Yuzo Iwata | photo by Elana Iwata | courtesy of the artist
Chasing Daylight: The road to the final album from late West Philly guitar genius Yuzo Iwata
“Goodnight, Daylight Moon” is the final track on Yuzo Iwata’s final album Daylight Moon, released just months before the Philadelphia guitarist succumbed to kidney cancer last June. It is a beautiful, almost haunting song, with Iwata’s guitar soaring over the sparse arrangements.
It’s not a fitting end, since no end is truly fitting, especially when someone dies at just 58, leaving behind a wife, two kids, and a true community of friends. But if there has to be an end, it’s a perfect one, even if it does leave you wanting more.
Iwata never came to prominence in the way we typically talk about these things. In fact, up until this album, very few people knew him as a musician. Instead he was just Yuzo, a really nice and kind of quiet guy who was born in Japan and worked for decades at Essene, the natural market off of South Street. Sure, he was in the absolutely legendary Japanese psych rock band Maher Shalal Hash Baz back in the 80s, and sure he put out a stunningly brilliant solo album in 1999 called Drowning In The Sky, but it’s not like he went around telling people about it. There was a short tour of Scotland with Maher in the late 90s, but outside of that, barely any other shows until the last couple years.
His reemergence into music came on like a thunderclap. A lot of people were simply stunned, both by Iwata’s songs and the fact that he had been so inactive for so long. It was like he was coming out of nowhere, despite the fact that he had been playing music for decades.The shows he was able to play were packed and the first pressing of the album, released on local label Siltbreeze, sold out in a couple weeks, though Jordan Burgis — who recorded and helped produce Daylight Moon — said that it will be repressed later this year. The cancer came on during the mid-point of the recording process, which started in 2014. By the time the album was finally out he was very sick. The last show he played was at the Philadelphia Record Exchange in March of 2018.
Listening to Iwata play guitar is like stepping into a whole other universe of sound. Burgis, who is in the band Honey Radar, said that watching Iwata play was “just unbelievable.” He first started working with Iwata in late 2014. “We spent about a year just doing stuff by himself,” Burgis explained. “I was layering him on a quarter inch reel-to-reel four track, kinda building stuff the way he had been doing the last record with layers and distortion. We were making progress on those tracks and they were sounding cool, but still didn’t quite feel like an album to me.”
It was at that point that Iwata asked if he could bring a band by the recording studio. That group included Virginia Flemming on drums, Michael Heinzer on bass, and Zachary Sulat on guitar. Put together by Sulat, who was a longtime friend of Iwata’s, the band came out of a weekly jam session at Heinzer’s house.
Trying to describe Iwata’s style, Burgis said, “I think a lot of his music is about these kinds of… I don’t want to say happy accidents, but these things where they just fall in the right place even if doesn’t seem like it should be right.”
Heinzer told The Key that in that way Iwata was “very Bob Ross” in his approach to things. The comparisons to the PBS painter famous for encouraging unbridled creativity didn’t stop there. According to Heinzer, “He’d try and communicate things and sometimes they were metaphorical. Like, ‘The bass in this part should sound like a cloud.’”
Sulat was the band member who, as he put it, “would translate ‘Play a note that sounds like a cloud’ into ‘That’s an A minor.’” According to him, “[Iwata] would never tell you what note to play, he would tell you the impression that he wants. I learned a lot from that. Nothing’s ever forced.”
Heinzer described the recording process and just being in a band with Iwata as almost a spiritual experience. “Looking back, I can’t locate where he was coming from,” he told The Key. “It just seemed like he was always reaching for a place that we had to all get to somehow without explicitly telling us everything about how to get there.”
Burgis stressed that the album was almost all live first takes. Except on the track “Gigolo” on which Iwata layered a number of guitar solos, “everything else was just taking a step back and just letting them do their thing.” That was Iwata’s idea, according to Sulat, who explained that, “Yuzo’s music is all about intentionality.” Just about everything on Daylight Moon is from those full band recordings except for a segment taken from the original four track sessions and the song “Drone Beetle” which came from a recording Iwata made in ‘99. Burgis hinted that there may be more material released in the future from some of those old tapes.
While Burgis didn’t know Iwata before starting to work on this project, Heinzer, Sulat, and Flemming were all friends with him. In the mid-2000s Heinzer and Sulat both worked at The Marvelous record store on 40th and Walnut, where Iwata was a frequent customer. Sulat said they bonded over jazz records and the music of Syd Barrett.
