I've gotten some requests for the English-language version of my Ryuichi Sakamoto article in the current issue of Groove, so here it is:
YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA
by GEETA DAYAL
"You listen and you listen, and YMO's affiliation to anything within the fuzzy terrain that Techno now delimits becomes less and less apparent. What was a given--YMO are one of the Godfathers of Techno--flips into a question: how were YMO ever taken to be the godfathers of anything? Surely no one, before or since, has made a music as remotely idiosyncratic as this."
-Kodwo Eshun, The Wire, 1992
Think of the "Godfathers of Techno" and you think of acts like Kraftwerk and Cybotron--acts that, even in their names themselves, implied something robotic, computerized, and minimal. Yellow Magic Orchestra's influence on techno is more subtle, more mysterious. They didn't follow a standard Techno-godfather lineage; they were from Tokyo, not Dusseldorf or Detroit. YMO formed in Tokyo in 1978 with keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto, drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, and bassist Haruomi Hosono. History remembers YMO as a trailblazing synthpop band, one that pioneered the use of synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines. But they didn't sound like a synthpop band, at least by the standards of the time, and they sounded too joyful, too different, to be lumped in with glum British acts like Gary Numan, Ultravox and Thomas Leer.
Even the words "Yellow Magic Orchestra" sound odd and a little goofy. "The 'Yellow Magic Orchestra' name was from Hosono," Sakamoto explains. "He kind of invented that, from white magic and black magic. His idea was yellow was in between white and black. It's kind of the average, to calm down the conflicts."
The word "orchestra" fit in well with YMO's big, full sound--mixed-up pop that owed a spiritual debt to disco's ecstatic synthesized symphonies. "There were only three members of the band, but the arrangements were sort of symphonic orchestral, of course with the disco beats," says Sakamoto. "I arranged the tracks. My background is in classical--Stravinsky, Bartok, all that. I studied in a conservatory. I knew harmony, counterpoint, how to write a sonata, a fugue, all of that. My nickname in YMO was 'Professor.'"
'Professor' is a fitting nickname for Sakamoto; it only takes a few minutes of talking with him to realize that he's an intellectual. He loves talking about theory; he named one of his solo albums "Derrida" and has fond memories of hanging out with Felix Guattari in the mid-80s. He began listening to avant-garde music by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Iannis Xenakis at the tender age of 11. "My mom took me to these concerts," says Sakamoto. "She was a strange mom. My time scale was really deconstructed." Johann Sebastian Bach, Xenakis, Pierre Boulez, Claude Debussy, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley all mixed up in the small boy's head. So did art. "When I was 14 or 15, I was into Pop Art, Conceptual Art, Warhol, and everybody. Nam June Paik was my hero." He soon enrolled in Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, and got two degrees in music composition.
In college, he began experimenting with electronics. "I entered university in 1970," he says. "They had the biggest Buchla synth, the biggest Moog and ARP." While studying in university, he realized there was more to German music than Stockhausen, and started cultivating a serious interest in the German popular music of the time, from bands like Kraftwerk to hippie Krautrock groups like Can and Faust. "I got really excited when I found the first two albums of Kraftwerk, when they still had long hair," remembers Sakamoto, chuckling. "And Neu!, Faust, and Can of course. Not Tangerine Dream, but Klaus Schulze. So yes, I've been listening to those for a long time."
Kraftwerk, especially, would have a lasting impact on Sakamoto and his bandmates in YMO. "Even in the beginning of that time when we were doing YMO, of course we knew Kraftwerk, and we thought their music was so German," says Sakamoto. "It was conceptual, kind of theoretical, very focused, simple and minimal and strong. And even the timbre, the sound of their sense of sound, is German to us. It's very strong and kind of heavy and solid. We wanted to make something very Japanese, in contrast. It's a very good contrast, Kraftwerk and YMO. YMO had a mixture of everything--American music influence, European music influence, classical influence, pop-so many. It's like a bento box. And we thought that was very Japanese."
True to that mixological mindset, YMO's first single was a cover of Martin Denny's Hawaiian exotica classic "Firecracker." "I have an interest in Hawaiian culture, that mix of Western, Eastern, Chinese, Japanese, Polynesian, and American," Sakamoto told The Wire in a 1994 interview. "And also that fake image of Asian culture, exotic, typical stereotype image--which Americans created in Hollywood! It's basically lounge music. Cocktail music."
The cover of YMO's self-titled 1978 LP showcases this stereotypical vision of Japan. It portrays a geisha girl in a colorful kimono, holding a fan and wearing sunglasses. Her hair flies everywhere, like Medusa--but instead of snakes, her hair is made of wires. "Sort of a cheesy, futuristic Japan," Sakamoto says, laughing. "I hate that. I didn't like my role as a new Japanese culture, invading the West. I don't like that story. But we probably had that kind of role."
