Yuka Honda
Photo by Sean Ono Lennon

Yuka Honda has been a figure in the New York City avant-garde and indie-rock scenes for decades. Releasing her first album in 1989, she has amassed over 268 recording credits as an artist, producer, remixer, and/or accompanist (with her primary instrument being keyboards). The co-founder of the influential group Cibo Matto with Miho Hatori, she has worked with folks as diverse as producer Hal Willner, Los Lobos, Yoko Ono, Marc Ribot, Beastie Boys, David Byrne [Tape Op #79], Jim O'Rourke [#16], and the late saxophonist, Michael Brecker.

With your career having spanned the analog to digital eras, what do you see as the pros and cons of the '80s way of making a record versus now?

It's all progress – we improve on something, but we also lose something. I was lucky that I got to start in '80s, because I did get the experience of recording to tape – beautiful analog sounds and 24-track recording – which meant it's not an infinite recording. You have to make a lot of decisions while you're doing it. The performance has to be central, since there were not many post-production possibilities. But, when I started I was playing digital equipment, because I wasn't able to execute my ideas on analog instruments. For me, digital equipment was great; it enabled me to express what I wanted to. But it also has limitations that are very different from analog instruments. The analog era is something we can never go back to entirely, even though many people still try to record on tape, we're now mastering on digital. Even if you print finals to tape, there's some range that's not there anymore – the mid-low range of it. The old recordings had some dark matter that made us feel something, and that's not there anymore. I don't hear it, even on the vinyl. I know a lot of people are releasing vinyl today, but still, I don't hear that older quality in new recordings. As the method has changed, our minds have changed, and we all make music differently. Even the most analog musicians have a different standard, because we're living digital era. We're used to hearing music that is made digitally. Our standards are changing.

What was some of the digital equipment you were using in the 1980s?

I was using a Korg SQ-10; a very primitive sequencer that you wouldn't believe now. It was like a calculator. [laughter] I'd hit three eighth-note buttons to create dotted quarter-notes. When I would copy four bars and try to make eight bars, the machine would add a little bit of space in between. The machine was not precise, but very raw. My first sampler was an Akai S900. It was 1 MB. It used a floppy disk, and it took a long time to load. A very long time.

Yeah, right.

At the time, a lot of people felt resistant about these machines, because they imagined that they came in in order to replace existing instruments. But to me they just made different sounds. The Mellotron violin is not a violin, it is a new sound. That's how I felt with sampling. I was also exploring the fact that I could reverse the sound. Reversed, or in a different range, it would create a sound that I hadn't heard before. That's what I was really into it. I had all of the Akai samplers up until the S6000.

Yuka at The Stone with Nels Cline by Nathan West
Yuka at The Stone with Nels Cline by Nathan West.

What do you use now?

For me, a very important factor for instruments is that they're portable, because I also like to play live. My sampler now is my laptop. I use mostly Ableton Live, and another sampler called norns [by monome]. This is a really fun machine. It's basically a Raspberry Pi computer in a small machine. It's open source – many people are writing codes and inventing new instruments for it. I do a lot of live sampling to norns and control it with this monome controller called grid. I started using Ableton Live in 2000; around the time they started. I sample people I perform with on the spot, and then I replay the sounds in a different range, or with a different effect. But it's the same source. The person may be playing a trumpet, and I sample the trumpet and then replay it, but placed in a different range or at a different starting point, and then looped. You'll hear the sound that's corresponding to the acoustic player, but it is processed in a different way. I'm very interested in creating atmosphere that can relate to the immediate circumstances, but that is also different. I think it's the magic of music that we can change the atmosphere we're in and get transported to a different realm, which is what I need to do with the sounds.

That sounds amazing – like a new way of having a conversation. I wanted to ask about your relationship to food and music. On the first Cibo Matto album, Viva! La Woman, almost every song has a food-related title, like "White Pepper Ice Cream," "Sugar Water," and "Know Your Chicken."

