"NYC Jazz Record", December 2017, cover story
Ikue Mori: Outsider Under Ground
By John Pietaro
In 1977 a New York-bound flight from Tokyo carried a youthful Ikue Mori to more than just a new city. Mori was fulfilling a promise she’d made to herself as a restless art student back home, seeking a new life. But the awakening was far wider than expected. Priced out of her initial destination of the West Village, Mori found herself on the Lower East Side just in time for the turbulence of punk rock, downtown experimentation and the boil-over of urban decay. ‘Fun city’ in the throes of bankruptcy and unrest. “It could be grim”, she explained, “but it was New York, where I’d wanted to be for years. I always felt I was in a foreign country when I was in Japan”. Needing no time to adjust to her new surroundings, Mori found a flat and immersed herself in the confluence of culture and change. “No one wanted to live here at the time, so it was easy to find a cheap place near everything. I still live in that same apartment today”.
Mori was immediately drawn to the whirlwind of music about her. “On my first night in New York, a friend got us tickets to see David Bowie and Iggy Pop at the Palladium” she recalled enthusiastically. “What a gift!” She became a fixture in the city’s still new underground nightlife then focused at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, hosts of the punk movement’s formative years. “I had been listening to Jimi Hendrix and the Doors in Japan, but suddenly I was exposed to these new sounds. I loved Television”, she added, referring to the indie rock quartet which featured Ayler-influenced lead guitarists and guttural vocals echoing the streets.
But it wasn’t all rock music. This underground creative tapestry embraced edgy free jazz, expansive visual and performance art, and radical poetry and film, all made anew within the urgent cross-fertilization downtown. Under the banner of what would soon be titled ‘no wave’ culture, artists of each discipline forayed into the next. “One night I saw a performance of (alto saxophonist) James Chance with (poet/guitarist) Lydia Lunch”, Mori explained. “After a friend of mine joined their band Teenage Jesus, I began attending rehearsals and got to meet others on the scene. I met Arto (Lindsay, guitarist/vocalist) and Robin (Crutchfield, organist/vocalist) along with some people from the band Mars. They were all jamming at the studio and asked me to join in” Out of need more than interest, she moved to the drumset in the back of the room. And suddenly, she was playing. “That night, I picked up drums for the first time in my life”. Mori soon found herself at the center of a brand new happening, a reimagining of established rules and mores. “Arto and Robin asked me to join their new band, DNA. Everyone was looking for something new. We weren’t talking about technique then. It was being in the right place. I was surrounded by rock musicians in Tokyo but never thought I could be in a band. It was a discouraging imbalance, especially in the rock world at the time. Especially for a woman drummer. But in New York, 1977, all kinds of outsiders were getting together. I wasn’t trying to play like anyone else and Arto wasn’t either. I was very tom-tom heavy in the beginning –there must’ve been an influence from Japanese taiko drumming”
DNA sported layers of “noise” with musical structures inspired by Arto Lindsay’s heritage in Brazil and Mori’s Japanese culture. After purchasing a 5-piece Ludwig drumkit for $100. from Anton Fier of the Lounge Lizards, later Golden Palominos, Mori and the band created a repertoire of carefully arranged pieces that would come to define the no wave genre. DNA was one of four downtown ensembles chosen for the Brian Eno-produced “No New York” album (1978) which has since become legendary. It was the drummer’s initial experience in a recording studio, but her primary recollection of it was Eno’s length of time spent trying to get the perfect bass drum sound. “He never said much”, she recalled, we just played and got out. The recording didn’t do us justice. It was a hard thing to capture”. Still, “No New York” was seen as shocking to many listeners. In its brash radicalism, the album gave license to musical experimentalists who’d come to the avant garde by way of punk culture, not post-modern classical music or jazz; more than a few of the recording artists had no history as musicians. Critics were polarized and the album was even beleaguered by other no wave progenitors who’d been overlooked by Eno. Listening to DNA’s segments on the album, one hears the breathless rush of the city in darkness, an urgency embodied in Mori’s throbbing pulsations, unexpected tacits, stirring accents and driving patterns woven through Lindsay’s pained vocals. The band went on to record a further single and an EP, but, again, Mori stated the essence of the band was elusive. “None of the recordings actually sound the way we did live”. With a final 1983 gig at CBGB, the trio’s members went their separate ways, though Lindsay was included in some of the drummer’s later endeavors.
