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From the Archive: Japanese Innovators with Light in the Attic (June 2018)

Nothing Concrete text
26 Mar 2020
30 min listen

In the second episode in our series showcasing the love and obsession with Japanese music, we look at the 80s with Yosuke Kitazawa from Light in the Attic Records for a journey in sound from their latest releases.

We try to excavate the story behind each recording. A lot of times that story is just as fascinating as the music itself. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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From the Archive: Japanese Innovators with Light in the Attic

In episode two of our series showcasing the love and obsession with Japanese music, we look at the 80s with Yosuke Kitazawa from Light in the Attic Records for a journey in sound from their latest releases.


BE: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete. I'm Ben Eshmade and this week we're delving into our archive looking back to June 2018, and a podcast series where we spoke to Japanese music fans, DJs and collectors, who kindly invited us on a journey through their record collections, exploring the sounds that have emerged over the past 40 years. 

YK: We try to excavate the story behind each recording. A lot of times that story is just as fascinating as the music itself. 

BE: In the second of our trilogy of Japanese music podcasts, we enter the 80s with the help of Light in the Attic Records. We speak to Yosuke Kitazawa from the label about tracks from their recent releases, which are linked to this decade.

YK: Hi, my name is Yosuke Kitazawa. I'm a reissue producer at Light in the Attic Records based in Seattle and Los Angeles. Light in the Attic Records is primarily a reissue label that started in Seattle 16 years ago. Now we have an office in Los Angeles. We kind of helped promote these artists as if they were new artists. So they get kind of a new lease on their musical career. We really take care in our reissues; we put a lot of attention in to detail.  If it's a straight reissue of an album, we make sure that we retain all the original elements and at the same time, we try to add as much as we can to the original release so that we can provide context as to where that recording came from, like the backstories. Those stories are really important to us. We feel like a lot of recordings kind of exist in a vacuum where the listeners might enjoy the recordings, but they don't really know where they came from. So we try to excavate the story behind each recording and a lot of times that story is just as fascinating as the music itself. Well, the selections I made are all from compilations that we have put out or are going to be putting out. They're all part of a series that we call Japan archival series. The first one that came out was called Even a Tree Can Shed Tears: Japanese Folk and Rock 1969 - 1973. And that came out last October as a first in the Japan archival series. Another compilation that's gonna come out later this year is called Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental and New Age Music 1980 - 1990. The other compilation that we're hoping is going to come out later this year as well. It's called Pacific Breeze: Japanese City Pop, AR and Boogie 1976 through 1986.

Let's start with Gu whose song 'Marianne' was on the folk rock compilation. It's a group that featured Sachiko Kanenobu as the lead singer. She also had a solo career as one of the only female singer songwriters from the folk rock scene in the late 60s and early 70s. And the group also featured some other members who went on to have some notable careers.  A man named Isato Nakagawa, who became part of the group Itsutsu No Akai Fusen, Ichizo Seo who became a producer for some well known folk artists like Takuro Yoshida and Tetsuo Saito. And then they also played often with a famous harmonica player named Koichi Matsuda. And Gu, they only release two singles, they were both on a label called URC, which stands for Underground Record Club. 'Marianne' was their second single. It's kind of considered a classic of the acid folk genre coming from Japan and one of the earliest that can be considered acid folk. So it's got kind of like a psychedelic feel kind of analogous to what was going on in England maybe like Fairport Convention or Pentangle or something.

And Sachiko Kanenobu - after she recorded these two singles with Gu - went on to record a solo album called Misora, also for the URC label, and that album was produced by Haruomi Hosono, one of his first production works. This is considered one of the first female singer songwriter albums in Japan where Sachiko wrote all the songs and played all the guitar parts herself and did a lot of the arrangements so she was kind of a pioneer in that way. Right after the album came out, she met Paul Williams, who is best known for starting the rock magazine called Crawdaddy. She met and she moved to the US to be with him in New York so she never made a follow up album after Misora. So she's been in the US since then, and she now lives in California. She's made a few albums kind of like a comeback career. And now since the Light in the Attic's compilation came out last year, and have inspired her to pick up the guitar again. So she's been playing around some private parties, and she also played a radio session on WFMU, and she's planning on playing a few live shows in the US and in Japan in the coming months.

