He's big in Japan, massive in America, and beginning to conquer Europe with his own brand of ethereal synthesized 'mood music'. Mark Jenkins talks to the phenomenon that is Kitaro.
Kitaro may not be as big as Jean-Michel Jarre - yet, but he has an equally impressive pedigree, with time spent as keyboard player for the cult Far East Family Band and a long series of solo albums and TV soundtracks behind him. In his native Japan, Kitaro regularly plays to 15,000-seaters, and since signing to WEA/Geffen Records his following has spread to the States. Now, with his first UK appearance safely behind him as part of a sold-out European tour, Kitaro seems set to take over the easier, more melodic side of synthesizer music which seems to have been neglected on Jarre's recent, heavily percussive, albums such as Revolutions.
Kitaro's musical career began, as with so many others, in a school rock band. "I started playing guitar in high school and sometimes took over on keyboards - I played along to records at home; we were playing mostly cover versions. But my first professional group was Far East Family Band, although I'd been in a rock group before which didn't actually release any albums."
For a guy who's only been speaking English for a year - since his first American tour to support the Tenku album - Kitaro's manner is self-assured and shows little evidence of the hippy, mystic image he's built for himself on record and on stage. But he admits that his early musical career was influenced by a meeting of almost mystical proportions: "We met Klaus Schulze! He produced one of the FEFB albums, and I was so surprised by what he'd done with synthesizers. I already had one, but he really knew how to programme them and he taught me a completely different way of working."
So in 1978, Kitaro released his first solo synth album, Ten Kai - Astral Trip, and has never really looked back, since success came fairly rapidly. "I recorded the first album on 8-track, then the next one on two 8-tracks manually synchronised. One song was seven minutes long and I just had to learn to start them together - sometimes I had to push one of the reels back by hand if it was getting too far ahead!"
Kitaro's musical trademark is a gently lilting melody line, with repeated sequences as a backing, and lashings of Japanese percussion, string chords and natural sounds. Since the WEA deal, his music has become a little heavier - a change in approach which we'll touch on later.
Despite the recent modernisation of his sound, Kitaro's most popular albums remain the Silk Road series: soundtracks for Japanese TV's epic documentary series (partly shown on Channel 4 last year). "I recorded over 200 pieces of music in a period of six years, doing one episode per week. At that time I had a studio by the sea, and now I have one in the mountains. Before that I was in the city, in Tokyo - but I didn't like that. I never have a natural feeling in town, and I wanted to get back to a more natural situation. In the middle of doing the series I travelled myself along the Silk Road - the ancient trade route across China - as far as Tun Huang, and that was a great influence."
Kitaro's choice of instruments today is very much influenced by those he used for his Silk Road albums. "My favourite keyboards are the Korg 800DV and the Mini Korg 700 (he's rumoured to have bought six of the latter in case they start breaking down!), because they have a warm, analogue sound. I do use digital synths - I have a DX7, a Korg M1, rack-mount Casios and Korgs, Roland D50s, and samplers in a big MIDI system, but I really like analogue machines; the Prophet 5 and the Roland VP330 Vocoder Plus are favourites as well."
On stage, Kitaro is backed up by American keyboardists Brian Becvar and Michael Becker, who have a rather more up-to-date setup of Kurzweil 250s and samplers mixed by Hill Audio Multimix desks - 16 channels in rack-mount format for just over £1,000. But even the hi-tech guys have to toe the analogue line to some extent, with Roland Jupiter 4 synths in evidence as well as brilliant electric violinist Steve Kindler, guitarist James Behringer, and percussionists Casey Scheuerell and Ken Park. So is it difficult working with an all-American band?
"It was at first, because my English wasn't too good and it was hard to communicate about my music. But the American tour went very well — the Public Broadcast System filmed it, and we played a lot of big places. I also saw Jean-Michel Jarre play in Houston - I was really surprised. I'd love to do something similar [wouldn't we all! - Ed.]. But he can only do one concert like that per year, so I'd prefer to go my own way. Jarre's a good composer - he has many ideas and thinks of many new situations for the music, but I think finally we'll reach the same point by different means. Normally we use lasers and other effects on tour, but not for the London show - there's tons of gear with the instruments alone, so I'll save the lasers until the next time."
