On Ensemble Conquers The World

Interview By: White Chicks On Rap

By fusing traditional Japanese drums, or taiko, and contemporary mediums like hip-hop, electronica, and rock, On Ensemble creates a beautiful chemistry of sound. On their second full-length studio album, Ume in the Middle, releasing May 5, 2009 on Turtlefield Music, the fusion of time-honored eastern and western components with contemporary elements offer a modern-day feel to world music that is beyond interesting.

Through continuous avant-garde musical stylings and a sense of giving back to the community, On Ensemble fortifies their sound by caring deeply about their music and their audience. The members, Masato Baba, Kristofer Bergstrom, Shoji Kameda, and Kelvin Underwood have been playing music for the majority of their lives and have studied taiko under professional groups and masters from the United States and Japan. Their experiences have helped them mold themselves and their sound into something they feel is important and meaningful.

Producer and main composer of the group, Shoji Kameda, stresses On Ensemble’s live performances and recordings as two separate art forms. “You will never recreate the experience of a live performance on an album, because you aren’t experiencing the music as it happens,” Kameda says. “You’re not there with the artist feeding off their energy. Once you record something and play it back, it becomes an echo of that experience, a facsimile, a photograph of the moment. I feel like the way to make an album come alive is to embrace the studio and recording process as part of the creative process.” Ume in the Middle, recorded in the band’s small Silverlake studio, was approached in this manner and the product is a vibrant recording full of life.

CWG: Your style is interesting, mixing traditional Japanese drums (taiko), electronica, hip-hop and rock. How did you come up with this? What are your inspirations?

KRIS – Each of us approaches music a little differently. We have different likes and dislikes, and our compositional processes are different. There is overlap, of course, but a big part of On Ensemble’s mixing of sounds comes simply from the combination of us four members. The group serves as a voice for its members and the range of this expression is amplified by the one thing we all agree on musically: there’s great music in every genre.

KELVIN – All that I’ve learned and experienced in my process of becoming the musician that I am today emerges during my sessions in the On Ensemble setting. The fact that the possibilities of taiko as a versatile instrument are infinite inspires me to pursue new musical discoveries.

SHOJI – I’m constantly inspired by all kinds of music. My ipod is stuffed with everything from Balinese gamelan to late 70s free jazz to underground hip-hop. There is so much interesting music happening in the blurry areas between cultures and old definitions. I feel like many artists are responding to our shrinking world and the information overload it brings with a similar impulse to try and find connections between seemingly disparate parts and experiences.

CWG: The group has studied with some great masters. What was the most valuable thing you were taught?

MAZ – My first teachers were my parents and from then I learned to not be afraid. Experimenting, being in the moment, and improvisation were huge points in how my parents taught me.

KRIS – For me, studying with Kineya Katsuyukie has been the most rewarding. She is a shamisen master of nagauta, the music of Kabuki. My experience with her and with nagauta is a constant reminder of the richness and depth possible in traditional music. As a composer, I’ll never achieve the same depth; new music involves too much innovation, at the expense of refinement. But knowing what depth is possible pushes me to explore my own musical sensibility more deeply.

KELVIN – That I have to let my light shine. With all of the techniques and rhythms that I know, nothing has a greater impact than the joyous, fiery spirit that I bring to the stage.

SHOJI – I’ve learned that deep understanding takes time and one must always continue to be a student of music.

CWG: What was your approach in writing and recording “Ume In The Middle?”

MAZ – I’ve really been trying hard to find a fue (flute) voice for myself. This pushed me to write songs for the fue, notably “Hisashi” and “Bounceback”.

SHOJI – As the producer of the album I’m mostly concerned with capturing the On Ensemble aesthetic and creating a complete world that makes sense within its self. I want all the diverse instruments and influences to feel like they makes sense together so that the listener can immerse themselves in this world. I’m also conscious of conveying a sense of journey and exploration which is very much what On Ensemble is about.

CWG: What did you learn in recording your first album that you bought to the second album?

KELVIN – Songs on the first studio album are a lot longer than those on the current one. We’ve learned that it doesn’t take much time to say what you need to say.

