Back in the not-so-distant days of pre-millennial anxiety, just about everyone with a sliver of creative marrow in their bones had cultivated their own version of what they thought the 21st century would be like. But what about the music of the future? Scroll back a couple of decades through the sci-fi firmament of Blade Runner and A Clockwork Orange, or even the cultish redoubts of Logan's Run and Outland, and invariably there's a scene in a bar or a crowded café where strange, otherworldly sounds are churning away in the background. The composer in question might be Wendy Carlos, Vangelis or Jerry Goldsmith, but the goal is always the same: Make the music move in a way that's unexpected, but still familiar — synthetic (or electronic), but still undeniably human.
As a subtitle to his latest album, Sensuous (Everloving, 2007), Tokyo-born Keigo Oyamada, aka Cornelius, chose the phrase “la musique du 21e siècle,” but the mantra is not there as part of any commentary on what a far-flung tomorrow may bring; the real reason is much more cheekily innocent than that. “When you hear that term,” he explains through an interpreter, “it seems like it might be referring to music of the future. But all I'm really saying is the obvious — that this is where we're at right now. There's really nothing more to it.”
Going back to the playful electro-psychedelic bricolage of Fantasma (Matador, 1997), which first broke him to an international audience, Cornelius has always taken a deceptively simple approach to making offbeat but accessible pop music. He's an originator, with his former band Flipper's Guitar, of Shibuya-kei or “the Shibuya style” — a Japanese fusion of Western pop, jazz and hip-hop named for Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district and popularized by Pizzicato Five, Buffalo Daughter, Cibo Matto and other groups — and he has drawn regular comparisons to self-invented style chameleons like Beck, the Beastie Boys and DJ Shadow. Whether he's bit-crushing jungle rhythms and sunny melodies (as in Fantasma's timeless single “Star Fruits Surf Rider”), or twisting up remixes for everyone from UNKLE (“Ape Shall Never Kill Ape,” 1998) to Bloc Party (“Banquet,” 2005), Cornelius flouts the rules of pop with apparent and inexhaustible glee.
To some extent, Sensuous is a continuation of the musical ideas Cornelius developed on his last album, Point (Matador, 2002), which relied largely on sweeping synth textures, liberal signal processing and a near-absence of sampling in favor of live instrumentation (as heard, for example, on “Point of View Point” — a pristine slice of Brian Wilson-esque dream pop). Calmer and more minimalist than the hypertensive Fantasma, Point was the work of a producer who had turned subtly inward.
“The direction I was looking for back then involved referring to more simple sounds,” he confides, “or less sounds with less colors. This time around, I focused on going into the studio with no limitations in mind at all. Everything was wide open. That's probably the biggest difference in the approach that I took to making this album.”
Of course, any hint at a unifying aesthetic behind Sensuous begins with the opening title track. The song fades in quietly with the sound of a glass wind chime called a furin, which, along with a pair of softly plucked acoustic guitars, conjures an ambient mood that is at once meditative and, thanks to the expert placement of some regenerative delays, spacious. It's a different texture from the watery theme that accentuated parts of Point, but it gives way immediately to “Fit Song” — an infectious exercise in ping-pong stereo mixing, with percussive synth, bass, guitar and one-word vocal parts bouncing back and forth over a propulsive live beat laid down by Yuko Araki — known to fans of her solo work as Mi-gu — that stops and starts in fits of funky rhythm.
“I recorded the drums first,” Cornelius reveals. “We used two different clicks in the same tempo — on one, Yuko played the kick drum and the snare, and on the other, she played the hi-hat and different parts of the snare, [like the rim]. I recorded these so that the sounds didn't overlap each other, and then I listened back to it and reprogrammed it in Logic. After that, I recorded all the other instrument parts [including a spot-on Prince-like synth circa 1983, which was captured using Native Instruments FM7] and tried to arrange the song so that when one sound is ringing, no other sound is overlapping it. It's a method that I used quite a bit for this album.”
