On the occasion of Black Editions' release of the Hallelujahs' Eat Meat, Swear and Oath (1986) and Nagisa Ni Te's Newocean (2020), Shinji Shibayama takes a deep dive into his nearly 40 year history as a key figure in the Kansai psychedelic and rock underground; discussing, in detail, a wide array of topics from his creative process, influences and early years to the origins and evolution of his longest running group, Nagisa Ni Te, with his partner Masako Takeda and how P.S.F.'s Hideo Ikeezumi loved the Hallelujahs, now revered, sole album so much that he proclaimed: "If this album gets buried, there won’t be a bright future for Japanese music."
Article written, interview conducted by Tomotake Furuhashi, from late summer ’21 to spring ’22.
Translated to English by Justin Simon.
Shinji Shibayama, leader of the group Nagisa Ni Te, is based in Osaka, the cultural and artistic hub of Western Japan. He has produced his own brand of unique music since the early 1980s.
Early in his career, Shibayama released a self-produced EP that harkened back to the days of British progressive rock but his proper start as a musician came when he joined Idiot O’Clock (whose sole LP he released on his Org Records imprint in ’89). And then, from the fertile soil cultivated by Idiot O’Clock and the musicians in their orbit, the fictitious group Hallelujahs was born. In 1986, Hallelujahs released the fruit of their labor: Eat Meat, Swear an Oath, an LP limited to 300 copies.
Shibayama and his collaborators in Hallelujahs made measured, thoughtful music. Their raw vocals and vivid lyrics, with their unvarnished expressions of tactile memories, were incomparable. One might even describe Hallelujahs as honest and conscientious, to the extent that their music delivered fresh surprises and deep sensual pleasures to the listener. The members of the collective were improvisation lifers, and their determination comes through in every song.
Hallelujahs have often been described as "Japanese pop-psych,” but perhaps they should have been referred to as "world-class psychedelic pop music.” They had deep ties to the music scene in Kyoto, the capital of medieval Japan, and they performed in the city a handful of times. Incredibly, however, the group disbanded without ever receiving the recognition it deserved.
Along with Shibayama, Masako Takeda is the other main member of Nagisa Ni Te. In addition to their public work in music, she and Shibayama share a private life together. On their first album, 1995’s On the Love Beach, Nagisa Ni Te successfully carried on the spirit of the Hallelujahs while taking their approach to the next level, further deepening the sense of color and three-dimensionality in their songs and performances. But, without a doubt, the album’s degree of perfection — is there another album with such moving artwork? — should be attributed to Takeda (credited as “wind” in the liner notes), who worked on the record for over three years.
Nagisa Ni Te has released ten albums, including one live album and one mini-album. It goes without saying that Takeda’s tasteful drumming props up the framework of the group, but her electronic contributions — cymbal sounds that suddenly fill the room, echoes that jump as if painting a picture of a time warp, and more — also amplify the latent imagery in the groups’ songs. Her compositions and vocals, both of which seem to animate natural emotions with astonishing clarity, are pure genius, and are undoubtedly why Nagisa Ni Te is such a special band.
Nagisa Ni Te’s latest work, 2020’s Newocean, begins with Takeda’s vocals. The vibrancy of her voice, which shines even in the midst of the group’s shimmering sound, proves that Nagisa Ni Te’s fascination with the essence of what it means to live remains unchanged nearly thirty years into their career.
In our interview, Shinji Shibayama looks back on his discography and speaks in great detail about his memories of specific recording sessions, the concepts behind some of his records, and more. We covered a number of topics he’d never before discussed, so I think it should be a stimulating read for longtime fans and new listeners alike. In addition to music, I was also able to ask him about his childhood memories, and days spent with his family. I think his understated warmth and periodically whimsical commentary will give readers a good sense of where his songs come from.
S = Shinji Shibayama
F = Tomotake Furuhashi
Part 1 — Newocean
F: First question — where’s your head been since the release of your tenth album, Newocean? Has anything or anyone in your immediate environment or in the world at large left an impression or caught your interest? Or just anything you’re feeling passionate about these days…
S: With Newocean, I felt like we’d made the best album of our twenty-five year existence. I was deeply disappointed when the pandemic forced us to cancel the concert we’d planned to celebrate the album’s release, but we weren’t the only ones dealing with sad circumstances. The landscape in town changed completely. Airplanes disappeared from the sky. It felt like the world was experiencing a major shift in values. It was like a re-enactment of the terrifying opening scene of The Andromeda Strain (1971), a movie I saw on TV years ago. Today, we can use Google Street View to catch glimpses of Glasgow or abandoned houses in remote regions of Kyoto, but if anything it’s become harder to distinguish what’s real from what’s fake. Things felt more “real” back when my only sources of information were TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio.
That said, I also love watching Soft Machine and CAN concerts on YouTube. [laughs]
F: Those live clips [on YouTube] are impossible to resist! [laughs] At Modern Music, Hideo Ikeezumi once half-sarcastically said to me, “YouTube is amazing…I can watch the Sonics perform as old men!” Do you pay for any music or video streaming services?
S: I don’t usually, but I subscribed to one recently just to watch Get Back (2021). It was even more fun than I thought it would be!
F: I felt the same way, it really was one spectacular scene after the next! The first time you played before a crowd was with a Beatles cover band at age fourteen, right? Who was your favorite Beatle at the time?
S: I’m shocked you know about that! We were all fourteen at the time, so we barely qualified as a cover band. We were pretty terrible. Even so, we spent about two months diligently rehearsing in the music room after school. We gave our first-ever performance at the festival, and then immediately burned out and broke up that evening. [laughs] I was Paul, but at the time it was less about deciding which particular member I liked the best, and more about dreaming up my own vision of The Beatles, and the gratification that [dream] brought. These days, I’m a huge George fan. [laughs]
F: George’s charm really got me too when I saw Get Back! [laughs] Returning to your work, then — your latest album, Newocean, feels so alive to me. The production is nuanced, but at the same time the arrangements are bold and exciting. Most of all, I feel like the band’s never been more powerful. I’d like to ask you about the band’s approach to sound production. On your albums up to and including 2017’s Even The Stars Never Know, Naoki Zushi’s name is credited under the songs he played on, so I figured he was just a guest. But this time he’s credited the same as the other main members of the group — just his name and instruments played. The individual performances on this record seem to stand out more distinctly than on previous albums.
S: Wow, I’m impressed you noticed Zushi’s credit change! I’m not sure even Zushi noticed! [laughs] I was listening to one of Zushi’s solos when we mixed the record and thought, “At this point, the idea that Zushi’s a guest guitarist in Nagisa Ni Te is just bizarre. Zushi’s been the only lead guitarist in Nagisa Ni Te for ages now!” When Zushi plays on one of our songs, it’s as if the notes he plays guide us toward a separate storyline that’s been hiding in the track, a storyline that’s new even to the person who wrote the song. The five of us, including Zushi, first got together for A Long Swim (2014). And I think the interplay between the members of the group — all of whom I consider irreplaceable — has only gotten tighter on Newocean. Everybody played exactly what the songs needed; every phrase, chord and beat is in its proper place. The mixing process evolved to a point where the mixing engineer just did his best to demonstrate who made which sound, and when. Of course, it sounds easy when I describe it like this, but in practice the mixing process was a considerable burden on Suda, our engineer, because I made so many complicated requests. I’m so grateful for the sharp skills and patience [he brought to the job].
F: The deep three-dimensionality and psychedelic quality of the stereo image surprised me. I can’t imagine another rock band adjusting the faders and knobs so violently in a mix.
S: I’ve been particular about mixing for a long time. In the days of analog mixing, Takeda and I took on the dizzying operation of faders, pan knobs and echo units. Sometimes, when we ran out of hands, the engineer would assist. Analog mixing was nonstop, performed in real time as the song played, so if we made a mistake in the middle of a mix, we had to start over. It was a much more stressful process than playing live, and each time I mixed a record I felt as if I was shortening my life a little. I felt elated whenever a mix came out as I’d hoped, almost like my whole life had turned in the right direction. [laughs] But from Yosuga (2008) on, we recorded all the basic tracks to tape, and then used Pro Tools for post-production. Having experienced the hardships of the analog era, Pro Tools is like Harry Potter's magic wand to me. Because you can make extreme, King Tubby-style dub mixes just by drawing designs with waveforms [in the software]. But if you rely on that magic too much, I think the music loses its charm.
F: Nagisa Ni Te’s performances sometimes feel like big-hearted prayers. If you could dedicate Newocean to someone, who would it be?
S: My two daughters. The power I’ve received from them is directly reflected in Newocean. They actually sang the chorus on the title track, the first song on Newocean.
F: Is that so! That’s wonderful. That makes me even more excited to hear it again.
One of the lines in “Evil Star” really struck me. It’s a verse where you express your feelings toward an architectural object — “The oldest spire has not yet fallen.” I was also taken with another line in the same song — “Arriving at the ruined cottage, I had seen somewhere before.” Also a line in “Shadow” that goes, "The castle of melancholy once came into view up ahead.” These lines feel like cinematic expressions, and when I hear them I imagine scenes shot from above. I can't help but wonder what you’d be like as a film director, and imagine what sort of film you might make if given the opportunity. As an aside, I got curious about this series of architecture-centered lyrics, and also discovered the line, “That soaring spire, the number of those twinkling stars” in “Whispering Thunder” on your eighth album, 2014’s A Long Swim, and the line, “An earthen den marked by wild roses” in “Secrets” on your seventh album, 2008’s Yosuga. There’s also the CD label on your ninth album, 2017’s Even The Stars Never Know.
