SIGH “The Season of Withering”
By Dr. Abner Mality
This interview was a singular honor for me. For 30 years, Japan’s SIGH has been known as one of the most idiosyncratic and forward-thinking metal bands in the world. The one constant in the band’s long career has been singer and composer Mirai Kawashima, who has never failed to surprise and delight the band’s fans with the many twists and turns in SIGH’s unpredictable music.
Mirai is now in his 50’s and he is coming to terms with the fact that he and his band will someday come to an end. That realization is one we all must struggle with sooner or later. There’s no better way for Mirai to cope with approaching age than working it out through SIGH’s music. The latest SIGH album “Shiki” revolves around the inevitable change of seasons and the mystery that is death. It may be the most personal album yet for the band. I’ve always wanted to chat with Mirai and finally, the opportunity arose. Join me now as we look at the coming of winter…
WORMWOOD CHRONICLES: Greetings, Mirai! It is indeed an honor to speak to you. The latest from SIGH is “Shiki”. Did this album take more preparation than usual or was it an easy album to put together?
MIRAI KAWASHIMA: Actually it was by far the easiest. First of all, this time I worked with 2 great musicians, Frederic Leclerq and Mike Heller, who have no technical limitations at all. So I didn't have to get frustrated. It was easy to musically talk. Also topically I didn't have to struggle at all because all I had to do was just let out my inner feeling both musically and lyrically.
WC: SIGH’s subject matter has always been dark since the beginning, but is “Shiki” the darkest of all? When I translated the song titles, almost all revolve around death and passage.
MK: Yes, I am sure this is the darkest album we have ever made. A large part of the album is about my personal fear of getting old / fear of death. Of course Sigh have been dealing with death even from the very beginning, but death is still something fictional when you are 20 or 30. It was like a horror movie. But now I am 52, and death is obviously a harsh reality. Unfortunately some of my friends already died and I just lost my dad last month. Now I have to face death as a real threat. All I wanted to do was to express this fear as honestly and straightforwardly as possible.
WC: How personal is “Shiki”? Does it strictly revolve around musing about your own demise or is it on a bigger scale?
MK: This is 100% personal. That's one of the reasons I 100% sang in Japanese this time. Sigh have more fans in the US / Europe than in Japan, which means many of the fans don't understand what I am singing unless I use English. But still I had to use my own language as this is a very personal album.
WC: The first proper tune “Kuroi Kage” seems to be the heaviest and most primitive. The songs from there become more complex and finally there seems to be a peaceful ending on “Touji No Asa”. Does that mirror your own thought processes as you come to grips with mortality?
MK: Actually this is a basic structure of Sigh's albums. Usually it starts with a rather simple and straightforward song and gradually gets deeper and more complex. At first I was planning to make an album pretty much in the vein of "Scorn Defeat", and as "Kuroi Kage" is the first rack I wrote for the album, I guess it has the remnants of my first vision.
"Touji No Asa", which means "Winter Soltice's Morning", is kind of a recurrence of the intro, "Kuroi Inori", but it ends with a very high whistle. It was played by an instrument called Iwabue, which is actually just a stone with a hole. The sound it generates is often considered to express the ascension of the soul to heaven. So the ending is a salvation in a way.
WC: Is “Shiki” perhaps the most purely “Japanese” album in SIGH’s catalogue? I know you have sung in your native language before, but with “Shiki”, the art and lyrical approach seems classically Japanese. Speaking of art, I know the visuals are always important to you. Tell us about the image on the cover.
MK: Yes, definitely it is the most Japanese album by us. One of the inspirations on the album was an old 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 wind. The cherry blossoms are very beautiful, but it is also the symbol of fragility here in Japan because it goes away in 4 - 5 days. It implies your heyday is short. In the poem, the old man identifies the petals in the wind with himself, who has to die soon. I thought it was very intriguing that people from 800 - 900 years ago were feeling exactly the same as we do now. Things changed a lot over these 800 - 900 years. Now we have the Internet, AI etc., however, we still have to have a fear of death. It never changes. And of course the cover artwork is the visualization of the poem. This time I just wanted to make everything from music to the lyrics to the artwork very very Japanese.
WC: Was there any one song in particular on the album that means the most to you? Or maybe was more difficult to bring to life?
WC: The song “Mayanake No Kaji” has a cool retro feel to it, with a 60’s and 70’s vibe. What’s the story behind this particular track? (Here Mirai answers two questions with one answer.--Dr. M)
MK: Definitely my fave is "Mayonaka No Kaii". It's got everything from the great guitar solo by Fred to my hammond solo, flute solo, shakuhachi solo, vocoder, whistle voice, throat singing etc. It's got almost all the elements Sigh have been after. Obviously it has a strong 60s / 70s vibe. Also what I love about this track is only 5 minute long although it's got so many scenes in it.