Almost immediately after the dissolution of DNA, Mori began work with John Zorn, the ubiquitous saxophonist/improviser/composer. “It was totally new playing experience for me”, she recalled. “DNA may have sounded free, but the songs were played the same way every time. The improvising music scene was eye-opening, mind-blowing. John was such an influence, not only his playing but his organization of concerts. And all of those revolutionary musicians like (percussionist) Cyro Baptista, (guitarist) Fred Frith, (cellist) Tom Kora and (guitarist and improvisation music theorist) Derek Bailey. Just listening to Derek is amazing. Amazing. He was such a beautiful musician”. Mori’s place in the Zorn cadre saw her inclusion in noted album “Locus Solis” (1983) and a wide array of others led by the saxophonist. He also signed her to his Tzadik record label for which she went on to record numerous CDs.
The outgrowth of her musical expanse brought Mori not deeper into the sphere of drumming but into that of electronics. Early experimentation with an inexpensive Casio drum machine alongside her drum kit developed as the medium itself grew. “My very first experience with drum machine programming in a recording was the "Mumbo Jumbo" album by Jim Staley. It was a trio with Bill Frisell”. For that project, Mori attempted to take the machine out of the repetition mode it was known for and have it reflect more of the playing she’d been doing on the drumset. “But the drum machine then was still very limited, so I needed to play some drums with it. With time, I began adding more drum machine and less drums. By the end of 1990 I was playing three drum machines with multi effects through a mixer and no actual drums”. Within a decade, the full spectrum changed as Mori began using a laptop computer toward a limitless sound palette. “With the laptop, I can assign sounds to each key-pad and actually play it as a tuned instrument, not just one of drum sounds”.
Over the course of 15 albums as a leader since 1995, and a seemingly endless list of work in the projects of other musicians, Mori’s use of digital sounds has taken on a new level of musicality; many collaborators now call on her almost exclusively to play in this realm. When asked if electronics had fully eclipsed the drumset, Mori clarified: “No, that chapter is really not over, but it’s infrequent. I played drums again--alongside my laptop--when (bassist) Kim Gordon asked me to play with Body Head a few years ago. I also played drums in Yoshimi O’s twin drum project, but it’s not a focus for me”.
Mori’s resume also includes time spent with Butch Morris, Dave Douglas, Erik Friedlander, Ensemble Modern and Zorn’s Electric Masada in addition to a duo with harpist Zeena Parkins, and the acoustic-electronic trio with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and percussionist Susie Ibarra, Mephista. And within all of this technology, Mori rediscovered her first means of artistic expression. “My earlier interest of creating hand-made materials has come back after all those years of using digital-only processing in my visual art projects. Playing drums was also part of those interests. Drumming allowed me to add physical aspects to performance”.
This year Mori released a pair of albums for which she’s been tirelessly touring. Finally back in New York, she’s preparing for a weekend of concerts at the New School (December 15 and 16) featuring Craig Taiborn, Christian Wolff, Joey Barron and a special guest she was not at liberty to disclose at press time. By the time this paper hits the clubs, Mori should just about be coming down from the high of her November residency at the Stone, one which boasts downtown history in its line-up. Mori simply describes her week at Zorn’s space as “one big improvising party with a lot of old friends”. With the passage of time, the avant becomes the norm and the East Village sports luxury living. With a vengeance, the denizens of the underground no longer languish on the outside.