by Parker Langvardt
Featuring former members of Montreal's Lesbian Fight Club, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is an art collective that uses music, theatrics, and visual art to subtly communicate their worldview through a constantly expanding story, tied together by the recurring characters within each of their works. The group broke into the music world last fall with their debut self-titled LP, which combines the Asian characteristics of their art and theater with psychedelic pop and rock. Earlier this year they performed an experimental theater piece called 33 at Rhubarb Festival in Toronto, which they are planning a new incarnation of later this year. Both their debut album and 33 were developed in conjunction with their opera, Star, which is still in the works. They kick off their first-ever headlining tour with a show at Schubas this Friday (5/18). Tickets are still available.
I recently spoke with Yamantaka // Sonic Titan cofounder Ruby Kato Attwood. Our bvChicago exclusive interview starts here...
bvChicago: Have you ever been to Chicago?
Ruby Kato Attwood: Never, but I do know that [Chicago] has the largest square footage of green roofs in all of North America, so I'm very excited to go there. I had a friend who was studying international development and sustainable development a few years ago, and I became really interested in green roof technology because in Montreal there are all these old 1950s buildings, which they used to call pancake buildings. They're totally flat, one level. They're over-engineered. They're really strong, so they're a very good candidate for a layer of succulent plants. There aren't as many as in Chicago and I was really interested so I did all this crazy research, and it seems like the university community was really working with the mayor in the early and mid 2000s and they were able to lower their heat island effect by like 3 degrees or something like that, which is really huge, and they save all this water.
Funnily enough, I don't know much about the art scene there other than a few artists, but I'm definitely psyched to play the show. I haven't traveled very much in the states, so I'm really excited.
bvC: Are you aware that a taxi crashed into Schubas two weeks ago and punched a hole in the wall?
Ruby: Shut up! This was an accident? One of my first kind of weirdo influences was this English teacher that I had in high school. I mean, aside from my parents - my parents are really weird. He actually had a brain aneurysm and died by driving his pickup truck into a hair salon. It was kind of this comforting thing because I felt like it was a really poetic death, but also that he didn't suffer. It definitely closed down the hair salon and definitely affected the inside of the hair salon.
bvC:I noticed that you aren't playing a Detroit show, though you'll be driving by there on your way from Toronto.
Ruby: If we were going to play a Detroit show, where do you think the best place to play would be?
bvC: Probably the Magic Stick, I've seen Russian Circles, an instrumental band from Chicago, there a handful of times.
Ruby: The Magic Stick, eh? I saw Russian Circles open for Boris. It was last year in Montreal. It's kind of like music that pushes on the edge of noise, or an atmosphere. Sometimes during the show, if you're not really there, you're aware that you're standing there with a bunch of people watching something going on, because maybe it's not so in your face, but then after you reap a creative benefit because somehow through taking the time to experience that kind of music your imagination gets recharged or something. It's more generative or something. I don't remember any of the songs, it was just like this washy, weird experience, but I remember having this feeling afterwards that I felt was pretty unique.
bvC: What were you and Y//ST cofounder Alaska B studying at Concordia in Montreal?
Ruby: She studied Interdisciplinary Arts. I was studying religion and I switched to Studio Arts. You need to continue one medium all the way to the end and I chose drawing.
bvC: You've been applying what you learned there to Yamantaka // Sonic Titan?
Ruby: Yes, constantly. We often have very similar ideas, actually almost all the time, but we have really different approaches. It's really fortunate, because we want to work on the same thing, but we bring totally different things to it, so that's how we're able to produce. It's always been the case. Always. The first time we met it was immediate. There was never any question about it.
bvC: Where are you at in getting your opera, Star, ready to be performed?
Ruby: A couple more songs need to be nailed down. Most of the music from YT//ST will be featured. Some of the instrumental parts still need to be constructed. A few more songs I think, I think we're missing a few things. Obviously like sets and costumes and casting. Most of the casting is done. There will be a couple of other characters that are not necessarily in the touring band or have played with us before. There are some dance elements and other performers that need to be included. We're working on right now on developing the immersive space for that project. It's an experimental presentation, so it will be somewhere between installation and theater. Some of the technical elements really do need to be tested and written through, but the story and everything is nailed down. It's quite a lot longer process than just recording a record because there are a lot of professional details that you have to go through. If you're using a professional stage you need to have insurance. You need to have lots and lots and lots of money. It's a bit of process gathering those eggs, but we're doing it.
bvC: How similar is the stage scenery going to be to what you do when you play as a band?