Yes, yes, exactly. I was naturally interested in food, because – like many people who are interested in food – that was my primary relationship to my mother, who I've had complex relationship with. But she made incredible food. [laughter] Food was the highlight of my day when I was a kid. The relationship between food and music is because I don't make music to realize any technical ideas. What I really want to express in music are feelings and emotions, and those are what's stored in my memory safe. This food made me feel like this, or this sound made me feel like that, or this book made me feel like this, or this scene in this movie when the light changes. In my odd file mind, in some way food and music are interchangeable. That's why I thought that the connection between music and food is not that far-fetched. I was surprised that so many people thought it was a strange communion, especially in America. With Cibo Matto, we have noticed that nobody in Japan wondered why we made that connection. Culturally, Japanese people are very emotional. When we speak to each other in conversation we use a lot of sounds rather than words. We don't always describe things in words. There are a lot of times in communication that what happens in place of words are a spontaneous, improvised sound or gestures which can mean like, "Wow, that's amazing!" or "Can you believe that?" So, we go like, "Hmm-ahh-oooh-woo" vocally or whatever, instead of trying to describe it in words.

That sounds very musical. I know Japanese itself is frequently listed as one of the most musical languages in the world, along with Italian and others.

Yeah, it's very musical. We're used to using sounds for emotions. I have noticed when I'm rehearsing with Japanese musicians, if I say that as a request, "Can we make this part a little bit more like the quiet before storm when we can't really see anything?" they will usually be able to understand and translate that. But it doesn't make my American cohorts happy because they're like, "But what does that mean?" [laughter] "What do you want me to do?"

They want something concrete.

Yeah, like, "Do you want me to stop playing there?" or "Do you want me to play this chord? Or what is it you want from me?" In America, I have had to rely on technically expressing what I mean, but in Japan I can use metaphors. People then play their own interpretation of what I said. They don't feel that method is weird, and I'm starting to think it's because of the way we converse in Japan. I was just talking with a Taiwanese friend, and I asked her, "Do you miss talking more regularly with Taiwanese people"? She said what she misses most is the nonverbal elements of conversation, where she can make a symbolic sound and the other person understands.

That's interesting. You said that Japanese people are "very emotional." A common misconception in America and Europe is that Asian people are stoic, passive, or even "submissive."

I find Japanese people to be very emotional, but not so much outwardly, which is due to being polite in formal settings. That is done so that that your emotions don't "take over the place." That is what we're thinking and have concerns about in more public settings.

Culturally, there is an other-centered focus.


One thing I've read about with Japanese music and art is wabi-sabi, and the appreciation of imperfection – with tone, texture, and timbre being the major factors in music. The significance of noise, decay, and silence is what I've heard is a big part of traditional music in Japan.

A lot of Japanese traditional music from the past sounds very sad to us. They're all in a minor key. They move minor to minor, and they used to make funny sounds, like, "Woo-ooo." I don't know what they meant, and how people were perceiving it. I understand that some of that music was for entertainment purposes, so even though they sound sad to us now maybe they sounded exciting to audiences at the time. I think it's because Japan is a small island far away from everything, and with music, or any culture, when it travels overseas something gets washed off. When I was a kid, there was only one record shop in my town. That's where I bought Fellini soundtracks, rock music, classical music, and reggae. This one tiny shop had everything. They were all "Western music" to me. [laughs] Western music was just one big thing, and I didn't hear the difference between The Beatles and The Godfather score. It was all foreign ingredients. When you live in Japan, things like hip-hop or punk came, but the social background didn't come with it. Just the sound comes to Japan, so we're using these sounds as ingredients without the social issue attached to them. There's some unintentional freedom that happens when you have the sound without social information attached. I think that's why some people think I'm bold in the way that I mix different ingredients. Because of this background of being Japanese, in a way, to me everything is foreign. I can just mix them all easily.

You're probably the only person that's produced both John Lennon's wife, Yoko Ono, and his son, Sean Lennon. That must have been pretty interesting to be in the midst of such a culturally significant family.

Yeah, I was definitely not ready! I didn't know my life would lead me into that. I met Yoko first with Cibo Matto, when we were just starting as band. We became known very fast in town, and Yoko's A&R person at the time had the idea, "Let's get some young artists to collaborate with Yoko." They did a remix album [Rising Mixes] with Tricky, Ween [Tape Op #17], Thurston Moore, and Cibo Matto. I still remember getting the phone call from my manager at the time, saying, "Would you like to remix Yoko Ono?" I screamed into the phone; I was so excited. Just by coincidence, I had seen Yoko once right after I came to New York. I was standing in Central Park, and I saw her walking by without a bodyguard. She was escorting an elderly lady, and I waved to her, and she waved back. I was so amazed how down to earth she was.

Yeah. And courageous. That she would be out with no bodyguard and not shut away.

