A popular act with the MiG staff, Makunouchi Bento is an experimental electronic duo out of Romania that has been active since 2001. Made up of Felix Petrescu, a/k/a Waka X, and Valentin Toma, a/k/a Qewza, Makunouchi Bento create soundscape stories using organic sounds that are processed, filtered, dubbed and overdubbed until they form a cohesive whole. When exploring the world of Makunouchi Bento it becomes clear very early on that not only does their sound not fit into any single genre, but that it is music which must be heard to be understood. While one can discuss the group’s IDM influence, point out that the use of space feels descended from minimalist composers, or note the range of emotions they are able to create in a beatless environment, these words would still fail to adequately describe Makunouchi Bento’s work. In fact, the above illustration of Makunouchi Bento is probably the best written description of their music I have seen.
In anticipation of the release of Makunouchi Bento’s new EP, Rinbo, we spoke with the group via e-mail and discussed the new album, the group’s influences, both musical and otherwise, and their desire to collaborate with other artists of various mediums. We also learned how a couple 30-somethings from Romania imagine King Tubby would react to their work.
What is Makunouchi Bento?
Valentin Toma: A mixture of all sorts of exotic ear food.
Felix Petrescu: Our passport to eternal damnation. Our valve that releases toxic fumes. Or to be serious (for once) – our anchor in sound abnormality and our way of giving sounds back to this planet’s inhabitants. And I could go on until my vocabulary will go dry. Actually – this is Makunouchi Bento: the bridge that starts where our words end.
Where did the name come from?
Felix: Naming anything is a huge responsibility. Names are handles to everything. I’m not so keen to words and names lately because they are abused and misused until the letters are transformed to zombie letters. There is not much magic left in words and names nowadays. Well – our band name came when me and a good friend (Cristian Savii) started to be interested in Japanese culture and Cristian pointed to some culinary chapter and the cult of bento. I found this box with culinary diversity so close and explicit to our band concept and way of doing things, so we adopted the syntax enthusiastically.
Valentin: …knowing precisely that we’re going to be subject to atrocious misspelling!
You have a new EP out soon, correct? What can you tell us about it?
Valentin: Correct. Rinbo shall be its name, and, maybe with Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan in mind, it tells 4 Japanese tales. Monster tales. Nothing new for us (we had already approached the Rokurokubi and Nukekubi legends), but it’s the first homogenous EP of this kind. A kind of follow-up to Swimé, regarding the ambient cinematic off tempo sound, spiced with lots of field recordings. The EP should be out soon on Camomille as free download [Ed. note: It’s available here.], and maybe a limited edition CD. As a teaser for the EP, we’ve released a few remixes in advance, to have people wonder how the originals sound like:
Wait, I forgot, one of the songs was “leaked” into Gilles Peterson’s radio show by our friend Cosmin TRG. Seek! [Ed. note: Found.]
You’ve described your music as ‘sonic hauntology’ or essentially – and please correct me if I’m wrong here – music employing sounds that are ethereal and hovering around life’s edges. Listening to Makunouchi Bento the tag certainly seems apt. What drew you to this style?
Felix: We chose this label/genre because it’s quite impossible to define it in a sharp way. We want to roam free in the vast orchard of spectral trees. Also – in our music, past and present and possible future dimensions are blended without much concern about styles, trends and fashions. Our music is neither alive or dead, our music floats somewhere in between, as free of human judgement as we can…We care equally about the past, the present and future of sound.
‘Sonic hauntology’ has also been used to describe the music of King Tubby and other ’70s dub masters, but you seem to take it a step further by fully dropping anything resembling a percussive beat and creating the entire soundscape out of the ethereal. Is your work at all related to and a progression of dub? Or are Makunouchi Bento and dub operating in completely different realms that happened to somewhat overlap?
Valentin: Back then, when we would mix a record, we would tek it to ‘im and say “Tubby, how’s that sound?” He used to say it don’t really sound too good… “yuh tuh fass and facety” he said, but his reason for doin’ that is to let you always keep tryin’ harder. He said “yuh haffi av beat!”, for dub’s BPM was close to his heartbeat (depending on the amount of ganja the King has had that day), and that’s what keeps the music alive. But since my heartbeat developed in 1981, and Felix got his in 1975, back then in 1973 we had to stick to 0 BPM, and cease trying to be dub superstars. However, we kept using effects and techniques such as the famous dub delay, deep reverbs, filtering, overdubbing…
In addition to Makunouchi Bento’s releases you also collaborated (among other collaborations) on Jebel Chamber Orchestra’s release Like a Monkey Without the Cuckoo Clock, which you’ve described as ‘free jazz’ and ‘acoustic exorcism’. What was the idea behind that album?
