On completion of a new solo album and the soundtrack to the latest screen version of Wuthering Heights, Ryuichi Sakamoto finds himself centre stage yet again. Paul Tingen talks to the Renaissance Man of modern music.
Ryuichi Sakamoto searches for words: "Yes... it's... ehm... when you walk anywhere down in New York, you hear dance beats all over, from the cars, from the radio, from... how do you call it? radio... these boxes. Obviously in the dance clubs, those dance beats go mainly bfff bfff bfff bfff [imitates the sound of a four-on-the-floor bass drum]... or from somebody's headphones passing by."
I remember from the first time I interviewed the Japanese artist, five years ago, that his English was very limited, and observe that it has improved only very slightly, making the job of interviewing him a slightly nerve-wracking experience. This time, though, his sentences are slightly longer, and his capacity to elaborate slightly larger. His extensive collaborations with Western artists over the last few years must have borne this fruit. At the moment, Sakamoto is explaining the inspiration for his brand new solo album, Heartbeat, the follow-up to 1990's monumental Beauty.
"First of all, those dance beats sounded similar to heartbeats to me. Then I wondered why people wanted to hear these dance beats so much. My answer is that they want to go back to their mother's womb, because we were hearing similar beats inside our mother's bodies for nine months. We all did. But why this desire to go back to the womb? Again my answer is that the world isn't very nice. The environment is being destroyed. Human society is very uncomfortable, because of the many wars. I started recording this album just around the time the Gulf War was going on. People were upset. I was upset. And there was not only the Gulf war, but also the changes in Eastern Europe and Russia, plus many conflicts in the Third World. So we cannot be happy anymore. The world has become a very uncomfortable environment, so people want to be somewhere else. And I think that our mother's womb is the best environment we've had so far."
After this short monologue, he leans back into the sofa and lights a cigarette. We're sitting in a lounge in a West London hotel, where Sakamoto has decided to face the press, answering questions about Heartbeat. Several streaks of grey hair aside, he hasn't changed much in five years. His most striking characteristic appears to be the same as it was then: he's quite simply uncannily polite and forthcoming, giving the feeling that he genuinely cares that the interviewer should be at ease.
Of all the artists I've met, the difference between the public and the private persona is greatest in Sakamoto's case. On photographs, and also, for example, in the movie Merry Xmas Mr Lawrence, in which he starred with David Bowie and Tom Conti, he often comes across as a rather menacing, aloof, brooding, very serious character. And what about plastering your own sweaty portrait, complete with naked torso, all over your solo album, and calling it Beauty? Surely this must be a particularly vain and self-obsessed individual? Perhaps. But in real life there's not a trace of it, although sweat is indeed dripping off his forehead — and mine — as temperatures in London soar.
As we try to focus our minds in the heat, I question Sakamoto further about Heartbeat. Personally I'd expect back-to-the-womb type music to be warm, intimate, organic. But Heartbeat is strongly inspired by the aggression and directness of dance music. It features rap and dance artists like Jungle DJ Towa Towa and Super DJ Dimitri of Deee-Lite, in a track called 'Rap The World', and has its fair share of dance rhythms and samples. Isn't it strange for back-to-the womb music to be so aggressive? Sakamoto must have thought about this one, because his answer comes immediately: "No. The harshness of the kickdrum to me indicates the intensity of the desire to go back to the womb."
Sakamoto must be well placed to observe this, since he's left his homeland and now lives and works in that harshest of cities, New York. Except, of course, when he's travelling the world for one of his multitude of collaborations, to write and record a film score perhaps, or to act. The scope of Sakamoto's activities at the moment is stunning; he is, without doubt, an artist at the pinnacle of his creative powers. Apart from having released two solo albums over the last two years, he's written the score for Bertolucci's film The Sheltering Sky, and was recently in London working with MIDI/Mac programmer and SOS writer Mike Collins on the soundtrack of the forthcoming movie Wuthering Heights (starring Sinead O'Connor). Orchestral parts were recorded at CTS studios.
