Interview: Yuka & Chronoship

Discover how the Japanese four-piece have come full-circle for their latest album
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Yuka Funakoshi’s musical journey has followed a circuitous path. The Japanese keyboardist, songwriter and vocalist is classically trained, but became an established presence in her home country’s J-pop scene. Over a decade later, Funakoshi has just released Ship, the fourth album credited to Yuka & Chronoship, a progressive quartet that — at first blush, anyway — seems very much in the stylistic tradition of Yes, ELP and other early ‘70s progressive giants.

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“I've been playing piano ever since I was small,” says Funakoshi. “And I went to college to study classical music. I was heavily influenced by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.” The musician was drawn to what she describes as those composers’ “structured yet very flamboyant and flexible kind of music.” Chronoship bassist and musical director Shun Taguchi points out that those defining characteristics of Ravel and Debussy’s work are “quite common among the kind of progressive music played in European countries.”

Funakoshi’s college studies focused on composition. “Even when I was in primary school, I was composing,” she says. But in college, she wasn’t a good student. “I didn’t want to listen to the instruction from my teachers. I didn’t want to play the songs they asked me to play; I played all the songs that I really wanted to play,” Funakoshi says, with a laugh: “I was not highly appreciated by my teachers!”

THE J-POP ERA

Once out of college, Funakoshi headed in a perhaps unexpected direction: J-pop. At this time — the late 1990s — Taguchi was already an established songwriter and producer. Under his musical mentorship, Funakoshi recorded and released three albums: Pool No Nioi No Natsu (1998), Silent Sun (1999) and Morning Bird (2000). The title track of that third album was a popular release and a professional music video of the song can be seen on YouTube.

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But even as a pop artist, Funakoshi focused on musicianship over style. “I was not dancing,” she emphasizes. “I was playing piano and singing songs, making quite a mixed format of J-pop.”

Working closely with Funakoshi, Taguchi noticed the progressive and classical music elements that revealed themselves in her original work. Mentioning three specific songs — “Morning Bird,” “Kagerou Mitaina Kisetsu” (“Seems Like a Rush”) and “Kokoro Dake Hitori Bocchi” (“Only Mind is Alone”) — Taguchi explains, “The original forms of these songs sounded quite like prog-rock: a complex and extended structure, and a great amount of melodic elements.”

To make the compositions work in the pop idiom, Taguchi says he “asked Yuka to slim down these songs, reducing elements to make them simpler, more pop, and commercially correct.” But by the time of the release of the Morning Bird album, both Funakoshi and Taguchi found themselves exhausted with the musical direction they had been pursuing. Besides that, both musicians were becoming a bit old for the youth-centered J-pop scene. (When asked her age, Funakoshi giggles and says, “It’s top-secret!”)

NAVIGATING THE SHIP TO PROG

“So I decided to steer the direction of Yuka’s music into the genre of prog rock,” Taguchi says. “That gave her more freedom of composition and brought me closer to what I had dreamed of doing since I was 13 and first heard Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon.”

Oddly, prior to Chronoship’s launch in 2009, Yuka Funakoshi had absolutely no grounding in progressive music. “I didn’t know anything about it before I formed this band,” she admits. While Taguchi concedes that there are stylistic cues in the music of Yuka & Chronoship redolent of Keith Emerson’s instrumental flourishes, he insists that Funakoshi arrives at her musical destination via a different route. Taguchi suggests that any similarity stems from the influences that Emerson and Funakoshi have in common.

Even today, the virtuoso claims not to have heard — much less been influenced by — progressive rock. “I don’t listen to it, even now,” she says. “Shun doesn’t want me to. He doesn’t want me to compose music that’s similar to Yes and Pink Floyd and King Crimson.” Without a hint of discomfort, Funakoshi freely admits that “Shun is controlling my imagination.”

Taguchi also brings his progressive musical orientation to bear on the work of Yuka & Chronoship. For the group’s first album, 2011’s now out-of-print Water Reincarnation, Funakoshi says that “Shun asked me to compose a couple of songs, and then he added a couple of elements that came directly from his own experience of progressive rock.” She describes the end result of that process as “composed by me, with Shun adding bits and pieces of prog.”

That first Yuka & Chronoship album began as a collaboration between Funakoshi and Taguchi. “Later on, Takashi [Miyazawa; guitarist] and Ikko [Tanaka; drummer] were added to make it an album,” Funakoshi says. Water Reincarnation was embraced by progressive rock fans; more than half of the respondents to a poll on progarchives.com rated it Excellent or Essential. But the album likely confused at least some of Funakoshi’s J-pop fans. “There are a number of people who were fans of my J-pop music, and later on, they kept on listening to my progressive rock songs,” Funakoshi says. She understands that while many were initially shocked by her new style, once they listened to the actual songs they discovered that her signature melodic style remained. Even with the progressive presentation and Debussy-inspired melodic lines, Funakoshi’s pop sensibility provides an accessible foundation for her relatively ambitious compositions.

