Published on January 20th, 2017 | by The Beige Baron9
Interview: Shintaro Sakamoto
Representing the disenchantment that defined a decade, Yura Yura Teikoku (ゆらゆら帝国, “The Wobbling Empire”) was more than just a rock band for many people coming of age in the 1990s.
Musically, they transformed the psychedelic garage-fuzz sound, but were ultimately chameleons in evolution over their 20-year career. There was substance to their style, a unique electricity. They were able to articulate ’90s ennui in a way few others could.
Yura Yura Teikoku could break hearts or break noses, as happy painting over hypnotic two-chord grooves as they were ripping the place apart with violent blasts of cosmic blues. Like The Velvet Underground, Yura Yura Teikoku balanced the conventional with the progressive, and their jaded aura was tempered by ironic humor.
They didn’t seem to take anything, except the music, too seriously.
Examining individual players to see if one or another was responsible for Yura Yura Teikoku’s magic is a pretty pointless exercise, but it’s true that guitarist, vocalist, and founder Shintaro Sakamoto was the sun around which everything orbited.
“I picked the guys who looked most unusual and could play well…”
His genius for transforming the mundane into pithy and even profound lyrical observations is an aspect of the music that’s cherished by Japanese listeners.
Non-native speakers can catch echoes of it in his distinctive delivery, which recalls Jonathan Richman in the way syllables drop asymmetrically around the beat, while his nicotine-stained voice has a compelling strength. He slings his Gibson SG with the same fluidity as Hendrix, who, unsurprisingly, is one reason Sakamoto picked up a guitar.
“As a player and vocalist, it was Hendrix In the West and Led Zeppelin I through to IV,” he answers when I ask what albums had the biggest impact on him and his desire to play music. “As for wanting to be in a band, I’d say Fujio Yamaguchi’s Himatsubushi and Jacks’ Vacant World.” Did he ever imagine himself up on stage?
“I didn’t imagine anything.”
The lack of particular musical ambition Sakamoto attributes to an early and enduring passion for art, preferring to interpret the world through the drawings and characters he created by himself, but by high school, music had taken over from painting and drawing.
“I started playing when I was 14 years old with a cheap Japanese acoustic that my younger sister and I bought together. When I was 15, I bought an Aria Pro II electric guitar. At the time I really wanted the same Stratocaster replica my friend had, but I was hesitant about copying him, so I bought similar one with a different shape.
“I practiced a lot by myself in my room. I still don’t really understand what my style is.”
For all his charisma on stage, Sakamoto seems uncomfortable with the spotlight off it, hiding under a mop of shaggy hair, answering a TV reporter’s questions in deadpanned monosyllables, perhaps a reaction to what he and the band felt an absurd situation. A comparison to Gibby Haynes’s performance on MTV comes to mind.
“I still thought I was better at painting than playing music.”
Whether this ambivalence reflects an attitude about the music industry, or shows a private person deflecting unwelcome attention, is unclear.
I ask the Osaka-born Sakamoto if he was a compliant student at school, or an anti-conformist, and how his family reacted to his interest in music as a kid.
“When I was a student, my family moved every couple of years because of my parent’s jobs,” he says. “I learned how to adapt from an early age, yet I preferred making things by myself or painting to playing with friends. I wasn’t isolated. I liked making my friends laugh with my cartoons.
“Even after getting interested in music, I still thought I was better at painting than playing music. I thought that I’d like to do something in the field of art sometime in the future.
“A lot of bands nobody ever thought could be signed to a major label got major-label debuts, one after another, including Yura Yura Teikoku…”
“After entering a college of art and forming Yura Yura Teikoku, all of my interest shifted to music, and I started missing so much class that I barely scraped enough credit to graduate.
“I didn’t get a full-time job after graduating and just kept working as a part-timer and playing in the band. My parents didn’t say anything in particular, but they were probably pretty disappointed.”
The chemistry that developed between Sakamoto and Yura Yura Teikoku’s Chiyo Kamekawa, a widely respected bassist currently in Fushitsusha, was fundamental to Yura Yura Teikoku’s sound. Their telepathy formed a flexible bridge between the rhythm section (which eventually settled on Ichiro Shibata, also now in Fushitsusha, on drums in 1997) and anchored Sakamoto’s wild solos.
