Tamio Shiraishi

"I like to think about my music being able to cut the world."
Interview by Cammisa Buerhaus 
Portrait by Yuko Torihara

I met Tamio in 2010, when I was living at WestNile, an industrial space 
in Williamsburg I shared with eight other people. I vaguely recognized him as ‘the strange old guy who came to all the shows." In the months before our lofts were torn down, Tamio approached me saying that his friend’s band wanted to play at our house; a group called Maher Shalal Hash Baz. I watched from Owen's room, which was on the second floor of the loft, as the band set up between a five foot high pile of garbage, our wreck of a kitchen, and our single window, permanently blocked by a stair ladder. The band seemed happy to be there. I didn’t meet Tamio again until two years later, and we decided to start a band. He asked me to dance but I insisted on playing my pipe organ. We practiced once a week at my loft at 262 Bowery. Afterwards we would get sushi and he would tell me stories about the old days. “Somehow,” he often says, “Somehow, I am still here.”

I want to start off by talking about the eighties.
That’s more than 35 years ago.
How old are you?
I’m 65.
How old were you when you started playing music? 
I guess it was 26. I graduated from the Tokyo Institute of Technology at 26 with a Masters in Applied Physics. Then I started to work as a computer software engineer.
Salary man.
Yeah, and after that I started to perform music.Most musicians started in their student age or teenager or something, but I had a late start.

Free Sounds Workshop Flyer, Club Minor, 1978

Why did you start?
When I was a student it was age of the Anti-Vietnam war movement so and there were many political movement all around. Not only in Japan but actually all around the world which infiltrated art, music, theater. As a student I was in the audience, my profession was in science, mathematics, not art related. When I started to work, I was very frustrated by my own life, so I started by myself to perform.
And this was inspired by the Anti-Vietnam movement?
Before 1970 and after ’70, the behavior of the young person very different in Japan. It became totally different, the behavior, daily life of the young person. It may be related to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, also here in USA.
What was your first instrument?
A very old type of synthesizer is what I bought at first.
Would you play by yourself?
At first. Sometimes with my friends. Then couple of years later, I began to play at Minor.
Club Minor was free, yeah?
Not free but very cheap. When I first went there it was a cafe for free jazz. My friends liked going there, because we liked free jazz, performance art, avant-garde... but we also liked punk rock. We told the owner, Mr. Sato, and I eventually started organizing concert series with free jazz, performance art and punk.

Kousokuya , Suffering Broken Song, 1978

What was it called?
Joyo Kachi Bunkai Kojo. It means Surplus Value Factory Discontuity or Taking Surplus Value Apart Factory. It came from communist terminology. I curated for two or three years.
Who was the first band to play at Minor?
Kousokuya had been trying to organize a concert and they were very young, 19. Their intention was to perform with very high energy. They were very unique, very aggressive, very progressive. But they continued only a couple of months or so.
Where did you find the musicians?
I met most of them at Minor. Many people hung out there and I asked them what are you doing or to see their performance. Before that I had very few friends.
I heard that Minor was used as a rehearsal space too.
We needed rehearsal space so Mr. Sato rented us the club as rehearsal space. It’s very relatively open space so many people get around while other people perform. There were very many open sessions there. And while some person perform, other people would sit and watch and got acquainted with each other. Actually, Keiji Haino is one of the first people I met there.
You played with his group Fushitsusa in the original lineup, right?
Yes, somehow he saw my performance and asked me to join. I played with him for their first show.

Keiji Haino & Tamio Shiraishi live at Issue Project Room, 2013

What instrument did you play?
Synthesizer and percussion. It was only a couple of months also, very short time.
How would you describe playing in Fushitsusa?
It was a quarrel, a fight, using sounds. It was very intense. We fought mentally. The rehearsal is like a fight so it could not really continue for a long time. I quit very quickly. Even after that, he would sometimes join the concert I organized. I believe he’s a very good friend.
You also played in Taco. How would you describe Taco?
I would describe Taco as half sounds, half performance of pulsating. It seems like he’s a vocalist but from my viewpoint, it’s just his body pulsating, rolling down, fall down. It’s difficult from an audience viewpoint, it’s difficult to view.
What would you do?
My role is make the frame of those performances. My saxophone cut the space. Saxophone is good to make frame. It’s relatively easy, especially start. The time of the start of the performance.