S: This is the first time anyone’s pointed out this series of architecture-centric lyrics. But now that you mention it, yeah, it makes sense to me. It might have something to do with the fact that the guys in Pink Floyd majored in architecture when they were students. [laughs] The "Oldest Tower" is a quote from and an homage to "Song of the Oldest Tower,” an unreleased song by Kenichi Takayama. Takayama led Idiot O’Clock, a band I was in in the early ‘80s. It’s true though, whenever I visit unfamiliar rural areas I’m charmed by the look of abandoned villages’ decaying houses. When I see a house that looks abandoned but has laundry hanging out to dry, or some other sign of life, I become even more curious. My imagination runs wild with thoughts like, “Who the heck lives here, and what’s their life like?”Luis Buñuel and Werner Herzog have been my favorite directors since my twenties. You can’t get away with as much private expression in film as in music, but if a whimsical patron was willing to fund it, I’d love to put together my own adaptation of Strawberry Fields Forever.
F: Very interesting. It reminds me of the piece you once wrote about the profundity of music where you said, "Don't let someone take you to Strawberry Fields. Get there yourself.” I’d like to discuss some of your older work next, but first — you seem to have harnessed the propulsive force of the “jam” to reach previously unexplored territory on 2017’s Even The Stars Never Know. For me, the music has an even greater dissimulative quality than your previous work, and listening to it again recently, I was reminded of a pre-pandemic world overflowing with not just hope, but also the feeling of being at an impasse. I was particularly knocked out by the richness of Ms. Takeda's restrained vocals in the last song, "Existence,” which has a nostalgic mood. What do you think makes Masako Takeda such a compelling musician? And if you had to pick her best song, which would you choose?
S: “Existence" is so grand, and full of private emotion and nostalgic, poetic sentiment. I can't make anything with that same sense of scale. And Zushi and Yoshida’s lively guitar and piano solos enhance the song’s inherent charm. As this song clearly demonstrates, Zushi and Yoshida are both natural players with pro-level technique, but Takeda and I are extremely limited as players and can only flex our strengths within the framework of Nagisa Ni Te. Just as Ringo Starr’s talents blossomed in The Beatles, Takeda’s drumming is completely unique [in the context of our group]. I think all of her songs are equally great, but forced to choose, I’d have to say that “Anxiety" and "Dewdrops from Heaven” are two of my favorites. I think these two contrasting songs are emblematic of her talent.
F: You and Takeda contributed strong performances to Zushi's excellent album IV (2018), and I feel like the live band [for that release] was really spirited, too. In terms of your attitudes toward playing your instruments, can you tell me what’s changed and what’s stayed the same since the band was formed?
S: For better or worse, we’ve accepted the technical limitations of our singing and playing from the very beginning. We aren’t so much “unbeatable contestants” as we are “opting out of the contest entirely.” There’s no need for advanced technique in Nagisa Ni Te; our highest priority when it comes to the music is capturing each player’s individuality and highlighting his or her signature performances. This has been my attitude since the Hallelujahs days. Ringo Starr and Nick Mason, for example, would be useless in Led Zeppelin and The Who, but they’re irreplaceable in The Beatles and Pink Floyd. Donald Fagen would never hire Billy Talbot or Ralph Molina, but Neil Young needs them, and has even said, "There's a place I can only reach with them.” In a similar way, I think there’s a very specific place in the music that’s only accessible with all five members of Nagisa Ni Te.
F: I’d like to ask you about your album Yosuga (2008), which brought together current bassist Takashi Yamada and keyboard player Masayuki Yoshida for the first time. The [album’s] intimate vocals seemed to almost come from a kind of newborn life form, and the band’s naïve performances seemed to eschew endings. The intense vocals and lyrics caressed the ears and hadn’t lost any of their brilliance. At the same time, clearly some elements had changed. The cover design was extremely simple and mysterious. Among other changes, the romantic, hand-drawn band logo you had used since your debut had been replaced with a blue Ming font, and your name was now written out phonetically in katakana. Frankly speaking, it all seemed to add up to a rather dramatic manifesto. What was the intention behind each of these changes?
S: We approached the Yosuga jacket design as an opportunity to update our image along with the birth of our children. To give some background on the logo change, I liked the yellow and blue color scheme of the Org website’s “Hitokoto" [header], and I asked Takeda to create a primitive and symbolic design, something like the NEU! logo, with these two colors. And the art on that jacket was what she came up with. As for the name, I changed it in a fit of anger [laughs], but later realized [I had chosen] the same name as a character from a popular anime, so I quickly changed it back. [laughs]
F: After Yosuga, the band was mostly inactive until you started working on A Long Swim, which was released in 2014. Those few years felt long to me, as a fan of the group. But what did you experience, feel, and think about during that time? And did the passage of time affect how motivated you were to make music?
S: Takeda was pregnant when we were making Yosuga, and we had twin girls the year it was came out. So I was the only one who performed at the Yosuga release show. And for the next few years, Takeda and I took care of our kids 24/7. Playing shows was out of the question, and I didn't have the chance to play guitar or listen to records anymore, either. When my daughters started kindergarten, I finally had some time to myself. And strangely enough, when I picked up the guitar after such a long break, new songs started pouring out of me, one after the next. I feel like there was something more instinctive than motivation at work. Those songs became A Long Swim, which was released after a six-year absence. My daughters were innocence itself and taking care of them and playing with them each day gave me not just a sense of returning to my own childhood, but also a fresh feeling, as if my life had been reset. It was like my horizons had been broadened. It was like passing through a valley and seeing a magnificent view of the ocean ahead of me. I think that new feeling has shown up in my music ever since.
F: The thrill of getting your feet wet in the ocean for the first time as a child feels etched into A Long Swim. What’s your earliest memory?
S: My earliest memory is from just before kindergarten, when I was two or three years old. My father had taken me for an early morning walk to some nearby fields one summer, and I remember him holding me up and showing me the inside of a water-filled dish that had been placed under a light trap for insects. Along with the moths and winged insects in the dish, there was a large stag beetle, still alive and jittering about. I remember the scene vividly, like a scene from a movie.
F: How very symbolic! It even feels like I’ve touched upon the source of your creative work. Were you parents also lovers of music and film?
S: My father seemed to love science fiction. I remember various science fiction magazines and books by Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury and the like at home. One of my strongest related memories is of the 70mm Cinerama screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey that my father took me to when I was in third grade (1968). I didn’t get the concept at all, but I still clearly remember the impact of the intense visual experience. There was a fifteen-minute intermission in the middle of the film, and I remember eating a rice ball then.
F: You once said you fell in love with music recording FM radio broadcasts at home. And you once wrote in an essay that the only reason your home had a radio/cassette player was that your mother had purchased one to record family conversations for fun.
S: I lived all my teenage years in the ‘70s, and FM Osaka, which launched in ’70, was a huge part of my daily life. In ’72, when I was twelve or so, I spent every day devouring new rock n’ roll on the radio. We didn’t own a stereo at the time, so the radio was my only source of information about music. ’73 was an especially important year for me. The near-daily radio broadcasts of T. Rex, David Bowie, and The Beatles' red (The Beatles/1962-1966) and blue (The Beatles/1967-1970) albums opened the door to a new world. The most impactful [releases] were Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd, released in the spring of ’73, and Close to the Edge (1972) by Yes, who were also touring Japan for the first time around then. Both albums were broadcast in their entirety. [Hearing these albums,] I experienced a kind of mind-altering culture shock, and thought, “Wow, there’s so much rock beyond The Beatles I didn’t know about!” Needless to say, I recorded both albums to cassette and listened to them obsessively every day. And before anyone knew it, the tape deck my mother bought to record family conversations for fun had become my most cherished “music machine,” and I’d tucked it away in my room for good.
F: How did The Beatles differ from Pink Floyd for you?
S: A very fundamental question! I could write a dissertation on this topic. Simply put, the two groups occupied the same basic genre — psychedelic rock — but their differences came down to how each conceived of the recording process. For The Beatles, pursuing the “reality” of each song was the top priority, and the recording process of sculpting the actual sound of the songs was secondary, and left to the engineers. Pink Floyd, on the other hand, treated music and sound as one and the same, both key elements in the reproduction of a singular time and space. And they used concrete sound effects as [equally important] elements of their songs. “Revolution 9" (1968) is a meditation on the music concrete technique itself, while "On the Run" (1973) incorporates those concrete techniques into the rock template and uses the sounds of jet engines and footsteps to stimulate the listener's imagination. These sounds themselves function as “catchy hooks” and are mixed just as high as the [traditional musical sounds]. I'm trying to combine the best features of both groups in Nagisa Ni Te.
F: What an exciting insight! You should record the next Nagisa Ni Te album at Abbey Road. I heard that Hill Gates, a band you formed in the summer of 1980, was the first band you played originals in. Tell me about the band’s activities.
S: I named the band, but I wasn’t the leader. Hill Gates was like a party band without a leader, just a way for friends with similar taste in records to hang out. I met Nishimura (bass) and Morita (drums), who were in a band called Super Milk, in the early ’80’s. Hill Gates was five guys and two girls. Since we were a large group and there were girls, we tried to be a theatrical band like Deaf School or Orchestra Luna, but none of us, including myself, could write original songs of any significance. I remember getting together in a rehearsal space with our instruments, not having much material to practice, and deciding to head straight to the bar instead. Even so, we performed at Kyoto Sangyo University’s school festival and at Studio Ahiru in Osaka. We got laughed off the stage at Studio Ahiru when we put on a comical, awkward performance opening for wild bands like Hijokaidan and Auschwitz.
F: The music you make always seems to have a certain pop orientation. I don’t mean to say that it’s commercial, but it sometimes feels like it occupies a rare space in the world of Japanese independent music.
S: Yeah, I agree. It’s not that I aim for a pop-oriented style from the start, but that sort of [pop] sensibility seems to naturally work its way into my music. I would attribute this to my not-particularly-serious personality, and the way the rock music I was crazy about as a teenager in the ’70s influenced me. Specifically, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. Of course, The Beatles form the backbone of all those other groups. Also, when I was a child in the ‘60s, my mother listened to the radio every day, and my memories of the cheerful hit songs from that optimistic era of world history no doubt had a huge impact on me, too.
