LIONMILK: A VAST OCEAN
As Lionmilk, Moki Kawaguchi creates lush and flowing jazz compositions juxtaposed against gritty textures and raw rap beats. He first made waves as a member of the L.A. beat scene’s progressive jazz combo the Breathing Effect, but now with his solo work Kawaguchi is sketching his own musical world. In Los Angeles, hip-hop and jazz often exist side by side but Kawaguchi melds them into one. He’s inverting the hip-hop tradition of sampling jazz by playing licks and beats by hand and spinning them into collages of his own creation. Kawaguchi sat down with L.A. RECORD to discuss his journey through music from student to teacher, and his recent release Visions in Paraíso for Leaving Records. His This Too Shall Pass album is available now. This interview by Joe Rihn.
Could you tell me a bit about your early experiences with music and how first you first got interested as a musician and as a listener?
Moki Kawaguchi: I started off classical. My mother wanted my brother and I to play music and just to be musically inclined because she always liked music and never learned. And my dad kind of knew trombone a little bit—he knew one J.J. Johnson song he liked to play all the time. My mom was just very adamant about me practicing all the time and playing piano, but I didn’t really like it because of how limiting classical music is. I did it because I had to do it. I was also going through some family shit at that time, and it just felt like music was really helping me not think about that dark shit. I was like, ‘At least doing this will keep me busy from all that shit.’ But then at some point in my youth, I decided I wanted to be a musician because it was a way to get my feelings out. I really wanted to pursue music—like composition and writing music. When I was a young kid—like 12 or something—I liked listening to TV show themes and all kinds of music. Plus my dad listened to a lot of funk and jazz, soul and Brazilian music. I was listening to a lot of Gorillaz and punk music and metal music. Just like … anything. And I really wanted to write music, but I didn’t know how to do it in a more improvisational way. I just knew how to play notes—you know like, write out notes. I was doing it that way for a minute. Then I found out that my high school had a really good jazz program, so I started learning how to play jazz music on my own.
What school was that?
Moki Kawaguchi: LACHSA. [Los Angeles County High School for the Arts] I went in for classical music, but they had a really good jazz program. I made it in after a lot of learning shit on my own. It was really competitive. Their program is like the equivalent of a college program. When I went to college, I already knew a lot of the shit they were teaching. That was interesting because I wasn’t really thinking about college or anything—I just wanted to learn. The teachers at LACHSA were really informative. They taught me a lot. They were really adamant too, and really strict. It helped in all those ways.
In high school when you started playing jazz, were you already listening to jazz and other older forms of music?
Moki Kawaguchi: Oh yeah, I loved that shit.
But it sounds like you had pretty wide-ranging tastes too.
Moki Kawaguchi: Yeah, I was really into hip-hop music. Snoop Dogg and all the West Coast shit. I always heard West Coast music on the radio. I remember my mom would drive us around and I just always heard a lot of good music on 94.7 The Wave and 93 KDAY.
Do you feel your music still has that L.A. influence?
Moki Kawaguchi: Definitely. It’s never going to go away. This is my home. I used to live in New York for five years— I was at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. When I was out there I felt like I was always repping L.A.
When did you start making your own recordings?
Moki Kawaguchi: High school. My high school had a computer that had Logic, so I used to fuck around on that. And my brother had a computer with Logic, too.
Is that how you learned how to produce? You self-produced your latest record, right?
Moki Kawaguchi: All the stuff I’ve released I did on my own. I learned a lot from watching my brother make stuff—just fucking around really. And YouTube videos and asking friends. I see production as a whole ‘nother piece of paper, you know? It’s like an orchestra piece. You can write everything out, but everything is just by itself—drums or this and that. It usually comes with an image or feeling, and I’m like, ‘How can I express this emotion? How can I express this image that I have in my head?’ I would see like … a giant waterfall. Or a vast ocean. How could I make that? Ableton has so many things I could use. I’ve listened to a bunch of music that inspired me. But when you’re creating something that’s you, it’s coming from a different angle. I come at it very emotionally. I was using music as a way to heal myself for a while.
