“If you give me ingredients, I can find a few ways to cook them,” says Yuka Honda, co-founder of Cibo Matto, the electronic indie band famously named for Italian cuisine. “I want to make music that is like home cooking.”
While Cibo Matto has been on hiatus since 2001, Honda has forged a solitary path, recording two albums. On her latest, Eucademix (Tzadik, 2004), the unconventional vision that helped mold Cibo Matto into an iconic band remains at the core of her productions. She favors pensive lo-fi musings with clever titles such as “Twirling Batons in My Head” and “Why Are You Lying to Your Therapist?” Honda also produced Sean Lennon's Into the Sun (Grand Royal/Capitol, 1998) and has worked with an elite cast of rock and jazz musicians, including John Zorn.
Until she moved to New York from Japan in the early '90s, Honda didn't harbor serious musical aspirations. She picked up on technical gear while unearthing Japanese manuals that her roommates left around her apartment, leading her to purchase an Akai S1000 sampler. “A lot of people who were great players weren't very good with machines,” she says. “I felt like I was a missing piece of the puzzle.”
After fitting into that puzzle and nailing down the collaborative process with Cibo Matto co-founder Miho Hatori, a fellow Japanese expatriate, Honda is timid about working as a solo artist. “Music is very collaborative work,” Honda says on a midmorning phone call from her native Japan. “It makes music as an art really unique. When I'm doing solo work, it's like dancing by myself.”
But she's not completely alone: Hatori, guitarist Marc Ribot and bassist Trevor Dunn pop up on her album, and Zorn is credited as executive producer. Honda also continues to work on outside projects, including recording with Hatori; producing a Thai band, Modern Dog; and working with Lennon.
“Miho and Sean are so easy to work with [because] our trust level is so high,” Honda says. “When you work with someone for a long time, you get to a level of trust that everything is almost telepathic. It's almost having another you in the studio.”
Outside of the studio, creativity is ingrained in Honda's methodology; she uses a Sony MiniDisc re-corder and a video camera to gather samples from nature. “The only downside of [the video camera] is, if you are recording something quiet, you get the sound of a camera rolling,” she says. “But you will also get the visual pleasure when you play back.”
With Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live, she plunks down ideas in her laptop. “I jam on a track for four or five minutes,” Honda says. “I might play guitar on top. I improvise drum tracks with a break. In Pro Tools, I can switch some parts. It's almost like a painting is there, and I'm uncovering the sand over it.”
Honda uses Digidesign Pro Tools and Steinberg Nuendo for editing sounds; she listens through Tannoy speakers. As a producer and engineer, she has long had a penchant for manipulating her music in a style deemed provocative. She incorporates Roland MC-505, Quasimidi Rave-O-Lution 309 and Pearl Syncussion SY-1 drum machines and uses guitar pedals and a Korg Kaoss pad for effects. And she still toys with her favorite sampler, the Roland DJ-70, used on Cibo Matto's Viva! la Woman (Warner Bros., 1996).
Her keyboards of choice are the Fender Rhodes, the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5, the Roland Juno-60 and the Korg Triton Pro. Honda draws from childhood piano lessons to record solos directly onto her laptop from the Yamaha QY70 sequencer. “When I was taking piano lessons, I never learned the concept of chords,” Honda says. “I don't hear, ‘That's G major 7’ or ‘That was an A before it went to F sharp.’ I hear them as melody lines moving.”
Despite her collection of keys, Honda's favorite instrument to play is the bass. “I would like to have drums plays eighth notes and let the bass do extra notes and rhythms,” she says. “The bass part is very cool when the phrases are not cluttering. I don't like when people don't leave a lot of room for stillness. When you take out all the room, [those parts] have no place to be.”
Going solo, Honda spends hours exploring a soundscape that she describes as gloomy and muddy. “At 2 in the morning, I can put on the headphones and play heavy-metal bass,” she says. “It's fun because it's free, but being free is also lonely.”