F: Makes sense! Incidentally, do you have any favorite songs or singers from the world of Japanese Kayōkyoku (a genre of Japanese pop music combining Japanese and Western sounds) ?
S: It would be a very long list if I started rattling them off [laughs], so I'll refrain from doing so, but the first that come to mind are Naomi Chiaki's "Kassai" (1972) and Megumi Asaoka’s “Nubae” (1972). These two songs were deeply etched into my adolescent mind.
Part 2 — Eat Meat, Swear an Oath
F: On your first record PICNIC IN THE NIGHT (7" EP, 1981), I couldn’t make out lyrics so much as a constant scatting of the song title, but you completely transformed the song five years later with Hallelujahs’ Eat Meat, Swear an Oath (1986). How did you come up with this type of Japanese singing?
S: I’m shocked you know PICNIC IN THE NIGHT! I did that at twenty years old, just as an experiment with multi-track recording, kind of innocently tracing my progressive rock influences, the stuff I’d been listening to since I was a teenager. In ’82, I started playing drums in Idiot O’Clock, who were active in Kyoto at the time, and was greatly influenced by the intense originality of vocalist Kenichi Takayama and guitarist Naoki Zushi. Idiot O’Clock's music conjured the essence of the Velvet Underground, New York punk, Peter Hammill, ’60s psychedelic rock, and Japanese GS (Group Sounds). But, surprisingly, they didn’t just “trace” their influences as is — they assimilated and reconstructed them in their own, unique way. They created their own vision and put it into practice so early in their career that it was hard to believe they were the same age as me. PICNIC IN THE NIGHT was just like a crude doodle [compared to them].
And I learned a lot more than just music in Idiot O’Clock. I learned firsthand what a real band was all about. And while I was messing around and searching for my own music, I met Fujiko Nakaza. Her music had zero artifice, and the way she expressed herself through her lyrics and melodies seemed like a natural extension of her lifestyle. What appeared to be an incongruous combination — singing old children’s songs while improvising — sprung naturally from within her. At the time, Ms. Nakaza wanted to release a solo album on cassette, and I helped with the recording and played some guitar. I was surprised and deeply inspired by the way her songs, with their beautiful, dynamic melodies, full of leaps and bounds, came from within her body, and not from her head. It awakened my consciousness and led me to Hallelujahs. I had lots of experiences during the five years between PICNIC IN THE NIGHT and Hallelujahs, but in a nutshell, I think the end of my childhood was directly reflected in the songs.
F: Your classically styled title, Eat Meat, Swear an Oath, feels like it hints at a strong resolve to accept the fact that there’s no turning back. Was what you just mentioned, the end of your childhood, at play here? Or was this title inspired by something else?
S: Even after we finished mixing the Hallelujahs album, I was at a loss for an album title.
Then one day, I was walking down a street in a run-down neighborhood and saw a homeless guy selling his paintings on the side of the road. They were all paintings of wild animals, drawn with untrained, barbaric brushstrokes. Not the kind of thing I could imagine a normal person buying. I put an image of the painting that most fascinated me on the [Hallelujahs] album cover. Staring at the painting of the tiger, I developed a vision of an isolated wild animal eating meat, deep in the forest. That’s how I came up with the title Eat Meat, Swear an Oath. But there’s no specific inspiration for the words I used. I was just putting on airs writing it in that classical style. [laughs] [I was shooting for something like] the Japanese films Avenge Yourself (1979) or Death in the Countryside (1974). I wanted to create a powerful image with old-fashioned language. The “Swear an Oath” part of the title was related to how I approached recording — barely ever rehearsing beforehand, and half-improvising each session. I was determined to use the first take, even if it was out of tune or out of rhythm, so there was certainly no going back. I was also hellbent on making my first LP. I think the “Eat Meat” part of the title symbolized my desire for a ritual separation from my childhood — [as if I were] “eating meat” and leaping into the next dimension.
F: There are so many great stories associated with Hallelujahs. Listening to the first song on the album, “I’m not green,” I felt as if I’d suddenly lost any sense of the ground below my feet, as if I were flying through a star-filled sky. And then I realized that the instrument that normally provides a sense of stability to a band — the drums — were missing. Then Takayama, the leader of Idiot O’Clock, taps his guitar and repeats the title. Clearly, it’s an example of the sort of unique world of sound that only Hallelujahs could come up with. Even with you on drums, I imagine this was a difficult arrangement to nail. Am I right?
S: When we recorded Hallelujahs in ’84-’85, MTV was in its prime, artists like Foreigner and Michael Jackson were burning up the charts, and flashy hardcore punk was gaining popularity in the Japanese underground scene. The reason "I'm not green" doesn’t include drums is, of course, because they were deemed musically unnecessary. But we also wanted to rebel against all the trends of the era. We even rebelled against punk, so we were pretty isolated. In those days, the first question I asked myself when working on a new song was whether it needed a normal rock band formation, which is why there are several songs without drums. The idea came from Bill Bruford’s credit on "Trio” (1974) in King Crimson’s A Young Person's Guide to King Crimson (1976). There weren’t any drums in the tune, but Bruford was listed as [having contributed] “admirable restraint.” That really impressed me.
F: I was in disbelief when I first heard Eat Meat, Swear an Oath was from the mid’ 80s. It was certainly way different from the popular trends of the era, but the music was as intimate and rich as it gets. The delicately overlapping electric guitars were especially unique. How did you decide who would play the lead parts on each track?
S: The album has Zushi’s “Hallelujah" and Watanabe’s “Christmas Out of Season.” Both songs were in their respective repertoires at the time, and both were favorites of mine. Since I didn’t have enough material of my own to fill out an LP, I asked Zushi and Watanabe to contribute a song each. I also hoped that by doing so, I could introduce the world to their gifts. When we recorded, we roughly decided who would handle each solo — Zushi, Takayama, or Watanabe would play the guitar solos on my songs, and I would play the solos on Zushi and Watanabe's songs. We had a brief discussion about each song’s basic chord progression and structure, but aside from that we ran the tape with as little advance practice as possible.
F: I heard Phil Manzanera, who had made Diamond Head (1975) with his friends, was on your mind during the [Hallelujahs] recording. Why didn’t you release the record under you own name, like Manzanera? Why come up with a fictional group name? Also, “Hallelujah” was taken from Zushi’s song. What did that word mean to you?
S: I gave my first solo album the fictitious band name “Hallelujahs” for a simple reason — I didn’t think “Shinji Shibayama” had much of an impact. Also, I romanticized the way [members of] a “band” felt a strong bond with each other. The name was of course taken from Zushi's song "Hallelujah.” When I heard "Hallelujah" for the first time, I felt a deep identification that nearly made me tremble. It was hard to believe a stranger had written it. "Hallelujah" felt like an anthem that symbolized the whole project, and somehow it felt right using the plural "Hallelujahs" for the [band] name. The concept [behind the name] was that, regardless of who wrote a particular song — me, Watanabe, whoever — each contributor respectively sang his or her own “hallelujah.”
F: "Hallelujah" is still an important part of Zushi's live repertoire, but your bloodcurdling solo is a real highlight [of the Hallelujahs LP]. I assume you’ve been playing since you were a kid, but who influenced you as a guitarist?
S: Naoki Zushi will always be the most important guitarist to me. I feel like I can trust whichever course his [playing] takes. The same goes for Fujio Yamaguchi's warm obbligato in Murahachibu and Les Rallizes Dénudés. Some other sounds that have stayed with me my whole life — Phil Manzanera's fuzz tones (made to simulate Soft Machine's Mike Rutledge's organ on guitar), David Gilmour's deep bends, Robbie Robertson's clear pinch harmonics, and Paul Kossoff's obbligato when he focused on rhythm instead of lead, to cite a few examples.
F: The guitar line that seems to mirror the "Christmas out of season" lyrics really resonates with me. The composer [of this track], Takahisa Watanabe, played on six of the album’s eight songs, switching between guitar and bass depending on the song. Who came up with his unique credits like “the ghost" and "Guitar like a star"?
S: Those were my ideas. I liked Eno's playful use of "Snake Guitar" and "Uncertain Piano" in the credits for Another Green World (1975) and tried imitating them. Before we recorded "Christmas out of season," Watanabe had accumulated a stockpile of songs he’d recorded at home but had no plan to release any of them. At the time, he wasn't even sure if he wanted to form his own band, so I suggested he record one of his songs in the studio, as a kind of push to get him moving. My favorite song on his tape was “Christmas out of season.” Watanabe himself was not so keen on this song (I don’t think he’d ever played it live), but I pushed him to do it. Takayama, who played drums on the track, also liked the song and said, "I'll record the perfect sound effect for this one.” Then he recorded Kyoto’s busy shopping district on Christmas Day in ’85. We used some of those sounds briefly, at the very end of the track, but I don’t think many people noticed.
F: Ah, so that mysterious sound was the sound of Christmas hustle and bustle!
Hideo Ikeezumi once said this about Eat Meat, Swear an Oath ― "If this album gets buried, there won’t be a bright future for Japanese music.”(*) How do those words resonate with you now that the Hallelujahs LP is being reissued in the States 36 years later?
*”From the first issue of G-Modern, "RECORD REVIEW 500 Buried Masterpieces PART-1" (1992)
The full text is quoted below:
The sole album by Hallelujahs, formed by Shinji Shibayama, former Idiot O'Clock and Yakeppachi No Maria drummer. It’s unfortunate they broke up after just one album. Very few music magazines covered the record at the time of its release, so it was only for those in the know. But its subtle, brilliant sensibilities are unrivaled! The gentle, ephemeral guitar and vocals on the first track, "I'm not green," are particularly great, as is Naoki Zushi's distinctive and tasteful guitar (credited as “Floating guitar” on the back cover) on the second track, “The next verse.” [The album] clearly communicates the artists’ strong sensibilities. The second side’s "Christmas out of season" and “Star” are also fantastic. And the last song, “A wish,” features Chie Mukai playing that wonderful kokyu (Japanese violin). If this album gets buried, there won’t be a bright future for Japanese music.”
