Akita's singular project takes inspiration from psychedelic and progressive rock (he played drums in a number of Tokyo bands in the '70s), dadaism and surrealism (Merzbow is a corruption of Merzbau, the collage-like remodeling job that engulfed much of the German artist Kurt Schwitters' family home in Hanover), doom and death metal (his collaborators include Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley and the Japanese grindcore band Melt-Banana) and the raw materials of his music-making (he's made music with everything from laptops, an EMS VCS3 synthesizer and DIY instruments fashioned from junk metal and contact mics). Since the beginning of the 2000s, the plight of animals and the environment have weighed heavily on his work—Akita is particularly outspoken about his vegan diet and care for creatures (see 13 Japanese Birds, a series of 13 albums, released approximately one per month between January '09 and January '10). It's possible that Akita, born in Tokyo in 1956, is mellowing with age, with his signature noise bursts increasingly punctuated by near-ambient textures and a steady beat. It's also possible that he's the most unlikely crossover act in history—if you've only heard of one noise artist, there's a good chance it's Merzbow.
I met Akita in February of this year at a cheery vegan restaurant tucked next to a highway amidst Tokyo's sprawl. A jarringly black-clad presence presiding over a cream-colored booth in the far corner, he wasn't tough to spot. Akita spoke very quietly and seemed to take great care with his answers. We talked through a translator, which might give the impression here that Akita was less forthcoming and generous than he really was.
You're probably the most prolific artist I can think of. So I guess the best way to start is by asking: what are you up to at the moment?
What am I working on right now… well, there's this Japanese band called Boris, and it's a collaboration with them. We've finished recording already, and right now we're working on the sleeve and things like that. The collaboration is going to be released as a two-record set, where one half is Boris, and the other is mine, and as a concept we thought it would be good if they could both be played at the same time. I heard Boris' first, and the length is the only thing that is matched to them.
You've collaborated with Boris many times. Why does the collaboration work so well?
I've been working with Boris since the '90s—it's like we get each other. Then there's also the fact that Atsuo from Boris is vegan, so that makes collaborating that much easier as well.
I guess it's not just a matter of you being prolific, it's also how long you've been prolific for. How do you keep up the pace?
I do occasionally have gigs where I perform with supporting members, but generally Merzbow is a solo project that I do myself, so in that sense there is no end. As long as I continue, Merzbow continues.
I'd imagine that requires a fair amount of energy and creativity. How do you get that level of energy and creativity to flow?
Rather than it simply having it flow out, I make tracks after getting a request. But then each time I try to make something which I find interesting myself. I'm inspired by all sorts of things.
The number-one inspiration has to be listening to records. I also occasionally listen to my old stuff as well.
From the Merzbow back catalog, do you have any specific tracks, albums or time periods that you're especially fond of?
I'm always trying out all sorts of new styles in the moment, so I definitely like best the thing that I'm working on at the time.
Would it be rare for you, then, to listen back to something you made in, say, the '90s?
Sometimes I put some unreleased recording box sets out, and I do have moments when I listen to all sorts of things from back then and think, "This is good." But if I wanted to use similar equipment to recreate that sound, it's actually not possible—it's like the motivation is different. The sound might be interesting, but it's not possible for me to make it today. Everything is different.
Aside from your own work, what sort of artists and sounds are you most inspired by?
Generally what I've always listened to is '60s and '70s rock, which I was listening to since I was a teenager. That is the biggest inspiration. Otherwise, with new stuff, I've always listened to new metal music as well.
I find it interesting that your music is simultaneously abrasive and, in a way, widely appealing. For example, I write for a magazine that primarily covers dance music, but it doesn't feel like a huge stretch interviewing you, especially as more beats have worked into your music in recent years. Does it go the other way? Is dance music something you're at all interested in?
I first got to know this kind of thing in the middle of the '90s with artcore, or just about when drum & bass and similar genres started out. Each time I did a gig in Europe, I got closer with the guys from Editions Mego, and we'd do shows together—with Pita, [Florian] Hecker or Russell Haswell, amongst others. After I got to know them, I started using laptops or computers. Then for a while after that, until around the mid-2000s, I was just using a laptop, and still doing a lot of techno-type shows back then. Then I started seeing artists like Stephen O'Malley and Sunn O))) emerge, and I also did shows with them. Mego was kind of ambient, but it mixed with a doom and metal sound. I always had a connection with metal, death metal and doom, so I naturally mixed in with that [electronic] crowd.
