Interview: Yakuza

People used to make fun of me when I was first playing horn in Yakuza. “Fuck you, you Kenny G motherfucker!” Here we are, 22 years later, and Kenny G is actually playing with a metal band.

This year has brought more than a few unexpected returns but one of the most welcome has to have been Yakuza’s return from the wilderness with Sutra, another masterpiece in jazz-flecked heaviness from the Chicago titans. David Bowes spoke to vocalist/saxophonist Bruce Lamont about their return and how Chicago’s unique musical landscape has influenced their sound.

E&D: It’s great to have Yakuza back. It’s something I never thought I’d see, and it’s an incredible return. At what point did you decide to push ahead with the album and get the band back together, as it were?

Bruce: We never parted ways by any means but we regrouped around late 2018/19. We played a couple of festivals in the states and began writing the new record. It took the next three and a half years to do that, and here we are! Well, it’s five and a half now but three and a half since we recorded the record.

E&D: It must feel strange to have had it done for so long and only now having it make its way into the world.

Bruce: Absolutely. We’re already well on our way to the next record as far as writing goes because we weren’t going to wait around but there are logistics that are happening now more than ever because of vinyl delays and things like that. Unfortunately, that’s close to two years in delays but it finally made it.

E&D: How did it feel to get back into the studio, and into writing for Yakuza?

Bruce: It felt great. Matt McClelland, Jim and I have been together for a long time and it was nice to have a new writing partner in Jerome Marshall, our new bass player and long-time friend. Excellent musician, great partner in the writing process – it was nice. A little bit of the old, a little bit of the new, and that’s the new line-up for Yakuza. Jerome, Jim, Matt and I will be working on the new record and it felt great.

E&D: Were there any issues with trying to hit your rhythm with someone new on board?

Bruce: No, and especially not him. As he can tell you, he was a fan of Yakuza from the time he was 15 years old and saw us play in Chicago, around 2001. This young, wide-eyed kid ran up to me after the show, freaking out, and he’s been a fan ever since. When we were looking for a new bass player, he stepped up to the plate and it made perfect sense for us. We knew what he could bring to the table already because of seeing him in other bands over the years, and we’ve played shows together, we’ve toured in separate bands together, so it was a perfect fit.

E&D: How did the songwriting process go for this record, and how does it normally?

Bruce: We go about it in a variety of ways. Sometimes we’ll spontaneously, for the lack of a better term, jam and we’ll have a couple of things that come out of that. Maybe a riff, or a cue, or a percussive pattern that works, and then we can come back to that. Maybe someone just brings something in that we can jump on, little pieces here and there. Vocally, I tend to hold out until things are more finalised. There’s a lot of openness with our riffs and rhythms so when we get to that point, I can ask to have a part extended or shortened. That’s usually the final thing to be slotted in.

E&D: Lyrically, where did the overall theme of Sutra start to come together and take direction?

Bruce: We don’t normally think of a direction. What the four of us create comes naturally and if things seem to work well together, be it within a song or with a batch of the songs, we just realise it after the fact. We’re not try to force-create something, we’d rather just have it happen naturally as much as possible.

E&D: Has that been your approach as long as Yakuza has been around?

Bruce: I’d say so. There are a variety of things that may occur but that’s what we shoot for.

E&D: You’ve had a number of projects over the years. Do you follow a similar outlook with them or does each have its own demands on how it has to be approached?

Bruce: It depends on the project and on the other players. If it’s a band project, everyone has their own approach as to how they go about things. For my solo music, it’s along the same lines as Yakuza. I’ll come up with either a percussive beat/pulse/whatever you want to call it, or a melody, and run with that. It’s pretty free and I let things happen as naturally as possible. For a band like Bloodiest, we take a different approach. Those melodies are worked on, and worked on, and worked on, over and over, until everyone is satisfied with it. I’ll come in with vocal lines and melodies last. Corrections House, that’s a whole different way of doing things; same with Brain Tentacles. It depends on the people, what they’re comfortable with and how they like to do things. I can adapt and work with pretty much anybody if I have to.


E&D: Going back a bit, I discovered the Circle Of Animals (collaborative work with Minsk’s Sanford Parker) record that you did a few years ago and it’s been on constant rotation ever since. The feel, the concept, everything about it just works. What are your memories of working on that album?