Ruby: It will be similar style, but it will be less "it can be packed in an eight person van and driven all over the country" style, and a lot more elaborate and delicate because it doesn't have to get kicked around.
bvC: How did you originally develop the puppets that you use on stage?
Ruby: They're based on Chinese and Japanese dragon puppets. We like the idea of this celebratory puppet. It's kind of related to parades or other kinds of public demonstrations of paper culture, I guess. We were both really fascinated with the way they were constructed and the way that they were made, so the one we currently use is a really mix of a Japanese and Chinese style. The Japanese style tends to be a little more streamlined and has the long poles. Chinese ones have the people right inside, so it's more like a costume than a puppet so it's a combination.
bvC: How do you construct these?
Ruby: It's all out of paper and cardboard. How do we construct them? Over days and days and days and days. First we go and we find free cardboard somewhere and then we design based on what we have, usually. Originally Alaska and I created Asian-inspired traditional instruments out of garbage that we would find on the street. We'd be walking around and be like "ooh, that can looks like a koto!" and then we would bring it home and try to make it into a koto because we had no money. That ahs really extended further, I mean it's very practical. There's always cardboard and there's always paper for us, anyway, in the city. You just go and ask and they give it to you and then just buy a bucket of house paint and put it together. Beyond that, there's definitely some skill where we have to design things to be structurally sound and test them and then actually construct them. It's quite a lot of work.
bvC: Have you had anyone show up with their face painted, or with their own puppet?
Ruby: I don't know. I'm waiting. We haven't really played tons of shows yet, actually. Alaska has been quite busy in school. We had been on hiatus sort of, we were in this group Lesbian Fight Club before. Honestly, we didn't know. We just made the record. We didn't plan to be pros. We wanted to, but we were just like "our friends, you have a record label." They were like, "come on just put the record out," and we were like "come on, just put it out for us." We did it and it was successful so now we're trying to tour.
bvC: So you just kind of fell into being a band?
Ruby: Yeah, we had to really tighten it up. Before that it was mainly Alaska and I playing with a rotating cast of members. Alaska and I were kind of the core. Alana [Ruth] has always been there, our onstage lighting person. She performed in Lesbian Fight Club but she's never performed music for Sonic Titan, but she's always done our lights and worked with costumes for us. That was a really important part of our work with the lighting. That's why we credit her on the record. Everyone's like, "Lightning, what does that mean? She like played the lightning in the soundscape, or whatever?" It's like, no, she's just always done lights for us and she's been a key member of the collective ever since it started. So we had to get a band together. Shub Roy [guitar] is not touring with us. John Ancheta is doing the bass and the guitar.
bvC: Who else makes up your touring band?
Ruby: Angela Loft, she's a crucial member of the collective. She does a lot of singing. Brendan Swanson is the keyboard player, and Alaska and I, and then Alana.
bvC: How central to Yamantaka//Sonic Titan is the band itself?
Ruby: I would say that it's like if Yamantaka//Sonic Titan were like an octopus, then it's like one of the legs. Definitely very key. Definitely if it got cut off we'd be bleeding and very screwed, but we have other stuff going on for sure. The band has been the most visible, I guess.
bvC: What was the recording process like for YT//ST?
Ruby: Our recording process was a series of rentals and strange spaces. We would rent the microphones. We recorded a lot in the Gloryhole, Alaska's tiny little basement. We recorded in John's studio, his painting studio. That's where all the vocals for "A Star Over Pureland" were recorded. We recorded in a couple people's apartments. Some of the songs like "Reverse Crystal" and "Murder of a Spider" were really written out of the process of recording but most of the songs were written before. Alaska recorded everything except for a couple of guitars, except a couple of the guitars, I think John recorded some guitars for the record. She mixed it and we sat there and figured out what we were going to do.
bvC: What did Alaska study when she went back to school?
Ruby: Computer animation. That's really her love.
bvC: Has she created anything out of that for Yamantaka//Sonic Titan?
