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Moers Festival Interviews: Sana Nagano

Moers Festival Interviews: Sana Nagano

Courtesy Luke Marantz

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Right place, right time, your scribe caught Smashing Humans playing a late night set at the original Nublu club in NYC's Alphabet City, 19th April 2019. Intensity ensued, via a serrated prog-jazz extremity, sharply sculpted in its dynamic schizoid turning of sharp bends, its abrasive surface causing exciting distress. Smashing Humans were assembled by the Japanese violinist Sana Nagano, who's now been dwelling in NYC since 2010, and in the USA for two decades. At that 2019 gig she may have seemed like an amazing new discovery, but it turns out that your scribe would have probably already witnessed her amongst the swollen ranks of the Creative Music Studio or Adam Rudolph's Go:Organic Orchestra. Nagano styles herself as a 'noise violinist,' and indeed her riffs and solos are often heightened by a bright neon distortion haze, but her instrument does also sound very much like a violin, most of the time.

"That was one of the last gigs before we recorded, in July 2019," recalls Nagano. "The band came together because we knew each other from different occasions, in different groups. I had this music that I wanted to play and record, and the group came together one by one."

Nagano got to know saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and bassist Ken Filiano during CMS gigs and workshops, so they were already destined for a Smashing Humans future. "I'd been playing with Karl Berger and Adam Rudolph's groups for the last 10 years or so," says Nagano. "I wasn't so purposeful that I got to know Peter, and it was a natural process to invite him into the group. I had the songs first, in 2017. The whole process was very intuitive, how I started this band. Some music was written around 2015, but I updated it, to fit with the current members."

The line-up for the eponymously-titled debut album in 2021 (released by 577 Records in Brooklyn) also includes Keisuke Matsuno (who could also be happily dubbed a 'noise guitarist') and Joe Hertenstein (power drums). There are detailed, cascading arrangements, and there are controlled freak-outs. Slippery contortions and manic constructions, toppling into disarray.

"In the beginning I started out flexibly," Nagano continues. "Some of the songs were written for trio, maybe just the melody. I started developing, and then some other songs were written for the current members. It was so comfortable to be together, a big treat. Both of them [Apfelbaum and Filiano] have this open-minded approach to life, friendship and music. That's kind of how I am as well. I don't really like to separate music, art and life. I like to think a little more organically, in that way. I had a lot of time to hang out and talk with Ken and Peter."

Nagano appreciates the way that Apfelbaum and Filiano aren't interested in categorising. She does also have an outer circle of players who might step in, following some sort of unavailability of her original core members. Michael Attias has sometimes played saxophone for Smashing Humans, and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger occasionally takes over from Keisuke Matsuno. In fact, Goldberger will be in the roster for the Moers Festival set on 4th June.

"I should have someone who can add more colours and experience to the music. They're all my members." Nagano avoids the term 'substitute,' selecting players that can provide some alternative creative paths, perhaps nudging the compositions into an unfamiliar shape.

"I think it's really exciting that our first gig that we get to do, internationally, is Moers. It's a crazy treat. This is the first time I get to bring a group to Europe. That's really exciting, a lot to process, and a lot to prepare. Travelling is very difficult as an artist-visa holder, I'm a Japanese citizen. That's also in the mix, a super-handful to deal with, but we're hoping to get to Europe again in November, as a band, so I'm hoping that comes through."

Apart from Smashing Humans, Nagano has two other outfits bubbling: the math-rockin' Atomic Pigeons, and a trio with Patricia Brennan (vibraphone) and Wendy Eisenberg (guitar). "The music is difficult, with Atomic Pigeons. It's kind of like Smashing Humans, but more dense, with more different elements. With the trio, I had the opportunity to bring a set of whatever I wanted to The Stone, at The New School, as part of the Creative Music Studio week."

At the Moers Festival, Smashing Humans will play numbers from their album, as they haven't exactly had many opportunities to perform live, since it was recorded. As ever, the festival will also present an abundance of satellite performances, with Nagano and her bandmates included. The Humans will almost certainly be involved in the Moers Sessions of spontaneous improvising groupings, sewn together by saxophonist Jan Klare.

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