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Kick Out the Jam

Like peas in a...oh, never mind.
  • Like peas in a...oh, never mind.

Music transcends language. According to Miho Hatori, lead singer of Cibo Matto, music should also transcend itself. For Hatori and her band, personal transcendence has included reinventing their music and attracting a famous bandmate.

Hatori began experimenting with musical styles as an amateur DJ in Tokyo, where she grew up. She would plant herself behind the turntables and mix ABBA into Fugazi, or Al Green into Jimi Hendrix. "Everybody didn't get it, though," she admits.

In the early 1990s, Hatori moved to New York City to study English and found herself skipping from club to club to take in the various sounds. Eventually, she hooked up with Yuka Honda, another Japanese expatriate living in New York. The two women bonded through their mutual obsessions with food and music, and decided to form Cibo Matto, which roughly translates into "food madness."

A remake of a Yoko Ono song led to an invitation to Ono's home and later to a rehearsal with Ono's band, which included her son, Sean Lennon. "It was a very amazing experience for us," Hatori recalls. "She is a hero, like the most famous person in Japan." After the rehearsal, Hatori and Honda jammed with the band until the wee hours. They bonded with Lennon, and he soon joined them as bassist for Cibo Matto.

In 1996 Viva! La Woman catapulted them into the spotlight with songs that used food imagery based on Japanese slang. But Hatori soon heard an echo from her past: People didn't get it. "I didn't realize there was no food culture in America," she admits. "They missed the old-style poetics."

Hatori decided to avoid the hazards of slang with the band's latest release, Stereotype A, which abandons the use of food as metaphor. "It's important to reach more people with understandable lyrics," Hatori says. The decision to be straightforward has had a dubious effect. The songs don't seem as fun, the silliness replaced by a literal take on relationships. If you don't compare an ex-boyfriend to an artichoke, after all, you're left with a miserable love song.

Stereotype A also mixes musical genres more, much as Hatori did as a DJ, in defiance of those who claim bands must pick one "stereotype." Unable to completely abandon food analogies, Hatori explains that they eat all types of food, so they should play all types of music. "I always had that in mind, to play everything I love. We have to create our own sound. I think that's the only way for a musician to survive." — David Powers

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