Feature Interview: Shintaro Sakamoto
"Don't you have that feeling where even in the midst of something like despair, you want listening to music to be fun?"
Ending an almost year and a half silence since the sudden announcement of Yura Yura Teikoku's break-up, Shintaro Sakamoto is releasing a solo album, "How to Live with a Phantom," on November 18th. I'm sure there are many people who have already heard the first single off it, "In a Phantom Mood" on 7 inch. There are probably people with their hopes up imagining what the new album will sound like, as well as those who feel hesitant.
"How to Live with a Phantom" is Sakamoto's first solo album—in addition to guitar, he plays base, keyboards, etc. You can't simply say it follows in a straight line from the bewitched breakdown in the psychedelic rock album, "I'm a Cave;" something new is being born. No, these quiet expressions can't be called an extension of "I'm a Cave," but this album has even more of the casual groove and aloof atmosphere running through it. Light pop that slips right into your everyday. Even so, there's a depth there with no bottom in sight. You realize with a start that you're completely sucked into the image born of the sound, the melody, and the lyrics.
Through the lyrics comes a knowing heart mottled with dry nostalgia. Instead of pessimism in response to loss and loneliness, there's almost a kind of home sickness. Snuggled up close to the lyrics are the melancholic melodies. The jaunty sound that delivers them diffuses the atmosphere. If we say that Yura Yura Teikoku's sound was able to draw you in with its overwhelming presence, this solo work will slip in through the cracks in your heart and get cozy. A perfect mood.
Shintaro Sakamoto has kicked his solo career into gear, so we decided to start the man himself about this new album.
Specifically, when did you start thinking about doing a solo album? Did you have something like this in mind right after Yura Yura Teikoku ended?
Right after it was ended I was like an empty shell and wasn't doing anything.
So then when did you start working on it?
I started on it around the second half of last year. At first I was just messing around at home, had bits of songs like these…I guess I was just making music without any ambition of putting out an album.
So basically like playing, or a hobby.
Then when did that turn into thinking about making an album?
Sometime near the end of the year I had about seven songs piled up, so I figured I would start on it.
Did you have anything like a concept for the album?
I guess rather than having a particular concept of what kind of album I should do I wanted to first off just make the sound that I wanted to make. I started from the bass line, then layered in the conga and percussion. Actually, at first I thought maybe that was good enough. I even did a test run just like that, but felt it wasn't the kind of album you could listen to over and over. So from there I added the guitar and a bunch of stuff.
Ah, so it's like you started from the rhythm section. By the way, that sound you wanted to make, what kind was it specifically? Well, I guess listening is the best way to figure out, but if you explain it in words, what does it sound like?
The drums and bass are muted, light sounds, unsustained; the bass is paired with the vocals and the rhythm bounces a little bit…
So it's not like something you couldn't do with Yura Yura Teikoku, no reactionary feelings, but just purely what you wanted to do?
Ahh, yeah, nothing like that.
Was there something you were listening to that influenced that sound you were explaining you wanted to make?
Ahh, I might have been thinking, "I always did like this kind of thing." By which I mean drums with no reverb applied, like no echo or something; I actually wanted to do that with Yura Yura Teikoku when we were recording for the first time. I like not applying reverb to anything. If I had done it at that time, we would have sounded really weak. At the time I didn't realize that with reverb, even when you don't think you're depending on it, you actually are. I gradually came to understand that (lol). Of course, the actual recording was done by (Souichiro) Nakamura.
This album is basically you playing bass and everything yourself—was there anything difficult about that?
Well there was the issue that it simply took a lot of time. To make make a phrase I'd practice until I was about to explode and then record, for example. And that's not just bass, but guitar, and the small organ parts, too. Also in a very real way it took a lot of time because we were recording parts separately. That said, since I was doing it all myself it was easy to think of things like, "To get this sound in, I'll take this out."
What kind so things were obviously different from recording with a band?
I wasn't playing the drums myself, but I was deciding when the bass and snare would be hit, where the hi-hat would open, and making the bass line respond to that; I was changing all those things at will, so I would say definitely the fact that every part is done according to my own idiosyncratic tastes, with timing that feels good to me. In the band, I was playing guitar and singing, and things would develop based on what kind of bass and drums came back at me, and then the recording would be mixed by (You) Ishihara. So this time there's quite a degree of purity, I guess—I think it's like a concentrated essence of me (lol). Whether that's good or bad is another story.
So it's an album that came not from the influence of some input, but from all your own controlled outputs, huh.
Hm, yeah. But, it's not the case that I broke up the band because I wanted to do this. More like there was no one else around, so there was nothing else to do but do it myself.
So was it the case that you felt some pressure to do something by yourself?
Rather than pressure, I had this feeling that if I could create something that I could accept and then everyone was disappointed, I wouldn't take it personally. Something that would pass my own standards...well, if I couldn't manage to do that I just wouldn't release it (lol).