That method resurfaces in the way Cornelius tracked his vocals for “Gum” — a punked-out headbanger that surges aggressively over a sawtoothed riff. Wordless syllables flit from left to right as the guitar, bass and drums propel the song toward a shattering finish, with the overall mix morphing into an extended stutter that stops on a dime with the last hi-hat strike.
“I used Pro Tools to chop the tail end of the song into pieces,” Cornelius explains, “and then I just cranked up the tempo. But regarding the overall sound, the song used to be called ‘Metanica,'' which is just metal and electronica put together. The riff I used was meant to sound as strange as possible — not quite punk, but not quite hard rock either. For my vocals, I tracked the different tones separately — some sounds are only in the left speaker, or for two-syllable words, the second syllable might come out from the right. It's basically a wordplay thing. When you split up a six-syllable word, for example, the different parts can mean different things, especially when you hear them coming at you in stereo.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
In the 10 years that have passed since he recorded Fantasma, Cornelius has gradually taken advantage of the huge increases in memory and DSP power that have revolutionized digital media — to the point where he now relies very little on outboard gear for his effects and signal processing. As a result, many of songs on Sensuous are rife with the spectral atmospherics that can be generated using various Logic-based delays and reverbs.
“Most of the effects I'm using on the album are plug-ins,” Cornelius says. “I tend to use them more on the guitars than anything else. Usually, I'll just record the guitar parts dry without any effects, and then I'll put varying amounts of delay on them once they're in the computer. You can hear that on ‘Wataridori'' — the guitars are moving through a slow delay while they're rhythmically moving back and forth between the left and right channels. That rhythmic stuff gets a little more subtle in ‘Beep It'' — the delays and reverbs there only kick in at certain parts of the song.”
Cornelius also found some added support from among the extensive pool of musicians he has collaborated with over the years — in particular, Erlend Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe of the Norwegian alt-folk duo Kings of Convenience. The partnership began five years ago when Øye and Cornelius met in London during the Point promotional tour; the two eventually traded remixes — Kings of Convenience chose “Drop,” while Cornelius picked the KOC staple “I'd Rather Dance With You” — and the bond has been solid ever since.
“After I'd started work on Sensuous, KOC were about to come to Japan for a tour,” Cornelius recalls. “They mentioned that they wanted to see my studio [see sidebar, “Sensual Machines”], so I asked them if we could do something together. I sent them a demo version of the track that became ‘Omstart'' — it's a really quiet song with acoustic guitars and percussion — and when they came over here, we just knocked it out in a day.”
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Record shopping is a serious pastime in Tokyo — a reality that might go some distance toward explaining the uncanny diversity of modern Japanese pop in general. For Cornelius, though, becoming a music junkie through crate digging was only part of the equation; both of his parents played music throughout his childhood — he later recruited his father's band to perform on the remix companion to the leftfield album 69/96 (Trattoria/Polystar, 1995) — and by the time he was in high school, he had picked up the guitar as his main instrument.
With such an extensive musical background, Cornelius usually writes all his own material, but on that rare occasion when he reaches back for a song to cover, his choices can be far-out to say the least. Fantasma's “2010” paid tribute to an obscure singer's rendition of Bach from the '60s, while Point's “Brazil” was an all-electronic instrumental of the 60-year-old classic song “Aquarela do Brasil.”
Sensuous, of course, is not without its thoughtfully chosen and well-wrought cover song, and therein lies a story. “My father became ill and was in the hospital,” Cornelius recalls, “and one day I got curious and went looking through his record collection. I found Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely, which is this great album of standards he did from 1958. There was one song on there that I really liked, so I thought I'd give it a try.”
The song in question is “Sleep Warm,” a whimsical late-night ballad that vividly emulates some of the Moog and ARP synth sounds of early '70s Stevie Wonder, with Cornelius manipulating his lead vocal through Antares Auto-Tune to create a vocoder-ish vibration. “I wanted to segue out of the song before it,” he explains, referring to the funky bossa nova called simply “Music,” which fades out on a repeating synth pulse that cycles through gradually thickening layers of compression, “because I wanted to create the feeling that you're going into another world. By the time you realize the change has happened, you're in a completely different space.”