Valentin: Rather a free jazz mockery, that is. There’s a thin line between good limitless free improvisation and monkeying around in a pool of randomness. Has this genre gone so far, that clueless people going berserk on instruments might pass as free jazz? We imagined a bunch of mental patients taking over a few instruments (some broken or detuned) and whatever they get their hands upon, and start making what they regard as music. Mind you, Jebel is a small town in Western Romania, well known for it’s psychiatric hospital. Together with our mates in USA (whom we’ve never physically met), we virtually entered the madhouse for this Idioterne-esque recording session, and it was so relieving! 🙂 Not to mention we had just got a brand new field recorder, and were anxious to use it on whatever instruments or objects that surrounded us. And thus came out our only 100% acoustic, unprocessed (except minimal limiting) project so far.
Felix: Just being silly and having mindless fun from time to time helps everyone. Just choose your right moment for that.
In addition to musical collaborations, Makunouchi Bento likes to collaborate with illustrators and video artists, correct? How exactly does that work?
Felix: It doesn’t work as smooth as we want to. We are still looking for visual artists and VJs to work with.
Valentin: Our sound – especially the latest works – is so complex and dense, that illustrating it would take a great deal of work. Not having much notoriety, and even less money to pay for good visual artists, I guess not many video makers out there can take a few weeks off (if not more) to work with us. Our most notable collaboration with a video artist was Vali Chincişan’s “Urban Tree”, a short animation for which we made a slightly minimal soundtrack, but not exactly a Makunouchi Bento song. We’ve also had Vali doing improvisational VJing for a few of our live shows. “Butter of a Fly” and “Road Eyeland” can give you an idea on what it looked like:
The best illustrator we’ve worked with is Sorina “Vazelina” Vasilescu, the author of Swimé‘s cover artwork – her drawings are very much similar to our sound design. She’s also done a great artwork for Rinbo as well, live drawing for our latest live show in Bucharest, and probably the best Makunouchi Bento poster one can imagine. 😀 [Ed. note: That’s it up above.] Browsing our discography, you’ll find more interesting cover artworks provided by people like Răzvan Jigorea (RIP), Guillaume Richard (AKA Kaneel), Daniel Dorobanţu, Santiago Morilla… and my good mate Felix AKA Waka X – responsible for a great part of the Makunouchi Bento artwork. Props to all of them.
What are you looking for in a collaborator?
Valentin: Delicious, spicy brain! We’re looking for resonance and good healthy chemistry. We should admire his/her artistic output (and vice versa), and our works should complete one another. Tell you what, we’re toying with the idea of having some jazz musicians as guests on our next album.
You also work on the design and/or beta testing of electronic instruments, what can you tell us about that?
Felix: Oh – long long story. I like getting involved in the growth of the tools I use. I like giving feedback. Giving and receiving feedback makes you feel alive. I also can’t afford much of the software I use. So I enroll as beta tester and helper in a lot of music software projects. With all my lifetime experience in music related software area (since C64 and Amiga/Atari times) I can provide real help to developers. And I’m happy to earn the software in a honest way, of course.
We do a series at MiG called ‘Music That Has Influenced Me’ where our contributors talk about 10 albums that inspired them in one way or another. I won’t ask you for 10, but what 5 albums have had the most influence on you, and why?
1. Pink Floyd – Live at Pompeii (The most experimental work of Pink Floyd, a seminal recording of their improvisational side.)
2. Rush – Moving Pictures (One of best albums I’ve ever heard, I can even play it in my head… :))
3. Sun Electric – Present (My favorite IDM album of all IDM albums)
4. The Modern Jazz Quartet – Pyramid (My 1st serious door into the jazz world)
5. Art of Noise – The Seduction of Claude Debussy. (It’s a story. A cinematic trip, diverse yet fluent. Truly what an album should be like.)
Bonus: Squarepusher’s and Aphex Twin’s late-90s works. (Nowadays we don’t sound anything like that, but they led us to IDM, and IDM was the seed that gave birth to Makunouchi Bento.)
An author and editor at MiG, Craig lives in Minnesota with his wife and son and is an attorney in his real life. Once upon a time Craig played the trumpet and spent four years in the Hawkeye Marching Band and pep band. These days Craig finds himself most often listening to experimental rock, hip hop, and post punk, but you can see everything he's listening to at: www.last.fm/user/cafreema Craig is not ashamed to admit the first concert he ever attended was New Kids on the Block.
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