Monthly Archives: June 2014

Interview: Keiji Yamagishi and Saori Kobayashi

An interesting interview I did for The Japan Times recently about making music for video games. The two composers I spoke to, Keiji Yamagishi and Saori Kobayashi, both had very different musical backgrounds (Yamagishi was a rocker and Kobayashi is classically trained) but both their careers began more or less in the 8-bit era (Kobayashi only at the tail end with the Sega Game Gear) and went on from there, so they sort of bookend what I tend to think of as gaming’s “golden age”, with Yamagishi’s work on Ninja Gaiden at one end and Kobayashi’s on Panzer Dragoon Saga at the other.

The way the article came out in the end was a sort of breakdown of some of the key challenges and restrictions that make game music what it is, although it’s interesting to note how that seems to be changing now, with the growing need to make music more responsive in real time to what the player is doing. An interesting little side discussion that didn’t make the cut of the final article was when Yamagishi and I found out that we are both great admirers of the Commodore Amiga, which really was revolutionary in terms of game sound at the time. The Atari ST got all the plaudits for its sequencing software, but in terms of game sound, the Amiga’s “Paula” chip with its four sample-based audio channels (which you could double to eight if you were willing to accept a bit of slowdown and lower quality) made it revolutionary, even compared to machines like the Mega Drive that used the same Motorola 68000 central processor. The Amiga also had its own community of music creators, consisting it seemed primarily of Scandinavians making mad techno music. This parallels in some ways the current 8-bit community, although where the Amiga scene was trying to push the current technology beyond its limits, the current 8-bit crowd are resurrecting or trying to digitally recreate old technology that has already been long surpassed, purely for aesthetic reasons.

Anyway, I enjoyed doing the interview, so have a read of it on The Japan Times web site here.

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Interview: Blonde Redhead

Yeah, they aren’t a Japanese band, but one of them is from Japan, they’re playing here tomorrow and more importantly it’s an article I wrote, so yah boo sucks to you. Anyway, I interviewed Amedeo from Blonde Redhead the other week and had a nice chat about their forthcoming album and touring Japan, which you can read all about in The Japan Times here.

Personally, I’m rather less of a fan of Penny Sparkle than I am of its predecessors, but I very much liked the alternate version of the title track that appeared on the We Are The Works In Progress compilation, so it was heartening to hear that they’re working with the same producer. It’s always very scary talking to musicians I’m genuinely a fan of, especially on the phone, a piece of technology of which a have a paralysing fear, so it was a relief to find Amedeo so accommodating as I gibbered incoherently through the static. Anyway, like I said, this article isn’t really fully within the remit of this blog so I shan’t bang on any further. Have a read if you think this is the sort of thing you might be interested in.

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Oversleep Excuse: Slowly Better

Tokyo-based indie quartet Oversleep Excuse might sound a bit familiar to regular readers of this blog, and if so, you can probably chalk that down to the presence of vocalist Matthew Guay, whose other band Glow and the Forest have graced these pages in the past, and who has over the years developed both a vocal style and a set of songwriting habits that mark his influence in quite a distinctive way. You get the sense that in its own purely melodic (and melancholic) terms, Slowly Better would serve perfectly well as a Glow in the Forest song, but at the same time, Oversleep Excuse are a band with four members, who each exert an influence over the group’s sound. The most obvious and distinctive characteristics that set the Oversleeps apart are the way the piano sits at the fore and the appearance of steel drum interludes. More subtly, but in a way perhaps more importantly, Adam Gyenes’ drumming lends a completely different texture to the song, not simply driving the song forward but rather stroking it, like waves lapping against the shore with the song riding their ebb and flow. The song is a taster from the band’s new album of the same title, which looks well worth checking out.

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emulsion: elephant shrews don’t nag you

An emulsion is a mixture of usually immiscible liquids (for example oil and water). Something that holds these substances together is called an emulsifier. Apply these principles to music, and you might end up with something like the band Emulsion (they don’t like using the capital “E” but this is my web site and as far as is humanly possible we use grammar here).

