Interview with Japan Blues


Text: Shigeru Nakamura

Please let me know your music career. Besides Japanese music, what kind of music made your current music style? I am curious about what did you listen to before you got into Japanese music.

Apart from five years working as a gardener, most of my working life has been in record distribution. I’ve seen trends come and go, with all their tiny off-shoot tribes, and artists make the leap from a small-run white label to international renown. My childhood purchase of a Stomu Yamashita LP (after I saw The Red Buddah Theatre live), was followed by soul, punk, new wave, jazz, folk, psyche, “ethnic” music, a dip into pretty much every genre. Shipping house and hip-hop in the 90s, I used to DJ both, but was never technical, I don’t beat mix – wish I could, but I’ve never had two decks and a mixer to myself. It was around the time we were working on the Moondog compilation at Honest Jon’s that I started to explore Japanese music in more depth. Moondog’s first wife, Suzuko, was half Japanese, and they experimented with Moondogian takes on some Japanese styles. I’d already been to Japan a few times, and was slowly collecting and starting on my research.

In interview on BOILER ROOM, you said that you came across with Japanese music when you had a business trip to Japan. Please let me know the name of Japanese record(s) you came across with at that time. Why and how impressive is it?

On that trip, I had no idea what I was looking for. I went to a record shop in Shinjuku (now gone), and fished out some reissues of Group Sounds and Takeshi Terauchi’s first LP. Takeshi’s album grabbed my attention more than the cheesy GS material, especially his raucous blend of surf and minyo. I am still an avid minyo collector, spurred on by my friends and mentors in Tokyo, Riyo Mountains. I also heard my first Tatsu Yamashita LPs back then.

You recommended some Japanese records in Boilerroom interview and that is really interesting even for Japanese like us. How do you dig Japanese music?

I followed that minyo sound into all popularized versions, from the 30s to the 80s, that sound led me to enka, 60s beat, and psych, 70s soul, disco, new wave and techno-kayo. Friends often comment on the wonderful studio productions and the clear sound generally found in these recordings. I also fell in love with the voices. I’m always drawn to music that has an edge to it, something out of the ordinary. I equally get a kick out of the strict kata of enka, the wild rant of 60s rock, the easy professionalism of Happy End, and the naïve looseness of new wave.

I assume the internet, like Discogs, has big influence on many people who want to dig rare and precious music. Please let us know how important for you the Internet is to find new music including Japanese music. How does it change your music life?

The internet is vital for researching music old and new, but of course now there are many other people looking for Japanese records, it’s more competitive than when I could find the cheap oddity on ebay, those golden days are over. Now prices are through the roof., and so are the postage costs. It’s sometimes better looking in the record shops, where you might get recommendations, and if you’re lucky, a discount. When I started my show on NTS, over three years ago, there was very little knowledge about, but a lot of curiosity.

When I first heard tracks you made, I felt that those are inspired not only by kind of old and traditional music in Japan, but also by synthe-pop music like YMO. Especially that’s really clear on your first album. For me, it’s beautiful collage of music which comes from different ages and genre. Could you explain what lies at the base of the album? Also, I would like to know how those music inspire you.

Kraftwerk were always a great influence, so YMO was a logical step, though I’m picky with their material. – the members of YMO and their careers outside the band are more varied and interesting. After making edits aimed at the dancefloor, I wanted to make something more atmospheric. Using sounds from the archive, we built the base for tracks, and then improvised. The general sense of the album is more about the dark underbelly of Japan, not the sweet tourist stuff, but expressing a sense of loss for what Japan (and the rest of the world) has become. Alex Kerr’s book Dogs and Demons spoke of the concreting of Japan’s rivers – the more one loves the country, the more one realizes what’s been lost. I love the drones and rhythms of minyo, the pentatonic scale, and the lineage that this has with most of Japanese popular music in one way or another.

Recently not only music from Japan but also many from other countries and regions have been paid more and more attention. I personally think it’s partly because those music are kind of exotic, or uncommon. However, I think that your approach to that seems different from others. Do you agree with that? if so, what makes your music unique?

It seems that some people are getting tired of the old formulas in music, hence the huge interest in music from other countries to one’s own. I do feel my approach is different to others, I’m not keen to pander to whims of fashion, Japanese music isn’t “just for Christmas”. On NTS I might play a track that DJs will swoon over, but then I’ll also play some completely un-hip sounds too, I always want to have a full range on the show. Previous musical influences have shaped my attitude to what I do now, whether playing records or making them.In my own productions and remixes, I’ve always tried to incorporate something Japanese into a track, sometimes field recordings, or other obscure sounds. To contradict that, a remix I’ve just done is purely Moroccan.

Every time I try to find image of you, I realize that you always put “Omen (Japanese traditional mask)” on your face. Is there any specific reason to do that? Given the name “Japan Blues”, I guess there must be specific reason why you put “Omen”. Is it to show something like your identity?

Unlike most other people on the planet, I’m a lousy self-promoter. Though I wanted to progress in my task of promoting and playing Japanese music, I wasn’t necessarily happy to stamp my face all over the internet, there’s too much of that kind of thing without me adding to it. So I first picked up an antique paper-mache mask. After that it became a little addictive, I bought a load of kids’ plastic masks, not just devils, but Ultraman too. These days mystery is more important than ever, with everyone sharing pictures of their meals and every tedious little detail of their lives. We need more mystery. As for the devil, well, who’s an angel?

Many Japanese toys are shown in the Boilerroom interview. Besides music, are you interested in other cultures in Japan?

Utterly – I quickly became hooked on kaiju, as Japan is unquestionably the world leader in creating the most unusual monsters. It was impossible to resist getting these mad creations. Though of course, I have been to Mandarake stores and seen the insane prices older dolls go for. I’m a huge fan of Japanese cinema, from the earliest experiments, to the classics like Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, Imamura, etc., the 60s underground, – and now Kore-eda Hirokazu – who is the best modern director in my humble opinion. I haven’t read much of the new authors, but am obsessed with writers like Kawabata, Dazai, Mishima… I’m always curious about many aspects of Japanese culture and history. Don’t even start talking about the food!

Please let me know if there are any other interesting music (or artists, bands) from Japan or other Asian countries. any recommendation?

Whatever I find interesting, you’re going to hear on the show, whether it’s old women on a remote island singing a capella folk songs, chin don, or kid’s cartoon music – I’m always looking. I am partial to Korean sounds, and have a load of other Asian sounds, mostly 60s and 70s gear, a lot of beat and pop, sometimes covers of Japanese artists. Korean psych is something else.

How did you know him and what made you decide to release his album?

I first met Iku when I played at Soi48’s night at B-Wave Kabuki-cho, Shinjuku – a very important area, though I know its history is all gone now. We got chatting, and he said he normally lived in Berlin, so when I went to Germany, we met up and spent some time. After that, I organised a gig for him and Pekka Airaksinen, at Cafe OTO in London. It was a magical evening, they both played amazing sets. To promote the gig, I asked Iku for some music to play on my show. These uplifting, highly original pieces moved me so much, that I asked to release them. I really wasn’t sure how the public would take Iku’s sound, but was really pleasantly surprised when some people went mad for it. We are planning some more releases.