When Shonen Knife parlayed a bubblehead image and clumsy fascination with American pop culture into cult-favorite status with downtown Manhattan hipsters in the late '80s, the trio of Osaka housewives set a regrettable standard for Japanese girl bands. They were all giggle and no grit, play-acting the silly little Asian dolls turned punk rockers, too naive to know they're cool.
Cibo Matto don't play that shit.
"We don't like to be named 'cute,'" says Cibo singer Miho Hatori. "We are friendly, but also from New York, so a little mean."
Like anime cyberninjas who pack plasma pistols to go with their ponytails, Hatori and Cibo Matto keyboardist/programmer Yuka Honda play off the Japanachick stereotype rather than against it, crashing bangs and barrettes head-on with "Live Pussy" tee shirts.
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The two shake hands in Cibo Matto's sound, a sublime postrock collage of trip-hop, ambient, world beat and hurricane punk rock. A keen sampler, Honda creates futuristic, intensely urban atmospheres where steel drums are seamlessly blended with jazz horn lines, shimmery bits of Asian pop, lots of hurdy-gurdy organ, snippets of oboe, wah-wah guitar and strings of a spaghetti Western soundtrack.
Hatori, who used to rap lyrics straight from her journal onstage, renders her surreal song-poems in heavily accented English, giving lines like "I was cruising in Brooklyn, you know what I'm sayin?" an irresistible twist.
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Hatori and Honda went to the same high school in Tokyo, but they didn't meet until three years ago, when Hatori moved to New York City and joined Honda in the art punk band Leitoh Lychee.
"I like New York because you can find other artists on the street and they are so friendly," Hatori says. "You can say, 'Do you wanna make jam?' and they will be, 'Yeah, come over.'"
Cibo Matto is heavily networked in the New York music scene--guest artists on the band's recently released full-length debut, Viva! La Woman, include Bernie Worrell of P-Funk and members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Rumor has it Julian Lennon will play in the band's upcoming Valley performance, and Hatori is friends with Yoko Ono. "I like her as person and artist," she says. "She is Yoko. She can scream so nice."
After Lychee broke up in 1994, Hatori and Honda struck out on their own. The duo's first recording was a seven-inch called "Birthday Cake" that came out last summer. The cut's combination of funk breaks, tinny hip-hop beats and frantic organ arpeggios laid under Hatori's howling, slurred chorus, "Shut up and eat! Too bad no bon appetit!" was an instant smash hit in NYC. The single's B-side was a cover of the Soundgarden song "Black Hole Sun," sung by Hatori entirely in French.
"I love all language so much," she says. "The more I can use, the more happy I am. When I started in the band, I couldn't speak English much, so I sang only in Japanese. But I want people to understand what I write about, so now I make songs some in English and some in Japanese I translate to English, or something like that."
Counting "Birthday Cake," eight of the ten songs on Viva! La Woman have food in their titles--"apple," "beef jerky," "artichoke," etc. And Cibo Matto's name--inspired by an old Italian B-movie called Seso Matto, or Sex Madness--loosely translates to "food crazy." Many critics have gotten stumped by those surface trimmings, pegging Cibo Matto as the "girls just wanna have food" gimmick band and pestering Miho and Yuka for recipes in interviews. Hatori says she's sick of it.
"Every writer is 'food, food, food. Cibo Matto is food.' I am like, 'Hello, do you ever hear of metaphor?' The Rolling Stones song 'Brown Sugar'--is that food? No. But people think, 'Oh, two little Japanese girls who like to eat. Cool story, man.' But Cibo Matto is not just food. Cibo Matto is about life."
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Many of Hatori's lyrics are so abstract they're wide open to interpretation--her thought process seems less a train than a roller coaster with multiple loops--yet lines such as "My heart is like an artichoke/Your hands are like a rusty knife/Are you going to keep peeling me?" clearly prove her point. In the opium dream ballad "Sugar Water," Hatori chants "we are taking sugar water shower" and "a woman in the moon is singing to the Earth" before floating into a feathery, drawn-out "la, la, la" chorus that makes the heart swoon. And after demanding "extra sugar, extra salt, extra oil and MSG!" for her "Birthday Cake," Cibo Matto's vocalist segues into a slam on '60s nostalgia that gives way in turn to spiraled reflections on getting older.
"I always have a problem explaining my songs, except in Japan," Hatori says. "Japanese people can understand my lyrics better than Americans. They know that food is not just food. I mean, it seem simple, but I guess that's just a--how do you say it?--culture difference."
Cibo Matto is scheduled to perform on Saturday, May 25, at Hollywood Alley in Mesa, with the Pork Torta. Showtime is 8 p.m. (all ages).