“Irony doesn’t help me”: Miho Hatori on New York, Noreaga and her solo project New Optimism
Before you ask: Yes, Amazon to LeFrak, the new EP from Miho Hatori (Cibo Matto, Gorillaz), got part of its name from Noreaga, one of the project’s most famous sons. FACT’s Claire Lobenfeld talked to Hatori about the philosophy of new optimism behind her solo project New Optimism, as well as the changing landscape of New York City, Japan’s nuclear trauma and how Amazon is everywhere.
How often is a new music accompanied by a philosophical underpinning that can inform how you listen but also how you live? Miho Hatori, the avant-pop pioneer who co-founded Cibo Matto and was the original Noodle in Gorillaz, found inspiration for new music after discovering the mid-‘80s aesthetic New Sincerity: a cerebral movement responding to the postmodernist trends of irony and snark. New optimism in practice can be making art as necessity, as gratitude for the art that’s uplifted you, as a response to your own need to keep moving.
New Optimism, as a group, makes music that fuses experimental pop, hip-hop and the Caribbean influences that filtered through her last solo work, Ecdysis. Produced almost entirely by Hatori, with assistance from former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, the EP is playful, fabulist and personal. Hatori spoke to FACT about how the project and theory came to be and what exactly the title Amazon to LeFrak means.
When did this specific project, New Optimism, start for you?
Miho Hatori: I started the project almost seven years ago and started to play shows as New Optimism little by little. The idea came from when I heard the post-modern term “new sincerity”. It’s really based on irony and advertisers use that term to create content. I think there was a lot of that kind of energy in the air. I wanted to do something that was the opposite of it because irony doesn’t help me [laughs]. It’s too dark of a way to process life for me, so I came up with the idea of “new optimism” and got to play a show and started to make songs, as well.
You have been working with a lot different sounds in the past few years. There is a lot of happy energy on the new EP, but you did a tape with Dave Harrington from Darkstar last year that has a lot of ghostly, ethereal textures. Can you talk a little bit about how these projects have unfolded for you?
Hatori: The project I did with Dave Harrington is called Mondialité. It means “globality”. The term was coined by Edouard Glissant, a poet born in Martinique in the Caribbean. My favorite thing he said was that “globality” and “globalization” are different. His theory is so inspiring. To me, his thinking is the new optimism. I have three different projects, but it all came from the same roots. That tape for Mondialité and New Optimism are different. But “new optimism” doesn’t mean it’s just a fun thing. It’s my way of reminding myself to think about reality without going to irony. That’s the attitude. I think I’ve had that since I was taught music, so it’s in Cibo Matto, too. Cibo Matto’s starting point was food and love. I usually start things with a lot of concepts, but New Optimism has a much more direct meaning: my love and appreciation and motivation for creation and music. Music has always given me inspiration. When I was little, everybody faces some kind of reality, I think it hit me a lot especially when my mom got sick or when my parents got divorced, those encounters with realities as a human being, music actually helped me a lot. I really want to create music that does that. It’s my way of giving back to the world.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the songs on the EP. I might be projecting, but a lot of them had this very political component to me. Even the title, Amazon to LeFrak, I’m curious what that means to you because all I could think about Amazon Prime boxes being shipped to the LeFrak City projects.
Hatori: [Laughs] That’s so good, but I named it after the Amazon in Brazil. My bandmate in New Optimism, Timo Ellis, has been telling me, “Miho, maybe people will think Amazon like the company and I don’t know if that’s good for you.” But you know what? That’s amazing, what you said. I love it. It’s 2018 and we are facing Amazon every single day. It’s there when I shop at Whole Foods right now. It’s in our lives in a way that is kind of crazy, but that’s the reality. But the title, I’m totally open to your idea as well and I love it, but the title came from my last album. The last song is called ‘Amazona’ and it’s about a girl who lives in the Amazon. I wanted to have a continuous story and my image was this girl from the Amazon coming to America to have some kind of life journey, but somehow she ended up living in LeFrak in Queens. It makes sense: it’s full of immigrants and that’s the heart, I think, the culture of New York City. I think about when I came here in the ‘90s and the situation was so different. The rent situation is completely different now. If I came here now, I might start from around that area. It’s a very realistic choice.
“[Japanese] art and creation still reflects damage from the World War II and losing the war still affects our inner psyche.”
