Wwhen we think of psychedelic music, we think of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the 13th Floor Elevators, blurry images of Woodstock. But for the Japanese band Kikagaku Moyo, psychedelia is exemplified by their country’s countercultural heroes, Acid Mothers Temple with their cauldron of intense fuzz, and Flower Travellin’ Band. Go Kurosawa, the frontman of Kikagaku Moyo, also cites the current Tokyo. “The music, the cinema, the culture, the freedom of not having to be technically perfect or limited. Our psychedelics don’t come from the hippie scene, it’s in nature, it’s in the chants you hear in the temple. See people getting on the train every day? That’s psychedelic.”
The dynamic energy of a Kikagaku Moyo live show—one in which the band’s long-haired members often stray into 10-minute jams—has come from Takadanobaba, a student neighborhood in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district in the early 2010s. Floating among vintage shops, bars populated by students and recording studios open late into the night, the quintet formed, and today, thanks to almost soaring live performances and mesmerizing albums, they are at the forefront of Japanese rock music. But after the release of their fifth album, Kumoyo Island, Kikagaku Moyo is splitting up, following an international farewell tour: an explicitly un-American choice to prevent them from continuing, and potentially diluting, what they’ve created.
Kurosawa and Tomo Katsurada first met in 2012. The name Kikagaku Moyo means geometric patterns. “From midnight to 6 a.m., we’d jam so much that by the time we passed out, we’d see these geometric patterns in our eyelids,” Katsurada says. Kurosawa’s younger brother Ryu returned from India after training on the sitar, bassist Kotsu Guy and guitarist Daoud Popal joined the two trade vocals shortly after, with Kurosawa on drums and Katsurada on guitar. Their early jam sessions were defined by the group’s diverse tastes in old school hip hop, metal, Indian classical music, blues, and more. Their inexperience helped the band to stay clear, their sound vague: ambient stoner rock with loops, retro-fuzz guitar and compelling sitar.
On their second album Forest of Lost Children, which ranges from the untried jam of Semicircle to the bluesy guitar of Kodama, followed by feverish sitar in their cover of Ananda Shankar’s Streets of Calcutta and gloomy melancholy in White Moon, a pattern emerged that Kikgaku Moyo would repeat with each subsequent album: Kurosowa’s drums create a crescendo that builds and then leads to a meditative conclusion.
“We don’t have a lot of lyrics because we want to give people the space to imagine their own journey with the music. Every album is like a movie,” says Katsurada. Kumoyo Island feels like a journey in solitude through a vast expanse. † “When I make music, I first try to create a playground where five of us can play,” says Kurosawa. “Adding words to it feels like limiting that imagination.”
Kumoyo Island “is influenced by the experience of touring, scenes from cars and stages, cultures that we have experienced,” says Katsurada. After playing shows in Japan and Europe, Kikagaku Moyo made their US debut in Berlin, a dimly lit hole in the wall in New York City, where the stage is a small platform just inches above the ground. I was present at that performance, standing so close to the younger Kurosawa’s sitar that I could touch it. Since then, the venues have grown, but their willingness to play, to expand riffs and solos beyond imagination, to lull the audience into a collective psyche, remains. On stage they are hypnotic and funky, humorous and personal, playing long eardrum crushing solos without wavering with a smile.
Once the album was finished, the decision to say goodbye to the band, just like their music, came instinctively. “We achieved everything we wanted. We wanted to play psychedelic music festivals and tour the world, which we did. We have not only put time and energy into making music, but also creating art, merchandise and a vision for what Kikagaku Moyo is. And we can now complete our journey on our terms, on the highest possible note,” said Kurosawa.
The band is touring Europe this month – including Glastonbury – and then America, although their last show is at home, at the Fuji Rock festival: a complete circle. Katsurada and Kurosawa return to their adopted base in Amsterdam, where they run Guruguru Brain, a record label dedicated to other esoteric acts. The band’s legacy remains, Katsurada says, anchored in their “creative imperfection.” He signs with a smile: “I hope we leave the space for the younger generation to take over. It doesn’t matter how much technical expertise they have or what corner of the world they come from. I hope the message we have conveyed is that it is possible for music to transcend borders and language barriers.”