Brand-New Mess: Alt-Hop Weirdos Cibo Matto Return, as Uninhibited as Ever

About 20 years ago, Cibo Matto came up with an approach to music that was not complicated but tapped a nerve that was begging to be tapped: The two mixed funky hip-hop beats with synths and lyrics about food. They wore bright, thrift-store clothes. They occasionally cursed or yelled. As "alternative" came to define the angsty, pieced-together, baggy-clothed avant-pop of the decade, Cibo Matto became one of the era's poster children. The hit song "Sugar Water" only cemented this reputation.

Time magazine called the duo's first album, Viva! La Woman, one of the 10 best hip-hop albums of all time, and it stayed at No. 1 on the CMJ college chart for six weeks. But as the '90s came to a close, interest in the band waned, and its two members split off to work on side projects.

As musicians, producers, and music fans in the 2000s and 2010s continue to mine the past for a retro aesthetic (Adele, Mayer Hawthorne, Fitz & the Tantrums; the list is basically endless), it's not surprising that so many artists from the '80s and '90s have resurfaced. It's exciting but no shock then that Cibo Matto has returned: The group has a new album, Hotel Valentine, in which lyrics discuss ghosts hanging out in an imaginary hotel, and the melodies sound current for precisely the same reasons the earlier work did: It's haunting and pretty, aggressive and laid-back.

By e-mail, band member Yuka C. Honda explained that they got back together simply because they missed each other. "We felt like it's a good time for us to get back together and get back on our unfinished business," Honda says.

They wrote the new music independently in their home studios, swapped it back and forth, then occasionally met to bring everything together. Leos Carax's movie Holy Motors inspired their new work as much as Kanye West's Yeezus and Death Grips, they say.

The list of guest musicians on Hotel Valentine is almost predictably hip and varied: guitarist Nels Cline and drummer Glenn Kotsche of Wilco, percussionist Mauro Refosco of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Atoms For Peace, vocalist Reggie Watts, trumpeter Michael Leonhart, who's performed with Yoko Ono and Mos Def, trombonist Aaron Johnson from Antibalas, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Wieselman, and many others.

The new video for "MFN" is splashed in bright, bubblegum colors, green-screen animation, and jerky camerawork. The song is textbook Cibo Matto: jagged synth patches, a pretty vocal melodic hook, a more aggressive, hip-hop influenced middle section that could easily have borrowed its drum beat from the Beastie Boys' "So Watcha Want?" and some subtle funky keyboard riffs. "We explore freely in every area of genre to find the sound we want," Honda says.

Rolling Stone's 2004 Album Guide explained that "Cibo Matto were bright lights in the anything-goes days of the mid-'90s, two crazy-sexy-cool Japanese women hooking up in the East Village to dance this mess around with thrift-shop funk, punk-rock fashion, third-hand hip-hop beats, and lyrics about sex and food." Not much has changed, but not much needed to change for this recipe to work. When they play Slim's on Feb. 26, with a full live band with drums, keyboards, bass, and drum machines, it may be one of the few reunion shows that doesn't feel like a reunion show.

 
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