Los Angeles-based alto saxophonist Patrick Shiroishi is set to release another record, this time on the Thin Wrist label. For this release, Shiroishi delved into the personal and political terrain of concentration camps both as they relate to his family history and in the current cycle of immigrant and minority oppression, in what feels nothing short of a musical call to action. “In the fall of 2016 I started researching heavily into the concentration camps of Japanese-American citizens during World War II,” said Shiroishi. “As a child, my parents would take me to the Japanese American national museum which house many photos, documents and photographs of the time, but I never fully grasped what had taken place. My grandparents on my father’s side met and married in the camps at Tule Lake, a place my grandmother never spoke about to me when she was alive. As I began to dive deeper so did it naturally sink into my improvisations and work. During this time of investigation, I would occasionally meet and talk with Rob Sato, a Japanese-American artist who also had family in the camps. Realizing that we had a similar goal with how we wanted our work to reflect those times, rob generously agreed to do the cover art for Descension.
“Everything on this record was recorded in one take in the order that they appear,” recalled Shiroishi. “I didn’t prepare any melodies or form prior to the session as I anticipated playing layers and layers of noise. The record acts as a representation of how I have been processing the horrors of the present . . . the sadness of the loss of life taken not only in the States but through the genocides in Sudan, Mynamar, Iraq & Syria, the anger that migrant children are being separated from their parents and being held in concentration camps again, the frustration that times really are frighteningly similar to when my grandparents were growing up.”
In 2018, I interviewed Mr. Shiroishi about his music and his background at a cafe in Los Angeles.
Cisco Bradley: I’m curious of where you come from and how you got on this path to creative music.
Patrick Shiroishi: I started piano when I was 4 years old. Even before that my mom believed if you play classical music when the child’s in the womb it’ll be good for them. I picked up the saxophone when I was in 5th grade for middle school band. I thought it was the coolest looking thing. In college I wanted to major in saxophone performance but when I got there everyone just ruled. They were so technically advanced from where I was that I got intimidated. I ended up majoring in classical guitar/ music therapy. I would still play saxophone in sax quartets and wind ensemble and such. It was after college where I took it seriously. I was late to experimental music. I started listening to jazz. Sonny Rollins was the first. That was like 20 years old. And then the man that changed my life was John Zorn’s Naked City. Before that is was Sonny Rollins and early Coltrane stuff. Then I heard Zorn’s stuff and it blew me away. So that was my path to saxophone. And growing up I lived near the Smell, a really important all ages venue for me.
Cisco Bradley: Can you tell us about the Smell?
Patrick Shiroishi: Jim Smith runs it to this day. He really built a great community. We’d see weird rock music and that was my exposure to more out music. There are two bands that really had an impact on me, Bad Dudes and Upsilon Acrux. I had the pleasure of working with later. It was that feeling of discovering something on your own for the first time and it was a beautiful thing. That music is super dense, there’s hardly any improvisation. Odd time signatures. Repetitions are very limited. And we were really into that. Free improvisation and creative music came after that.
Cisco Bradley: What kind of music was in your home growing up?
Patrick Shiroishi: My mom listens to classical music and jazz and she put my brother and I in piano lessons when we were young. It was in high school when I would venture out and try to find music. This was also around the time where I would save my lunch money and then when my mom took my brother to basketball practice on Tuesday nights, I would bike to the mall, buy like 3 or 4 CDs and then like haul ass back so that she didn’t know I was out.
Cisco Bradley: Any records that stand up from those days?
Patrick Shiroishi: Yeah, some good/some garbage. Mostly things on the radio like Blink 182, Green Day, and Dr. Dre. But I miss that. It’s funny talking about it now, back then you would have the radio single and that was all you got. You would have to listen to the record multiple times and then make a decision if it’s trash or “oh, s**t this is actually really rad”.
Cisco Bradley: Yeah. But listening practice is what people do now. It strikes me as like quite different from when I was growing up. First of all, you didn’t get to listen to it ahead of time unless it was something that was already on the radio. By and large, you went, “Well, I heard this band is good” or “I heard their last record.”
Patrick Shiroishi: Or, “This cover looks awesome. I’ll take a chance.”
Cisco Bradley: Why did that “new music” appeal to you?
Patrick Shiroishi: I didn’t think music could sound like that. It broke all the rules. It was full of energy and when we’d go see these bands you could feel it. I think that helped draw me in. And they weren’t doing f**ng back flips or guitar spins or spinning their sticks in the air and s**t. Some of them were just completely still because the passages were so intricate.
