As the lights go up inside The Lincoln Theatre, Kaoru Ishi Bashi and his band are all smiles. The violinist and multi-instrumentalist better known as Kishi Bashi is stood astride two of the historic venue’s chairs, carefully balancing his weight like a professional surfer carves up a wave, one leg ahead of the other. Kishi Bashi, alongside flutist Pip the Pansy, bassist/banjoist Mike Savino, percussionist Ryan Oslance, and openers Cicada Rhythm have just completed a four song encore in the middle of the crowd – a moment illuminated as much by the fluorescent lights of smartphones as it was by the music itself: bright, heartfelt, and unfiltered folk songs that served as a coda to two and a half hours of tunes. The audience cascades them with well-deserved praise and applause; the spell has finally been broken, but nothing but dreamy, delirious delight pours out of the room.
Friday night’s performance was the penultimate show of a cross-country tour in support of Omoiyari, his latest record. And while Kishi Bashi’s music is a lot of things to a lot of people – including himself – this last album put a particular emphasis on history, and how it threatens to repeat itself. Inspired by the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, Omoiyari as a whole puts up a mirror to American society today, and our treatment of minorities and “others”. And while it’s certainly not the first piece of art to ask us to reflect internally, it puts a distinctive spin on a story that is particularly resonant today.
I had the chance to speak to Kishi Bashi over the phone on Thursday evening as he made his way to D.C. from Cleveland, Ohio.
Omoiyari is out now on Joyful Noise Recordings.
Brightest Young Things: So much of your music and musical education – from growing up in Ithaca and learning via the Suzuki method, to flunking out of Cornell and ending up at Berklee College of Music – plays with the contrast of what is traditionally considered “classical” or high-brow and juxtaposing it with more accessible sounds. When did you begin to see the possibilities in bringing the violin to “pop” music?
Kishi Bashi: When I was at Cornell I started playing in a folk rock band, and that’s when I started realizing that there’s something here that’s not just classical. In high school I was really heavy into classical music, but then I started getting into jazz violin, which is around the same time as someone got me this Stéphane Grappelli CD and then I just kind of fell in love with it. That’s why I went to Berklee, really – there’s this jazz violin teacher there named Matt Glazer that I wanted to study with. It’s a long story, but basically that.
BYT: Were there any other influences from that era beyond Matt Glazer that have stuck with you until now? Not necessarily limited to the violin, but artists that you look to as touch points or references for your art.
Kishi Bashi: [Self-satisfied laugh] I mean I listened to a lot of music back then. Probably Dave Matthews, who was really big at the time. [Laughs] Um, as far as violin is concerned, probably Jean-Luc Ponty was a big influence for me. In jazz fusion there was Mahavishnu Orchestra… I was writing songs, but I never thought of it as a possibility or driving force in my career until way, way later – until I moved to New York City after Berklee. I was a jazzhead and into instrumental music early on.
BYT: What would you have done if you weren’t a musician? Had you considered any other careers growing up?
Kishi Bashi: Good question. [Pauses] I don’t know – I was always really into music. Growing up in Virginia Beach there was a professional symphony, so I saw professional musicians, but I don’t think I ever wanted to be a part of the orchestral scene. I never thought making a living as a violinist was something that was a possibility; I wasn’t interested in that. I was pretty good in high school – I was the concert master of my youth symphony in the region. But it was never a possibility. I went to Cornell for engineering, so I think I would have gotten a job. I like video games, so maybe I would have done that professionally.
BYT: Ah – that’s actually what I do now for my day job. I work at an ad agency and we work on marketing for video games. Honestly, I never thought I would have ended up doing it, but it’s really fun.
Kishi Bashi: Oh that’s really cool. I just met this guy who is a game developer and he loves his job.
BYT: Do you still enjoy gaming? Do you have time to play?
Kishi Bashi: Um, I don’t play because then I would just be addicted and I wouldn’t make any music. [Laughs] I don’t play anymore, and that’s on purpose – it’s self-enforced discipline. I don’t own a console and I try not to play phone games. But I was stuck on Candy Crush and Two Dots just like everyone else. [Laughs]
BYT: I know you were fortunate enough to license several tracks early in your career for use in major advertising. How much of an impact did that degree of relative financial security have on your outlook on art and life?
Kishi Bashi: Yeah, in the beginning it was obviously a huge help, you know? Because that’s like real money for a struggling musician. Eventually it allowed me to become independent, in the sense that now I have time to conceptualize. Having that kind of freedom really accelerates the creativity in that it gives me idle time to think about new songs or new ideas or concepts. You know, I’m making a movie. Who has time to make a movie? [Laughs] But you know, it really accelerates creativity to be able to have financial freedom like that. The other thing is that I used to live in New York City and that kinda sucked as a father; it was hard to have a child there. I moved to Athens, a super small and cool town in Georgia, and it gives me the freedom to do what I want. And the licensing is a huge help.
BYT: There’s something to be said about having the time to create. I mean, everyone worries about bills, but not having to agonize whether you need to get back on the road, or produce just for the sake of commercial income, but rather being able to focus on the artistry behind it.
