tue 25/06/2024

Ryuichi Sakamoto: 'Ideally I'm recording all the time, 24 hours a day' - interview | reviews, news & interviews

Ryuichi Sakamoto: 'Ideally I'm recording all the time, 24 hours a day' - interview

Ryuichi Sakamoto: 'Ideally I'm recording all the time, 24 hours a day' - interview

From Xenakis to Oneohtrix Point Never via Bowie and Bootsy, Sakamoto recalls an extraordinary life in music

Ryuichi Sakamoto

Ryuichi Sakamoto has conquered underground and mainstream with seeming ease over four decades, never dropping off in the quality of his releases.

Indeed his most recent projects, following his return to public life after treatment for throat cancer in 2014-15, are among his best. The async album was rightly listed by many, including theartsdesk, as one of 2017's best; the async remodels remixes showed him absolutely keyed in to the electronica zeitgeist, and Glass, his live collaboration album with Carsten Nicolai aka Alva Noto is a worthy addition to the duo's extensive catalogue.

He is also returning to live performance and curation: it has just been announced he is curating the MODE event series in June and July, around his sold-out Barbican show. And if the rooftop show I saw him do with "fog sculptor" Fujiko Nakaya and dancer Min Tanaka in Oslo – where this interview took place last year – is anything to go by, he is still capable of awe-inspiring performances. 

In person, Sakamoto expresses himself thoughtfully and gently, and remains an enthusiast: clearly still in love with learning as much as he is wtih what he already knows. The conversation was also poignant – as well as the questions of his own mortality, we were talking in the shadow of the death of his contemporary and fellow regular David Sylvian collaborator Holger Czukay – and in retrospect seems even more so, as he talked about his hopes for working with Jóhann Jóhannsson, who tragically died weeks after this interview. Nonetheless, it was the enthusiasm and optimism which shone through most, and it is clearly these qualities that keep Sakamoto so creatively vital.

JOE MUGGS: So Ryuichi, you cover a huge amount of ground – do you think about formal categories in your work: production, composition, concept etc?

RYUICHI SAKAMOTO: Only when I have to fill the immigration card on the airplane do I have to consider what my occupation is. Normally I write "composer". I used to write "musician" but especially at Japanese immigration or customs, "musician" means bad people with drugs, so I changed to "composer" as a little bit more respectable. It's a stupid way of imagination but that's the way the world is.

You've been a musician all of your adult life, right?

I think so [laughs]. I never worked for any company or organisation at all – well, when I was a student I had to make a living for myself, so I worked in subway construction, but I was fired in three days. The boss said, "This is not the place for you – go", and I said, "OK!"

Did you have any ambitions other than music?

When I was young I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was, and I still am, interested in history, and also a broader interest of anthropology. So if I didn't become a musician, I think maybe I probably would have become a researcher in anthropology.

SakamotoIs that reflected in the cross-cultural nature of your music?

Definitely. But it's not just other cultures, I am always interested in our ancestors too, in what point the apes started creating culture – music, art and whatever. Our ancestors like Homo Erectus, were they drawing on the walls? Were they making tap tap sounds [he drums on glasses] with stones? We don't know. Once I asked some researchers of apes, whether chimpanzees and gorillas make any sound for fun, for themselves, and they said "no". [He looks crestfallen] But who knows. They might!

It's a fascinating time right now as palaeontologists discover ever more hominids, some which seem to have burial rites and culture.

Yes, they discovered that our relatives the Neanderthals had some kind of funerals, they would put flower petals with the corpse, which means some sort of mythology maybe, definitely a culture.

What was your household like as a kid? Was it a cultured household?

Hmmmmmm... There was not such a direct influence from my parents, but the environment in the house was very cultural because my father was a book editor, who worked with Yukio Mishima and others of the post-war Japanese novelists – so all the time these very young wannabe writers and novelists came to the house, and there was a lot of drinking until the morning, and lots of books in the house, which we had to avoid so the piles didn't collapse on us. Very cultural. Also the kindergarten I went to was one of the most liberal conceptual schools in Japan – actually Yoko Ono went to another branch of this school. In kindergarten I encountered the piano, drawing and painting, art and music.

Japan's culture was quite conservative then, right?

Well, after the war it was very Americanised. I still remember some of the GIs walking around on the streets of Tokyo when I was little.

Were you interested in them and their culture? You've said you got into rock music quite young...