This summer he will perform his 30-minute composition 'El Mediterraneon' for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games in Barcelona, and he's also writing music for the opening ceremonies of the World Paralympics. On top of this, he's scheduled to score and star in the next film from director Nagisha Oshima, known for Merry Xmas, Mr Lawrence and Ai No Corrida (In The Realm Of The Senses). No wonder that his hotel, and also the Covent Garden art gallery where he'd earlier given a short concert (playing a Yamaha MIDI grand connected to a Yamaha SY77 and Korg T2), with David Sylvian and Ingrid Chavez on vocals, had been swamped with journalists. Yet even after playing a concert and giving dozens of interviews — I'm almost the last of the day — Sakamoto's courtesy and patience are still intact.
"I had some difficulty in recording with Youssou N'Dour, because the key of the backing track changes all the time, and he stayed in one key, so sometimes the singing and the chords are clashing."
He listens alertly to all my questions, and he answers after a long pause, as if he's formulating his response carefully before releasing it into the world. But when he thinks he spots a misconception, he reacts instantly — for example, when asked whether the heartbeat theme of his new album is intended to help his audience cope with a hostile world. "No, no. It's just the inspiration." He obviously doesn't aim for his music to have any socially soothing function. What clearly counts first and foremost for Sakamoto is art and innovation, the desire to explore new musical avenues and combinations.
It's been like that ever since his Yellow Magic Orchestra days of the late '70s and early '80s. Before this, he'd studied classical composition in his native Tokyo, and worked as a session player. International fame loomed with YMO, where he redrew the borders of what was possible on the synthesizer, and invented technopop, adding an ironic and often humorous touch to the pioneering work of Kraftwerk.
After leaving YMO, he embarked on a solo career, and also began his long-term collaboration with David Sylvian. Heartbeat is his sixth UK release. Like Beauty, Heartbeat is a wild cocktail of influences and collaborations, something which over the years has become his signature. Beauty was a genuine collage, with Japanese, hip hop, dance, rock, folk, technopop and other influences thrown in, making a vibrant whole which was considerably more than the sum of its parts. This was a remarkable achievement, with a list of collaborators as diverse as Robbie Robertson, Brian Wilson, Robert Wyatt, Shankar, Sly Dunbar, Nana Vasconcelos and Youssou N'Dour.
Heartbeat is more focused. The only direct Japanese influence this time is the vocal in the atmospheric track 'Nuages'. There are a couple of piano/synth instrumentals — 'Epilogue' and 'Song Lines' — a strange collaboration with Youssou N'Dour, 'Borom Gal', in which Sakamoto is modulating almost every bar and N'Dour doesn't quite seem to follow, the jazzy 'Lulu' with John Lurie, the almost inevitable track with David Sylvian, 'Tanai Kaiki II', plus the aforementioned dance tracks.
Sakamoto appears pleased when I observe that Heartbeat has more of a unity of style (it's the beginning of the interview, so I don't — yet — add that I also think that it's a weaker album than Beauty). "I'm glad to hear that. I didn't plan it, but it simply happened that way. One reason is that this was the shortest recording in my life. It took two months from the beginning to the end, whilst Beauty took five months to make." He recounts that he started work at home in NY, behind his Macintosh computer, with Performer software, and a Korg T2 master keyboard (an advance from the NEC and DX7 he was using five years ago). His other current keyboards are a Yamaha SY77 and SY99, a Korg M1R, plus Akai S1000 and Roland S770 samplers.
"If you have a band and you do a jam session in the studio, you can make an album in a week. But when you're sitting in front of a computer, it may take you four to five months to make an album."
"Obviously I sit in front of a keyboard, then move my fingers. I record everything I do in the computer and later edit or re-write it and put different bits and pieces together." The real revelation is that whereas Sakamoto tended to start in the past with "melodic phrases or motifs", for Heartbeat he started with "looped dance beats. Just for listening over and over. Then I'd spend time finding counter-lines, a bass, guitar, whatever." This may explain the distinctly different feel of Heartbeat. The composer explains that he has most of his songs pretty much laid out by the time he calls in his collaborators, who then have the freedom to take great liberties: "I give them my ideas for each song, and then they write the song by themselves. I usually don't give them too many directions, because if they play just what I want them to play, there's no reason why I should work with them. I could do the part with sampled sounds or whatever. The reason I work with them is that I need some surprises, or phrases which I can't do myself. So I need good surprises."
