Japanese instrumental quartet MONO released their fifth studio album, Hymn to the Immortal Wind, 8 years ago today. With four sublime albums prior to this release, the band had already established a name for themselves, but Hymn to the Immortal Wind took them to a whole new level musically.
After touring extensively for years, the Mono took over a year to focus solely on writing Hymn to the Immortal Wind, and what came out was an immense collection featuring more complex orchestral arrangements and instrumentation. The reception was huge and the album is considered by many a classic.
We spoke with Takaakira “Taka” Goto for an exclusive interview in which he revisits the making of Hymn to the Immortal Wind, shares his memories of the album, reflects on 18 years of MONO as a band, and teases their upcoming tours and next album.
8 years have passed since Hymn To The Immortal Wind was released, and 18 years since MONO started as a band. Where do you place the album in your entire career as a band? Did you expect this record would strike such a chord with so many people?
I can’t believe it’s been 8 years since we released Hymn To The Immortal Wind. Time flies! We feel that in many ways it is a very important album for us.
The album is a mixture of spirituality that classical music holds, film-like emotional melodies and constructions, and extremely noisy guitars. This is the sound we had been hearing in our heads for a long time, and we think we managed to deliver a new type of unique rock music.
I have never been taught how to write orchestral arrangements – I self-taught myself for years and this was my first opportunity to put it into practice. This was also the time when I started to understand how to create the most beautiful harmonies with guitars and orchestra, and also how to create symphonic sounds with just guitars.
In the first 3 to 4 years of our career, we used to tour a lot and played in a lot of punk venues throughout the States. However, the grand sounds we had in our minds didn’t fit these spaces.
After the release of Hymn To The Immortal Wind in 2009, we’ve had an opportunity to play shows with a 23-piece orchestra in New York (over 2 days), London, Tokyo and Melbourne. We were thrilled to see that so many of our fans from all over the world came to see us. This album is simply an unforgettable experience for us.
Are there any songs or moments on the album you are particularly fond of, or you especially enjoy playing live? And how has your own personal connection to the songs on Hymn To The Immortal Wind evolved, as you’ve played them over the years?
Even to this day, we often include “Ashes In The Snow”, “Pure As Snow (Trails Of The Winter Storm)” and “Everlasting Light” in our setlists. None of these songs seem to fade, and they continue to evolve as we play them more. It’s almost like going to the other side of the world.
Hymn To The Immortal Wind was the third Mono album recorded by Steve Albini, who is considered by many people a mythical producer. How does it feel working with him, and what did you learn from your experiences from your collaborations with him?
We started working with Steve during the recording of our 3rd album Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined, and the way in which he captured our sound was just more than ideal and wonderful. I remember us getting really excited. But the sound of 5-piece strings we used felt very plain compared to what I imagined. I was looking for a more gorgeous orchestral sound, so I told Steve “I want to get all the string players to perform one more time and use overdub.”, then Steve said “That’s fake. If you want an orchestral sound that’s even more gorgeous, you should get more string players.”
So for the 4th album You Are There, we got 8 string players. But even then we weren’t satisfied, so we worked hard and saved up, and eventually took the 23-piece orchestra to Steve’s studio and recorded Hymn To The Immortal Wind.
Steve is a sound magician. When we record, we always do one take, as though we were playing live, because it’s not about performing perfectly or not. It’s all about leaving the emotions of that moment, born between the 4 of us, in the recordings.
Steve is truly the world’s best engineer, able to capture our telepathy-like wordless communication, without cutting out or missing any details. It’s like your soul is recorded on a tape. We’re truly satisfied with his work, from the bottom of our hearts.
The cover of Hymn To The Immortal Wind depicts two kids flying over what seems to be an ocean full of sharks. How does that connect with the album songs?
The young boy and girl on the album cover are trying to meet again in a different time period, by choosing death to revive, for a specific reason.
We got inspired by the script that our friend Heeya So wrote, and used that as a basis, created each chapter, and wrote songs to match with each scene. This very sad, yet beautiful and wondrous story is written in the booklet, like a short novel.
The last song of the album, “Everlasting Light,” starts with one of the most remarkable MONO piano melodies. Do you recall how that melody came out during the composition process?
Generally, I like melodies that even children can easily sing or play. Not fancy ones, meant to show off your techniques.
I’m not sure how it happens in other countries, but in Japan, we all sing old Japanese songs together at graduation ceremonies. While you’re doing so, you start to feel sad, like “I might not be able to see my friends ever again. Thanks for everything, let’s meet again.” I remember writing songs based on these kinds of feelings.
Following up on the composition process, your music seems to touch the listener’s feelings in a very special way. Do you have an idea which kind of feelings you want to address prior to the writing process or does it occur more naturally? And can you tell us a bit about your feelings when playing live? Do you prepare emotionally or mentally before a live show?
Composing is like going deep inside your heart, and pulling out a shining bright soul from the abyss, and forming it into a song. It’s like expressing who I am.
Writing songs reassures me that I’m allowed to stay alive, and there is a reason why I should remain who I am. By making these feelings into a song, I feel like I can connect with all the people in the world, indefinitely.
Playing live is like diving into a swirl of large, large energy, like getting to the other side of the world.
Hymn To The Immortal Wind was recorded with a chamber orchestra. How did you approach the orchestration process, and how were the rehearsals with the orchestra before the recording?
The main 5 players in the orchestra have been with us since the 3rd album, Walking Cloud and Deep Red Sky, Flag Fluttered and the Sun Shined. By the time we recorded Hymn To The Immortal Wind, we already knew each other really well, and most importantly, they already deeply understood what kind of band MONO are, what we’re trying to express and how they should perform. So both our rehearsals and recordings went extremely smoothly.
Looking back at 18 years of Mono, do you remember the first time that you realised things began to shift for the band in terms of having a more global reach, audience and appeal? Did “success” or audience expectations influence you in any way?
I feel like we’re an extremely lucky band. We’re supported by so many music fans throughout the world, and by true independent labels, booking agents and others like them, that believe in the power of music. Because we have people like them, we can continue to do what we do. Especially Jeremy, from our American label Temporary Residence, is a huge part of MONO’s history. He has been with us for the last 15 years or so. He was actually the first person to give us the place where we can create the art that we believe in fully, without having to worry about anything.
We have been, and will continue to fight against things that would ruin art, like old, conservative things. We want to continue to share our true art to everyone in the world at a deep level, not as a business or mindless entertainment.
We know you have an upcoming North American tour in April and May. What is on the horizon for Mono for the rest of 2017?
Including our support appearance for the band Sleep, we will first do our North American tour in April and May, then attend a Canadian music festival in June, followed by a tour with Low on the West Coast of United States, then potentially do a tour in Mexico with Deafheaven in June.
In summer, we will do another European Tour, then Australia and New Zealand in autumn. Our journey will continue on.
Thanks for your time Taka. Is there anything you would like to add?
For the first time in a long time, you gave me an opportunity to remember about our past including Hymn To The Immortal Wind, so thank you for that.
It’s been 18 years since we started the band. Recently, I started to think more about how I want to get sharper, rather than softer as I get older.
The next album is going to be our 10th album. I think it’s going to be the most explosive rock album in our career. Please look forward to it.