After years and years of playing music with others (in his own band Jupiter One, as well with of Montreal and Regina Spektor), K Ishibashi struck out on his own to make music as Kishi Bashi. The violinist’s solo project produced a magnificent debut LP last year called 151a, which you can stream here. He wrote and recorded it in his parent’s attic in Virginia after moving his wife and 6-year old daughter from New York City. I talked to K over the phone about that decision, the recording process, and much more. Here’s what he had to say:
The Swollen Fox: When did you start playing violin and why? And in addition to that, who did you grow up listening to?
K. Ishibashi: Well I started playing violin when I was like 6 years old, I think. I had a pretty solid classical music upbringing—I played in orchestras in high school. Of course, I had all the other adolescent things—I was into metal and rap, whatever everyone else was listening to. I really fell in love with classical chamber music and I was really lucky to have really great players that I played in string quartets with. And in addition to having the regular pop upbringing that most kids have, I was really exposed to a lo of really beautiful music.
TSF: You initially went to college for engineering?
K: Yea I went to Cornell University for like two years and then I flunked out.
TSF: And you transferred to Berkelee?
K: I did.
TSF: What kind of impact did going to a school like Berkeley have on your music?
K: It was great because I think I was a little older than a lot of the other students cause I’d already gone to another college for two years. So I was really focused. I went for jazz violin, I studied with a well-known educator there. And I spent a lot of time practicing, so I really built into improvisation and the study of improvisation. All forms like jazz, and also swing, and classical Indian. And I got into Arabic music, I really kind of (got) the whole gambit as far as music goes.
In addition to that I studied composition, I was a film composer major.
TSF: Is film scoring still something that you want to do in addition to Kishi Bashi?
K: Maybe, I kind of took a break from it last year, indefinitely. It’s pretty tough. I really love visuals in film and just the interaction of it I think it’s extremely powerful, but also, being a film composer is kind of a service industry. You’re kind of a slave to the director. And it’s not about the music, per say, it’s about the film. It’s a pretty difficult position as opposed to making pure music, which I absolutely enjoy.
TSF: For 151a you moved your family from New York back to Virginia and you recorded it in your parent’s attic. What made you want to leave New York and how do you think it helped your creative process?
K: I have a family, I have a 6-year old daughter. Living in New York with a family as a musician was just terrible. It’s so expensive. I kind of…I felt like a peasant. I found that every time I tour or I try to work on something creative that’s not necessarily financially lucrative I felt like I’d be pressured to make money. So I’d have to go work some job or some film scoring job, or something that I didn’t really enjoy but that pays. I was just inundated with projects, music and string scoring, things that really had nothing to do with Kishi Bashi. So I think leaving New York and kind of liberating myself from financial pressures was really great. It gave me time to just experiment in the studio and create my own music.
TSF: Can you take me a little bit through your creative process in Virginia. How a song would typically start for you and how layers get added?
K: Well a lot of times I’ll sit in the studio and be improvising with my loops. So I’ll have violin—these loops pedals that I use have these double-speed and half-time recording capabilities, so I can instantly make these crazy, wild, freaky explosions sound. I can easily, quickly make these large orchestral textures. So that kind of inspires me to experiment with it and come up with a song or song idea. And then what I usually do is record really quick as a demo and then I’ll just sit on it and think about it some other time.
TSF: So it’s usually music first, lyrics later?
K: Yea, for me. In my case, it’s always music. The words form in my mouth and then I kind of…aesthetically the words form, and then I try to make a story out of it.
TSF: Speaking of stories, the song “Manchester” has a great story where you sing about writing a novel. I’m just curious if writing a novel is something that you’ve ever thought about or attempted.
K: I’ve tried to write prose in the past and it’s not really good. I’m just a musician and a composer. Oh, I was on tour with Regina Spektor at the time, and I was talking to her about—she was thinking about writing a novel or something like that. I was like “how could you do that?” Then I realized that being a lyricist is kind of close to being a poet, it’s also kind of close to being a writer. It’s all kind of connected. So I thought, even though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write a good novel, it’s definitely within something I can fantasize (about).
TSF: When you perform live you’re, most of the time, performing solo and these songs are very intricate and have a lot of layers. How challenging was it, at first, to translate these songs to a live setting?
K: I would say extremely difficult. Some of them are easy. There’s a song called “It All Began With A Burst” and that was really easy. But songs like “Bright Whites” is very difficult and I still don’t really enjoy doing it by myself. I’ll do it, but…so at my next tour I have two other musicians with me, so it’ll be great. Like they can augment me on stuff like that. For the most part we’re gonna try to do like three people, and then I’ll have moments where I’m doing it solo, just to give the audience something different. Cause the last time around I did just solo.
TSF: Who will you be bringing on tour?
K: We’ve got Mike Savino from Tall Tall Trees, he’s a singer, he’s great. Then Elizabeth Ziman from Elizabeth and the Catapult. They’re gonna be my band.
TSF: How do you think your experience working with of Montreal and Kevin Barnes and your own band Jupiter One, how do you think that experience has affected your solo work?
K: I think Kishi Bashi is definitely a reaction to Jupiter One. Jupiter One was like a band, you know? I mean I wrote a lot of the songs but it’s still something that it’s music by committee, which was kind of frustrating at times. More frustrating than not. So I took a break from it so that I could really be creative on my own. If you’re in a band and you write a song, you gotta put the—you know the drummer’s like “of course there are gonna be drums in it.” But then, why should you feel obligated to put drums in it if it’s not appropriate? There’s a lot of subtlety that was lost, I think. I got so frustrated working with people who didn’t really share my vision.
And then fast forward to me touring with Of Montreal and being in the band and also working with Kevin in the studio. You know, it’s his project. So he’s like “what’s the point of even compromising your vision if your vision’s so strong?” And his vision is extremely strong. So, for the most part he doesn’t really include musicians in his recordings. So he was really inspiring to work with cause he really pushed me to experiment with the violin, cause he plays a lot of instruments and I play a lot of instruments to. He doesn’t play the violin, so he’d give me a lot of opportunities to create things in his albums. And I basically tried to dig deep and figure out what I could offer that he could not do himself, so I ended up using a lot of violin stuff and I really started to experiment.
TSF: You seem to have really embraced your Japanese heritage on this album. What do you think that background adds to the music?
K: I think it’s…the lyrics when I sing Japanese add an extra dimension to the lyrics because it is related to the English lyrics. I use it more as a musical tool. I think, I was trying to figure out a way to make my music as layered as possible and I guess, this goes back to Kevin Barnes, too. He does a lot of vocal layerings, and he’ll layer random vocaliziations underneath his other singing. So it’s incredibly dense and that’s kind of the approach I took, so I wanted to put some kind of vocalizations under it. And I figured “oh if I put Japanese (in) it sounds kind of foreign.” I mean, it won’t be comprehended by the average listener, so I can put these multi-layered things underneath, but they’re still vocalizations and I can harmonize. So that’s kind of the approach I took.
TSF: What does 2013 have in store for you?
K: I’m working on an EP right now. So I’m just trying to finish up some songs right now, so I can kind of put something out in the middle (of the year). I don’t think I’ll have a new album out this year, but I’ll definitely be starting to work on it after the summer, I think.
Catch Kishi Bashi live this Wednesday night at the First Unitarian Church. More information and tickets are available here.