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Talkback: Grimm Grimm

Producer & Artist Koichi Yamanoha By William Stokes
Published November 2023

TalkbackPhoto: Takaaki Sano

It was roughly a decade after moving to the UK from West Tokyo in 2004 that Japanese producer and artist Koichi Yamanoha came up with the kaleidoscopic mix of folk, art‑rock and psychedelia he calls Grimm Grimm. As an artist, Koichi has joined forces with producer Marta Salogni to create the LP Ginormous, which also features guest appearances from the likes of Stereolab’s Letitia Sadier, and he is also well known as a producer in his own right in London’s underground experimental music scene. Yamanoha, in his own words, owes much to the musical community around the label Stolen Recordings, the label of his former band Screaming Tea Party and home to fellow London‑based Japanese experimentalists Bo Ningen.

Grimm Grimm’s music has also lately caught the attention of one Hideo Kojima, by many standards the world’s most venerated video game designer and responsible for iconic titles such as Metal Gear Solid. Details are scarce, but I’m told that we haven’t heard the last of that relationship. Mainstream or underground, it’s all taken in Yamanoha’s stride. “I like experiments,” he says, matter‑of‑factly. “You know: accidents. Things that you listen back to and realise, ‘That’s error, but it’s actually nice! Like someone stuttering. There’s something almost eternal about that.”

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

So, I have this mixtape made by my friend from San Paolo. It’s a really good mixtape with many different kinds of music, from classical to Brazilian grime! I’ve been listening to it a lot on my phone. There’s one particular song called ‘Downriver’ by David Mitchell, who is actually a dear old friend of mine. He used to play guitar in this band, 3Ds, who are from Dunedin, New Zealand, a great band on Flying Nun [Records]. But he lives in London now. He also made a 10‑inch called Leather Apron, beautiful songs, mixed by himself, using a four‑channel mixer like an instrument. I believe it wasn’t really distributed anywhere, just passed to our friends. Anyway I was so happy to listen to it again. It was pure coincidence that my friend had included a song by another one of my friends. I was like, ‘How the hell did you find this?’ I guess music travels far. It’s odd to think of the places your music can go once it leaves your hands.

The project I’m most proud of

There was a waltz I wrote years ago, which I recorded with my band at the time. And somehow, we managed to completely capture the room and the mood of the session we were in. I don’t know how it happened, in a way it was more like a spy recording of a really good rehearsal. Some kind of finality was in the air. My friend Paul [Jones, owner of Stolen Recordings] who produced it with me, he’d just ordered loads of dynamic microphones — like, £99 for a whole set apparently! But the funniest thing was, he found that placing pieces of Turkish bread on the snare drums made it sound really nice and creamy. It worked great on this particular song called ‘Holy Disaster’. Literally just a piece of fresh bread from a local bakery in Tottenham. It had to be that type, it had just the right weight and thickness, the right amount of air inside. We also found this massive, dead grand piano on the side of Seven Sisters Road, which is where our studio used to be. So we took the inner frame out of it — a huge, heavy, metal thing‑ and put that right next to the drum kit. It made this weird, dislocated kind of reverb. Anyway, the band broke up right after that recording session. It was the very last recording we made, but it meant there was a kind of honesty that came up in that session.

The first thing I look for in a studio

I think I would just walk around and talk, and hear the sound of the room... or any space, for that matter. Probably clap. Hear the slapback. I personally think that room reverb is so much more interesting to capture than just dead sound. Even listening on shit speakers in your car, if it’s capturing something physical then you can still feel like you’re in a particular space. And that’s really nice.

The person I would consider my mentor

You know, I really do believe in mentor‑disciple relationships, in many forms. But I don’t think I’ve ever really had a musical mentor. What I will say is that these days, I get a lot of my inspiration from my six year‑old niece. She’s so holy, so aware when it comes to sound, to everything in the world around her. It feels like she’s so close to the core of the universe. She’ll draw things — you know, some abstract shape, almost like sound, but then the pen will keep going out, off the paper entirely and onto the furniture, onto the walls and then back to the paper again. but I’m just watching her thinking, ‘Shit, that’s so inspiring.’ But now she’s in school and growing really fast, and you know, she’ll soon start forgetting all those things, those fundamental connections.

Koichi Yamanoha: Playing songs live before recording them is very different from practising, because you’re having to connect those songs to the world. The band becomes almost like a creature, like liquid.

My top tip for a successful session

This might sounds a bit obvious for musicians but I have always thought it’s best to do a recording session straight after you come back from the tour. Especially if you are in a group. Because your band has been performing to the world, for days and weeks, being present with audiences and perhaps experiencing a tremendous amount of dopamine hits to the brain. Playing songs live before recording them is very different from practising, because you’re having to connect those songs to the world. The band becomes almost like a creature, like liquid. So that’s the ideal time for a magical power session! So if you can do it after you come back, go straight into the studio, you should. But then, of course, you’re often totally shattered after a tour... a tired creature.

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

I think maybe I’d say the session for Spiderland by Slint. The soundtrack of my teenage years. I haven’t really researched exactly how Brian Paulson engineered that album, but it sounds like lots of microphones are on the drum kit; you can really feel the texture of the carpets, of the tiles, the air in the room. Maybe a bit like Steve Albini working with Nirvana on the In Utero session — it’s simultaneously very subtle and violent. In a way, it feels like the intention is similar to recording techniques that use only one microphone, you know: keeping all the creaks and noises, the sound of the hi‑hat pedal. It’s a great sound.

The producer I’d most like to work with

Most of my favourite producers I think of are already in heaven... or hell. But maybe Wendy Carlos. She must be in her ’80s now. She produced an untitled album by the guitarist João Gilberto in 1961. It feels like she just went really close to the extremes on it... so close to the nylon strings of the guitar. The result is just an ecstatic sound. I also love what Mica Levi does. Very soulful and inspiring productions that have a lot of character.

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

I guess it would have to be the arrangement. A song will come up, but experimenting with the arrangement is the thing that will start to really shape the song and the sound. It’s even more fulfilling and exciting when you do it with someone you trust. When you arrange a song, you spontaneously put both your muscle and your eye into it. I guess, in a way, that also means I enjoy composing a lot. For me, recording and mixing are both key parts of the arrangement process. And I find it so freeing, the fact that there’s no right or wrong.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

This lifetime will never come back again. And I often tell myself it’s what you do that actually matters, not what gear you have. I mean, obviously the sound is important, vital, in a production, but I am often really moved by recordings that have just been made with an iPad. When a song has got that sense of a soul in the recording — to me that’s everything.

Also, I wonder if perhaps it’s easier to get addicted to owning gear in our society these days. It seems to be that way now more than ever. You’ve got Neve preamps, Lomo tube mics, tape delays... I love these, but often, like, recordings sent over WhatsApp have a great‑sounding compression! And you can’t recreate that. It’s got a character of its own. It has that essence, almost the sound of a voicemail message left to you by a friend. Which means I’m listening to that voicemail and I’m thinking, as if to a friend, “Oh, whoa. Thank you.”