Ben Kemp’s new album, Inside the Un-cut Apple, releases this March to coincide with his band Uminari’s tour of New Zealand. BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks to the Tokyo-based ex-pat about culture and music.

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Ben Kemp: Inside the Un-cut Apple

NOT MANY people have thought of fusing traditional Japanese music with Western forms, especially those of a New Zealand persuasion. Ben Kemp, who is just about to release his album Inside the Un-cut Apple with his band Uminari and tour New Zealand, is an artist who has done so, living in Tokyo and making compelling music as a result. Kemp grew up in the East Coast, and moved to Taupo in his childhood. He is a product of two different distinct cultures, his Dad from a German background and his mother Maori. “When I went to a ‘Maori’ school, I was a ‘Pakeha’. And when I went to a ‘Pakeha’ school, I was a ‘Maori’. I’ve always been a little bit of an outsider. In a way it’s served me quite well having some sort of objective view of the cultures. That’s where a lot of the seed of my creativity has come from.” He started off in poetry, and “that always formed the backbone of all my work.” A key moment in his life was when he lived in a little cabin on the shores of Lake Taupo for a couple of years and “wrote profusely and read children’s books, and different types of Russian literature.”

But it does seem like a bit of a step moving from the peace of Lake Taupo to the chaos of the world’s biggest city Tokyo. “I went to Japan to write film scripts. Over the period of a year I wrote 11 film scripts.” Kemp had fallen in love with Japanese cinema, starting with Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, Rashomon) and in particular one of his later films, Dreams. “That just changed my whole perspective on things forever. It wasn’t so much that the film was perfect, it was just the vision which completely floored me.” From there Japanese cinema started opening up, then it was Japanese literature, poetry, history, kabuki theatre and so on until he was a total convert. But it was music that became an unlikely career move – “I used to go out to Tokyo and busk to chill.” In the process of doing so, he met a producer, who also became his bad player, and introduced Kemp to a bunch of musicians, who formed the backbone of Uminari.

“It was incredibly lucky, I just got on the inside of the Japan’s music circuit without even trying. Some people spend years trying to get in. There are so few foreigners floating around in it, the foreigners are usually in another circuit.” Japanese artistic circles, like many artistic groups, are notorious for being closed-off, understandably given the threats of globalisation, Americanisation which has been felt very strongly in Japan, and perhaps also Japanese isolationist past. I ask Kemp if the scene was welcoming to a New Zealander. “A little bit. Some people. I think the Japanese generally are very shy people, and it was a closed society for such a long time. I think people are a little intimidated and don’t know how to act. I’ve met only on a couple of times with slightly adverse behaviour. 99.9% of the time it’s been good. Occasionally you feel like a zoo – they are just stunned with green eyes.”

This new creative insight has also allowed Kemp to approach music from a different perspective to most Kiwi musicians. While no doubt, it’s easy to draw comparisons to Jeff and Tim Buckley (the latter particularly inspiring to Kemp), his voice in particular bears a strong resemblance to the legendary Arthur Lee of 60s legends Love (albeit with slightly different material). He’s incorporated both Maori sounds and Japanese instrumentation into the mix, a mix which isn’t as contradictory as it would sound. “There’s a huge amount of integrity in Maori culture which I’ve always been in awe of. Japan has that similar vibe, they somehow descended from the same root.” He loves the use of dissonance in particular Japanese music, and the way the music explores the space between notes. It’s also rare to think about people fusing into various Japanese traditional music (the more well-known Japanese musicians use Western forms and instrumentations). “I am a little bit surprised, I guess with a lot of fusion, it’s kinda rare. God, you can hook up with Aboriginal and Maori artists, Chinese culture. But I guess it doesn’t seem to occur. I’m sure people are moved by other cultures.”

“The sea to me just represents some sort of divinity, that’s all I can say. It’s some sort of spiritual abyss. I don’t know. Everything I do is somehow trying to verbalise what the ocean means to me, in its immensity and its power and its power and its ferocity.”

He’s never consciously tried to forcibly fuse the two, instead, it almost happens by osmosis, simply listening and soaking up the different sounds around. He talks about the spine-tingling sensation of hearing an old woman in the south of Japan singing songs that are over one thousand years old, or “performances by old poets, that you can’t verbalise. In little back streets in Tokyo and dank bars, with twenty people in them, I’ve seen things that have altered my life. They were just so moving and so powerful and so original.” Kemp says all this affects his creativity considerably. “I just absorb them and listen to them and be moved by them. And usually a month later something comes out of me that’s been influenced by it all.” He’s also conscious of maintaining difference, while also communicating cross-culturally. “Culturally it’s important for us to hold on. I’m a little bit defensive of Japan with all the American influence which has altered Japanese music. Wim Wenders said after the war [in Germany] there was this cultural amnesia that happened. I think that happened in Japan too. I’m terrified of the day when I go to Japan or Paris and everybody speaks English. I’m a little bit mindful of it occurring too much, there needs to be understanding and respect. But in a certain regard I want the walls to remain up, a little bit of mystery. I’m happy to sit on the wall and take sushi from the Japanese side, and soy lattes from ours.”