You make a lot of your own kit. What inspires you to make an instrument?
It's not really anything that impressive. But beginning in the '90s, I was playing with all sorts of junk, like iron plates, by putting contact microphones onto them and changing the tone with effects. Often during a gig, the cable from the contact microphone would break off. So at the beginning, it started from me wondering if I couldn't change the equipment to a more compact shape so that the microphone wouldn't disconnect. I often make a metallic case, which I make a hole in to pass the contact mic through, and then attach a spring. I've made a few pieces like that. That's the process, really.
Are you still making your own instruments?
Actually, no. I've been working in analog again recently. Generally I have metallic instruments that I connect to fuzz devices, and what I'm using now is one I've used from ages back, the Roland Double Beat AD-50 wah/fuzz pedal, so I connect it and then get the distortion, split it and connect it to ring modulators, all sorts of oscillators or samplers. I'm making tracks like that right now. So in terms of producing instruments, generally it's all based on getting [a particular] sound out there.
Do you have favorite materials to work with for getting sounds besides metals?
Back in the day I was using things like cassette tapes or shortwave radio, but I like the setup for playing guitar at a show best. I find that setup best for the live gig environment, but also for recording in the studio. When I was using a computer, I was working with all sorts of other sound sources as well.
For the past ten or 15 years, you've been extremely vocal about being "vegan, straight-edge animal rights," as you call it. Is the music you're making now influenced by that worldview and lifestyle? Is its influence something listeners can grasp in your music?
I think that a sound isn't something that necessarily has a connection to it, so I don't really think it's possible to listen to something and get a sense of ideologies behind that music. But say if there is a title, or you could look at it as a comprehensive message, then it would be possible to feel a connection to it with animal rights. I don't know if you can feel that kind of connection just from the music alone.
But apart from the obvious song and album titles you've used over the last number of years, is "vegan, straight-edge animal rights" something that's wholly separate from your musical practice?
Rather than being in the music itself, I think a message that can be conveyed through music. It's definitely there. It's not something that's being pressed onto the listener; it's just something that the person—myself—is doing.
Early in your career, much of your music was distributed through traded cassettes. This feels like a predecessor of how music of all sorts makes its way through the internet these days. Has the emergence of the internet had an effect on you and your art?
In the early '80s there was a movement call mail art, where music and mail would be exchanged and simultaneously produced. I was involved in that, but it wasn't all that widespread. I like the idea of sharing music with different people and putting it out there. But with the internet that became much easier, and it's also become a communication tool. So I don't view it with an artistic curiosity myself.
Are you saying the internet made the process less interesting because it made it so much easier and more instantaneous? Or do you simply have no interest in the internet as a communication tool?
I'd say so. Now anyone can do stuff, like remixing, that used to be done back then. So we're not seeing new things. But in the early '80s, it was hard to get even an idea for remixes. There wasn't any sampling. That's what made it interesting.
What can you tell me about the noise scene right now in Japan?
To be honest, I was very proactive in the '90s scene, but I'm not so attached now. I don't really know about the noise scene.
Was detaching from it a conscious choice?
You really have to think about what you mean by the term "noise scene" specifically. For example, I'm still working with people like Keiji Haino, who's been in that scene since the '80s. Haino used to say, from way back, that he wasn't a noise artist, and I myself from one point started losing interest in the kind of stuff that's restricted to noise. For example, in the end of the '90s, in the Japanese noise scene I started working using only a laptop, but at the time that was met with criticism for being digitalized. I started working with a lot more techno people, too. At the beginning of the '90s I started to get more opportunities with grindcore and death metal, so I started building more of those connections as well.
Do you perceive Merzbow as being part of any genre, or is Merzbow something else entirely?
I don't personally see myself working in music that's fixed to any genre in particular.
One thing would seem to be certain, though: Merzbow is pretty far removed from pop, from anything remotely close to the top of the charts. Do you have any interest in pop music, though?
I never pay attention to the pop charts. But there are times I watch Music Station. And I do listen to the works of artists I like.
Are there particular pop music artists you like?
Could you share some names?
[Smiles] Well… that's not really necessary to be in the interview.
Do you have a favorite sound? Do you have a least favorite sound?
That's a little hard. I don't really like very low frequencies—not that that means I'm a fan of high ones either. For example, if cars on the road next to my house are idling for a long time, like mixer trucks, then you get that low frequency sound going on and on. I really dislike that.