Japan's technological invasion of the West was running at full speed during the time of YMO. The Sony Walkman made its debut in 1979. Japanese cars were being exported in large numbers to the U.S., much to the anger of American automakers. Japan became the centerpiece of an international trade dispute. And then there was YMO's invasion of the West. "Right after the Japanese cars and Japanese TVs invaded the West, you'd expect Japanese culture would come after that," says Sakamoto. And it did: The group's second album, Solid State Survivor (1979), sold over a million copies.
YMO played with this image of being faceless Asian cyborg invaders. The cover of their 1980 mini album X∞ Multiplies shows an ominous army of Japanese businessmen who all look the same. In their live sets, YMO dressed like they were from Communist China. "Japanese people thought we were Chinese," says Sakamoto. "We wore red Mao suits. Takahashi was also a fashion designer."
To further support their Asian invasion, the band kicked off a world tour. "The first time I went to Germany was '79 or '80," remembers Sakamoto. "We played in Hamburg in 1979--London, Hamburg, Rome, Milan, maybe Berlin. I strongly remember the concerts in London and in Rome. The London concert was the first time I had played abroad. It was still the time of new wave in London. A new wave couple in the front started dancing--so cool! I thought it was so cool that they were dancing to our music. In Rome, when we started the concert, the audience looked very academic; they looked like philosophers from the Roman Empire! Long hair, long moustache."
The band's futuristic synthesizer-music made live sets difficult. Everything had to be done by hand. "At the time, MIDI was not invented yet," says Sakamoto. "We used analog sequencers with voltage controls. Soon after the MC-8 came out from Roland, we did two world tours. We still used the MC-8. There was no memory function. Every time we performed, the programmer had to re-code the song. While we were playing a piece, the programmer was typing the sequence of the next piece."
After releasing two excellent albums in 1981, BGM and Technodelic, and a handful of other albums and singles, YMO disbanded at the height of their popularity. Each person in the band went on to a successful solo career. Sakamoto is arguably more famous for the projects he did after YMO, penning memorable soundtracks for acclaimed films such as The Last Emperor, and releasing a string of well-received solo albums and collaborations with experimental artists such as Carsten Nicolai and Christian Fennesz.
But Sakamoto was poised for solo pop stardom right at the start of YMO. He released his first solo album in 1978, Thousand Knives Of Ryuichi Sakamoto, following it up two years later with B2-Unit. Unlike YMO's abstract, slightly ominous album covers, his solo records depict him as a full-on pop star. Thousand Knives sports a stylish, well-dressed Sakamoto on the cover, front and center. The record sleeve lists every synthesizer used on the album in detail, and also breaks down every aspect of Sakamoto's designer clothes: R.S. wears: Jacket by Giorgio Armani; Shirt, Tie and Belt by Bricks; Levis 501 Jeans. Shoes - 'Zapata' by Manolo Blahnik. His Neo Geo album, released in 1991, was the pinnacle of Sakamoto as Japanese pop icon--the cover depicted Sakamoto's face fused with elements from the Japanese national flag.
These days, Sakamoto seems less interested in being a pop star and is more interested in releasing experimental records. He maintains an active collaboration with Alva Noto, an alias of German artist Carsten Nicolai. In 2003, they released Vrioon, an album of Sakamoto's piano clusters digitally manipulated by Nicolai. In 2005, the follow-up record Insen was released, following a similar concept. Sakamoto also maintains active collaborations with Austrian experimental ambient artist Christian Fennesz. "Carsten Nicolai makes music but he's not a musician," says Sakamoto. "Carsten is very mathematical. Fennesz is more musical in sort of a conventional way. I understand what he thinks easily. He's more romantic; we share a lot of the same language. Carsten is different, but still inspiring."
Sakamoto, through his solo work and through YMO, inspired many other musicians over the past few decades. YMO's "bento box" approach--a surreal collision of ethnic influences, disorienting textures, and electronic effects--would come to impact ambient-house pioneers like The Orb and 808 State. The terse videogame-funk of early YMO songs like "Computer Games" would be felt in electro and hip-hop. They would inspire covers and remixes by artists as diverse as Eye Yamataka of Japanese noise-drone collective Boredoms, UK ravers LFO, and ambient junglists 4Hero. Most recently, YMO inspired a full-length tribute album by Atom Heart under his Senor Coconut alias, titled Yellow Fever. The album fuses Coconut's "electrolatino" big-band approach (used with success in the past on Kraftwerk, Sade, and Michael Jackson) with YMO classics. The project got YMO's stamp of approval, and even features guest spots by Sakamoto, Hosono, and Takahashi.
Sakamoto is pleased and flattered at the attention, but he has no plans to reunite YMO, and neither do the other members of the band. Their one-off live collaboration at Sonar in Barcelona and a live DVD was enough, he says. Sakamoto is more interested these days in live laptop experiments, and talks excitedly about a series of improv projects he is planning. "I played laptop and improvised in this Japanese garden in Kyoto, at this temple at 7:30 at night, with the frogs singing. They interacted with the sound I played. Jamming with nature is really amazing."
Watch for a series of frog collaborations in the near future.