The next track is 'Subterranean Futari Bocci' by Nanako Sato.

So Nanako Sato kind of became a musician by fluke after she entered a songwriting contest at the urging of her friend named Motoharu Sano, who went on to become kind of a huge rock star in Japan. So she entered this songwriting contest and ended up winning the top prize. She got a record deal out of it and through that record deal, she recorded four albums over two years. She was kind of known for her whispery singing voice. Shibuya-kei is a style that became popular in Japan and the 80s and 90s where they had this type of like breathy singing voice and kind of a breezy feel to a lot of their music.

Nanako Sato, after she recorded those four albums out of that record deal, she became a really successful songwriter, providing songs for other bands like The Moon Riders and Pizzicato Five. Her life is really interesting. Like after that she kind of put a hold on her music career and she became really well known as a photographer. And then after she returned to Japan in the 90s, she started recording again. The interesting part of that is that her song called 'Love is a Drug' became the single of the week on NME of all places, and that was the first time a Japanese artist got that single of the week. So that became kind of a big deal, and this was in the in the mid 90s. She made an album with Simon Raymonde from the Cocteau Twins, which was released on his label Bella Union. She kind of had success in Europe. I'm not sure if I can say more like she had more success in Europe but she was really respected as a musician in Europe.

The next song is 'Coffee Rumba' by Izumi Kobayashi. This is a really interesting take on a song that was originally released in the late 50s in Venezuela called 'Moliendo Cafe'. It's been covered by many artists over the years. I feel that this version is so unique that she kind of makes it her own. If you weren't paying attention you would think that it was just an original song of hers. She sings in Japanese. That arrangement is kind of kind of different from all the other versions of this song, which has like a Latin rhythm. She uses a lot of like really interesting electronic instrumentation and synthesisers. It still has that kind of Latin feel, but even like a futuristic Latin feel. So Izumi Kobayashi, she became a professional musician at the age of 16 as a keyboard player, playing a lot of studio sessions. By the time she was in her early 20s. She was already fronting her own kind of Latin tropical band called The Flying Mimi Band. At the same time, she was really known for her contributions to animes, she wrote a lot of songs that became the theme songs to anime, like animated TV shows, the most famous of which was called Udise Yatsura, which was a really popular animated series back in the 80s. And soon after that, she moved to England, in the 80s. She met a man named Holger Hiller who was known as a producer for Mute Records at the time, so they began collaborating on a lot of musical projects. A lot of them were kind of like early industrial recordings and experimental electronic styles through that connection with Holger Hiller, Izumi Kobayashi she actually did an official remix of Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy the Silence', which came out on Mute Records, so she's had a very interesting international career.

The next song is 'Islander' by Joe Hisaishi. Joe Hisaishi is probably best known as the composer of Hayao Miyazaki's animated films like Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. What a lot of people don't know much about is his early career as a minimal music composer influenced by people like Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Tōru Takemitsu from Japan. For a time he was a member of Mkwaju Ensemble, alongside Midori Takada who has been getting a lot of attention since the reissue of her album called Through the Looking Glass. And so Joe Hisaishi worked with Takada and Mkwaju Ensemble doing a lot of arrangements and producing. Right after that - 1982 he released his first solo album called Information, which was credited to a group named called Wonder City Orchestra, but it's basically Joe Hisaishi's solo album.

This song, it's got that early, minimal, Terry Riley esque style to it, which he was doing in his early career, but it also kind of foreshadows the work that he would go on to do on his first collaboration with Hayao Miyazaki on a film called Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. The soundtrack to that is kind of a combination of like this Terry Riley esque like organ workouts in a kind of minimal style but it also has like orchestral sentimental melodies that he would go on to use a lot more in his later collaborations with Miyazaki.