S: What a heartbreaking thought — "There’s no bright future for Japanese music, but there is for America!” Ikeezumi was the first person to proactively praise Hallelujahs. We were ignored in my hometown of Osaka. In ’86, I brought tens of Hallelujahs LPs to record stores in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo that sold self-released LPs. Some stores refused to carry them because we were an unknown project and had never played live. But just when I was feeling discouraged, I visited Modern Music. To my surprise, Ikeezumi immediately put the record on the turntable and listened to the entire album on the spot. No other record store did that. He had only one condition, simple and reasonable: “I’ll give it a listen first, and if I think it’s good, I’ll carry it. But if it’s boring, I’ll ask you to take them all home.” He didn't say a word until he’d listened to the whole record. Never before or since have I been so anxious listening to the Hallelujahs LP. After forty or so awkward minutes, when the last song on side B finally ended, Ikeezumi said, "How many did you bring? I'll take them all!” I still clearly remember how moved I was at that moment.
F: After the release of Eat Meat, Swear an Oath you put together the live incarnation of Hallelujahs, and played in other groups like Omoide Hatoba and Ché-SHIZU before finally forming the predecessor to Nagisa Ni Te in 1990, Love Beach. And on Christmas Eve, 1995 (*), ten years after Takayama had set up his microphone in downtown Kyoto, Nagisa Ni Te released its first LP, On the Love Beach. Once again, I felt like various elements of your sound were radically transformed, but what were you absorbing from your surroundings in those days?
*I based the release date of "On the Love Beach" on an advertisement in the back of G-Modern magazine, No. 10 (Winter, ’95-’96).
S: ’85 to ’95 was probably the busiest decade of my life. After Eat Meat, Swear an Oath came out, I tried playing a few shows as Hallelujahs with completely different members. But it was hard to bring the concept of the album — with its emphasis on the singular quality of any given performance — to the live shows, and the results were half-baked.
I put my own projects on hold and played drums in both the reunited Idiot O’Clock and Watanabe’s Yakeppachi No Maria. That was the late ‘80s. I joined Omoide Hatoba and Ché-SHIZU after that. As I shuffled in and out of bands, I had a growing desire to find a post-Hallelujahs style of music for myself, or music that would let me dig a bit deeper into my own reserves of expression. And that’s when a vision of the music I wanted to make, which was still vague in Hallelujahs, began to emerge. In the ‘90s, I started doing my own work again with Love Beach (borrowing the title from EL&P's final album). This time, I was confident I could make a real, personal musical statement with a multi-tracked (24 track) recording, instead of leaving so much to chance, as I did in Hallelujahs. It took more than three years to complete the recording, from start to finish. But that recording became Nagisa Ni Te’s first album, On the Love Beach. I started recording Maher Shalal Hash Baz's 3-CD set Return Visit to Rock Mass (1996) at a studio in Tokyo around the time I started recording On the Love Beach. That one took four and a half years to complete.
F: Let me ask you a more detailed question. I know I’m jumping around a bit, but at what point did you become aware of the goal with Eat Meat, Swear an Oath? Also, did you plan on a second Hallelujahs album?
S: If by “goal” you mean a sense of things finally coming together, it was when we finished recording the last song on the album, "A wish.” It was the only song we recorded for that album in ’86, and it ended up being the very last recording for the album. First, I recorded the basic guitar/vocal track in time with a drum machine. And then we overdubbed various other instruments. This was the only song on the album that we put together with multi-tracked takes, as opposed to recording one live take of the full band. But I used the first vocal take, so I convinced myself I was still being true to the overall “first thought, best thought” concept of the record. [laughs] Mukai recorded her part last, and when I heard the mighty sound of her kokyu through the monitors, I was overcome with a sense of accomplishment. It felt like a shockwave hitting my spine, like, “Yes! I’m done!!” For better or worse, by emphasizing the “first thought, best thought” approach, I felt like we were able to inject the recording with a feeling of instability. At the same time, since I couldn’t imagine ever repeating the same approach, I never even considered making a second album.
F: “A wish” was the perfect last song, both in name and form! You said “Green lovers" was the first song you recorded for the album, in December ’84, but what order were the other songs recorded in?
S: "Green lovers" wasn’t originally written for Hallelujahs; it was written for a solo album by Nakaza, who sang with us. I casually tried coming up with some chords to go with her lyrics, and the melody just flowed out of me naturally, almost as if something was guiding me. It didn’t feel like I “made” the song [in the typical way]; it was the first time a song ever came to me spontaneously, as a pure expression of something inside me, and not something borrowed. Unfortunately, after we finished the recording Nakaza decided to leave it off her release. But since this was the only song I composed, and I felt it was too good to lose, I asked her to let me use it on the Hallelujahs album. The first live session with Zushi, Takayama, and Watanabe was August 3, 1985. We recorded "The next verse," "Hallelujah," "I'll soon follow, no matter where you are," and "Pie-Para-Para” that day. “Pie-Para-Para” is an unreleased track Zushi wrote, but it’ll be issued as a bonus 7" with this reissue. Young Zushi's guitar solo is incredible on this track Takayama, Watanabe and I recorded "Christmas out of season" on August 23, 1985, and "I'm not green" and "Star" on December 27, 1985. Koji Soga (ex-L'isle-Adam, Idiot O’Clock) later overdubbed the bass part on "I'm not green.”
F: It would be fun to compare the sounds of the acoustic guitar tracks on "I'm not green" and “Star,” which were both recorded the same day. So, I assume taking a break from your own projects and gaining experience as a side-person in various bands made you a more confident conceptualist and producer, but was there anything specific that directly inspired you to form Love Beach?
S: After Idiot O’Clock and Yakeppachi no Maria, I started playing with Omoide Hatoba, but at that point I got sick and had to take a break from playing with bands for a while. I got a lot of thinking done during that down time. With Hallelujahs under my belt, I finally had a clear vision of how I wanted to express myself. So, ten years after PICNIC IN THE NIGHT, which was just me in “research” mode, I started thinking about making another multi-tracked album, but a definitive one, something better than the Hallelujahs record. That became the Love Beach solo project, which culminated in the first Nagisa Ni Te album.
Part 3 — On the Love Beach
F: Let me ask you about Love Beach, the project before Nagisa Ni Te. In a special supplement to "Hard Stuff" No. 11, published October ’93, you wrote about Love Beach in an article titled, “The Network of People Surrounding Idiot O’Clock.” You wrote, “Our philosophy is based on [a commitment to] ever-changing concepts, and this goes for our approach to composition, too. We’re currently planning a recording, and using various studio techniques, we’ll offer a simple update to the Japanese ‘heartrending’ quality we’ve picked up from artists like The Mahina Stars and Isao Bito.” It seemed like you were making a sudden move toward something approaching Japanese rockabilly, Group Sounds, and moody, Showa-era pop. Could you tell me a bit about what you were thinking at the time?
S: I guess that influence was obvious. [laughs] In fact, in the early stages of producing the first Nagisa Ni Te album, we recorded a cover of "Oyasumi Osaka" (1969) by Funky Prince, an Enka/Group Sounds band. The idea was to use a Japanese version of an early Roxy Music technique (hiding serious expressions, quotations from classic films, etc. in a nested structure behind a super lowbrow design). In other words, for a time I was looking for a way to incorporate the “suspicious” and "fake" feel of Group Sounds and moody pop music. But I wasn’t motivated enough to pursue the idea in earnest. For me, “Deserting You" and "The False Stars" were products of those initial, tentative efforts.
F: I see! I’ve heard that Takeda’s contribution of backing vocals to “Oyasumi Osaka” (1992) was a real turning point for you. Was that about the time you adopted the name Nagisa Ni Te, inspired by Nevil Shute’s 1957 science fiction book?
S: Yeah. We were also worried the name Love Beach might seem like an homage to EL&P so we decided to change it to another beach-related name, On the Beach (Nagisa Ni Te). But we weren’t referencing the Neil Young album (1974). We took the name from Nevil Shute’s novel. I assume that’s where Neil Young got it, too. Actually, the movie adaptation (1959) that I saw on TV as a child left much more of an impression on me than the novel.
F: Inspired by the same work, Neil Young sang "Now I'm livin' out here on the beach, but those seagulls are still out of reach,” which seems to allude to an abandoned seashore, and an isolated person’s sadness. Your music seems to come from a very raw, personal place, but at the same time it’s also deeply evocative of otherworldly presences, invisible figures, and the like. What sorts of images did the On the Beach film put in your head? Were there any particular scenes or lines that stayed with you?
S: The way [Young] rhymes "livin' out" and "still out," and "beach" and "reach" is so beautifully done. I think Young was also inspired by the imagery in On the Beach. The photo on the front sleeve of his LP is a blatant homage to the movie. The film was so refined in the way it paired such an urgent premise — the human race facing extinction — with black-and-white imagery, and static (at times, even a bit tedious) direction. I was deeply impressed by the famous sequence of the empty bottles swaying in the wind and making Morse Code, as well as the depiction of San Francisco as a ghost town. Also, the scene at the end of the film where Ava Gardner is shot from behind on the seashore, seeing off the submarine that was about to set sail again. “Me, on the beach" from the first Nagisa Ni Te album is an important song that symbolizes the Nagisa Ni Te project [for me], but it also has the emotional landscape of the movie, with its profound sense of loss and that feeling of just drifting. Simply put, it’s music that asks what it means to stand alone on a beach and stare out to sea, like Ava Gardner or Neil Young did.
F: Is it what you described in a previous interview as "hope in the midst of despair,” or a sort of value set or philosophy that holds on to hope even in the face of catastrophe, or even on the brink of death? In “Me, on the beach,” even after its final chorus ends, another dimension seems to carefully unfold with an avalanche of fuzz guitar, repeated, calming arpeggios, and drawn out, beautiful waves of feedback. How has your view of life and death, which seems strongly reflected in this song, been formed?
