Interview: Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule)

I did another interview with Yasutaka Nakata recently and you can read the feature I wrote in The Japan Times. I was pleased with the way this one went, and it was made easier by just how musically rich and interesting Capsule’s new album, Caps Lock, is.

It’s the weirdest thing Capsule have done since before Flash Back and it’s also the most Shibuya-kei, largely because it captures the experimental, eclectic spirit of Shibuya-kei’s best stuff rather than just pastiching that sort of bland, loungey boutique-pop sound that I still hold mostly responsible for killing it as a living scene. The track Control seems to be intended as the lead track but Warner have only put up a shortened “crippleware” version of the video, so I’m not going to link to it on here (this sort of behaviour must not be encouraged). It’s an obvious choice for the “single” though, being (along with Shift) one of the closest things to a pop song on the album, and also being representative of the creative way Nakata messes with Toshiko’s vocals.

It’s interesting that just as he takes Capsule’s club influences and pushes them over into Perfume, he’s also mashing up Toshiko’s vocals to an unprecidented extent just as he’s letting Perfume sing in their natural voices. It always makes sense to look at any of Nakata’s projects in the context of what he’s doing in his other projects.

Personally, it’s the track 12345678 that I think is the creative core of the album, with its layers of samples and synth-loops casually shifting up and down in the mix. It pushes each just to the point of being irritating before showing you that no, actually this is very musical, see? If Perfume’s Level3 is Nakata showing us what we already know he can do very well, Caps Lock is him showing us how great he can be when he’s exploring new ground. If he can manage to find a way of integrating some of these ideas into Perfume without compromising their essential poppiness, it could be truly wonderful.

I have another, shorter, piece on Capsule appearing (already appeared?) in Time Out Tokyo, who are apparently putting out a paper edition for the first time. It’ll go over the same basic ground as the JT piece, but with more Time Out editorial pizzazz (something I’m thoroughly opposed to: I’m only happy when my work’s tediously dry and intellectual), but in the meantime, here’s an edited transcript of the interview I did. Special thanks as usual to Ryotaro Aoki, who took on the always difficult task of translating Nakata and myself:

CAR: So how did you go about making the new album?

NAKATA: The way I made the new album was very much how when I started making music.

CAR: What do you mean?

NAKATA: Recently with Capsule and my other work, I’ve been making music for soundtracks, commercials and all these things that are pre-arranged. With this new album, none of these songs are tied up with commercials or movies, so it’s making music for music’s sake, very much like when I started out.

With my more recent work over the last couple of albums, I was making the songs specifically for a DJ setting or a club setting, whereas with this album, I didn’t really think about the situation or how the songs would be played, so in that sense too, it’s similar to the way we started out.

CAR: You’ve moved to a new label and management, changed the design motif and changed the sound, so is there a sense in which this new album is a reboot of the band?

NAKATA: I’ve had some changes in my life and now seemed like a good time to change everything. I’d wanted to change the logo to all caps for a long time, and now was an opportunity to do that. I don’t feel like I’ve changed the fundamentals of what Capsule do. I wasn’t really thinking about anything. I just made music freely and this is what came out.

CAR: Your last few albums were very club-orientated but recently that club sound is more apparent in your work with Perfume and to a lesser extent Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Caps Lock feels a bit like a reaction to or a shadow of that shift in your other projects.

NAKATA: It seems that way when you think of the other projects as the centrepiece, but when you think of Capsule as the centrepiece, what I’m doing is just doing the things that I can only do with each project and taking them to their limit. With Capsule, we don’t have to play shows or anything, so I can decide what I want to do pretty much on my own.

CAR: You’ve pushed some things a lot further on this album, especially the degree to which you’ve processed and manipulated Toshiko’s vocals.

NAKATA: The processed vocals stems from the fact that we don’t have to play live. If we were performing on stage, I’d have to think about how we’d be able to do them live, but we don’t have that responsibility now. With Capsule, we don’t have any rules, so it frees me up to do what I want to do.

CAR: How does your working relationship with Toshiko compare to the other singers you work with?

