The mastermind behind one of Japan's greatest metal offerings expands on his latest.
Words by Luis (@heaviestofart):
“Dying is a troublesome business: there is pain to be suffered, and it wrings one’s heart; but death is a splendid thing – a warfare accomplished, a beginning all over again, a triumph..."
In the same vein as the above quote by Nobel Prize winning playwright George Bernard Shaw, Sigh mastermind Mirai Kawashima has embraced the end — an inevitable facet of life that inspired the band's latest album, Shiki. Released on August 26th via Peaceville Records, Shiki builds upon a traditional Japanese poem that explores a looming death and the four seasons through a boundless composition of psychedelic, black, and death metal among other exquisite layers informed by the band's wealth of influence. It's a rewarding, often perplexing listen that traverses through all ends of the sonic spectrum in ways that bring about the best of what has made Sigh the celebrated Japanese entity it is today. From C. Catterall's homage to the poem on the cover to Mirai's forward thinking structures, Shiki is a feat within an already staggering discography.
Read along and learn more from master Mirai Kawashima as we dive into Shiki:
Before one even jumps into the record, we're met by a sight of cherry blossom beauty and looming death behind the protagonist. You’ve always been very intentional about Sigh’s visual identity. Whether it be Eliran Kantor, Joe Petagno, or Costin Chioreanu, the band’s cover illustrations have always stood out for their uniqueness. To what do you attribute your strong investment in this component of Sigh’s music?
Mirai: To be honest, I am not cut out for designs at all, so we're very lucky to have these talented artists on board. I usually explain the theme or the concept of the album and tell them what kind of art I am looking for. When you work with artists like Eliran or Costin, that will be enough. They quickly understand what I want. I never had to change the whole concept which they came up with.
That always makes for a smooth collaborative process. Speaking of ‘Shiki’ in particular, it’s based around a traditional Japanese poem and your own experience of going through the seasons. Is it cathartic for you to see ‘Shiki’ fully realized in this way, especially with the duality of contrasting sentimental feelings being a central theme?
Mirai: 'Shiki' has a lot of meanings in Japanese: time to die, four seasons, ceremony, colors, death ghoul, morle, etc. The main themes of the album are the first 2 that I mentioned. Now, I am 52 and obviously death is not a fantasy any more. I wanted to express my fear of getting old / fear of death as honestly and straightforwardly as possible with this one. Also, 'Shiki' means a personal note, and yes, this is a very personal album. I don't think it was cathartic. I don't think there's any way to conquer the fear. All I can do is just to live with it.
The cover artwork is based on a traditional Japanese poem from 800 - 900 years ago. It describes the scene where an old man watches the cherry blossoms being blown off by the strong Spring storm. Cherry blossoms are very beautiful, but they're a symbol of fragility here in Japan as it goes away very quick, which implies that your heyday is short. I thought it was very intriguing that somebody from 800 - 900 years ago felt exactly the same as we do now. So many things changed over these 800 - 900 years, but a fear of death never changes.
At first glance, I thought it was a licensed piece from decades/centuries ago. Catterall definitely captured that perspective. Sigh is a band first and foremost, but do you feel that this particular component of the release is as important in helping you expand upon an album’s messaging?
Mirai: As the traditional poem was one of the biggest inspirations on this album, I wanted to make it very Japanese in every way. That's why I sang in Japanese 100% of the time and used a lot of Japanese traditional instruments. Of course, I wanted to have a very Japanese cover, too. As I said, it's a very personal album, but also I think this carries the spirits of the Japanese. In that sense, the artwork definitely expands the message which our music carries.
Every element of this album is quite cohesive, which again speaks to your intentionality. Looking back a bit, ‘In Somniphobia’ (2012) and ‘Heir To Despair’ (2018) are some of the best album covers of the last decade, in my personal opinion, all due in part to how you go about bringing out the best in these notable artists. For ‘Shiki’, did the arts inform the musical/lyrical development or vice versa?
Mirai: The theme for 'In Somniphobia' is something between reality and fantasy, like lucid dreams. I guess I only explained this to Eliran and he exactly captured what it was about.
The case for 'Heir to Despair' was a bit different. The theme of this album is the insanity and I wanted the feel of Japanese psychotropic ads from the 60s / 70s. I sent him some examples of the ads and he created the artwork based on one of them.
The artwork for 'Shiki' is strictly based on the poem. I wanted the artist to visualize the scene, which the poem described. So, the theme was already there and the artwork was not the inspiration on the music.
Even with the theme already there, it's not always easy to convey that visually in a way that fits an album's overall structure. Again, shoutout to Catterall for his great work! Throughout decades of growth, Sigh remains unconventional and forward thinking, always acting as a maelstrom of sound that serves a byproduct of your wealth of influences. Would you say that you live comfortably in the uncomfortable, as if to avoid becoming comfortable with your creative output?
Mirai: I won't intentionally avoid becoming comfortable, but obviously, being in the uncomfortable situations stimulates the creativity in me. A serious fear of death was a big driver to create 'Shiki' and obviously, the album hadn't been born if I had been feeling comfortable.
Putting ideas down on paper and seeing them evolve into music and art isn’t always an easy process, but do you feel that it has gotten easier over the years? There’s a great deal of intentionality invested into every one of your efforts and it’s likely you’ve found it difficult at times to express exactly what you’re looking for.
Mirai: What I do when I write songs has been the same for a while. First, I write the songs and program them on MIDI and then, I keep listening to them to see if they flow well enough. If not, I change the arrangement, structure, etc. All I can rely on is my ears. Nothing else. There is no formula or anything. so sometimes it's easy and sometimes it's not. The process for 'Shiki' was actually rather easy because all I had to do was let out my inner fear. I didn't have to struggle at all.
It essentially just flowed out of you. For ‘Shiki’, you’re joined by Frédéric Leclercq, Mike Heller, and Satoshi Fujinami, rounding out one talented ensemble. As the mastermind behind Sigh, does your approach to the creative development change at all when you’re having your vision worked on by “new” faces? ‘Shiki’ is quite boundless, so I’m curious to know if the composition process changes from your perspective.
Mirai: Actually, it was the same as before. I just asked Mike to play as crazy as he wanted. I'm not a drummer, so I always think it's best to leave a drummer to decide what to do with their kits. Also, our ex-guitarist was supposed to record guitars after Mike finished his parts, but he started acting very strange because of the lockdown or something, so I had to fire him. That means most of the songs were written before Fred was in. If I had known Fred would play guitars, my composition might have been different.
Interesting. Continuing on that same point, how important was camaraderie in the development of this record? As mentioned, you’re the leading force behind it all of course, but it takes a village to bring it all to life in such a grand fashion.
Mirai: When you work with top grade musicians like Fred and Mike, the best way is to have them play as they want. Thus a chemistry is born. We were able to talk musically. I didn't have to get frustrated at all unlike the previous recordings to be honest.
Countless records in and it’s clear that the energy has yet to fade. In closing, where does ‘Shiki’ find you as a musician and as a person compared to when this all began with ‘Scorn Defeat’ (1993)?
Mirai: Obviously, 'Shiki' is an album which only 50-year old me could create. 20 or 30-year-old me was probably more creative, but still, I don't think I would've been able to make an album like this when I was younger. I always wonder what the point is in making an extreme metal album when you're 50 because thrash metal was born as music for youth back in the 80s. 'Shiki' is probably an answer to this question of my own.
Shiki is available now via Peaceville Records (Order).