Yamantaka//Sonic Titan’s queer sublime @ Pop Montréal
In the sweltering heat of a Mile End café in the dog days of summer, singer/drummer/artist alaskaB shared an hour with 2B between band practice and a meeting about upcoming projects and tour dates. Her 7-piece “Noh-wave” band Yamantaka // Sonic Titan just broke through the glass ceiling of the Canadian music world by appearing on the short list for the prestigious Polaris Prize, making the hearts of queer Montréal fans swell with pride…
“We were warned about the short-list before it was announced. In Canada, it’s like getting a good Pitchfork review,” says alaskaB, the bitingly intelligent drummer/singer and artist behind the Polaris-nominated Yamantaka//Sonic Titan. For the record, the Polaris Prize nomination is way better than a good Pitchfork review: it’s a chance at winning $30,000 and puts acts on the international music media map, as it did for little-known Patrick Watson when he won in 2007. And just making the short-list is huge, (as you saw if you tried to get into the Austra show last year). “What impresses me the most is that people are taking the time to listen to our album,” she adds, which is already a big step when you’re an unsigned, experimental pan-Asian/Indigenous and “diasporic art collective,” as YT//ST describes itself. If you saw the band perform at Pop Montréal last year, in front of a fairly small but adoring crowd, you knew that alaskaB and singer/keyboardist Ruby Kato Attwood had unleashed something spectacularly new onto the music scene.
Band of outsiders
“I think I’m maybe the first trans person nominated for a Polaris Prize,” alaska says, which is something that she’s not in the closet about, but doesn’t want overemphasized either. “When I first started in the music industry with a band called Lesbian Fight Club, we received death threats for being out queer [and] people of colour,” she confides. The statement reveals an embattled spirit that stretches back to her punk roots. Before displacing herself to Toronto, she was a fixture of the St-Henri punk scene and was often seen as the door-girl of run-down music space Friendship Cove.
She started YT//ST in 2007 with Attwood, and the project has since expanded to include set lighting (by Alana Ruth), actress/director Ange Loft, papier mâché, guitars, Japanese dragons, guitarist John Ancheta, her brother Brendan Swanson, and visual artist/drummer Walter Scott (who will feature in the 2-QTPOC exhibit this August). There’s a lot to process, but when you listen to the track “Queens” from the eponymous album that won them the nomination either live or on Bandcamp, you feel the music’s power even if you don’t fully grasp the elaborate socio-cultural back-story.
Video for “Hoshi Neko” exquisitely animated by Ruby Attwood and Pelstring:
The overall impact of YT//ST getting short-listed for the prize is secondary to the impact of the project itself. Made up of artists and musicians from various backgrounds – Chinese, Japanese, Irish, Mohawk, Swedish, “North American,” just to name a few – the group emphasizes the Asian/First Nations influences through drumming styles, glorious black & white “NEVERFLAT” sets, kimono and Chinese operatic costumes, and above all, the Kiss-meets-kabuki stage make-up. “As Buddhists, we are interested in non-dualism,” alaskaB explains, giving more insight into the “maximalist” style for which the band is known, and that makes it stand out on the short-list. “As mixed-race people we don’t see the world in dualistic terms. We’re really interested in how repetition and forms can shock you out of your habitual life,” hence the high-drama vibe of much of their work. “We’re a psychedelic band, but without the drugs,” she says with a smile.
Saying Noh to dualism
YT//ST stands out in the indie scene, which can be left-leaning and generally open-minded, even if its journalists (and concert-goers) lack the interest and ability to talk about trans and queer identities. Still, alaskaB contends, when you look at the success in recent years of artists like Rae Spoon and Big Freedia, it bodes well for our up-and-comers. “This is the best time to be a queer or trans artist, because there actually is mainstream support; trans people in the media are being paid attention to and the conversation is being shifted more to tolerance and support… so it’s kind of an interesting time.” The critical acclaim the band has received from No Wave demigod J.G. Thirlwell, Pitchfork and This Magazine have come with an increased exposure to negative criticism of YT//ST’s sometimes dancing around that ever-touchy topic of cultural appropriation, which is something even Much Music has asked them about. (Interestingly, people have stopped asking this of the millions of white straight boys with acts devoted to “funk”, hip-hop or Reggae.)
“I question who the arbiter is of what is or isn’t cultural appropriation,” the searingly articulate art-school rocker begins. “As mixed race people, you’re [told you're] not Asian enough, you’re not white enough. These lines are drawn because of very obvious lines of oppression,” but, she nuances, “when you look outside of racial lines the world is more of a smear.” As a Chinese-Irish Canadian trans woman working in a newly-made genre that mixes everything from Confucian rights to death metal, alaskaB will meet you head-on if you want to pick the cultural appropriation bone. “We want people to think about race in a different way. I want to be the one with the pots and pans screaming in the middle of the conversation,” she adds, perhaps with an intentional reference to the casseroles in the demo earlier that day. Being queer and hailing from various Asian backgrounds in a way gives the group “carte jaune,” we joked, even if the topic is one that she takes very seriously.
“We’re not just kitschily throwing this together. As a band, we’ve formed a culture for ourselves. And that’s the best part of the collaboration, creating a mythology related to our identity of experience.” And that might be the queerest and most beautiful part of what Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is doing, reminiscent of the re-mythologization and culture-jamming of visual artists like Kent Monkman. They may be the “dark horse” of this year’s Polaris Music Prize, but for all of the Montréal queers rooting for them, YT//ST are already a sparkly kabuki/Kiss Noh-drama unicorn from the land of the sublime.
YAMANTAKA//SONIC TITAN will perform a drag opera called 33 (as in RPM and “the age of Christ”). It’s about two warring drag queens (“one has become disillusioned with life and the other plots to kill her and take over”). Not 2B missed
Sept 21, 2012 @ the Rialto for Pop Montréal
Photo: the band on a beach in California (alaskaB at centre, third from right)