Live at Shinjuku, 2011

The quiet before a show?
An essential thing is the quietness just before start something. For example, running 100 meters in only ten second. Ten second is the whole of his or her world. But just before that ten second, there are lots of time and concentration to prepare for it. That very, very quiet just before the start of the 100 meters race. That quietness, it’s narrow or concentrated, then explodes. Those type of techniques, I believe it’s, each person has his or her own technique to be concentrated.
How did you start playing saxophone?
A friend wanted to borrow money so he gave me a saxophone as a pawn.
Who asked you to borrow money?
Tori Kudo.
Ha. Did you know how to play the saxophone?
No, I didn’t know how to play saxophone so I bit, which created a very high tone, a strange sound. So I started saxophone. It’s one type of technique to let myself be more, with high tension, something.
When you’re performing?
Yeah. High notes in performance is high tension. The other artists who were playing at Minor had a lot of tension. For example, Jun Hamano would pulsate his body as he played the guitar. He would be sitting in his chair and begin to play and never stand up but because of the pulsation he would end up on the other side of the room.

Tamio Shiraishi, Ten O'Clock Theater

So you totally moved away from the synthesizer?
Within weeks. I had already become frustrated with my Synthesizer. It’s too far from human body. The saxophone is in between.
What happened when Minor closed?
We lost the the major place to perform and it was difficult to find another one. Gradually, my activity was going down. Then a couple years later I started to perform on the street.
Where would you play?
The place I found was a very big square in front of the train station. It was surrounded by big buildings. I liked that place and I often, maybe once a month or so, I perform there for a long time, until I come to New York in 1990.
Why did you move to New York City?
It wasn’t for artist reasons. I found a job here so that’s why I moved to New York. My English isn’t very good so I studied when I got here. Forty years is not good age to start studying a new language.
Would you go to shows?
I would often go to the Punk shows on Saturdays at ABC NO RIO.I would also ​go see bands at CBGB's, but for me, ​CBGB was a minor venue. For me NYC Punk was at ABC No Rio.

Tamio Shiraishi & Sean Meehan, Summer Concert, 2013/span>

How did you start organizing outdoor shows?
Do you mean the summer session with Sean Meehan? He suggested I join his outdoor performances. It has continued for more than 15 years now.​
​Y​ou have also performed outdoors, as a solo artist, and with many other performer, including myself. What draws you to perform outdoors?
O​ne of the reason is my instrument,the ​saxophone​, is easy to perform outdoors​. A​nother reason is, some outdoor spaces have extremely good reverberation for my sounds.F​or example : subway stations,like the ​Shinjuku St​ation S​quare in Tokyo.I ​really love to perform at such spaces especially when it sounds like penetrating spaces quietly.
You also once told me of performing outdoors with No Neck from far far away. Why did you choose to collaborate like that?
It depends on the situation. For example: once I performed with dancers at a ​very wide outdoor space, at the end, I​ walked far away from dancers... because I thought the relation between the sounds and dancers would be better in that circumstances.

E train Spring street, 2014

I remember you telling me about the time you played outside in Scotland and seagulls gathering.
They would fly along above us. I don’t know, they gathered ​around because they like or they hate. I guess they hate. They feel some bait. I’m not sure. But somehow, almost every time I play outside they try to attack me. They fly straight to me. Maybe they don’t like the instrument. They’re feeling some opposite...
Well, that’s not the first time that somebody has tried to attack you because of your music.You’ve told me stories about pedestrians getting violently angry at you when you play, especially in the subway.
It depends on the station. I used to try to perform relatively busy station, and some people would really like it and some would really hate it. Recently I started performing in Spring Street station which is very quiet. 
I remember the first time we spoke at Big Snow you said you liked my big, deep sounds and wanted to maybe collaborate. What is it that inspires you to collaborate?
Maybe I told you at that time, I was frustrated to my own solo performance, so I need something new, strange or different. Just as you said, I was looking for a low sound​because of my high tone, and thought maybe it would be good collaboration.

Tamio Shiraishi with Camissa Buerhaus live at Issue Project Room

And it has been.
And I’ve definitely fought against your sound. But being able to have a fight with someone is rare. And to continue to have a conversation after a fight, it’s rare. It’s emotional. I think we need both.
Does it go beyond sound?
Sound is not my only concern. A person with some sense of performance can be great for me.
Do you have an image in mind that would describe your sound? Or your goals?
It’s from Japanese style fencing. I read in book, when they are attacked by a short distance there is a way to respond with a cut of the full human body. It’s a very trained, high rank of soldiers that can cut human body very, very in short instance. I like to think about my music being able to cut the world.

From Sex Magazine #10 Spring 2015
Labelled Music