Formed in Tokyo in 1999, instrumental rock band MONO have a genre defying sound that defies easy categorisation. With an unrivalled work ethic, they’ve released a string of critically-acclaimed albums, and have become famed for their intense live show. The Midlands Rocks caught up with lead guitarist Takaakira ‘Taka’ Goto at this year’s ArcTanGent festival (also present were rhythm guitarist Hideki ‘Yoda’ Suematsu and bassist Tamaki Kunishi).
You are veterans of the ArcTanGent Venue. What makes you keep coming back?
We’re very proud to play here. ArcTanGent keeps getting bigger and bigger, and more famous. It’s the number one festival for progressive rock, math rock, alternative rock. We’re very thankful to them for having us.
How does it compare to other festivals?
This is a very specific festival. This isn’t like a big corporate festival. It’s more artistic, it’s so independent, fun and D.I.Y.
Your set at ArcTanGent is part of your world tour which will include both festival and club dates. Do you approach the two differently?
The band’s been going for more than 20 years, and we’ve released 11 albums, so tomorrow we are going to play a mixture of old stuff and new stuff combined, and the two make a short movie.
So how will that differ from a club show?
In the clubs we are mostly going to play songs from the new album, but tomorrow we will be a special set with a few surprises.
You are famed for your live show. I read an article where you said a live show is the ultimate expression of your music. How do you get in the zone every night to play on stage?
If you imagine that you are a pianist and you a have to play every night Beethoven symphonies, there are conductors, but we don’t have a conductor. But we understand that we have to play professionally, because we know how to weigh the emotions, so we have to go through, so every performance is different, but equally the same.
Perhaps one night you might feel ill, or you might have an issue that means you can perform to the best of your ability. So how do you keep the energy levels the same every night?
We’ve come a long way, all the way from Japan, so even if we have a fever, we’re sick, we don’t care, we have to play. We came here to play music, and we are kind of tour soldiers! We’re very strong soldiers. [laughs]
In 2018 you had a new drummer. How did that change the chemistry of the band?
In 2018 we were very tired, and when we got our new drummer, Dahm Majuri Cipolla is a great drummer, we felt like we were reborn. We had mixed emotions when we changed drummers, but Da’s a very good drummer, and we feel very strong now.
Do you feel the band is better now, or just different?
Well, we had outgrown each other. We’ve been a band for more than 20 years, we were more like a family, even families have arguments and fights, but still love each other. The point is the timing, now it is very beautiful.
And has it affected the way you write songs?
Our songs are much brighter, there’s more hope. They used to be so dark, because we had so many angry emotions. I think because we didn’t have any praise. In Japan, nobody knows about us, we need some praise so that we can make music. The praise came when we toured the States, Europe and Asia. Everything has a reason, and now we sing about past times, we’re very thankful to have such experiences, and to survive through helping each other. Mostly the partners, labels, booking agents and the fans, everybody supporting us; they made us. It’s very special.
The band has a very strong work ethic. You are always recording and touring. How was it when the pandemic hit and you had to stop suddenly?
It was a great opportunity to concentrate on writing music. We were too busy all the time touring, recording and composing, so it was a great rest.
Recently you’ve released a fair amount of music. Is that because you were writing throughout the pandemic.
Yes. But also, because the record label said people were listening to music a lot in the house because of the pandemic, and listening to longer music like MONO. The label sold a lot of CD’s and vinyl during the pandemic. It’s very interesting.
You said your sound is brighter now because of the new drummer. But the pandemic was a very dark time. Did that play into your music?
The world is so dark now, so we cannot be dark.
How were Pilgrimage Of The Soul and Scarlet Holliday influenced by the pandemic?
It was very much influenced by the pandemic time, and we really needed to explain about time, my father died during the pandemic, and everything stopped, so we were thinking about time. So, time was the theme of the album.
Both Pilgrimage and Scarlet featured vocals. That was a big shock for everyone. What made you break with tradition and include vocals?
We are always trying to do something new. People have said it reminds them of Nina Simone. It’s another way for us to make expressions.
It’s that something you’ll do more of in the future?
I have no idea. We’ll see. But not Britney Spears! [laughs]
In another break with tradition, your latest soundtrack release wasn’t recorded with long term producer Steve Albini.
That was because of the pandemic. I wished we could have.
How was it not recording with him? That must have been very strange because he’s like the fifth band member.
It was very strange. As much as possible we’re going to continue working with Steve on our original albums.
How was it self-producing the soundtrack record?
There was a script and I used an editing suite. I imagined how each of the characters though in each scene, and it gave me inspiration. But even our albums, from beginning to end, are like a movie; each scene is music. Soundtracks are easy because we don’t need to think about scripts. [laughs]
MONO is accepted all over the world. Do you think this is because your music is instrumental?
Explaining emotions is easier with music than with music. Music can connect with the soul, and the soul makes the universe. It’s a kind of magic.
What kind of music influences you now?
We are listening to a lot of piano players, classical music, soundtracks, and modern rock. But I don’t listen to rock music when I am composing.
You’ll be touring for the rest of this year. So, what are your plans for 2023?
Next year we are going to record a new album, and we are going to tour. Next year will be 23rd anniversary, so we are going to have a special show with an orchestra. We’ve been releasing a 10th anniversary record, recorded live in New York [Holy Ground], a 20th anniversary release [Beyond the Past], I want to continue 30th, 40th, and on the 50th, I will be 80 years old, and that will be the last show. [laughs]