Ruby: No. She just finished last week. It's quite an intense program. I made an animation for "Hoshi Neko" but it was definitely not anything that Alaska would have made. She's really more into 3D animation. The one I had made was stop-motion with cutouts and it was made on 16 mm film. So that's what I mean. We're really interested in the same thing but we have totally different approaches and skills, so it's sweet.
bvC: There is an obvious video game influence in the "Hoshi Neko" video, as well as anime. Manga makes its way into your art as well. What are some of your favorite video games, comic books, and animated series or movies?
Ruby: Umm, wow. Well, in all reality, I play video games very rarely. The ones I get most graphically influenced by are older, like Pac Man, Super Mario, and Metroid especially. Especially the music [in Metroid]. In terms of graphic novels, Osamu Tezuka is one of my heroes in terms of drawing. His line is just really old school, and I see that line in paintings from Japan, Renaissance drawing. It's just this mark of a master, where it just comes out. It's kind of like magic. He created Astro-boy. The one I love the most is called Phoenix, which spans millions of years and there's this magical space bird. In animated series, I guess everything from Studio Ghibli, and the obvious ones like Sailor Moon and Naruto.
I have friends that create video games and sometimes the most interesting things to me are like, "Come on Ruby, try this. What's wrong with it? What should I do?" I love when I'm getting these little fragments and parts of it are glitching and stuff. I love looking at the tests that people do on the Internet that are weird little mods that people do to video games to make them look strange or when they find some kind of weird error. It's like when you have a paradigm shift in the real world. There's just stuff you didn't see before and little cracks where everything starts to spiral into each other. That's where I think it' the most interesting. The thing I find kind of repetitive about a lot of video games is they're really goal oriented. You're always trying to get to the next thing, whether it's an RPG, a side-scroller, a flash game, or a first person shooter. There's just always this thing you have to do, and when I find I'm trying to look at a game in more of this "meta" way where I can start to see where the elements come together to create a vision or a pathway, I find it's a lot more interesting. It's not that I don't like the part you're supposed to like. And I like to play Wii, especially with kids. It's the best.
I always get questions where people have an assumption that I have all this cultural knowledge, but, like, I grew up on a farm and I really find it honestly really difficult to be constantly saturated with information and culture all the time. In terms of musical influences, I really enjoy listening to the sounds that are around me, and it seems like that would be benign or not that interesting, but I do really find it incredibly absorbing and fascinating. It's not that I don't think that bands are interesting or people that make music are interesting. Obviously I love that, but it's not necessarily where I draw a lot of my influence. When I entertain myself through video games or animation, as I get older I find it's more of a less is more attitude for me, just because I stop actually paying attention at a certain point. I really do just stop absorbing everything that's going on. Especially with something as amazing as animation, and when you go back fifty years and think about how every cell was hand colored and all the music was by an orchestra, it gets really overwhelming. Alaska's brain is like a giant computer. She can just remember every band and every reference you ever wanted.
bvC: I've always been into loud, aggressive music, but the more I listen to ambient music, the more I understand how to listen to what's going on around me.
Ruby: I was walking yesterday with an umbrella in the park and the distant cars and the rain hitting my umbrella was this incredible...there were like sounds within the sounds. It was really trippy. Or like my fridge, my fridge has the cutest hum. It's got like seven layers of hum. Because it's mechanical you get this kind of arpeggiation within the arpeggiation. Each of the parts is going to kind of their own rhythm so it creates this super, super, super quiet cacophony. It's like invisible. It's so trippy. It's like finding those weird glitches in the game, but you don't necessarily notice them at all, but they're always there, and once you notice them it changes the way I look at them completely. I'm like "aw, little fridge!" It's like I actually see it for the first time, and then I forget about it, and when I see it again it's kind of like meeting this old friend and I really enjoy that.
