Spencer Doran on Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Environmental, Ambient & New Age Music 1980-1990

Spencer Doran’s home is as spare and tastefully appointed as the music he creates with his friend Ryan Carlile under the name Visible Cloaks. The array of plants surrounding an unused fireplace. An inviting stack of Japanese magazines resting on the floor. The poster for Valerie and Her Week of Wonders on the wall. The thoughtfully chosen furniture. Nothing looks or feels out of place.

That goes for the soundtrack for the grey morning that I visited Doran’s house recently. Spinning on his turntable throughout my visit were a series of beautiful Japanese albums from the ‘80s, crafted by composers and performers whose work nestled into a lush, cozy spot fed by the concurrent streams of new age and early ambient music and made almost entirely using synthesizers. The kind of sounds that can bring a hush to a room or sent a small shiver of calm running through the brain.

The records that he was sharing—by artists like Takashi Kokubo and Hiroshi Yoshimura—were just a few of the dozens that he picked from to make up the tracklist for Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Environmental, Ambient & New Age Music 1980-1990, a new compilation out on Light In The Attic. The collection looks at this substrata of Japanese music, born out of a growing interest in new computer and synthesizer technology, and, in part, conceived as a reaction to a craze for the piano music of Erik Satie following a series of concerts that took place in 1975. As Doran writes in his wonderfully detailed liner notes for the set, “A whole new generation of Japanese musicians would find influence both in his calmly spacious piano pieces and his visionary (and somewhat tongue-in-cheek) concept of furniture music—a music made to intermingle with the sounds and environment of everyday life.”

Doran invited me into his home to talk about this subgenre of Japanese music, where it came from, who supported it, and why the world is finally catching up to it now.

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me where you interest in this strain of Japanese music started. How did that begin?

Spencer Doran: When I was in my late teens, I did this 12” that came out in Japan. I sort of had this weird, really early music career where I did this string of five albums that only came out there. I had this weird Japanese fan base before I ever released any music in America. I toured over there and have all these connections to people there. I didn’t really get deep into the stuff until way after that, but that’s where I found [Ryuichi] Sakamoto’s music and [Yellow Magic Orchestra] and those sort of things for the first time. I got really into this record B-2 Unit, this Sakamoto record that came out in 1981. It was just finding more about the music and realizing, “Oh, there’s something interesting going on here.”

The big breakthrough for me that led me into this world was hearing the music of Hiroshi Yoshimura, who was this person that, at that time, there was not a whole lot of information in the West. Even people in Japan didn’t really seem to know or care about his music very much. There’s a record Air In Resort that you can actually find. It’s still a cheap record. They made thousands and thousands of copies. It was a promotional thing for [Japanese cosmetics company] Shiseido, for this perfume. It comes in this plastic bag, and they sprayed the perfume in the bag so all the copies smell kind of weird. I found a copy and thought it was amazing and wanted to find all the music that this guy did. And then, in relation to him, and Satoshi Ashikawa who was the conceptual backbone to a lot of this movement. He released Hiroshi’s first record and did this record called Still Way. And then researching the socio-economic background of what was happening in the country at that time, figuring out, “Why was this music happening? Why was there such a cradle for it?” I did a couple of mixes that got popular and someone from Light In The Attic approached me about doing this project. Then I went even deeper down the rabbit hole.

AD: I had no idea about that early music you released in Japan..how did that happen?

Spencer Doran: It feels kind of distant, but I used to do instrumental hip-hop when I was a teenager. I made this 12” that people played in clubs. And there was this guy Peter Agoston who lived in the town where I grew up, in Arcata, California, and he ran this record label Female Fun, but he was the guy who put out all the MF Doom instrumental records. He was this writer, ran a label, and was kind of my manager. So we went over there to do a tour.

The funny thing is that I only did one record in that style. When I went to college, I got more into making experimental music, things on the ambient spectrum or kind of Fourth World-y. So most of the releases I did over there were like that but they wanted me to do the other music. That’s how my music career ended there. But it’s been reignited since I’ve been doing Visible Cloaks. Now, Japan is maybe the biggest fanbase there. We just did a record with Yoshio Ojima and Satsuki Shibano, which is coming out in April, people who are on the comp, and we’re going to do a bunch of shows over there.

Connecting with Yoshio really accelerated my research for this because he was very much a man on the scene and he knew everyone and was kind of an archivist and has all this material. Getting to spend a lot of time with him was clutch for this project, crystallizing it into what it became.

AD: When you were visiting Japan to play shows, even early on, were you collecting a lot of these records at the time?

Spencer Doran: Not so much. I got deeper into this substrain living in the U.S. and trading records with Japanese dealers that I knew. Finding things online. A fair amount of it, in the later ‘80s, everything become CDs. It’s changing now, but you used to be able to get those for one yen on Japanese Amazon. It was a combination and digging by proxy. But then I started going back over there more recently, meeting with Yoshio and doing that record.