S: I think “Me, On the Beach” is kind of an odd song, even for me. I let Tori Kudo listen to a rough mix when we were still recording it and he asked me, "What on earth are you trying to express with that endless instrumental part?” And I didn’t have a response. But that coda wasn’t added after the fact; it showed up right from the start as an inseparable part of the song. In fact, I recorded all the guitar parts live in a single take, from start to finish, and used that take as the basic track upon which I layered the other parts. But to try to answer Kudo’s question again, what the coda expresses is not so much a view of life and death, but rather a sense that the forward march of time keeps going, even after the song is over. There’s a sense of drifting along, mixed with resignation that the world will carry on even after I’m dead and gone. I tried to express those sentiments through sound. I also felt the music echoed the mood of Zushi’s lyrics in "May a Flower Bloom,” (“Just like the star shooting in the night sky, May a flower bloom on what I was.”) and worked as a kind of response.
F: I see... You and Tori Kudo worked for four and a half years together on the Maher Shalal Hash Baz recording, and delivered a masterpiece of a triple album. Did you first meet in the early ‘80s?
S: Actually, the late ’80s. Kudo was playing guitar in Che-SHIZU at the time, and Mukai introduced us.
F: I heard that Che-SHIZU's I Can't Promise (1984) was a major inspiration for you when you were still conceiving Hallelujahs. Making progress must have been a challenge juggling two recording projects at the same time — the huge Maher recording project in their home-base of Tokyo and the first Nagisa Ni Te album in Osaka. What was your headspace like in the studio in those days?
S: Working on those two albums at the same time was heavenly. Every time I walked into the studio; my level of excitement was even higher than if I’d been meeting up with a girlfriend. Because I was confident both projects would be of the highest quality, and I could focus 100% of my time in the studio on nothing but the music.
F: A musical long-distance relationship! [laughs] “Deserting You," the exuberant track featuring members of Maher on Side B (or track 7 on the CD) [of On The Love Beach] reminds me of Bob Dylan & The Band's The Basement Tapes (1975). Did you work out the arrangements for this song with the other members of the group? I thought perhaps the voice counting in the song at the top was Kudo’s.
S: The Basement Tapes! That's the first time anyone’s pointed that out. That was me on the count. I did all the arrangements, too. We recorded the basic track live in the studio with guitar, piano, drums, and euphonium. I’m pretty sure the vocals were recorded at the same time as the basic track, live in one take. The studio was small, with a low ceiling, and the session vibe is there on the recording pretty much as is, so that may have contributed to the basement-like feel. We overdubbed bass and some other parts.
F: Overall, it feels like the song is bursting with the joy of playing and singing.
S: I think “Deserting You” has a relaxed and liberated feel because we did that session just after the Maher recording wrapped up (in the end, the Maher record didn’t make it to the original plan of a hundred songs — Kudo declared the album finished before it got there). Also, the small size of the studio worked to our advantage.
F: I was amazed to learn you put the first album together by painstakingly layering instruments like drums and bass on top of a guitar track, but in addition to the members of Hallelujahs, lots of talented musicians contributed parts, like Takayama, Zushi, Watanabe, and Mukai. I think the music really absorbed each performer’s unique sensibilities. During the initial songwriting stage, did you already have a vision for your guest musicians’ vocal and instrumental contributions?
S: I did. For the first Nagisa Ni Te album, I was super familiar with each contributor’s capabilities and unique perspective, so even at the songwriting stage I had a clear image in my head of what their performances would be like. But at the end of the day, each of their contributions exceeded my expectations. Zushi’s playing was particularly magical, and greatly expanded the scope of each song. Unbelievably, all of his solos were first takes!
F: Incredible… Isn’t that also the case with the solos on “They”? Zushi's guitar is also super propulsive in the middle section of "Elegy to Betrayal.”
S: Zushi and I recorded the basic tracks for "They" and "Elegy to Betrayal" on acoustic and electric guitars at Zushi's house. So Zushi's guitar solos were there right from the beginning. The overdubbed instruments and choral arrangements followed the course of his guitar, for the most part.
F: Let me ask a slightly more detailed question. The finger snaps at the beginning of "The Signs of Love" show up again at the end of the song, and sound to me like they’re signaling the end of side A. Was this a conscious choice, to put an intermission on the CD?
S: I added fingers snaps to the beginning and end of “The Signs of Love" to approximate the beginning and end of a magic show’s hypnosis session. And just as you pointed out, I put the snaps in places that would indicate an intermission before the second half of the album (both on LP and CD).
F: I didn't realize you had hypnosis in mind! A number of details in the original CD design were updated for the vinyl edition (I love how the staples in the CD booklet were painted green), but did you spend a lot of time on the artwork for the vinyl edition, too?
S: The artwork is just as important as the music to me, so it always takes time. Turning my vague ideas into concrete ones takes longer than the design work itself. In a way, it’s similar to making music
F: So many amazing discoveries, I hardly know what to say…At the start of the interview, you described Pro Tools as a kind of magic wand. Zushi’s playing is magical of course, but I also think the tenacity you bring to conceptual realization creates an incredible sort of magic. I get a strong sense of Takeda's “wind” blowing throughout "On The Beach," which feels more like a beautiful choral piece than an instrumental. And the echo of the waves, too, of course. The sound of the flute can also be heard at the beginning of “The False Stars," and the presence of the flute can be traced back to the lyrics for "Me, On the Beach.” Am I reading too much into it if I associate Takeda’s ocarina [with that line]?
S: When we made the first record, I didn’t know Takeda had an ocarina. But I think it’s wonderful that [our flutes] conjure such a strong association [for you]. But to explain [my word choice], when I used the word “flute,” I was quoting an untitled poem from the last chapter of Etsuko Takano's Nijussai no Genten (1971) which really overlapped with my vision back then. I decided to go to university in Kyoto because I wanted to smoke at the actual jazz cafe that appears in Nijussai no Genten. That entire poem is something of a birthplace for "Me, On the Beach" and, by extension, the first album. What happened to her after she set out on her solo journey? She was forced to make the sad choice of suicide, but if she had made a different choice... she might have quietly returned from the lake. If music had accompanied that moment, I think it would have been unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Ever since I started making my own music, I’ve wanted to replicate that sort of dream state in sound. But for a long time I wasn’t able to give it a shape, and it remained a mere aspiration. When I got to know Takeda and first heard her singing voice, the dream came back to me as if it were flowing backwards, and a melody and lyrics came with it. I added some chords on the guitar, and it naturally turned into "Me, on the beach.”
F: I’m so impressed by how deeply the power of poetry moved you, and the strength of your imagination to translate your dream into such a wonderful work. And [your] fateful encounter [with Takeda]. It’s incredible to think that without Nijussai no Genten, you might never have met Idiot o’clock, or formed Hallelujahs or Nagisa Ni Te.
S: Yeah. I read Nijussai no Genten in my high school’s library, and that inspired me to live in Kyoto. At the very least, the Hallelujahs LP might not have existed had I not gone to Kyoto.
F: Nagisa Ni Te played its debut show six months or so before the release of its first album, and Takeda made her first appearance as a full-fledged band member at this show. Takeda’s voice gave birth to Nagisa Ni Te, but was it a natural decision for Takeda to participate in the live band?
S: You caught the first Nagisa Ni Te show in ’95, right? The headliner that night was Sugar Plant, a popular group that I guess played a kind of “guitar pop.” The venue was packed. But I remember how silent the audience was during our vulnerable performance. And that tense feeling in the air multiplied tenfold when we later opened for Yura Yura Teikoku at Shinjuku Loft. Takeda was initially a casual participant, part of a larger group of other backup singers. But I think an inevitable chain of events, through various twists and turns, led to her join the band as a full-time member.
F: I remember waiting nervously for the show to begin at your debut performance on May 21, 1995. I spent the prior year listening to a dubbed cassette of Eat Meat, Swear an Oath that I got from a friend who had the original album, and I was expecting a gang of glaring, frightening men to take the stage. But in fact, you and guest musician Tsuyoshi Tabata strummed acoustic guitars, played harmonica and sang in clear voices with your heads held high. Takeda also sang, gently waving her drum sticks as if she were tracing patterns in the air with paintbrushes, and kicking her bass drum as if she were kicking a pebble. It was truly unlike any music I’d heard before. It sounded nothing like the album you released six months later. Along these same lines, your second album, The True Sun (1997) and its “acoustic live cosmic soul” created a radically different world from your expansive third album, the double-disc The True World (1999). Even the album titles stand in contrast to each other. By the time you made your third album, Takeda was taking the lead on more material, but what sort of role did she play in the band’s early days?
S: From the start, our lack of performance skills and singing abilities meant we were never gonna pass as “professionals.” And we never considered trying to recreate the sound of our first, multi-tracked album at our concerts, so our early shows were punk, at best. Audiences probably thought we had no choice but to be fearless and wild. Right from its inception, Nagisa Ni Te was an outlier that didn’t fit into any scene. We played a party in our hometown of Osaka once and even there an audience member asked, “Where are you guys from?” In such an unorthodox band, Takeda's role requires that much more cross-cultural communication. She had never played in a rock band or composed music before joining Nagisa Ni Te, so she had more of a catalytic presence in the band, like Damo Suzuki[’s role] in Can. Her presence has allowed us to deviate from pre-established harmonies and dive into completely unpredictable phases. I think Takeda's songs on The True World are perfect examples of this.
F: The haiku-esque lyrics, melodies, effectively arranged chords, and exploding fuzz guitars in “Anxiety” blow my mind every time I listen. What does punk mean to you?
