YAMANTAKA//SONIC TITAN with PS I LOVE YOU, THE RURAL ALBERTA ADVANTAGE, CUFF THE DUKE and SLIM TWIG, part of the PAPER BAG 10TH-ANNIVERSARY FESTIVAL at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), September 28, 8 pm. $25. PB, RT, SS.
YAMANTAKA//SONIC TITAN with LYDIA LUNCH and THE DAVE HOWARD SINGERS as part of RETRO/VIRUS OVERLOAD at Wrongbar (1279 Queen West), November 12, 9 pm. $30, advance $25. TW, RT, CB. See listing.
On paper, Yamantaka//Sonic Titan sounds like they make the kind of smart-but-difficult music that gets gushing reviews but that no one actually listens to.
A Montreal/Toronto duo/collective who combine elements of noise rock, Chinese opera, prog rock, Asian pop, psych rock, Noh theatre, ambient music, folk, doom metal, jazz and experimental music? Doesn't sound like it's going to be burning up the pop charts any time soon.
And when there are also strong political undercurrents around issues of race, gender identities and queerness, you can understand why some potential listeners might be scared off before they even hear the band.
"Somebody told me the other day that we could have really screwed this thing up," says Alaska B in a conference call with her Montreal-based musical partner Ruby Kato Attwood. "People say that kind of thing to us all the time."
Yamantaka//Sonic Titan are on the other end of the musical spectrum from Drake, but both of them are on the short list for the Polaris Music Prize, and they've got about equal odds of winning.
"If you look at the short list, it's so varied, and the competition is really stiff," Attwood says. "All the bands are amazing, and they're all really, really different from each other. I think that's telling about the kinds of audiences that are out there supporting music right now.
"People listen to music so they can identify with something, or so they can feel connected, and, well, there's a lot of other weird people out there."
Both of them are strikingly articulate and passionate about what they're doing. They're making rock music, but their debut album, YT//ST, is just one aspect of their larger performance art project. The album is a condensed version of their work-in-progress opera 33, the newest version of which will be premiered at Pop Montreal. For some artists, working simultaneously in theatre, music and fine art might be a distraction, but in their case it led to a stronger album than most straight-up pop musicians manage to put together.
"We weren't trying to fill up an album, we were trying to fit the opera into an album," explains Alaska B.
Their original label, Psychic Handshake, only had the budget for a 30-minute release, so it was a matter of editing down the material they'd already accumulated. They've since been signed by Toronto indie institution Paper Bag (which is re-releasing the album) and will appear as the special guests at the label's 10th-anniversary festival in a couple of weeks.
What began five years ago as a weirdo performance art project has morphed in the past year into a real band, whose surprise gig at NXNE was our highest-rated show of the fest, and who put on mind-blowing shows wherever they go.
They may be turning into something closer to a conventional band, but the discussions they're provoking are miles away from ordinary. The political edge to what they're doing is at the forefront of any conversation about the band. Even native speakers have a hard time understanding their broken Japanese lyrics, but the unconventional range of influences, combined with theatrical elements appropriated from Chinese and Japanese traditions, are forcing listeners to start thinking about identity, ethnicity, race and culture in new ways. This is old-school identity politics turned on its head.
"People are part of a global community, and it's become harder to have an identity politic discussion without bringing in globalization and understanding what that and hybridity actually mean," Alaska B explains.
"A lot of identity politic is based on identifying your community and isolating yourself, but there's a whole generation who can't put themselves into a community any more - or that community never really existed and was just imagined. If you want to approach these issues of talking about where you belong, but you can't find any place where you belong, it kind of makes the entire politic bunk."
The band is playing with assumptions and perceptions of their Asian-ness in a way that would be satiric were there not also a healthy dose of reverence mixed in with the irreverence. For Attwood, the difficult subject of appropriation was part of how she constructed her own identity, and is intrinsically linked to what Yamantaka//Sonic Titan are doing.
"Cultural appropriation was just a way for me to understand what my cultural background actually was. I grew up on a farm in Ontario, and it was all white people and natives around me. As an Asian-looking person, which is how I identified for a long time, it was very difficult to be identified as different but to not really have any contact with Japanese culture.
"It became this process of taking these images and ideas and involving them or ingesting them into my own identity. As an adult, I look back on that as extremely formative in terms of my relationship with aesthetics, because I simultaneously feel entitled to pick and choose cultural representations and modes of communication that I need but also very, very hesitant to step on other people's toes."
She describes a global community, in which people are surrounded by incredibly rich material for which we have no context. At the same time, many have direct personal relationships with immigrant families, and so we're forced to be a little more respectful than we'd be in a monoculture environment.
"It's the difference between being trapped in a box and standing on top of that box. You can't deny that the box is there, but you can crawl out and find out what you can see from on top of it."
They're taking a nuanced and playful approach to subject matter that many might prefer to skirt around, and that raises the kinds of questions that more straightforward political music can't effectively tackle.
While audiences don't typically question Y//ST's various "poorly appropriated" Chinese and Japanese elements, the combination of those elements with weirdo rock influences grabs their attention. The thing is, though, that latter side of the equation is just as big a part of their bloodline as anything else. Attwood's uncle is legendary Toronto rock promoter Gary Topp, who kept her supplied with Captain Beefheart and Ramones tapes as a kid, and Alaska B's father was a gigging rock musician in the 60s and 70s.
"That's the joke, right? The serious joke," Attwood says. "No one would think I was related to Gary Topp. No one would think that when I was a kid I ate haggis on Robbie Burns Day and wore a kilt, but I did. Every fucking year."
"And no one would think that I'm related to Gloria Swanson, film star," Alaska B adds.
"I think our politic is more about being there and doing what we want to do," Alaska B says of their strategy. "If anyone yells loud enough, there's room for their voice because someone will eventually look over, shut up and wonder what the hell they're screaming about."