SHOJI – The first album was a great learning experience and I feel like we’ve grown a lot since then. Our overall sound has changed, our song writing has gotten better and my ability to record, mix and produce has also improved. There is a real art to the recording process and I’ll be a student of the studio for as long as I make music.

CWG: You stress the difference between live performances and recordings as two separate art forms. What is like performing on stage and to record in a studio?

KRIS – With Shoji at the creative center on this album, recording for me was a fun test of my drumming technique. Getting the phrases to be just what Shoji wanted, “every hit exactly to the center of the drum” or “a bit earlier on hit 6 there”, was a rewarding challenge.

MAZ – I consider myself to be a performer. I love performing for an audience and live to do it. I become a different person on stage and it is very liberating. Recording in the studio is really fun, but stressful in trying to get it right. It was a great challenge to do this as I am not very experienced in it. I look forward to becoming a better studio musician for the next album.

SHOJI – I would say that the biggest difference is playing live feels like having a conversation while working recording in the studio is much more of an internal dialogue. There is nothing that can replace the intimacy, energy and interaction between the performers and the audience at a live performance. The recording process offers its own unique set of creative possibilities and for me it becomes more of a meticulous and solitary experience. I really enjoy doing both and in the end it’s really all about doing everything you can and exploring every creative possibility to make good music.

CWG: Where do you see the group a year from now; five years from now?

KELVIN – Leaders in the innovation of taiko music.
MAZ – I want to keep creating music. Not just taiko music, but wherever time takes us. The music should mature and be constantly changing.

KRIS – Going into our eighth year as an ensemble, we’ve finally started to settle into a repertoire. I’m interested to see how much we’ll shake this up in the next year or two. Will we continue to refine, or will we move back toward all new music, all the time? We have a Works in Progress concert at the end of this year that will introduce a host of new pieces. We’ll see if any of them can break into the more established repertoire.

CWG: You do not hear a lot of Japanese influence in the music scene. How does it feel introducing taiko to a wider audience?

MAZ – I feel like I can talk about this forever. Basically I think that taiko has never been defined because there is no true “traditional” side to the style that we grew up playing. It’s only 30-40 years old, so I feel like we’re introducing OUR music to people and it feels like we’re staying true to ourselves.

KRIS – Perhaps I just listen to weird music, but I feel like I hear Japanese instruments everywhere. And to be honest, I don’t usually like the combinations I hear. For me, most of the time the mixing of genres feels forced… like “mixing” was the end goal, rather than music. With On Ensemble, I think the combination feels more natural. Perhaps it’s my own bias, or my insider’s perspective on the members’ motivations, but it feels like On Ensemble’s music is the honest result of a love of many different sounds.

CWG: In reading about the group, I see that you love the live experience as you get to connect with an audience. Is there any artist or group you would like to perform with?

KELVIN – I would love to perform alongside Bjork, Peter Gabriel and Sigor Ros.
MAZ – Too many to name! Sigur Ros, Kodo, Nickodemus, The Bad Plus, Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bjork (for Kris’ sake), Kronos Quartet, Ozomatli to name a few.

KRIS – A shorter answer might be who I *wouldn’t* want to play with. I would love to play with any artist who truly loves music, appreciates what On Ensemble is doing, and is open to collaboration. Off the top of my head from my current listening/viewing list, I’d love to meet Bjork, Funkstorung, DVD, Tristan Perich, Michel Gondry, Kneebody, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Q-Bert, JoJo Mayer… the list goes on!

SHOJI – I would love to do a collaboration with Sigur Ros. I love what they do and I think the combination between atmospheric guitar, throat singing and taiko would be fantastic. I would love to work with The Bad Plus, they are amazing musicians and share a similar love of exploration and genre blurring. I feel like we have a very “Los Angeles” approach to music and there are a lot of LA based bands that I’d love to work with including Ozomatli, Quetzal and Dengue Fever. I’d also love to work with Hun Huur Tu (Tuvan throat singers), Cudamani (Balinese gamelan) and Djaduk Ferianto and Kua Etnika (fusion from a Javanese perspective).

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