On Elephant Shrews Don’t Nag You, opening track Flyingdutchman lays out the substances for today’s experiment, setting up a clatter of electronic beats as a backdrop for the harsh, scratchy guitar that defines the album’s sound. Second track, The Last Blink of F, follows it up by stepping down to a simpler, less busy dance beat, the same scratchy guitar, and an off-key, new wave melody that occasionally disintegrates into postpunk discord. Insofar as there is an emulsifying agent for all this, it’s the group’s two members themselves, controlling the disparate elements’ phase shifts between the harmonic and discordant, rhythmic and arrhythmic. It’s clearly music that doesn’t like to be categorised, but there are enough of particles of postrock suspended in it that that genre makes good sense as a starting point when listening to the four tracks that make up the CD edition. It’s also energetic and fun in a way that clever music like this often fails to be, so well worth spending a bit of time with.

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She Talks Silence: Just Like War

It’s been far too long since we’ve heard anything from lo-fi indie-postpunk duo She Talks Silence, so the news that they have a fresh album coming out soon is welcome. If this cut from the album is anything to go by, Ami and Minami seem to be continuing to develop the more discordant, almost psychedelic strain of their sound that we saw on 2012’s Long Ways. Just Like War sees the duo in full-on 80s 4AD mode with a grinding, almost industrial, minimal synth bass, and vocals that sometimes sound like English but might as well be Martian so distant and etherial are they. There also feels like a sort of stripped down echo of Mezzanine-era Massive Attack in there somewhere, although that may just have been an image implanted subconsciously by the appearance of the word “Angel” in the video, written on one of the girls’ hands. In any case, it’s great to have She Talks Silence back, and especially great to find them in such fine, dark, moody and gothic form. The forthcoming When it Comes album looks set to be one of the year’s finest… when it comes.

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Strange Boutique (May 2014)

My last column for The Japan Times came in response to the news that Aska from 80s/90s pop duo Chage & Aska had been arrested for drugs. Here’s the article, so have a read.

There are basically two poles when talking about drugs, and which you have the greater sympathy with often depends on who the most annoying people you have around you are. One is the Japanese position which is that all drugs are bad, and they’re illegal, and that you’ll die if you take them. On the other side is the Bill Hicks-worshipping side that says drugs are great and the font of all creativity. Obviously most people are somewhere between these poles, but with the angle I was working, I wanted to approach it slightly askance from that whole sliding scale in the first place.

With the drugs=bad question, it’s pretty clear that a great amount of great music has been made with massive amounts of drugs influencing at least the form it takes (the quality I’m inclined to put mostly down to the talent of the musicians) — there are ideas and sounds that we simply would not have without drugs, and they add colour to the musical landscape. The question I have with the drugs=good position is that if that’s the case, why are the Japanese musicians who get busted usually so dreary and bland? Indeed, just a week or two after the Aska scandal, an international brouhaha blew up over members of One Direction smoking a joint.

What it comes down to then is that it’s not so much the drugs themselves that matter as the visible influence of the drugs: the colour and life that their influence can blow into the music scene. And you don’t actually need drugs to do that. Once you’ve listened to a bit of psychedelic music, it’s not that hard to simulate the musical results, as anyone who’s heard Status Quo’s Pictures of Matchstick Men could tell you. On a less superficial level, once drugs have shown the way and musicians have mapped the path, other artists use different vehicles to follow that path. Acid Mothers Temple have done lots of drugs, but having done it, they have found other ways of reaching that state. Again, it’s not the drugs that are important so much as the place they can take you. The drugs took Aska nowhere, and very rarely take any J-Pop musicians anywhere, because J-Pop itself isn’t structured in a way that would allow that to happen. American pop is heading in the same direction, although the influence of hip hop and dance music suggests at least that the influence of drugs and their associated cultures operates at slightly fewer layers of remove from the mainstream — whether the quality follows suit is debatable and something would prefer not to get involved in. Anyway, here’s Rolly:Rolly: Love Machine

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Interview: Marty Friedman

I interviewed former Megadeth guitarist and current J-Pop songwriter, musician and general media celebrity Marty Friedman for The Japan Times recently. The article is here, so by all means have a look at that. While you’re at it, check out Ryotaro Aoki’s review of the album Inferno as well.