When about did the plan for the album come together?
Before all the tracks were set, I had the feel of the songs with the congas in and everything, so I went from there.
If the period you were making the album was from late last year to this fall, that means right in the middle was the earthquake. Was there anything that changed as a result of that?
Well I think it had some effect on the lyrics, but the feel and direction did not change due to the earthquake.
So you mentioned lyrics. For example, I think "Dancing with Pain" could be taken as you singing about having a wounded heart after the disaster, but I think it could be taken as a love song.
This actually goes for everything, but I end up feeling like even songs made as love songs might have that meaning as well. And I don't think that's limited to my songs. In songs where there's a blank space for the listener's imagination to fill, I have the feeling that since the earthquake and the nuclear power plant accident, thoughts of those events (how can they not get entangled) have been on the rise.
So you're saying more than the artists putting it out there that it's the listeners who end up thinking that way?
Actually, I think there are other songs besides just the one previously mentioned, "Dancing with Pain" where I can't deny an influence.
But it's not like you're putting those parts in as a message?
I think if I were to mention a song, the lyrics of which I want to hear right now, it would not be one where they're about forgetting reality, or about a dream that has nothing to do with reality, or something disconnected from reality; I don't want to listen to songs to escape. But still, I also don't want to be forced to listen to how awful things are all over again. Don't you have that feeling where even in the midst of something like despair, you want listening to music to be fun? When it comes to what lyrics are most fitting at those times, that's kind of how I think about it. When I listen to—I guess, positive songs, like about doing your best and working together, it's just the opposite—I end up getting depressed. But I also hate pretending like nothing happened.
I have one more thing on lyrics… "In a Phantom Mood" which you brought out as your first single, I read too much into it and felt maybe you were maybe implying a declaration that you're going solo. Kind of like, "What should I do with this newfound freedom?"
That's not the case; it's more a song about how to make a compromise with your despair and continue living—despair…or maybe I should say the whole of society… The song touches on how we do what we can do, but at the point where I decide to do music, what should I sing about?
What about the album title, "How to Live with a Phantom?"
I also thought maybe the first track's title would be a good album title but…I guess if I did that it would be just saying the same thing over again.
By the way, what made you decide to make your own label?
I guess I don't really have a good way to explain it except as a natural course of events. I thought maybe it would be good if I did it myself.
Also, the first printing seems to come with an instrumental album?
The instrumental is really just a mixed down version. And it's kind of weirdly good. The backing vocals are still there, but the main vocals are taken out. Since I thought the backing vocals on their own were actually a really good amount, I was thinking I'd like to release it, but selling that (the instrumental) on its own would not quite cut it. So I released it as an extra.
Wouldn't live performance in this format be practically impossible? I guess you could do it if you found a bassist, but are there no plans for concerts?
Hmm, I kinda think it's ok to not do them until the feeling that I spontaneously want to arises.
So at this point what comes more natural is doing recordings?
Or I might just say that I haven't actually thought about it at all. I was concentrating on finishing up the album I had in front of me and the rest would just happen as it would. It's already done, so…
Title: How to Live with a Phantom
Artist: Shintaro Sakamoto
On sale November 18th, the long-awaited first solo album. Several guest artists participated, but besides guitar, he did bass, keys—almost everything himself, so it really is a "solo" album. Hip gaps and exquisite omissions in a casual groove make up this strange brand of pop. The first printing comes with an instrumental disk.
Born in Osaka on September 9th, 1967. In 1989, he started singing and playing guitar in the rock band Yura Yura Teikoku. Over the course of 21 years they put out three cassette tapes, 10 studio albums, a mini album, two live albums, a remix album, and two best of albums. In 2006, the art book "Shintaro Sakamoto Artworks 1994-2006" was released. Yura Yura Teikoku broke up in 2010. After that, a two-part DVD box was released. Sakamoto wrote three songs for salyuxsalyu 「s(o)un(d)beams」in 2011. He also started a solo project under his own label, zelone records. The highly anticipated album was released in November 2011.
The highlights designate parts that I'm either hesitant about or that were really hard. Not that there aren't other hazy or difficult bits, but these were the ones that really stuck out as "Hrm, not sure if I really got that..." Really the thing is that my understanding of the Japanese has to improve. I presented the last highlighted bit to some Japanese friends (in Japanese; they are translators in a way, since we're working on the same volunteer translation project) and they were not really sure what to make of it either, although their advice was still helpful.
Anyways, it would be great if I could just put this in a file somewhere and forget about it, but I have to put it up whether it's awesome or not because that is the point of this blog, to share my practice nonsense and mayyyyyybe get feedback if someone has time to leave constructive comments. Also I mean, even if my translation is not that great (I have no delusions!) you can get an idea of where Sakamoto is coming from, which is perhaps worthwhile...