Whoever thought when “Know Your Chicken” came out in the mid-90s it would make such a mark on the culture? We’re talking about a surrealist pastiche about magenta chickens set to boom-bap breakbeats and muted trumpet, rapped by a pair of grinning Japanese girls so obsessed with eating that they named every song on their first record after food. It doesn’t exactly spell commercial success, especially for a then-unknown avant-pop act from New York City who’s name is Italian for “Crazy Food.” But then, nothing about Cibo Matto follows any pattern or well-established blueprint. From their formation in 1994 through to their latest record, Hotel Valentine, Cibo Matto has made any attempt at classification look very misguided.
Self-produced over a two-year period by Miho Hatori and Yuka C. Honda, Hotel Valentine is their most impressive release to date as it finds them constructing a rich concept album, a love story amid the ghosts traversing the hallways of a hotel. Underneath the lush sonic palate, they have created the soundtrack to an invisible film as they’ve continued to refine their sound and remain fully committed to an ethic of fun. “Hotel Valentine was the first song we wrote together for this album,” says Honda. “It thus represents the genesis of our concept or story, but in a way it seems that explaining too much would prevent listeners from coming to their own conclusions about each song as well as about the whole project. Yes, there is a ghost girl, a hotel, housekeeping ladies and things happen. But they are elusive in nature.”
Unlike most pretenders, Cibo Matto’s music is an entirely self-contained world, a look into the fantasy lives of Hatori and Honda. Both women were raised in Japan, but met in New York’s vivid 90s Lower East Side art scene that included John Zorn, Sean Lennon, Ornette Coleman, the Beastie Boys, and Marc Ribot, a brief period of colorful experimentation at the outset of the Giuliani administration. Soon after they met, the pair formed a punk band called Leitoh Lychee (frozen lychee nut), which eventually morphed into the post-genre freakout that Cibo Matto would become. Within six months, David Byrne came to see them at a show and Warner Brothers picked them up off the strength of one self-released cassette tape.
This initiated one of the most colorful careers of the 90s. Cibo Matto exploded internationally, touring worldwide and releasing two classic records, 1996’s Viva! La Woman and 1999’s Stereo Type A. Their live shows and albums were marked by wild experimentation, incorporating hip-hop, Brazilian music, African and Latin jazz, and pop into their unclassifiable mix. They collaborated extensively with Yoko Ono, as well as the renowned French director Michel Gondry, who lent his visionary style to cement them in the budding consciousness of the MTV generation with his legendary video for “Sugar Water.” They sold over 100,000 of both of albums and graced seven magazine covers. Then, in a bizarre twist of fate, many fans discovered Cibo Matto performing in an infamous scene on an early episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Spin magazine included the debut album in their “100 Best Albums of the ‘90s” list, and Time magazine picked it in their list of the “Best Hip Hop Albums of All Time.” Their adoring fanbase grew until 2001, when the band announced an extended hiatus.
During that 10-year interval, both women worked on their solo careers. Honda released three solo albums on Tzadik Records, produced Martha Wainwright’s album Come Home to Mama, and co-produced the Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band’s Take Me to the Land of Hell, along with Yoko and Sean Lennon. Hatori stayed busy, signing on the Gorillaz hit track ‘19-2000’, released a solo record and started a collaborative project with Smokey Hormel called Smokey and Miho that yielded two albums. She appeared on the Gorillaz’s self-titled record, Handsome Boy Modeling School’s debut So… How’s Your Girl?, and the Beastie Boys’ Hello, Nasty.
Following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, Cibo Matto announced a reunion at a benefit concert in New York City. From that point, they continued to perform and tour sporadically while working on new material. Says Honda, “Having spent some time apart, we became more aware of our magical chemistry, our magnetic bond. We both realized we had unfinished business.” On February 14, 2011 a Cibo Matto light bulb flickered and they struck upon the idea of an invisible film, a score without motion, an album called Hotel Valentine. Hotel Valentine is a metaphor, a question, an answer, an idea, a feeling; A strange and vivid scene. “Hotel Valentine is the cinematic bricolage of Yuka and me,” Says Hatori. “Our medium is music. For me, making an album is like raising a child. We don’t know what kind of person (story) they will end up to be.”