Translated from the Japanese by Yuzo Sakuramoto
Yuzo Sakuramoto [Y]: Where are you from?
Leo Takami [L]: I'm from Tokyo, and active in Tokyo.
Y: How did you start playing guitar?
L: I was 14, and I listened to Van Halen and thought, that’s cool. So I started playing rock, just a regular guitar kid.
Y: When you entered college you started a band. Was it a rock band?
L: Yes, around 17-18, a little before going to college I started studying guitar. I still liked rock and listened to it, but since my teacher was a graduate of Berkeley, I studied Jazz or Jazz-oriented guitar, playing methods and theory, gradually moving toward that direction.
Y: Were you playing hard rock or heavy metal then?
L: Yes. So-called guitar music with guitar 'heroes.' I was born in 1970, and when I was 14-15, it was the 80s, so I was entering music by playing hard rock with guitar heroes.
Y: When you were studying Jazz, were you totally absorbed into Jazz and not playing or listening to rock or other types of music?
L: Partly due to my teacher’s influence, I was listening to a wide range of music, and was told to be inspired 'widely' by that. He also listened to all kinds of music including jazz, classical, rock, and weird ethnic music. I believed that the music you make would become richer, so I was inspired by listening to all kinds of music.
Y: Your guitar teacher seemed kind of unique, as far as I could find out about him on the internet.
L: He changed his name to Kamekichi Tsumura at the end of his life, and yes, he was a bit like a religious guru, a weird person.
Y: It seems to me that we hear a shift from a Jazz-oriented style to something more meditative or contemplative, as well as experimental elements in your music. Was there any direct reason or cause for that to happen in your composition?
L: This is not something I always consider when composing music, but what I think is important in making music is to become aware of precisely the time and place I am living. For instance, if I am currently living in Tokyo, and [I] create highly sophisticated bebop, it may be just a parody. While being influenced by all kinds of music, I consider what kind of music I can create here and now, and make that music, as a result, my music may become weird and complex in style.
Y: As you mention in your bio, my impression was that you listen to many different kinds of music ranging from ambient, experimental, minimalism as well as to elements of Jazz. People may be curious how your music become established. Please tell me about Fetus Catus and Silence. I heard that it is based on a story, or there is a narrative as a concept for the entire album. What is it about, and what is the source or the event of that story/narrative?
L: Well, it’s not a story based on the chronological order of songs, but there is a single theme upon which all the songs are based. That theme—actually it may be not limited to this album—is 'life and death,' a main theme that I always refer to in creating my music. How can I say, life, emotion, and death, it feels like, birth and death are very close to each other. For instance, when being in the womb, we definitely don't want to go outside this paradise, and one day we are forced to go outside. The moment we come outside, squeezed to the outside, first we might have felt fear, but we accepted it, and eventually realize that this isn't so bad...similarly death is also something like that, when we are still alive, we usually don't want to die, but at the moment of death, we may accept it and go back to the chain of the universe, not knowing what the next stage will be like, so the circle of our life, between birth and death, or the theme of life circling is consistent to every song, and based on that, some songs may express the joy of life, while others may sound sad or quiet, implying death, leaning towards either side. Each song is based on birth and death, and moving onto the next stage...
Y: Reading your comments on your website, I had the impression that you are interested in and knowledgeable about literature and other forms of art, like films and visual art. Do you think you are often inspired by those [art forms] other than music?
L: Yes. I am often inspired by them. Not necessarily specific parts of books, or films, or paintings maybe, but when I experience other works of literature or film, my emotions become moved by them, and that experience of being moved is very close to the time I am writing compositions.
Y: Where does the title of the album, Felis Catus and Silence come from?
L: Actually, simply I like the sound of those words. It's not exactly that the title means nothing, but I create songs based on the sound of words, not based on the meaning.
Y: Felis catus is not a commonly used word I guess.
L: That is scientific name for cats. I came across a story about it when I was reading Richard Dawkins' book. I thought that the word sounds beautiful, and then I simply combined a word that may go with it, and I like it, and created the melody for that.
Y: The new album seems to be a fusion of your previous albums though they are similar in terms of musical complexity...