How did the first incarnation of the band begin?
“I started Yura Yura Teikoku with our first guitarist, a close friend from junior high school, and by the end I was the only original member left,” he says. “Our then-drummer Atsushi Yoshida and bassist Chiyo Kamekawa were the two most showy players at the art college we went to.
“I picked the guys who looked most unusual and could play, rather than anyone who might have had the same taste in music as me.”
I wonder to Sakamoto why the band didn’t end up being even bigger in the Japanese mainstream. Was he hesitant to go with a major label, and the artistic compromises that would bring, seeing as they were already packing out smaller clubs?
“Maybe you’re confused about the period here,” he says. “Yura Yura Teikoku were basically underground from 1989 to 1997, and after that we moved onto major labels MIDI and SONY until 2010. I chose to go independent, rather than with a major label, after Yura Yura Teikoku broke up.
“I released my first solo record in 2011. I went with an independent release because I couldn’t find any reason to act with a major label when I thought about the music I wanted to do.”
Throughout the mid to late ’90s, alternative rock was booming, and for a time, Nirvana was the biggest band in the world. Was there a sense of energy or support for rock more than there is now in Japan? How much did the band practice to get competent on stage?
“In the late ’90s, a lot of bands nobody ever thought could be signed to a major label got major-label debuts, one after another, including Yura Yura Teikoku. It was a time when CD sales were at the highest-ever level, and there was a lot of energy around the record companies.
“We used to rehearse twice a week, and each rehearsal took between two and three hours. I practiced at that pace continuously for almost 20 years.”
Was writing songs with the band a frustrating process or an enjoyable one? Does Sakamoto feel satisfied with what was captured on their albums, and how much difference in approach is there between the improvisations on stage and the process in the studio?
“There were times when it was stressful when I was playing in the band.”
“There were times when it was stressful when I was playing in the band,” Sakamoto admits. “Though it’s just been fun since I started solo.
“The first and second Yura Yura Teikoku albums, which we released on an indie label, were totally unsatisfying to me. I only really felt convinced for the first time, I think, with 3x3x3, my first for a major label.
“As for recording, we usually could get the basics of a track down in two or three takes.”
What local music was being created alongside Yura Yura Teikoku that Sakamoto found inspiring?
Were members cross-pollinating with other bands at the same time?
“Yura Yura Teikoku was the one and only for me,” says Sakamoto. “But Chiyo Kamekawa played with You Ishihara in THE STARS, and [drummer] Ichirou Shibata was doing solo electronic music.”
The subject of You Ishihara and his band WHITE HEAVEN is an interesting one, as Sakamoto was influenced a great deal by the music they were creating from the mid eighties onwards. Ishihara produced a number of Yura Yura Teikoku records during what many consider the band’s golden period, including Me No Car and 3x3x3.
I wonder at Ishihara’s impact on Sakamoto, in terms of sound and approach to music.
“Mr. Ishihara put me onto a lot of good records. I was affected a lot not only in terms of sound production, but also in my own way of listening and thinking. In the beginning of ’90s, I was searching for good psychedelic rock and prog vinyl. I came across a shop called Modern Music, and Mr. Ishihara was working for them.
“Mr. Nakamura suggested that I ask Mr. Ishihara to join as producer…”
“Some time later, Yura Yura Teikoku started to play live with WHITE HEAVEN, Mr. Ishihara’s band, and other bands that were connected to the Modern Music scene.
“Around 1996, it was decided that we would record an album at [WHITE HEAVEN guitarist] Souichiro Nakamura’s studio. At the time, Mr. Nakamura suggested that I ask Mr. Ishihara to join as producer. It was the beginning of our relationship.”
This friendship with Ishihara and history at Nakamura’s PEACE STUDIOS, where another famously unconventional Japanese band BORIS recorded the bulk of their albums, led Sakamoto into developing an interest in sound engineering and production. The space served as an occasional hangout for Sakamoto and BORIS drummer Atsuo.
I ask about this friendship, and whether Sakamoto contributed in any way to the sound or direction of BORIS.
“BORIS are a great band, one that have kept going their own way ever since I first met them. But I never thought I affected them, and Atsuo and I don’t really listen to music together.”
Does Sakamoto have a favorite BORIS album?