Kitaro's London Dominion concert was in fact the largest of his first world tour, with most dates having been sold out. "My albums have been available in Europe for many years, more so than in the US, so I believe the audience is already there. I'd like to be able to do tours with international crews, and to work with musicians from all the countries I've visited."
"The one person I really don't like is Tomita ... he just sits inside a pyramid mixing tapes and using fireworks."
Kitaro's tour was in part intended to promote Ten Years, a retrospective album of re-mixed and re-recorded pieces from many of his earlier successes. "There have been a couple of compilations which I haven't been involved with, but this one is my selection of favourite songs plus a new one, 'Song For Peace', which points the way for my next album. All the music was re-recorded in the current concert arrangements - they're much more lyrical [and, as hinted above, quite a bit heavier!]. I am aware of the demands of the market - the USA is a big market but I also have to think of Japan and Europe, although I'd prefer to just compose the music and let other people take care of the business side."
So, as Kitaro's music becomes more widely available, what impression does he gain of its audience and the way it is being marketed? "Well, I feel very close to the European people, because they've known my music for some time. In the States it's often sold as 'New Age' music; I don't mind, but it's just a record company term. I think Jean-Michel Jarre is doing his own music, Vangelis and Michel Huygen are doing their own music, and I'm doing my own music. The one person I really don't like is Tomita - he's an inventor, not an artist. He just does arrangements of classical pieces. He doesn't play live concerts - he just sits inside a pyramid mixing tapes and using fireworks. He won't become a star sitting inside a pyramid..."
Kitaro does admit to some influence from Western classical music (there's a very Bach-like piece on the new album) but he isn't a trained player. "I just play by ear - I believe in my ear, it's like a second kind of vision."
The fact that his band plays live, largely avoiding the use of sequencers or computers, makes it possible for him to change the concert set each night according to the size of the hall and the mood of the audience. "The audience in Copenhagen was like nothing I'd ever seen before - stamping their feet and clapping so much that we had to do three encores! I was really happy there, even more than in the US. But the Japanese audiences are too quiet, too polite - no standing ovations there!"
At the end of the European tour, which took in Madrid, Barcelona, Hamburg, Paris and Rome, as well as London, Kitaro was set to return to his home studio to continue work on the next album. "I have an Otari 32-track digital recorder now, a professional DAT mastering machine, all the old synths and a lot of new synths - about 40 keyboards altogether. So I think I have enough keyboards! Now I want more acoustic sounds - I bought some African drums in Hamburg, and I want to play piano and percussion a lot more. The piano sound on the Kurzweil is good, but you can't compare it to playing a Steinway piano. I could sample sounds and play all the instruments myself that way, but you have to keep some real ones to make the music sound more human."
Kitaro has been using a Yamaha QX1 sequencer occasionally, and now has an Apple Macintosh for storing sounds from the Kurzweil and editing the Emulator. But he hasn't been using it for sequencing; he only plays a couple of parts on the Yamaha sequencer on stage, and so suffers very few disastrous breakdowns. "We had a little equipment difficulty on a couple of dates, but the audience understands. If I can play anything manually, I will. I don't like using preset sounds - a lot of musicians aren't very creative, so we often hear songs on the radio and we can tell they're using DX7 preset 32 or D50 preset 25. I want to create my own sounds, and that's easier to do on the analogue synths because the digital ones rely so much on their presets."
So, despite the apparent simplicity of Kitaro's early music and his concern with spiritual and natural themes, it wouldn't do to underestimate the power of his sounds or the degree of thought which goes into his compositions. If WEA Records continue to push his career as they have recently, we may well be seeing him in the charts before long. Stranger things have happened...
Interview by Mark Jenkins
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