S: For me, punk is Richard Hell & The Voidoids’ Ork single and first album, Blank Generation. Also, Suicide’s first album. From ’76 to ’77, I spent all my time searching for progressive rock records that hadn’t been released in Japan, like Faust and Can[’s albums], and then, out of nowhere, punk rock showed up. In my mind at least, there wasn’t any friction between [artists like] Hell and Suicide and cutting-edge progressive rock [groups]. None [of these groups] were formed from a marketing standpoint based on a particular performance style, but from a core desire for expression that inevitably led to desperate shouts and odd time signatures. I got the same feeling listening to Henry Cow as I did listening to Suicide. If we surmise the attitude behind a certain style of music based on how skilled the playing and singing is, and if we define punk as “real” rock music born from a “fuck you” sensibility, then the destructive power of Yoko Ono's pre-punk debut, Plastic Ono Band (1970) might make it the original punk album. It’s still a super effective, unforgettable record.
F: Looking back, it seems like the core of that desire for expression that you mentioned earlier was really laid bare in late ‘90s Nagisa Ni Te. This might be a bit of a tangent, but you performed a Japanese-language cover of Sly & The Family Stone's "Runnin' Away" (1971) at your concerts around the year 2000. I felt [this choice] somehow reflected the mood at the turn of the century, but could you tell me why you chose this tune?
S: It was totally unrelated to the new millennium. For a while, Takeda was hooked on completely remaking songs she liked, and replacing the original lyrics with her own. That was the case with Sly's "Runnin' Away.” We also covered an unreleased song by Virgin Insanity and Rashinban's "Born Again,” using completely different lyrics that Takeda had written. It spruced up our live shows, and it was fun, but after that brief period we lost interest in cover songs. Because we realized it was more fun to write originals than meddle with others’ songs.
F: Your fourth album, Feel, released in 2001, has a rich stereo image with a cutting brilliance, and the artwork is so lovely and vibrant it makes me sigh. You and Takeda shared joint credit for the lyrics and songwriting, and the album seemed to represent a further melding of your identities. The first half of the album is mostly composed of studio recordings you and Takeda made, while the second half is mainly collaborations with guest players. I heard you had a lively exchange of ideas when you made this album, but were there any particularly memorable incidents or moments for you?
S: For me, this album represents the true starting point of Nagisa Ni Te as a band. The recording perfectly reflected the ideas we each contributed. The studio was a real “psychedelic panorama.” We invited various guests to perform on each song, and all the sessions were fun. Yoshida, a member of Rashinban at the time, played organ on the record, and it fit our music perfectly. I remember being so impressed that I half-jokingly invited him to join the band [as a full-time member]. We made a completely analog recording, and repeatedly ran the tape backwards, which required flipping heavy reel-to-reel tapes. I fondly remember our engineer Nakamura complaining, “I can’t lift my arms anymore!”
F: That backwards sound is really seductive, isn’t it. I love "Song about a river crossing song,” which Yoshida plays on. The line "The sun multiplies" reminds me of “The True Sun,” which you’ve sung with updated lyrics since ’97. The last chorus [in “Song about a river crossing song”] also feels like a “parallel world” to your album, The True World. [In that sense,] the song seems like a sort of self-homage. What was on your mind when you put that song together?
S: As the title suggests, we used metafictional techniques in “Song about a river crossing song.” I wanted to create a nested structure, with one song inside another. The idea came from John Lennon's "Glass Onion" (1968), but in the case of “Glass Onion,” the technique itself was the goal. I wanted to take it even further with Nagisa Ni Te. "Song About a River Crossing Song" has lyrics quoted from other [Nagisa Ni Te] songs in a metafictional way, but also contrasting vocal melodies and guitar solos layered on top of the same chord progression. Even I was satisfied with how this one came out.
Also, importantly, this song was completely co-written with Takeda. I hit a wall after I came up with the first half of the song (the verse), and Takeda wrote the second half (the chorus). Thanks to her, the song grew unexpectedly large in scale.
F: Wow! Even the framework of the song was meta...! How do you and Takeda decide the division of vocals? Also, do you make demo tapes at home before finalizing arrangements with the band?
S: As for demos recorded at home, I just hum the original melody for each tune into a tape recorder. Then I try to come up with simple guitar chords. We don't do any so-called pre-production, and once I’ve got the rough outline of a song, I get together with the rest of the band in the studio and play the song over and over until we have an arrangement. This is probably the most enjoyable part of the process. Vocal duties are basically divided Beatles-style, with the composer of the song taking the lead vocal.
F: You often end your concerts with “Stars.” Was this song inspired by a vision of a star-filled sky, much like other work has been inspired by early memories of oceanside scenery?
S: Actually, that one goes back to a 70mm Cinerama screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey I saw in ’68. The transition from Captain Bowman's last line in the novel, "My God, it's full of stars!" to the “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence will stay with me forever.
F: Ah, so it’s connected to those stars! Eiji Tanaka was a key contributor to the sound of your first album. You later welcomed him back to play bass in the live version of the group, and then [worked with him on] your fifth album, 2004’s The Same As A Flower. Did you ever perform with Tanaka prior to Nagisa Ni Te?
S: No, I’d never played with him before Nagisa Ni Te. But I saw him perform in a giraffe costume a handful of times in ’81 or ’82, and I had my eye on him. [laughs]
F: For over ten years! [laughs] The sudden eight-beat rhythm that grabs the center of gravity on the downbeat at the top of “The Same As A Flower” feels really unique. I also remember reading a review of the record that said it was reminiscent of Neil Young & Crazy Horse. When I first listened [to The Same As A Flower], I felt like you had developed a real signature sound, not just in terms of each unique vocal and instrumental performance, but also in terms of the overall sound of the band.
S: With the addition of a full-time bassist, and with Takeda’s mastery of the drums, our rhythm section got a lot stronger starting with 2004’s The Same As A Flower. Tanaka only played the “core” of each bass line and brought a heavy feel to his playing that in a way certainly resembled Billy Talbot’s style. For years, the sound of the band on [Neil Young’s] Zuma (1975) was my ideal group sound, so [with The Same As A Flower,] I felt like I’d moved a little closer to that ideal.
F: The lyrics are also fantastic. Every time I read through the lyric sheet I’m amazed at the sharp placement of words and characters. Are there any writers or works that have influenced your language sensibilities?
S: Toshio Shimao was an influence when I was young. The smooth way he presented profound expressions with such simple language was consistent throughout all his work, and instructive for my own writing. As for bands, I was inspired by the lyrical worlds of Murahachibu (Chabo) and Yoninbayashi (their first album, 1974’s Icchousatsu). Especially Chabo. His waka-esque* style, which harnessed the abstraction of hiragana’s phonetic characters to capture listeners’ imaginations, was kind of similar to Toshio Shimao's style, and I’m still inspired by it!
*Waka is a form of classical Japanese poetry.
F: Hearing you say that makes me think of “Bramble” where you sing, “When rain sits on the tree leaves, becoming spring. When you reverberate within me, becoming song.” The entire album seems to be a reflection on what it means to live, or to sing, etc. I also find it suggestive that the focus of the photo on the front cover is on the plum blossoms in the background, and not on you.
S: No one’s ever pointed that out before! Of course, I chose that photo to go along with the album title, and to convey the message that "the main character isn’t a person, but rather a flower.” When I initially did press for the album, I secretly hoped that at least one of my interviewers would pick up on this point, but unfortunately not a single music writer pointed this out. Life is a series of daily routines, and in the midst of these routines, the soul can be stirred by something as innocuous as leaves rustling in the wind. The Nagisa Ni Te project is about picking up on the mysteries hidden behind the veil of everyday life.
F: That’s definitely a consistent theme! The sound design in "River" is like a three-dimensional illustration, and the voices seem to flow in an endless, powerful stream from the back of the speakers to the front, and from left to right. I feel like you’re appealing to a more functional sense, something beyond hearing. Do you ever imagine recreating specific scenes, places, landscapes, or experiences when you make music?
S: I’m so happy to hear you say that, because that sense of functionality is a fundamental part of my musical value system. Something Kevin Ayers said in one of his later interviews really left an impression on me. He said, “There’s always just one thing I’m trying to express, and for me songwriting is thinking about all the different ways to say it.” It’s the same for me. I may take thematic inspiration from movies, literature, and the like (Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Etsuko Takano's poems, etc.), but I think the resulting work always points in the same direction. Just as Kevin described, I feel like I’ve been aiming for the same single high point with each project, from Hallelujahs to Newocean. With each work, I’ve felt as if I’d gotten a little closer to the summit, but it might just be that I never get to see that view from the top.
Part 4 — Dream Sounds
F: We’ve looked back on the band’s history in a roundabout fashion, but let’s come full circle with your sixth album, 2004’s Dream Sounds. Takeda used the phrase “dream sounds” long before you wrote this album. Toshio Shimao also published several works related to dreams. And the album title is reminiscent of various other words and subjects, like Group Sounds, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966), etc. What does this album title mean to you?
S: When we listened to our favorite records together, sometimes Takeda would praise them by saying, "This is the sound of a dream, isn’t it.” I had that "dream sound" phrase stuck in my head for a long time, and then I realized it was the perfect Nagisa Ni Te album title! So I decided to make it plural and named the record Dream Sounds. As you pointed out, the name is reminiscent of Japanese Group Sounds, Pet Sounds, and the like. And in that sense, [the title] expresses my hope that the work serve as a sort of homage to the many beautiful classics our musical forbearers created. Like Toshio Shimao, Kevin Ayers also left a dream-themed work, 1974’s The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories. I think there will always be people drawn to the world of dreams. When Takeda and I first heard the original mono pressing of Miles Davis' Workin' on Prestige (1960), we felt like we’d found the ultimate “dream sound.” When we heard Red Garland's beautiful block chord solo on "It Never Entered My Mind," we each instinctively said, "This really is the sound of a dream.”
F: Your work often depicts dreamlike worlds, but are there any dreams you’ve dreamt repeatedly over the course of many years? Or memorable dreams that fascinated you long after you woke up?
