Makoto Kubota :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

When asked what he’s most proud of in his five decade career in music, the answer doesn’t come easy for Makoto Kubota. The prolific Kyoto-born singer, songwriter, and producer has never been one to look back at his past work, and like his longtime friend and collaborator Haruomi Hosono, Kubota remains eternally humble, preferring to let the music do the talking. Kubota’s involvement with cult noise pioneers Les Rallizes Denudes may incite the most curiosity among Western listeners, but to him it’s merely a tiny blip on his long, impressive resume. Some have dubbed him the Japanese Ry Cooder, which perhaps is not an inaccurate way to describe his sensibilities and philosophy as a musician.

Kubota got his start in the Kansai folk scene in the ‘60s, alongside like-minded musicians as Sachiko Kanenobu and others on the URC label. A friendship with college classmate Takashi Mizutani led to playing in his band Les Rallizes Denudes. Through his Cheech & Chong-esque travels through countercultural America, brushes with worldwide fame in the ‘70s-‘80s with the Sunset Gang and the Sunsetz, and a successful chapter as a prolific producer, Kubota has carved out an idiosyncratic career that’s earned him his current status as a cool, elder statesman of Japanese rock. Ultimately, Kubota is simply a lover of music, spreading the gospel of good music across the globe, whether it be through his own music or championing the work of others, like the music from Okinawa traditional minyo music that’s so dear to his heart. That’s certainly something he can be proud of.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on around the globe, Kubota has kept himself busy at his home studio in Tokyo. He’s finding inspiration from young lo-fi musicians he finds online, while learning how to make music with the latest gears and gadgets, building on his mastery of the MPC he had developed in the ‘80s. He recently remastered and reissued several of his acclaimed albums from the ‘70s, including the classic album with the Sunset Gang, Hawaii Champloo.

On the occasion of these latest remasters, we had a long, wide-ranging conversation with Kubota, lasting until the wee hours of the morning. Kubota looked back at his life and many accomplishments, from growing up in a movie theater surrounded by American jazz, seeing the Grateful Dead at a Black Panther rally in Oakland, his friendship with Levon Helm, and eating the last slice of turkey at the Last Waltz. Below are excerpts from the four hour chat—one of very few interviews with Kubota that has been translated into English. | words & translation: y. kitazawa

Aquarium Drunkard: The remastered albums sound great. How did you end up doing the remasters yourself?

Makoto Kubota: In the ‘70s the idea of mastering didn’t really exist in Japan. It was always a source of frustration for me. I would get the recording to sound good on tape, but when it was getting cut onto vinyl I had to stand there and watch silently. If I suggested they raise the levels, they would say no, that’s not technically feasible because the needle would jump. The parent companies of record labels were audio companies, like Victor, and there would be complaints coming from the top if we’d done it that way. In Japan it was like that for a while, but gradually mastering became an important thing.

This year Ultravybe bought the master tapes from Trio. They called me up and said, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it properly. I’ve been working as a mastering engineer for more than 10 years now, so I asked them to let me do it. Including a few remixed albums, there were a total of maybe 60-70 tracks. I was working on that during the corona lockdown. 

AD: Do you want to see these records get reissued outside of Japan?

Makoto Kubota: I don’t have a preference for who hears those records. I don’t get obsessive over it. My own music is just one part of the relationship I have with music, so I don’t consider it to represent who I am. I keep a distance between what I’ve done and who I am.

AD: So you don’t listen to your own music from the past?

Makoto Kubota: No, I had mostly forgotten about it. When I was remastering the albums I was thinking to myself, this is actually pretty good! But I very rarely listen to my past work. Take Les Rallizes Denudes for example. I had forgotten about that part of my life. But when I went to see Sachiko play at Central Park [in 2019] with Steve Gunn and the guys from Yo La Tengo—they all knew so much about the Rallizes. It was a total surprise. The Rallizes have so few official recordings. What’s out there are mostly bootlegs.