We just do what we want or what we think is the best, so we have never known about the future. The only musical limit we have is that it has to be metal.
In terms of the underground, Japan has always seemed like the place that genres go to refresh and rejuvenate. They gave doom Corrupted, stoner rock Church Of Misery and grindcore Melt-Banana, but in terms of black metal, and longevity, it is impossible to deny Sigh’s looming presence. Originally brought to the world stage via the late Euronymous’ Deathlike Silence label in the early 90s, they’ve had one of the most unpredictable career developments in extreme metal, from the skewed malevolence of Hail Horror Hail to Imaginary Sonicscape’s psychedelic warfare, eventually bringing us to the gloriously metal extravagance of last year’s Heir To Despair. It’s been a gloriously weird ride, and to celebrate the occasion of another mind-melting concoction, we spoke to founder Mirai Kawashima to discuss their unique viewpoints on metal, Japan and infamy.
E&D: Hi Mirai, thank you so much for taking the time out to answer these questions, and for releasing another masterpiece. It’s an excellent album, but also another interesting evolution for Sigh. Has there ever been an overarching plan as to how the band has developed over the past two decades, or any limits as to where you are willing to go musically?
Mirai: We’ve never had an overarching plan. We just do what we want or what we think is the best, so we have never known about the future. The only musical limit we have is that it has to be metal. We have to be a metal band no matter how far we go. We will never do an album with no heavy guitar under the name of Sigh.
E&D: As with many of your releases, it feels like the compositions on Heir To Despair are quite complex but retain a strong sense of melody and clarity. Is there a conscious effort to balance these two sides of your sound, or am I just imagining things?
Mirai: Actually the balance is very important. Making an “arty” album is not difficult. And I personally think writing complex songs is much easier than simple ones as complex songs can justify themselves for being complex. Writing a short simple great song requires a lot of talent. I’ve always loved albums that are artistic and accessible at the same time, such as We’re Only In It For Money by Frank Zappa and Band On The Run by Paul McCartney & Wings. To the Bone by Steven Wilson belongs to this.
Having said this, I am not sure about Heir To Despair as this is 100% my personal album and didn’t care how it sounded to other people. It is a nostalgia to my childhood, a scenery from ’70s Japan, so I cannot imagine how it sounds to people from Europe or the US. Well, I cannot imagine how it sounds to the Japanese though.
E&D: How much has having Dr Mikannibal as a full-time member of Sigh helped progress your sound, and has it changed the writing process for you?
Mirai: Actually she is not on Heir To Despair. I just used some of her old saxophone recording here and there but that’s it. She didn’t sing or do anything for the album as she’s been too busy being a mother.
Having her changed my writing process a bit for the albums like Scenes from Hell and In Somniphobia as I was able to have saxophones on my musical palette.
E&D: Again, there’s some very interesting instrumentation on this record and some intriguing musical influences, like North African and Middle Eastern sounds. How did you go about integrating these aspects into your normal palette?
Mirai: Well, those “exotic” sounds have been in the vocabulary of rock music for way more than 50 years now. It’s nothing new at all, or rather I must say it’s a cliché. I love so-called world music, especially Indian and Central Asian stuff. I was taking sitar and tabla lessons for a while. I also love ’60s psychedelic rock influenced by exotic elements like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, July, Pretty Things etc. I am not sure about North African influence though. I didn’t take in African influence on purpose.
E&D: You’ve hardly hidden your influences over the years, especially when it comes to bands like Venom and Bathory, but I was curious how much the Japanese music scene affected your approach. In particular, I was thinking about those early visual Kei bands like X Japan and Dead End, who always seemed to have an interesting blend of theatricality and musical complexity.
Mirai: No, I have never ever got into that kind of stuff at all. It’s not the matter of musical quality or anything, I just cannot stand the concept of Visual Kei. To me, rock is Motörhead, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Venom, Slayer etc., and those V-Kei things are exactly the opposite of those if you know what I mean.
E&D: Moving back to Heir To Despair, it’s probably your most “Japanese” album to date, both in terms of the music and in your decision to sing in Japanese. Why did you feel the time was right for this album to be made?
Mirai: The biggest reason is that I got old enough. When I was a kid, I didn’t like anything Japanese. I guess it was not just me. Probably all the kids were not feeling comfortable with Japanese traditional culture because after World War II, Japan was rapidly being Americanized. Partly it was a propaganda and partly some of the American culture was cool for real. The point is, the Japanese culture to hate was there when I was a kid. At least some of the pop songs in TOP 40 sounded very Japanese back then, but now they are all gone! And now I started realizing how all those Japanese songs which I hated when I was a kid are touching me. So I decided to dedicate this album to late ’70s / early ’80s Japan where the Japanese culture was on the verge of extinction.