Yes, I was 10 or 11 when the Beatles and Rolling Stones came out. I didn't know if they were British or American – they were Westerners, they were from the West – but I immediately fell in love with both. The first 45rpm record I bought was "Tell Me" by the Rolling Stones, and maybe a week later I went to buy "Please Mr. Postman" by the Beatles – they were my favourite at the time. I was already taking piano lessons since the age of six or seven, so I was listening to the Beatles and Stones, and I was playing Bach, Mozart, Haydn, the classics.

But Debussy is the one you've said you fell in love with...

This was a little later, maybe two years after the Beatles, when I was 13. Two of my uncles were big music-lovers, and they collected a lot of vinyl, so I often went to their room to sneak in and put some vinyl on the turntable. One day, I pulled out an unknown record, which was Debussy's string quartet – the b-side was Ravel’s, quite a typical combination – and I was so shocked, the sound was totally unknown to me, totally fresh. The music I knew then were the real classics. Bach I liked, also Beethoven... and the Beatles, but nothing in between. Then Debussy came into my ear and it was completely different from both sides.

Well, both Bach and the Beatles have minor and major keys, standard Western tonality – Debussy is neither....

You're right! He's based on a mode.

Do you think that sense of mood and atmospherics fit with a Japanese sense of aesthetics?

Hmmm... Asian, maybe. Because he had been to a World Expo and heard Indonesian gamelan music, and it had been a big shock and interested him a lot. So Asian music influenced Debussy and I was influenced by Debussy, it's become a huge circle...

So Asian music influenced Debussy and I was influenced by Debussy, it's become a huge circle...And then once you went to university [he studied for a BA and MA in classical music composition at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music], you started work as a session musician. Was it in any particular style?

I played with free jazz musicians at first. It was fun. I was studying contemporary music in the college, music of the 20th century, especially after-the-war music – Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti... Especially I liked Iannis Xenakis, the Greek composer. I was already interested in computerised music. And freeform jazz was very close to what I was doing in college, so it was natural, easy. Then one night I was in a very tiny bar in Shinjuku with my friends, maybe six people could fill the space, a very tiny bar. Then another young guy [Masato Tomobe] came in to the bar with long hair like I had, with an acoustic guitar. Naturally we started talking with each other, and I found out he's a folk singer, but I never really seriously heard or listened to Japan's folk music then.

It was very early 70s, and folk music like Bob Dylan was a big influence on Japanese folk singers – like everywhere. I got interested, I liked him, I explained I'm a music student, I play piano, I'm composing and everything – and he invited me to go to his recording the next day. I had no idea about his music, but I was interested, I heard his music, which was very down to earth, Bob Dylan-like folk music, which I never liked before, but I started playing backing for him and he liked it. I ended up on his album actually, and I found out he was pretty well-known! He liked it, and I had a lot of time, so he invited me to go on a tour, just two of us and his manager, for half a year all round Japan. My first time to see all the small corners of Japan, playing small clubs.

And you built connections for session work from there?

Yes, lots of managers or other musicians heard my playing and so I got a lot more offers to do concerts or recordings. That's how I started.

Back then, did you have any separation in your mind between the compositions you were doing and the pop or folk music you worked on?

They were different, very different. From a serious side, I was still thinking of using computers for composing music, but not exactly in the way the composers I studied did – I was thinking of my own way to use it. At the time there was no personal computer at all, there were only a couple of researchers and professors using computers for music, it was very far away from normal life. But [with the folk music] sometimes I might get 50 or 100 people watching me, I went all over Japan, and it was fun. They were two different things.

Did you know anything about what was happening in Germany at the time? Obviously we're thinking a lot about Holger Czukay at the moment [Czukay died the week before this interview]: he came from the lineage of Stockhausen but applied the tape experiments to jazz, rock and music with a groove...

It's kind of complicated. Yes, I was studying serious music, but I was listening to rock music since the Beatles, a lot of psychedelic West Coast American music, and British rock, of course. Then in the early 70s I started to discover German rock, and early Kraftwerk – when they were still an experimental rock band. I liked them a lot and started collecting their vinyl, around '71, '72. That's around the same time I met this folk singer, but I was still playing with the free jazz musicians too, so many different things. Serious music at the university, folk music, rock, and free jazz. I was very busy. In the daytime I was playing with the folk-rock singer, late at night I was playing with free jazz musicians, in the afternoon I was going to the shops collecting lots of vinyl. I was busy!

