New Album Pre-Release Discussion - Part 1: A New Calm & Cit-Pop
Taking Stock & Creative Fatigue
Flashback to the last quarter of 2019. I finished Ideality, and I had an overwhelming desire to make extremely calm music; music that was the polar opposite in style to what was present on Ideality.
I've come to realise that these calmer projects were my personal counter-movement to the (somewhat intense) production process and end product of Ideality; satisfying a desire to create music in a way that didn't require a highly intensive approach (which Ideality did). These projects placed emphasis on a calming ambience and aesthetic; something that Ideality lacks (although it was never meant to be a calming experience...).
I had developed a newfound appreciation for a calmer approach to music-making (and for slightly calmer music in general), which is one of two things that would play a significant part in shaping my approach to music creation in 2020. The second major contributor to the music I would make in 2020 was a trip I took to Japan at the end of 2019.
Christmas 2019 - Japan
About a month after the release of Ideality, we (the Mrs, our son and I) visited my in-laws in Japan for Christmas. If you follow me on social media, you'll know that I love Japan! The culture, the scenery, the food, the movies, the video games, the cars, and of course, the music.
It's important to also note that I spent most of my daily commuting time in 2019 listening to late 1970s to early 1990s Japanese City-Pop and Fusion. With these classic Japanese records whirling around in my head, I took flight at the end of December and spent a heavenly eight days soaking up all that my partner's hometown in Japan had to offer. It was without doubt, one of the happiest, most carefree weeks of my life. We didn't do anything special in particular, yet every moment felt special.
We visited the local shops and ate in local cafes and restaurants. We went for drives to eyeball significant places from my partner's childhood and take in the local countryside. I geeked-out in HMV, browsing City-Pop CDs unattainable in the UK. My son and I poured ¥100 coins into Gachapon machines for retro SEGA related trinkets before hitting the local SEGA Centre for hours of gaming.
My partner didn't understand what all the fuss was about; for her it was just her "boring" hometown, and everything we did was just trivial, everyday stuff that one does in Japan. To me however, this is the place that she grew up in. Whether she likes it or not, it contributed to making her the person she is. She went to these same shops, sat in these same cafes, and hung out in these same arcades when she was a kid, in the years before she came to the UK (and eventually met me). I can feel reflections of her in every place I set foot there; walking the same streets she walked before she came to the UK. To be with her in that town is truly the most complete I could ever hope to feel.
Although I was away from my studio, being in Japan with City-Pop and Japanese Fusion playing in my head, I could feel something musical stirring. I knew that upon my return to the UK, I would begin a new music project that tied a calmer in style creative output to the experience of visiting my partner's hometown in Japan with City-Pop and Fusion in mind.
You Are What You Eat (Musically Speaking!)
Having spent 2019 immersing myself in Japanese City-Pop and Fusion, and spurred on by my recent trip to Japan, I was ready to take the plunge and go all-out on creating something that could feel at home in early-80s Japan.
Music of the City-Pop era was pre-digital and so, in order to do it right, I would forego the technical complexity and production trickery of Ideality.
Instead, my focus would be on light, funk grooves, pleasant melodies, chord progressions that were very much in the spirit of City-Pop, and arrangements that could feel at home in Japanese music of the early 1980s. This would also satisfy my desire to approach things in a less intense way and generally work in a calmer, more relaxing headspace (which turned out to be a blessing in the crazy world of 2020's COVID-19 pandemic).
To anchor the project with a coherent context, I would take thematic inspiration from various moments of my magical week in Japan, with themes as simple as arriving at an airport, driving on the highway at night, cold yet sunny mornings, visiting the shopping mall, the plastic food models in restaurant windows, and so on.
Gone were electronic music staples like filter sweeps, choppy editing, unrealistically fast keyboard work, synthesised drum-machine samples and the dense, digital-editing of Ideality.
In was a more traditional approach to arrangement, with parts that could truly be (and in most cases were) played by humans (as opposed to digitally sequenced or programmed). Whilst the drums were programmed, I designed an authentically late-1970s sounding acoustic drum palette (with a slightly beefier, more modern kick drum) and believe my drum sequencing to be the strongest (i.e. most realistic) I've achieved to date.
Less Artificiality & More Musicianship
My keyboard work is more "live", on this album. I used much less editing and quantisation than I normally would, not only on piano-like sounds, but also on the synthesisers. Whilst some bass is handled by synthesis, and synths are present in most of the songs, they're not typically the focal point, like they are in my other music. There's a healthy amount of piano, electric-piano, Hammond Organ (courtesy of my Nord Electro 2) and a vibraphone even makes an appearance in one song.
Many tracks have live bass guitar (with a little slap for good measure) and half of the album features the amazing electric guitar talents of Your Sister is a Werewolf who really brings some era-authentic flair to things. City-Pop connoisseur and all-round City-Pop expert Masa also features as the lead guitarist on one song. For the remaining tracks of the album, I (just about) managed to carry the guitar duties myself.
There is a lot of orchestral brass and strings in City-Pop, which, within my very modest means isn't really achievable (without sounding obviously fake and a little cheap). As a workaround, I composed string parts that could serve their purpose without stretching the string patches on my Roland Jupiter-50 beyond realism. They're a little simple, but effective nonetheless.
Instead of a live horn section, I used authentically late 1970s/early 1980s sounding synth patches in place of where brass stabs etc would be, for period-correct tonalities that satisfied the desire for brassiness. On top of this, I was able to draft in some live horn work from saxophonist Leroy Horns and also recycle some unused trumpet parts from a recording session I did about eight years ago.
Whilst writing and arranging the album, I would regularly cross reference my work-in-progress with the music of Junko Ohashi, Anri, Tatsuro Yamashita, Taeko Onuki, Bread & Butter, Mai Yamane, Piper, Takeko Mamiya, Mariya Takeuchi, The Square, Casiopea, Masayoshi Takanaka, Jun Fukamachi, Yutaka, Izumi Kobayashi, Shigeharu Mukai, Cosmos and many more.
What resulted is something that I believe walks a line between the R&B, pop-heavy, distinctive stylings of 1980s City-Pop and the slightly Jazz-Rock infused instrumental stylings of Japanese Fusion from that period. I guess it could be described as "City-Pop without vocals" or "Fusion that doesn't get too jazzy".
In a recent blog article, I wrote about creating music that is outside of conventional timeline classifications. I feel this album is the closest I've come (to date) to truly achieving this notion of making music from an imagined time. I.e. whilst it pays homage to City-Pop and Fusion of 1980s Japan, and sounds (I believe) convincingly close to records of this era, I'd like to think that there's enough modernity, and enough of me in the record to prevent it from simply becoming pastiche and/or parody. Moreover, whilst it will be heavily reminiscent of its referential source material, I hope it will be distinctly unique enough that it stands on its own two feet, outside of conventional era/time-based genre classifications.
In Part Two...
In part two of this article, I'll discuss aspects of Vaporwave and FutureFunk as well as detail the album's title, track listing, release date and availability.