Spotlight: Atsuko Chiba

A Canadian experimental rock band with three count ’em three guitarists? —Perfect Guitar Moderne fodder I’d say. Based in Montreal, Quebec, Atsuko Chiba, formed in December 2012, consists of Karim Lakdhar (guitar, synths, and vocals), Kevin McDonald (guitar and synths), David Palumbo (bass and vocals), Anthony Piazza (drums, visuals) and Eric Schafhauser (guitar, synths). To date, they have released a live EP, Animalia: Several States of Being (2013), and a full-length album Jinn (2014). They are set to release their second album in spring 2015.

The band’s music features heavy effect processing and ambient electronics, within a melodic and rhythmic framework. “Cinematic” is a term often bandied about, especially with instrumental music, but theirs certainly deserves the description, with tunes comparable to everything from small indie films to Marvel superhero epics. Their live performances actually combine music and film to create immersive sensorial environments.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?


I wouldn’t say that I am proficient, but I strive to get better every day. Early on, bands like Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and Red Hot Chili Peppers were a huge influence on me. I was really into the punk music of the era as well. With time, my interests navigated towards a lot of different styles of music. Some important discoveries along the way included The Mars Volta, King Crimson and Radiohead.


I was playing a lot of punky/rock stuff like Nirvana and Rage against the Machine, because that was the music I was into at the time. I also took guitar lessons for a few years, so I was playing some classical stuff as well.


At this point I would not call myself proficient on guitar. I am still learning and developing technique, stamina, and musicality. The music that has helped me develop to the point I am at now has been a combination of different styles such as progressive rock, rock, jazz, blues etc. I believe every style has something to offer to help your overall development. I also believe trying to mimic other instruments (trumpet, flute), and adapting those subtleties and nuances to guitar, helps you play and compose in a different way.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?


Looking back, it all seems like one big melting pot. I always really liked happy accidents. When I first found a way to record myself, that’s when I really started to express an interest in creating more experimental music. The discovery of guitar effects was also a big turning point for me. I really love film and the role sound and music play in the way you digest a scene. I eventually studied electroacoustic composition for four years and discovered a lot of early electronic and musique-concrete music that changed the way I think about music. The concepts many of those composers explored opened up my eyes and ears to new ways of doing things.


I think it was discovering different guitar effects and synthesizers. I grew to love the sounds I could make with different guitar effects, like pitch-shifters and delays; that started affecting the way I wrote music. I wanted to incorporate those sounds in the music I created instead of just using a standard guitar sound all the time.


Influenced by bands such as The Mars Volta, Pink Floyd, and other bands that use sound to create these giant conceptual pieces, I became interested in playing with sound and molding it. Also, when watching movies by directors such as Terry Gilliam, David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky, it intrigued me how sound played such a huge role in defining a scenario or a feeling of a particular scene, or how a soundtrack defines a movie. I was constantly toying around with guitar effects and slowly began recording random household objects and molding them into musical ideas and pieces. From there I decided to enroll myself in to the electroacoustic program at Concordia University and this catapulted me into a whole other world of sound. The idea of organizing sound in a way that was different from your traditional pop format opened my eyes to the enormous sea of possibilities. There are no limits when you create experimental music, you can decide to do what ever you want because you are experimenting with different modes of expression through sound.

Whose music inspires you?


The list of artists that inspire me never ends. I’m still very grounded in my musical roots. I continue to revisit the music of artists such as King Crimson, At the Drive-in, and The Mars Volta. However, with time, my tastes have shifted quite a bit and are constantly changing. I’m always looking to new forms of music and artists for inspiration. I find the music John Frusciante has been putting out lately really exciting. Bands like Radiohead inspire me because they are constantly reinventing themselves.

I also really like modern classical composers like Steve Reich, Iannis Xenakis, Edgard Varese and Krzysztof Penderecki. The early electronic music of Morton Subotnick, and Eliane Radigue is also very interesting to me. There are so many amazing movie soundtracks that serve as inspiration. Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Hip-Hop. The early Dr. Dre productions are so inspiring and still sound so fresh. I love how he combined those deep grooves with lush, organic soundscapes.


Two of my current favorite bands are Royal Canoe from Winnipeg, Canada and Lite from Japan. They are both very different bands that I discovered in the past year and they have both changed the way I look at music. The Mars Volta have been huge influence on me for the past ten years. I’ve always been a huge Omar Rodrigues Lopez fan; I love everything he’s done.


