Stranger in a Strange World
Japan's most respected technopop pioneer has recently finished an album that breaks new ground for him - it involves live musicians. He discusses his new LP and his other projects with Paul Tingen.
As musicians try to find new ways of injecting feel into new technology, Yellow Magic Orchestra founder Ryuichi Sakamoto raises a new question: does electronic music really need to sound human?
HALFWAY THROUGH MY conversation with Ryuichi Sakamoto, I suddenly make a near fatal mistake. We're talking about the equipment Sakamoto is using, and my Japanese host has just explained to me that a NEC computer and a DX7 synthesiser are the main things he's working with at the moment. So I ask whether the NEC computer is the "brains" of his music system - with "brains" meaning "nerve centre", the device off of which he runs all his other keyboards and assorted machinery. Yet on hearing the word "brains", Sakamoto suddenly jerks and shouts: "No, no, no. Just tool, not brains", and pointing at the side of his head he continues: "That's the brains".
It's the only time during the interview that he's fierce, almost angry, about what he probably saw as an all too common misunderstanding. But that example also serves to illustrate the kind of uphill struggle an interview with Sakamoto can be.
First of all, there's his English. His limited vocabulary and obvious problems with grammar hamper a lot of the communication between us - more, in fact, than I had expected from the short telephone conversation I'd previously had with him to arrange the interview.
Second, there's his almost complete lack of interest in discussing the finer points of musical technology. For, in common with several other contemporary innovators, he seems to regard his technology as no more than a tool. He has no studio of his own, and his "tools" are remarkably simple for someone this highly regarded. At his home in Tokyo he works only with that NEC computer, running an eight-track sequencing package called Come On Music, with the DX7 as his only MIDI keyboard, a small mixing console, and a Yamaha SPX90 effects rack - the last moving him to one of his only spontaneous remarks about equipment: "It is very good, the SPX."
On top of all this, Sakamoto also seems to be one of those artists who doesn't reflect on what he is doing, but just follows his intuition. It might be a Japanese trait, or it might be a result of our language problems, but every time I ask Sakamoto why he has done something, he answers with "I don't know", or, if I'm lucky, a two-line answer which partly repeats the question. And when I put an observation of my own to him, he often seems genuinely surprised about the point I make, chews it over for a while, and then mutters something which boils down to: "It might be like that, but it might also not be like that."
In short, Ryuichi Sakamoto is a bit of an interviewer's nightmare. Yet he is extremely polite and does everything to ensure that I'm OK, pouring me tea and coffee and dashing over to the bathroom to get a towel when I spill some of the latter on the table.
I'm talking to the Japanese composer, actor, producer and keyboard wizard in a room in the small yet stylish surroundings of the Blakes Hotel in West London, just after he's finished some string sessions for David Sylvian's forthcoming album. The hotel has a distinctly oriental feel, with its cane benches, bamboo ornamentation, plethora of mirrors and plants, and its gigantic wood and paper umbrella in the entrance hall. The homely atmosphere of the place obviously suits Sakamoto who, in real life, has nothing of the hard image which he portrays in a lot of photographs, and as Captain Yonio in the Film Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. He is small, wears dark glasses and a long black jacket, and has a shy, modest demeanour. He listens attentively to my questions, often answering with a chuckle, smoking almost continuously, and occasionally apologising for his bad English.
And while "why" and "how" questions are met with stumbling blocks, "what" questions seem to go down a bit easier, since Sakamoto obviously enjoys elaborating about what he has been doing over the last year, during which relatively little has been heard from him here in the West.
It appears that he's spent a lot of time on projects in his native Japan... "At the beginning of last year I made a new album called Futurist, which was released only in Japan. The album title was inspired by the Futurist movement, prominent in Milan around 1909, in which I was very interested. Side A was very American pop-oriented, whereas Side B was more aggressive, featuring a mixture of hip-hop rhythms and Italian opera. The sound of the album was also influenced by the movie Dune, which has a lot of low sounds."
Following the release of the album, Sakamoto went on a lengthy Japanese tour, and then released - again only in Japan - a live album of that tour called Mediabahn. Last August he went to Bath to produce Virginia Astley's album Hope in a Darkened Heart. Then it was back to the East.
"In September I made a soundtrack for a Japanese animation movie, my third. After that I went to China for the shooting of The Last Emperor, a movie directed by Bertolucci, in which I acted with John Long and Peter O'Toole." It was only the second time Sakamoto had acted in a movie, and as with Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, he was also commissioned to write the score for the film - a project which he had still to finish at the time of our interview.
After the shooting of The Last Emperor, Sakamoto finally began work on a venture of greater significance to the western music-lover.
