Patrick Shiroishi is a Japanese-American multi-instrumentalist & composer based in Los Angeles, whose 2021 album Hidemi was one of our favorites of the year. A prolific collaborator, Shiroishi can also be heard in various duos, trios, and larger ensembles, including the quartet Fuubutsushi, another group that has been in steady rotation at ACL. In this episode, we reminisce about elementary school concert band and Third Wave ska, discuss his introduction to various modes of improvisation, and explore his love of black metal. Shiroishi also unpacks the importance of family history and ancestry to his work, particularly against the recent rise in anti-Asian racism. And as live performances pick up again, he looks back on how the pandemic turned him into an unlikely proponent of online collaboration.
Episode 23: HOMEWORK
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Interview recorded between Los Angeles and Montreal, January 2022
Produced and mixed in Montreal, March 2022
SP* at Anchor
With nine tracks clocking in at under 26 minutes, Hidemi displays an impressive range of emotion and sonic exploration. [Read our review.] Shiroishi tells me he’d been working with some of the horn parts that would become Hidemi for quite some time, intending them perhaps for a collaborative work. Maybe subconsciously, he held back, knowing the direction the composition would take in processing his family’s experiences in the concentration camps that housed Japanese-Americans during WW2. The result is Shiroishi’s most personal and through-composed solo work yet, often dense multi-layered parts from no fewer than five horns (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and C-melody). At times loose and cacophonous, at others tuneful and cautiously gesturing to a more hopeful future, the brief runtime belies a density of expressive power. Named after his paternal grandfather and namesake, the cover of the album depicts Shiroishi’s father and grandfather.
Family has long been reflected in Shiroishi’s music. His first solo record, black sun sutra (2013), was dedicated to his grandmother, while white sun sutra (2014) was dedicated to his maternal grandfather in Japan. His paternal grandparents were confined at the camp near Tule Lake, California, and Shiroishi has explored this history as a musician and activity, raising awareness about this often suppressed period of American history, an engagement that felt all the more urgent during the Trump administration and the rise in racist attacks on Asian American and Pacific Islander communities during the pandemic.
Shiroishi found himself unable to play sax for several months during the 2020 lockdown, but collaborating with M. Sage in a new remote ensemble helped reinvigorate his creativity. In 2019, Sage had released a work by a nonet of Shiroishi’s on his now-defunct label Patient Sounds. The result was Fuubutsushi, a quartet consisting of Sage, Shiroishi, Chris Jusell, and Chaz Prymek, who ultimately recorded one seasonally-inspired record per quarter over the course of a year, conveniently collected in a charming boxset as Shiki, released on Sage’s new label, Cached Media. Shiroishi occasionally sings in Japanese, and subtly incorporates samples from documentaries of Japanese-Americans recounting their experiences in the camps. The music varies tremendously across their recordings, but the affect is generally soothing and contemplative, a looser, contemporary American take on the ECM aesthetic. In addition to critical praise from outlets as diverse as Pitchfork and Men’s Health Magazine, Fuubutsushi also garnered an enthusiastic reception from Shiroishi’s father, who was apparently less moved by Descension, Shiroishi’s effects-driven take on black metal saxophone.
A prolific collaborator as well as solo artist, Shiroishi has produced an impressive range of releases over the past decade. His work really came onto my radar after he was featured on Tone Glow in early 2020. His recent albums at that time demonstrated this extreme versatility, even just confining ourselves to solo albums. The aforementioned Descension is an absolutely blistering take on shredding for solo tenor sax, elevated by Felix Salazar‘s judicious microphone technique and mixing. Eye for and Eye feels dry by contrast, a deep exploration of solo sopranino sax, pushing the instrument to its outer reaches. And then Benkyou, a work written for him by Wandelweiser composer Radu Malfatti, on the opposite pole, consisting of sustained notes separated by long intervals of silence.
But again, Shiroishi is a multi-instrumentalist, and while he has a decades long affair with his alto saxophone, his work is by no means confined to being a horn player. Recent work has seen him contribute piano, guitar, glockenspiel, field recordings, effects, and vocals, while cultivating an identity as a composer that transcends instrumentation. As a teenager, he was desperate simply to make music, playing bass in a Led Zeppelin cover band before forming a math rock group with friends in college. He joined the Zeuhl band Corima for two albums, QUETZALCOATL (2012) and AMATERASU (2016), an experience which informed the complexity of his later compositions. He would also join Los Angeles’s stalwart progressive rock group Upsilon Acrux for their 2015 LP, Sun Square Dialect, which features Shiroishi’s collaborator Dylan Fujioka on drums.
A prolific collaborator, Shiroishi’s practice had been increasingly moving towards live improvisation. Thus the success of working remotely with Fuubutsushi initially came as a surprise. With a new pandemic-friendly workflow established, many remote collaborations have followed since, including with claire rousay, Camila Nebbia, and Noel Meek. Nonetheless, Shiroishi was happy to be able to return to live music in 2021. Fuubutsushi, whose four members had never all been together at the same time, let alone performed together live, were finally able to do both in November 2021 at the Columbia Experimental Music Festival.
