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An Interview With Haruomi Hosono, The Brian Wilson Of Japan

We Talk To The J-Pop Master As His Music Hits U.S. Shores For The First Time

On September 26, 2018

The music of Haruomi Hosono has been simultaneously huge and unknown. The Japanese musician is one of the chief architects of a variety of Japanese music, from his folk band Happy End, to his psych-rock outfit Apryl Fool, to his “Tropical trilogy” that blended tropicalia with psych-rock. He’s inspired young upstarts like Mac DeMarco, and been hailed as a genius by America’s own genre-hipping pop genius, Van Dyke Parks. All of this despite the fact that his ’70s output — his most influential music — has been on an import-only basis outside of Japan (and for $100 or more on Discogs), and remains unavailable on streaming services. That is, until now.

Thanks to Light in the Attic, and particularly their reissue producer Yosuke Kitazawa, five of Hosono’s seminal albums are being reissued outside of Japan for the first time. Vinyl Me, Please is featuring exclusive color editions of Cochin Moon (Buy Here) and Hosono House (Buy Here), and selling Paraiso with them as a bundle here.

You can read more about Light in the Attic’s reissue campaign here. And below, we’re featuring a new interview with Hosono conducted by Kitazawa that touches upon his time in the Yellow Magic Orchestra (his band in the ’70s), how it feels to have his music reach a bigger audience and nostalgia.

How do you feel about having your music released outside of Japan? Did you ever have the desire to become successful overseas?

Haruomi Hosono: We live in an era in which we can easily go back and rediscover music from the past, and I personally get enjoyment out of discovering buried obscurities, in an archaeological sense. That said, it surprises me that there’s interest in my own albums now, while at the same time I’d like to say thank you to the people who want to put them out. With Yellow Magic Orchestra in the ’80s, we were thinking more about the overseas market than Japan. At the same time, we felt that we were marketing ourselves toward the small number of specific music lover types that exist in every country. That’s the kind of aspiration we had with YMO. The reason being that up until then, with my solo albums, I was working in a very insular manner, making whatever I wanted to make. The music wasn’t facing outward; it was rather inward-facing. That kind of music doesn’t reach too many people. I felt that it would’ve been difficult to continue making music that way; that’s why I took a bet on the team that we called YMO.

What made you decide to play overseas now, after all these years?

With these shows it feels like I’m just going with the flow, like, “Let’s see what happens.” In the past I didn’t really like playing live, but since about 10 years ago, for whatever reason, I’ve been playing live consistently and I actually started to enjoy it. But there’s the conflict of what I call “musical schizophrenia” that baby boomers in Japan are always tormented by — even if my music is understood in Japan, I feel that’s not gonna be the case with Western audiences. So it’s hard to get too excited about playing overseas. That said, when I played for the first time in Taiwan and Hong Kong this past January, I was impressed by how much they understood what I was doing, much more than I thought they would. So now I think I’d be OK in Asia. I don’t entirely know what to expect in London, so I am a bit more worried than not. To be honest, more so than just playing overseas, I do have a desire to play at some small cafe in some place like Brooklyn. Rather than shouting into an audience of unknown size, I prefer to do something a bit more modest and smaller in scale.

Apryl Fool, Happy End, YMO, solo artist, session player, songwriter, producer — you’ve assumed many roles as a musician. Which one do you enjoy the most? Out of all the projects you’ve been involved in, what’s your favorite?

I like being in recording sessions with people I get along with, like how it is at Muscle Shoals. Being in a band is just like any plan or a project, and it brings with it tense relationships and responsibilities. I’ve been able to handle that kind of stress in the past, but I don’t want any more of it now. And since I’ve realized that I’m not as proficient as I thought, I don’t want to overextend myself and try to do something just for the sake of it. What role am I most suited for? That would be listening to music. If I can add to that, it’s not just listening to music, but also distinguishing all the different aspects of music.

“The past is always catching up to you. But it’s not good to have too much interest in yourself. It should be left alone.”
Haruomi Hosono

You have an incredible track record as a songwriter, not just for your own records but also for other artists. But recently you’ve said that instead of writing new songs, it’s more important to cover other people’s songs in order to preserve them. Why is that?

There are as many wonderful songs from the the 20th-century West as there are the number of stars. I’m happy to be listening to those songs each day after day. Of course I haven’t gotten rid of my desire to write new songs myself, but there are so many classic songs out there in this world already, I think it’s more important to sing them in order to preserve them. People today tend to forget those things, so sometimes it feels like music is an endangered species. Nuance, groove, acoustics — there are already many aspects that have been lost.

How do you feel about other artists covering your song?

I myself will become extinct someday, so I’d be grateful if there’s someone who can carry on.

You’ve mentioned that you never enjoyed singing until recently. Why did it take 50 years to come to that point?

Because I’m not good at singing. But about 10 years ago I realized that it’s fun to sing songs that I like.

From a young age you’ve been fascinated with American popular culture, like country music, Western movies, West Coast pop music. What led you down that route? Did it have to do with the Occupied Japan era?

When I was born two years after the end of the war, it was in the capital city of a defeated country — Tokyo. The GHQ headquarters was there, and Americanization was storming through Japan. But a lot of great movies and music came as a result, and when I was around 4 I was listening nonstop to boogie woogie music on 78s. There were lots of military music and rokyoku, but I always picked out the swing or Disney music for myself. At my live shows in Japan I’m always muttering about how the GHQ brainwashed me into playing boogie woogie.

What were your first impressions of coming to America — was it different from how you had imagined it to be? How do you feel about America today?

