Cibo Matto–the super-freaky, pogo-hopping and food-obsessive gloss queens of Downtown avant-Hip Hop groove–are finally back after a 15 year hiatus with the just-dropped motherfucking dance action of Hotel Valentine.
But let’s backtrack. Back in the mid-90s, the Japanese duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda magically appeared out of nowhere with a bubblegum hip-hop fusion of lo-fi and booming breakbeat thump ‘n’ grind and cuckoo rapping about culinary delights (chicken, birthday cake, beef and jerky) amidst thick funk-ilicious throbs that mirrored the East Village hybrid of the experimental vortex and the graffiti-scrawled, urban landscape. The Cibo ladies not only owned avant-garde and noise-rock cred with Sean Ono Lennon as a member and both Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and John Zorn singing their praises, but the twosome also palled around with the Beastie Boys and made weird TV appearances as they scored MTV hits like “Know Your Chicken,” all while maintaining their DIY roots.
Cibo Matto playLe Poisson Rouge Friday, Feb. 14
After the wild success of Viva! La Woman, a couple more LP’s followed before they called it quits in 2002. Both Hatori and Honda have remained downtown figureheads and were Tonic regulars over the years, with Honda showcasing her improvisational chops alongside hubby/guitarist and fellow experimentalist, Nels Cline.
Now, Hatori and Honda have resurrected Cibo Matto and the disco-cum-rap of Hotel Valentine, released via Lennon’s Chimera label, is their long-awaited comeback album. On its electronics-damaged infectiousness, Cibo show they haven’t missed a funky, dance floor-lit beat on what they are calling a concept record based in a hotel haunted by ghosts with a love story theme. But with songs like the cussin’ thumper “MFN,” it’s like 1994 all over again.
We spoke to the psyched Hatori about ghosts, the ’90s, living in the East Village and reading the Voice back in the day.
Welcome back to the music world.
Miho Hatori: Thank yoooouuu! It’s such a great feeling, because back in the 90’s, the Village Voice helped us a lot. It feels like going back home.
I know Yuka lives in New York. Do you still live here, as well? Have you ever left the city?
I’ve been here a long time. I was in San Francisco for just one year, but otherwise I’ve been here.
You preferred New York City to San Francisco?
I went there one year and I came back (laughing)!
You couldn’t stay away, huh?
I couldn’t! Yeah, I think I have some strong tie to the city.
Living here so long, you’ve must have seen some dramatic changes from the ’90s until now.
Hmmmm, totally. I feel like there was a time when we wanted to know, for example, some information for shows or whatever and we just would see the Village Voice, right? It was the only thing we were reading. But now it’s a different story. Sometimes, I miss more of a simple life. Now, it’s overwhelming.
After Cibo Matto ended in 1999, did you and Yuka lose any contact or you remained friends?
We didn’t talk when we were on tour or recording but we kept on checking with each other like “What’s up?”
Over the years, did you and Yuka talk about starting up Cibo Matto again?
It was right before the (Tōhoku) earthquake. I think Yuka was having her birthday party or something and she asked me to play “Birthday Cake.” Then in January of 2011, we started playing and having jams. We did a data exchange and we started to make some music. It was very much an organic way and not like “Okay! Let’s do it again!” It wasn’t like that; it was a very organic way. We felt like we still had chemistry so we kept going.
Were you afraid that chemistry wasn’t going to be there?
Yeah, yeah. I remember in February, it was around Valentine’s Day of 2011. We had maybe a few songs already, or based on the (Hotel Valentine) songs. Then Yuka gave me one beautiful, beautiful lyric and that song became “Hotel Valentine.” The lyric was so beautiful and I felt like it was a very “Yuka sound” and I could immediately hear the melodies. I felt very much like “Oh, wow. These are definitely Cibo Matto sounds.”
How did the concept of Hotel Valentine come about?
Around that time, I ate out on Valentine’s Day at some hotel. I had interesting experiences and I was talking to Yuka about it. I said to her “I had this experience and it might be cool to have a scene at a hotel” and we clicked it together. To have it a hotel sounds really cool and then we directed the concept from that: it was Valentine’s Day so we named it, basically, Hotel Valentine.
Were you eating at a hotel in New York?
I was, yeah.
So Hotel Valentine does have a food theme.
Kind of, yeah (laughing). It’s so hard to take away food from everything.
What were you munching on when the Hotel Valentine concept hit you?
