Between and Beyond :: Japan’s Mutant Pop Underground

Over the past five years, Light in the Attic have offered wanderlusting listeners a series of primers with reissue compilations featuring music not yet released officially outside of Japan. This began with Even A Tree Can Shed Tears, a collection of folk and rock dating back to the late 1960s that Aquarium Drunkard’s Ben Kramer hailed for its “wide breadth of transcendent and sublime musicians.” From here, the label flashed ahead to Japan’s bubble economy innovations of the 1980s with two volumes of their City Pop series, Pacific Breeze. Japanese ambient and environmental music from this era then became some of LITA’s most popular offerings, with their Kankyō Ongaku compilation described by Robert Ham as “sounds that can bring a hush to a room or send a small shiver of calm running through the brain.” 

The label’s latest collection is called Somewhere Between, and it’s an apt title for the genre-defiant artists falling through the cracks of their previous releases. Subtitled Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan 1980–1988, this compilation attempts to connect the dots between various fringe figures operating outside of the country’s monolithic commercial music industry. Like their European DIY contemporaries, these artists took creativity into their own hands with the advent of affordable home recording technology. R.N.A.-Organism might not sound like the Desperate Bicycles, but they both believed it was easy, it was cheap, and anyone could do it.

Read on for an interview with dublab’s Mark “Frosty” McNeill and his LITA co-producer Yosuke Kitazawa, who took time out of their busy schedules to share some background info on the process of compiling Somewhere Between. | j locke         

Aquarium Drunkard: When you two first started working together on these compilations, what initially interested you in exploring Japanese music?

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: In a really broad sense, there have been a lot of different sounds under the umbrella of these compilations. Myself, Yosuke, Zach Cowie, and Andy Cabic are part of this extended circle of people who geek out and share music constantly. It’s not always for the concrete purpose of a release, and more about exploring. There was a shared affinity for Japanese music in a really broad sense, but also Japanese pop music. For a lot of us, the doorway was hearing YMO and their members. I was fascinated by the amount of projects they were involved with as producers, writers, or backing musicians. 

I’ve had the good fortune to travel to Japan with dublab many times over the years. Each time I’m there I’ll go record shopping and try to find things that are off to the side. If there’s a cardboard box that’s not even under the bins and it’s just shoved into the corner with a sweater thrown on top, or maybe the record store cat has peed on it, I’m always interested in those kinds of things. If it’s kind of an ignored space, it will often hold some treasures. In my travels I found certain Japanese domestic records that were sort of ignored. These came from many different sounds and scenes, and one time a guy at a record store just gave me everything I brought up to the counter for free. He didn’t care about it because he was only into American punk music. That actually happened to me on several occasions. 

For a while this era of ’70s and ’80s Japanese pop was dollar bin music. As a non-Japanese speaker and even more so not being able to read the language, I was really flying blind as far as typical information when it comes to digging, but I was able to start figuring things out based on the great vibes of the covers. It’s fun to travel, buy records, and share them when you get home, whether that’s through DJ sets or just hanging out with people. When the opportunity arose to curate something based on those eras of Japanese music, it was really exciting to create a framework that might not have existed before, and collaborate with people that I think so highly of as well.

AD: One thing in your liner notes that really interested me was how a lot of these songs were originally released on affordable formats like cassettes, 7”s, or flexi-discs. Was that due to artists having smaller budgets after going independent instead of working with major labels?

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: I think there was a lot of growth for independent labels at that time. It was interesting because a lot of it was happening in tandem. Some of the songs on Somewhere Between are from a crossover period of things on Pacific Breeze, but you’re edging towards the end of that sort of bubble economy or dream economy. You’re also seeing that through the access to consumer electronics, there was a change–sort of like what we see now with bedroom studios. It was becoming less necessary to go into a big studio. Of course there were places like the Alfa Records Studio that was an amazing space that birthed a lot of music, but this equipment also allowed people to do things on their own terms and an independent scene started to arrive. 

A lot of the labels we’ve dealt with in terms of the licensing are a beast, because they were majors doing a lot of other business in consumer electronics and manufacturing, or they were small subsidiaries of these majors. I think that any time there’s almost a monopoly people get a hunger to do their own thing. A lot of the Japanese artists I gravitate towards are also the people that are trying to break the mold and do something different. The idea of independent labels circled around the world at that time, and a lot of what people in the UK were doing with minimal synth and experimental electronic music were picked up on by people in Japan, either through fanzines or travels. One of the other things that a prosperous economy provides is leisure time where you’re able to travel. Daisuke Hinata from Interior—who are not on this compilation but easily could be—left to go study at the Berkeley College of Music. It’s kind of a through line with a lot of the Japanese musicians and visual artists doing more radical experimental things. There is a formal aspect to Japanese society and business, so breaking out of it can just be creating a DIY thing. DIY was in the air at that time, not just in Japan but everywhere.

Yosuke Kitazawa: There was a punk scene that happened in Japan, and a lot of the DIY stuff came out of that scene. Especially in the Kansai area of cities like Kyoto and Osaka, there has always been more of a DIY scene compared to Tokyo. A bunch of the tracks on the comp are from that Kansai scene. Just being far away from the center of everything allowed people to have more freedom to do weird stuff that might not have been accepted in Tokyo.