There are endless amounts of music that inspire me. When I was younger bands and artists such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, At the Drive In, Rage Against the Machine, James Brown etc. had a huge impact on my musical journey. Hip Hop artists such Snoop Dogg, Notorious BIG, Dr. Dre, Mos Def, Brotha Lynch, and a lot of electroacoustic composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, and Eliane Radigue have influenced me as well. Today all these artists still inspire as well as bands and artists like Tera Melos, Lite, Royal Canoe, Bjork, Beyonce, and Flying Lotus. The list goes on and on, there is so much good music out there.

How did you get better at your current style?


I put a lot of time into challenging myself and educating myself musically. I try to listen to a lot of different styles of music. As a band we are constantly trying to challenge each other as well. Whether it is coming from a more technical place or it is about trying to do something different sonically. Were constantly trying to push boundaries and we try to take a fresh perspective with everything we do. Practice is also a very big part of our development. We practice a lot, together and individually, to keep getting better. In some ways we have a pretty athletic approach to practice. We’re trying to build muscle memory and we continuously push ourselves to get better.


I spend a lot of time learning and experimenting with my effects. Finding new sounds and pedal combos that work. I think there is always room for improvement so there are no excuses for not getting better at what you do. If you love it enough and work hard at it then you will get better.


I believe style develops through time, like your character. The instrument becomes an extension of who you are. So as you change as a person your style changes, develops and becomes more complex. I also believe it is important to be honest with yourself and this comes through in what you create. You are playing an instrument, so practice is important. There is something to be learned from every style of music. By practicing and pulling what you enjoy from all of this you develop your guitar character/style. I also believe it is important to step outside of your comfort zone and really challenge yourself because by being comfortable you can potentially get stuck in a loop and never evolve past a certain point.

What are you trying convey with your music?


I’m not sure we’re trying to convey something very specific. A lot of times our music comes from very abstract ideas. We are painting a picture that makes sense to us but is very much left open for interpretation. I think the exploration of sound and the effect of sounds themselves can be more liberating when removed from meaning. That is to say, certain sounds evoke specific feelings for me and that’s why I like them, but they may affect someone else very differently. Somehow through that we share a mutual connection and understanding. That particular connection can, sometimes, be deeper and more powerful than the one that comes from words alone. It’s intangible and unfamiliar but also very revealing. In some ways it’s a lot like sitting alone in the silence of a dark room and your imagination is at work filling in the gaps. I still think that words are very powerful devices when it comes to music but they carry a lot of baggage. We hear words every day, and we use them every day, so we tie a lot of meaning to them. I love reading lyrics and the way words can convey very specific meaning, but I’m also really attracted to the way words sound and look removed from what they mean. I think that same dichotomy can be applied to our music.


We’re just trying to create good and honest music. We write what we’re into and hope that it will speak to our listeners. We always imagine narratives or scenarios when writing our music and we hope the listeners get that same feeling. It doesn’t matter if they imagine the same scenario or narrative, the important thing is that the music sparks their imagination in some way.


I believe a good portion of what were trying to convey with our music is imagery. Were trying to spark feelings and create scenarios. These may be different for every listener but for us I think it is important to see what we’re writing.  I think we’re also discovering ourselves through the process and bringing these discoveries to the forefront. Being a mostly instrumental band we don’t really have words to guide listeners to think “oh yes he’s talking about this,” so generally it is what you make of it. As the writers we definitely discuss these themes and concepts, which helps us work together towards a unified goal.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?


I like the combination of analog and digital effects. I find analog pedals are great for warming up your sound and they bring a sense of nostalgia. Digital pedals, on the other hand, can allow you to do some really unusual and specific things. I also really like chaining pedals in unconventional ways to see what the result will be.

kevin's pedalboard

My current live setup is:

Guitar: Ernie Ball Music Man Axis

Pedals: GojiraFX Trembulator, Z.Vex Fuzzfactory, Line 6 M5, Disaster Area MIDI foot controller, Toetags Electronics Distortion, Xotic EP Booster, Boss Harmonist PS-6, Eventide PitchFactor, Eventide H9 (w/ expression pedal), MXR Carbon Copy, Boss Digital Delay DD-6, Boss Reverb RV-5, Boomerang III Phrase Sampler

Amplifier: Fender Hot Rod Red October 4×10 combo

eric's pedalboardEric

Guitar: Fender Jazzmaster

Pedals: TC Electronic Polytune Mini, TC Electronic Spark Mini Booster, Catalinbread Teaser Stallion, Z.Vex Fuzzfactory, Earthquaker Organizer, Boss Slicer, Eventide PitchFactor, Ernie Ball 250K Volume pedal, Strymon TimeLine, Strymon Blue Sky.