That festival pursued a laudably broad curation strategy, with some inspired pairings which speak well of Shiroishi’s own range as a performer. Fuubutsushi performed with cellist Clarice Jensen, while Shiroishi performed a solo set opening for New York’s finest hip-hop duo, Armand Hammer, whose Alchemist-produced Haram was easily my most played record of 2021. Shiroishi joined Fuubutsushi bandmate Chaz Prymek, and drummer Thom Nguyen for a live radio broadcast. Despite all this, Shiroishi is most excited to gush about meeting black metal band Yellow Eyes and finally seeing them perform after a decade of super-fandom.
Shiroishi has done his homework. At heart, he’s a lover of music who deftly weaves a plethora of traditions into his work. You’d be hard pressed to find another instrumentalist who can so convincingly move from black metal to Wandelweiser. His approach to music has been affected by his encounters with improvisation (American, European, and Japanese), developing a sensitive ear and confidence as improvisor and composer. We enthusiastically await each new release as he continues to develop strong concepts and new musical ideas.
Just last month, Shiroishi released a new collaboration with Fujioka, in response to the brutal murder of Christina Yuna Lee. As with their previous collaboration, all proceeds go towards Asian Americans Advancing Justice. As this is published, Shiroishi has just set off on tour supporting Sumac throughout the southwest, so check those dates if you are in the area. Thanks so much to Patrick for the interview.
ARTIST – “TITLE” (ALBUM, LABEL, YEAR)
Patrick Shiroishi – “nerves of human life” (black sun sutra, Weird Cry Records, 2013)
Patrick Shiroishi – “眼には眼を”[excerpt] (Eye For An Eye, Armageddon Nova, 2020)
Skankin’ Pickle – “Turning Japanese” [flip] (Sing Along With Skankin’ Pickle, Dill Records, 1994)
Deerhoof – “The Perfect Me” (Friend Opportunity, Kill Rock Stars, 2007)
Blonde Redhead – “Misery is a Butterfly” (Misery is a Butterfly, 4AD, 2004)
Patrick Shiroishi – “Tomorrow Is Almost Over” (Descension, Thin Wrist, 2020)
John Coltrane – “Ascension I” (The Major Works Of John Coltrane, GRP, 1965/1992)
Corima – “Amaterasu V” (Amaterasu, Soleil Zeuhl, 2016)
Upsilon Acrux – “Old Dusk Seas: Odyssey” (Sun Square Dialect, New Atlantis, 2015)
Patrick Shiroishi – “To Kill A Wind-Up Bird” (Hidemi, American Dreams, 2021)
Patrick Shiroishi – “never again is now” (i shouldn’t have to worry when my parents go outside, 2021)
Patrick Shiroishi Rob Magill Duo – “Picture Paintings” (Eyes in the Dirt, Weird Cry, 2018)
Patrick Shiroishi – “What Happens When People Open Their Hearts” (Hidemi, American Dreams, 2021)
John Coltrane & Rashied Ali – “Saturn”  (Interstellar Space, Impulse!, 1974)
Thomas Ankersmit, Taku Sugimoto, Nakamura, Akiyama “Untitled” (Meeting at Off Site Vol. 1, reset, 2002)
Patrick Shiroishi / Radu Malfatti – “Benkyou” [excerpt] (Benkyou, B-Boim Records, 2020)
Patrick Shiroishi / Radu Malfatti – 勉強 [excerpt] (勉強, 2019)
M. Sage & Patrick Shiroishi – Valley Candle (Wants A Diamond Pivot Bright, 2021)
Fuubutsushi – “Good Sky Day” [excerpt] (Good Sky Day, Longform Editions, 2021)
Patrick Shiroishi & claire rousay – “Brushed Too Hard” (Now Am Found, Mended Dreams, 2021)
Armand Hammer & the Alchemist [verse: billy woods] – “Robert Moses” (Haram, Backwoodz, 2021)
Black Swan – “Descension” (Redemption, Ethereal Symphony, 2013)
Yellow Eyes – “Cathedral” (Silence Threads The Evening’s Cloth, Sol Y Nieve, 2012)
Patrick Shiroishi & Camila Nebbia – “el espacio entre el lenguaje / 言語の間” (The Human Being as a Fragile Article, 2021)
Chris Williams – “Live” [excerpt] (Live, 2022)
Patrick Shiroishi & Noel Meek – “Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets” [excerpt] (Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets, 2021)
Patrick Shiroishi & Dylan Fujioka “in the frame of incarceration” (No-No 2 / のの 二, 2022)
Patrick Shiroishi – “Beachside Lonelyhearts” (Hidemi, American Dreams, 2021)
Patrick Shiroishi – “Be a Lion, I Will Still Be Water (Sparrow’s Tongue, Fort Evil Fruit, 2018)
Patrick Shiroishi – “the soothing thought that spring from human suffering” (White Sun Sutra, 2014)
LTJ – “All My Best Friends Are Metalheads” (All My Best Friends Are Metalheads/The Disintegrators 45″, Fueled by Ramen, 1999)
Sound Propositions is written, recorded, mixed, and produced by Joseph Sannicandro.