THE KEYBOARDIST’S GEAR

While Funakoshi’s compositions lent themselves to a progressive context, it was a different story when it came to her playing style. Prior to forming Yuka & Chronoship, the keyboardist had played acoustic piano; she had never laid hands on an electronic instrument, much less a synthesizer.

“The transition was, at first, very, very difficult for me,” she says. “The touch of a synthesizer is different.” And the virtually limitless sonic palette of synthesizers was unexplored territory for Funakoshi, too. “Switching back and forth between the two was hard,” she admits. “It took a long time to get used to all of that.”

Today, recording and performing with Yuka & Chronoship, Funakoshi makes use of a relatively simple and straightforward keyboard setup. Her primary live and studio instrument is an 88-key Yamaha weighted keyboard, the S90 XS. She also plays a 49-key MIDI controller, the Roland A-500 Pro. “And my sub-keyboard is a Roland A-49,” she says. “A very, very inexpensive one, that’s also very light so that it can be easily carried.”

Funakoshi’s aural palette makes use of piano, harpsichord and overdriven Hammond organ-type sounds. Asked if she makes use of any analog keyboard technology — perhaps a Moog modular like Keith Emerson used — the keyboardist is direct. “No analog at all,” she says.

A GROUP MINDSET

While Funakoshi’s keyboards lie at the sonic center of Yuka & Chronoship’s arrangements, there remains plenty of space for the other musicians to display their instrumental prowess.

“I and all the other players are trying very hard to construct one whole tune,” Funakoshi says, “hopefully integrated with different instruments.” She says they work to avoid a musical situation in which “the keyboard is in the center and all the others are trying to push it out. The music has a totality in that ensemble, and that’s very important for me.”

Though he names Pink Floyd as far-and-away his favorite group, Taguchi’s bass style owes more to the Chris Squire style of playing. Exclusively using a stereo Rickenbacker 4001 bass, Taguchi deftly navigates his musical role within Yuka & Chronoship. Explaining his approach, he says “Yuka’s composition is quite unique. I am trying very hard to support her, and the way to do that is to act as a counterpoint to piano and guitar.”

It’s reasonable to wonder if the left-hand, lower-register parts of classically-trained Funakoshi’s playing occasionally clash with Taguchi’s bass lines. Taguchi says the problem rarely arises, even during composition. “When the bass line and the left side of the keyboard threaten to overlap, Yuka and I discuss together how to solve the issue,” he says. “I try to be very sensitive to that kind of problem. And Yuka is very good at it, too.”

THE CHRONOSHIP LINEUP

Promotional materials for Yuka & Chronoship describe the group as Funakoshi plus “three leading studio musicians.” Before beginning to work with Funakoshi in the late 1990s, Shun Taguchi produced the popular all-female rock/pop group called Princess Princess; who released ten studio albums between 1986 and 1995.

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In addition to production duties for other artists, Taguchi is also a popular songwriter in his own right. His song “Uisukii ga, Osuki Desho” (“You like whiskey, do you not?”) was recorded twice, first by Saykuri Ishikawa and then again in 2011 by Azusa Miura on the Japanese-only release The Idolm@ster Artist 2. “Shun is a very famous lyric writer here in Japan,” Funakoshi says.

Drummer, Tanaka, and guitarist, Miyazawa, both work on a variety of projects outside Yuka & Chronoship as well. Ikko Tanaka played both live onstage and in the studio with Takahiro Matsumoto’s genre-hopping, huge-in-Japan duo B’z. And Takashi Miyazawa has done studio projects with influential Tokyo-based arranger/producer/composer Masataka Matsutoya. Not unlike Funakoshi, Matsutoya’s work often combines classical music characteristics with pop styles.

A WOMAN IN PROG

It’s fairly rare to see a female instrumentalist fronting a progressive group, especially in Japan. But Funakoshi says that being a woman hasn’t made things more challenging for her as a musician. “I think it’s quite lucky for me to be a woman, especially engaged in the field of progressive rock,” she says. She points to the rarity and novelty of her status as a Japanese prog musician, provinding her with “a lot of opportunities in Japan.”

Funakoshi concedes that, in her J-pop days, she found that female performers were viewed differently than their male counterparts. “But now that I’ve played in progressive rock, I don’t feel any different when I am viewed and reviewed,” she says.

