It’s Ruby Kato Attwood and Alaska B who appear,face-painted, in most of Yamantaka//Sonic Titan‘s imagery but the Montreal-reared, sometimes-Toronto collective is actually a seven-piece effort. Makes sense since the group has been creating scaled-up performance art spectacles since late 2007.
In October, YT//ST released a self-titled debut of (and, really, their own words are best) “Asian diasporic psychedelic Noh-wave opera … fusing noise, metal, pop and folk music into a multidisciplinary hyper-orientalist cesspool of ‘eastern’ culture.” Play it loud and that’s exactly what you’ll hear; a desolate, radical, broken patois soundtrack to fringe-life outside of imagined communities. Live, its innate theatricality is brought out with cosplay-ish whimsy and references to classical Japanese Noh drama.
Aside from playing shows and continuing to record, YT//ST will be producing a short drag opera, 33, dealing with spiritual imagery “concerning power, the human corpse and enlightenment,” as part of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s upcoming Rhubarb Festival (Feb. 8 to 12). And, just announced, is the invitation from curator Jeff Mangum to play All Tomorrow’s Parties in the UK this March.
Ahead of a show at the Garrison this Saturday, we asked Alaska to break down YT//ST’s ethos.
You moved to Toronto to go to school and Ruby is still in Montreal. Is there a difference in scenes?
The subtle segregation of Anglophones within Montreal from the larger Francophone community provides an obvious and imposed semblance of a tight scene, whereas Toronto doesn’t have this. It seems much more expansive but iconoclastic within its zones. I guess I’m more connected to the queer and LGBT community here, while most of my music contacts are in Montreal.
Both yourself and Ruby have performance art backgrounds; how did you realize there could be valid expression in convergence?
My work has centered mostly around the body, ritual, violence, hybrid culture and Buddhism. We met in an art class at Concordia University, and immediately started working together because of our mixed-race backgrounds (focusing) on a childish punk rock meets spiritual style. I try to combine the almost mythic representations of Asians on television like Bruce Lee and anime, with the influence of being raised around a rock musician family.
Given the heavy identity themes, could all or part of your work be considered activism?
I’ve worked as an ‘activist’ (whatever that means) at times over the years, but because of personal beliefs prefer to tackle themes such as oppression and identity politics by creating works of representation. The hole a missing voice leaves can’t be filled without that voice, and that voice alone. And if I’m speaking loud about whatever I want to speak about, whether through academic text, community organizing or artistic expression, then that space will eventually make itself available.
Tell me about some of your key references.
We were always big fans of heavy ’70s psych rock as well as krautrock, ’70s and ’80s industrial, and doom metal. I also DJ electronic music and started as an electronic music producer, so the record tries to bring together our favourite sounds from all these influences. There’s a lot of focus on how we mix genres but it wasn’t so much us trying to instigate genre fusion as creating an entire world of sound.
You go one step further with that ‘world of sound’ because this album is actually part of a larger performance piece…
The original concept was a rock opera entitled â˜…, an end of days scenario set on a fictional continent that happens to have a parallel history and representation to North America but within this cartoon landscape YT//ST had developed over the years in installations, posters and paintings. It’s based on the possibility of historical contact between Asians and Native Americans, largely predicated on several ancient Chinese texts describing America including fairly accurate measurements. Though many of the theories in this field are as absurd as it gets, the general idea is entirely plausible. Contrasting that with the current accepted mainstream history of North America wasn’t to try and prove anybody else made contact with First Nations people first or argue against any concept of indigeneity. It’s a look at how colonialism wasn’t the necessary outcome and taking on post-colonial discourse through a surreal fantasy narrative.
The opera is still unfinished, what was complete was edited down into the current LP. We still plan on producing it when we can secure a large enough budget.
Where do the First Nations references fit into your beliefs/personal experience?
We felt the idea of an East/West culture clash wouldn’t be relevant if it didn’t negotiate with the First Nations people of this ‘Western’ continent as well. All of the band member’s identities were represented in different ways over the years. Several members have been First Nations, East Asian, South Asian, mixed, etc. so the fragmented pseudo-culture images reflect that.
I’m a practicing Buddhist and I try to let it influence many aspects of my life. Early on in our work I was most fascinated by the idea of applying black metal and punk aesthetics to Buddhism, trying to recontextualize the glorification of violence within metal as a hard look at the horrors of corporeality. I.e. By understanding suffering, one finds the keys to enlightenment.
Can art/music/performance about alternative narratives help shift the perception of ‘who belongs’ in this country?
The convoluted multi-faceted reality of living as anything in this post-structuralist hypermodern internet blah-blah kind of era means no representation will ever express your voice better than expressing it yourself. Art happens to be a decent place to do it without being bogged down with a complex politic environment.
Anupa Mistry writes regularly about music for Toronto Standard. Follow her on Twitter at @_anupa.