Cisco Bradley: Can you tell us about the process of your solo records?
Patrick Shiroishi: The first one was written after my grandmother passed away. The second one was after my grandfather passed away in Japan. They’re both reflections of loss. The second one I wrote all in one day. With Tulean Dispatch I was getting more into my Japanese-American heritage. My grandparents were placed in internment camps during WWII. That’s where they met and got married. They started their family after the camps. They don’t really talk about it in textbooks. I remember there was a paragraph in my history book and I asked my grandma about it she completely shut down. I didn’t ask her after that. Thinking about that now as an adult, it’s scary to know that it can happen again. Not to Japanese people but anyone. To me, it feels insane. So… I was trying to convey how someone would feel before they went in, when they were in, and after they got out.
Cisco Bradley: That’s heavy. Seeing as we’re on that topic, your last record, Tulean Dispatch, was reviewed on Jazz Right Now, and the writer Gabriel Jermaine Vanlandingham-Dunn wrote a review. Privately, he and I have been talking about music of resistance, specifically about Black revolutionary music and different levels of jazz; that era of Black Power and reforming political thinking for Black/Brown people. He was talking about how there are black artists that are still carrying that torch today and doing very cutting edge stuff. He’s also talking about Black artists that abandoned that stuff. When he listened to your record, he said… one of the things he wrote to me, he’s like “This record! This is music of resistance and struggle against oppression.” I‘m curious what your response could be to that.
Patrick Shiroishi: Shout out Gabriel, that means a lot to me. I think musicians make music to express something. And the fact that he was able to understand where I was coming from, it means a lot. Internment camps are something that I hope will never happen again to anyone. If you read about it and if you don’t get chilled at the spine, you need to further investigate and understand what these people went through. The things still happening to African Americas today? There is a lot of f**d up s**t and most of the times it gets swept under the rug.
Cisco Bradley: It is so important to keep these things relevant as we discuss the arts. Tulean Dispatch was your 4th solo record, correct?
Patrick Shiroishi: 4th saxophone. Yes, 4th solo record. Yeah. I wanted it to be a concept album where the listener will hear everything in one sitting. The music is supposed to mimic an experience. It starts of quiet then gets really dark. The third track is supposed to be very abrasive/brutal then the end is hopeful. There’s prepared piano throughout the whole record and what I did for that was weigh down the sustain pedal. I opened the lid and placed three mics in there to catch all the resonance from the strings. A lot of times it would be a fast arpeggiated line and I was able to create a conversation that way. But at the same time, I want it to feel like it was also a memory.
Cisco Bradley: Can you talk about your musical evolution from Black Sun Sutra to Tulean Dispatch?
Patrick Shiroishi: With Black Sun Sutra, it was my first attempt to get out there. My goal initially was to write/ record a solo every year (around my birthday) just for personal development. For that record I experimented with guitar pedals and a contact mic on my saxophone. I recorded the first two in the same chapel in Orange County with Noah. One of my favorites is Evan Parker’s Whitstable Solo. He recorded that in a church or a chapel. When I would listen to that album it added another voice like the reverb. Then with Ima was, I started to incorporate like field recordings and other elements. With Tulean I feel like I’m revisiting how Black Sun Sutra would’ve been in that acoustic style. I have a record on Thin Wrist called Descension with guitar pedals again. It’s kind of like homage to Coltrane. I’ve stayed away from tenor saxophone all my life primarily because I thought that Coltrane did everything possible so why should I even f**k with it? Even though Ornette did crazy things. I think I was just intimidated. I really love the alto. I really think that’s my voice, for sure.
Then I finished the record revisiting Ima. Lots of field recordings. And my mother is reciting poetry that my grandfather wrote (in Japanese). He wrote tankas and he published five books in his lifetime. He was really into the arts and poetry. That record is interesting. My friend Rob Sato is doing the artwork and he’s also Japanese-American. We had several conversations on visiting the internment campsites and the future, how it shouldn’t happen again no matter what.
Cisco Bradley: I should know this but, but sutra is that like a prayer?
Patrick Shiroishi: Yes. I was raised Buddhist. On the first track of Black Sun Sutra is a family friend who’s a reverend. He’s reciting the heart sutra and then I improvised on top of it. It’s very much a part of me; still is very much a part of the music I create.
Cisco Bradley: Have you been influenced by any kind of like Buddhist sacred music of any kind?