I also use a Disaster Area Devices MIDI controller that controls the looper and bank functions on my TimeLine. It’s truly a great device that really opened my TimeLine. The pedal I probably used the most in for our latest LP Jinn is the Eventide PitchFactor. I use it to get the synthy lead sound in “Silent Dessert” and the glitchy sequences in “One Big Happy Family”.

Amplifier: Orange Dual Terror into a 2×12 Orange Cab.

karim's pedalboard


Guitar: re-issue 1967 Fender Stratocaster.

Pedals: Korg Pitchblack tuner Mooer Lo-Fi Machine, MXR 78 Badass, Devi Ever Godzilla Fuzz, Toetags Electronics Custom Buffer, MXR Micro Amp, Line 6 M5, Boss PS6 Harmonist, Red Panda Particle Delay/Pitch Shifter, Boss DD6, Line 6 Verbzilla, Eventide TimeFactor, TC Electronics Ditto X2 Looper, EHX Pitchfork. I also have an EHX 8 Step Program that I plug in to the expression input of my Boss PS6 to create sequences.

Amplifier: Traynor YBA 4 head through a custom Millimetric 2×12 cabinet with WGS Veteran 30 speakers.

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?


I like them both for very different reasons. I can’t say I like one more then the other. I love how physical and responsive playing live is and I love how cerebral and explorative the recording process can be.

When recording, I get to geek out on different pieces of gear or explore unique ways of processing something. The subtleties of the music can also consume me. I also really enjoy putting together all the different building blocks that make up a piece of music.

When playing live, most of my focus goes into playing the parts properly and the feeling of those parts in the context of what the rest of the band is doing. Playing live is very a very visceral experience. I get caught up in the shared experience of playing the music and the sort of call and response interaction that takes place between all the people in the room.


I think I really enjoy both equally. Both playing live and recording have fun things and annoying things about them. They’re just two really different things.


I really do enjoy both playing live and recording. I could not pick one over the other because they’re different. When you’re recording you’re very meticulous, you have time really work on sounds and fine-tune them. You also actually hear what you’re doing in terms of processing, and also have the luxury of having space and a proper set up.  Playing live is a whole other monster—you’re thrown in to so many different environments and scenarios, which force you to think quickly on your feet. Everything generally sounds different every night, you might have just enough space to stand and things may break down before or during your set. Moreover, you’re getting direct energy from the people watching, on top of this whole other physicality that comes with the live territory. Playing live for me is about the moment and the rawness that comes with that. I also believe, in today’s world of music, playing live is very important and is something we’re definitely attracted to more as listeners.

How have you built up an audience for your music?


For the most part we build our audience by playing as many shows as we can. We try to be consistent. Were always working on the next thing. When we aren’t playing live shows we’re either writing, recording, or rehearsing. We can’t afford to slow down or take a break.


Mostly by playing live. We’re trying to play in as many places as possible to get our music out to people. We also have our stuff online so people can also find us there.


We basically have just kept playing shows and releasing music. Trying to play out of town as much as possible and generally just not taking a minute to relax were constantly on the go with new projects and ideas.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?


If I had to make a bucket list of people I would want to learn from and make music with, it would be a very long list. I would love to be in creative space with someone like Björk just because her music still feels so alien to me.


I’d love to collaborate with Nick Reinhart from Tera Melos because I’m a huge fan of what he does. He is a great guitar player, an extremely creative person, and has a great outlook on music. His use of guitar effects is just mind blowing. I’d love to pick his brain and just talk guitar effects.


I’d love to collaborate with so many people for different reasons. Ultimately, if the project idea were good I would collaborate with anyone to make this happen.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?


Our latest project is a live session we did a few months ago. We had the opportunity to record three songs (one from our EP and two from our LP) at the University of McGill and film the performance. The videos give our audience a glimpse into what our live show is like. We are also currently working on a new album. We aren’t exactly sure what it will be yet as we are in the process of writing it. All we know is that it will be pretty different from the last album and we’re very excited to share what we’ve been coming up with. We hope to release it late 2015 but that seems very far away for now so only time will tell. Once its done it will be up on our Bandcamp page just like all our other albums. We also post updates, videos and pictures via our Facebook and Instagram pages.

We’re also continuously working on a studio space called Room 11. We wanted to have a place where we could call our own to do our thing and put out as much music as possible.

We have a Canadian/U.S. tour happening in the spring.




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