Words – Erin Shea

Listening to Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is only one way to experience the music and performance art collective.


The Canadian-based group, made up of Ruby Kato Attwood, Alaska B, John Ancheta, Ange Loft, Brendan Swanson, and Aylwin Lo, are part performance art troupe and part rock band. And they put on two kinds of performances to show off that they really are both.


In addition to writing and performing songs, the group writes songs, develops characters, and creates set based on their music.


I talked with co-founding member Ruby Kato Attwood about what it is that they do and what their goals are for the future. Here’s the dialogue:


How did you guys get started playing together?

Alaska B and I met at Concordia University (in Montreal) when we were in an interdisciplinary arts class together. We started doing some performances and we played under the moniker “Yellow Carroll.” We had self-made instruments and performance-based work, it included experimental sound and musical elements. We did a bunch of shows, but we always just booked our shows and did these weird performances. I don’t think we even considered it a band. After we took a hiatus, our friends convinced us to record a record, and it was received really well. It got more attention than we had ever intended or imagined.


So we continued to forge ahead, but the problem was that we always just booked based on the show. Since Alaska and I were the only consistent members, we just sort of pulled people in who didn’t feel that they were part of a band.


Then, with the first Yamantaka // Sonic Titan record (YT//ST), we featured Brendan Swanson, Shub Roy (of Dirty Beaches), and John Ancheta on the base. But now we are Ange Loft, Alaska, Brendan Swanson, John Ancheta, and myself. That’s our regular touring group, but there are some guests on the record.


Are your live performances theatrical performances? Do you call yourselves a band?

At this point, it is more related to the art world and it can be called “culture jamming.” There’s also a term that is related to performance art and conceptual art that’s called relational aesthetics. But its also a musical performance since we play a rock show.


In terms of it being theater, we do have characters and play those characters in a dramatic narrative. In terms of touring with our large paper sets, it is very difficult to integrate that into a bar show or a showcase set where you have 10 minutes to set up. So in that way, we work a lot more with traditional musical performance.


Do you think that people can get the full effect of your band from just listening to the music?

It’s interesting to discuss what is the whole experience. I think it’s the attitude of the person in the audience who really defines what the experience is.


You can be at a show and be completely checked out. Or you could be in your headphones, be fully there and meeting the work halfway. I think that relationship with the audience is really interesting and reflexive.


I have that own relationship with my own performance. Sometimes when there are technical difficulties, I’m fighting to be present instead of thinking, “Oh god, what’s going to go wrong, I see the sound guy moving around back there, what’s happening?”


For me, being fully emotionally invested in the performance is really really important, especially as a vocalist. I think it is one of the most important aspects of singing because you have to believe it to feel it. If you’re there doing lip service and just singing the notes, it is not going to work.


So, I don’t think it is necessary to go to a live show. However, we do play a lot with duration and there are some parts that are not on the record that we do play live. So there’s that element that you get from the show. We’ve work with large-scale puppets in the past and we will for this tour so that’s something you can’t get from a CD.


How would you describe your music and your performances to someone who has never heard or seen it?

I think “experimental” fits us.


However, in the pop-realm, sometimes psychedelic music is classified as experimental and that genre mixing can just leave you to be lumped into what is experimental. I personally consider an experimental approach to not necessarily have a fixed outcome. There are a lot of different definitions of that kind of music.


We have described it in the past as using a pun called “noh-wave.” So that refers to the mixing of new-wave — sort of post-punk music — with theater, specifically referencing traditional Japanese “noh” theater. However, we do use a lot of elements in our performances of Chinese theater.


We work a lot with the idea of tableaux in the live show. So these still images, or almost still images, that have an emotional impact, but are not plot driven. It creates an atmosphere or feeling that is largely interpreted while it plays on symbolism and cultural norms. So a group will know something without discussing it, which is really interesting to me.


In terms of music, we approach it from the perspective that we use sounds — just like the physical sounds — or genre sounds that you can recognize but in a looser way so they are not tied down.


Where do you get inspiration from? Does culture play a role?

We work mainly through the mode of storytelling where characters take on lives in their own world during their own environments and then they interact.


Our influences are quite broad. We like to have a vast amount of influences, but bring them in with a few simple rules: We always work monochromatically, in black and white — there are red and metallic colors that are allowed — everyone defines their own costumes and facepaint within those color boundaries. And, we write songs collectively and then also with a traditional composition method where one person will write parts and everyone will play them, so it’s a combination. Our influences are definitely cultural, ethnic and linguistic but we also draw from different art subcultures so experimental film, experimental music and performance art, theater.


We also do social work with youth. I am really inspired by that. I care a lot about young people and I want to make music that is interesting to them, but that reflects my own experience so I’m not making something for a kid that is dumbed down or not from my heart or my true artistic core. I don’t think it’s beyond youth to understand that, and I think it’s important that we create art that maybe my mom would like, but maybe someone who is 14 would also like.


What’s in store for the future?

I think our mandate — not our official mandate — is really to respond, and it is hard.

I would have to say that we weren’t prepared to present our work as widely as we have. As much as I feel so grateful to be able to do that, it is hard to respond and not to just react emotionally. I think that’s my only goal, to continue to assess where the project should take stronger form, whether it is in art-theater presentations, multimedia presentations, or short films, which we’ve released a couple. Alaska is working on a video game. We sort of have to see what people want and what our fans are looking for.


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Photo – Derrick Belcham

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