Japan’s Mono have been titans of post-rock since they upended the decade-old genre with their 1999 debut Under the Pipal Tree.
The album, part of legendary avant-garde composer and saxophonist John Zorn’s Next Music Japan series on his Tzadik label, capitalized on the type of emotions-stirring compositions and intricate, experimental riffs expected from genre trailblazers like Fly Pan Am and Slint, and built them into something tighter and more orchestral, strings and all.
Five years into their tenure, the band, comprised of founder and guitarist Taka Goto, guitarist Hideki “Yoda” Suematsu, bassist Tamaki Kunishi and drummer Yasunori Takada signed to Temporary Residence, Ltd. and recorded their third album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined with indie and post-punk vet Steve Albini. Pipal… may be a classic of the genre, but their work with Albini helped the band continue to refine their innovation on the sound.
This October, Mono released Requiem for Hell, an album inspired by Dante’s The Divine Comedy (so move aside, Tom Hanks). Goto said that the storyline of the album mirrored the novel—“going through the afterlife, Hell, Purgatory and Heaven”—through the band’s eyes. This included using the recorded heartbeat of Temporary Residence founder Jeremy deVine’s first born daughter Ely for a track appropriately titled “Ely’s Heartbeat.” But if the album has a heartbeat of its own, it’s Tamaki Kunishi’s bass lines. The group’s ability to balance calm and chaos hinges on her performance—she may not be the composer, but so much of the work is still under her control.
Requiem… also finds the band rekindling their relationship with Albini, who produced all three of the albums they released between 2004 and 2009. Kunishi was happy to work with the legendary Chicagoan again. “He always manages to record our sound as vividly as possible,” she says. “I think this album portrays the best of me [as a musician] at that time.”
Kunishi has been a musician for almost all of her life. “The first instrument I’ve ever played was [the] organ when I was four years old,” she says. “Shortly after, I saw someone perform electrical organ and really got into the fact how you can perform drums, bass and melodies with just one instrument.” She obsessively played the electronic organ, both well-known songs and her own composition, before giving it because practicing couldn’t keep her interest. She picked up the guitar in junior high, but it wasn’t until she was 17 that she started playing the bass. “Where I grew up was in the countryside [where] there weren’t that many people in bands, so when my friend’s band’s bassist left, they asked me if I wanted to play and that’s how it all started.”
For touring and recording (the band has recorded “live” since their debut album), she uses a Gibson EB-III 1966 Model and an Ampeg B2-R for an amp head and prefers a Sunn cabinet. She changes her speaker set-up depending on which country she is in, preferring a 10×4 in Japan and 15” in the U.S. She also played guitar on the band’s previous full-length, double album The Last Dawn/Rays of Darkness. “I love the looks and sounds of Gibson L6-S, which I used on the previous album,” she says.
“I can’t get enough of how you can get into a song’s scenery and emotions, and become part of it as a whole,” she says of the hefty songs Mono composes. “Sometimes you become the wind, the snow, or the heat filled with spirit, which you can’t simply describe. I always think about how to express, and how much I can express those continuously rising feelings fully and the best way possible.”
Seventeen years later, Kunishi is still finding inspiration from her bandmates and the world around her. “Taka and Yoda’s guitar [sound] continuously change and they’re simply beautiful,” she writes. “We tour a lot of countries and see a lot of scenery, such as America’s endlessly wide landscape, Russia’s snowfields, huge mountains between Switzerland and Spain… It might be odd to compare [myself] with such things, but I always wonder if I can have the same strong energy [as] them.”
Kunishi will have plenty of time to absorb those strengths as the band spends the rest of the year touring, spending November in Europe before kicking off 2017 with dates in Asia. In the interim, her only wish is for people to listen to the album and take something powerful away with them. “It would mean the world to me if you could feel something, receive and gain some energy from the music like I did.”