Ketchup and Soy Sauce

Cibo Matto gets out of the kitchen and fries up the national prize

"Having come from a really hard world where all the music is imported, none of the music really belongs to any one of us. But at the same time, we can also get close to every single kind of music. I never really felt any difference between hardcore and hip-hop and Italian soundtrack music and bossa nova. They were all just music to us our entire lives, so it's not an effort for us go all over the genres. Americans think of music as a national prize, and people think what we're doing is strange. Music's supposed to be something that's freeing. Instead, you put it -- you put yourselves -- in a box."

Honda -- at 38, she's 11 years Hatori's senior -- grew up in the country outside Tokyo; hers was a relatively isolated childhood spent in a town with a single record store that sold only, as she puts it, "soundtrack records." She studied classical music as a kid, but found little pleasure in playing such old, dead music; Honda says now that the music simply didn't move her. It wasn't until she was 10, when her aunt took her to see a particular movie, that she discovered music that made her feel something deep, deep inside. The name of the film was Let it Be.

"It's a dangerous subject, but it's really weird," she says, sort of grinning. "I mean, I'm going out with Sean now, but my first experience with music was the Beatles. I was too young to understand what it was, but I witnessed these people in the movie theater singing along with the movie -- you know, these Japanese kids and couples, and they're hugging each other and singing along, and I never experienced anything like that in Japan. It surprised me, and I remember the shock." That day, she insists, Yuka Honda bought her first record.

Getting out the welcome matto: Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori tear the roof off the sucka.
Getting out the welcome matto: Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori tear the roof off the sucka.

Hatori's background is almost the opposite of her partner's; she, after all, is the product of pop culture. She's almost of a completely different generation than Honda -- born later, closer to the city, in front of a television most of her life. If Yuka read and studied music, then Miho watched -- and listened, mostly to the Japanese cartoons she consumed like any ravenous child. Her memory is filled with the ping-pong rhythms of Japanimation.

Then there's also the first album she ever purchased: Kick Out the Jams by the MC5. But the only reason she bought the record was because it was in the "Madonna" section of the music store; she thought MC5 was the name of Madonna's new record. Eventually, she'd go to work in a Tokyo record store and exist for large doses of time on 1970s funk and jazz.

It wasn't until both women arrived (separately) in New York City in the late 1980s that they decided to pursue careers in music; and even then, they were reluctant to do so at first. Honda never thought she'd "cross the line" separating fan from performer. It was only after living with a musician boyfriend (not Lennon) and seeing him writing and performing all the time that she decided she could do it as well -- especially if that meant trading in her old training piano for a sampler. The possibilities suddenly seemed endless for Honda, who was killing time in New York doing some small-time rock journalism.

"I was really good with machines, and I was with these really great musicians...and I could do something that's musical that they cannot, which was programming sequences," she says. "And I could write and read, and then I started to realize that I have pitch. They would play the notes and I could identify them, so I somehow got into the group. The timing worked, basically. And then this guy one day showed up, and he said he wanted me to replace his keyboard player, and I was like, 'Ah, ah, I couldn't play it.'"

Honda played one gig with this guy, a Hungarian singer-songwriter with a showcase at CBGB's, before deciding to go it alone. By that time, Hatori was in New York playing with the likes of John Zorn, Fred Frith, and other downtown icons; she had the look and the language to fit in with the avant hipsters working out their inner angst on the Knitting Factory stage. In 1994, Honda and Hatori would meet through a mutual friend in a punk band Yuka was in at the time; they became friends, bought records together, then decided to trade in the guitars for samplers and turntables and keyboards.

"We started to make a noise, just two of us," Hatori recalls. "It was just fun. I didn't feel like, 'Oh, I want to be a rock star.' I never had that kind of feeling. I just wanted to have fun with a friend."

"I never thought we would get a professional record deal or anything," Honda adds. "But at the same time, I always really knew that it was a very special thing, because it was very different from any band experience that I ever had. I just felt so much more freer to do music with Miho than with any band I was with before. Everybody was very afraid to do something different, and I was always having to cut down an idea into one-tenth, because it's too much, and they are very afraid. But that's not true with Miho. Look, we are very used to having a kitchen with tomato ketchup and soy sauce sitting on the same shelf, and we never thought twice about how they can't be mixed. You know what I mean?"

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