Bruce: My memories are that we were wrapping up Yakuza’s Transmutations. Sanford parker was the engineer and he approached me. He said, “Look, I have this idea for a project, and I think you and I should do this.” He was just getting into recording electronic music and was starting to take recordings of drummers that he’d worked with in the past, manipulating those and creating beats. He said, “I want you to sing with us, I want you to play saxophone, harmonica, keyboard, whatever” and I said that I was down. It was a lot of fun. That project has never been performed live but it sort of became Corrections House. We were working on a second Circle Of Animals record and some of the beats and melodies ended up making their way into the Corrections House stuff. But I can tell you, as of 2023, that Sanford Parker and I just discussed this a couple of months ago and we are going to resurrect Circle Of Animals. We’re going to take a little bit of a different approach to it but for the most part it’ll recognisably be Circle Of Animals.

E&D: Going even further back to Yakuza’s debut Amount To Nothing, is that a record that you ever revisit?

Bruce: We were thinking about maybe playing something off that somewhere down the line at Jerome’s request. He’s been a fan since the beginning so he was asking about maybe playing ‘The Sweetest Day’. We haven’t played that in about 18 years but maybe? So yeah, every once in a while I’ll go back and check it out. I try not to cringe too much. <laughs>

E&D: I was listening to the record today and thinking how much ‘The Sweetest Day’ would totally still work in a set.

Bruce: It’s funny as right after we finished that record songs took on a whole different life. I was playing a lot more saxophone on ‘Turkish Goggles’ and on one other song. It took a wild, different angle from when we first recorded it so sometimes I’ll hear it and go, “Oh man! Remember that one time we played it live, and we did it like that?” A band’s gotta start somewhere.

E&D: Do all of your songs take a similar route in that they end up evolving as you play them live?

Bruce: Oh yeah! Not a ton but there’s some room in all the songs to get a little spontaneous, let them be taken in a direction where we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. There’s a song, ‘Echoes From The Sky’, and the end of that is a three and a half minute section where we get into this rhythmic, almost soupy melody, and we sometimes just end up playing that for six or seven minutes, letting it breathe and get weird. I play soprano on that so I can just go wild!

E&D: Do you think that your approach to how you feature saxophone on Yakuza’s records has changed much?

Bruce: Probably. I’m always a fan of ‘less is more’. Not saying that I won’t indulge a bit and let my freak flag fly but I try to be tasteful about it. I want it to complement what’s happening, not overpower or have the saxophone be in the spotlight. Sometimes I treat it like a keyboard part. I’ve always done that but I do it a lot more now than I ever have.

E&D: Is saxophone having a resurgence in metal? I’m thinking of White Ward, and of course Kenny G’s spot on the Imperial Triumphant record. Did you check that out?

Bruce: Oh yeah, I had three people send me that the moment the song came out. People used to make fun of me when I was first playing horn in Yakuza. “Fuck you, you Kenny G motherfucker!” Here we are, 22 years later, and Kenny G is actually playing with a metal band. Yeah, it definitely seems like it’s out there more than back when we first started. There’s always been horn in heavy stuff. There’s saxophone on Black Sabbath’s Never Say Die, and Nik Turner from Hawkwind, R.I.P, was a big influence. My buddy Mars Williams, Chicago saxophone player and one of the greatest of all time, was in the Psychedelic Furs and he played on Ministry’s The Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste, on ‘Cannibal Song’. I know that’s not metal but it’s heavier, definitely dark. The saxophone on that was similar to what I use. He was using different effects, things like that. We ended up doing a podcast together and talking for two hours on effects in saxophone, how he was excited about using that kind of stuff, and now the technology has improved from 1989 to when I started using it in the early 2000s. Even since then, it’s gotten a lot better. It’s definitely in metal now more than ever.

E&D: Did you start out as a jazz musician?

