Pop: Food for thought

Cibo Matto's first album was an enigmatic hors d'oeuvre. Now the Japanese duo has served up a sumptuous main course.
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The Independent Culture
POP MUSIC is such a subjective thing, the mechanics of its appeal being completely dependent on one's angle of approach. Japanese duo Cibo Matto, for instance, fondly believed their debut album Viva! La Woman was a pretty poppy prospect when they released it in 1996. The trouble was that all their friends inhabited New York's avant-garde jazz scene, at the side of whose excesses virtually anything would seem mainstream.

"People would say, `Oh, you guys are so pop!'," explains the diminutive Yuka Honda, who handles the bulk of the group's musical chores, "so we thought we were. Then when we put the record out, all the journalists were asking, `Why is it so weird?'. We thought that it was pop!"

In a way, it was - but not the kind of pop to which most people were used. Unless they were used to songs about food, that is. Taking their cue from their band name - roughly translating as "food madness" - Yuka and lyricist/singer Miho Hatori had composed an entire album of songs with titles such as "Beef Jerky", "White Pepper Ice Cream" and, most enigmatically, "Know Your Chicken", which collectively illuminated the subtler contours of desire, both gastronomic and erotic.

Those not completely enchanted were, frankly, baffled. Especially in America. Nobody in Japan - or Italy or France - thought it strange that they should do an album about food, but in the US they were quizzed about little else. "In America, people don't understand that food can be artistic," reflects Yuka. "There's no food culture there. A lot of people think that food comes from supermarkets, because they didn't grow up with fields."

Yuka originally moved to New York in the early-Nineties to be with her boyfriend of the time, Dougie Bowne of celebrated faux-jazz combo The Lounge Lizards. Miho arrived a little later, and the two teenage girls became Cibo Matto when asked by their avant-garde jazz friends to contribute to a programme of improvised music.

"We kind of cheated," admits Yuka. "We didn't improvise, we wrote most of it! We knew that a lot of people were going to go onstage and go [imitates typical avant-garde saxophone overblowing], and we thought maybe we should do something a little different. So it became very elaborate, with all these samples and Miho's poems. It was kind of improvisation in a way, though, because we didn't rehearse much!"

Three years on from their debut, Cibo Matto's Stereo Type A is a different proposition entirely. For one thing, the only food songs are "Spoon" and "Sci-Fi Wasabi" - which is actually about cycling. For another, this album really is pop, with potential hits in songs such as "Moonchild". The most obvious change, though, is that they actually sound like a proper band now, thanks to the presence of Sean Lennon and Timo Ellis, whom Yuka and Miho met after they remixed one of Sean's mom's songs.

"Yoko really liked it, so she invited us to the Dakota and we had lunch with her," explains Yuka."Then she invited us along to a rehearsal for a concert she was doing with Sean's band. We met Sean and Timo there, and ended up jamming with them at the show that night. They played on most of the songs on the album."

But though the band's line-up and sound have changed, the Cibo Matto method remains the same. "It's almost like fishing," says Yuka, "there are lots of possibilities and we grab the one that we are really attracted to. It could be a funky sound, or beautiful jazz, or a stupid pop song, but there's always some element that makes us feel really excited."

"For example," adds Miho, "with the song called `Stone', I was trying to write something as beautiful as one of Kurt Cobain's songs, but we made it into a bossa nova - that's our way, we always try and cook it a different way." Doing things in a different way is, fortunately, all but second nature to Cibo Matto, whose position as avant-garde aliens adrift in a mainstream culture affords them unusual insights into the differences between their native country and their adopted home.

"People tend to think that Japan is very conservative and America is more free," assesses Yuka, "but there's a lot of things where the opposite is the case. Japanese people love new gadgets - like, in my mother's house now, she can push a button in the kitchen to run a bath. But American people aren't really into new things like that." "It's a question of size, too," adds Miho. "The United States is so much bigger that ideas take longer to spread across the country."

"Another thing," continues Yuka, "is that America has a one-god religion, and people try to pretend there's just one way to live. In Japan, a lot of people have a few religions - they'll have a shrine to Buddha in their house, and a Shinto shrine, too. In Shinto, everything has a god - a god of table, a god of chair - so they're used to dealing with a lot of gods."

Not, of course, that this ensures the god you require is going to be available when you need their assistance. Yuka recalls a recent conversation with her mother, who, concerned for her daughter's well-being, had put in a good word for her upstairs. "She called me and said, `I went to pray for assistance for you, because I feel like god must be too busy!'." Not all gods, though: judging by Stereo Type A, the god of Japanese pop, at least, has been keeping a watchful eye on Cibo Matto.

`Stereo Type A' is released this Monday on Warner Records