The piece he did that’s on the comp was this environmental music/sound design for this post-modern building called The Spiral, which is in this big shopping district in Aoyama in western Tokyo. That building’s still there and they still play his music in there.

AD: When you got approached to do this, was it pretty easy to figure out what tracks to choose?

Spencer Doran: We cast a really wide net initially. I did this mix called “Music Interiors,” which was really the blueprint that became this. It has, not necessarily the same tracks, but a lot of the same artists. It was specifically more vaporous and airy and was trying to investigate that aesthetic of consumerist culture that the music grew out of. This project took about four years from its initial tracklist. Three-fourths of that was figuring out the licensing, which was a total nightmare. A fair amount of the things we wanted to put on there, we couldn’t get the rights to.

Also, there’s this guy Daisuke Hinata, who was in this band Interior who is on the comp and whose brother Toshifumi Hinata is also on there, he lives in Los Angeles and is good friends with the guy who ran Alpha Records. That was another stumbling block, getting all the things we wanted from Alpha, like the Sakamoto track and a couple of others, which are only on the LP version because we could only get the LP rights for a lot of stuff. The streaming version is even fewer tracks because there were only so many that we could get digital rights to. That’s kind of common because some of those albums are already on streaming and they don’t want these dual placements.

AD: What’s interesting to me is that this compilation feels like the perfect companion to this other comp that came out recently [Tokyo Nights (Female J-Pop Boogie Funk: 1981 to 1988)], which looked at the same economic boom but as reflected through a different angle. Music that was trying to reflect the modern jet-set lifestyle of some Japanese people.

Spencer Doran: The funny thing is that it’s mostly the same musicians. Sakamoto and Hosono were a part of this crew of people that were like the Wrecking Crew of the Japanese pop scene in the late ‘70s going into the ‘80s. Yasuaki Shimizu was another person who plays sax on all these boogie records but was also making this ambient music being used in commercials at the time. The people in Interior were session musicians, too.

The way I view it is that there are three different strains or scenes of music within this [kankyō ongaku] scene. There’s all these musicians coming from the pop universe, the Hosono/Sakamoto/YMO axis. There’s all these musicians come from an avant-garde background. That’s like Ashikawa and Yoshimura and people who were part of the post-Fluxus, late ‘70s Tokyo scene. Then there’s all these musicians coming from the psychedelic rock world, like the Far East Family Band, which Akari Ito and Kitaro were in and made a record produced by Klaus Schulze. They went the more traditional new age direction of making healing music and that sort of thing whereas the people in the avant-garde world ended up being part of the architectural design, which is another current that’s running through this. People that were hired to do sound design consulting for physical spaces like The Spiral. And then Hosono and Sakamoto, who made what I traditionally think of as ambient music.


AD: How much of the impact did the technology of the time have on the sound of this music?

Spencer Doran: YMO was the first group to use an 808 on Japanese record. And because there’s such a direct connection to the corporate world and proximity that sort of stuff. These people were the first to get these instruments that were coming out. Takashi Kokubo had a deal with all these synth companies where he would be basically play testing their instruments before they were even released. There’s this very immediate use of technology that definitely shapes the way it sounds. Especially Hideki Matsutake, who did the third track on the comp and was the synth programmer for YMO. His aesthetic that you can hear going through Japanese pop music in that time. It’s very much a command of technology. You look at the liner notes for a lot of these records and it will say, “Computer programming by Hideki Matsutake.” That’s a big part of why this music sounds so contemporary still. It was ahead of its time because people were able to get so deep into these things.

AD: It was interesting too to read how tied in so much of this music was to commercial interests. I’m thinking not only of the piece that Yoshio made for The Spiral but the piece on the comp that came from an album that was given away by Sanyo when someone bought an air conditioning unit.

Spencer Doran: That’s very much the context that this exists in, this type of capitalist, consumerist culture. One of the really interesting things is that it’s all heavily subsidized. These companies would get a tax write-off for funding the arts. Once that collapsed in the early ‘90s, all these scenes just disappeared.

AD: I suppose I should be surprised that almost none of this music really made it to the U.S. Interior’s album was released by Windham Hill and YMO toured here a bit but beyond that…

Spencer Doran: When we initially started getting in touch with these artists, they were amazed that anyone cared. Like Takashi Kokubo, when we got in touch with him, he didn’t even remember making this album. We saw he was asking his friends on Facebook, “Does anyone remember this record I did in 1988?”

AD: Was it easy to track down the master tapes for all of the tracks you used on the comp?

Spencer Doran: People are pretty good about having good archives. It’s a cultural thing that people are pretty organized with their catalog. Yosuke Kitazawa, who works for Light In The Attic in the licensing department, is second generation Japanese, but grew up in a Japanese household, so he’s dually fluent. He’s been clutch in making this and the Hosono project too. He also put together [Even A Tree Can Shed Tears], the comp of Japanese folk music that they did…If we didn’t have someone dually fluent, it would have been impossible.