At some point, a friend turned him onto Maher Shalal Hash Baz – “I just never heard anything quite like that,” he recalled – and soon after that he discovered that his regular customer was actually a member of the band back in the 80s. “I remember Yuzo giving me a flyer one day [for a show he was playing] and I was, like, ‘This guy is more interesting than he seems, and he already seems pretty interesting. I’m going to Google his name and see what’s up,’” Sulat explained. When he found out that connection he was flabbergasted.
Not long after that, a band that Sulat and Heinzer were in called Soft People opened up for Damo Suzuki from krautrockers Can at a show in October of 2007 at the Millcreek Tavern in West Philly. Iwata was in attendance and enjoyed their performance. One of the next times he came by the record shop they got to talking about playing together and a short-lived band called Sensual Abuse, which included Iwata, Sulat, and Heinzer, was born. While that group only played two shows it laid the foundations for future collaborations.
Despite not performing regularly for years leading up to Daylight Moon, Iwata was not inactive as a musician. While there weren’t more than a handful of actual concerts over the past two decades – one of the most memorable being at Brickbat Books off South Street in 2008, his first show in years – he did jam regularly with Sulat and others and occasionally would sit in with psych drone outfit Kohoutek. As Heinzer put it, “His head was always in a musical space. His ability to write music wasn’t dormant, it was always kind of happening in the background and then [he] would build up a well of ideas.”
Still, Iwata would never ask to play shows – according to Sulat, “Everybody knew he could make some really interesting music but he never forced it down anybody’s throat.” – so it took other people to make things happen. Garage great Dan Melchior did just that when he asked Tom Lax from Siltbreeze Records to get in touch with Iwata to see if he’d play a show when Melchior performed at the Philadelphia Record Exchange in February of 2014.
Iwata agreed and called up Sulat to see if he’d want to play alongside him. It was just going to be the two of them and then Iwata told Sulat that he’d like there to be a drummer but not someone who was very experienced at the instrument because he wanted the band to sound more raw and less polished. As it turned out, Sulat’s girlfriend Candace Price had just started learning drums so she was quickly recruited into this outfit. “We got a really good response from that show,” Sulat said. “It was really sloppy but that is what was expected.”
According to him, Lax loved the sound of the band so much that he asked them to record an album for Siltbreeze. That didn’t happen, due to Sulat having to take time off from playing music to help take care of his mom, who was suffering from cancer and eventually passed away later that year. Lax stayed interested. It was that show that sowed the seeds for what eventually became Daylight Moon.
Sulat told The Key that he had become very close to both Yuzo Iwata and his wife Jessie over the years despite being considerably closer in age to Iwata’s children, Natsuo and Elena. In fact, Sulat once found himself in a class at Temple University with Natsuo. That was after his first jam session with Iwata and as he put it, “the next day I go to class at Temple and I’m sitting next to this kid: same last name, looks eerily like Yuzo. So I [asked] ‘Is your dad named Yuzo?’ And he was, like, ‘What? How do you know that?!’ cause I had never talked to him before.” When Sulat explained, Natsuo was “not surprised at all” he said.
Before he started working on this project Burgis didn’t know Iwata. He had been recording bands at his house in Kensington – including stuff by Daniel Bachman and Bad Braids – and was hit up by Max Milgram from lo-fi weirdos Watery Love to see if he’d want to help out Iwata, who at that point hadn’t released anything in 15 years. Burgis was initially going to pass but as he put it, “Then I heard a track from Drowning in the Sky, Yuzo’s first record from ’99, and had to reassess. I was immediately drawn in by the sound going on there and was just curious about who this person was.”
They became very close over the almost four years, from when they first started working together until Iwata’s death. “I went from being a hired engineer to being deeply involved,” he told The Key. “He became an amazing friend. I would go out to visit him a couple times a month just to hang out and listen to records and drink coffee and talk music.”
The people contacted for this story brought up Iwata’s character and how comfortable they felt around him. According to Sulat, Iwata would often say that, “Sincerity is the only way you can touch a person’s heart.”
Iwata’s musical knowledge was immense. “He’s the type of person who could look at a Blue Note record and know from the catalog number roughly what date it was recorded and released,” according to Burgis. But it was more than that, he explained: “Just the way his mind worked and the things he was attracted to and the way he would present things. It was really special.” They’d listen to a lot of jazz and classical records at Iwata’s West Philly home and also to a ton of bands from Japan.
It was during this time that Burgis also became good friends with Iwata’s wife, Jessie. American by birth, she met Iwata in the early ‘80s when the two were in a class in Tokyo taught by the famous experimental dancer Min Tanaka. According to Burgis, many Japanese musicians from the psych scene were also very interested and involved in dance. When Jessie had to return home to Philadelphia, Iwata came with her. They married, had two kids, and settled in West Philly. Their daughter Elena took the pictures used in Daylight Moon and the ones in this article. Jessie Iwata is the Associate Director for Teaching Innovation for the Intellectual Heritage Program at Temple and is also involved in the ESL offerings at the university.
