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Shinji Shibayama "Picking up on the mysteries hidden behind the veil of everyday life."

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.

Nagisa Ni Te, Osaka, December 6, 2022 - Shinji Shibayama, second from left, with Masayuki Yoshida, Takashi Yamada, Masako Takeda. Photograph by Vincent Guilbert

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.

Shinj Shibayama, Hallelujahs recording session, March 1, 1986

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]

Shibayama's stage debut, age 14, at a school festival, November 8, 1974

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.

Masako Takeda, December 1999

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.

Flyer for The Hillgates' 1st live show on January 4, 1981 opening for Hijokaidan

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 pr