Patrick Shiroishi: I don’t think so. I don’t think I’ve really exposed myself to that either. Most of what I heard is what I got in Japan. It was mainly trances and drones.
Cisco Bradley: Gotcha. You put out two records with ensembles. Niño Pequeño y Hombre Gordo? Was it a guitar trio?
Patrick Shiroishi: It’s a solo guitar record and then Henry and Noah joined me on one song each. I tend to stay away from the guitar because there are so many guitarists out there who are way better than me doing original things. It’s a “why try?” kind of thing, you know?
Cisco Bradley: Are there guitar players that you’ve admired in particular?
Patrick Shiroishi: There are several. Noah Guevara and Paul Lai (who also played in Upsilon Acrux). Dan Gerchik (Bad Dudes) and Henry Barajas. I feel like all four of them have their own sound and that’s something that I aspire to have too. And of course there’s Mary (Halvorson).
Cisco Bradley: Anfinsen’s Landmark is a quintet record?
Patrick Shiroishi: Yeah. Are you familiar with Martin Küchen? He’s a saxophonist from Sweden and does a lot. Solo, trio and a big band called Angles. It’s a different feel from playing solo, a singular melody compared to a quintet. I tried to emulate that the best I could with White Sun Sutra with the guitar pedals, but I thought it would be interesting to hear it in a group context. I was lucky that my friends were down to do it.
Cisco Bradley: Cool. Now you mentioned two other bands that you’ve been in. Upsilon Acrux and Corima. Both of them are more brutal and prog? How did you get involved with Upsilon Acrux?
Patrick Shiroishi: That was one of the first bands I’d got into with that scene by going to see them play. Like I said earlier, me and my friends would go and watch them in high school. The previous lineup dissolved and Paul was figuring out new music and eventually decided on a two guitar-two drum quartet with Noah on guitar and Mark & Dylan on drums. Around two years after they were an established unit, Paul came to a Womb show (a sax-drum duo I have with Dylan). Paul was at the show and asked me to try out for it and asked me to join soon afterwards. I learned a lot from being in that band. He never really told us what to do and gave us all the freedom to write our own parts. Upsilon has been around since the late ‘90s so it was a challenge for me to do what’s right for the music. It was great writing that music definitely made me focus on my chops but also creatively pushed me forward.
Cisco Bradley: Did you join that band around the time that you were putting out your first records?
Patrick Shiroishi: Yeah. I was already in Corima then. And that was the first or second band that I was playing saxophone in a creative setting.
Cisco Bradley: But you see… I mean you see like hip hop, brutal prog and, I don’t know, you want to say experimental, free jazz, creative music. Is it kind of all just one for it? And with them you did a European tour in 2016?
Patrick Shiroishi: Yeah, we went to Europe for a month in 2016. It was the first time. It’s way better than the US. They feed you dinner! Over here, it’s like, “Here’s a Bud Light. You got to buy the second one though.” But over there they feed you; they’ll give you drinks, a place to stay. They were just really warm and I felt like a lot of the times they gave more s**ts, even at a show where there is like 12 people there. Here, it’s tough to find that unless you’re at a specific venue. It was wonderful being in new places that we never played before. I definitely want to go back playing freer music. I think it would be a totally different experience.
Cisco Bradley: Where did you play? Or what shows stand out?
Patrick Shiroishi: We played Italy, France, Czech Republic, Sweden, Germany, UK, and Norway. The show that stood out was the Rock In Opposition Fest. That was a dream come true. We played with Magma, which was surreal. Yoshida was there from Ruins. And then our last show was at Cafe Oto. That was another venue that I’ve read about so many times.
Cisco Bradley: Who’s in Corima?
Patrick Shiroishi: So in Corima there is Paco Casanova (we also have a improv duo called Nakata), Sergio Sanchez on drums, Ryan Kamiyamazaki on bass, and Andrea Calderon on violin. We put out two records and then we have one more that’s pretty close to being finished.
Cisco Bradley: I look forward to checking those out. So you’ve mainly been based here in L.A., right? Are there scenes in other cities that you have connected to?
Patrick Shiroishi: There’ve definitely been like some stand out bands that I’ve been able to play with. On Upsilon’s East Coast tour we played with Yowie in St. Louis. They’re heroes. We played Trans Pecos with Ava Mendoza. Corima also played with her when she lived back in San Francisco. In Europe there was Honey Ride Me A Goat. We did it four days in the UK with them. They were sweethearts and the music was so rad.
