Japanese avant-garde black metallers Sigh are back with a brand new album, although it doesn’t come without a bit of controversy. Mirai Kawashima (Vocals, Keyboards) spoke to me about his new Italian horror-themed album, Graveward as well as the rough decision to fire the band’s longtime guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa and his replacement in disaster survivor, You Oshima. He also talked a little about his all-time favorite metal albums, as well as the fact that he doesn’t believe in making the same album twice. Additionally, we talked about how men in their forties might want to start looking for an actual girlfriend instead of a wifu.
First of all, it’s an absolute honor to be able to interview you. Let’s start with the new Sigh album, Graveward. Tell us a little about what inspired the album and how that helped you to decide what kind of record it was going to be this time around. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Sigh, you certainly don’t repeat yourselves!
The first trigger was a little chat with Fabio Frizzi, who composed the soundtrack to the Italian horror classics like The Beyond and The Gates of Hell. I asked him how he composed those themes. Inspired by that, I decided to make an album dedicated to ‘70s / ‘80s Italian zombie movies. The first plan was to fill the album with old keyboards such as Minimoog and Mellotron, but a lot of varied elements came in and the final result was quite different as usual for Sigh. I would call the style of Graveward “Cinematic Horror Metal.” It has every element of what Sigh did in the past, but all in all, I don’t think it sounds like anything we have done before. I never want to repeat myself. More than a hundred metal albums are being released every year, (actually that number is closer to several thousand!) which means that there are more heavy metal records in the world than you can listen to in your short life. This world is already filled with good music, so why should we make a new album? Some people may want to hear Scorn Defeat Part 2 while others may want to hear Imaginary Sonicscape Part 2, but I do not see any point in making sequels to those albums when the original ones already exist.
I’m not sure if this was meant to be some sort of joke or not, but I remember seeing a post on your social media page referring to previous (and founding) guitarist Shinichi Ishikawa’s tablature for the new album. It seemed a bit wacky and all over the place. I also recall you saying something like “he’d lost his mind.” So what exactly happened with Shinichi and how did (new guitarist) You Oshima come to take the reins?
That was no joke. The trigger that I made me decide to fire him was the completely out-of-tune guitar files that he sent me during the recording of Graveward. Of course I told him they all were out of tune but he claimed he used the tuner right and didn’t hear anything wrong, so I had to make it visible by Auto-Tune to prove it to him. That was the picture I uploaded on Facebook. I showed the picture to Satoshi and told him I didn’t want to work with Shinichi anymore. You know the guitar can be out of tune if the neck is bent no matter how strict you use the tuner. He does not maintain his guitars at all. With a guitarist like that, no matter how hard I try to make a great album, it’s easily ruined. Obviously he lost his passion in music but he wanted to say in Sigh just to keep the identity as a guitarist in Sigh, which of course I could not tolerate. He started chasing the preadolescent ugly self-claimed underground idol who has only ten fans or so and now he spends all of his money and time on them. He would go to their concert with the Sigh shirt on and act like he was a well-known musician or something. You know it’s very sad. I really do not think being over forty and leading a life like that is healthy, but in the end it’s his life. And if he lost the passion for music, he had to leave Sigh. Or else, it’ll be a big disgrace to other members who have been devoting themselves to the band. When I decided to search for a new guitarist, Kadenzza, who released two albums on Holy Records came to my mind. But I never had a contact with You Oshima and I even was not sure if he was musically active or not because I hadn’t seen news on him for many years. Then I realized that he had the cancer operation and after that he suffered from the Tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster. His house is just thirty-five kilometers away from the plant. He had to go through a lot of bad luck and almost retired as a musician. But he decided to come back to the scene by an e-mail from me, so it was a great thing for both him and Sigh.
The record is based on the horror works of Lucio Fulchi, so which of those do you feel are the most prominent of those as far as influences on the album? What are some of your personal favorite films from him, or just horror in general?
Definitely The Beyond and The Gates of Hell. Those two are truly great as films and at the same time the themes and the other music in them are outstanding. I had been wondering how Fabio composed those songs. His composition had always been a big mystery to me. I am quite sure that you can picture the scene when the zombies are rising from the sea or swamp and start to slowly come after you when listening to a track like “The Casketburner.” These days I have been too busy, so unfortunately I cannot keep up with latest horror movies. I love every kind of old horror movies but the Italian zombie flicks are the best for sure.
The majority of your lyrics are based within the realms of the occult, as well as insanity, suffering and in this case, death. It’s very interesting to see how all these themes intertwine in Japanese mediums. What are some things that usually inspire your lyrics? Are any of these deeply personal?
In the beginning I was inspired by Japanese occultism. I read a lot of books on it for inspiration. But it’s getting more and more personal now. This time it’s about death, or to be precise, about our mortality. I just wanted to show how I see or feel about death, which is strictly personal.
SIGH- “Out of the Grave” (Official Video)
Oddly enough to me, there seems to be a huge interest in the occult over there in Japan and I’ve always wondered why. Throughout several games, anime and musical endeavors like yours and even the work of seemingly “innocent” natured metal bands like BabyMetal, things get rather dark as far as lyrics are concerned. Could you clue me in as to why Japanese people seem to be fascinated with the occult more than almost any culture?
I don’t know. I am not even sure if the Japanese people are into occult stuff more than Americans or Europeans. Occult stuff seems to be popular in the so-called Otaku culture, but I don’t think most people are into it. Somehow occult things such as ghosts, UFO’s, UMA’s etc. were a huge boom back in the ‘70s. I’m not sure if it was a phenomena only in Japan or not, but almost all the kids were reading occult comics back then and of course I was one of them.