Sakamoto doesn't use musicians to achieve human feel. He actually likes the rigidity of computer generated music — one of YMO's most important features — and doesn't see any reason why he should work at making things sound human per se. The guest players on his record are there purely for their creative input. I ask him about the Youssou N'Dour track 'Borom Gal', which sounds curious, to say the least. "Well, I had some difficulty in recording with him, because the key of the backing track changes all the time, and he stayed in one key, so sometimes the singing and the chords are clashing." So that wasn't really your intention? "Not really, but it is interesting (laughs). That same kind of clashes also happen in house music. People sample a bit of singing and put it to a bassline which is in a different key. Or let's say they sample a chord from somewhere which is a C6 and then on the 5th bar they move it up to an Eb6, but the bass is still in the same key and then there's suddenly a bit of singing coming in which is in D. That happens a lot in house music, and it's really very effective and interesting."
Nevertheless, dance music is, in essence, harmonically very simple. This begs the question of how Sakamoto copes with continuously moving between two worlds, the harmonically complex orchestral world, and the very basic world of rock'n'roll. Does he sometimes become wrapped up in trying to be too clever, or does he feel a tendency towards the arty snobbishness which is so prevalent in much of the classical academic world? It takes him a little while to understand the question, as if he never makes the classical/pop distinction himself. Then: "That reminds me of over 10 years ago, of the time when I became interested in reggae music. It was the late '70s and I was about to start technopop. In the beginning reggae music sounded just awful to me. It was too simple for me, both rhythmically and harmonically. But then I started noticing that reggae music has some hidden dimension, let's say a third dimension. Suddenly I could see the geometry of it. It reminded me of the very simple 3D computer graphics of that time, where there were only lines and no shadows. That's how my interest in simple beats started, because I could see 3D computer patterns in there. But I'd already been using black music since the late '60s. I liked Sly and the Family Stone and Hancock's Headhunters. And by the time we started YMO, I was really into beats. I even found a similarity between technopop and reggae music. Both sounded like 3-dimensional computer graphics."
The only time when Sakamoto uses real instruments purely for their sound, rather than for the player, is whilst working with orchestras. He's an accomplished classical composer whose writing of film scores is more and more in demand. So does he mix MIDI and real instruments for his film scores? "Not all the time. I apply them in different combinations. The score for Wuthering Heights, however, is exclusively symphonic, just the orchestra, no synths. I wrote MIDI demos for each track, and funnily enough some of those demos sounded more emotional than the orchestra. I used the orchestra, because the sound quality and feeling is different, and the sound of these demos was too different from the sound of the orchestra to use them in conjunction, which was a shame."
Sakamoto is unusual in that he actually likes the mechanical precision of sequencers, and the fact that he sometimes prefers the performance of his MIDI demos to a real-life orchestra shows that he's hardly worried by the possibility of technology sounding 'cold' or 'inhuman'. All in all, his attitude towards technology is remarkably uncomplicated.
When asked about this, he doesn't deliver long sermons on the possible dangers and ways to avoid them, but says cheerfully: "I see no danger in the modern music technology at all. It simply makes the whole of my recording process easier and longer (laughs). Because you now can control so many things, that simply takes a lot of time. If you have a band and you do a jam session in the studio, you can make an album in a week. But when you're sitting in front of a computer, it may take you four to five months to make an album. It just takes a lot of time. I think it's great that I now have control over editing, because it allows me to put more emotion into music. I think it expands your possibilities. In the past we had 38 steps per quarter note, now we have 480 steps per quarter note. That helps me to express all my emotions into music. And I can control the loudness and velocity and all those things."
Sakamoto draws a parallel between this kind of editing and conducting an orchestra — "both are about controlling the different parts" — and illustrates his point about technology enhancing emotional expression by using the two instrumental piano/synth tracks on his new album, 'Song Lines' and 'Epilogue', as examples. "I played both pieces live on the T2, straight into the computer. Then I edited them just slightly, because a performance is never perfect. You regret things, however small, all the time. Even a pianist like Horowitz was never perfect. I'm sure he would have wanted to edit his performances if he could have. So now you can be virtually perfect. But that doesn't mean that your music is cold. It can be very emotional."
Interview by Paul Tingen
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