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“One Time, One Place,” Celebrating Ten Years of Kishi Bashi’s ‘151a’

Kishi Bashi – 151a

The first time I heard Kishi Bashi was from the MTV series Catfish. I recall hearing “Chester’s Burst Over the Hampton,” followed by “Bright Whites,” tumble out of the speakers, during the pilot episode. The next month, I would hear it again on a TV commercial. For that brief moment, Kishi Bashi seemed to be everywhere. Who was this mysterious artist? When I finally got to listen to the entire album, I was floored by how impeccably fresh it sounded. Nothing else sounded like it. For the next year, every song off of 151a replayed over and over in my head.

A lifetime ago in 2012, the indie music scene witnessed the arrival of one of its most effervescent artists. It was a Japanese American multi-instrumentalist from Georgia who single-handedly stole the hearts of the entire NPR staff with the release of his debut record. This was none other than Kishi Bashi and his album 151a.

If you have never heard of Kishi Bashi or 151a, I’m supremely jealous about the world you’re about to enter. Kishi Bashi is Kaoru Ishibashi (or K. Ishibashi for short), a skilled violinist and live-looper who was once a member of other bands including Jupiter One and of Montreal. Kishi Bashi became Ishibashi’s solo project that blossomed expeditiously once 151a was released back in April 2012.

The name of the album, “151a,” is actually a play on words. Translated into Japanese, “151a” sounds similar to the idiom, “Ichi-go ichi-e” which means “one time, one place.” It’s a phrase that sums up the fleeting beauty and urgent horror of the present moment. Here, it manifests in the album as a maximalist arrangement of sounds feeding off the edge of life itself through cascading yawps, seesawing violins, and jovial plucks — which continues to resonate even to this day.

Every time I listen to 151a I am taken on a journey. As a filmmaker, I am drawn to songs that sound like cinema, and it is without question that 151a is a film. Even better, it’s a weightless spiritual bird free of its celluloid entanglements. The songs and pitch go up and down. Notes buzz, take off, and land like fateful dragonflies. Recurring motifs of affirmative, joyous life trace through this road trip tracklist toward a sunshowered summit, baroque fanciful waters, a demanding heat-struck desert, all in a single album.

In an interview with the Cleveland Scene, Ishibashi says “I like cinematic stuff… If given the opportunity to have an intro, I’ll do it. The album is like an experience, so why not do an intro?” Right at the beginning of the album, he follows through with that promise. I have never scaled a mountain (yet), but the angelic peak of “Intro / Pathos, Pathos” feels tantamount to a religious listening experience. Right as you stare off the cliffside, the song takes a leap of faith into updraft chants of “Aetara dousuru dousuru? Aetara dousuru? (“What would happen if we could meet?”)” It’s at once jubilant, romantic, and grand all around.

Soon after, you’re met with the sweeping sounds of one of Kishi Bashi’s most signature songs. For many, including myself, “Bright Whites” has to be the most iconic track on 151a. The melody is instantly memorable, hummable, and danceable. With swinging lyrics and a bouncing bass rhythm, there was no question this would be the single that would snuggle its way into our psyches. It was right at home with the early 2010s indie-folk scene that heralded hits including Grouplove’s “Tongue Tied” and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ “Home.”

The most vivid track on the album, however, is “Atticus in the Desert.” The song evokes a sweltering adventure topped with sultry swooning declarations of love (or is it lust?). It mixes the textures of an American western and an epic search straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. Flanked by Spanish guitar strums, “Atticus in the Desert” illustrates the type of longing that only exists on horseback. You can almost taste the residual sand in your mouth as Ishibashi calls out, “Oh in the deseeeeeeert!”

Surviving these sonic vistas rewards you with the sobering woe of “I Am the Antichrist to You.” The forlorn trickling strings stir a unique level of loneliness legible to those beaten by the sharp bludgeon of loveless introspection. Pain begets pain, perhaps signifying that true love’s healing can never exist without bargaining vulnerability once more. “Who are you? Who am I to you?” he asks. Although he calls it a love song, Kishi Bashi constantly reassesses how deep love is worth trudging through before coming to a startling self-awareness. “I am the antichrist to you,” Kishi Bashi declares, a realization that feels tortured and hesitant. Those haunted lyrics even found a new life as the perfect backing track to a recent Rick and Morty episode, giving it a renewed resurgence years after it was penned.

While not all albums have the finesse to expose so many big emotions, 151a is a master class of the craft. The album is a roadmap through a menagerie of hope, risk, doubt, love, and loss. It’s simultaneously explorative and expansive. It’s no wonder why it received mass critical acclaim back then and even now. 151a remains a rare breed of music that perfectly balances technical poetic nuance with irrepressible visceral energy.

Album artwork for 151a (Demo-arigato Version), a collection of demo versions and unreleased songs off the original album with a pre-alpha soundmix.

Since its release, Ishibashi has released three more albums, scored the Apple TV+ Original Series Stillwater, was the subject and co-director of the documentary “songfilm” Omoiyari, and composed the immersive symphonic concert Improvisations EO9066. The latter two projects were a reflection and response to the infamous Executive Order 9066 that led to the incarceration of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. Already, Ishibashi’s artistic contribution to indie music and Asian American history is set in stone.

How does so much music come out of one man? We may never know, but at least part of the answer is in how Kaoru Ishibashi doesn’t just play music, he plays with music. If the album is the film, Kishi Bashi’s live performances are the afterparty. From improvisations, beatboxing, and a genuine love for the loop pedal, your captivation is guaranteed. And this year, Kishi Bashi has been on tour performing the album in its entirety for the first time.

I’m certain on at least one lesson 151a imparts: enjoy life seriously. A decade of listening to Kishi Bashi has been endlessly rewarding. Feeling beyond the actual lyrics, themes, and authorial intent is the actual point. 151a plays with itself. It’s indulgence, it’s catharsis, it’s “one time, one place.”

Happy tenth birthday 151a — an elevated, bucolic experience that all began with a burst.

151a and 151a (Demo-arigato Version) are out now via Joyful Noise Recordings.

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