The next song is called 'Nemureru Yoru' by Hideki Matsutake. Hideki Matsutake is known to a lot of people as the hidden fourth member of Yellow Magic Orchestra. He was responsible for programming all the synthesisers and sequencers and all the computers that they used. So he helped create a lot of the sounds that Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi used for their ground breaking - 'techno pop' - is the term that they use a lot to describe their sound.

So Matsutake started his career as an assistant to Isao Tomita who's probably most famous for his album called Snowflakes Are Dancing, which featured arrangements of Claude Debussy's works recorded entirely on synthesisers. That was in the early 70s. After that Matsuktake became kind of the go-to-guy for a lot of artists wanting to work with synthesisers and computers. And at the time, his synthesisers were kind of like beasts where like you really had to know how to work it to be able to use it. So a lot of people got some help from Matsutake to create the sounds that they wanted to use on their recordings. This track 'Nemureru Yoru' - originally on cassette - it was intended to be kind of a sleeping aid, kind of like a novelty almost. So this was - the original version was 40 minutes long, and it contained a voice counting sheep. The voice actually counts sheep up to 500 at the end of the 40 minutes, and then he asks the listener, like, are you still awake? Like, that's how the original recording ends, but this version is actually called the karaoke version. So it doesn't have the voice counting sheep, but since it's karaoke, it allows the listener to count their own sheep.

The final track is 'Sportsman' by Haruomi Hosono. Hosono is probably one of the most respected musicians in Japan. Haruomi Hosono, with the other members of Happy, they really thought about how the lyrics should fit in with like a rock setting. They were influenced a lot by groups like Buffalo Springfield, they used a lot of like wordplay and really interesting cadences that they used in singing these 70s phrases. At the same time, he was very prolific and very busy as a session musician. He had a band, sort of a session band called Tin Pan Alley, and with that group, he participated in so many recordings in Japan in the early to mid 70s. Maybe half of all the records - maybe this is an exaggeration - but if you look at half of all the records released during that time, you will see Hosono's name on there as a session musician. He has always been super busy super prolific artist. In the late 70s  he started a group called Yellow Magic Orchestra, which I talked about a little bit. They were very successful in Japan and they had some success in Europe and the US as well. They became kind of like superstars in Japan.

He kind of wanted a break from that, so, in 1982, during a short hiatus from Yellow Magic Orchestra, he started to record a solo album called Philharmony. Because before this, Hosono was always using the studio - the Alpha Records studio - which didn't give a lot of time for other artists on the label to use the studio. So that's one of the reasons why Hosono was given a personal studio. That studio was named LDK studios. LDK is a term that is used in Japan to describe houses, like the size of houses. The idea behind naming it LDK studios was that it was like, it was like a home for Hosono because he basically lived at the studio and would work on music 24/7 basically.

Well, I was familiar with some of the music that are on this compilation, but a lot of it was very new to me. Even though I'm Japanese, I grew up in the US. There was a lot of Japanese music that I didn't grow up with and I wasn't familiar with. So working on this compilation has definitely opened me up to a lot of music that I didn't know before working on this. I would say that's the biggest, biggest pleasure I've gotten out of working on these - just discovering all this music, all this amazing music that I didn't really know about. Also, getting in contact with and meeting a lot of these artists has been amazing as well. I've got to meet some of the artists when I went to Japan a couple of times in the past few years. A lot of them are really thankful that this music is coming out outside of Japan, or a lot of these artists were kind of surprised that there's interest in their music outside of Japan, and to be able to be a part of that whole resurgence of amazing music that had been kind of unknown outside of Japan. And also kind of some of them have been kind of forgotten in Japan as well. So to be able to dig that up and spread the word about the LPs and about this music is very - how should I say - very rewarding, I would say.

BE: Thanks to Yosuke for speaking to us. In our third and final Special Edition we move to the 90s as we speak to Ian Martin, author of Quit Your Band: Music Notes from the Japanese Underground. He takes us more into the live music scene and some of the more experimental and noise-based artists.

IM: And I just started going out to shows, finding music that I'd just never heard anything like before.

BE: I'm Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of the Nothing Concrete podcast - here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts, with weekly episodes of archive finds such as this, and themed series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can, leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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