NAKATA: It feels like we’re playing one instrument together in the studio. She’s not singing things that are pre-determined by me. It’s more like we’re playing an instrument that we wouldn’t be able to play unless I had her with me. With Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, it’s more like a collaboration where we talk about it and work together. With Capsule, one way of looking at it might be if Toshiko was a pen and I’m using her to draw something, but because it’s that pen, it influences what sort of thing I draw.

CAR: The way the album uses the motif of a computer keyboard gives it almost the feeling of a concept album. Where did that idea come from?

NAKATA: The keyboard motif came out of the change in the album title and I used the keys as symbols. I had the logo and the title first, and then after making the music I came up with the titles, but at the same time, I wanted there to be a kind of story to it, so the I chose the words from the titles so they’d read together as a sort of story.

CAR: You’ve also done a lot more with samples this time round.

NAKATA: A lot of music these days is being made on machines that are built to make music, which is very easy, so I thought it would be interesting to make music from sounds that weren’t designed to make music. I had a library of samples that I used, but some of the samples I could make myself in the studio I made myself.

CAR: Do you have any thoughts on new directions you’d like to go in the future?

NAKATA: I’d be interested in doing film scores for different kinds of films. I like science fiction, so it would be interesting to do soundtracks for films about unknown worlds. It wouldn’t have to be sci-fi, it could be fantasy or something like that.

CAR: How about internationally?

NAKATA: Like I said earlier, I’d be interested in doing more soundtrack work. Maybe someone reading this will think, “Oh right, let’s do something together!” I don’t really see myself as performing on stage and travelling the world, but movies transcend nationalities and countries, so that might be a good way to get my music out there on a global scale.

CAR: With Caps Lock it feels like the album is a bit more “composerly” as it were, with more emphasis on the layers of sound rather than the impact of the sound hitting you in the face.

NAKATA: This time with the album, when you listen to it all the way through, there are moments and sounds that appear that you can only experience if you sit down with the album, take your time and listen to the album as a whole in one sitting.

CAR: Are there any particular moments that you’re really pleased with how they came out?

NAKATA: It’s hard to pick out particular moments. I took time over each individual sound this time round. There isn’t a person there in the sense of someone on stage performing it, but it sounds like there’s a person there. It’s like arranging dominoes, and all you do is flick a switch to make the first one topple over, and then something cool happens. The music itself is automated, but there’s a person behind it fundamentally. A lot of people think of computer music as being automated, but you need a person there, hammering out the details. I wanted to show the gears in the music and how it works together.

CAR: It feels like very much the opposite of the trend in “EDM” which seems so popular in the USA now.

NAKATA: The recent trend in how people consume music is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that, I wanted to make an album that’s very layered, that you have to listen to carefully.

CAR: Like people with their iPods constantly set on shuffle?

NAKATA: Not just like shuffle, but on YouTube, you can just go to a particular moment that you think is cool in a song or an album, and they have these digest versions where you have three-to-five seconds of songs lined up together, and the trend these days is that you have to make something where you can get people’s attention within that three or five, or even one second. The album I wanted to make this time, I wanted to do something more layered, with more density in the sound, and you can only really experience that density if you listen to it in full, because there are moments before that where there’s no sound. You can only pick up those feelings and those details by listening start to finish.

CAR: So you’d like people to listen to Capsule’s new album in a different way?

NAKATA: Lately the feeling of plunging into the unknown, of not knowing what’s going to happen next in music has become weakened these last couple of years. Personally, I want to take the idea of listening to music slowly, all the way through, and I’d like more people to be able to listen like that. Take the example of SoundCloud, where you can see the waveform visually, so you can see when the song gets really loud or dynamic. When you hear that part, you already knew it was coming, and you can play only the most exciting parts.

CAR: Soundcloud actually parodied that form of listening with their April Fool’s gag, where they inserted these markers into the waveforms of songs saying “Here’s the drop!” It got everyone really angry until they realised the joke.

NAKATA: Ah, but of course I do that as well. With Perfume, it’s all about making songs when people hear for the first time, they know when it’s going to be the big chorus or the dynamic. It’ll be as if they already know the song. With Capsule’s new album, if you skip to a certain point in a song, you won’t know what’s going on, but with my other projects, you can skip anywhere and it’ll be a cool moment. I can do that with them, so with Capsule I wanted to do something different.