I've been listening to the entire Melvins discography. That's been really great, that's what I've been cleaning my house to. That's been helping me out. I like very, very aggressive music but I've been asking myself questions like why I get so irritated by a siren or a big truck or some construction or something, and when I really listen to the sounds it's like a very similar sound to a synthesizer or crazy drums. I recently saw Boredoms at ATP when we played there and that's fucking crazy. There are like seven full drum kits on stage. It is so loud. It's thunderous. There's screaming and yelling, and in another context I would find that disturbing. I've been thinking a lot about how the appearance of the choice I have for what I hear and the context in which I hear it really informs what the sounds actually means. I think sometimes listening and noticing when I'm listening and when I'm aware and how I can turn off my ears and how I can turn them back on. It's a deeper awareness. I feel like I can get that with vision a lot easier. It's a lot easier to not see than it is to not hear, I find. Things like that have been helping me live in the city and understand how it affects a crowd.
bvC: The sounds of Chicago seem to influence of the noisier music, especially atmospheric sounds, like e-bowed guitar.
Ruby: I know, and e-bowed guitar really sounds like seagulls sometimes. There's this kind "ssk," this croaking delay that it has. It's when a finger will brush the string. With the e-bow, the delay and reverberation create this weird feeling of distance and flying and floating. John Ancheta has been experimenting with e-bow for a couple of our songs and I'm like, "those are birds. So weird!" It's creepy actually.
I love music that tries to create this feeling of a vast space. That's why I like delay, reverb. I don't want it to bury sounds, and obviously I don't want it to go over the top, but I like poly-textural and polyrhythmic music that tries to take up this big, big space. I really think that that comes from having contact with a vast track of land for a whole lot of my life. When I moved to Montreal for the first time as a teenager I had never lived in a city before and I was crying. I couldn't sleep. I was like, "This place does not get dark at night. It doesn't get quiet at night. There are no animals. I don't know how to live here." I learned to cope; I just had one of those eye masks and earplugs. I definitely was really, really shocked by how much sound there was. Just a lot of sound. Hearing things like wind and water and seeing larger movements, slower movement has always influenced me.
bvC: Does the way you pay attention to ambient sound relate to you being Buddhist?
Ruby: Yes. My personality type is naturally kind of flighty. I practice yoga and meditation daily because if I don't I really lose physical awareness. When I lose physical awareness, I lose the awareness of my own thoughts. Then I get trapped in my thoughts. It's really dangerous to not know that you're making your own world in your mind. When I walk I practice meditation with sound. If I'm with a friend I practice meditation with true listening. Those are definitely normal, daily activities for me. They come from a Buddhist and Yogic tradition, but it's like basic psychology. You have to ground yourself in order to get anything done.
It does have to do with being Buddhist, but it's not necessarily an esoteric practice. It's more of a way for me to stay in touch with where I am in my life instead of getting lost in the past or in the future, and that's really important for me especially in the act of playing music. It's essential. You can't worry. You have to play. You have to listen, and you have to be there for your band because you're creating a thing together. You don't get in a stinky van and deal with your friends for months on end in close quarters because you necessarily want to do that. You do it because you can't make the thing you're making by yourself. You have to be aware, and really there for it to actually work.
bvC: Sometimes darker, heavier music as an evil association, but it doesn't have to. There are some darker moments on YT//ST, so what kind of energy are you trying to create?
Ruby: Let me see. How can I explain this? One of the main ideas of Buddhism is this idea of emptiness. I'm sure you've heard that kind of hocked before. The emptiness of reality, or how reality is like a dream. If we say that the human condition, in terms of Buddhism, is generalized as a form of suffering, we're apathetic, we're bored, and we're alienated. People in our world either suffer too much - it's horrible - or suffer too little and they have no way to become in touch. So there's this whole idea of being passionate and being able to see their suffering no matter what their situation is, and you come to this conclusion that life is suffering. That's one of the four noble truths of Buddhism.
The idea of emptiness is kind of an answer to that in a way. Which is that everything is interconnected, and based, I think, on this monist thought of unity, which can be related to Jung or Spinoza or something. If you believe that everything was made of the same thing. It's debated in physics, like subatomic particles, or energy, or whatever you want to call it. "God's will." I mean, I'm not going to call it that. We see that maybe good and evil are not necessarily so separate because you can't have one without the other. What's not dark is light and what's not light is dark. When you create a binary in order to communicate and in order to perceive and discern, which is necessary for living, you create suffering because you divide what is actually not separate. That's like the concept of emptiness. When the Buddha was "enlightened" under the Bodhi tree or whatever, he realized that everything was interconnected, so that if we die, our body becomes something else. If we lose something, we don't actually lose it because we never really had it to begin with, because you can't own something that you're a part of. It's only true separation that you can own or lose or suffer. It's supposed to be an answer to suffering.