Hmmmm…I’m not telling anybody, actually, because I want to have some mystery (laughing).
But Hotel Valentine is based around ghosts and it’s a love story?
Yeah! It is.
Are you afraid of ghosts?
Uh…if there are ghosts, I’ll definitely be scared (laughing).
Have you ever had a bad experience with ghosts, maybe on Halloween?
Not really. But I believe in some kind of energy and I think something exists in this world. It’s mysterious.
Have you ever worked in a hotel?
No, but I was very into thinking about hotels for these past two years. I asked my friend, who used to manage some hotels. But it was a work place for my friend so there was nothing romantic about it so it wasn’t a good idea. What I heard was basically more realistic stories and then I realized “Okay, we need to make up some imaginative stories on our own.” I bet there are a lot of interesting and funny stories in a hotel.
How did the songwriting process work? Do you write all the lyrics and Yuka writes the music?
I’m singing so I take a lot of the words and the melodies and Yuka takes a lot of the sound and final production and stuff.
The record is really dance’y.
Oh, cool! I’m glad to hear that!
Cibo Matto seems to have always been about movement and getting people to dance.
Besides Hip Hop, are you and Yuka into dance music?
Yeah, totally. We love it. We have so many favorite bands in the world. The other day, somebody asked us about good songs for Valentine’s Day and Yuka and I both put “Genius of Love” by Tom Tom Club. I feel like they relate to New York City and that song has such an amazing vibe–it’s uplifting dance music. That kind of energy is just amazing.
It must be trippy for you and Yuka that you started Hotel Valentine on Valentine’s Day a couple of years ago and now it’s coming out on February 14 this year.
(Laughing) Yeah, thank you! It took a long time to make this album so it will be two years, and luckily, it was good timing.
And it’s coming out on Sean Ono Lennon’s label, Chimera. Sean was in Cibo Matto years ago. You’ve known him forever. That seems like a natural fit.
Definitely. We tried a few options, too, but Chimera Music always gives us such great support and other people can’t give us that kind of deep love.
A lot of talk about Cibo Matto is about the songs and the focus on food. Are you still obsessed with food?
We are still. I think it’s going to continue until we die (laughing)!
Do you still enjoy playing those older songs?
We still love playing old songs. We feel like we have a lot of song titles, say “Beef Jerky” or something like that, but we really are not talking about food, you know? The food was a metaphor so we never thought that we were singing or playing about food, basically. I don’t eat beef jerky (laughing)!
Will you write another food song, or a food as metaphor song?
Maybe, in the future. But on our new album, we are still using a lot of food words. It’s life. We will die if we don’t eat so it’s just part of our lives. It’s a necessity.
On Hotel Valentine‘s first single, “MFN,” you do some cussin.’
Ohhhhh, yeah. Why not, right (laughing)?
What Hip Hop were you listening to in the 90’s when Cibo Matto first started? Who inspired you?
Beastie Boys, for sure, when I grew up and in the 90’s, Wu Tang Clan came up and that was so big.
Do you still listen to a lot of Hip Hop?
Oh, yeah! Totally! I was listening to Tupac yesterday; I was feeling Tupac. I like Pusha T–the new songs are cool. Kanye–I love; I love his production.
What cool memories stick out in your mind about living in New York in the 90’s?
I feel like it was such a small community we had in the East Village–musicians and actors and writers and filmmakers and graphic designers. They were all in the Village. It was a small-scale community but at the same time so many things were happening. We stimulated each other and we were inspired by friends. I realize now it really was an amazing time. Now everything is spread out. Many people left New York and went to the west coast or became successful, for example, Mike Mills became a famous director. It was a very special time and I was lucky to experience that.
Where in the Village were you living back then? Did you and Yuka share a place?
I was living on 7th Street for a long time and Yuka, too. I think Yuka was living between C & D and I was living between 1st and 2nd. So we were very close. When we walked 2nd Avenue, there were so many musicians, downtown New York musicians and there was also The Knitting Factory (on Houston). There was a very experimental thing happening, too.
You and Yuka were also pretty involved in the scene at Tonic.
Hmmm, yeah. We miss Tonic very much. It’s changed a lot. Now, there’s still a lot of things happening, more DIY kind of venues in Brooklyn, Bushwick and stuff. It’s a different vibe right now.
Do you get out there to play and check out shows?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do. I’ll do an improvisation show or something like that. Many things are happening but I feel like it’s getting harder to get the information somehow. It should be easier now, you know?