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Band Builds Lyrical Bridge Between Japan and the U.S.

Pop Music: Cibo Matto filters blues, funk, jazz through Asian aesthetic.

August 11, 1999|J.D. CONSIDINE | BALTIMORE SUN

Like any band, what the members of Cibo Matto want most is for their music to be listened to and understood. A simple desire, right?

Trouble is, there's a certain confusion over just what kind of band Cibo Matto is, and that has left some potential listeners wary of checking the group out.

To begin with, there's the nationality issue. Because the band was formed by two expatriate Japanese, keyboardist-producer Yuka Honda and singer Miho Hatori, many Americans assume the New York-based combo is a Japanese rock band. Meanwhile, in Japan, listeners were surprised because the group sings in English and doesn't sound especially Japanese.

Then there's the celebrity factor. In addition to Honda and Hatori, Cibo Matto includes three other players, but the only one people seem to notice is bassist Sean Lennon. (The other two, for the record, are drummer Timo Ellis and percussionist Duma Love.) Add in the fact that Lennon and Honda are lovers as well as collaborators--Honda produced Lennon's solo album, "Into the Sun"--and suddenly Cibo Matto becomes "that Japanese band Sean Lennon's girlfriend is in."

Can't we come up with a better description than that?

"Umm," says Honda, chewing over the question. "It's an American band run by Asian people," she says, and laughs.

"It's interesting, because a lot of people think we're a Japanese band, but the music is definitely not Japanese," she adds. "If anything, our music is influenced by blues and funk and jazz. That's where our main influence is, basically. Of course, in the process of expressing [those influences], there is a lot of Japanese aesthetics involved."

By filtering American blues, funk and jazz through a Japanese aesthetic, Cibo Matto ends up with a sound that's unlike anything else in rock today. "Stereotype A," the group's current album, boasts an extraordinary range of influences, drawing on everything from hip-hop to punk, bossa nova to acid jazz. Yet the album's sound remains catchy and consistent throughout, balancing strong grooves with irresistibly harmonized melodies.

"I'd just say that we like TLC and the Beach Boys at the same time," says Honda, trying to explain how the group's sound developed. "We try to integrate a lot of things that interest us in our songs."

Cibo Matto also manages to touch on some fairly deep ideas in its music. One of the most engaging songs on "Stereotype A" is "The Lint of Love," a song about the difficulty of maintaining relationships over time. At first, the concept seems playful almost to the point of silliness, but the metaphor is actually quite resonant.

Honda says that the idea for the song predates Cibo Matto itself.

"We had this other band, this punk band, in which Miho had sung about the lint of love," she says. "And I always thought that was so brilliant.

"It is a little Japanese, though. We don't think of one thing as [being] an independent thing from another. Everything that's happening to one thing can totally relate to other things. I think that's how Miho was able to think from lint to how it's like relationships. Friction causes lint, and if you wear something for a long time, you get lint, and you have to deal with that."

Or, as the song puts it, "We can't avoid the lint of love / And you've got to know how to take it away."

Once the metaphor is grasped, the lyric seems as obvious as it is ingenious. But, as Honda admits, not every listener--or even reviewer--gets the picture. "There's definitely that confusion that happens with us with American people," she says. "Especially with Miho's lyrics. It's really interesting, because some people just get them so right, so fast. And for some people, it's very mysterious."

To an extent, part of the "mystery" surrounding Cibo Matto has to do with American preconceptions about what Japanese people and pop culture are about.

Honda says there are some cliches that follow the band in almost every interview--" 'The girls from the Land of the Rising Sun' is one," she says, laughing--and that few people have grasped that the "A" in "Stereotype A" stands for "Asian."

"But everything they do to us is stereotype anyway, and I think it definitely comes from some kind of unconscious thing," she says. "It's an interesting issue. It's a little harder to deal with, because it doesn't necessarily come from a malicious mind trying to hurt you. There are a lot of things people just think is the way it is."

Even Honda's relationship with Lennon is grist for the cliche mill. "People are like, 'Oh, Yoko's Japanese, and Yuka's Japanese,' " Honda complains. "It comes after me everywhere I go."

Even so, Cibo Matto isn't the sort of band that wants to make an issue out of this. "Things can never work with aggression," she says. "I'm kind of thinking of [change] as a lot more longer-term thing."

She adds that things do seem to be slowly shifting in America's understanding of Asian culture. "I remember when I saw 'Blade Runner,' and you had all these Asian people living with all this Asian culture in America," she says. "I was thinking, like, 'Wow!' Like I would never think that would happen.

"But it's really interesting that now I see people wearing T-shirts that say some word in Japanese."

Honda is especially amused because she saw the same sort of thing happen in Japan when she was younger. "In the '70s, American people would come to Japan and see all these T-shirts that had some kind of phrase in English," she says. "They would think it was funny that people would want to wear something that's just written in English. I'm really happy that it's happening here. All this interest in Asia, whether it's just superficial fashion or whatever, is good. It's a good entrance."

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