A lucky position to be in to be – so immersed!

I think so!

And as the 70s went on, you were playing on all sorts, even Japanese soul records...

Yeah. I started getting offers not only for playing but also arranging and producing songs for other artists, and it was through those sessions that I got to know Yukihiro Takahashi and Haruomi Hosono. Mr Hosono is five years older than than Yukihiro and I, and he was already considered a leader of a new kind of Japanese music school in the 70s. It was considered as a privilege to be called by Hosono to join his sessions – and we were called, Yukihiro and I, to do a session for Hosono's album. We found out later that this was a kind of audition for forming Yellow Magic Orchestra. Soon after this session, I got a call, "Will you come to my house?” I was there, and we were shown some kind of drawing by Hosono himself – it was of Mount Fuji erupting, and it said "five million sales" [laughs]. His dream was of creating unique music and exporting it to the world from Japan. I liked the idea, so I said "OK".

That kind of mischievous, semi-serious manifesto was vital to YMO, right? Were there any direct influences on that? It suggests a little bit the humour of, say, Frank Zappa or Devo...

I liked Devo a lot! It was really because around that time, Japan was still surrounded by the idea of it being a mysterious country, a new kind of culture, and also economical problems were emerging for the American market from Japanese cars and TVs, so it was kind of controversial to bring out Japanese culture to the world and especially the United States. Japanese cars came out, Japanese TVs came out, the fashion came out like Kenzo or Issey [Miyake], and after the fashion came the music – or that's what the newspapers said at the time, anyway. And that was good to make us controversial, it sold our records!

SakamotoI've read you say before that you didn't particularly like media and fan attention, though. Did the humour and satire also serve as a shield for you?

Yes. Yes. Definitely. It helped us make a distance. Because Japan was such a mysterious country there were a lot of misunderstandings going on. Typically the image of the Japanese people in Hollywood movies was mixed with Chinese and Vietnamese and etcetera, typically with a camera and glasses, bowing, exchanging name cards, all of that. So we laughed at that, but we wanted to use those images also. That's one of the reasons we chose the red Chinese Mao suit, it was deliberately not properly Japanese, not truly Chinese either, because a red Mao suit didn't actually exist, it was completely made up, a complicated mix of images involved.

Was that controversial in Japan?

Not so much. The funny thing was that some Japanese people misunderstood and thought we were from China [chuckles]. So that's good, we liked that.

One thing that was happening around then was the transition from the end of disco into modern club culture, with the birth of electro and things like that, which of course you influenced. Were you someone who went to dance clubs?

I did. I did. I was someone who was into club culture around that time. Not so much to dance, but because clubs were the hubs of different things – fashion people, graphic designers, musicians. I'm not a good dancer, I didn't dance so much, but those were good places where you could meet with different creators.

Did that include in New York? That moment at the turn of the 80s was special for just what you describe with the likes of Basquiat, Fab Five Freddy and so on...

Yes, I went to some of those clubs, in the very very late night, almost the morning.

Did you ever hear your own music played in those clubs?

No, no, not really. But "Riot in Lagos" was a big influence, I heard. Also, when I met Africa Bambaataa, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk MADE hip hop happen, he said. [laughs] I was grateful.

How about later on? You had a remix album of YMO in the early 90s – did you ever get into the club culture of rave and acid house and so on?

Sometimes... sometimes I went to those raves, especially after I moved to New York in 1990. I went to some of those... gatherings, a lot of them with just younger black kids. It was very interesting to me to see that specific culture, the responses between the DJ and audience. Also I went to see a lot of the poetry – slam poetry – of the 1990s, and I got to see that hip hop is based on a lot of the long history of African-American literature and oral traditions.

Has it continually been important to you to find things you've never heard before?

Yes. Always. Recently I heard this expression that "the world is improvising", and so I want to capture the world's improvisations as much as I can. I always carry the iPhone with a small mic. Of course, because it's an improvisation, everything is an improvisation, unexpected events will happen all of a sudden, so this [mimes switching on the iPhone app] isn't fast enough. Ideally I'm recording all the time, 24 hours a day, but I can't. This is quick, though, in a few seconds I can start recording, and I get a lot of interesting samples all the time.

How about new music? Some people think innovation has slowed and we don't hear newness as much as we did as when, say, techno or hip hop were born...