It seems like there’s a renewed interest in jazz and music that is maybe adjacent to jazz here in L.A. Why do you think jazz has that kind of longevity?
Moki Kawaguchi: I think it’s the fact that jazz is so broad. It has influence in all of popular music. The idea of improvisation really widens the spectrum of what’s possible. What is jazz? Jazz is funk. Jazz is hip-hop. Jazz is soul music. It’s stemming into all those things. It’s just making a full circle, really.
Do you consider yourself part of that tradition?
Moki Kawaguchi: I think so. For a while, I was very motivated to be a jazz pianist and pursue a career just playing jazz music. But then, it didn’t grow fond to me … in the sense that the established jazz world is not somewhere I want to be. I’m more open to different kinds of things, and some people aren’t.
You were putting on a night, right?
Moki Kawaguchi: Yeah—‘OTS,’ for ‘On The Spot.’ The whole concept is improvisation. And not in the sense of a jam—it’s not really like that. It’s very much like free-flowing composition. Like with my band, we exercise a lot of freedom with each other. And when we play at OTS, we’re making everything on the spot. So we’ll have a concept … like tonight we’re all feeling a little anxious. Then we’ll play some kind of anxious piece. It’s like a 45-minute long piece mixed with other tracks that I made or we made together. And that’s the other thing. When artists come to play, I ask them to do a set that they’ve never tried before. Don’t do your usual set—do something out of the box. And it’s usually been very cool.
You play with a band live, but your releases as Lionmilk are pretty much solo records. Are you filling in the parts that would come from other band members with samples?
Moki Kawaguchi: It’s mostly me playing. But whenever I make music, I don’t think of it as just me. I feel like all of the instruments in a piece are different musicians.
That’s interesting—to me as a listener, it has a very sampled vibe. The different parts just seem to fit together that way.
Moki Kawaguchi: People think it’s samples, but nope! I mean, there are some songs that have samples, but it’s mostly just talking. Not so much the harmonic stuff.
Let’s talk about Visions in Paraíso. Can you tell me about the title?
Moki Kawaguchi: Visions in Paraíso—so on this album I’m remembering a time when I was kind of in paradise. I went to Brazil and felt very at home there. I took all these photos—that’s what became the cover. My friend Tommy Sugimoto did a collage of all the pictures I took. It was a time when I was very open to a lot of experiences, and any kind of musical thing. I was just soaking up anything. It just felt like a moment when I was very… cuz Depths of Madness is about a time when I was very paranoid and kind of like … fucked in the head. I went a little off in my head. But this time was a very open time, which the music reflects. I realized I’ve always been surrounded by some kind of Brazilian music. My father used to listen to a lot of samba and a lot of Latin music on the radio, and I was always listening to bossa nova music. And then when I went to Brazil and I heard all that music, it just made sense.
When you have an idea for a track how does it usually start?
Moki Kawaguchi: An emotion. It just comes, I guess. I’ll just be walking around and I’ll be feeling some way. And then maybe a drum rhythm will start in my head and I’ll record that. If I still feel like that, I keep on making it and it becomes something.
Is your latest album based on that improvisational approach?
Moki Kawaguchi: Definitely. I think most of how I approach music is improvisation. I don’t really brood on a lot of things … I do brood. [laughs] But most of the song chunks are improvised, usually. In the moment I feel this way so I express it.
I like the immediacy of it. It just dives right in…
Moki Kawaguchi: That was the concept of this album, I think. It wasn’t supposed to be so … thick. I wanted this album to be fun.
Do you feel that being a music teacher and spending time around music in that way impacts how you go about making music?
Moki Kawaguchi: Yeah—it’s always interesting to see how my students think and how they put together things. And how I have a relationship with how they work. So it’s always interesting to me to see what the students do and how they think, and how they like things and don’t like things. Sometimes the less you know about something, the more it sounds amazing because you don’t know what it is. So yeah—it makes me happy when I see that.
VISIT LIONMILK AT LIONMILK.BANDCAMP.COM.