Ketchup and Soy Sauce

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

Here's the greatest thing about being in a band signed to a major label: There's always someone around -- a publicist, a manager, some underpaid lackey -- willing to take care of anything you need. Are you hungry? Get the manager to fetch you some lunch, even if that just means some dry sourdough toast with a side of jam and butter. Feeling a bit thirsty? Well, there's always the publicist who's more than happy to get you some hot tea with lemon and, sure, a taste of honey.

"And if they don't have honey," offers Yuka Honda, as though speaking to a waiter, "I take milk and sugar."

It's rather magnificent, all the more so when the musicians do their bidding with such grace -- as though this is the way it's supposed to be, the way it will always be.

"We don't even have to lift our fingers now," Honda is saying, as Cibo Matto's manager makes a dash to the Austin Hyatt Regency's restaurant to grab Honda and partner Miho Hatori a late-morning snack. Honda and Hatori, sitting in the hotel's oversize rock-and-waterfall lobby, giggle slightly, as though embarrassed...and yet not. Imagine if they were actually famous to people besides other musicians and rock critics. Good God, imagine if they were Cibo Matto's bass player -- some dude named Sean Lennon, with whom Honda also shares her New York apartment. If only.

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But as it is, Cibo Matto exists between the cracks of an East Village sidewalk; they're pop stars making noise just above the underground, despite the Warner Bros. expense checks. Such is the fate that awaits two Japanese-by-way-of-Manhattan women whose albums are so scattered and promiscuous they make Beck sound like Dan Seals. Imagine the sound of a thousand record stores burned to the ground, their melted vinyl collected onto a single platter spun by a downtown DJ at 3 a.m. Theirs is a giddy sort of disco-ball dissonance, an anime soundtrack for the loft crowd -- especially the band's brand-new Stereotype A, which pogos from pet-sound pop to crazy-happy fun-time metal to bossa nova wave in the time it takes to finish half of a single song.

Long gone is the wacky food talk that made their 1996 debut, VIVA! La Woman, a fave among the insider-outsider crowd; no more rickety half-hop songs about eating your birthday cake and knowing your chicken and washing down your white-pepper ice cream with sugar water. No more Sammy Davis Jr. "Candy Man" nods; no more beef jerky wink-winks. Stereotype A is what happens when two women realize that their accidental band has turned into a career and that the joke's funnier than the punch line. About the silliest Stereotype A gets is when Miho and Yuka try to clean themselves of "The Lint of Love," and even then, the wisecrack seems only, well, a little bit wise. "Human beings always hard to believe," the women sing over some time-warp funk bought at a garage sale in 1978. "We can't avoid the lint of love / And you got to know how to take it away."

It's little surprise that Stereotype A has been less the critics' darling than its predecessor; no longer are Hatori and Honda these cute little exotic oddities peddling their out-of-nowhere, cut-and-paste art project. Honda is Sean Lennon's girlfriend and producer; both she and Hatori are dear friends with Yoko Ono, and they now hang with the likes of the Beastie Boys and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And the new record -- produced this time by Honda, as opposed to the ubiquitous Mitchell Froom -- features nothing but live musicians, among them Lennon; Beck-Tom Waits sidekick Smokey Hormel and Marc Ribot on guitar; and John Medeski and Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood.

The result is a far more organic record made up of songs that ebb and flow, move and groove, inhale and exhale. Long gone are the choppy, cutesy Duke Ellington, Ennio Morricone, and Machito samples that made VIVA! La Woman an exercise in thrift-store robbing. Stereotype A, despite its punkier tangents, almost flirts with being a new-wave R&B record -- something TLC might have made if they lived in New York City and played with John Zorn on weekends. Actually, it's anything you want it to be, a disc that reveals as little or as much of itself as you're willing to give back. Then, that's always the case when American culture is deciphered and distributed by foreigners who come here without prejudice or a sense of boundaries. They don't think about music in terms of genres, only that it's American -- one nation under a groove.

"When we did VIVA! La Woman, I had so many questions about how we crossed over genres, and I've been kind of thinking lately that we just grew up that way," Honda says, nibbling on some Texas toast, a name she finds ironic and not a little hilarious. "I think when you are in America, music has so many things attached to it -- you know, the lifestyle, race, politics, what you represent. You like certain music, so you belong to a certain group of people. Music suddenly represents everything, and it's really conservative.  

"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.

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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