There was so much more I could have said but this idea of the enthusiasm of rock seemed to be the thread that ran through our chat, and I needed to talk about the album, plus I wanted to get into some of the technical stuff about song composition, so in the end I had to jettison some of my ideas. Friedman gets stick from some Japanese pop fans, partly through old-fashioned jealousy that he’s this guy “living the dream” off the back of a privileged background with a big name band in the 90s, but also because I think the Japanese pop industry uses him in ways that aren’t necessarily congenial to his talents and knowledge. He clearly has very deep musical understanding of Japanese pop, but when he’s shunted off to industry expos and things to talk about the potential for Japanese pop success abroad, he’s perhaps not the best guy. As a fan of J-Pop, he naturally likes it as it is and doesn’t want it to change. He can only see its marketing potential in terms of its appeal to him, so the idea of twisting it and manipulating its style, sound or presentation to fit some overseas market niche just doesn’t appeal to him, and I think that comes across pretty clearly in this interview. The trouble is that if the role he’s been assigned is predicated on the idea that Japanese music should be marketing itself overseas, you catch yourself in a trap of only marketing it on its Japaneseness, and only marketing it to people already kindly predisposed to “things from Japan”. The end result of that is just Tofu Records and failure every time.

Where Friedman could be a more valuable figure would be in just using him to explain about and raise awareness of Japanese music in a way that plays on his strengths. He’s written a book on Japanese music which really ought to be available in English, but as is so often the case, the Japanese pop industry only really seems to be using him as a way to help them feel good about themselves and isn’t really interested in letting him do what he’s best at. He seems to be on some level aware of that and the decision to do the new album as a specifically “foreign” thing perhaps relates to that, although more obviously there are commercial and market-related reasons why it was a sensible decision as well.

Anyway, I enjoyed talking to him and he seemed to be a genuinely very nice guy. I’ve put an edited transcript of the whole thing below.Marty Friedman: Inferno

MARTY FRIEDMAN INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT:

It’s strange in a way that after all this time in Japan, with you having a metal background but working in J-Pop, it feels that now is really the first time you make sense as an entity in the Japanese music industry. I think it was on that Momoiro Clover song you played on (Mōretsu Uchū Kōkyōkyoku. Dai Nana Gakushō “Mugen no Ai) where I first felt that those two strands had really come together.

I can understand that. I would stay the stars aligned on that. Hyadain is a producer I always wanted to work with, and it was the perfect vehicle for his kind of insanity and mine, and it came out really nice.

There certainly seem to be more people thinking in a similar place these days.

It’s all very incestuous. I mean the guitarist in Babymetal, he plays guitar in my band who I’m going to Europe with. It’s a very small group of people. Babymetal was conceived by people who put together Dempagumi inc. and they just played before my band Metal Clone X today at this Chokaigi thing.

You’ve talked before about how that mix of genres that wouldn’t necessarily go together in America is part of Japan’s appeal to you.

The possibility that anything can possibly happen is way greater in Japan because the fans aren’t so genre-specific. If you’re a metal fan or a rock fan in America, you’ve got to keep it on the downlow about listening to pop or dance or rap. In Japan, you like it you like it. When I played with Momoiro Clover Z, that crowd was louder than any heavy metal crowd. It was just, ‘raaaagh!’ Pantera or something, it was insane. I think people are less shy about having an open mind about music and that’s why musicians are more open to crossing over and stuff like that.

Coming from a metal background, what I’ve always noticed is that working in the music business, they’re all metalheads, but there’s no money in metal, but they try so hard to mix it with other things. Babymetal’s a good example. I’ve done so many things where it’s a pop project but, ‘Make this metal. Play your ass off on this!’ and I love doing it because I love to inject my own thing in everything. All the time I find that all the people who are in good positions, putting together projects and working at the record company, they’re really rock people who were inspired to be in the music business by rock. I don’t think people listen to this mellow pop and that inspires them like, ‘Wow, now I have to get into the music business!’ People enjoy it and they go on with your lives. When you’re a rock guy, there’s something that makes you want to be in the business, as a photographer, working at a label… I mean, you’re not going to be a fan of Cat Stevens and all of a sudden decide to be a roadie for Pantera or something. Rock gives you the inspiration to get involved.

And it’s often people you’d least expect are just totally jamming metallers. Yesterday I did the show Asian Music Network and one of the guests was this singer Crowd Lu. Totally ‘dome class,’ plays the domes wherever he plays and it’s like the lightest music you ever heard — it’s lighter than Pizzicato 5 or something — and he says, ‘I grew up listening to your guitar, I wanted to play like you so much!” To me! And he sounds nothing like me, it’s much cooler and hipper than anything I would do. I think in Asia people don’t say, ‘All right, I’m a rapper, I’ve got to be a rapper forever.’ People can have different tastes and blossom into really amazing things, but lots of people are born out of a really hard rock background.