“I don’t know if I have a favorite necessarily, but I was deeply shocked by New Album, which they released just after signing with a Japanese major label.
“I’ve always sympathized with Atsuo’s attitude of destroying the image he built by himself.”
“I’ve always sympathized with Atsuo’s attitude of destroying the image he built by himself.”
Despite tours and overseas distribution, Yura Yura Teikoku never had the same level of success overseas as they did at home. It could be argued that the Japanese commitment to CD, the language barrier, and wariness about file-sharing meant that during the music-geek blog era of the Internet, where obscure or lesser-known music was passed around freely, Yura Yura Teikoku albums still remained difficult for non-Japanese to access despite the best efforts of their local and overseas labels.
“Yura Yura Teikoku was actually released via Mesh-key and DFA Records in New York. My first and second solo albums were released on Other Music Recording Co. in New York. I played in the USA, Australia, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, and Taiwan with Yura Yura Teikoku.”
It comes time to ask: why did Yura Yura Teikoku eventually wind up?
“We just felt like we’d done everything and thought it would be boring if we continued.” Does Sakamoto think, with the success of his solo career and the increasing interest in Japanese music from overseas, that a reunion might be possible?
“I’ve never thought about a reunion,” he says simply.
Even artists in the biggest bands in the world can have trouble finding success in a solo career. Domestically at least, Sakamoto has managed not only to keep fans from the Yura Yura Teikoku days, but also to find new ones.
Being free to create on his own terms has revealed new aspects of his musical personality, throwing his remarkable gift for catchy electronic-infused pop-rock into clearer focus. His lyrics are also sharper than ever.
“The Japanese may have a peculiar sense for loving something imperfect…”
With his first solo album How to Live With A Phantom and follow-up Let’s Dance Raw, along with a number of 7-inch singles establishing Sakamoto as a chameleonic and successful solo artist — it’s interesting to note the parallels in his work with that of Beck — the latest album Love If Possible was enthusiastically received by fans and critics on its Japan release last July.
“I like to create what I want to listen to,” he says of his aims as a solo artist. “Something that follows my personal sense. You know, I want to listen to this; I want to own this record. I could go on doing it by myself, or I could do it with others as well, probably. Maybe if I get an interesting idea in the future, I’ll collaborate.”
I wonder which record has been his favorite of his solo output so far?
“I love all of my solo work, but would say I like Love If Possible the most. The reason being; I still don’t really know what it is.”
Is Sakamoto’s solo work more personal, or is he happy creating something not necessarily defined as self expression? How does the creation of Sakamoto’s music interface with his everyday life?
“I’ve never really thought about the connection between music and life.”
“I’ve never really thought about the connection between music and life. Somehow, it’s like it’s just there. I still buy records, though it’s usually just whatever I’m interested in at the time. I’m not a collector.
“When I have a great idea and am really into working on it, I feel satisfied. Usually I’m quietly doing what I’m working on at the time, things like lyrics, composition, design, at home. Recently Shunsuke Ono covered one of my songs for a 7-inch released on zelone records. And I’ve just released a 12-inch with VIDEOTAPEMUSIC on em records.”
The influence of Japanese experimental music on bands worldwide has been well stated. Oren Ambarchi recently commented that his original attraction to Japanese noise in the 1980s was its purity, of being less about image and only about sound.
Trucking with this is You Ishihara’s opinion that Japanese listeners are less prejudiced by whether bands from overseas are considered cool or not, allowing fans to listen to music differently.
I ask Sakamoto if he thinks there is a unique aspect to Japanese music.
“Somehow, the Japanese may have a peculiar sense for loving something imperfect,” he muses. “A sensitivity that focuses on the aesthetics of subtle differences in detail.”
Is music as a way to express inner life, articulate observations of external life, or is it something with a life of its own?
“What does music mean to me? There’s thrilling nuance in my favorite music that can’t be explained with words. I like to keep searching for new records that give me that feeling, and I’d like to create those kinds of records myself, if I can. The nuance that I’m pursuing would be the music.”
Love If Possible is out now on Zelone Records and globally on iTunes January 20. Shintaro Sakamoto’s solo records are available on Mesh-key or Zelone Records. Yura Yura Teikoku limited discography is available through Mesh-key or CDJapan.
— Story by Beige Baron. Translation by Yoshi.