WIDE OPEN ROAD
For some artists who write, record and produce music almost entirely on their own, the prospect of presenting that music in a live setting can be a daunting one — especially if the bulk of an album was created electronically. Cornelius' use of mostly organic instruments allows him to avoid the pitfalls of his original intentions getting lost in translation, but he also isn't constricted to the point where he feels obligated to slavishly reproduce live what he created in the studio.
“When I'm playing live,” he says, “it's impossible to translate exactly what's happening on the album because I'm doing it with a four-piece band. But I really enjoy the freedom of being able to do that live. It's more exciting to me to think about the possibility that something new and different could happen with the music on any given night.”
As a live spectacle, the Cornelius Group — which features drummer Yuko Araki, bassist Hirotaka “Shimmy” Shimizu (who both also play together with guitarist Yukio “Nago” Nagoshi as Ash-Ray) and keyboardist Hirohira Horie — is a force to be reckoned with. Along with his trademark Fender guitars, Cornelius will often hit the stage with a theremin and a Pioneer DVJ-X1, which he uses to manipulate the bizarre live-action sequences — assembled by director Koichiro Tsujikawa — that run on a large screen behind the band. The performance is rendered even more interactive when a homemade box loaded with button-triggered vocal samples starts to make its way among the audience; Cornelius always encourages participation in his music, which is probably why he is so keenly attentive to how it sounds before it reaches your ears.
“It's somewhat similar to the importance of lyrics to music,” he explains. “I feel that the vibration of each sound — its origin and its texture — has to come out clearly. But like I've said, for this album, I didn't want to impose any rules on myself. That's the great thing about music — the possibilities. There are just so many paths that it can take, and I think there will always be many more in the future.”
Tokyo's funky Nakameguro district — just southwest of the record-shopping mecca of Shibuya and the flashing neon lights of Shinjuku — is fast becoming the place to see and be seen among the city's cutting-edge art and fashion crowd. Tucked away in one of the neighborhood's serpentine streets is Cornelius' stripped-down but efficiently stocked recording studio, which brims with a womblike warmth that seems to have seeped by osmosis into the lush soundscapes and lilting grooves of Sensuous.
“It's not that living in the city has influenced my music so much,” Cornelius says, when asked if his work is a reflection of — or a response to — the teeming bustle of Tokyo. “For me, it's really more about the whole environment. What I experience, what the weather might be, what I ate that day — all of that has an influence on how I make music. There are also quite a few people who influence me musically, but there's no one specific I could name; when I'm writing in the studio, it's more about what strikes me at that particular moment and whether I think it works musically.”
From a technical standpoint, Sensuous marks the first time that Cornelius has mixed an album entirely inside the box — in this case, with an Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system. “When I made Fantasma,” he says, “I was sampling all kinds of sounds and using Pro Tools, but with an SSL board — I recorded everything on 48 tracks to digital tape. I went a bit more digital on Point, but I still used a lot of outboard gear, and I also mixed on an SSL. But this time around, there was no sampling — everything was tracked live at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution — and because the quality of the sound in Pro Tools has gotten so much better, I just decided to mix the whole thing in the computer.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Power Mac G5 dual 1.8 GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD with 96 I/O interfaces
Antares Auto-Tune 5
Apple Logic Platinum (with ES1, ES2 and Sculpture soft synths)
Native Instruments FM7
1963 Fender Jazzmaster guitar
1973 Fender Stratocaster guitar
MusicMan Sabre bass
CD turntable, DJ mixer, drum machine
Korg KM-2 Kaoss Mixer
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Roland CR-78 CompuRhythm drum machine
Microphones, preamp, compressor
AKG C414 condenser mic
Neve Portico 5016 mic preamp
Røde NTK tube mic
Urei 1176 compressor