Ioanna Gika and Leopold Ross channel a shoegazed Orient with their LA-based band Io Echo. Staccato koto melodies are sewn over expansive beds of pearl-coated distortion. Their debut release on Iamsound, Ministry of Love, is well-designed. Traces of the Cure and Siouxsie are there, as well as Nena's "99 Luftballons." Gika is the swan, playing the koto, singing beautifully in the distance, unaffected and quiet at times. She's a rawer, more unrestricted Laetitia Sadier protégée. Ross's guitar sounds alternate between huge swells and wire-spliced, eroded samurai blades. The songs have a Wes-Anderson-directing-anime feel, with "Tiananmen Square" serving as the album's apex. Io Echo have been garnering eyes and ears for a minute. In 2009, Ross co-composed the score for the Hughes brothers' movie The Book of Eli. And this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences short-listed Gika's song "Gone" from Snow White and the Huntsman for best original song. On the fashion front, Gika was recently named the face of House of Holland's 2013 eyewear line. She's also been sporting Jeremy Scott custom hologram kimonos.
I listened to Ministry of Love while wandering around the Uwajimaya grocery store. In the snack aisle, behind the strawberry Pocky boxes, I discovered a portal to a garden outside Osaka. I could see through to it—to the garden. The garden is in an overlord's fortress. There is jade and sake. Two servants who live there have a forbidden love. The girl is a koto player. The koto has the power to stop time. When she plays a certain melody, time stops, freezing the world in whatever pose it's in. And when she plays the melody again, time starts. She plays it—time stops. Her name is Annaoi. He's Frank.
The overlord is jealous of their love. He banishes Frank to fight in a war on the border. Then the overlord hides her koto, unaware of its power. He wants Annaoi for himself. A month goes by, and finally she's able to break into the overlord's lair. She finds the koto and stops time. Through the paused world, Annaoi journeys to the battlefield and finds Frank, frozen in the midst of a battle. A samurai was about to lethally stab him, but Annaoi had stopped time with the blade a millimeter away from his stomach.
Then what happens? Ioanna: With time still frozen, she drags Frank out of harm's way. She pulls him back across the country to the fortress garden where they first met, under a wisteria. As she plucks the magical notes from the koto, Frank stirs and attempts to rise. And then we see that his belly had indeed been sliced by the blade, so finely that the wound was unnoticeable until time began again, and his blood once again started to flow. As life drains away from him, he sees that he's back in the garden where their love blossomed, and he understands to what lengths she went to try and reunite them. He lies at her feet as the song reaches its final phrase, and petals fall slowly and softly, covering his body as his spirit rises.
Beautiful. Where does your love of Asian culture come from? I: My family used to live and travel in Southeast Asia, starting with Indonesia. It's an experience of my life that I am forever indebted to, for personal reasons. When writing this album, my thoughts were there, and it's expressed through the sonics. In a few specific Asian cultures, the mind-set toward life and death is so beautiful and resonates with me so deeply. The blossom is just as beautiful fully bloomed as it is in its decay, the petals floating away like snow. I'm thankful for the lessons.
When were you first drawn to play the koto? I: I've been playing it for a while. The sound is haunting. It reminds me of a film I love, Return to Oz. There's this powerful moment when Princess Mombi plays a mandolin. A mandolin and a koto harp are different structurally, but there's something with the metal sound of the strings that feels like it evokes the same sadness. It's also interesting to experiment with the sound, synthesize it, add reverb to it. I taught myself to play. My family passed down instruments. My mother initially taught me how to play guitar. "House of the Rising Sun" was the first song she showed me. I use metal finger picks to play koto. One for the index, one for the middle finger, and one for the thumb. They also make turtle-shell ones, but I don't buy those because it seems cruel.
Talk about the lyrics and the music for "When the Lilies Die." How do your words arrive? I: Words arrive in different ways, but primarily through visuals. I love how sounds have a certain color to them: purple, pink, blue. These images help to form the feel and vibe of the songs. I don't go into too much detail explaining lyrics because I want the listener to process them personally. In short, "When the Lilies Die" is: lover leaves, lover expects to see you sad, lover has another thing coming.
Leopold: We wrote that song over a period of time when we were on tour, so I have specific memories of recording in different parts of the world. The whistle in the song, for example, was something we just recorded into the laptop microphone when we were staying on the floor at my friend's place in London. The bass we recorded in the van somewhere else in the UK, and the vocals were recorded in a hotel room in Brooklyn. The majority of the album was done in Ioanna's bedroom and at my place in Laurel Canyon, LA. It's high up on the hill, and often at dusk this mist rolls in over the hill, completely encompassing everything. It can feel otherworldly, and I think it helped create the mood on the album.
The story of you two meeting is so good. Ioanna had the Velvet Underground song "Venus in Furs" stuck in her head when she met Leopold, who's named after Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote the book Venus in Furs. It was meant to be. What bar were y'all in? I: An unmarked bar at Sunset and Bronson in Los Angeles.
Leopold, how does it feel to be named after the person who masochism is named for? How has it shaped your life? L: I'm grateful to have a story associated with my name, but I don't think the Von Masoch connection has had any particular impact on my life. Although I am in a band, which can be a pretty masochistic endeavor [laughs]. My dad always hated his own name because he thought it was boring, so he made sure to name his kids things that both he and my mum found beautiful and inspiring. I wouldn't say they are masochists, but they are very bohemian.
How was it scoring the music for the Harmony Korine and James Franco film project Rebel? L: It was an amazing experience. The producer of the film knew us and suggested us once the film had been cut and they were looking for music. We weren't given too much direction. It was more a case of "We'll give you a chance; let's see what you can do." [Laughs] We wrote a piece to the picture and sent it along, expecting to hear either that they don't like it or that they wanted a big list of changes, but as it turns out, Harmony loved it, and he didn't want to change it at all. Visually, there's a lot going on in the film. The basic premise of it is a modern-day reenactment of one of the climactic scenes in Rebel Without a Cause. But there's more to it than that.
What did you focus on while creating the score? L: We focused on the arc of the film, and we wanted to create one seamless track rather than break it up into pieces. The film has a surreal feeling to it, but it's shot in high-definition, so the images are really clean and realistic. We used Ioanna's voice as an instrument to create a human element that would anchor us in reality. There are times where you can't tell it's a vocal.
And you all curated an audio-visual festival at MOCA in LA? L: Yes, we created a festival called PLAY, which we hosted at MOCA. We feel that the arts community in LA is really strong right now and driven by a very open and collaborative spirit, so we wanted to emphasize that. Each night featured two bands and one visual artist, who created the environment that the bands performed in. We will definitely be doing more in the future.
Ioanna, please talk about your custom-made hologram kimonos by Jeremy Scott. How are they holograms? I: It's holographic silk, so it has a reflective quality to it. We've been friends with and fans of Jeremy for a while. We were talking about the live show, and that's how the conversation started. I was really thrilled that he took the time to do it. His designs are brilliant.