Courageous. Exactly. Her life is all about courage. She's a litmus paper for feminism because she's definitely strong. She's like, "I do this, I do that, and you have to accept this to love me." I just love the way she is. I had read her books and I thought they were amazing, especially in terms of feminism. She's the most famous Japanese human that ever lived, so it was very exciting to me. We made a song; I put all of my heart into it, and she loved it. She invited us to The Dakota [her apartment], for which I was really excited. We had lunch; I don't know if I said anything the whole time. I was freaked out and nervous, and then she said, "Oh, I'm performing this show in Hiroshima for the 50 year anniversary with my son. Do you want to come to the rehearsal and meet him?" We were like, "Yes, absolutely!" We went with her, and I met Sean. He was friendly, sweet, kind, and made us feel comfortable. He invited us to come to his house, and he said we could jam at his house. We were like, "That sounds amazing. We want to come." But we had to go to a photo shoot. I still remember this photo, mainly because we were feeling so excited about going to jam with Sean right afterwards. We went to jam with him, we jammed all night, and we became fast friends. Sean is still one of my most important friends; I've known him for 30 years now. He has an unusual problem, in that is he has too many talents. He can play all of the parts, and he can record any Beatles song and make it sound exactly like the original. He knows everything that happened in every song of The Beatles, and he can play them exactly. And he's incredible visual artist. He draws and he takes photographs. There's a word in Japanese for people like that – people who can do so many things well that it's almost like a problem.

Yeah, that it can almost become a liability. You co-produced Viva! La Woman with Mitchell Froom [Tape Op #10] – an established producer – and Tchad Blake [#16, #133]. I've read that you had some regrets about that; wishing you'd stood up more, as you wanted to replace some of the samples with new loops and new recordings. Is that true?

Yeah, it's true. What really was going on – now that I look at it – is I see that Mitchell had a point in using those original samples. He was trying to focus on what we were already doing. At the time, I was using this Roland sampler called a DJ-70, and when I started using it, it was 2 megabyte [MB] floppy disks. Eventually it became 4 MB, and it had a SCSI port, so I could load samples faster. But it was still very limited, in terms of how many samples it could hold at one time, and I was doing all the music by myself. At the beginning, I would have to load three floppy disks to fill 2 MB. So, the Cibo Matto songs were me trying to overcome this limitation. I would sample a beat from a song, and I would play it with half time and double half time to create a rhythm. I was using one sample but playing it back at many different speeds. That would make a rhythm, or I would use a sample played forward in one song and then backwards in another song. A lot of my creativity was used to figure out how to make music with the limitations, which is something I always somehow enjoy. Limitation gives me a theme. I was doing Cibo Matto more like a side project. I had a main project at the time, with experienced musicians, and I still thought that was my main band. Cibo Matto was something that was for fun. I did a lot of wild things, and I used a lot of recognizable samples because I thought we were just going to play live shows. I wasn't thinking about making recordings in the future, or anything like that. I also cut some samples wrong, by mistake. A sample could be a little too short or another sample a little too long. I thought they sounded interesting, and they weren't making lot of problems with live shows. We were writing new songs in the day and performing them the next night. Basically, a lot of my work was sloppy! [laughter]

It sounds like there was a freedom, though.

Yes, I was enjoying the freedom; making things really fast and doing it for fun. Then, somehow, the band landed a deal with Warner Bros. I didn't want to use these samples that I prepared in the sloppy manner. I was friends with some of the greatest young jazz musicians in New York City. I lived a block away from the Knitting Factory for the first four years, and that was when I could see John Zorn for $5. Being around that community influenced me. I wanted to express those influences, but Mitchell wanted to present me more as a sampler player, which I didn't realize at the time. I wanted to make an album with a sound that I heard in my head, which wasn't based on my sloppy samples. Mitchell was afraid – and I see his point now – that me going in that direction, or trying to refine and perfect [my sound], would derail the color of the songs that we were making. I think what impressed him the most about what we did was that I was using all these clumsy samples, while still building unique structures with those. That created not a smooth, perfect structure, but rather something a lot funkier. It had more feel to it. He wanted to create that, so I did what he wanted. Eventually I did record some horn players in New York at home in my apartment, and we sampled that. Then I told him that those were the original samples he'd already heard. [laughter]

A lot of parallel stories about young bands from that period are the inversion of what you're describing. Instead, a big time, famous major label person would come in and change the sound to make it more slick or professional. It's interesting that it was you wanting a more professional and polished level of musicianship.