Kishi Bashi: Yeah, you think of great artists and they have time. When I lived in New York it was hour to hour and month to month; I was mired in credit card debt, it was really stressful. But it’s also good to have that kind of stress because otherwise you become lazy and unproductive. [Laughs]
I’m also lucky to be part of a time where licensing isn’t ‘uncool’. I remember right before I got big commercials the idea of ‘selling out’ was a thing and a criticism for indie bands, you know? But then once album sales went to shit through streaming, fans started to understand this is how you can support an artist. It’s not a big deal for them to be licensing.
BYT: That was sort of the genesis of my question. You blew up around 2011 and 2012, when we had already witnessed the full evolution of the music business. And it’s beginning to shift again; we’re at the point where you can live off streaming royalties if you’re a mega artist, but it’s so different from the album era of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Kishi Bashi: Sure. I remember when Of Montreal – this band I used to play with – when they licensed a song to Outback Steakhouse. And that was before I played with them, but everybody was so pissed off! [Laughs] And Wilco sold out to like, Volkswagen, and people were really mad about it. Yeah, I’m glad I came after that era because I totally sold out. [Laughs] But I think the fans do understand because they support the artist and they want us to make a living, and we can’t do it through album sales and definitely not through streaming. Why not licensing?
BYT: That idea of selling out was such a critique of authenticity and artistry in the 90s, but the reality is that we’ve moved past it. The watershed moment was when The Postal Service licensed “Such Great Heights” to UPS; do you remember that commercial? It was the “oh, ok” moment as a consumer.
Kishi Bashi: I remember one of my first huge sync (licensing deals) was this Microsoft Windows 8 commercial. It was a lot of money for me! And nobody was really mad, with the exception of maybe one troll who called me a sellout. But everyone else was very happy for me and happy for my success. And I thought to myself “thank god it wasn’t five years ago.”
BYT: Let’s talk about your move to Athens. That town has a really deep musical legacy, and continues to be a somewhat vibrant place for musicians to live. It still has the 40 Watt Club, the theatre district…
Kishi Bashi: Yeah! Those places are still around. I moved there because of Of Montreal – I used to play in the band and I would have to rehearse there for weeks on end. And I kind of fell in love with the town. I made a real community there while I was rehearsing. Everyone is super nice and it’s great because it’s this little college town in the middle of nowhere; it’s an hour from Atlanta. It’s this oasis in the Southeast where everybody is cool and into indie rock. People from Florida and North Carolina move there because there’s so many venues and musicians who can bartend and then go on tour with their band. They can afford to do that lifestyle. It’s a bohemian little place, but there’s also a lot of wealth because of the University (of Georgia).
BYT: You’ve talked about a sense of community, but do you feel like there are possibilities for collaboration and exchange of ideas? Do you like to work that way or do you prefer to sequester yourself these days?
Kishi Bashi: I’m kind of a hermit with my stuff but there’s always musicians around to collaborate with, and I’m friends with some of the venues. So if I have an idea I want to do, or like a charity string quartet or food drive, or whatever, we can make it happen. There’s tons of people. Of course, nobody in my touring band is from there except the guitar player. [Laughs] It is what it is.
BYT: Let’s shift gears slightly.
Omoiyari as an album reflects on the incarceration experience, and draws parallels between Japanese internment in the 1940s and the political climate today, where Mexicans (and Latinx people) and Muslims are the targets of this vilification and othering.
When did it begin to dawn upon you that history seemed to be repeating itself? One could argue this has been happening since September 11 – since the Bush era.
Kishi Bashi: I mean, human beings have been doing horrible things to each other since the beginning of time. 9/11 was a big movement as far as a new era of tribalism in America, for sure.
For me, specifically, it was the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, and people talking about that. And that’s exactly when Trump got into office. It was this Islamophobia and this anti-immigrant rhetoric coming straight out of the administration, and all these executive orders, you know? The Japanese-American community was really up in arms, and it reminded me of the internment camps during World War II. It was a trigger for a lot of the research and how I got interested, and how relevant a lot of the research was. It’s complicated. The Omoiyari movie sums it up in a way: we’ve been doing the same things to each other for a long time. But I think society is rapidly changing; we’re becoming more compassionate, more empathetic than ever. It’s the kind of thing that if we stay positive we will have a more inclusive society in generations to come. I think that’s the importance of history – that you remember these lessons. We’re not going backwards, you know.
BYT: Yeah, and it’s my understanding that “Omoiyari” means compassion, right?
Kishi Bashi: Yeah, it’s a Japanese word that means compassion, but it also means consideration for a guest or somebody else you don’t really know too well. It’s like empathy, or compassion.
BYT: I’m beginning to sense a theme in the titles of your last few albums – your previous record was titled Sonderlust. When seen as part of a larger whole, it’s a really subtle way of reminding us all to have patience with each other. That’s really beautiful, and both of those records capture that in the music.
Kishi Bashi: Thanks. [Pauses] I think patience and connection; we’re all interconnected. “Sonder” is the idea that every stranger around you has a life as complex and diverse and dynamic as your own. It gives you this humility that other people have different priorities and they’re in different points in their life. Having the humility to understand that you’re just one little speck in this universe of society; that we’re all in this together is the theme I’m trying to promote with my music. Because music brings people together – hundreds of strangers together in a room to celebrate. It’s powerful, and I try and point that out to people.