If you want to talk more on a musical level, we definitely just kind of let the songs be what they are, because it's not necessarily something that's wholly controllable. We create a lot of songs in an experimental way or an improvisational way. Some of the songs are really, really planned out beforehand, but it always comes from this process of screwing around. It's a weird process. Every song is different. What song are you talking about, "A Star Over Pureland"? That's the one that gets really crazy. Nobody's mom in the band likes that song. My mom's like, "I always love to hear you sing, but there's that one songs that's a little too..."
But, I mean, we suffer. I think real joy comes from accepting suffering and understanding it and acting kind of accordingly. I like heavy music because that's how I feel sometimes. That's what I was trying to say when I listen to sirens or bricks being dropped off a roof or something exploded in the city. That's what that music sounds like. That's what I feel we're surrounded by a lot of the time. I feel lucky to be sheltered from bombs. I don't think I'm going to die being trapped in some horrible cell. I feel like I don't have those experiences, but I do think of it. I think it's important to make dark music but it's not necessarily to make other people to feel dark. It's just an acknowledgement of existing darkness.
bvC: Often when I listen to dark music I feel positive and calm.
Ruby: Oh I know, and that's what I was trying to say about Russian Circles. It's really subtle. It's like experiencing a place or hanging out with somebody, where you get an impression or there's a trace left in your body of...not necessarily how you've experience the music itself and it being acted on you, but you bring something to it. What you bring to it is transformed through your experience of the music and that's why I feel like performing music is really important because it's something that I go through with the audience. It's something I experience with them, and I really enjoy that connection.
bvC: With your visual art there are also dark elements. The images of skulls in your exhibit Konami Komando had to do with your Asian identity in Canada?
Ruby: Yeah, we create this mood-scape to deal with our personal narratives, or our stories that we tell ourselves, so we put them in this fictionalized non-linear place where they can be discussed and formed and broken apart and forgotten and re-imagined, and that becomes a place of empowerment for us - or for me, I can't speak for the group. Issues of racism and alienation and human suffering and also this disconnect with the body and this idea of race as this physical cage, or a way that you're identified without your consent. It's a way to engage with those streams and to create a meta-narrative, and then a meta-meta-narrative, and then a meta-meta-meta narrative, so that it's a movement instead of a wall that you come against or a window that just you're looking out through and wishing that you were there. That installation was just based on a story that we made up, and it still goes on.
That character Blastro, he's on the front of the record coming up through all the goo. We have a bunch of characters that keep rotating and they do all of these stories, and we treat them as longer myths like things you'd find in Chinese opera where the tales are really long. Like the story of the Passion of Christ, where you have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John where they're all telling this story from their own perspective. There's a different idea and a different cultural context. We tried these characters in these recurring themes that just take different approaches and take different elements from each of them to present in installations or musical/experimental theater type stuff.
bvC: What's going on the album cover? Is there a black hole above Blastro?
Ruby: Yes, he is rising out of this meat goo sea of bones. It's debatable whether or not it's before or after some kind of apocalyptic event or whether it's on Earth or on this other planet. On the back of the album there's this rain cloud that's like this cloud of acid gas. I would say it's psychedelic. It's definitely a psychedelic worldview. There's this emphasis on recurrence, on symbols, on transformation. We set it up so that the themes are kind of improvised in that everybody brings their own cultural baggage to the table and just dumps it out. It's a way for us to share and it becomes a safe space to discuss issues of trauma without actually having to talk about it, because nobody wants to talk about it. It's better if you don't. You just have to live through it and do your best. If you stop and you dwell then you actually lose sight. We work with these heavy cultural themes on the sidelines without making a direct comment about any of it because then it's like this horrible hammer that comes down and smashes any kind of growth that could be there. It's not really in our interest to create dark or light music or to say something. It's not really political. It's more cultural. It's just the demand to have a space to do that. I guess that's maybe the political aspect of it, but it's like more of a cultural approach.