Cisco Bradley: Can you talk about the L.A. scene a little bit more? Any special venues come to mind?
Patrick Shiroishi: I think the two that stick out the most for me would be The Smell and Pehrspace (no longer operational). I’ll say that is it I mean it’s hard and super expensive to stay operational here. But I think what’s great about Pehrspace and The Smell was that it was mostly volunteer-based and it felt like a real community. There are also a lot of cool new places that are up now, but I think in L.A. it’s hard. New spaces last for a year or two then they’re gone.
Cisco Bradley: Sounds like New York, maybe enough music to keep the scene going but I suppose like a lot of places there’s gentrifying pressures and lack of funding. Bay Area, Chicago, etc. Does L.A. work as a magnet for anyone who wants to do something with this music?
Patrick Shiroishi: I think so. There’s a cool scene in Santa Ana but, again, it’s very small.
Cisco Bradley: Is there anything that you can identify that makes a “signature sound” of a regional scene?
Patrick Shiroishi: I mean can you hear someone who’s like, “Oh, they’re from New York.” Or ”Oh, they’re from the West Coast” or “They’re from Chicago” or “ They’re from the East Coast”, etc.? First of all, I should say I don’t think I know the L.A. scene well enough to really make that observation. It’s actually a conversation I had with Ava Mendoza. She said that she felt like in the Bay Area it is more patient. People would really listen. One of the New York aesthetics that she encountered when she get out there was that it is super high energy. People being competitive in certain ways I suppose. Maybe that energy manifests itself in different regions.
Cisco Bradley: Who’s the audience here in L.A.? Who comes to shows?
Patrick Shiroishi: That’s a good question. I think what’s so fantastic was that they are all ages, you know…
Cisco Bradley: All ages?
Patrick Shiroishi: For the most part. But for me, when I first went to The Smell I was maybe like 16, 17. And I think that’s the age when you’re hungry for new music or you really actively seek it out. You ask your friends what’s cool and you go to shows. You won’t even know a f**ng band playing but you’d still be down to go, you know? And I think that’s important (at least for me growing up is was). I recently played a solo show and it was all ages as well. And there were a couple like 16, 17-year-old kids who played and then we got to talk after. It was really awesome to see that hunger still there.
Cisco Bradley: Most shows in New York are 21 and over. I think it really cuts out younger people. But I’ve interviewed musicians who mention all ages shows when they were 16, 17, or 18. They are like crucial because if they hadn’t found it then they probably wouldn’t get it after 21. Concerning race at this age and about gender, the L.A. scene seems a bit different. New York has such a long history of a very strong black presence in the scene going way, way back. You could say like the William Parker generation was probably 80% black. The next generation after that I would say it’s actually flipped. It’s like maybe 80% white. It’s like a really stark contrast where there are a lot of racial tensions on the scene. L.A. has a different history of this music (and everything else). What are the demographics of the creative music scene here and what divisions exist? Are there points of unity? What’s your perspective on that?
Patrick Shiroishi: It is male-dominated of course. At this point in time I feel it is well mixed. There’s Asians, Mexicans, but I don’t think it’s all predominantly white. We need to support women so that they are treated equally and with respect. I’m sure people look down on them and treat them differently. All that s**t is real.
Cisco Bradley: There’s all kind of craziness right there. I mean we have students marching in the streets. We have gun violence, police brutality. With all these things hanging over us as a society things are clearly affecting some people more than others. To me, I don’t know, it’s something I felt like you just captured in your music during that last collective show.
Patrick Shiroishi: Thank you. I mean all of it was freely improvised. I didn’t really tell them what to do. I mean it’s obviously is on everyone’s minds, you know? Having the space and opportunity for everyone to be able to communicate with each other, it just kind of came out.
Cisco Bradley: What are the inroads into the scene? Are people coming out of music schools? Are a lot of musicians self-taught? Are there community or organizations?
Patrick Shiroishi: I think right now, at least what I’m aware of, more straight ahead jazz scene from USC & the Monk Institute. There are a lot of people also from Cal Arts who are doing more avant-garde stuff. I want to say majority of the people that I play with are self-taught. I went to music school too. I studied classical guitar, and in hindsight I’m kind of glad that I didn’t study saxophone there.
Cisco Bradley: What would have happened if you did?
Patrick Shiroishi: I feel like it would have made me play differently. I mean I can only speak of my experience. But, I guess it’s a different energy.
Interview: Cisco Bradley
Editor: Gabriel Vanlandingham-Dunn
Cover photo: Turbo