With Joe Hisaishi, we initially wanted to license a piece from one of the soundtracks he did for Studio Ghibli but they have a rule where they will only license that music as a full album. So I had to go, “Oh, I have this record that you did before he even started making soundtracks.” This pop record that had one ambient track on it.

AD: Were there any more situations like that, of having to cherry pick songs from an otherwise more traditional pop album that would fit the theme of this collection?

Spencer Doran: YMO’s another great example of that. I was trying to illustrate that the philosophy behind this music had seeped into popular culture and you would see it in the direction that pop productions took and the one-off tracks on records. Becoming part of the public consciousness through these mega pop albums.

AD: You wrote a lot of the notes in the booklet for this comp as well. How much of that information did you already have and how much did you have to dig and research?

Spencer Doran: It was a mix. We did interviews with a lot of the people and we did a bunch of research. What’s really cool is that this music has been really well researched and written about in Japan. It was just a matter of getting things translated. Hiroshi Yoshimura wrote four books about his musical process. There’s a book that Satoshi Ashikawa was involved in called Kankyō Ongaku, What Is Ambient Music? that has all these essays written by him and Midori Takada. There’s a discography in the back that has a guide to Western music like this but there’s all these same Japanese records that ended up on the comp.

Then in the middle of me doing this, this book by Paul Roquet, Ambient Media: Japanese Atmospheres of Self, came out, which is a great critical theory analysis of the music of that time and film and installation art. A lot of what he was really deeply researching were aspects I was really interested in, threads that I was on that he helped fleshed out. Especially the stuff about the influence of Satie and how these performances of his music ignited this Satie craze in Japan which is what helps crystallize a lot of the ideas behind this music.

AD: Do you have any sense of why Satie made such a connection with Japanese audiences and listeners at that time?

Spencer Doran: That’s a little more nebulous. Brian Eno’s resonance, which happened around the same time, kind of makes sense because he has this Cage-ian influence. And then John Cage was, in turn, influenced by Zen Buddhism and [D.T. Suzuki’s] lectures at Columbia in the ‘30s. That makes sense to me, but exactly why Satie resonates is harder to pinpoint. But the same people that were doing those performances were part of the ‘70s avant-garde, who in turn influenced the first generation of these musicians.

AD: It’s also worth noting, I think, that there is only one female artist featured on this comp.

Spencer Doran: Yeah, I tried to balance it a little better. But Midori Takada’s music all got blocked and Ichiko Hashimoto, who played keyboards for YMO, her music we couldn’t get. Even if we had gotten all the songs we wanted, it still would’ve been uneven. You need to have a degree of cultural relativism going into this. It is very reflective of the patriarchal dynamic of the record industry at that time. The female figures were the singers and the people who did the lyric writing, but the producers were a very male dynamic.

AD: Are you aware of this scene impacting artists or producers, especially in the ‘90s after the scene dissipated?

Spencer Doran: Not that I’m really aware of. Definitely Hosono has been a huge influence in Japanese popular music, and you can feel that in the work of Nobukazu Takemura and people like that. But as far as the more underground musicians, not to my knowledge. Now, it’s becoming a thing that younger Japanese musicians are getting into. There’s all these neo-kankyō ongaku music that’s happening. [H. Takahashi] is this architectural designer who started making ambient music. And there’s this great artist named Enitowka who made this record that was commissioned by a tea company with field recordings of the fields where the tea is grown, incorporating that into the ambient music he was making. It’s funny because with vaporwave or whatever, there’s a huge interest in Japanese culture. In itself , it’s this weird fetishization of this cultural history that’s getting refracted back into the culture itself.

AD: Besides your interest in it and the work that you do in Visible Cloaks that is influenced by artists like those on the compilation, this music seems to be having a wider resurgence right now. Do you have any thoughts on why that is?

Spencer Doran: I think it’s just a matter of this music finally being heard. There was no way for people to hear it for so long. But with the internet and reissue culture, people have a really easy access point to it. I think the music inherently resonates with people, not because of the way it’s being delivered but because of the quality of the music itself. People like to talk about, “Oh there’s some sort of YouTube algorithm that’s accelerating the popularity of these records and the reissue labels are exploiting this.” I really don’t agree with that.

People also like to talk about it, like, “The contemporary digital environment makes people need self-care or something,” which I really don’t buy into. I don’t really use this music as a tool. That’s an interesting thing Roquet talks about in his book is ambient music being this neoliberal response to people using media as a tool for self-management. I think it exists as art external from any use it might have. I think it’s great that people can find that sort of use for it, but I think it has a deeper meaning. words/r ham

Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which will allow readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.