Mipso in Japan showcases your travels in Japan during the summer of 2013. As a new, burgeoning band at the time, what compelled you to take off and tour there first?
Joseph: It does seem a little bit out of order. We had played all across North Carolina, but only done one show out of state, I think in Georgia. Then we flew to Japan for a two-week tour.
The origin of all this was, appropriately, a bluegrass jam session. Jacob and I went to Siler City to play with the great North Carolina mandolin player Tony Williamson, who ended up showing us a mandolin made by a Japanese luthier. We laughed at how strange that was, a bluegrass instrument hand-crafted in Japan, and he said, “You’d be surprised…” and proceeded to tell us about the Japanese bluegrass scene. Bluegrass in Japan…Jacob really took hold of this idea. I wasn’t sure it would lead to anything, but damn if he isn’t a dog with a bone. He became the mastermind of our Japan plan. He ended up spending the summer of 2012 doing research in Japan for a thesis about how bluegrass spread to Japan. When he came back completely in love with the Japanese bluegrass community—a really fascinating and welcoming and tightknit group— we all decided we were up for an adventure.
What sparked the idea for this documentary? Did Jon Kasbe (a fellow UNC alum) follow you with a vision in mind?
Jacob: I guess we knew we were crazy to be planning this tour, and at a certain point realized if we were going in, we should go all in. Making a movie seemed appropriate in that context. Jon was a fellow student at UNC-Chapel Hill at the time, and though we were only acquaintances before the trip, we knew we admired and trusted his work and we hoped we would love him as a person. Which we did, and still do. He’s become one of our closest friends and most respected collaborators. He actually moved in with us when we got back from Japan. And he is an ideal travel companion. He had been filming on projects in Russia, Australia, and Fiji before meeting us in Japan. He showed up with only a camera and a tiny backpack and a real knack for helping us get in to some funny situations.
Joseph: As far as the vision for the project, we didn’t make preemptive decisions about what the structure of the doc would be. We ended up having such a hilariously wild time with Jon, which informed the film he made. He says it was the first project he’s done where he wasn’t able to maintain a sense of detachment and objectivity behind the camera. And how could he? We were all sleeping in the same tiny rooms and hopping on and off bullet trains and sweating profusely in the humid madness that is a Japanese summer. So there was no contrived division between the “invisible” filmmaker and the ostensibly oblivious subjects. It felt like we were all on an adventure together. And we were having so much fun. I think the documentary makes that pretty clear.
Jacob: Ha, yeah maybe we allowed that to be too clear. For the record, we don’t drink that much sake on tours in the States.
Joseph: Or go to many nude hot springs. In the past year Jon has won many film festival awards, not to mention the 2013 Student Videographer of the Year Award, presented by President Obama at the White House, so it’s safe to say our suspicions of his talent have been confirmed.
At one point in the film you’re listening to a Japanese folk band, and Joseph remarks that it “sounds like home.” Can you describe the connection you experienced to the folk music and musical community in Japan?
Jacob: We’ve found that folk music has a way of connecting people in a personal way. Mostly because that’s the point of it. Folk music is concerned with stories, not with rock star fame. Maybe that attracts a certain type of person. And traditionally these songs and stories have been passed along person-to-person. That really shows at a bluegrass festival–and this was certainly true in Japan–people wanted to learn from each other and from us. Also these folk songs don’t shy away from harsh realities of life. So it doesn’t matter if you are Japanese and learning the music thousands of miles from where it originated, because you come to love the music by connecting with certain themes and emotions that are universal.
In my honors thesis at UNC, which was about how culture spreads alongside the arts, I looked into this from a wide variety of perspectives, most of them intentionally academic and thus a bit boring. Or at least nerdy. But the research I did in Japan in 2012 for that thesis created some of the most rewarding relationships I’ve ever experienced. That’s why the band’s trip was so positive. I was welcomed so fully by the Japanese bluegrass community. I arrived in the country with a lot of ideas but no concrete plans, and left ten weeks later having never stayed in a hotel. Each night a different family welcomed me in to their home–they totally beat us on the Southern hospitality thing–and shared stories about their connection to bluegrass and the American south. It was really an amazing time to take a seemingly far step away from North Carolina and realize that in a way I was closer to my roots than ever before. Being able to show that to my bandmates was a big goal of mine, and a ton of fun. Now I’d venture to say some of Mipso’s most supportive friends live an ocean away.
Did the similarities between the bluegrass scene in the U.S. and the bluegrass scene in Japan surprise you?
Joseph: Definitely seeing a specifically southern type of music played by Japanese people was a surprise. That surprise is a central theme of the film. Really the documentary is not about the band so much as some friends on an adventure and the great surprise—and joy—in discovering a musical connection in a brand new culture far, far away.