But in a way isn’t it just that Japan has different rules and once you learn what they are, it’s every bit as formulaic?

Right. There’s a hard and fast rule in Japanese music, which I think is actually kind of cool, they put melody first, above everything else: above the singer’s ability, above the singer’s looks, even above the songwriting, especially above the production. So that’s good, because if you’ve got a strong melody, the interpretation can be anything. You can have this really drastic, crazy underground, hardcore interpretation, or this Skrillex-sounding noisy modern American type stuff, or it can be this old-school ballad, or it can sound like Chicago, which lots of Japanese ballads do. Once you’ve got the melody, you can interpret it however you want. I find in American music, what is more important than the melody, what’s important is the singer’s looks, the quality of the lyrics, the quality of the singer. Americans take it for granted, you’ve got to be a great singer. In Japan, you don’t have to be a great singer, but you do have to have a great melody and your voice has to have some magic in it. In America, you have to be Celine Dion or Leona Lewis to get any attention, and even then you sound like everybody else who’s trying to sing like that. For me, I’d rather have fifty different interpretations of a strong melody than some fantastic singer and the melody’s third or fourth place on the list.

People mistake talent for the wrong thing. Being talented doesn’t just mean you can sing in five octaves. Look at Mr. Children, you wouldn’t say that guy’s the best singer in the world, but they sell out the Dome every time with fantastic songs — people are crying in the audience. So which is more talented? Since when is talent the be-all and end-all anyway? Who in Nirvana really had talent — well Dave Grohl has insane talent so I shouldn’t really put it that way, but it’s not about the talent, it’s about the music that they made which appeals to people. This really bugs me about American Idol culture: it’s literally about who can hold the longest high tone and who can sing like Whitney Houston. Music is about so much more! In Japan you kind of want to root for someone who doesn’t have that kind of strong voice.

We know Celine Dion’s going to nail that song from ‘Titanic,’ but is she going to do anything a bit dangerous or cute or make a mistake? This is an emotion that’s not felt in America but it’s a brand over here.

Musicologically there are differences as well though, aren’t there? For example, Japanese pop doesn’t really have so many blue notes.

I can totally go into detail about that if you want! I mean, firstly they don’t have the gospel upbringing of American R&B. Of course there are great singers like Misia who can do a damn good job of it, but even then it’s not made from that, and I don’t think they should even go there. The songs aren’t made for someone to show off their melisma or ad-libbing prowess, which like an Aretha Franklin type person — you don’t need to even give her a melody and she can blow your mind. So no gospel, no blues, what have you got? You’ve got min’yo, enka, kayoukyoku, which are all based on chord voicings that aren’t necessarily heard in American pop, like minor chords with a minor 6th, like the chord that The Beatles end their old songs with, they stick that chord in all kinds of interesting places. And the chord progressions are a little bit closer to white jazz than they are to rock’n’roll. They have minor 7th chords and typical jazz day-one chord progressions in rock songs. This is a big difference: even an amateur band that’s doing sweaty hard rock will do these happy little jazz tweaks or chord changes that you’d never hear in a rock song.

And you consciously apply those conventions to your own J-Pop writing?

It’s at the point now where I write a song and it’s done and I listen back to it and I think, ‘I can’t believe an American did this!’ The first one that really struck me like that was a song by Kotoko called ‘Kirei na Senritsu’ and when it got done, there was no American blood in that song: I’m really good at what I wanted to do apparently because this sounds like it was written by a Japanese person!

But on your new album though, you’ve really taken it back to metal and gone off in a different more sort of progressive rock direction it seems.

When you do music this long, you’ve got to do something that inspires you to keep going, to challenge yourself. Otherwise you’re done, your career’s over at that point. I’m constantly trying to do something new — I rarely listen back at something I’ve done before, or only to find something I didn’t like about it. On this album there’s one song with a sax player named Jørgen Munkeby from Shining. Shining are going to be the new Nine Inch Nails I think: it’s super modern and super heavy, and the music is super catchy, and there’s a sax in there. To me as a metaller, sax is an alien instrument, I don’t like it. But I listen to his music and I know this guy will get it. I told him to go crazy, I’ll pick one of your sax phrases and then loop it. I took the sax first and moved it around and had my way with it! I really despised sax: it’s the easy listening instrument, but I knew when I heard him I had to do it and it turned out to be one of my favourite songs on the record.