S: I’ve had countless memorable dreams. In one dream I had repeatedly as a very young child, I floated in a vast darkness, something like outer space, and gradually approached a huge planet, to the point where I was about to collide with it. I always woke up when I got really scared and thought, “I’m gonna run right into it!” Of course, [in the middle of the dream] I didn’t identify the large object as a planet, but when I thought about the dream after I woke up, that was how I interpreted it. I still remember waking suddenly from the fright, and my immediate relief when I realized, “Oh, that was just a dream!” I still remember how happy I felt, safe under the covers. I also remember feeling frustrated when, just when I’d almost forgotten about that dream, I had a similar one. I thought to myself, “Not again….” Although I think the nightmare probably came from watching Ultra Q (1966) on TV around then, and feeling scared.
F: This is a bit of a digression, but in addition to its obviously great visuals and story, Ultra Q had amazing music and sound effects! I wonder if your later musical sensibilities were influenced by the mysterious electronic sounds — deep reverberations, tape echo feedback, etc. — that fleshed out the show’s strange world.
S: I think lots of kids of that era were deeply influenced and even traumatized by the concept, sound and design of the show’s parallel dimension — the “Unbalance Zone.” And I was one of them. Very few homes had color TVs at the time, and I think the black and white broadcast may have actually stimulated kids’ imaginations more [than if the show had been broadcast in color].I loved monsters, of course, but the episodes without monsters felt the strangest, and left the deepest impressions on me. The "1/8 Project," "The Devil's Child," and “Open Up!” were actually really scary, and realistic. And thinking back on them now, the eerie sound effects were pretty psychedelic. Ultra Q definitely influenced the music I made years later. Ultra Q is like Les Rallizes Dénudés to me — a fundamental piece of me, part of the fabric of my youth.
F: Wow - you’ve connected it to Les Rallizes Dénudés! Let me ask you a few random questions. Your album title Newocean is missing a blank space between “new” and “ocean,” which is a bit unusual in English. For me, the title evokes something more than just a “new ocean.” Something more like an undiscovered region of the ocean.
S: We used “Newocean" as a tentative song title for a long time, but Takeda eventually decided it would be the official song title. As usual, it just came to her intuitively. Once we decided to use it for the album title, I decided to forgo the space.To reveal a bit of a secret, this was also inspired by my favorite album by Kevin Ayers, 1971’s Whatvershebringswesing. The nuance I had in mind wasn’t "a new ocean,” [written in specific Chinese characters] but rather "a new ocean," [written only in phonetic characters], like a word plucked from a parallel dimension.
F: Ah, that makes sense! I feel like that adds even another layer to the story. Next question — do you feel like Hallelujahs and Nagisa Ni Te have been received differently inside and outside Japan? And how did the audience respond when Nagisa Ni Te played in Scotland in 2007?
S: I can’t say exactly how the response differs from country to country, but every year I get more and more international orders for Nagisa Ni Te vinyl. The biggest orders come from the United States, Australia, China, and the UK. The past few years, we’ve seen a sharp increase in really large orders from Chinese customers who seem to be quite wealthy. They’re always like, “I’ll buy every LP and CD Org Records has in stock!” So far, Nagisa Ni Te has only played outside Japan once, in England, in 2007. We played at Tolbooth, a public hall in a converted medieval prison in Stirling, central Scotland. The Tolbooth Art Festival used to produce special events to introduce audiences to Japanese culture and the latest music from the Tokyo underground scene, and invited Japanese bands to perform nearly every year. I was surprised by how they’d used public funds to book artists like Keiji Haino, Maher, and even Kousokuya. Eventually they extended the invitation to Nagisa Ni Te. The venue was packed, but there were a lot of older, intellectual-looking ladies and gentlemen who were mostly unresponsive to Nagisa Ni Te’s barbaric performance. It was just like the vibe at our debut show in Tokyo in ’95. [laughs] During soundcheck, the sound man repeatedly warned me that the guitar was too loud and that I needed to lower the volume [on my amp] or I wouldn't be able to hear the singing. I turned it down for soundcheck, but turned it back up for the actual performance. Ikue Mori and Zeena Parkins performed as a duo the same day we played. They played an improvised set of laptop noise and electric harp, and I remember the audience applauding their quiet, elegant and artistic performance. Not far from Tolbooth is the storybook-like Stirling Castle, with its wide, glistening vistas of the surrounding countryside. The beauty of that natural scenery left a deep impression on me.
F: What a fascinating episode! Speaking of Ikue Mori, No New York (1978) was another favorite album of yours. What does "improvisation" mean to you?
S: Another fundamental question. Derek Bailey wrote a thick book on the subject. I’ve never been a great student, so I can’t say a whole lot, but I believe that all exceptional music is improvised. Both Gregorian chant and the blues started as improvisations, and developed from there. Just as a single piece of notated piano music can be performed three different ways by three different pianists, music has an inherent freedom; there’s no wrong way to play it. Hallelujahs’ goal was to capture that moment where even the composer of a pre-written song couldn’t predict how it would be performed. For us, there was always a fun element of surprise playing and singing a pre-arranged melody for the first time. That, for me, was the essence of “improvisation.” Nagisa Ni Te’s approach isn’t as extreme as Hallelujahs’, but I have the same feeling in my heart when I play [with Nagisa Ni Te]. Each time we perform any given song live, the tune transforms into a different sort of music. I think the most beautiful work of the classic “improvisation” canon is Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s second album, Karyōbin (Island ILPS 9079, 1968), which Bailey plays on. I don’t think of it as so-called "free jazz," but rather a document of a group of innocent souls’ musical communion. For a long time the album was hard to find, but there’s a high quality, remastered CD now.
F: I know exactly what you mean! You seem to really cherish the pure, fresh surprises and freedoms that come with [working with] sound. What are your thoughts on the differences between studio work and live performance?
S: Recording in a studio and playing live are completely different animals. Studio work of course begins with recording live takes of the basic tracks and selecting the best ones. But what I really love is finding the essence of a recording in the final post-production, overdubbing stage. By the same token, I really love the tense feeling of performing onstage, where there’s no turning back. Nagisa Ni Te’s music exists in two parallel dimensions — on stage, and in the recording studio.
F: If you could hop in a time machine with the other members of Nagisa Ni Te, what sort of tour would you do?
S: Hmm… I’d rather take a private jet and do a world tour with roadies than travel in a time machine. That seems even less feasible than time travel, though. [laughs]
F: A Nagisa Ni Te world tour! I pray the pandemic ends soon so you can start working on this! Incidentally, I heard the photo you used on the cover of Newocean was taken on a pre-pandemic trip, and you chose to put it on the cover because it just happened to work with the concept of the album. I think most of Nagisa Ni Te’s jacket photos were taken outdoors, weren't they? If you don't mind, could you share some memorable episodes that occurred while you were out taking photos, or some travel memories and the like?
S: You are exactly right about the photo on Newocean. Some of the jacket photos we’ve used were taken near our home and others were taken far away, in places you’d need to board an airplane to reach. But I’d rather not offer any specific details [when it comes to these photos], because it will restrict the imagination [of those who view the jacket art]. Our first album and Newocean are the only two records with jacket photos I took randomly, photos that just happened to line up with the concept of the album. Those two photos perfectly represent what’s inside each album.
F: The music and the visuals certainly seem tightly intertwined. And the artwork really stirs the imagination, doesn't it? The tint of the light that seems filtered through neither dawn nor dusk, that fragrant feeling of seasonality… I guess these are more personal impressions than questions. As you and I discussed previously, on the one hand it seems coincidental that when you place the back jackets of Even The Stars Never Know and A Long Swim side by side and turn them each ninety degrees, they seem to fit together perfectly, like pieces in a puzzle. But on the other hand, perhaps this is not a coincidence, but merely an inevitable product of your having “only one thing [you’d] like to express.” Do you ever feel a sense of “fate” when you’re making music? And, as an aside — did your daughters play that mysterious kalimba in "Something Wicked This Sky Comes”? The credits don’t mention kalimba, so I thought it might be them.
S: My goodness, I forgot to include credits for the kalimba! What an unfortunate thing to notice more than a year after the record came out. [laughs] That’s me on the kalimba, not my daughters. We added so many complicated overdubbed parts to “Something Wicked This Sky Comes” that it eventually became impossible to recreate live. Personally, I like that about the song. The faint oscillating sound at the end is a self-oscillating Binson Echorec [tape delay unit] I used in the mix. We didn’t mean to record it, but it had an interesting, retro-futuristic, flying UFO kind of sound, so we left it in.
I think about destiny now and then, and not just when I’m making music. Like when I reflect on how I’ve crossed paths with certain people who’ve become important to me. For me, coincidences like the matching album designs you pointed out earlier, or the oscillating Binson Echorec, they’re all part of the same thing. But I never pick up on them until after the fact.
F: So interesting! I’d like to ask you about the stories behind some of your songs. First I’d like to ask about "Gleaming Winds," the first song on Even the Stars Never Know. This song reminds of the final scene in Tatsuhiko Yamagami’s 1970 dystopian manga of the same name. The lyrics in Newocean’s “Despair” also depict the way past, present and future intersect in the flow of time, and it feels like shadows of the heart can be glimpsed in the folds of its dazzling acoustics. Ever since A Long Swim, your lyrics seem to be more influenced by your consciousness, emotions, etc., and are more profound as a result. What are your thoughts on [this observation]?
S: Perhaps it’s a sign of my maturation as an artist. [laughs] We named “Gleaming Winds" after the Tatsuhiko Yamagami work, just as you guessed. I read it in real time when it was first serialized, and I remember gasping at its political message and dark, serious plot. It was very different from your typical comic book for boys. In “Gleaming Winds,” I sing very directly about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant explosion caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake. And in “Despair” I honestly expressed how it felt to be well into middle age with a bird’s eye view of my own life, something I could never have sung when I recorded the Hallelujahs LP.
F: I think “The True Sun,” which you often end your performances with, is an incredibly important song that almost feels like your "Echoes" (Pink Floyd, 1971). Could you talk about the way the song changed from its inception to its most recent live version?
