and add into the sonic broth.

PHOTO BY PAUL THOMSEN KIRK

PHOTO BY PAUL THOMSEN KIRK

As with the other two Akatombo albums I’ve heard, samples of the human voice are everywhere. I’ve had fun trying to identify the source of some of your samples (so far, I’ve only identified a snippet from the American Gameshow Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader), but I gather that previous albums have also derived material from public information films, television dramas and BBC radio news reports. What draws you to incorporate the voice and audible media so prominently in your work?

10/10 for …a 5th Grader! You’re the first one to mention that unbelievably bad show.

Well, on another level, if you stop and sit down on a bench in the middle of any major city and just listen…what do you hear? Endless chatter. I prefer to mix my own recordings done in shopping malls with ridiculous game shows and aircraft control tower small-talk, or a radio phone-in on the World Service from somewhere out of the way like Qatar or Gambia or Bulgaria. I’m listening to the phonetics, as I haven’t a clue what they’re saying, and I just edit little pieces to disc and then put them down in the track whenever I think things are becoming too repetitive or I feel like a change of tack is required. It’s just an instrument to me, like percussion. I don’t like singers 99.9% of the time ; utterly turgid to my ears. I hate ballads full of saccharine sentiment too. Thus, I use every vocal sample completely random and for effect or to highlight a certain passage in the track.

Your records are always incredibly dense. It’s as though a thick industrial smog has descended over each of these pieces. What sorts of sounds are you combining to generate this congealment of noise, and is there a particular reason that this atmosphere seems to appeal to you so much?

Hmmm, I can’t be giving all my secrets away…however, if you listen to any of the tracks on the last two albums, you’ll find out why. The highs and lows in the human ear are incredibly sensitive. I just add layers that are slightly different over a plethora of frequency ranges to affect the listener each time they play the album. It’s almost guaranteed each listen will result in you hearing something different from the previous listen. I am not a conventional arranger, and more to the point, I despise the standard rock format. How long has it been going again?

Could you tell me about the cover image for Short Fuse? Where and when was it taken (assuming it’s a photo you took)?

It was taken quite nearby where I live in Hiroshima. My apartment is very high up on the side of a steep hillside. So, I just go down to the low-lying “flat” part of the neighbourhood and bring my trusty old semi automatic SLR and tripod with me. The photo on the front cover is of a security guard’s quarters on the ground floor of a large, windowless data storage facility which has been cleverly disguised to blend in with the rest of the surrounding structures in that street to look as unassuming as possible. The only thing that give it away, apart from the umpteen huge dishes and antennae on the roof, is the proliferation of CCTV cameras.

So, me being of an inquisitive nature, I was determined to get close to the only window and to see what I could. I had to climb up a neighbouring steel fence (it’s visible on the album cover) and perch precariously on top and snap away. That is, until a few of the CCTV cameras starting rotating towards my locus. Then it was time to get off the fence very quickly and get into the next block up asap. Still, it was worth it, I think. I take all the photo’s for all my album artwork.

Why did you choose the moniker Akatombo? Wikipedia tells me that it’s the name of a famous Japanese Children’s song.

Well, the original nursery rhyme is charming and sweet, extremely mawkish nonsense. So I decided to flip it upside down and make my music brash and abrasive. And to hopefully piss off some straight-laced conservative types in the process.

You can just imagine them:
“What is that infernal racket?”
“Some gaijin called Akatombo”.
“AKATOMBO!! our children’s sweet bedtime song!!”

Job done. Nothing to see here. Bye.

PaulNewYear2015

You’ve worked frequently with Graham Lewis from Wire, with more collaborations in the pipeline at some point. How did you start working with Graham, and do you have any thoughts on what has made the collaboration so consistently fruitful?

I first met Graham in Osaka 13 years ago on the Wire tour for the Send album, (B. Gilbert’s last gigs before he left). I had already released my first album on Colin Newman’s Swim~ label, “Trace Elements”, so I knew Colin and his lovely wife, Malka, (ex-Minimal Compact). He mailed me to say they, Wire, were coming across to Japan, so I went up to meet Colin for a natter and also to watch the band. Graham and myself just hit it off immediately backstage. By the end of the night we were chatting away like we’d known each other for years. We swapped contact info and began sending samples, field recordings and the like via Dropbox. And we still do to this day. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to meet up with him (and also get out of Japan for a much-needed break) sometime towards the end of this year or early 2018. He’s an extremely nice, intelligent man with a wicked sense of humour.

Am I correct in thinking that Hand-Held Recordings is soon to be no more? 

Yes, it’s now about to go into indefinite hiatus.

Why? Very simple, really. I don’t have the energy to do Akatombo and the label any more. I really want to concentrate all my energies on the musical side of things. The label isn’t kaput. It’s just taking a break while I pursue new projects completely free from any outside distractions. It also means I have to find a label out there to release my recordings, whether it’s a 7”/12”/LP or even an 8” lathe-cut. I’m quite excited to see how I get on. I have gathered more than enough addresses and contacts so, I’ll just have to do my best with my work and hope that someone wishes to release chunks of it from time to time.

What other music are you listening to at the moment?

I don’t actually listen to a lot of new or current music. A friend will mail me a promo CD or someone will send me a download code and I’ll have a listen to that, but I’ve been going through a stage of listening to albums that have nothing in common with electronics. Lots of dub, soundtracks, and some modern composition. At the moment, Morton Feldman is a big favourite, as is Captain Beefheart. So, it’s lots of their albums that I’ve had for years, same with the dub albums, and the occasional soundtrack. And some of the noisier end of the DIY CD-R label releases. Chocolate Monk in Brighton and BUFMS in San Francisco have been releasing magical sonic experiments for years. Marvellously talented, and extremely friendly down-to-earth. Just how more people in this so called “business” could be if they weren’t trying to “out cool” you or be as boorish as possible.

What’s next for you and your music?

Well, as I’ve mentioned above, it’s time to start working on new material with the bonus of not having a label to run. And, I’ve got to find new avenues to search in order to release it. I have had a couple of interesting conversations with certain companies that might end up with something being released, but I’ll actively be looking for new labels to put out my stuff for a good while, I think. It’s a positive move and will cut out the stress of having to deal with distributors and store managers, etc. There are lot of nice people out there but sadly they’re outnumbered by real ignorant, rude tossers. So, it’ll will be very nice not to have to rely on those type of people for anything at all. I really have had my fill of rude, obnoxious, self-obsessed types to last me another lifetime.

Akatombo on Facebook – facebook.com/paul.t.kirk
Akatombo on SoundCloud – soundcloud.com/akatombo-p-t-kirk
Hand-Held Recordings on Facebook – facebook.com/HandHeldRecordings