In both his poetry and his music, nature forms a strong motif, and in particular, the sea is one his most-used and compelling images. In fact, it’d be fair to say, Japanese, New Zealand, and Maori cultures, the sea forms a major part of the cultural consciousness. “The sea to me just represents some sort of divinity, that’s all I can say. It’s some sort of spiritual abyss. I don’t know. Everything I do is somehow trying to verbalise what the ocean means to me, in its immensity and its power and its power and its ferocity.” But it’s also the land (Kemp mentions his love of painters McCahon and Hotere for example) that impacts on his writing. “I think it’s really important for us as human beings to be in connection with those rhythms of nature. One of my frustrations is that everything is getting faster. The faster we get the more disconnected we get from the rhythms of nature. I just want people to slow down. I think people just need to slow down and appreciate the things they have around them.” He suggests this album probably shouldn’t be played when people are stressed in a traffic jam. Another frustration for Kemp is over what’s happening with the environment too, and is evident in a song like ‘Mother Earth’ from the new album. “I get pissed off with that, I get pissed with people cutting down trees. Of course we know what’s happening with the corporations but it’s also on an individual level. I’m guilty of it myself. In Tokyo I always have this sensation – they’ve got this massive layer of conrete, it bewilders me. I just can’t believe as a race we can be so stupid and dense. I’m venting already. You can see that one fires me up.”

You kinda wonder if Japan would be the archetypal fast-paced country, the type of country where everything moves so quickly. But Kemp loves the place. “Japan, it’s freakish in a beautiful beautiful way.” Not that it means he doesn’t try and maintain his roots, in fact, paradoxically (and a lot of people travelling will attest to this “the more time I’ve spent away from New Zealand, the closer I feel to it, which is a strange thing to say.” Part of that is constantly mining his Maori background. “Maori culture is such the core of my creative process and I visit it every day. For that reason I’ve never felt very far from home. I always carry it with me, it sound a a bit cheesy, but it’s the truth.”

Kemp admits to writing the songs first, and then bringing it to the band to add colours, textures. ‘The thing is when you work with musicians from such a different background to your own, the colours they bring to the music, it’s quite difficult to envision, the turns and the nuances that they bring. They pull things out you could never imagine.” With his new album, Inside the Un-cut Apple, Kemp experiments more lyrically. This comes from his poetry background, being hugely influenced by the likes of Lorca, Neruda, TS Eliot’s The Wasteland, Hone Tuwhare (his reaction to his death was “terrible, but oh, [what a] good life, the gifts he’s given us is incredible”). “Poetry blows my mind, it’s just so close to the bone. There’s no pretence, the language is survival. I like that.”

The album is beautiful, with a gentle but with a hard-edged vibe to it. At times, he could have pushed the boundaries even more particularly in the mid-section of the album which loses a bit of momentum. This is especially given the unconventionality of what he was working with. It’s fascinating lyrically, a little quirky and angry at times, and for the most part some lovely imagery is conjured up. The first three tracks in particular stand-out, with Kemp suggesting that the second track, ‘Kabuki and Politics’ is “the most challenging song on that album. The song has a very theatrical vibe to it. I like the kookiness.” He directs a bit of anger towards the way humans are treating the environment, “songs like ‘Mother Earth’ was really directed at Tokyo. I was totally sick of the pollution, and the cutting down of trees.” The album’s opening track, ‘The Silent Name’ was a celebration of small-town Japan. “That sort of serenity which I so admire in Japan. It’s a celebration of the essence of Japan.” ‘The Devil and the Saint’ conjures up for Kemp the dark sand of the North Island’s West Coast, places like Raglan. He’s also particularly proud lyrically of ‘Cellophane Clouds’.

Kemp has a lot of plans to come in the future: publishing more books of poetry, writing a book with his sister, editing a documentary working with director Ed Davis, working on a solo music project, collaborating with accordion-playing throat-singers, and plotting a move towards film. If anything, you can say that he’s a wildly creative individual, but he’s also a very talented one, and one deserving of wider recognition.