Interview: Cibo Matto’s Yuka Honda

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From KCRW Volunteer Jimmy Lee:

Just nine days before she takes the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, Yuka Honda is not getting much rest. “There are no weekdays or weekends for me,” said Yuka, over the telephone from New York on a recent Friday night. She’s pulling late-nighters to finish mixing new songs from Cibo Matto.

The much-loved but short-lived duo of Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda, both female immigrants from Japan living in New York City, burst onto that city’s music scene in the mid-1990s with their delectably fresh and funky sample-heavy melodies, and Miho often singing about culinary delights in heavily accented English.

After disbanding in 2001, Cibo Matto is now back and reunited for 2011’s first concert in KCRW’s annual World Festival series, “Big In Japan,” on June 26 at the Hollywood Bowl. And what a thrill it will be to see Cibo Matto once again serving up its tasty pop pieces to a picnic-eating crowd.

Their high profile return is a big contrast to their simply beginnings as a band. At the urging of their friends, they began performing as Cibo Matto (which is Italian for “crazy food”), with Miho on vocals and Yuka creating the music with keyboards and samplers. “We thought we were just playing these one-off shows, so we did a lot of crazy things that normal bands or normal people wouldn’t do, just for fun,” says Yuka.

Those initial shows, infused with punk-rock energy and a lot of pogoing up on stage, got the buzz rolling, and a record deal with Warner Bros. followed. But the music biz’s oft-told tale reared its head yet again: they had difficulty adjusting to the success. “We were friends, but then all of a sudden … we were very committed to this relationship,” said Yuka. “Even though we were really good friends, we had this kind of freedom of friendship of where we only hang out when we wanted to; into it becoming like a business relationship at the same time. And I think we weren’t very prepared.”

From 1994 to 2011, they produced two albums, “Viva La Woman” and “Stereo Type A.” And in the years since, both women have been involved in numerous music projects. But Yuka said it’s hard to describe their decision to reunite 10 years later. “It just felt really natural for us. We went through this circle of starting a band together, getting to the point where we can’t work with each other,” she said. “And then somehow we went through another cycle and we felt like getting back together. It’s just all very organic.”

They’ve started recording a new album, and have a few dates in the Pacific Northwest before the Bowl show. (They also took part in a few benefit concerts to raise money for Japanese earthquake and tsunami relief).

For “Big in Japan,” Cibo Matto shares the bill with the legendary Yellow Magic Orchestra, one of the pioneers in electronics-based pop music. “Growing up in Japan, Yellow Magic Orchestra were like the Beatles, in a way. They were so cool, and I idolized them,” says Yuka. “It’s incredible that we’re going to share a stage with them.”

And when Cibo Matto takes the stage, be ready for those new songs Yuka’s staying up late to finish. “I have to finish before I leave for Seattle; racing against the clock.”

“[The new songs] are similar [to the old] in the way we’re free-form,” describes Yuka. “But we like to mix and match what’s out there pretty freely. So we have this music that’s … I guess you can call it eclectic.”

A fitting start to the 2011 Hollywood Bowl season!

— Jimmy Lee