L: Children's Song came out in 2012, the album I made about seven years ago, and to me that was a 'pop song' album. On the other hand, Tree of Life was created in a bit more experimental way, not exactly 'experimental' per se as it has its own 'soul' for sure, but like, first there is the sound of something, and then the next sound can be something like this, rather than based on melody or harmony. Years passed, and pop song-like harmonies and melodies that I originally had, and the experimental elements in Tree of Life became integrated. It wasn't intentional, but before realizing it, it turned out to be that way. By the way, I would like to add to creating songs based on the sound of words. From the sound of words, some sort of landscape comes to my mind, and so from the sound of words, and then the landscape associated with them, I create melody and harmony. A landscape can be either vague or specific. With Felis Catus, something like a 'graph' popped up in my head, or I saw an image of an old lady drinking tea on a tatami mat (laughs). They are totally irrelevant to the meaning of the words, but the series of sounds of words remind me of different images of landscapes that are specific or abstract, and I create music as their fusion.
Y: Please tell me about your musical interests and influences. You mention traditional Japanese music gagaku, Jazz, classical and ambient as your musical 'roots'. How much are you aware of or influenced by those kinds of music from the past? Also, I am wondering if there is specific music or musicians that have majorly influenced you, or favorite albums you have listened to for years.
L: In my case, being influenced by some music and being conscious of something when creating music are totally different things. I have been influenced by many forms of music, and different aspects of those may be included in my music, but when I create, if I set some direction, like I will try to make music that sound like this or that type of music, based on my experience, it often becomes a constraint, and I actually don't compose that way. I create my own music without being aware of that kind of stuff, and all I think of is to try to get as close as to the landscape that pops up in my head as possible, and this applies to creating any type of song, including creating songs based on the sounds of words. That's my primary criteria for composition. In order to create the music that suits that landscape of something in my head, or as the sound that it suggests, sounds are added. Layers of those sounds may reflect my influence or music I have heard. My influences may be evident, but it is not that I am aware of those influences in order to clearly do something when creating my music.
Y: Can you tell me your musical 'heroes,' or 'favorite' albums of all times?
L: There are some albums for sure, but even though I tell you those, [you might wonder] why? Because, I create music just as I explained to you, so I really like this album in some way, but I don't really want to make an album like that. This applies to everything. For example, I love Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, but do I want to create my own album like that? That's not really true. I wish I would also be able to reach the horizon that Brian Wilson had attained by himself. I like Radiohead's OK Computer a lot, but not in the sense that I want to create an album like that. I can list different albums but...
Y: Then, how about albums that you like more on the conceptual or philosophical or methodological level, or music that you feel close to, in terms of creating music as you just explained, like creating sound or music suggested by a landscape in your mind?
L: Well, I could say Fauré Requiem is something I am aiming for, but still, it's not really that I want to create music like that.
Y: Your music seems to be on the threshold between sweet/melodious or poetic and thoughtful, as well as between happy and sad, this sort of balance, or ambivalence seems to be heard in your music as your style. Where does this balance come from? Does it come from the initial image of landscape that popped in your mind, or does it rather come as a result of putting it into sound?
L: As I said earlier, the basis is the landscape in my mind. I am trying not to let myself be persuaded by musical theory and so on, although it as a result must be used because I studied it, but the point is, whether the music created on that basis corresponds to the landscape. As you pointed out earlier, the co-mingling of happiness and sadness may be related to my basic concept of life and death. I am not considering this dichotomy in a simplistic manner, like, life as happiness and death as sadness, but is rather considering it as one of the things in the same circle, and so I feel like it is from this fundamental feeling of mine that ambivalence or diversity that you mentioned are deriving. However, I do not practice any religion, [I’m a] totally non-religious person. (laughs)
Y: You play live regularly once a month at Café Club Ishibashitei.
L: Yes, twice a month.
Y: The lists of songs for your live sets include besides your own songs, jazz standards, Japanese folk songs etc. How different is your live set from the recordings, system-wise?
L: I clearly consider my live performances as different from recording. I perform live as a 'solo' guitar performance exploring the possibility using only one guitar (and a looper pedal). It sometimes becomes a constraint, and there are things I cannot do, but still I play live with only a guitar. The set list may also be that way because of this limitation. At this point, therefore, I perform live deliberately within this limited instrumentation, as I am originally a guitarist.
Y: To record albums on the other hand, you use computer?
L: The sound sources are mostly from the computer. The only live instrument is a guitar.
Y: There was time in the late 90s or early 2000 where musicians like in ambient music or Onkyo-movement used laptops to play music or live. You haven’t used laptops or any other instruments to play live up to now?
L: No. Also as for "Ambient music", it is the only type of music I haven't really listened to. My idea of ambient may be a bit more 'laid-back'. (laughs) In fact, I believe that is what "Ambient music" should be. It doesn't seem right to create ambient-type of music by listening to Ambient music. Ambient music in essence is to explore the possibility by being free from the western 'fictions' in music, like working with harmony or melody, and instead combining a sound with another to see what sort of soundscape can be created. So, listening to ready-made ‘Ambient music’ may make me end up being so obsessed with its specific way of seeing things, and I think being so much into it is not meaningful at all in creating ambient music. I therefore don't listen to any ambient music at all, even the famous ones.