Yamantaka is the god that destroyed Death by showing it to itself. It multiplied itself in the form of death thousands and thousands of times and Death was so terrified that it died. It's this process of making something and then looking at it and then making something and then looking at it. This idea of authenticity is very dangerous. It's diluted. If you go back to this idea of emptiness, then how can there be purity if there is no separation? There's no purity because you need something to be separate to be pure, or to be real. I really believe in stuff like the overlap of realities and how two seemingly totally opposite and totally contradictory realities can be very real and very present in the same moment and I think that is sort of inherently, and I hesitate to use the word inherent, but political.
bvC: There are all these traditions that are worked into your music and a lot of times you are reinterpreting them and combining them together. How could you do anything more than reinterpret what you've taken in? Isn't that the process of art?
Ruby: That's very post-modern constructivist. I mean, yes, but, no. I mean...shit. That's a serious question. I definitely would say that's a question that I take to my bed every night. I think about that. For my whole life I didn't really know any other Asians except for my mom and her friends in the city and there were other European hippies around me. I tried to be white. It didn't work. I was like, well, I'll try to be Japanese, but that also didn't work. In terms of imitation, if that's all there is, then you ask yourself, "What am I imitating then?" So, if you're imitating something, and you're taking the idea about what you're imitating as the authentic thing, then what you're doing is the imitation. What about them? What are they imitating? How did they become original and you became the imitator? So, I get uncomfortably running on that treadmill, and I like to see it as less of a treadmill but more of like a road or a path that I'm going along because I think it comes to something less linear than that. It's kind of like a soup or something instead of a line of communication.
bvC: Through imitating a combination of things you become authentic in your own way, to some extent.
Ruby: Yes, you do, but at that very same time it throws the idea of authenticity out. If you can become authentic, then the power of authenticity is not necessarily nullified, but it comes into a subjective light, which I think is different than say like "no, objectively, this is the real tradition, and this is really where we come from."
Alaska and I one time had this conversation very, very early in our relationship where we were like "fucking Quentin Tarantino!" Kill Bill came out, and we were like, "It's a good Samuri movie but it's shitty Samuri movie, and they just keep showing Uma Thurmon's butt, and they can't even hire somebody Asian for the lead person, and he just uses cool music, and he's tricky and talented, and we hate and we like him and we don't know what we think, but we think we hate him. Or maybe we're jealous or maybe we want to do that."
I guess we constantly come up to this idea of authenticity and that's really what the work is about. We've received some criticism for fantasization, but I feel that criticism comes from a place of not really understand what it's like to be identified as a cultural that you don't necessarily feel a part of and to be rejected from a culture that you sort of share with but are not necessarily recognized as, and it's not so cut and dry as that either. I've never been to Japan. I don't know what it would be like. That's a kind of loss that I can't really look at, because I don't actually know. It's like the loss of a loss, and I think that's kind of like the idea of being authentically authentic or the idea of being originally original. There's too much meaning so you have to let go of it a little bit and then just try to engage, and it's just through that trying to engage that some meaning arises. You can't really try to hard.
bvC: They're trying hard to compare it to something instead of just letting it be. Like, "I think it should be this and it's not."
Ruby: Totally. Most people experience that on a daily basis. Expectation is a thing you need to stay alive. You expect that you're going to be able to get out of bed and you expect that your lungs are going to work and that your hearts going to beat and that you're going to be able to remember what you do for your job, and that you're going to be able to recognize your friends and all these kind of things. It's like a basic biological function, and you do it all the time. You assume based on the color of peoples' skin or how they act or where they're from, what language they speak, and to not be aware of that is extremely irresponsible, and to be kind with yourself about it is the only thing you can do to allow yourself to see it.
It's constantly this issue of, you know, it's all PC and everything's pushed under and it's worse. To me it's worse. It's like putting a band-aid on a festering sore. I mean, you have to clean this thing out and it's going to hurt, but it's the only way to move forward. Who's to say you're going to get rid of the scar. You can't erase what has happened in our world and what still happens. People are shipped in containers and used as slaves and murdered when they're children, or they wake up and they are born and they have no food and they just die. That's a reality of some people's worlds, and then some people never have to work one day in their life and they don't know how to live outside of a bubble of urban comfort and the Internet and things like that. I mean, that's our species, right? That's our big family. There's a lot of beauty that comes out of that because there can't be there can't be that much ugliness without that much beauty as well.
Thanks, Ruby! Catch Yamantaka // Sonic Titan's tour opener at Schubas on Friday.