We recorded at the famous Sunset Sound studio, did a session with Van Dyke Parks, observed Little Feat recording Dixie Chicken — it was an important learning experience. Other than that, we bought a bunch of records and ate a lot of hash browns at Denny’s. I was 22 at the time. Why do American records sound good? Is it the electricity? Is it the magnetic fields? Those are the kind of questions we were asking each other every day. Back then America felt so far from Japan culturally, and I had a strong admiration toward it. But not so much now. It’s the same with Japan too. I wonder what changed so much...

You’ve referred to Van Dyke Parks as “sensei.” What have you learned as a student of his? What kind of America did you discover from listening to his Discover America album?

What I learned from the maestro was the method of layering different colors of sounds one by one, making music like a painter. Discover America taught me how music in America has been greatly enhanced by its hybrid culture, taking cues from Caribbean or Creole music, for example.

Which is a bigger musical inspiration for you: the imaginary world as seen through the lens of Hollywood movies and exotica that you’ve loved since your youth, or the real world that you see in front of your eyes?

Living within society is the reality for human beings — and that society can inhibit us. But relatively speaking, we do have some freedom in our personal time. When driving a car, for example, I’d like to think that we still have the freedom to go anywhere. But even then cars can’t leap across time. Our hearts, though, have the ability to fly to the edge of the universe. That is the world of inspiration. Exotica provided me with a sense of release from the framework of reality.

It seems that your “Tropical trilogy” and YMO as a whole were conceptual in that they explored how Japan was seen through the eyes of the West. In other words, flipping the script of “orientalism” and expressing it through music from a Japanese perspective. Why were you interested in that kind of subversive perspective?

In the past each country’s music had its own color. But in the ’80s, music made with synthesizers and programming was emerging at the city level and Tokyo was no different. But information society has rendered these city-level individualities virtually meaningless. Now it’s either global music, or a very personal kind of music created through bedroom recording. In the YMO era, rather than looking overseas for inspiration, it was more fun for us to refresh our perspective towards our own home of Tokyo. It’s the same kind of excitement tourists get when they visit Tsukiji in Tokyo or go inside a pachinko parlour. So it was different from orientalism; it was aspiration toward chaos. I think people tend to be drawn to the chaos within order, or the order within chaos.

YMO has been described as the sound of Tokyo. How would you describe the Hosono sound?

Working with a band or as a producer is similar to working as a design team. But the music I make for myself is more like the work of a painter or a sculptor. Using instruments as a palette, I’d pile on layers of sound or scrape them away. So it’s just my own personal music.

You’ve mentioned that you’re attracted to a mixture of different cultures, like in New Orleans music. In that sense, how do you feel about Japanese culture, which doesn’t seem as diverse compared to some of the big U.S. cities?

In the 1950s interesting music was being made all around the world, Japan included. It was an era when all the great music [styles] were influencing each other. In Japan there was a strong mambo influence, even inventing a new rhythm called “Dodompa.” New Orleans musicians were influenced by songs like Ray Charles’ “What I’d Say,” and were incorporating new sounds into their homegrown styles. Where music is born is always unintentional, pleasure seeking, plain and simple, and there’s never any difficulties.

You’ve always had an interest in latest technologies and incorporated them in your music. Is that still the case now? How do you feel about the latest synthesizers and software instruments?

Sadly I’ve become disillusioned. In the early 2000s PCs were still flexible, and there were many interesting plug-ins. Now the systems are so tightly controlled that the tools that I’d been using start dying along with every OS update. Now we have high-quality sound files, and you can even make real sounding orchestras with them. CG has seen the same kind of evolution. But the tool I want now is the early Emulator. I used it to make the album Philharmony, which would be impossible to do now. I liked the low resolution sounds contained in the big floppy disks, but I don’t have the equipment to decode that anymore. I don’t have the energy in me to revive that. But I’m sure there are sound files like that. I’ll look for them. By the way, I’ve been using old RCA microphones for recent recordings. But it’s mixed at 96khz. The input is the ’40s, and the output is the latest — that’s the way it is.

Of all the instruments you’ve use to make music, which one is your favorite?

An acoustic guitar and a Spanish guitar that I’ve been using a lot recently. The former is a Gibson “Nick Lucas” model from the 1930s. The latter was custom made by a wonderful guitar maker in Tokyo, with a neck made to fit my hands and a similar design to the famed Arcangel guitar that I love. It’s got a beautiful sound. Oh, and I can’t forget this — I’m primarily a bassist. I cherish my 1964 Fender Jazz Bass.

How do you feel about looking back at your past?

The past is always catching up to you. But it’s not good to have too much interest in yourself. It should be left alone.

You’ve mentioned that coming up with band names is a hobby of yours. What is the name of your next band? Do you have any good band names that you’ve never used?

I’ve gotten tired of it. I’m getting tired of most things. But I’m always taking notes of words that might become good song titles. And it might be good to form a band. With my name hidden. Will I get tired of that as well?

What’s your next project?

Argh, I’m not good with the idea of projects. I’ve never been able to plan out my life. There’s more of the past now than the future, so I can’t think too much ahead. If I can hide my name from it, I would play around with a techno unit. But I probably won’t do it. Who knows? I’m not really sure.

Besides music, what excites you right now?

Theoretical physics, like quantum theory and superstring theory, that asks us how much people can possibly know about the world. In other words I’m feeling the “World’s End” each and every day. As you know, living here in Tokyo, earthquakes happen frequently.

Profile Picture of Yosuke Kitazawa
Yosuke Kitazawa

Yosuke Kitazawa is a reissue producer at Light in the Attic.

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