S: I wrote the verse and Takeda wrote the chorus for “The True Sun.” I based the lyrics on a personal experience — a calm spring day spent with Takeda in a sprawling park.
When we started working on the song’s arrangements, we realized the lyrics had something in common with the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Fat Old Sun” (1970) and thought it would be fun to turn our song into a sort of response to the Pink Floyd tune. And in fact, even with its Floydian arrangements, it turned into something like a living creature in the way it transformed each time we played it live. We recorded a different take for our second, “live acoustic” album, ’98’s The True Sun, where Takeda herself sang lyrics she’d composed for the track. And we regretted having to shorten the version we recorded for our third album, ’99’s The True World, in order to fit it onto the album. So, years later we asked lead guitarist Zushi to record a “super deluxe” version of the track with us, and the track ended up being over twenty minutes long. We put the song on our sixth album, 2004’s Dream Sounds. I feel really satisfied with this final take on “The True Sun.”
F: I didn’t realize there was such a story behind it! Very moving. I’d like to ask some guitar-related questions, since the guitar is such a key element of your sound. What are your favorite guitars, amps, and effects pedals?
S: I play a Stratocaster. Dave Gilmour was my inspiration, obviously. As for amps, I’m fond of Marshalls, but I don’t have one myself. In terms of pedals, I can’t live without my Big Muff. It’s a Ram's Head from the late ’70's. The knobs cracked and fell off, and the pedal looks like hell, but the fuzz sound is still the greatest. I used my Big Muff for all the fuzz guitar sounds on every Nagisa Ni Te record. In Hallelujahs, incidentally, I used a Guyatone Zoom Box. Next in importance would be the BOSS DM-2 analog delay pedal. I used it for more than thirty years, and when it eventually broke I replaced it with a DM-3, which I still use. But I prefer the thicker sound of the DM-2. I also use a Maxon OD-808 for some subtle flavor. That’s also from the early ’80s.
F: I'm sorry if I'm mistaken, but didn't you tune with a tuning fork at your live shows? Somehow, it seemed like an expression of your attitude toward your sound.
S: We only used those inconvenient tuning forks on stage when we first started playing live. That choice predated any sort of stance we developed toward sound. We were just ignorant. Just a few shows into our live career, Nagisa Ni Te played a show with Rashinban. I thought it was odd that Seichi Yamamoto’s guitar didn’t make a sound when he tuned it onstage, and when I asked him why, he laughed and replied, “What?? Shibayama, don’t you know? They make tuners that mute the sound now.” Needless to say, I immediately bought the same one and started using it at our next show. [laughs]
F: What?! Well, my apologies, [the sight of the tuning fork] packed quite a punch, and left a lasting impression. Tell me a little more about your guitar. What kind of acoustic guitar did you use on Eat Meat, Swear an Oath and what kind do you use in Nagisa Ni Te?
S: In Hallelujahs I used a ‘70s Guild acoustic and a Tokai Strat electric guitar.
I’ve used a ’68 Martin D-28 on every record I’ve made since the first Nagisa Ni Te album, and my ’60 Strat on every album since The Same As A Flower. Incidentally, Newocean is the first work I’ve done without any acoustic guitar since the Hallelujahs LP. It was a conscious decision not to use them, because I wasn’t amused by how nearly every review of Nagisa Ni Te incorrectly described us as “folk rock,” or a "folk duo," or even "in the vein of Kansai folk.” Because Nagisa Ni Te is a rock group. So, in order to prevent anyone from calling it "folk" this time [laughs], I recorded Newocean without any acoustic guitar. On a good acoustic guitar, the sound of a Cmaj7 chord’s lonely echo can fill up all the space in a recording. This is one of the great charms of the acoustic guitar, and of course I’ve used it for many years in my recordings. But I’ve also tried to employ it carefully in light of how strongly it summons stereotyped images of "folk music" and "folk rock.” “Gimme Danger,” for example, from Iggy & The Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power, effectively uses the metallic tone of the acoustic guitar, but no one would call the Stooges "folk rock.” That's the sensibility I was working with. But this time, I decided to abandon the tradition. There may have been some self-important stubbornness behind my decision, but I think shunning acoustic guitars for the first time gave Newocean a fresh, vibrant atmosphere.
F: Indeed! Come to think of it, there’s a subtle, mysterious void in the sound. The Tokai Strat is the 70’s-looking large head on the back jacket of the ’97 reissue of Eat Meat, Swear an Oath, right? If you look closely, you can see that the paint seems to have peeled off, and it looks quite old. The tone is also unusual. It has a unique sound that can't be imitated.
S: I got that ST60 Tokai Strat used, for cheap. Even when they were being made new, around ’80, Tokai guitars had a reputation for being well made for the price. Nowadays, they’re considered “Japanese vintage” and some people collect them. The Telecaster Watanabe used in the Hallelujahs session was also made by Tokai, and I remember it had a nice, raw sound.
F: You play various instruments — guitar, drums, saxophone, piano, etc. Did you ever take lessons?
S: No, I never took any lessons. I’m completely self-taught. I started playing acoustic guitar in junior high school, copying Simon & Garfunkel and Beatles' songs by ear, and slowly learning to play. I was really pleased when I could play "Blackbird" (1968). I can't play it anymore, though.
F: I practiced "Blackbird" a lot, too. [laughs] This overlaps a bit with something I asked you at the start of the interview, but I’d like you to reflect on how the band’s dynamic changed between Yosuga and A Long Swim. Yosuga feels to me like a delicate depiction of two singer-songwriters’ inner worlds, but from A Long Swim onward, the group sounds stronger and more cohesive, like a pent-up energy had boiled to the surface. Were there any songs in particular that inspired you to invite Yoshida and Yamada to join Nagisa Ni Te full-time?
S: We spent the six years between Yosuga and A Long Swim raising our children, and as I got used to my new role as a father, my values really changed. This change of course affected Nagisa Ni Te’s music, as well. I couldn’t even pick up my guitar once during those first few years of childrearing, and music seemed like something that existed in a parallel dimension. I was engaged with my daughters each and every day, and there wasn’t room for anything else. But even though I was unaware of it at the time, I think in those years I was able to cultivate something like my own personal, musical soil. The birth of my daughters gave me a welcome, panoramic view of the past and present. And I think that sunny mood is reflected in A Long Swim. Yoshida’s joining the band was a very simple event. In 2012, once our childcare responsibilities calmed down a bit, we played for the first time in five years. Yoshida came as an audience member, but didn’t seem to want to go home after the show ended. So I said, “The only reason you came today was to join Nagisa Ni Te, right?” [laughs] And we decided then and there to add him to the group. When Tanaka left the group after 2005’s Dream Sounds, we tried out several bassists, but couldn’t find a good one. Just when we were about to give up, a friend introduced us to Yamada. Yamada is a natural on the bass, there’s just no other way to describe his playing. His bass obbligato reminded me of Klaus Voormann and Rick Danko, and became a new weapon in Nagisa Ni Te’s arsenal. And Yamada can spontaneously find a second melody hidden in any song. His playing meshes perfectly with Yoshida’s busy keyboard work. It’s a magical combination. Now, of course, every time I start writing a tune, I keep their individual contributions in mind.
F: In both Nagisa Ni Te and Hallelujahs, melodies, lyrics and vocals all seemed deeply intertwined. You mentioned that melodies come to you first when you write a song, but do lyrics come at the same time? And do your compositions appear as fully-formed songs right from the start?
S: Melodies come first when I write. A whole song never suddenly appears, of course. It’s often the beginning of a song that comes first. Sometimes lyrics accompany this initial melody, but sometimes not. But when lyrics appear at the beginning of the process, they’re usually completely absurd, like “I’m hungry!” or “Why??” If I feel like I can use the melody, or if I have a good feeling about it, I add chords and start thinking about new sections and lyrics, but often, I end up thinking, “This is no good” and rejecting the song.
F: "I'm hungry!”? I find that a bit surprising. But I wonder if you sometimes get your initial song ideas from random things you say to yourself in your daily life…? For the songs that survive the kind of strict judgement you described, I’ve heard that your approach changed once you formed Nagisa Ni Te, and when it comes to recording vocals, you rehearse a lot and spend time recording multiple takes. I hear a lot of soul in both of your vocal performances. What goes through your mind when you step up to the microphone?
S: My songwriting method is to capture the moment when mumbling and humming naturally appear together as a set. It’s kind of like fishing. It’s great when you catch a big one, but most of the time you just catch garbage. [laughs] Once Nagisa Ni Te began using Pro Tools, we started recording way more vocal takes. Because, as you know, suddenly it was possible to re-record detailed sections, something we couldn’t do with analog recording. But a singer who’s preoccupied with pitch can lose the feeling of the song, and a singer who puts too much emotion into a take can sound like they’re trying too hard. You must maintain a balance between the two without forgetting to put soul into the vocal. I don’t consider the long hours we spend on nearly every vocal recording to be a waste of our time. I think of those hours as essential for sifting through those dark impulses that make us think that we “should sing well.” Ironically, the OK take is usually the one that feels closest to that initial hum.
F: That's so interesting! I think I now understand why I don’t feel much of a distance between Eat Meat, Swear an Oath, when you prioritized “the first thing you sang when the tape started rolling” (as described in the liner notes of the ’97 pressing), and Newocean. Now that we’ve spent a long time reviewing your career, may I ask you for your final thoughts? I’d love to hear what your message to the people reading this interview would be. And my final question — what is your “wish” for Hallelujahs’ music?
S: I’ve tried retracing my steps all the way back to my very first LP (Hallelujahs) thirty six years ago, and for better or worse, I feel like I haven’t changed much. It seems like I’m always just trying to convey that one thing. And by that I mean, from Hallelujahs to Nagisa Ni Te, I only had one “message” to convey. And since that [message] has taken the form of music, it’s not something to describe in words. Any thoughts that come to mind when you listen to Hallelujahs and Nagisa Ni Te — those are my messages to you. And I hope those thoughts lead to a little leap of imagination inside you. That’s my wish.