AD: Artists associated with the Vanity Records label like R.N.A. Organism and Perfect Mother both stand out with some of the more experimental sounds on this compilation, and I think they exemplify that weird punk edge you’re talking about. Why did you think it was important to include them?

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: I was digging a lot of stuff from that world. Kaoru Sato really became a part of this record. There was a throughline in his work. He started R.N.A.-Organism and was involved in Perfect Mother, Mammy, Neo Museum, and Sonoko. Her story is interesting because her record ended up jumping over to Belgium, where Aksak Maboul shaped it for release. Kaoru Sato’s work was also connected through threads to YMO, so he was definitely known in that world as well. 

The Kansai area that Yosuke mentioned has been a breeding ground for a lot of different sounds for a long time, including the later Japanese noise scene that continued to be really important. I just liked Kaoru Sato’s outlook on weirdo experimental music. His fingerprints are on a lot of the music on the record, including a few songs that were on our longlist but didn’t end up making the cut. Even within Kansai, it’s not just one thing. Kyoto has a specific world with that blend of very traditional Japanese art, food, and nature with the art school vibe as well. When you hop over to Osaka it’s very gritty, freaky, and such a different scene. In a weird way it’s like New York versus San Francisco. The comparison is not totally accurate, but New York has that grit and San Francisco has that dreamy, instant beauty to it. Osaka breeding a lot of dirty, gritty stuff made a lot of sense. There were a lot of nightclubs there that were important in terms of supporting music like this.

Yosuke Kitazawa: Kaoru Sato was also in a band called EP-4, which is one of the more prominent bands in the Kansai area. 

AD: I was really happy to see Mkwaju Ensemble on Somewhere Between, because I feel like that project hasn’t had enough attention despite the fact that Midori Takada’s solo albums have earned a lot of acclaim with her reissues over the last few years. Was that your intention with including them here?

Yosuke Kitazawa: I mean, they’re amazing. Initially we wanted to include them on the ambient comp but due to licensing issues we weren’t able to do that. Since their sound kind of fits in the Somewhere Between concept, that’s why we included them in this one, and we were able to license it this time. We’re pretty happy about that.

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: Their music has been some of my favorite over the years. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Midori Takada and share lots of nice meals with her with alcoholic cider and amazing stories. She’s really sweet. It’s sort of like us including Haruomi Hosono’s “Sports Men” on the first Pacific Breeze comp. That wasn’t a prerequisite but of course it was at the top of our wishlist. I think it ties the music to the art world as well, since Midori Takada was also collaborating with visual artists. She did performances where she would play percussion on large iron sculptures, or the audience would be on one side of a lake and she would be on the other. The sound would then float over the water and become part of it. Her outlook is really fascinating, and in a weird way ties to dublab as well. She was a friend and collaborator with Kakraba Lobi, grandfather of the Ghanaian gyil xylophone player SK Kakraba, who we’ve worked with a lot. She’s really, really special and we’re happy that made it on there.

AD: I feel very lucky that I got to see Midori Takada perform at Primavera Sound a few years ago. The stage was covered in cymbals on stands that she played with chains, and it was just an incredible set.

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: I’ve seen her do that a couple times. The amount of space in between when she walks from one side of the stage to the other is amazing. It’s a really patient performance for the audience, and probably a lot more silent than what people are used to. I love her.

Yosuke Kitazawa: Joe Hisaishi was also a part of Mkwaju Ensemble, and he’s probably one of the more well known Japanese artists around the world. The fact that he got started in a group like that doing minimal music is really interesting for people to learn. I think that’s part of the reason why we wanted to include them too. Just to show the evolution of some of these musicians even within the series we’ve done with Light in the Attic. You can see the different styles these people explored over those years. Yoshio Ojima was on the ambient comp but he’s also on Somewhere Between doing more of a pop style. I think it’s fascinating to see how people evolved.

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: That Ojima track is one of my favorites. The cassette it was on came out in 1983, a time when there was a lot of crossover with other things in the pop world. It’s one of those impossible to find cassettes that’s an art object in itself. I’ve never seen one in person, but it has such a wild sculptural cover. That’s always been elusive, so it’s really wonderful to be able to share the music.

AD: One other thing I found interesting in your liner notes is that much of the music from this compilation was found from researching online as opposed to digging for records like you’ve done in the past. Was that just because some of this music was so obscure?

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: Part of the conversation that I wanted to specifically refer to in the liner notes is how it’s almost a victim of its own success, in a weird way. Not a victim exactly, but it’s really hard to find a lot of this music, and that’s part of a larger conversation about the globalization of record digging. You’ve got Discogs, which is amazing and I use it all the time, but there’s also a cache of cool to be a DJ or sophisticated home listener. In a way that fits well with ’80s Japan, but it’s really difficult to find a lot of this music now, and I think sometimes the object itself is the attraction as opposed to the music or stories within. 

