On a whole, 2016’s worldwide ’Best of’ lists may not have made for very interesting reading for fans of Japanese music, but that’s not to say it was all doom and gloom: veterans DJ Nobu and Soichi Terada made Resident Advisor’s rankings, while Fact included Kyoto-based artist Toyomu in its ‘Bandcamp Best 20 of 2016’ roundup.
That honour came for Imagining ‘The Life of Pablo’, an album Toyomu put together after being left flustered when he couldn’t listen to Mr Yeezy’s latest long-player. The Life of Pablo was initially released exclusively on streaming service Tidal, which is unavailable in Japan. Instead of resorting to piracy, the ever-proactive Toyomu scoured the internet to piece together the samples Kanye had used. He then used these – and Kanye’s published lyrics – to produce an entire replica album, one he thought would sound just like the real thing.
In the Fact piece, the author remarks that ‘[This] process recalls that of Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, who used to record imagined versions of albums he was anticipating…Imagining The Life Of Pablo is equally idiosyncratic – an immensely strange album that sounds nothing like its namesake, but captures West’s pioneer spirit regardless.’
Not content to rest on his laurels after the March release of that cracker, Toyomu has since come out with four online-only remix tracks, his debut EP (Zekkei, released in November) and – most recently – Insho VII: Maboroshi no Kehai, a complete remake of Hikaru Utada’s new album Fantôme. Eager to understand this musical chameleon’s unique approach, we caught up with the young gun to chat about what drives his creativity.
You’re turning 27 this year, right?
Yeah, I was born in 1990. I'm the same age as Tofubeats, while Seiho is a little older.
That puts you in the same age bracket as [hip hop groups] Flashbacks and Kandytown, doesn't it?
I think [Flashbacks member] FEBB is a little younger. I met those guys three years ago. They had come to one of our events in Kyoto.
I heard that your roots are very much in hip hop.
That's true. But my early DJing was mainly just experimenting for fun.
Music fans born around 1990 tend to have a close familiarity with hip hop, right? In Japan, one generation before yours saw it associated with a, well, rougher crowd, making it less accessible to the masses.
I think the reason for that change is the hard work put in by hip hop artists like Summit. My real eye-opening experience with hip hop came from Rip Slyme. From that time until I went to college, I didn't listen to Western hip hop at all.
Earlier, you mentioned that you hadn’t listened to guys like Jeff Mills much. Were you ever a clubber?
Yeah. In Kyoto, we have [clubs like] Metro and Whoopee’s. I was only listening to hip hop at the time, but I learned about underground techno and other genres at parties where my friends played.
So your horizons were broadened?
Yeah, I heard techno and other stuff and my reaction was like ‘What the heck is this?’
People seem to have labeled your music vaporwave or ‘Internet-style music’, whatever that means. How do you feel about that?
I actually hadn’t listened to vaporwave at all. People just gave me that sort of label and I realised that it was one way of hearing my music. I made the tracks with the intention of creating hip hop with bizarre samples. For example, there's Madlib's alter ego project, Quasimoto. That was the sort of feeling I was going for.
Quasimoto's stuff uses an SP-303 [sampler] with ultra-simple sequence functions, which gives tons of freedom for note division. That's why I didn't use a four beat structure. Anyway, I never had any thoughts of intentionally making vaporwave or anything like that.
I guess part of the reason for that categorisation was that there just isn’t a lot of non-danceable electronic music out there right now…
I totally agree – and I don't want to make music within genres. There are fixed formats, like I'll make some house music, I'll make techno, I'll make vaporwave, don't you think? I just got the impression that people seemed like they were listening to music with genres in mind.
If there’s something someone doesn't understand, they really want someone else to pin it down for them.
But it's more interesting not to understand. It does tend to make everyone anxious. I don't really like to answer questions like, ‘What kind of music is this?’ As long as the melody is good, it doesn't matter what ‘kind’ of music it is.
On [new album] Zekkei, you recorded the elements for each track onto a cassette tape and then brought them back onto your PC, right?
The reason for using tapes for one of the steps had to do with the sound. But it also made each section come out a slightly different length by the time it got back to the PC. The tapes compress things. So tracks that were perfectly synced ended up just slightly off. This was an interesting effect to me.
You also wanted to break free from the sequential restrictions of Ableton [a music production programme], correct?
Recently I've started thinking that I want to get a full hardware setup, rather than just using Ableton. A Gold Panda gig I saw recently was simply outstanding. He uses two MPCs and was actually called back for an encore, but he had to be like ‘Hold on a second while I get this thing loaded up’. He doesn’t give the impression of making music to fit within genres.