Yeah, it was. We got compared to The Shaggs a lot because of this kind of lo-fi recording that we ended up doing. Mitchell didn't want us to get too sophisticated. That was his only thing. He was like, "I want to be your producer, but I don't want to produce your sound. I'm going to put my name there so nobody will come and try to do things to your sound. I'm here to protect what you do."

Wow, that's amazing.

Yeah, I'm very, very grateful of that. But at that time, I was like, "Yes, but what I wanna do is not this." [laughter]

Then you produced the second album [Stereo Type A] by yourself?


You worked in some studios like Sear Sound [Tape Op #41]. You've had a range of experiences from high-end Manhattan studios to now, where people are sending files back and forth to each other that they've self-recorded at home.

Well, I was someone who had recording equipment since the beginning. Recording and editing was always a part of my music making. I would record and then I would chop it up and put sounds in different places. This is a practice that I've done since the beginning. Everybody sends files back and forth now. Strangely, I'm not into this file sending thing. I do it, of course, but I'm always slow in sending it. I'd like to do it in the same room with the person and hearing them a little bit. I need to have some exchange back-and-forth to make music. If I have a collaborator in the same room – my collaborator can be reading books and commenting every now and then, and I can work off of that response. Otherwise, I'm prone to option anxiety.

An excess of options is oppressive in its own way. With your early home recording, what equipment were you using?

Around 1980, I was using Yamaha cassette 4-track. That definitely developed my first recording ideas. Then I recorded a lot to the Roland W-30 Music Workstation, a digital machine that had a sequencer, sampler, synthesizer, and multitrack recorder all-in-one. It was a big thing in the early '90s. I used that a lot and recorded some of my first records and songs. When I released my first solo album years later [Memories Are My Only Witness], there were maybe four songs from way back in the '80s, because there's something I liked about how I was writing then. This was before I got to make any commercial releases and see how people responded. Now I'm not free of that information; I'm aware of listeners now. At the beginning, I wrote music just for myself, because I thought nobody would ever care about my music. I was tripping in my own dream world. I miss that innocent feeling, like walking on the fresh snow where nobody has walked. There was that feeling at the beginning.

What are your or some of your favorite microphones?

I really like the [AKG C]414. It's very standard, but it brings so much light to the sound. I like using it. I also like good old [Shure] SM58s and 57s. They can be incredible. I'm not a super microphone person, I have to admit. I tend to use the sound that's already recorded and already mixed. As long as a microphone has a character and is able to capture what I like about the sound at the time, I'll use whatever is available. I don't have a big microphone collection. Trixie Whitley was at my house, and she said she had a song she needed to lay down – a quick, rough guide track. She took an SM58, sang, and the track sounded like she should get a Grammy right there.

What have been your experiences in the industry as a woman, as someone who emigrated from Japan, and even as a musician who plays keyboard versus guitar?

I felt that most when I was producing Sean Lennon. I would walk into a studio with him, and nobody would imagine that I was the one producing him, because he's more famous and he's a man. I felt and experienced that dismissiveness. But I'm excited about Asian presence gaining more attention now. Not because I'm Asian and I want attention, but because I think we will have a more beautiful future in the Western and Eastern worlds if we are paying more attention to each other, and if we dance with each other. I don't think Western culture should become Eastern, or Eastern should become Western. But I fundamentally believe in integration, and it seems history is suggesting that the time is now for us to integrate. We can travel easier to different countries today. I just went to Africa, to Morocco, and I never thought I would get to go to Africa during my lifetime. I was so excited by this opportunity, and it was eye-opening. It was also great because I didn't perform at a commercial festival. This was funded by a foundation, so a lot of traditional musicians came, and we performed in a village for free. Many different African musicians came, and I got to hear their music directly with my ears. It's a whole different experience from listening to recordings. I had never gotten so much of the beauty or energy of African music through recordings, even though recording is my main instrument and I believe in recordings. But, like everything else that's great, it has its limitations. We have so much to discover in this world – not just the Western world to discover the Asian world, but the Islamic world, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa – there's all this music to discover that we can get closer to through recordings. We can get closer through writing and reading, which is also great. But if we can go somewhere and experience it, it does something to you. I felt like I got to evolve through this experience. In what way, I don't know. But I am happier, and I feel richer in my heart through that meeting.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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