Photo by Chad Kamenshine

40 Years On, Ryuichi Sakamoto is Still Searching for Parts Unknown

In conversation with one of the most influential musicians of the 20th and 21st century.

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Feb 16 2018, 10:41am

Photo by Chad Kamenshine

Ryuichi Sakamoto’s slight figure looms large over contemporary music. For the past 40 years the Japanese producer, pianist, composer and conceptualist has focused his attentions on creating music that’s always innovative, inventive and arresting.

From his early days as one-third of pioneering synthpop act Yellow Magic Orchestra, through to grabbing an Oscar for his 1987 soundtrack for The Last Emperor, via almost single-handedly inventing electro – setting the ball that eventually rolled itself into becoming hip-hop into motion – with the still-mesmeric 1980 single “Riot in Lagos”, Tokyo-born Sakamoto can call himself one of the most influential and important musicians of the late 20th and early 21st century without sounding ridiculous.

Whether he’s contemplating the possibilities of electro-acoustic ambient-jazz with Fennesz on albums like 2007’s Cendre, working with everyone from 80s pop heartthrob David Sylvian to Korean video artist Nam June Paik, and starring alongside David Bowie in a 1983 drama about POW camps, collaboration has always been central to Sakamoto’s practice.

His latest project async Remodels is no different. The collection sees Sakamoto assembling a veritable who’s who of forward-thinking electronic musicians, with Oneohtrix Point Never, Arca and Yves Tumor and others reflecting upon and refracting 2017’s glorious ambient excursion async – his first solo LP since being diagnosed with oropharyngeal cancer in 2014. The result is a mesmeric, undulating, flowing, celestial album that takes the concept of the standard remix record and chucks it out of the window. Ahead of the record’s release, we spoke to the avant-garde icon over Skype.

Noisey: Is making music a compulsion?

Sakamoto: I hope I'll be making music until I die. There have been exceptional times when making music hasn't been possible. Right after 9/11, for example, I couldn't make any music for a month. The same happened after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, in 2011. And, obviously, when I got cancer, too. Otherwise, yeah, every single day I listen to music, think about music, play the piano and the synthesiser and I get through cups and cups of coffee.

But music is still a source of pleasure, right?

Just playing and hearing music, or sounds, is easy. Making music is a very different thing. So that side isn't purely pleasurable. It can be difficult, a challenge.

Those disturbances and challenges I’ve mentioned came from the outside, but sometimes the difficulty comes from inside of me. You might have a lack of inspiration, a lack of energy. That happens as you get older. But music is endless, its limitless, and there is no limitation on imagination.

Back when you started Yellow Magic Orchestra, did you ever envisage that you or the group would go on to be as celebrated as you were, and are?

When I was young I never thought of tomorrow. I only lived for tonight. I was that kind of person – I never imagined what I'd be. I'd just enjoy things. Now I can think about tomorrow or next month. But only that far. I am a lucky and happy man. I was born positive, and maybe I've just blocked the bad memories out. I have to thank somebody for that. Maybe my mother. Maybe God. I've never really been down. Except when I had cancer.

Is that positivity one of the reasons why you're revered, do you think?

Possibly. More importantly, I've never been satisfied. I'm always frustrated about what I do. My latest album, async, I was very happy when I finished it, and that happiness lasted a few days, maybe a week. And then the frustration set in, and I wanted to do something more, something new. That always happens.

Do you listen to yourself a lot?

Put it this way: you are on a journey and you travel somewhere unknown. You have a map and you don't want to go back to where you were. You want to move forward. You want to find mountains, rivers, lakes, unknown to you.

Can we tie that into your career-long interest in collaboration?

That's one of the reasons. I am interested in someone who has a different talent, different set of ideas, different visions to me. If someone had the same talents, skills, ideas, visions, why would I work with them? I want opposition. I want difference. So it's interesting to listen for my elements in the tracks on async Remodels. The Arca remodel, for example, I was trying to find my sounds somewhere in there, modulated, or pitched down, and I couldn't. And that's great! It is 100% Arca's music. I enjoyed that. A remix is a different mix. These aren't that. They're reconstructions of music with some elements from my album. These remodels are like reflections. It's a mixture of my music and their skills and ideas and palettes. I get to enjoy that my album inspired them.

Why do you think your work resonates with so many musicians, from so many backgrounds, working in so many styles?

Since I was a child, I’ve listened to all kinds of music. Every day. Classical, rock, pop, ethnic-music, avant-garde stuff. I've done that since I was really small. My music isn't rooted in one genre; it crosses them. That might be why? Sometimes I use pure, 100% acoustic instruments, like an orchestra or a piano trio, and sometimes it's 100% synth or computerised music. There aren't many artists like that.

Is minimalism – music that is stripped back and pared down – a necessary antidote to the anxieties and stresses of modern life?

I find new music which has less melody and a lot of the so-called "post-classical" work I hear just sounds like a backing track to me. It lacks a melody or a lead and it's a nice enough backing track, with all those arpeggios, but that's it. That kind of thing has been popular because our society is so busy, so fast, that strong melody, strong emotion would be too much. Some nice, atmospheric arpeggios without a melody might be what people want at home.

Your work is soaked in melody. Something like "Forbidden Colours" for example, is timeless. Do you search for timelessness?

Looking for timelessness is part of my nature. I wasn't very conscious of that when I wrote that specific melody, but I realise that it is naturally inside of me. With that song, it was a very strange experience. I had read the script [to Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, the David Bowie starring 1983 drama] and knew the story, and I thought about how to come up with a special Christmas song that'd be played in a tropical Asian island. That's a strange concept in itself. And then you add in war. But anyway, I was thinking logically about it for weeks. One afternoon I was sat in front of the piano looking for an appropriate melody. I was unconscious for a while. Then the melody was written. Right in front of my eyes.

As you get older do you ever think about how your work and your approach to music will be considered when you're not here?

I think about that sometimes, but when I think about a lifetime of music by, say, John Lennon, or Pierre Boulez, then naturally I compare that to my own. A century later people will listen to John Lennon's music. Mine? Maybe thirty years.

Is that why you make music? Is that way people write or sculpt or perform ballet? Is it a way of having something to show for our time on Earth?

I don't know about that. I've never thought about it. That'd be nice, but basically I don't mind that my music will die after my death. That's OK. But if it inspires someone who comes after me? That's something else.

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