"Usually I use a lot of computerised sequences. But this time, the album has more acoustic instruments: real drums, real guitar and real bass."
"In December I made the demo tapes for a new album, which I recorded in New York. The album, called Neo Geo, was produced by Bill Laswell and me, and will be released worldwide during the summer."
This is good news, because Sakamoto's output to western record shops over the last few years has been modest, to say the least. His last western release was a compilation of some of his Japanese solo albums called Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia, on 10 Records. The record was largely a solo venture, though it featured a collaboration with Thomas Dolby (the song 'Fieldwork') and some contributions by, for example, percussionist David Van Tieghem and Simon Jeffes of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. By and large, though, the album was dominated by Sakamoto's approach to keyboard and computer music: fresh, delicately textured sounds, captured in strict, precise, even cold rhythms. And, of course, the usual potpourri of influences: Tibetan and Japanese sounding tunes, big band jazz, a rap in Thai, and "technopop" - the category Sakamoto helped create when he was playing with the now almost legendary Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Yet there's no doubt this artist has come a long way since YMO stunned the world with their hard-edged rhythms and inventive use of synthesiser timbre and melody. After a classical training (he studied composition at Tokyo's University of Arts), Sakamoto founded YMO with drummer Yukihiro Takahashi and producer, bass player and keyboard programmer Harumi Hosono in 1978.
Throughout the band's career, YMO remained an anomaly in Japan's conservative music scene. Musically they were way ahead of their time, taking the formal, all-electronic style instigated by Kraftwerk in Germany into new areas. Yet like Kraftwerk, their ability to laugh at themselves gave them an acceptability that many electronic acts have failed to find, both before and since.
YMO disbanded in late 1983, having pioneered the techniques of sampling and computer music programming to a degree which took musicians in the West quite some time to catch up with. Sakamoto started work on what turned out to be a prolific solo career. He released a number of albums, and began a collaboration with ex-Japan frontman David Sylvian which has lasted until this day. He also produced several albums for his wife and fellow songwriter and pianist Akiko Yano.
But it was Sakamoto's leading role in Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, which largely made his name in the West. His acting showed a stunning confidence and attention to detail, and the soundtrack he wrote for the film - featuring a vocal version of the main theme, 'Forbidden Colours', sung by Sylvian - won him a British Academy Award.
NOW WE ARE about to hear Neo Geo (it means New Geography), an album that marks a turning point in Sakamoto's musical career. As we're still in the "what" area, he's happy to elaborate. "Neo Geo is a new way for me. Usually I use a lot of computerised sequences. But this time, the album has more acoustic instruments, meaning real drums, real guitar and real bass. For other people that kind of real music is normal, but for me it's a pretty new thing."
The artist laughs. The new album features Tony Williams and Sly Dunbar on drums, Bootsy Collins (Parliament, Funkadelic) and Bill Laswell on bass, Harry Kubota and Eddie Martinez on guitar, David Van Tieghem on percussion and, surprisingly, Iggy Pop, who sang and wrote the lyrics for one song.
When I ask Sakamoto about other vocals on the album, he initially comes up with a very eastern way of expressing himself: "There are some more voices on it, but it's not the same." Then he continues: "The rest is sampled and there's some talking. As far as making the record goes, I prepared every tempo, every sequence and every part on my computer in Tokyo and then brought the tapes over to New York, where I overdubbed the other instruments, keeping part of the computer sequences."
"I've called myself a world musician before, because I don't feel I belong to one specific culture. I feel a stranger everywhere, even in Japan."
Apart from the use of real guitars, bass and drums, there's another thing which makes Neo Geo stand out from Sakamoto's previous work...
"I used two traditional Okinawa songs. Okinawa is a Southern Japanese island. It's new for me to use traditional music directly like this." Very true: in the past, Sakamoto has used elements of traditional Far Eastern music, but has never quoted melodies or songs directly.
The combination of using a whole set of American musicians, who then have to play Japanese traditional tunes, raises an interesting point. But, sadly, this is a "why" question, and one that meets with a reply that is as confusing as it is enigmatic. "The music itself answers the question. For example, I used the traditional Okinawa songs with a go-go beat from Washington DC, using Bootsy Collins on bass. It's hard to tell what kind of music it is. But I think this is my new way."
It could also be argued, however, that this is just another chapter in Sakamoto's ongoing experimentation with Western and Eastern music styles, something that's taken place without the artist committing himself to either side - though he once remarked that he considers himself more Western in approach, because he uses melody, harmony and rhythm.