Even with Capsule, I’ve made music like that, but since I’m doing that with my other projects, it seems like a good time to do something new with Capsule. If Capsule was the only project I was doing, I probably wouldn’t have made an album like this.

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12 Comments

Filed under Features, Interviews

12 responses to “Interview: Yasutaka Nakata (Capsule)

  1. (Side note, when I told my wife about the way this album was made with no expectation of live performances or club play, and how Toshiko’s vocals were studio-effected beyond any possibility of live reproduction, her immediate reaction was, “Ah, Toshiko must be pregnant!” although I have far too much journalistic integrity to engage in such salacious speculation.)

    • alfa

      “Ah, Toshiko must be pregnant!”:)… Amazing interwiew Martin

    • Nice interview!

      Oh it’s interesting that he’s so into film scores. I wonder what his opinions on doing a soundtrack for a video game would be? That could work well with how he wants to score something sci-fi/fantasy.

      On the other hand, I have no integrity and this Toshiko thing sounds like great speculation!

      I’m not one to usually care much for celebrity gossip but capsule has been an exception for me.

  2. Well this confirms a lot for my own taste preferences. This answer by Nakata: “The recent trend in how people consume music is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that, I wanted to make an album that’s very layered, that you have to listen to carefully.” is EXACTLY how I want to listen to all music, and nails precisely why I appreciate Nakata so much–there’s a LOT to hear in this music. When I started a blog, I *named* it “Deep Music Listening”, and highly attentive listening is the entire point. Our clearandrefreshing host ifmartin calls it out explicitly, “composerly”, which is just what first heard and most appreciate about Nakata’s whole body of work.

    • Ah, and another thought. It’s nice to see he’s thinking in the way of the album as a whole experience and careful song juxtaposition rather than a random mashup of songs. It’s taking advantage of the medium of a CD to its fullest, I think – much like a good video game might do – which thinks just as much about its levels and stages and mechanics as it does in how they fit together into the whole game, and connect, so the parts form something unique in their whole as they do when separated.

      Excited to see what he comes up with for capsule next!

  3. btw, I’m completely ***sick*** with envy. ifmartin sat down and talked to Nakata. Holy ————— !!! To my musical mind, that’s the equivalent of saying “Well, I went and had lunch with Lennon and McCartney last week, we talked about REVOLVER.” Congratulations, well done, and thank you, ifm.

  4. Yeah, it is cool you are speaking with Nakata. His work ethic and creative career is a very interesting point of study and it’s also quite inspirational – not necessarily confined to music, but creative works as a whole.

  5. I Know I’m super late in responding to this thread, but I have to weigh in on the new Capsule CD. It was by far the biggest disappointment of 2013 for me. I don’t care what Yasutaka says or how he wants to justify it, but that album from beginning to end is a bunch of pretentious garbage. It is void of everything that Yasutaka does so well, which is create interesting melodic hooks and beat them into your head in a million different beautiful ways. Instead, it sounds like a lot of blipping and bleeping and him sitting in his studio playing a joke on us all. There’s not one single song on that album that can even be called a song. It’s totally the antithesis to what Capsule has done with all their previous albums and feels a lot like the betrayal that Radiohead gave us when they decided to abandon their rock roots and go electronic after OK computer. In their case, at least there was some songs on Kid A that were tolerable, but with Yasutaka, I think what happened is simply this: He was overworked in 2013 and had to put out this album fast. He poured ALL his creative energy into KPP’s album, which by far is the best album he worked on in 2013 (and I’m a die hard Perfume fan, but LEVEL 3 was basically a bunch of singles that have been out for a few years, A B-side in Daijobanai, Mirai No Museum, and only about two real new songs), and didn’t have time to really develop a proper Capsule album. I really couldn’t believe I even bought that album to support him. And Yasutaka is my hero and I love EVERYTHING he does…except this new album by Capsule. It’s total studio masturbation, as far as I’m concerned. And anyone who is inclined to think or believe it’s worth anything is probably just being pretentious or trying to look cool to all his or her glow stick waving EDM otomodachis. It’s time Yasutaka gets back to being Yasutaka. I hope this happens soon.