That leads into our next question. There’s been a downright explosion of Japanese culture in the US. From an anime downpour and cosplay conventions to even niche things like visual novels and eroge becoming popular as well as several female fronted metal bands like BabyMetal, FruitPochette and Yousei Teikoku. Do you feel all of this is healthy for American culture or a great detriment to society? Should men in their twenties and thirties really be sitting around playing Japanese eroge instead of dating real women?
Of course not! You may be able to live like that when you’re twenty, but what are you going to do when you turn forty? I have seen a real bad example of this and you can guess who I am talking about. Being forty and having never had a real girlfriend is tough. After having seen that horrible example, I cannot say different strokes for different folks. You cannot imagine life at the age of forty will be when you’re younger. Playing eroge is alright but you should date real women too.
Let’s get back to the music front. Your keyboard skills are absolutely phenomenal. Whether it be in Sigh of The Meads Of Asphodel, it’s very easy to tell it’s you. What made you want to first pick up an instrument and what are some artists that you would say greatly inspired you ?
I started playing the classical piano when I was five, just because my mother was a piano teacher. So my experience with the piano is even longer than that with heavy metal. I was taking classical piano lessons for twenty years but after I started Sigh, I realized it was not enough. I thought I had to learn jazz, rock and other styles that are really different from classical playing. Surely I think now I have my own style which people can tell is me. When I say my own style, it embraces everything from chord progression, melodies, rhythms and the choice of the keyboards. The inspiration mainly comes from Jazz piano / keyboard players such as Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Francois Tusque, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and others.
Other than the issue during the recording process regarding the guitarist change, what can you tell me about the process as a whole? Where did you record the album and what was the atmosphere like?
The recording process has been the same for the past few albums. First I program the songs into MIDI and I keep listening to it and changing the arrangement until I am completely satisfied with them. Then I give the songs to other members and start rehearsing them in the studio. The recording process is more or less replacing the programmed tracks with real instruments. We just go into the recording studio to record drums and bass. Other instruments such as guitars, vocals, keyboards, saxophones etc. were recorded at our home studios. Obviously the bass can be recorded in a home studio but for some reason Satoshi prefers to work under pressure in the recording studio.
What are five of your top favorite albums of all time? What in your opinion is special about each one?
Into the Pandemonium, Celtic Frost
Obviously this is the first anything-goes album in extreme metal history. It’s got everything from strings, horns and a rhythm box as well as female operatic chorus. Remember that it was released in 1987.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Black Sabbath
The influence from this album is huge, especially in an arrangement perspective. It’s heavy and eerie but catchy. This is one of the role models for Sigh’s music.
Black Metal, Venom
It does not have to be Black Metal. Welcome to Hell will also do. I cannot express well enough how much I love Venom. Without Venom, Sigh wouldn’t have been formed.
Don’t Break the Oath, Mercyful Fate
Along with Melissa this is the criteria as to how evil metal should sound.
Power and Pain, Whiplash
I think this is perfect and the best thrash metal album ever. Not only is it fast and powerful, it’s also filled with great riffs. It’s very important. Some albums are just fast and that’s it. Riffs are the thing that matters.
There are guest spots from Sakis Tolis, Niklas Kvarforth, Matt Heafy and the mighty Metatron himself. How did you get all of these artists to perform on the record and what was it like working with them?
They all are good friends of ours and they all understand what we have been up to musically, so it was easy. Also thanks to Internet technology, the actual distance means almost nothing now. You can work with anybody from anywhere of the world.
What do you do when you’re not recording music? What are some of your hobbies and what might you recommend?
Of course I have a day job. Other than that, I don’t have much time for anything other than musical activities. I need to listen to lots of music and practice instruments. Although I do read books, watch movies and other sorts of things, they all are related to my activities in Sigh.
Out of all the amazing tours you’ve been on, what have been some of your most memorable moments (I’m sure that Scorn Defeat tour was one of them) as well as some of your least memorable moments on tour?
Definitely the best moment was meeting Cronos from Venom in person at Hammer Open Air in Finland a few years ago. As I said, Venom was the reason we formed Sigh. Sharing the stage with Venom and meeting Cronos is the highlight of my whole metal life.
After the Sigh touring cycle, is there a chance that we’ll hear you on the new Meads Of Asphodel release?
Yes, I think so. I did one synth intro for them a few months ago, so I’m quite sure they’re working on the new album. It should be out any time soon.
Being a fan of many things Japanese, I’ve simply got to ask what some of your personal favorite Japanese books, mangas, anime and such are.
The best mangas I’ve read in my life would have to be Hyoryukyoshitu and Kodsure Ookami. It’s really difficult to find manga which is exciting from the beginning to the end. Most of them are very enjoyable in the middle but the ending is very disappointing. The two mangas I mentioned have the perfect ending. I don’t know anime much, but the one I loved was Lupin the Third. The first and the second seasons were brilliant with excellent music. As for books, I like the sci-fi stuff from ‘60s and ‘70s. I really like the strange works by Yasutaka Tsutsui, but maybe you have to be Japanese to understand the world he created.
Thanks for this awesome interview and I look forward to another wonderful release from Sigh. Once again, this has been an honor. I hope it hasn’t been too geeky, but it’s not often one gets a chance like this. (Eric May)