Taguchi and Funakoshi both say that the progressive rock community in Japan is comparatively small. “Progressive rock in Japan is not a major genre of music,” Funakoshi says. “There are a certain number of enthusiastic fans, but progressive music is not that popular compared to other contemporary genres of music. Dance music and J-pop occupy the ranking.” Still, whenever Yuka & Chronoship schedules a Tokyo date, the venue sells out.

As a composer, Funakoshi says she gets a sense of satisfaction playing live. “My creations are displayed there,” she says. “ I feel that I am given a proper place on stage — just like the frame of a painting — to accommodate my creations.”

Yuka & Chronoship haven’t yet made it to the United States: “But we have played twice in France and once in Italy, in summer music festivals,” Funakoshi says. “We really want to play outside of Japan — in the United States or Europe — at least once a year.”

NOT LOST IN TRANSLATION

Both Funakoshi and Taguchi understand a bit of English, as evidenced when they would begin laughing or responding even before the interview questions were translated. But with the exception of the occasional guest vocal — such as Curved Air’s Sonja Kristina’s lead on the Ship track “Tears of the Figurehead” — Funakoshi’s lyrics are sung in Japanese.

To a large extent, Yuka & Chronoship uses Funakoshi’s vocals more as a means of wordless expression. “That is exactly what I try to do,” she says. “I’m trying to convey not just linguistic process, but the sound of emotions.”

And while some might detect a slightly Eastern vibe to the group’s music, that quality is not intentional on the composer’s part. “Listeners outside Japan will say that there are some parts of my compositions that sound quite oriental, very Japanese,” Funakoshi explains. “Perhaps, the finger-play, melody and chords have some Japanese characteristics that I wasn’t quite aware of when I was composing the tunes.”

Funakoshi notes that, when composing music, she draws inspiration from nature. Born in Tōno, a small city in the northern Japan prefecture of Iwate, Funakoshi describes her hometown as “a very famous place in Japan because it is in the countryside with lots of nature.” The history of Tōno is wrapped in folkloric tales of spiritual entities. “The beauty — and at the same time the brutality — of the nature there gives me the type of sound and inspiration for my musical creations,” she says.

THE VOYAGE CONTINUES

After Water Reincarnation, Yuka & Chronoship moved forward, less as a project and more as a cohesive band. Funakoshi describes the group’s second album, 2013’s Dino Rocket Oxygen, as “the one where Shun tried to involve all the other players into the [making of the] album. They worked very hard… probably too hard,” she says. The record was well-received and earned more positive attention, but like the band’s debut, distribution beyond Japan was limited. For Dino Rocket Oxygen, Taguchi realized one of his personal dreams when he prevailed upon famed artist Roger Dean (designer of countless Yes album covers) to craft a custom logo for the group.

Yuka & Chronoship worked with UK-based Cherry Red Records to put together a worldwide distribution deal for the group’s third full-length release, 2015’s The 3rd Planetary Chronicles. Though there would still be no international touring, Cherry Red helped bring Funakoshi’s group and music to a wider audience. Reviews for Chronicles were even more positive (and numerous) than before. And Funakoshi says the experience of making that album was more enjoyable. “We tried to make it a little looser than before, to create a nice ensemble of all four players.”

Ship was released worldwide on May 11th, 2018. Funakoshi says that while the studio approach may change from album to album, her method of composing remains consistent. “I am always trying to create songs quite naturally, waiting for the tune to come out naturally.”

Taguchi explains the ways in which he provides a kind of composer’s prompt for the keyboardist. “When I am planning to make an album, I will give a couple of themes to Yuka. And in the case of the new album, I gave her a picture of a figurehead and asked her to make a song concerning the picture.” Funakoshi did some investigating on her own, and stumbled on the Greek myth of Argo — the ship with which Jason and the Argonauts pursued the Golden Fleece.

With that story in mind, Funakoshi composed the seven-part “Argo Suite.” Wordless, save for Sonja Kristina’s vocal turn on the elegiac opening movement “Tears of the Figurehead.” The pieces move through different styles and textures in the grand tradition of classic progressive rock. “Yuka will make an almost endless number of melodies, depending on the kind of theme I give her,” says Taguchi. “That’s how the album was created, and how the different songs on the album were born out of our cooperation.”

With the growth of the band’s fan base worldwide, highly-regarded albums and the ongoing Cherry Red distribution arrangement, there is every reason to expect more music from Yuka & Chronoship. “I am always surprised to find that there’s no fixed pattern to Yuka’s music,” says Taguchi. “It always excites me to give her a new concept. Because Yuka Funakoshi has an enormous store of musical ideas and creative sources.”

For more information about Yuka & Chronoship, visit omp-company.com/chronoship.