In 1996, two Japanese women living in New York City took the alternative rock world by surprise, making weird, fun electronic music about food.
Cibo Matto (“crazy food” in Italian) endeared itself to audiences by shouting and singing about sweets and meat and compelling crowds to “Know Your Chicken” before organic was cool. After a less food-centric 1999 album and numerous collaborative projects, Yuka Honda and vocalist Miho Hatori called it quits in 2002.
But the bond of food and music is strong. In 2011, the duo regrouped for benefit concerts following the earthquake and tsumani in Japan. They released their comeback album, “Hotel Valentine,” on Valentine’s Day 2014, and play Visulite Friday, with Honda’s jazz guitar great husband Nels Cline sitting in.
Honda spoke to the Observer in late August after returning from Japan, where she followed up a stint as Yoko Ono’s musical director with jazz-tinged Cibo Matto shows.
Q. How did you find your way back to each other?
A. We basically missed each other. We started to feel there was a special chemistry between us that wasn’t a coincidence, in this way (that) we can just say a word and don’t have to explain too much. When we wrote “Sugar Water,” we just had the key word, and as soon as we agreed on the title, it was easy to write the song from both sides. We can click intuitively. It’s something very precious.
Q. How did shows lead to an album?
A. First we were just writing songs. We didn’t want to put pressure on it. When we hit on the concept of “Hotel Valentine,” that’s when we knew we should get back together.
Q. The idea behind “Hotel Valentine” is a soundtrack without a film. Does that simply follow your tradition of thinking visually and thematically?
A. Yeah. I think this is always the case from “Viva! La Woman,” but this time more consciously so. We didn’t discuss what happens in the film. We just talked about who is in the film – a protagonist in love with this ghost girl, and she’s not just like a waify image. She’s more of this energetic ... like Rihanna – somebody whose appeal is really powerful. We both like conceptual movies. That’s the image we had in our mind, and we didn’t have to talk about the story.
Q. You seem to come at music from unusual directions.
A. We didn’t start this band saying, “Let’s make an album.” Some people who saw us always hanging out said, “Why don’t you play this Tokyo night at the Knitting Factory?” We listened to some albums together, and we decided that we really clicked the best through certain soundtracks – Italian soundtracks, Ennio Merricone and “Black Orpheus,” which was made in (1959). It’s a little B-movie made by a French director. There’s this scene where the protagonist walks through the street and the music keeps changing as he walks ... this idea of music that incorporates a lot of different elements.
Q. Did you foresee that electronic music was the future back then?
A. Not at all. I’m actually not very good at seeing movements. Electronic music was great for me. I had musical knowledge, but wasn’t someone who practiced all my life to become a musician. It’s actually great luck that I’m doing music. One thing we were definitely clicking was hip-hop and their usage of samples over beats. I was into grabbing lots of different sounds, but laying them over a groovy beat. Groovy is like a railroad you can ride on, but on top of it, you can go wilder with your mind. I’m always interested in something that surprises me and you can’t predict, something unusual and mysterious, but not in an alienating way.
Q. How did living in Japan inform the music?
A. We don’t separate music by genre. There’s Japanese music and foreign music – Led Zeppelin, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder, it’s all in the foreign music at the record shop. A lot of music genres are based on social situations, which gets diluted when it comes overseas. We don’t really know what’s happening in other countries politically. You read about them, but you don’t have this physical reaction to it. It all comes in as musical information. I wasn’t differentiating between Gilbert and Sullivan and Indian music. I think that’s one of the biggest influence we have. We’re often called genre-hopping. That and by not being musicians made us more free. When you’re going out to eat, you may want to specialize in Chinese or Italian, but you just eat whatever you want that day.