Photo by Miki Matsushima
The playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht once observed that “art is not a mirror held up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” If that’s true, then perhaps Boris, with its blend of experimental, stoner, sludge, doom, and hardcore sounds, is such a hammer—at least among the cognoscenti of unrestrained, cutting-edge rock.
The band was named and, originally, sonically styled after an epic eight-minute Melvins jam. Three decades later, Boris’ sound has evolved into a furious emotional tumult that—during a time of pandemic, worldwide social unrest, and devastating climate events—seems to capture the anxiety, fear, anger, hatred, and uncertainty that is reverberating.
It’s in the DNA of songs like “Genesis,” the primordial, unsettling opening instrumental track of their latest album, NO. Is it cueing the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? Is it a dirge or an anthem? The visceral response this overture evokes sets the tone for the rest of NO. That Boris is able to convey such a cathartic experience with their music is no small feat. That kind of transcendence only happens when the message meets the moment. And for Boris, NO is the message, and 2020 is the moment.
Formed in Tokyo in 1992 as a four-piece, Boris quickly transformed into a genre-blending, avant-garde power trio after their 1996 debut, Absolutego, on the Fangs Anal Satan label, when singer Atsuo Mizuno took over on drums for their original drummer, Nagata. Absolutego was an exercise in Melvins-inspired drone rock and featured a single 60-minute track. The 1998 follow-up, Amplifier Worship, diverted sharply into psychedelic and jam-band territory. In 2005, Pink, arguably Boris’ commercial breakthrough, featured mostly short, concise songs in a shoegaze and post-rock style. Pink met with considerable critical praise, with both Blender and SPIN magazines naming it one of 2006’s best albums.
Collaborations with other experimental musicians and artists, like Keiji Haino, have also been a hallmark of Boris’ career, and in 2009 they appeared on the avant-metal soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s film The Limits of Control. Just last year they released their 25th studio album, LφVE & EVφL.
Boris’ musical journey has been guided by a faith in the deep interpersonal conversations that playing music in a band offers—an important core value of their DIY ethos. In the studio, they record themselves: placing their own microphones, mixing their albums, prompting their own sonic experiments. Their focus and genuine curiosity about craft propels a deep commitment to process, rather than results. They are invested in the work that their explorations demand, not the fame they may ultimately derive from it. And much like jazz musicians, they’re most committed to the musical conversations that happen—among themselves and with their audience, live and in the moment—so rarely do they ever play the same composition the same way.
It shouldn’t be surprising that this band with almost 100 releases to their credit—including EPs, reissues, singles, live albums, and collaborations—was able to create NO in a matter of weeks. “We reserved our room and rehearsed and recorded there after the lockdown,” says guitarist/bassist Takeshi. “We began on March 24 and completed recording three weeks later.” If anything, a global pandemic only served to make their mission more urgent and focused—or at least fueled their apocalyptic aesthetic.
NO, like Pink, features shorter, more terse up-tempo numbers than the long, droning jams that have been Boris’ most recognizable trademark. Only three of NO’s 11 songs are over five minutes. (Opener “Genesis” is among those three.) Song length, however, is basically where the comparison to Pink ends, as NO is a much heavier album. Entries like “Anti-Gone,” “Lust,” and “Loveless” feature fierce, fast-paced riffs that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Motörhead album. According to Takeshi, this is the result of interacting and sharing bills with Japanese hardcore/punk legends, including Gastunk, the Genbaku Onanies, and Narasaki (of Coaltar of the Deepers), during the Japan tour for LφVE & EVφL in February.
“I was able to reaffirm my roots with music that was hugely influential when I was a teen,” Takeshi explains. “After that tour, the world gradually became terrible due to the new coronavirus, and, not being able to tour or perform live, the only option we had was to create an album to deliver to listeners. During the studio sessions, the sound imagery became fast and noisy according to the manners of hardcore punk. We usually do not set any rules for recording, but just like listening to hardcore punk healed my anxiety, hatred, anger, and sadness when I was young, and hope was born, we’re hoping that NO, as an extreme music, will heal listeners who live under the threat of the coronavirus.”
In addition to Takeshi and Atsuo (who also serves as the band’s recording and mixing engineer), Boris features the mighty Wata on guitar and keyboards. Wata might be the most introverted of the group, but her gargantuan tone, deft melodicism, and kinetic riffs entrench her in the same conversation as High on Fire’s Matt Pike or Gojira’s Joe Duplantier—together, a triumvirate of doom/stoner-era guitar gods. But Wata rarely speaks publicly about her work.
PG recently caught up with Takeshi and Wata, who were at home in Tokyo. With the help of translator Kasumi Billington, they both opened up about their creative processes, guitar interplay, gear, influences, and much more.
How integral are jam sessions to Boris’ creative process? Were the songs on NO born strictly out of jams, or did any of you bring fleshed-out songs into the studio?
Wata: Boris’ songwriting and recording is generally in the form of jam sessions. We rarely compose in advance. It’s rock ’n’ roll, so it’s not interesting unless the sound rolls on the spot and unpredictable events occur. Amp settings and volumes are also important elements to our compositions. A song won’t reach completion unless it’s actually played in the studio with loud volume. There are songs that are born because they are loud.
TIDBIT: Although Wata also plays keyboards in Boris, their new album is guitar-only, crafted from practice-space jams spearheaded by her and Takeshi. “It’s rock ’n’ roll, so it’s not interesting unless the sound rolls on the spot and unpredictable events occur,” she explains.
Takeshi: There are times when we write songs in advance, but it’s mainly like a memo of an idea [for a song]. As usual, NO started from jam sessions at the studio.
What elements of a jam are you listening for, or cultivating, to help guide the formation of a new song?
Takeshi: We are guided by phrases and melodies that are born from our jam sessions. Rather than composing, it’s more like the sensation of drawing, but guided by sound. That’s the method that feels natural for us, to be able to create work comfortably. The important thing when recording is to keep an environment free of stress for the members—to be able to see each other’s faces, and to be able to resonate sound in the same space and atmosphere.
Boris has been around long enough to make albums using both analog and digital recording. What is your preference?
Wata: Equipment-wise, I like analog, but recording is easier with Pro Tools. Sometimes rehearsing while we adjust the monitors ends up sounding better than the actual recording during the main production. We have taken that into consideration recently, and now record during rehearsals as well. There are many times when the recordings taken during rehearsals are used instead. Since there’s no recording cost, digital recording is suitable for this type of production—one that has a strong documentary element.
Boris employs drop-tuning to great effect. Do you have a preferred tuning to write and play in?
Wata: In general, we tune three steps down. I also like tuning where we drop the 6th string to D#. The expression of choking and vibrato changes when you play the 5th and 6th strings together. When playing riffs with Takeshi in unison, each playing style creates different waves, and adds depth to the sound. There are restrictions when using various tunings, but there are also songs that can only be created with that tuning. I want to keep trying various things.
Boris has a very DIY ethos. What was the studio set-up like for NO, including your signal chain?
Takeshi: The place where we always record is a rehearsal studio we’ve been using for years. There’s no mixing booth. We self-record by bringing recording equipment to that same room. We set up the microphone stands ourselves, and everything is DIY. We try not to increase the number of tracks we record, but, for the guitar recording, we simultaneously record signals from both a mic (Sennheiser E606) and a DI (Countryman Type 85). When we mix, we have options to combine the two or use either alone. We’re always sure to record the sound of shaking air with the microphone.