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Japan's Acid Mothers Temple have a problem with being consistently excellent

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After almost two decades, the ever-morphing psychedelic collective Acid Mothers Temple has achieved their ultimate goal: They are now Japan's answer to the Grateful Dead.

This analogy doesn't have much to do with the band's sound: Though Acid Mothers Temple includes several avowed fans of Jerry Garcia's cadre, the group's deep grooves, bristling guitars and seasick synthesizers owe more to alternate antecedents. There's the lissome gush of John Cipollina's guitar, from the first few Quicksilver Messenger Service albums. There's the proto-metal of Blue Cheer, Hawkwind and Black Sabbath. They embrace the giddy squall of Frank Zappa, too. Those are the brightest stains on the Temple's blotter paper.

Acid Mothers Temple have achieved their status by being as road-reliable as the Dead were until Garcia's 1995 death. Even if you weren't part of the caravan that followed the band, you could rest easy in the knowledge that, at some point during the year, the Dead would probably come to or near your town. Likewise, fans of the Temple can trust that these longhaired freaks will arrive soon enough. If you're a fan, you've been able to plug their $10 tickets into your annual budget for at least the last decade.

It's impressive for any overseas cult band to launch large-scale stateside tours every year, let alone one that trucks in what bandleader Kawabata Makoto deems "ultimate trip music." But that consistency comes at a price: Because they return to the States like clockwork, there's little urgency to see them play. I'm a longtime fan, but I've often missed their shows simply by telling myself, "Well, they'll be back around soon enough." When Keiji Haino, another psychedelic demigod from Japan, visited the States last year, however, it was a must-see event. Scarcity necessitates demand.

The Temple's devoted audience has stalled in size. Scroll through the band's concert history for the past five years, and a clear pattern emerges: They tend to follow the same tour route, playing small to mid-size venues in major markets. After a string of annual stops at Local 506, the Temple will stop at the similarly sized Kings this time. Maybe they'll try The Pinhook next?

"I see them every time they play in Boston, and every time it's at the Upstairs at The Middle East," admits John Brien, head of Important Records, Acid Mothers Temple's American label since 2003. That club holds 194 people. "I remember one show of theirs being booked at the downstairs venue, which is three times the capacity—something of an optimistic gesture. It was only half filled."

The amount of music that Kawabata and the gang have released since 1996 presents a similar conundrum. They're so prolific that they're easy to ignore, a signal so insistent that it's begun to feel like noise. Not taking into account the mountain of offshoots, side projects and solo discs they've issued, the main Temple has released more than 70 studio or live albums in less than two decades. Even Pitchfork gave up on reviewing their new material eight years ago.

Most of those 70-plus releases tend to stick to a template, anyway. Extended guitar solos by Kawabata or one of his colleagues (lately, Tabata Mitsuru) spiral over a sturdy, no-nonsense rhythm section, intercut with synthesizer and modulator tones that suggest interstellar communications. It's great stuff, but it's of a specific ilk that tends to be heard only by fans of similarly styled instro-astro-rock. (Part of their current tour will include an appearance at the Austin Psych Fest, where they'll share a bill with Bardo Pond and Dead Meadow). Without a knowledgeable guide, this wall of weirdness can seem impenetrable, even unapproachable—a world of uninviting sound, spiraling by itself.

They've done this all to themselves, of course, creating a cycle that's easier for listeners to slip out of than slip into. But if Acid Mothers Temple are going to stay the course for another decade or more, they're going to need new blood in their fanbase, Brien admits. Returns can only diminish for so long.

"There's a lot of opportunity for Acid Mothers Temple to find a new audience," says Brien, "but doing that is harder than it seems. It requires a bigger investment or more advertising than a label of this size is capable of doing. As long as I keep doing this the same way, it'll just be preaching to the choir."

But Warner Bros. isn't likely to take a chance on these weirdos. What Acid Mothers Temple requires is the sort of serendipitous break that have helped other outlandish acts break past their own circles—prominent film placement, perhaps, or as an unexpected but appropriate opener on a major tour. Brien references Sigur Rós, whose spot in a Cameron Crowe film and tour with Radiohead pushed their majestic Icelandic pop toward the masses: "That sort of thing has a lasting impact," he says.

Granted, Sigur Rós heart-swelling, slow-motion music resonates in a way that Acid Mothers Temple's goggle-eyed, lysergic freak-show won't. But perhaps AMT can get the respect of the community that spawned the Dead and their many acolytes. They certainly tour enough to survive on that circuit.

"I've thought about that for years with them," Brien exclaims of their potential association with the jam-band scene. "They'd be a strong candidate for blowing up in that world."

So are you listening, Bob Weir or Phil Lesh, Trey Anastasio or JoJo Hermann? Are you ready to make the long trip that much more strange?

This article appeared in print with the headline "Trip finder."

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