Bruce: No. I’m a big fan of a lot of improvisational and jazz music, I have been for quite a long time, but I didn’t start that way. I was a rock and roll kid, got into metal in the ‘80s when I was a teenager, and when commercial metal got real commercial I went in a different direction, towards more underground stuff. Even that got a little boring to me. It was a lot of same old, same old. I know a lot of people will tell you differently but for me, the late ‘80s was eugh… There were some bands I liked but I tried to branch out, find other things. I worked in an independent record store in ’89-93 and there I got exposed to a lot of great music beyond just metal. That’s when I first discovered jazz and improvisational players and as the ‘90s went on I got more into it. Chicago has a great improvisational scene, it has for a long time. It really popped off in the ‘90s and I was there religiously, seeing shows and taking it all in.

E&D: In your opinion, is the Chicago scene as strong as it used to be?

Bruce: I think it’s stronger than ever. As far as the community is concerned, one thing that Chicago has that I have not found in other places – at least in the United States, like LA, New York, places like that – it’s a melting pot. Everyone is willing to try things with different types of musicians. Yakuza has been grateful that over the years, that same jazz and improvisational scene that I was talking about have guested with us or played on a record. We had Ken Vandermark on the record Samsara, the cello player Fred Lonberg-Holm, an amazing piano player called Jim Baker; Michael Zerang and Hamid Drake, two of the greatest percussionists/drummers in the world are from good old Chicago, Illinois, were totally into jamming with us. That’s something that is not in their wheelhouse at all, but for the sake of music they’re willing to do those things.

It goes way beyond that. There’s a ton of stuff going on here. There’s great garage rock here, I’m friends with all the guys in Tortoise. I love that band and I just jammed with Doug McCombs the other day, doing a little improvisational duet. I’ve had the pleasure of playing with some great country artists here in town too. I think it’s awesome, as far as the community and the ability to find a player that you might really love and want to work with on whatever level, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It’s as easy as just going up to them and saying, “Hey, do you wanna jam sometime?” For me at least, no-one has ever said no. People ask me all the time and I’ll say “I’ll give it a shot!” There’s this kid named Johnny who does sound at a bunch of places in town, a younger cat, and he has this awesome solo project called Werewolf Detective. It’s really creepy, sort-of-pop music and I’ve recorded a ton of saxophone for him just because he asked. I really dig the project, it’s really cool stuff so if I can help or at least encourage someone to keep creating, that’s how people are in Chicago in general.

E&D: That does put a lot of things in perspective as far as Yakuza’s sound, then. You seem very much a product of your environment.

Bruce: Oh yeah! Born and raised in Chicago, baby!

E&D: What do you have planned for shows right now?

Bruce: We have… absolutely nothing! We did a record release show here in town with Yob and Cave In when they came through at Thalia Hall, a beautiful place with amazing sound. That was killer but at the moment, we’re hoping for something at least in town around fall/winter. I have my fingers crossed for some European dates, either in ’24 or ’25. We’re not rushing out to tour the United States or anything like that. We would rush out to tour Europe and the UK and Scandinavia any day of the week, of course, but the States? It is what it is. It’ll happen eventually. I was talking to one of the guys from Intronaut about it too. They’re about to do another record so there’s talk of teaming up, maybe.

E&D: How did you end up working with Svart for this record?

Bruce: It was a matter of just asking. You want the long story, the half-long story or the really short story? The really short story is, you just ask, but really there’s more to it. I have a label in Chicago with Sanford Parker called War Crime Recordings. I never even thought about going to another label. I just thought that we’ll put it out and take care of all this. I talked to some local companies in town that tend to support bands and I asked if they’d be interesting in working on a deal where they’d help with the pressing of the vinyl. Long story short, we didn’t have anyone for the rest of the world outside of North America to get the record out. I like Svart, I like their roster in that it’s all over the place. They’re mostly focusing on heavy music but some really interesting stuff, plus they do all of the Michael Monroe / Hanoi Rocks reissue stuff. A little boy can dream that one day Yakuza and Michael Monroe will do a show together in some way, shape or form; maybe do a little dual sax thing, that’d be real sweet. That’s not a reason to go to Svart but it was one of the factors. I reached out to Tomi, he was very responsive and Zoomed me a couple of days later, going, “Oh yeah, let’s do this!” So that was a lot easier than I thought. They’ve been great and I hope we can continue working together.

E&D: How is the writing of the ‘new’ new material coming along?

Bruce: It’s good. It’s even further into left field than our last record, which is good. We like that kind of stuff. We like to keep it weird for ourselves, as well as anyone out there that’s listening.

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