Things still change. The technology, internet, blockchain, all these kind things are changing every day, they're always very short-term, tiny changes and movements. Tiny revolutions, maybe. But forgotten within a week. The revolution of the Beatles could last one decade, let's say. But the tiny revolutions we are seeing today last a very short period.Sakamoto and Carsten Nicolai

[Publicist signals to wind up] OK, I can see – ironically given what you've just said – we're running out of time, so I'll have to speed through a few other questions! You've worked with the most amazing array of people from Bootsy Collins to Iggy Pop. Who've had the most effect on you?

[Very long pause] Very different in different periods throughout my life. In the 80s David Sylvian was a huge influence on me. But after 2000, Carsten Nicolai (pictured above). Still, he has a huge impact on me. But actually movies have a big influence on me, as much as any collaborator like Carsten. Movies I like – Tarkovsky's movies, or lately I'm obsessed with Bresson's movies, these have a big big impact. Throughout my life, Bach might be the biggest influence.

Talking about movies, is there a special discipline to writing for someone else's vision?

Definitely making music for myself and making music for films is very different. Could be very similar – could be the same – but could be very different indeed. The images have a certain tempo and pace and so it would conflict with the music tempo unless you match them. That's something you don't have to think of when you make music for yourself. Unless it matches right, it could kill the film!

Do you have a favourite of the film scores you've written?

The most memorable that I've written is from Little Buddha – the very last cue from Little Buddha. I was so satisfied with the quality of the music, with the role of the music in the film, and Bertolucci also liked it. That was actually the fifth trial I did for that cue. Four trials were rejected by Bertolucci, and that was the fifth one, it was a hard task – maybe that's why it was the most memorable! Recently, the theme of The Revenant is something I'm satisfied with, too.

How are you managing your workrate now?

I have reduced the amount of work because my health is a priority right now. I get a lot of offers, and have to reject some. Luckily I'm getting lots and lots of offers, and I have lots of desire for creation still. I would certainly like to work more, but my health is a priority, so I have to get balance. I'm doing more film music than before. I'm thinking to work maybe two films a year – because my energy level is lower than before, it's hard to go on a tour. But then if I get a special invitation to do something like this [the Oslo show], then I love to do some performance. Not all the time, though. I prefer working in the studio, so film music is perfect. I spent eight months for async – that’s ideal to me. Working on two films' music in a year with no work for a solo album is also ideal. But together, it has been a bit too much in the past two years.

Is there any political dimension to your work?

I usually do not use my music as a means for social or political propaganda. Because, although that was before I was born, seeing the way the Nazis used the music of Wagner traumatised me a lot since I was a teen. But as a person, I am deeply concerned about where the world is going, in the EU, UK, US, Asia and Japan. I never thought I would see the world get controlled by a dictatorial power in my life.

How did you choose the remixers for async remodels, and are there any of them you might work with further in future?

I discussed with Milan records staff, but basically they are artists I admire. I have been deeply impressed by Oneohtrix Point Never for years and Jóhann Jóhannsson is a very good friend of mine. I would love to collaborate with them in the future.

When I interviewed you for MOJO earlier in the year, you said it was your "great regret" you'd never made music with David Bowie. Could you sum up what your relationship with him was in the years after Mr Lawrence?

We spent almost two months together every day on a Pacific island for the shooting of the movie. But unfortunately I spoke little English at that time. After the shooting, we saw each other several times here and there but I lost contact with him. Later on, I found he was living in downtown New York, and so did I, so I should have tried to reconnect to talk because he was such an intellectual guy whose talk was very fun and interesting to hear. So, it’s not only for music [that I regret it], but more for personal friendship.

Parts of async – most obviously "fullmoon" – address mortality, and a lot of your works in the past few years seem to feature disappearance and ghostliness in their textures. Has it been conscious on your part to address this in your music?

Yes, I was aware of that since around 2009. I was becoming to think the decaying and the disappearance of the piano sound is somehow very much symbolic of life and its mortality. It's not sad. I just meditate about it. Also I have a longing for sustaining sounds such as violin or organ. Is it too simple to say those sustaining sounds symbolise immortality?

Last of all: what do you enjoy doing outside music? What do you do to relax in New York or Tokyo? A friend told me you're a fan of Family Guy, is that right?

I was a fan of Family Guy and Curb Your Enthusiasm. I watch a lot of Korean and Chinese films nowadays. Also reading. And a little bit of yoga. Making coffee.

  • The MODE event series takes place across London from June 19 to July 8
Parts of this interview originally appeared in a Guardian feature in February

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