A lot of the research has moved online, not only scouring YouTube but also having conversations. At every step of the way we’ve tried to open up the door and talk to people in the know. By speaking to artists we’re able to find a lot of music we didn’t know about. It’s become so sought after that it’s just impossible to find some of these things any other way. 

AD: On the other side, it’s always interesting for me to learn that despite how underground some of these releases are, members of Yellow Magic Orchestra were still involved with them. Did they have their fingers in every musical pie in Japan at this time?

Yosuke Kitazawa: That’s what it seems like! Before YMO they were all really busy session musicians. Even after they found success on their own they kept playing on other people’s sessions. 

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: I’m just looking at the track listing here. Hosono was involved with Mishio Ogawa and YMO’s synth programmer Hideki Matsutake was involved in the track by Noriko Miyamoto. I think after hearing about the success that YMO had a lot of other musicians wanted to try that same style. That’s just my guess. 

Yosuke Kitazawa: Kaoru Sato was also playing with Ryuichi Sakamoto. We Want Sounds just recently reissued his album Hidari Ude No Yume and Kaoru Sato plays violin on that. There was definitely a connection. Another reason why the YMO members have had such a long life in music is because they’re always searching and seeking for something new. They’re in that league of lifer musicians who are so passionate that I think honestly if they were penniless they would still be pursuing it. It’s great that they found success, but they have that creative spirit that seems to be about the love of music first and foremost. That love combined with their talents helped manifest amazing music. I think there was a lot of conversation between these artists, and they were hip to what was happening in other parts of Japan. Alfa Records obviously had success thanks to YMO, and I think it says a lot that they founded Yen Records to take it deeper. There were several special labels that came out of the YMO crew. I think they’re sincerely music freaks and it makes a lot of sense they would be involved in these projects.

With the Pacific Breeze compilations, you were seeing a lot of connections to the West Coast of the U.S. where Japanese artists were digging that rock sound. I think that the connection here is definitely more about what was happening in Europe. You see that in things like Sonoko’s connection to Aksak Maboul and her album coming out on Crammed Discs. There were a lot of interesting small-run magazines and cassettes coming out of Belgium at that time. The Rock In Opposition thing was all about doing it yourself because they didn’t fit into the distribution model of other labels and were doing something so different. Music projects never truly exist in a bubble, and I love seeing those layers of connection and influence. I think it’s most illustrated here in the Sonoko track just because of how that came together, but I know Midori Takada was friends with Harold Budd and connected with Tanzanian musicians. All of these people were touring and meeting musicians elsewhere, so you hear that seeping into the mix.

AD: It’s interesting to learn about Sonoko collaborating with Wire’s Colin Newman, and I love her cover of “In Heaven” from Eraserhead.

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: So good! If you go down an internet wormhole and watch Colin Newman’s videos for Crammed Discs, that’s such a cool world. Aksak Maboul’s Mark Hollander has been a big part of dublab as well and very supportive of what we do. It was nice to talk with him about Sonoko as we emailed back and forth, and he was really happy we were interested in that music.

AD: You’ve already hinted at this a few times but are there other songs you would have liked to include if licensing weren’t an issue?

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: [Laughs] That’s always the case!

Yosuke Kitazawa: Rights are always a big part of what ends up on the comp. Luckily we’ve done pretty well in terms of getting the songs we want, but we always start with a list of many, many more that end up in the final track list. It just depends on what we can license.

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: One of the ones we really wanted was Doji Morita’s “Wolf Boy.” That would have probably been the lead track on the compilation, but sadly it didn’t pan out. That’s often the story. Like Yosuke said we’ve had a lot of success, but people have their reasons whether it’s business or personal. We try our best but at the end of the day it doesn’t always work out. Usually we start with over 100 songs to get it down to 14. There’s a lot of listening and sometimes after going through this process, especially when dealing with the licensing, there are a lot of things you can just exclude immediately because of the label. That’s unfortunate but it’s how the business part works.

AD: Light in the Attic has reissued so much ’70s and ’80s Japanese music at this point. Do you feel like the well is running dry at all, or is there much more to come?

Yosuke Kitazawa: There’s much more to come. It’s going to take a long time for the well to dry up. Compared to five years ago when this series got started at Light in the Attic, there’s been so much more Japanese music reissued in North America and Europe. Even then I think there’s a lot more that should be reissued. It’s not just putting out the music, and I think telling the stories behind it is so important. 

Mark “Frosty” McNeill: Absolutely. It’s great to know that when we start telling stories about artists who might have been forgotten, there are journalists and academics who become interested. Sometimes it’s hard to find context for obscure releases, so it’s exciting to think about how we could end up with a wealth of new information out there as people continue to do research. 

When we start putting our options together for a comp like this, there’s just so much music. Things shift business-wise, whether it’s through someone working at a label or the merger of labels that might benefit them to reissue something. I do think that as curators and producers there are so many more reissues that have come out, so when you look at the landscape you have to dig deeper. A lot of great music is being prepared for release or tied up in some other way. But that’s fun! It’s been a while since this has happened since everything is shut down, but I love hearing a song on a dive bar jukebox and finding out where those treasures come from. We’re going to keep seeking.

For heads, by headsAquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.