"They’re big in Japan” is a time-honored cliche at this point in rock history.
You could perhaps pin its origins to Cheap Trick’s 1978 Live at Budokan. Listen to the crowd noises on that sublime record: The Japanese audience sounds like they’re completely and utterly losing their shit. The Cheap Trickers may as well have been the second coming of The Beatles, judging by the wailing and shrieks echoing across the Nippon Budokan arena.
Sometimes I wonder if “They’re big in Phoenix” is a thing that the Japanese say about certain bands. One of the peculiar quirks I’ve noticed over the last decade about our scene is that crazy Japanese rock bands go over like gangbusters here. And the love affair isn’t one-sided. Groups like Polysics and Peelander-Z routinely visited the Valley of the Sun. Even when they were doing small tours, they made a point of stopping here. But no Japanese band seems to have built as strong a foothold in the Valley as the delirious psych-rockers in Acid Mothers Temple, who seem to play Phoenix and Tucson at least once a year.
Formed in 1995 by guitarist Kawabata Makoto to make what Makoto calls “extreme trip music,” Acid Mothers Temple is a musical collective whose membership is constantly expanding and changing. Even the band’s name is in a constant state of flux: Over the years they’ve been called Acid Mothers Temple mode HHH, Acid Mothers Gong, Acid Mothers Temple & the Cosmic Inferno, Acid Mothers Temple SWR, Acid Mothers Temple Temple & the Melting Parasio U.F.O, Acid Mothers Guru Guru, and the list goes and on.
To make matters even more confusing, Makoto and various other key Temple members like Higashi Hiroshi and Tabata Mitsuru also have a variety of side projects and bands they play in as well. Keeping track of all the Acid Mothers-related projects dropped over the last couple decades and figuring out whether they’re not “official Acid Mothers Temple releases” can be as confounding as keeping track of Marvel comics’ continuity.
Makoto’s interest in trippy music started when he was a child. Plagued with phantom ringing noises in his ears, he thought that UFOs were trying to communicate with him. When he heard Indian classical music on TV when he was 10, he was drawn to the droning sounds of the tamboura (which sounded similar to his phantom UFO noises). This fascination with freeform droning music led him to appreciating jazz, music concrète, and propulsive cosmic krautrock from groups like Can, Faust, and Ash Ra Tempel.
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Placing an emphasis on improvisation and letting random chance determine the shape of their recordings, many Acid Mothers songs were put together like the music concrète Makoto grew up listening to. A huge fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Makoto would often have bandmates send him tapes of their own individual parts and jams they had recorded elsewhere. Layering these recordings on top of each other and editing them so they made sense together, Makoto would create wild “trip music” that was cosmic in scope. It was psychedelic music full of crashing UFO feedback, trance-inducing rhythms, and a jazzy looseness (inspired by the work of Miles Davis’ producer Teo Macero, who would also create songs by letting bands jam for hours and cutting the best bits together into seamless compositions).
The Temple weren’t just avant-garde in their musical tastes and performances. They also lived an outre lifestyle. The members shared a communal “soul collective” existence: The band had multiple houses in which various Acid Mothers personnel and their loved ones would bounce back and forth. They shared a libertine credo: “Do Whatever You Want, Don’t Do Whatever You Don’t Want.” Occasionally this neo-hippie lifestyle would get blowback from the Japanese government, like when their neighbors got the collective evicted from the homes after accusing their houses of being secret hideouts for the Aum Shinrikyo cult (whose poison gas attacks in the Tokyo subways in 1995 killed 12 people and injured thousands).
Releasing an avalanche of new albums up until the late 2000s, the band has slowed down a lot on the new music front. While they continue to experiment live and push their musical limits, gone are the days when a new Acid Mothers record would drop every six months. When it comes to this mercurial collective of earplug-shredding, psych-rock masters, only one thing is certain: They’re going to play something you’ve never heard before. And when they come back next year, you won’t hear that thing again.
Acid Mothers Temple will be playing with Babylon on Friday, April 7, at Valley Bar.