Cibo Matto’s Food for Thought

Elysa Gardner is a freelance writer based in New York

There are those who eat to live, and then there are Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, the two young women who make up the fledgling postmodern pop act Cibo Matto.

The name that these denizens of Manhattan’s East Village chose for their band is an Italian translation of “food madness,” and symptoms of this affliction are evident throughout the duo’s critically acclaimed debut album on Warner Bros., “Viva! La Woman,” which shot to the top of the college-rock charts shortly after its release in January. (The group will play the Troubadour on Saturday.)

Virtually all the song titles refer to food. And while Honda mixes a lush puree of funky, atmospheric musical samples, Hatori squeals out the lyrics with gluttonous abandon. “My weight is 300 pounds,” she declares proudly on the song “Beef Jerky.” “Who cares? I don’t care.”


But in fact, both Hatori, who appears to be in her early 20s, and Honda, who looks 30-ish (neither will reveal her age), are notably slender. And as they convene in their publicist’s office in SoHo one afternoon, they seem reluctant to discuss the topic that saturates their album. Honda won’t even identify the noodle dish she’s polishing off.

“Everyone who interviews us always wants to talk about food,” she says with a groan.

Honda isn’t being naive or ironic here. She’s trying to make a point: Cibo Matto’s obsession with eating, while genuine, is also an artistic device used to reflect a variety of thoughts and emotions. Or as the man who first informed us about oral fixations might have put it, sometimes beef jerky isn’t just beef jerky.

“A lot of people don’t realize in what ways food is used in our music,” Honda explains. “The songs aren’t all about food. There’s no song about, like, how Brussels sprouts are structured, you know? But I think that food is a great metaphor, because everybody eats. Everybody knows the feeling when you’re hungry for five hours and you have some kind of junk food and it tastes so amazing. It’s a common experience.”

Furthermore, eating is an experience that’s relatively simple to describe in a language that you’re still in the process of learning--as is the case for Hatori, who spoke little English before moving to New York from Tokyo 2 1/2 years ago.

“When I wrote the songs on [the album], my vocabulary was limited, and [using] food is the easiest way to tell a story,” says Hatori, who writes many of Cibo Matto’s lyrics. “We learned a little bit of English grammar in school in Japan, but it’s English that nobody uses. Like, ‘This is a pen.’ Stuff like that.”

Actually, it was a desire to improve her English that brought Hatori to the Big Apple in the first place. After enrolling in a class designed for foreigners sharing her ambition, the singer began hanging out at downtown clubs and eventually formed a punk band called Leitoh Lychee--that’s Japanese for “frozen lychee nut”--with a friend. The friend enlisted Honda, who hadn’t yet met Hatori, to play guitar in the group.


Honda had moved to New York in 1986 with her then-boyfriend, Dougie Bowne, who plays percussion on “Viva! La Woman.” A fledgling journalist who grew up in the Tokyo suburbs and had spent some time in France, Honda was encouraged to further pursue her recreational interests in music by some well-connected local musicians with whom she and Bowne socialized. (P-Funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell and trumpeter Dave Douglas, an associate of the noted avant-garde artist John Zorn, are among a number of prominent New York-based musicians who lend support on “Viva!”)

After Honda and Hatori left Leitoh Lychee to form Cibo Matto, they continued developing industry contacts simply by playing a lot and befriending other musicians. The pair fielded offers from a number of labels, including David Byrne’s Luaka Bop, before signing to Warner Bros. last year.

“We were very lucky,” Honda stresses. “But then we had a moment where we didn’t know how to handle things emotionally. We were freaked out. Like, ‘We have to make a video? Aagh!’ We were kind of naive in a sense. I mean, we started this band because we wanted to play shows. Recording is important, but we’re basically more of a live band.”

Since Honda and Hatori were inspired by a variety of musical trends and genres, and cut their teeth as performers in an eclectic environment, their songs incorporate the spirit and energy of a number of movements that started in clubs, from trip-hop (a hybrid of hip-hop and ambient pop with roots in the London club scene) to noise-rock and performance art.

“Their influences are so varied,” enthuses Janet Billig, president and owner of the management company that represents Cibo Matto. “No one else is combining so many diverse elements in such a distinctive way. Whenever people hear [Cibo Matto’s music], they think, ‘What is this? It’s so cool!’ ”

That diversity comes naturally, Honda says. “The music we do is always something that’s an extension of us, of our experience. It could be some story that someone told us or a movie that we saw. . . . I think in a lot of ways, our music is like a movie. There’s a setting, a texture, color--all things that we feel.”

Or things that they taste, as the case may be. Whatever qualms they may have about journalists who would dismiss them as food fetishists, the women in Cibo Matto don’t necessarily have plans to change their recipe for songwriting.

“We don’t even know what we’re gonna do on our next album,” Honda says, shrugging. “Because what we do hasn’t been done much, I think it throws people off. They may think it’s a joke or a gimmick, and they’ll put us in this box: ‘Sings songs about food.’ Or they put us into this ‘Japanese band’ basket, or this ‘girl band’ basket. I think that’s just lazy.

“This band is about Miho and Yuka, and doing things that we wanna do. That could mean that on our next album, every song will be about chocolate cookies. Or it’s also possible that the next album’s gonna be all about furniture. I don’t believe in closing doors to anything. I think it’s important that we stay very free.”


CIBO MATTO, Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Date: Saturday, 8 p.m. Price: $10. Phone: (310) 276-6168.


Hear Cibo Matto

To hear excerpts from Cibo Matto’s album “Viva! La Woman,” call TimesLine at 808-8463 and press *5724.

In 805 area code, call (818) 808-8463.