Their journey together was remembered in a funeral notice penned by Jessie in which she wrote: “Yuzo and I were able to move across borders and raise a family together in love and safety” and asked for people to donate in his name to RAICES, an organization that provides free and low-cost legal help to refugees mostly from South and Central America.
When Iwata found out about his cancer diagnosis, “it was kind of a mad rush to get the record ready” Burgis said. While he wanted to play more shows, especially to help promote the album, he wasn’t always able to commit because of his health. Still, he managed to make it to some, including a memorable one at the Record Exchange that was so packed that there was a crowd outside peering in through the windows.
“It was heavy,” Sulat said about that show. “He was sick. It was definitely somebody who had just gotten out of the hospital, moving real slow, always in pain. But then when we were playing nobody could tell. We were trying to get him to sit down but he wouldn’t.”
That tenacity, both emotional and physical, was something Heinzer found to be inspiring. “This whole thing was tied together for me,” he said. “This blitzkrieg of playing and recording and him trying to hold it all together while his health was falling apart. … At the time, you’re just in, but looking back on it, I can’t think of a better model of how to behave in that circumstance. The strength that he showed while also always being so humble.”
“I didn’t really know how serious it would be when I was going into it,” he added. “It was pretty intense and it kind of still is. There’s always this kind of void that we have to carry around. You have to make space for this void that’s not going to go away.”
Before Iwata passed away there was a flurry of ecstatic reviews of Daylight Moon.
Sulat said that one of his favorites spoke about how, “Interplay like this is a sound that can only be earned through relationships counted in decades.” He has been friends with Heinzer for almost two decades, was sharing bills with Flemming’s Bad News Bats in the mid-2000s, and met Iwata more than ten years ago.
“I’m just so grateful that he was able to see it come out, that he was able to play so many shows, and that he was really able to see the impact that it had,” Burgis said.
It was at the Record Exchange last July, just a couple weeks after Iwata’s death, that Burgis and his band Honey Radar got together with The Daylight Moon Band to perform a cover of the Maher Shalal Hash Baz song “Epignosis” in honor of Iwata. “It felt so special when we did it,” he told The Key. “We talked about including it on our West Coast tour but the more I thought about it the more I felt it should be a special thing for that occasion.”
Asked what music reminded him of Iwata, Sulat immediately brought up the Velvet Underground. “I can’t really listen to the Velvet Underground without thinking about playing with Yuzo,” he said. “Whenever I was playing with Yuzo I’d just try to imagine myself as in some version of the Velvet Underground. For me that’s the ideal of what you can do with a rock band. That’s the template. Any good music that’s been made with guitar has some connection to the Velvet Underground for me. Yuzo would 100 percent agree with that statement, that’s his reference point too.”
Iwata gifted his four track and some of his guitar pedals to Burgis, who has been using them during a recording session for the yet-unnamed band featuring members of Fursaxa and Espers. “I can’t think of any other group I’d be able to just emotionally feel good about getting into another project after Daylight Moon but it feels very special to have these things there,” Burgis explained.
Like the others, Heinzer also went to the Iwata house and sat down with his friend in the days before his death. He told The Key that Iwata told him about the first time he ever heard an electric guitar, which happened when he was a child at a county fair in Osaka: “It was really loud and he was pretty young. He said, ‘I will never forget that sound’ and I asked him, ‘Who was the band?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know, some crappy band.’” Heinzer was stunned. “It was literally just the tone of the guitar,” he said. “It wasn’t listening to the song structure so much but just how the pure tone made him feel. It unlocked a little piece of Yuzo and made me understand where he was coming from a little more.”
A lifetime spent embracing music and collecting records served a second purpose: it allowed Iwata to buy a family plot at Woodland Cemetery in West Philly. According to Sulat, “He called Disk Union in Tokyo a week before he died and two guys from Japan came to his house and paid him in cash for his record collection. He then the next day walked down to Woodland Cemetery and bought his grave, his stone, and graves for the next three generations of Iwatas.” Sulat recalled the last time he visited the house and how shocked he was when Iwata told him that he sold his prized record collection. “But then he started talking about it and I was, like, ‘Oh, you’re bragging!'” he said with a laugh.
It’s been more than six months since Iwata passed away. Burgis told The Key that he thinks of his friend daily: “I hear his voice all the time. Any time I’m listening to music or I see a show or reading something or see an image where I’m, like, ‘He would have enjoyed this.’ I can hear his commentary on things. It’s always with me.”