Teebs has a similar feel. He makes it seem like he’s drawing a picture. But not like, ‘Let's draw a Picasso’, or ‘Let's draw a cherry blossom’. It's more like just scribbling. Basically, I don't listen to music in order to seek out models, I just listen to expand my horizons. Even if it’s artists like Rihanna, Kanye West, M.I.A…
How long did you spend on the remix of Hikaru Utada’s Fantôme?
That was a week. I went to buy a copy on the day it came out [laughs].
Did you just listen to it and decide you wanted to make a remix?
I wanted to do it even before hearing any of the songs. And the more I actually listened to it, the more I felt that it had good potential for that kind of thing.
You already did it with The Life of Pablo, but isn’t remixing an entire album quite an undertaking?
Well, with Fantôme, I started by extracting the vocals, which was a real pain [laughs]. With Ableton, you can extract the a cappella sound if you cross the song's main version with the instrumental version, but I found another way to do it recently.
This gets into the weeds a little, but if you use Vocoder, you can do something like extracting one section from a 3D object, which requires your own singing voice for that extracted mould. The pitch has to match the original, which meant I had to belt out Hikaru Utada tunes in my room [laughs].
So that’s another way of extracting them, huh? Did something bug you about the ‘usual’ way of doing it?
Yes, the other way has its limitations. Even Vocoder is not a clean way of extracting the vocals.
What made you decide to do a remix of the whole album?
That was because people won't pay attention if it's just single tracks. It's that simple. Single tracks get buried with everything else. I'm constantly thinking of ways to have my stuff not get buried.
Was there any difference in the approach that you used for your own tracks on Zekkei, as opposed to your remixes?
I've been asked that by a lot of people and I think the difference is my own ideas form the base for my own tracks. My series of remix albums, titled Insho (‘Impressions’), are just a collection of experimental approaches that I wanted to try. They aren't my own ideas. Zekkei, however, does have my own ideas, so it's totally different in that sense. The other point is whether it can be marketed. For my remixes, I made some decisions, such as releasing one per month.
They’re sort of like study pieces?
Yeah, maybe. Like studies or training projects.
Do you have any plans for bringing in rappers or vocalists for future guest appearances?
Singers, yes, I think so. But in rap, the lyrics carry too much meaning. Since I'm aiming to create audio transformations of language, I want that impression to come across. As long as it doesn't become too wordy, I'd like to try adding some rap. That is, if I feel like it’s needed at the early stages.
By the way, do you have experience being part of a band?
Just working as the guy in charge of sampling, nothing beyond that. The band's sound was like sampling over Wonk. It's a bit presumptuous to say it was like Wonk though [laughs].
I see. Something like a D'Angelo vibe?
Yeah, kind of like ‘I dig J Dilla’, you know?
Are you doing anything else than making music now?
Yeah, I’m working at a video rental store. I've been there since I bought my first MPC and had to start making the 12 payments I had agreed on, so I can do it with my eyes closed now [laughs].
Can staff rent CDs for free?
No, not anymore, because a few years ago a big company took over management of the shop. We used to be able to do that and I borrowed a ton of Japanese rap and jazz. Also a lot of R&B and Warp Records discs.
By the way, I thought the music video for ‘The Palace’ had some resemblance to Aphex Twin's video ‘On’.
You think so? I can't exactly see why, but after people told me that, I had a lot of fun listening to it again. I don’t know Aphex Twin all that well, but the more I listen to him the more I discover.
Name some of the new records you liked in 2016.
I liked Seiho's Collapse, and the new stuff from Metafive was amazing.
Metafive, that’s a bit of a surprise.
I just woke up to YMO last year [laughs]. I was shocked at how good they are [laughs again]. I may have gradually come around to liking all kinds of music. In the past, I think I probably could only have listened to something like YMO as a source for samples.
You only thought of them as potential source material?
Right, but now my ears are more drawn to the physical side of music. I read Haruomi Hosono talking about the bass line for ‘I Want You Back’ by the Jackson 5 and saying, ‘The same phrases appear many times over and the bass has a huge sound!’ I started to think of it more as music and not just as material for a loop.
Did you become more aware of things like harmony and melody structures in your music?
That was absolutely the case for ‘The Palace’. I thought it was really the beginning of making music for me. I had gone in the complete opposite direction, only to find myself on a path that finally led to the actual starting point.
That can happen when you start out with sampling.
I think it's also fine to move forward and keep a sampling-based approach. As Towa Tei said, ‘I’m fine with being a specialist musician.’ He said he realised that it was more fun to make the kind of music he liked than to follow trends. I can totally relate to that. Listening to Metafive, all of the group's members have a history of making music without thinking about genres.
It's music where individualities bump against each other, isn't it?
Yeah. I’m glad to see people who are fundamentally trying to create good music make it big and get to the level of a group like Metafive.
Photos by Keisuke Tanigawa