How does playing at a Japanese venue compare to an American one?
Joseph: Wow, we played all kinds of venues. Everything from tiny underground clubs, to the Takarazuka bluegrass festival, which is the third oldest bluegrass festival in the world, to a Buddhist religious festival. That one was awesome.
Jacob: In general I would say the difference is in the audiences. Japanese listeners tended to be intensely in the moment and appreciative of the performance. Not that our American audiences are disconnected, because we love our fans and shows on this side of the pond, but our Japanese shows were seated and silent during a song and raucous with applause when it finished. The texting-to-watching ratio was a big change compared to college clubs in the States.
There’s continuous momentum throughout the entire doc. It seems like you were constantly on the move. This might be an unfair question to ask, but if there were one place or experience that made the trip, what would it be?
Joseph: One place that stands out for all of us is called Rocky Top. It’s a bluegrass and country venue in Tokyo. You enter through a long stairway that starts on a bright and hectic Tokyo street. When you open the door, suddenly you’re in 1950s West Virginia. Dark wooden walls, Confederate flags, rawhide benches, a sticker on stage that says, “If it ain’t country, it ain’t music.” The juxtaposition was incredible.
Wood: An experience that stood out for me was the last night of the trip in Tokyo. We had just played a show with our friend Taro Inoue and went back to the home of a few of our friends in the The Bluegrass Police. We picked up some sake and ingredients for late night food (again, we don’t normally live like this in the States), and went back to their house at about 1:30 AM. It took about 10 minutes before everyone picked up their instruments and started jamming to songs. Some songs were new, some were old. Some were in English, others in Japanese. We played and ate and drank until about 4:00 AM when we realized that the neighbors could hear our picking. We hopped on a train and flew on to China that same morning.
Has your adventure abroad impacted the way that you tour and/or perform now? If yes, explain.
Joseph: We went to Japan right after we graduated from UNC. Japan was the first time we played a full two week tour with shows almost every night. Now that it’s been over a year since the trip, we can look back on that as the beginning of the new phase of the band. We’ve gotten to be a much better band from playing together so much.
Jacob: For sure. We’ve played something like 200 shows since then. I think it was a really important time for us to figure out how to respect our music and our relationships during that type of tour and travel… which is maybe the most important thing to learn in a band if you want longevity. Also, none of us speak Japanese–
Joseph: In other words, they couldn’t understand our lyrics…
Jacob: Yeah, so it was a good time to learn some lessons in the variety of ways you can connect with an audience.
We were really intrigued by some of the musicians in the doc. Do you have recommendations of Japanese bands that N.C. folk music lovers should check out online?
Joseph: Everyone should watch a video of a great young Japanese bluegrass band called Bluegrass Police (see below). We played the show at Rocky Top with them. They are rip-roaring bluegrass instrumentalists like you’ve never seen in the States. We’re scheming how to get them to IBMA in Raleigh next year. Also Taro Inoue is a jaw dropping mandolin player. Some have called him the Chris Thile of Japan. And Bluegrass 45 is the name of the original Japanese bluegrass group. They came to the States to play festivals in the early 70s and are still sort of the godfathers of the whole scene.
Do you have plans to return to Japan again?
Jacob: Definitely. Our stateside schedule has picked up speed dramatically since last year, so timing will be tricky. But we’ll be back in Japan before too long. And we’re dreaming of tying China, Vietnam, and Thailand in next time as well… Now that would be a movie!
Mipso in Japan has been shown at film festivals all across the country. Through this exposure, audiences have been introduced to your band and the Japanese folk music scene. What has that meant for you guys?
Wood: Just a couple of weeks ago we were at the IBMA world of bluegrass festival in Raleigh, where folks from around the world come together to celebrate the bluegrass community. You walk past conversations and jams and conventions that include people representing everywhere from Kentucky to Kyoto.
But still you see people who want to make the community exlusive, and that’s not the point. Last week we parked next to a car that sported a bumper magnet saying “Bluegrass: made ONLY in America.” We’re honored to be among the ranks of people that are trying to break down that misconception and allow people to accept it as a truly global type of music. It may have been born in the Appalachians, but it can be made, cherished, and progressed anywhere in the world.
We’re big fans of your latest album Dark Holler Pop here at Our State. What can we expect from the band in the upcoming future? New music? More tours? Perhaps a doc sequel?
We should also say that the band has grown since the Japan trip. Our long time friend and fiddle player Libby Rodenbough joined the band full time after she graduated in May. There’s a clear consensus among fans that she adds a lot. It’s great having her full time.
We’re in the process of recording a lot of new songs. We’ll be putting out an EP in early 2015 and a full-length record later in the year. We will neither confirm nor deny the rumor that the EP will be sung entirely in Japanese…