Interview: YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN
Special reporting by Peter Boyle.
Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B form the nucleus of an amorphous, intersectional “Noh-Wave” art/rock collective called YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN. Their debut album “YT//ST” was shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize in 2012, and their forthcoming video game “Your Task // Shoot Things” extends their multimedia forays into interactive territory. I spoke with them in January about their cultural and artistic identities, and how their complex aesthetic mission comes into existence.
WHOLE BEAST RAG: I wanted to ask you about a couple different things you’ve been up to, how all this symbolism functions as part of your artistic identity, and the way in which YAMANTAKA // SONIC TITAN fits into the culture that it’s giving to. You have a lot of Asian cultural signifiers, and in your performance as well, and I just wanted to ask what might be specifically Canadian about it?
RUBY KATO ATTWOOD: Well, I think that our artistic dialogue is focused on issues of indigenous and diasporic identity, which I think is deeply embedded in Canadian history.
WBR: Even more than American history, almost. There’s this very complicated cultural invasion that’s gone on. On your opera, “33”, I thought it was really interesting that you were trying to put all these sigilistic signifiers of belief together. You’ve mentioned dealing with ideas of Christianity, and I know that the number 33 was rich with meaning in that regard, and it’s not as explicitly Buddhist either; you’re trying to define a new arc. Where is this coming from? How are you developing this story?
RKA: Well, we take these personal narratives, narratives that are familiar to us through whatever formative culture we individually experience, and then bring them together as a series of narratives that overlap to express a larger narrative. And we use systems, like the numerical systems in “33,” or we recreate some kind of ritualistic or theatrical system as well, to restrain or limit the project to make it into something comprehensible.
WBR: I’m curious about “creating an empty space.” By using these personal narratives and using these units of symbolism, are you trying to find a place where these cultures meet? Or are you trying to break them apart, to make something that’s beyond or outside of those things?
RKA: Well, this idea of emptiness is that things don’t have an inherent essence, and in that way, they’re all interrelated. If you try to penetrate into the most essential part of something, you won’t find anything except for other interrelated parts. That’s the use of the word emptiness in that context, not in it meaning that there’s a void or a vacuum, that there’s nothing there. It’s just that there’s nothing there that is essential or absolute. So all these different narratives come together to make something, but within themselves they are also comprised of those kinds of different narratives, so it leads to—and comes from—an endless stream of symbolism and imagery.
WBR: Along those lines: I see you in the music press a lot, but it seems like you guys are approaching everything from a very multimedia standpoint, and you have this videogame coming out, Your Task // Shoot Things. I was wondering how it ties into this vision of your collective and the way you’re perceived.
RKA: I’ll hand you over to Alaska for that one.
ALASKA B: Yeah. Well basically, Your Task // Shoot Things is a throwback arcade side-scrolling action shooting game. It’s engaging in the artwork we’ve done as a collective, and the basic storyline is an alternate dimension re-imagined version of the narrative that our first record, YT//ST, was written around.
We kind of work in rock-opera, so we write the music and we write the plot. Some of our work is so out there, and we almost felt it would be more interesting to try and make an interactive version of the story, rather than dealing with the high overhead of theater. Some of the members have training in game engine programming and animation, so we figured it would be kind of a cool venture that would cost some money but not as much, with higher returns.
WBR: It seems really great, and like something very conceptually and aesthetically unique. Which leads me to the next question: do you feel pigeonholed by the idea of being a band, forced into a certain space by whatever press you’re getting or by what the community thinks of you? It doesn’t strike me that you are people that are terribly concerned about the perception of your work.
AB: I guess it is kind of frustrating, moving between the two worlds. We’re not in the kind of culture where that kind of high art meets low art simultaneously; it’s not something that’s really mainstream, I guess. And a lot of people don’t quite know how to understand that the two are one and the same, so I feel like a lot of people see us and they try to… I think first people try to dismiss things that they don’t understand.
People say things like “stop calling yourselves an art collective,” like “you guys are a band. You’re JUST a band.” That’s the best part, the “just’” with an underscore. It’s art, it’s all art, music, theater, visual art, so I don’t understand the “just” concept. I think that there’s some kind of fear of pretension that makes people want to divide those two things. Like, bands are raw, and they live and they breathe, and I feel like when people argue, say, “Oh, yeah, The Who are so raw, and Rush is so wimpy,” it’s almost dehumanizing not be the raw one, you know? But I don’t see them as separate. Coming from the world of performance art, raw is the only way you can be.
WBR: Right, yeah, or at least live. I can see where that comes in. In that same vein, do you ever feel like you’re misinterpreted or otherized because of the varying cultural units of information you’re moving between? You’re bringing a lot of Eastern and Western things together, and you’re doing it in a way that seems personally interpretive. I’m curious whether that “just a band” mentality bleeds over, whether people see you as a specifically Asian entity, or as an Asian-Canadian identity. Do you ever face that, or feel limited by people’s perception of you?
AB: Yeah, I definitely see some funny stuff related to the whole race aspect, the cultural aspect. I’ve seen people want to pick what kind of race you are, and it betrays a lot of hilarious thoughts that people have. When people are insulting us they call us Chinese, but when they’re talking about how cool we are, they call us Japanese. It’s this weird, subtle thing: “Oh, you guys really do think this kind of stuff.”
Another funny thing: regardless of what I do, I feel otherized. That’s just the way I move through the world. When I was playing in your everyday punk band, it didn’t make a difference; I was still otherized. And when you’ve been confronted with that, at some point, you say “What? You really think that about me? Well I’m gonna be that for you! You hear me? I’m THAT!” That scares people, and it takes the power out of it. So there’s some element of self-otherizing, but I find it funny what other people add to that.
I think we open ourselves to those sorts of attacks and conversations, and it’s kind of great to see people have to converse about it. Being a radical and a minority queer rock band, you’re going to run into that, but what can we do? So when we play it up, it makes it more campy, but I’d say it makes it more austere at the same time. There’s a freedom in being not what you are, or exactly what you are, at the same time.
WBR: It all seems to go back to that fluidity, and you’re definitely embracing it; I’ve seen you describe yourselves as “hyper-orientalist,” which is an interesting way to put that in people’s faces.
AB: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of snark and sarcasm that people gloss over or get caught on. I feel like sometimes people think our parodical take on theoretical buzzwords is double-pretentious, which I find hilarious. The whole system of talking that way I find to be absolutely absurd. So because they’re just making up words, you just make up a few more words with them, you know?