You don’t really have the choice to move into artist communities anymore because of other people who can afford higher rents and want to be among “cool” people.
Hatori: It’s tough. The city has expanded a lot. I’ve been seeing it for so many years. But, to me, that’s what you said: it’s the Amazon packages to LeFrak, it’s to me an equal thing, that’s what we are now. I do like the idea of LeFrak, the name is so unique. Why is it LeFrak? Every time I go to JFK, I see that sign for LeFrak City and it’s like, “What the fuck? What does it mean?” To me, it’s a name I’ve always wanted to use.
Also, I just really like that song ‘Superthug’ by Noreaga. To me, Noreaga, especially that song, that attitude of ‘Superthug’, is so new optimism to me. He is from there, there are a lot of basketball players from there. I think it’s a very special place in New York that people outside of the city don’t know about. When you’re cruising around that area, you see all kinds of people. It is where cultures really mix in New York, not like in Manhattan or Brooklyn.
You have a song called ‘King of Monsters’ which features the lyric, “our future is a blur”. I know it’s about Godzilla, but the references to nuclear power made me think about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and how people are being herded back to Fukushima before it’s safe so that the baseball stadium can be used for the games.
Hatori: I always think about nuclear power and energy and how it influences Japanese people. We have some kind of karma with nuclear energy. That kind of fear makes our inner fear come out in shapes like Godzilla. All our art and creation, I think, still reflects damage from the World War II and losing the war still affects our inner psyche. Another inspiration for New Optimism was a really amazing art exhibition called Little Boy that was put on by Takashi Murakami, the Japanese pop artist, at the Japan Society. He curated everything, putting all different kinds of art by Japanese artists but there was one thread and it was about the aftermath of the WWII. Have you heard the term “otaku”?
“We need freedom to express. We cannot be passive from society’s energy. We can be independent. That’s my way of thinking of new optimism.”
Hatori: The easiest way to say it in English is nerd, super nerd; people who are into anime or manga. Those people are called “otaku”. Otaku culture is huge. It’s the reason why we have AnimeCon in the United States. The exhibition was all about otaku culture. That energy and culture is huge in Japan, but it’s not always presented on the surface – it takes place on the internet, it’s more of a shadow society. Takashi Murakami made this beautiful catalogue with the same title Little Boy [that focused on the intersection of otaku-based artwork and nuclear war]. It’s a fascinating book, I was actually crying when i was reading it because uncovered this feeling, this dilemma I’ve had with my Japanese identity. Nobody ever describes it well in English or in a Western context. It was eye-opening for me and was definitely the motivation to start New Optimism. That name, Little Boy, that was the name of the bomb that the US dropped Japan. I was inspired by the art exhibition. ‘King of Monster’ came from that experience.
Can you tell me a little bit more about “new optimism” as a concept? Is it something that we can apply to our every day?
Hatori: Keep making, keep moving. I try to make something that feels like motivation, like driving energy. That’s what’s important for me. Not so much dark thoughts, but uplifting energy to it, too. When I do a live show, not all the songs are happy bangers. It’s not like that. It’s more an emotion-driven attitude.
I think that’s kind of revolutionary right now. A lot of the ways people present themselves in public doesn’t seem to be based on feelings, but on the perception they desire people to have of them. There’s a lot of hiding what’s going on underneath the surface.
Hatori: I would think that because of what’s happening in the US right now, people are expressing more openly these days, no? Gender issues and things like.
Oh yeah, definitely. And I think that’s really important. But in our personal relationships or especially how we portray ourselves on social media, there’s a lot of hiding and a lot of construction.
Hatori: I can see that, but I’m meeting a lot of kids who are in their early 20s and they remind me of people I met in the ‘90s. I’ve been so surprised. I get that, “I’ve met you before” feeling. But they dress like it’s the ‘90s and they listen to jazz. They didn’t experience the ‘90s and they’re naturally moving toward that kind of feeling, which I think is pretty amazing. There were more weirdos back in time. Everyone was like that and that was OK. It’s really culturally stimulating [to see young people acting like this way right now] and I hope it’s going to continue to be more like that. We need freedom to express. We cannot be passive from society’s energy. We can be independent. That’s my way of thinking of new optimism.
Claire Lobenfeld is FACT’s managing editor. She’s searching the city for sci-fi wasabi.