Once I have a melody I like and a structure, then I can build something that’s gonna make you get goosebumps or make you excited, but without the melody it’s just mindless riffing.

There are a lot of collaborations on the album. How did that come about?

They’re people in the metal world and guitar world who’ve said nice things about me in interviews. Embarrassingly I don’t really follow what’s going on outside Japan, but the record company in America said, ‘Look, these guys are claiming you as this and that, and all this good stuff, so you should at least know it.’ So they put this list together and I was embarrassed reading it, it was so nice. So I took some names off the list and started listening to them, and these guys were great in their own thing, they don’t sound anything like me, so maybe I’d give them a call and see if we can do something together. Because even more so than the music they made, that enthusiasm is what I liked. I remember one time Michael Schenker came to my house in Arizona unannounced and said, ‘I wanna do this project together; let’s do this project.’ And I was a fan of his since I was little, so to have this guy ask me to do a project with him? I just remember being so excited and I wanted to bring my super A-game to what we did. We did some stuff and it never got released or anything, but I just remember that feeling when I was working on it, and if I could just give some of these guys that feeling and get the fruits of their labor and that enthusiasm, man, it could be something amazing.

You also didn’t really work with any Japanese collaborators on this album. Was that conscious?

I thought it would be interesting to do a simultaneous worldwide release and release something in Japan as a foreigner. It’s a strange situation. I came here just to play domestic Japanese music in whatever shape I could, but at the same time, my management is a television management so I end up doing a lot of media stuff that’s nothing to do with music. It’s kind of a love-hate thing, because in a way it’s great, because it opens tons of doors and allows me to do whatever I want musically, but the downside is that while a lot of people know me, they don’t know I play music. The majority of people come up to me and they’re like, ‘I saw you on Tamori Club,’ you know? That’s all good, but it doesn’t translate to record sales, it doesn’t translate to people coming to my shows. It can be a little frustrating for people trying to find a genre for my music, so the easiest one for the record company is just for me as the foreigner I am.

Some musicians I know who are foreigners living and making music in Japan have this problem of stores not knowing where to file them. They’re part of the japanese music scene and play with Japanese bands, but they don’t look Japanese. It’s frustrating in a way that foreign and domestic music here is segregated in such a way.

It comes down to the ‘gaijin complex’ which hopefully sometime in the future will fade away because it’s lame. Japanese people just think because you’re a foreigner you’re super, and they have this inferiority complex, or some people do. It’s very old fashioned and thankfully that trend is slowing down. I think people should be judged on their merit and whether you like it or not, not where they’re from, but oftentimes, especially in the music business, that’s why it’s separated: because a lot of people who like foreign music think it’s cooler to like foreign music. It’s a little bit elitist to be in that minority — only twenty percent of Japanese people listen to foreign music, so some of those people have this attitude that the Americans, the English, Australians, they’re more upper-crust than us local people. They’re a little bit ashamed of all this idol music, so those people are acting all snobbish listening to whatever, but that’s the wrong reason. There’s extremely intelligent music coming out of Japan, and just because you’re a little bit ashamed of your identity doesn’t mean you should ignore all of it. This complex is embarrassing.

It’s just a matter of time before there’s no foreign music at all here. If you look at record sales, Japan’s really an island unto itself. I mean, eighty percent of it’s made in Japan and the twenty percent is almost like a bonus that you could probably live without, and that includes Maroon 5, Lady Gaga — those people aren’t influencing japanese music all that much, definitely not as much as they are in Korea. You listen to music in Korea and it’s a carbon copy of America.

So what Japanese artists do you rate at the moment?

I’ve been a really big fan of this band called Noa Nowa, their debut single was a song called Loop Loop and they’ve released a lot of fantastic stuff. It’s pop, but it’s very intricately worked out. Sometimes their harmonies sound like Queen, but it’s J-Pop. You could listen to it on the surface and think it’s just light pop but if you tried to play it, there’s a billion chords in it, the modulations are unusual and there’s harmonies all over the place. So you could easily ignore it and think “Oh, it’s J-Pop” but then you listen to it and it’s really deep. Then there’s these guys Bull Zeichen 88, who are ready to take over the world. Japan’s just an amazing place for music. There are so many more people per capita making music in Japan than anywhere else. You can’t go down the street without someone carrying an instrument.

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