E&D: For lots of people here in Europe, our first exposure to you was through your signing to Deathlike Silence back in the ’90s. I was curious as to how you had ended up working with Euronymous, and what your impression was of the black metal scene in Europe at the time. Was it still seen as quite infamous, even in Japan?
Mirai: Back then I was sending out Requiem For Fools EP to every label I knew from all over the world and Deathlike Silence Productions was one of them. Actually I sent the EP to Dead but it was Euronymous who wrote back because Dead had already killed himself. He said he wanted do an album with Sigh and I said yes straightaway because he was the only one who showed interest in us.
In the early ’90s, everybody was enthusiastic about death metal and grindcore and nobody but Euronymous cared about ’80s thrash influenced stuff. I got to know people like Varg, Emperor, Enslaved etc. via Euronymous. Varg was boasting about his arson, but it was not easy for me to believe what he says. You know, he was burning down churches and boasting it around, then he was still on loose. Such a thing could not seem feasible in Japan. As far as music goes, I was really impressed with what was going on in Norway. Back then I started feeling that I could not keep up with the extreme metal scene. Literally EVERYBODY was enthusiastic about Earache albums. Death metal and grindcore were brutal for sure but they lacked something I liked. In December of 1990 Slayer came to Japan for the first time, then I clearly realized that thrash metal should be something I had to be after even if nobody understood it. That’s how the Requiem for Fools EP was recorded. Seriously nobody cared about evil thrash metal like Venom, Hellhammer, Sodom etc. except Yasuyuki from Abigail and me in Japan. All other metalheads were competing with how low they could tune their guitar. Then all of a sudden, I found out some people in Norway felt exactly in the same way, which was truly surprising. Back then nobody in Japan knew the scene in Norway. There was no internet, so there was no way to get to know what was going on there. I spread the word about them here in Japan.
E&D: What are your thoughts on music as an art form? Is it something necessary for you, and do you approach it cerebrally or do you prefer to adopt a more natural approach?
Mirai: I’m a person who rather approaches music cerebrally. Unfortunately as I am not musical genius that keeps coming up with great melodies, I had to learn a lot about music. I have learned everything from jazz theories to experimental classical music. Actually one of the challenges in Heir To Despair was to avoid the cerebral approach. I tried to write songs as natural as possible like playing keyboards without thinking about chord progression etc. So Heir to Despair may be a less cerebral album compared to other Sigh works, but at the same time trying to avoid a cerebral approach on purpose may be cerebral enough.
E&D: Given the personal nature of the new album, and the extensive instrumentation on the record, are you feeling intimidated by the thought of taking this material to the stage?
Mirai: Actually yes. I am thinking of playing some songs off the new album, but I am not sure if they sound good live. You know some songs that sound good on CD do not sound good at all live and that could be the case with Heir to Despair songs. Anyway I will give them a try and if it does not work, they will go away quick from our setlist.
E&D: The artwork for Heir To Despair is one of the most striking you’ve ever done. There’s something both idyllic and unsettling about it. What made this a good choice for the record, and how does it tie in with the lyrics and mood of the music?
One of the themes on the album is insanity. To be precise, it is about what insanity is. Insane people are insane because they are defined as insane. This is what Michel Foucault said. Before the concept of “insanity” was born, those people were just thought to be a bit different or funny. The similar things happen with music. Many people think there’s right or wrong about chords. Many people think there’s a right way to sing, but isn’t it right just because it is defined as right? Well, anyway all of us are more or less insane. Just look around social media, you’ll easily find people who are trying to show how happy they are. Some people are showing off what they have for dinner. Isn’t this insanity? It is insanity at least to my eyes. Who cares what you have for lunch? Why do you have to show other people that you are happy when you are happy for real? True insanity lurks everywhere. This is the artwork is about. The woman looks happy but everything else seems wrong. The plant she is watering is dead and the back room is a mess. This drawing is actually based on Japanese psychotropic drug advertisements from ’60s / ’70s. I sent some of my favourites to Eliran Kantor to show what kind of atmosphere I wanted and he did the perfect job again.
E&D: Finally, any last words for us devoted fans out there?
Mirai: Thank you very much for your support. We truly appreciate it. There should be some cool releases / re-issues for 2019 so keep your eye on us.