"I've called myself a world musician before, because I don't feel as if I belong to one specific culture. This means that I feel a stranger everywhere, slightly remote from everything, even in Japan... But don't take that word 'stranger' too seriously. It sounds so pessimistic. It's just that I like mixing ethnic music with a black beat and technopop. I take my influences from everywhere, and when I'm deciding on a treatment, I don't care whether a song is traditional Japanese or not."
And why (sorry) did Sakamoto decide to use real players for his new album?
"The idea came from Bill Laswell. Yet even now I prefer an electronic beat." Sakamoto laughs. This sentiment seems to negate his earlier statement that using real instruments is his new direction. But the artist can explain the apparent contradiction. Because for Ryuichi Sakamoto, the electronic beat is part of a self-created heritage - and unlike a lot of Western musicians, he's not afraid of the coldness which immaculate computer performances so often invoke. He wouldn't dream of endeavouring, as so many of today's programmers do, to instill a "human feel" into the electronic elements of his music.
"Basically", he says, "I like that coldness. It's also a kind of private history. In my opinion, YMO and Kraftwerk invented technopop, and I will not move away from that direction. It's my roots."
ON A MORE practical level, we discuss the equipment which Sakamoto uses to shape his ideas. I've already mentioned the equipment he uses to demo his ideas at home. From there, it's on to nearby Lentil Studios to complete recording. It's there that he stores his Fairlight II, along with a PPG Wave 2.3, an Emulator II and a Prophet 5 - the last only for its ability to provide a guide click.
"I find it easier to compose for film than for solo albums. When I do a soundtrack there's an object in front of me, and I just adapt to that."
"Poor old Prophet 5", Sakamoto reminisces. "I don't use it anymore for anything else, because I'm tired of the sound. I've used it too much, I think. Before, I didn't care which keyboard I used, because I felt that it was me who created the sound, not the keyboard. But I have to admit that my taste now gears towards the digitals and the sampling machines. I use the DX7 a lot, for which I have a programming package which I can run on the NEC, and I usually bring in a whole lot of CDs, records and a Sony PCM F1 recorder to sample with."
Does he still play the acoustic piano? "Very little. There were two solo piano pieces of mine on a compilation album called Piano Music, which appeared on Peter Baumann's Private Music label, but now I have to admit that I play the DX7 too much. It's my main keyboard. I'm not a good piano player anymore, if I ever was one. On the Mediabahn tour I used Yamaha's new MIDI acoustic piano, because I need an acoustic piano sound, but I didn't like it. The touch is too heavy for me."
On an inspirational level, Sakamoto relates that "the chords and the melody usually come together. Sometimes I write it down on paper, sometimes I play it on the DX7 and store it in the NEC.
"There are a lot of ways in which music comes to me. Sometimes I just play and improvise. Sometimes, before playing, I might have been thinking about words and concepts or the image of a landscape. I'm usually seeing something visual, and I work that into a piece or into sound."
So how does he go about composing music for film?
"I find it easier to compose for film than for my solo albums. Making a solo album is a very conscious thing for me. When I'm doing a soundtrack there's an object already in front of me, and I just adapt to that."
Sakamoto agrees with the suggestion that his music has become mellower over the years.
"It's not a conscious thing, but it seems to be where my natural musical taste is leading me. With YMO there were a lot of very hard, rigid beats. On the other hand, my favourite composer is Debussy. I love that kind of delicate, ambient music. I also like Eno's music a lot, and earlier Steve Reich and Philip Glass. But I didn't want to bring my 'important' musical taste into YMO. I wouldn't, because YMO was just a pop band."
On another level, Sakamoto's reluctance to let too much of his musical taste influence YMO refers back to a personal philosophy about balance which lies at the root of his musical work.
"When I write music, I'm caring about the balance. I'm not sure what the balance means, but it's a kind of concept. I try to find the balance between my personal thing and a more public thing, so I wouldn't impose my taste on YMO. Or I try to hold a balance between artistic and commercial. And also, it shouldn't become too emotional.
"Another example would be the balance between sound itself and the structure of music. Or between technology and human feeling, or between the old world and the new world. In Japan there are a lot of traditional things in society, and also modern things coming up very drastically. So I'm always caring about the balance of two opposite things. If you say that my music isn't always that emotional, then you're right. But it is very personal. This concept of balance is my personal thing."
Later, while Ryuichi Sakamoto guides me to the hotel exit, I become more and more impressed with the personal warmth which he displays, and his natural, unaffected behaviour, something so rare in the glamour-soaked world of fame, money and music. Somehow, Sakamoto doesn't quite fit in.
I look at this small, unassuming character and wonder who he really is. A stranger? Really, a stranger in a strange world.
Interview by Paul Tingen