Lyrically, it is off topic and not about my fear of death. It is based on my very strange experience. Long story short, I experienced midnight twice in one night. You can read the details at the end of the video or in the booklet of the album. It was truly a strange and scary experience and I thought I went insane or something. As it was so shocking, I had to make a song about the experience.
WC: You’ve collaborated with Dr. Mikannibal for a long time now. What were some of the contributions she brought to “Shiki”?
MK: Probably her biggest contributions on it are the saxophones on "Fuyu Ga Kuru" and the female chorus for "Satsui". The ending part of "Fuyu Ga Kuru" sounds very jazzy and kind of spacey because of her saxophones. Also the "Satsui" chorus sounds big with her voices.
WC: Do the same things motivate you now as in the beginning of SIGH? Or would you say you’ve become a much different person and musician over the years?
MK: We were much more innocent back then. We were writing the songs without knowing where we were going. We never thought we'd be able to release an album. I think I am still as enthusiastic about music as before, but to be honest I do not think I would write new songs if we didn't have a deal. In that sense, I must say the things that motivate me changed.
WC: You hooked up with Frederic LeClerq of KREATOR and Mike Heller of FEAR FACTORY on this album. How did you get together with them and will they be appearing with SIGH in the future?
MK: When I started writing the songs for the album in early 2020, it was also the beginning of the pandemic. I didn't think we would be able to go into a studio to rehearse or record the album for a while. I asked Mike to play drums for us as I knew not only he was a super drummer but he had his own studio and he'd be able to record everything at his own place, and luckily he said yes. After that, our old guitarist was supposed to record his parts, but somehow he started acting strange due to the lockdown or something. He was really slow in answering emails, sometime he took 3 - 4 weeks just to answer my mail.
On top of that, the guitar files he sent to me was pretty much horrible, so unfortunately I had to fire him. I've known Fred for a long time as he's a Japan lover and he often comes here. Whenever he's here, we always hang out together. And as you know, he's a great guitarist / bassist, so why not? They did a really great job. It was very motivating to work with musicians who have no technical limitations. And yes, I'd love to keep working with them in the future, too.
WC: I notice many of the songs on “Shiki” end with electronic sounds. Is there a special meaning to this?
MK: It's also an influence from 60s / 70s rock / prog stuff. Also I'm collecting the vintage keyboards. The electronic sounds generated by those old instruments can be very psychedelic and eerie. The old sci-fi movies are full of those sounds as you may know.
WC: Would you still consider SIGH a black metal band?
MK: We are not a thrash metal band. We are not a death metal band, either. Then what? Probably black metal is the most appropriate word because it embraces a lot. Sometimes both ALCEST and BEHERIT are categorized as black metal although their sounds are poles apart. Black Metal can embrace both of them. Also to me black metal from the early 90s was more or less a resurrection of evil thrash metal from the 80s, namely pre-"Master of Puppets" thrash. Even today thrash from the 80s is big inspirations on our music. I guess the influences from VOIVOD and CELTIC FROST are obvious on "Shiki". So if you want to categorize us, I still think black metal is the most proper genre.
WC: How do things look on the live front? Any chance of American shows?
MK: We just played at Brutal Assault in Czech Republic with the new line-up and next week we will go to Mexico. Right now we're talking about some European dates for the rest of this year, but unfortunately nothing is planned for the US at this stage.
WC: If you could have dinner with any 3 people frrom history, who would they be?
MK: Frank Zappa, Quorthon, and Euronymous.
WC: Any thoughts of what might come after “Shiki”?
MK: "Shiki" was completed in November of 2021, so it's been 9 months since then, but I am still feeling empty. I have no new ideas for a next album. When I was younger, as soon as an album is done, I was full of new ideas for the next one. That's probably because I saw a lot of parts that could have been better and it became a driver to make a better album. However these days, I always feel empty when an album is done. Especially this time, the album turned out to be exactly I wanted it to be, so I have no driver for the next one! I am 100% OK even if it becomes our last album although I don't think I will stop playing very soon.
WC: Thanks so much for talking to us! Any last words?
MK: I guess "Shiki" is an album which only 50-year-old me could make. I wouldn't make it when I was 20, 30 or even 40. 'Shiki' has a lot of meaning. It means 'time to die', 'four seasons' and also 'a personal note'. This is a heavy, dark and very personal album so I am not sure what people think of it. It is about death we all have to face sooner or later.