Yuka Honda: The interview

The former Cibo Matto mainstay returns with a new band

Yuka Honda: The interview

If By Yes, Yuka Honda far left

Yuka Honda made her name as one half of Cibo Matto, a New York-based duo that won acclaim over the course of two albums, before splitting in the early 2000s. While her partner, Miho Hattori, went on to star as the voice of Noodle on the first Gorillaz album, Yuka found herself increasingly involved behind the mixing desk, notching up production credits on Sean Lennon's debut album, Into the Sun (1998) and, more recently, as co-producer and key member of the revived Plastic Ono Band. Her latest venture is a collaboration with Petra Haden (That Dog, The Decemberists), performing together as If By Yes. With debut album Salt on Sea Glass out this month, Time Out chatted with her about video games, ping pong, air miles and Yoko Ono's 'mind blowing' Twitter statements.

David Byrne, Nels Cline, Sean Lennon, Cornelius...you seem to have made a career of collaboration, don't you think?
I definitely think so. I think music is one of the great art forms that you can do with your friends, and I really love this factor of collaboration. I mean, I like my ideas, but I really enjoy the chemistry; you sit with someone else and they bring something to the table that you wouldn't think of. I really enjoy that process.

This new album is quite an interesting collaborative process, because it took place between two people 3,000 miles from each other. How did that work?
That was actually just from a pure love for each other. A lot of people think that this was just an internet relationship, but it wasn't. We actually did it analogue.

In what way? Did you send tapes through the mail?
No, we collected air miles and we flew her here. She stayed on my couch, and we ate together. We didn't sleep together [laughs], but we stayed in the same environment and tried to see what each other came up with. I really like to sit with the people I work with and ask what they're listening to right now, what they're into and what they used to be into, then do something that I think is similar that I also like, and then see if they like that direction. If they do, I go further, and if I don't, I try something else. It's like ping pong: you have to be at the table.

Are you a producer or a musician first?
I think I'm a producer first. I like to see the whole picture, even if I'm participating as a musician.

Are there any production pieces that you're particularly proud of?
I'm very proud that I got to co-produce Yoko Ono's last album (Between My Head and the Sky, 2009), which was a very big work. I'm also proud of Sean Lennon's first solo album, Into the Sun. I hear little things here and there that I'd do differently now, but I love the sound, and I can really feel where we were at that time.

What's it like working with someone like Yoko Ono? Presumably you were influenced by her when you were growing up...
I think I'm more influenced by her now that I know her. I was definitely inspired by books like Grapefruit (Yoko Ono, 1964), but the more I got to know her, I got to know about the conceptual movies and paintings that she does. Everyday she says something mind blowing! I follow her on Twitter [laughs].

What was the initial attraction for you to Petra Haden?
I heard her first solo album, Imaginaryland (1999), and it was very impressive and beautiful. Her voice is so pure. A lot of great singers tend to do a lot of things with their voice, which also I love – I'm not saying one style is good and the other is bad – but, I think she's rare in that her voice comes out through the straight pipe. She just hits the notes so straight, and that's very attractive to me.

What do you think the opposite attraction was? What did she see in you?
I don't know. She definitely responded to a lot of the chord changes I was writing. Maybe, and I'm a bit scared to use this word because it can categorize us in the wrong area, but we like things a little bit 'jazzy'. Really, though, we like to make a balance of beautiful chords while keeping it very poppy and easy on the palate.

You've been described as an artist who has one foot in pop, and the other in the avant garde. What does 'the avant garde' mean to you?
It just means freedom from the form, although I think that now a lot of avant garde has started to have form [laughs]. I think the original idea was to break the wall and go beyond the threshold, so I particularly like avant garde music that inspires you to a certain transcendence.

When you say 'avant garde has started to have form', do you think it's possible to break things down any further? Is there anywhere left to go?
I think there's always the possibility; it just gets harder. You know, at one point a lot of people criticized video games because children play them and imagine that real life is like the game... I think that real life has some factor that is actually similar to a video game: you go up and clear one stage, then go up to a higher stage and everything becomes harder, then you have to learn all these new tricks, then you clear that stage and you go to the next stage and it all becomes even harder again! Music may be similar that way, too.

You were born and raised in Tokyo, but you've lived in New York for more than two decades. Do you spend a lot of time back in Tokyo still?
Actually, I was born in Tokyo but I grew up by the ocean, in Shonan, then I spent a few years growing up in Germany and Denmark. I just read that people who had to speak different languages before five years old have a completely different brain structure. I think that applies to me. I'm not smart, or anything; it's just a different neural passage that it creates [laughs]. I spend as much time as I can in Tokyo. All my friends are there, the food is fantastic, and I love the culture. I love the music and art scenes. Every time I go, I come back really inspired.

Are there any Japanese musicians that you particularly listen to?
I always love Cornelius. I've worked with him, and I'm also a fan. We also play in the Plastic Ono Band together. I think he's one of the most brilliant musicians on earth right now, but he's so modest. He's one of the biggest geniuses around.

So what's next for If By Yes? Is it an ongoing project, or will it be a one-off?
I'd like for it to be ongoing. But first things first – we have to work on this project.

If By Yes releases their debut album, Salt on Sea Glass, on March 22. It can be downloaded via their record company, Chimera Music

By Jon Wilks
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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