    • Well that’s certainly an opinion. Obviously my position on Caps Lock is very different, but I sort of agree with your analysis in a lot of ways as well.

      You say there are no songs that deserve to be called a song. Yeah, sort of, although I don’t think “music” and “song” have to be the same thing (and related to that, “melody” and “music” don’t have to be the same thing either). Blips and bleeps can be music and I like the music on Caps Lock a lot, even if not much of it is what you could easily call a song.

      It is kind of the antithesis of what Capsule have been doing on their last five or so albums, but then again, the world already has More More More and World of Fantasy. That music’s not going anywhere and I don’t need Nakata to make those albums again. Of his 2013 material, Perfume’s Level3 covers a lot of what he’s been doing with recent Capsule pretty well anyway. Obviously that’s not to say you should like Caps Lock, but from my position, I’d rather hear Nakata try to do something different than stick in his comfort zone.

      Nakata’s very good at making hooks and dance beats and Caps Lock isn’t really good at those things, but it’s very good at a lot of the stuff Nakata’s previously been pretty bad at, like texture, layered depth and richness of sound. I don’t think that’s pretentious, it’s just a way of treating sound, and on this album he does it in a way I found fascinating and engaging. Given they way he tends to spin ideas off from one project into his other projects, I’d be fascinated to see what might happen in a future Perfume album or something if he combined what he’s picked up in terms of this more layered sound with some of the catchy hooks and beats we already know he can do. That said though, I don’t think that being catchy is inherently a better thing to be than being obtuse and experimental. The world is big enough to accommodate both.

      • I love your response! Very well balanced in your assessment of what Capsule’s new album could be seen as trying to accomplish. I definitely hear what you are saying about it being a kind of layered experimentation of music, if you will. However, perhaps the transition to this was so extreme for me that it’s hard to get my bearings on if this is actually worth listening to or not in any future releases by Nakata. I mean, when I listen to a Perfume or Capsule song, I want to feel a melody take me someplace that at times in the past have made me cry just from how wonderful it sounds. I want to feel something emotionally, not be engaged in a way that, sure, is intellectually curious, but has no soul to it. That is what Capsule’s new album lacked: A beating heart.
        I’ve listened to Perfume for six years now and Capsule almost as long. I just got back from Japan where I saw Perfume play in the Tokyo Dome on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. It was nothing short of a religious experience that changed my life in so many ways. It was one of the most awesome displays of melodic awesomeness I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to hundreds of concerts in my life and played in hundreds of concerts. I saw on people’s faces all around me at the Dome a real sense of happiness. I can’t imagine they would have been smiling if it was this album’s “music” that was being played at the Dome at full blast. I am hoping deeply that Yasutaka gives me another fifty albums that sound like Player, More More More, and Game, etc. If he includes some layering on new songs, great, but as long as it doesn’t take away from his ability to perfectly capture my heart in a single melodic riff.

      • I get what you’re saying. Music can be emotionally engaging in different ways though, as I’m sure you’d agree. I suppose I relate to music more through the creative process, or at least what I can what I can discern of it from listening. One example is when I’m listening to something and the music seems to be defiantly going against what you know is expected, that gives me a rush, and when the music wrong-foots me, there’s this sense of dizzy disorientation that’s a bit like finding yourself in an unfamiliar new place or world and needing to explore it and work out its rules. What got me from that interview was the way Nakata talks about exploring new worlds, which got me thinking, “Ah, that’s exactly how I feel about music a lot of the time!”

        There’s music that brings you along with it, working your emotions, and that can be incredibly powerful, especially in an arena setting where there are hundreds or thousands of people all being swept along on the same wave (comparing it to a religious experience is apt). But there’s also music that presents itself for you to explore at your own pace and in your own way. In that situation, the emotion comes from your own sense of the unknown, which is a more subtle or abstract sort of pleasure perhaps, but Nakata’s analogy to sci-fi or fantasy is a good one for me in the sense that a lot of the time it’s the sensation of exploring a different world more than the story and characters themselves that is what stays with you. Anyway, I’m rambling — one of the most interesting things about being a music journalist is thinking about why we like certain things though.

  6. Pingback: Memories of Shibuya

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