Kaoru Sato is Tokyo born musician and writer. She is currently fronting and playing guitar in a new Post Punk / Nugaze / Dream Pop band, The Dead Zoo. The Dead Zoo’s debut single, 'Mother', will be released on Rock Noir Recordings on 31 July 2020.
Sara: Hi Kaoru, first at all, thanks for your time to do this interview.
What is the origin of 'The Dead Zoo' (name and root behind it), your current band?
Kaoru: The name came from visiting the amazing Natural History Museum in Dublin with my best friend Isobel, who lived there at the time. The museum’s collection of taxidermy is staggering and beautifully displayed. I was deeply affected by all the dead animals in Victorian display cases looking back at me, frozen in time. Isobel told me that the locals affectionately call the museum ‘The Dead Zoo’ and I thought, “I’m stealing that”!
I was using it as a DJ handle since the early 2010’s and also as the name of my photography website. When I started this new band in 2019, it seemed to be the ideal name for the band.
S: What are your influences and how would you define your style?
K: I’m influenced by so many musicians and artists, but the music I’ve always made owes the biggest debt to a fairly short period, maybe 1975-1984 and Punk (US more than UK) and UK Post Punk and New Wave in particular. If I was to name names, I think Patti Smith, Siouxsie, ESG, Grace Jones, PiL, Richard Hell, The Cure and David Sylvian / Japan would be high in the list but also Bowie who influenced all those and whose music colours everything I do.
It was really important with The Dead Zoo to be true to my new life as a woman musician. I didn’t want to hide and sit in the background so I made the commitment to front the band, even though I hate my voice and am still anxious in the spotlight.
As a result my writing has become more personal, and I think there is an honest emotional context in the music that I’ve never expressed before. That’s made me expand the palette of sounds and moods I use as well in arrangements and production. I think this is the first time I’ve felt that the music I make has begun to express a truth in me.
S: For the record, could you please list the name, and respective instrument of each member?
K: In alphabetical order:
Gabby Cain on bass and backing vocals;
Jon Baker-Bates on drums, percussion and triggers;
Kaoru Sato on lead and backing vocals, guitars, loops, drones and samples;
Somrata Sarkar on lead and backing vocals, piano, synthesizers, loops and samples.
S: You are an artist committed to many causes. I would like you to tell me about the difficulties you have faced within the music scene as a trans woman. Or if, on the contrary, music has served you as a means of expression where you have found much more support within your circle.
K: The big struggle for me was to come to terms with the fact that I am trans, and to make the decision to do something about it.
It was an act of violence to decide to transition. I had to kill the old Kaoru in order to become the person who I am now and who I should have been born as. That was really hard and I avoided it for the majority of my life until it became clear that not committing that act was going to actually kill me. So, rather than kill myself I made the change and killed the old me. But that was so complicated too as it made me feel grief stricken and bereaved. I had killed someone who had been literally with me all my life. The first few months were so hard.
But after that things became so much easier. Despite my occasional crises, I’m basically a happy person now. Many of the things I previously struggled with have evaporated like a summer cloud now that I am able to live life as I felt I always should. I’m also blessed to be surrounded by bandmates and other friends in the music community in London who are committed to tolerance and equality for minorities and have embraced the new me. So I personally haven’t yet experienced a struggle as a trans woman in music, as in contrast to my previous unhappiness, everything is brighter for me.
This means I can focus more on activism and trying what I can to make things better for people who do not enjoy the privileges I have. I’m obviously committed to improving trans rights and have been marching and protesting and doing a lot more to try and help with the fight we’re in against the UK Government who are seeking to roll back decades of improvements in equality and quality of life for trans adults and children. I’ve tried to summarise the issues that face us on my blog.
Education and support for young people must lie at the core of any progress, I think, so I’ve decided with an upcoming solo album, Time, recorded in the early part of lockdown, to support the charity Gendered Intelligence which works with young trans people and who do vital work in advocacy and lobbying with government and companies in the UK.
That album will also support The Black Curriculum which is a campaigning group seeking to place black people’s history in the UK history curriculum. There is no such representation at present and that is a crime against humanity.
Oppression, persecution and violence against minorities is intersectional. Our response and efforts must also be so.
S: I have also seen that you are really committed to the initiative 'Save our venues'. Tell me what actions you are taking and how this process is going.
K: The game here has changed, literally overnight. Last Sunday 5th July, the Government finally took its thumb out of its ass and verbally committed a large amount of money to support the arts in the UK.
Before this, things were looking bleak across the whole spectrum of arts in the UK. With no audiences paying to attend events and venues, it was looking like there was a looming mass extinction for the whole arts sector in the UK. Grass roots music venues and the whole ecosystem of music promotion and performance was literally looking like it would vanish before any progress with the virus would be made to allow people to go back to gigs and venues safely.
The Dead Zoo’s forthcoming debut single was conceived to support the #SaveOurVenues campaign. We’re not sure if the financial support will still be needed, but the government plans are very sketchy and there is a lot of detail that needs to be worked out.
In the meantime we’re still seeing small venues closing permanently. So for the time being we’re still committed to support the Music Venue Trust’s campaign with 100% of the single’s takings. But the situation is fluid so we’re taking it a day at a time.
S: How has the band dealt with the situation of this pandemic and what are your future goals now that we are overcoming it?
K: It’s been hugely frustrating but obviously something we have no control over.
We’re a brand new band. Our first gig was last November 2019. Since then we’ve played four really great gigs and attendances and response has been incredibly good. More so than any other new band I’ve been in. So I felt optimistic that this could have become something great quite quickly. We were getting better and better as a group and writing some great stuff together and planning a debut single release in May.
Then the virus hit and overnight our train came to a screeching halt and it felt like we had nothing. We had three great gigs cancelled and obviously bookings are not coming due to the virus. Moreover we do feel that new and small bands just starting out will be terribly badly hit as when bookings do start again we will be right at the bottom of a huge queue, in a smaller pond due to venue closures. It’s hard to not see it having a massive impact on our career.
We’ve tried to make a positive out of it by continuing to work. Our forthcoming single 'Mother' was recorded remotely from our homes as a replacement for the initial single candidate, which we needed access to studio facilities to realise. We’ve made an ambitious video for it that incorporates animation with “lockdown” zoom-style video.
'Mother' is out on digital and streaming on 31st July. Hopefully people will stream it, share it, playlist it and buy it. We can only hope we keep our heads above the parapet as well as raising funds for the causes we’re choosing to support.
S: Tell us about some dream that you would like to achieve as a band, some madness that may cross your mind. For example, playing with a great Rock star.
K: Haha. The dream is to survive this virus reality. Our ambitions are just to get better, get recognised and play bigger and bigger stages. Playing live is such a pleasure and a privilege and we’re hungry for more.
Personally, I’d love one day to work with Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent). When I was feeling incredibly low in the middle of the start of the trans rights crisis a few weeks ago, I made an unwise financial decision and comforted myself by buying a Sterling STV60 guitar, which was co-designed by her for Musicman. It’s incredible and beautiful and perfect for my playing style.
I love her music and her attention to detail in everything she does and how she is absolutely in control of every aspect of her business and career as a musician and as a woman in music. What an inspiration. So yeah, hopping up with her onstage would be pretty great.
But for now I’d settle for hopping up onto a small, sweaty stage in deepest London with my wonderful band, and playing the first few lead lines of the first song we play live after lockdown on her guitar. That’s a nice dream.