Y: Do you do field recordings for your music?
L: No, I might change, but at this point, I am interested in dealing with sound with intervals. I am not interested in sounds in nature, like the sound of wind, or bird songs, although strictly speaking, those natural sounds also have intervals.
Y: Going back to the style of your music, I really like the interesting balance that is both tuneful, and poetic and constructive. Do you think that the sense of balance comes mainly from your background in Jazz, or something different that is more to do with what is inspirational as a base to create your own music in a comprehensive sense? It almost feels as if you are creating something by hand in an extremely personal manner, while at the same time looking at yourself creating from a distance, not to get carried away, or taking a more process-oriented approach devoid of subjectivity. Any comment?
L: The constructive aspect may come from my background in Jazz, as I studied Jazz harmony seriously. I probably use it without being aware of it. As for the sense of balance, I try to maintain some sort of balance as a practice of life in general. Listening to the wide range of music that I mentioned earlier is one example, or reading, exercising, or eating etc. I try to experience what surrounds me as totality.
Y: And music as an outcome based on your sense of balance doesn't seem contrived or ironic. It sounds so natural and genuine. By the way, you write interesting things on your website. I really liked your comment about Charles Lloyd's live show you saw: "(His music was like a) Mysterious monster that appeared by chance from the forest, humming a strange but pleasant song." I thought this also applied to your music. Your music is also instrumental, but the element of 'song' can also be heard.
L: I see.(Laughs) That's just something I wrote about his live show [when] I saw [it] for the first time.
Y: Let me ask you about your local venue called Ishibashitei in Ogikubo, Tokyo, where you regularly perform live.
L: It's in Ogikubo in Suginami, Tokyo.
Y: What sort of local scene or music is happening at Ishibashitei, and what is the situation in music that surrounds you?
L: Ishibashitei is not a music venue but a restaurant, and they let me play. Other musicians also seem to play often there, but there is nothing like a local music movement coming out of that space. Also, I don't communicate with other musicians to the point of being a bit too extreme. I don't mean to exclude them, but I know very little about contemporary music movements or trends. It is because of my lifestyle of staying home, composing and practicing guitar that I end up being this way.
Y: You give guitar lessons. There are photos of high school students playing guitar on your site, so you teach music at a high school?
L: Yes, but I consider myself as composer and guitarist.
Y: I heard that your activity as composer has very little connection to the music scene in Japan as it is known to us here [in the U.S.]. We are curious about in what kind of environment your music is created.
L: I keep creating music just like Haruki Murakami stays home and writes novels alone from morning till night. That's all I do.
Y: You do all your recording at home, so your house is your studio. By the way, do you like Haruki Murakami?
L: Yes. I like Murakami Haruki, Mishima Yukio, Kawabata Yasunari and Kazuo Ishiguro...
Y: Since ‘Tree of Life’ was released from a label in the U.S., you might not have especially fresh feeling or impression, but do you have any thoughts on releasing a new album here, or anything that you anticipate from your new audience outside Japan?
L: Yes. This may be too rough a distinction, but based on contacts I've had, I had a feeling that people in the U.S. or Europe are more broad-minded, with deeper understanding of musical culture. It may be derived from their history, but they are absolutely different from Japan in terms of being responsive to something new or new music that they haven't ever heard. I contacted a few Japanese companies, but honestly I was not taken seriously at all. (laughs) They can only understand something with a solid reputation, that is already acknowledged and categorized; they may be reluctant to understand something other than that. People in the U.S and Europe contrarily are more responsive to things they don't know or new things. When I was making an album with Tommy this time, I also realized, when I presented music that sounds similar to something else that sounds either too conventionally Jazz or rock, his advice was, "That may not sound so great. I think you should do your own music." I thought that was significantly different. It may be a difference in history between people who had culturally run into new types of music and accepted them, and people who simply imported ready-made music as culture...There is some great music in traditional Japanese music like Tsugaru-shamisen, but I don't know exactly when but it may have been left behind at some point in time, and instead some trendy stuff is being imported from abroad. I don't mean to blame anyone, but I am afraid a sensibility to some new movement happening right in front of us seems low in Japan. We know how to appreciate ready-made stuff, but the ability to appraise something new that doesn't belong to a definite category may not be that high. (End)