Shugo Tokumaru is one of those unfairly talented types who seem to be able to turn their hand to anything. He wrote, played and sang every note on his two albums of “bedroom music” and produced them both too. The 25-year-old also finds time to play guitar and occasionally sing in lo-fi indie pop band The Gellers.
But Tokumaru’s talents do not extend to describing his own music. Cornered in a Shinjuku dressing room backstage, the boyish-looking songwriter admits, “I’m asked to describe my music a lot, but I find it a difficult question to answer. I don’t know how to describe it.”
Plenty of others have tried, categorizing his music variously as “folk,” “folktronic,” “electronica” and “indie-pop,” among other labels. The promotional sticker on Tokumaru’s debut album, “Night Piece,” released in Japan in August 2004, helpfully described the 25 minutes of music as “chamber pop.”
“I don’t really recall a description of my music that I strongly disagree with. But I wouldn’t call my music ‘electronica.’ But then I don’t really know what you’d call ‘electronica.’ I more or less record stuff ‘live’ and use live instrumentation.”
In person, Tokumaru is every bit as self-effacing and disarmingly softly spoken as he is when performing live. This is a singer who at the record launch party for his latest album, “L.S.T.,” pondered aloud for several minutes the meaning behind the album title, only to conclude by the end that, actually, there was no meaning behind the acronym.
Evidently, Tokumaru saves his punch lines for his music.
His star may be gently rising, but his career trajectory has as much to do with chance as design. After starting to write songs and make noisy, Pavement-inspired home demos aged 16, Tokumaru only started playing live shows in June 2004. He had already started recording his debut album by then.
“There was a friend of mine living in Japan whose friend ran Music Related [a small New York City-based record label that released Tokumaru's first album]. He sent him some of my recordings in November 2003 suggesting he release it. The guy from Music Related contacted my friend suggesting he would like to put it out.” Six months later, Tokumaru’s “bedroom music” was on the shelves of a few record stores in New York and receiving praise from influential online music Web sites such as Pitchforkmedia.com. “I was really happy about it because I was being reviewed overseas,” Tokumaru said.
But was the music really recorded in his bedroom? “Yes. It was all recorded in my bedroom on Apple Logic Pro. You have as much time as you want. If you think of something you can record it on the spot. In a studio often you can’t always record the sound you were expecting. And there weren’t any problems with the neighbors.”
The lush instrumentation — from banjo and mandolin to what sounds like recorder and accordion — and precise arrangements on “L.S.T.,” released in Japan in August this year, takes the intricate homespun sound further out of the lo-fi, bedroom-music domain. Six months in the making, there are extended instrumental passages that recall U.S. sonic experimentalist and Sonic Youth collaborator Jim O’Rourke. “Karte,” meanwhile, is brought into focus from its bleary eyed twilight by a fragile, spooky high-pitched noise that sounds like it has been beamed in direct from the Appalachian Catskills.
Songs also have a habit of suddenly bursting off on surprising tangents, like opener “Mist,” which makes an ear-grabbing lurch from lilting waltz into acoustic strum hoedown.
“Maybe I get bored when I listen to usual song structures. For example, if I think of one melody, then after I’ve written that, soon another melody comes along [in the same song]. I don’t really think about it. It’s like a puzzle.”
At work on both of Tokumaru’s albums is this keen sense of melody and a certain mischievousness. There are playful tunes that could have been written for children’s TV, and bouncy instrumental jigs that sound like Django Reinhardt penning a soundtrack to a risque Benny Hill skit.
Recently, Tokumaru has been listening to stately singer-songwriter M. Ward, with whom he shared a stage a year ago. He also supported Howe Gelb on that songwriter’s recent Japan tour. But the artist whose work Tokumaru feels closest to these days is folkie Sufjan Stevens, the singer who gained column inches for announcing last year that he intends to pen an album for each one of America’s 50 states.
Is this a project that Tokumaru can imagine, to write an epic 47-album song cycle dedicated to each of Japan’s prefectures? “There is absolutely no way I could do that. Having said that, I heard about someone doing such a thing, I forget who it was.”
So if the concept album documenting the demise of the coal mines in Saga Prefecture isn’t on the cards, what does the future hold for Tokumaru? One thing that does look likely is a U.S. release for “L.S.T.”
“I haven’t decided what label the record is going to come out on overseas yet. I’ve been talking to lots of people. It will be an indie label. You have time limits working on a major label; there’s pressure on you to write a certain kind of song the label wants you to write. Right now, I don’t feel that kind of pressure.” There will also be an overseas tour sometime next year, with dates in New York City and San Francisco.
Having lived in Los Angeles, where he studied jazz guitar from 1999 to 2001, and been brought up in Tokyo, Tokumaru would seem to be in a perfect position to compare the underground scenes of both music centers.
“I think it’s easier in Tokyo for an underground artist to make it,” he says.
Is that because there are lots of live houses and studios that bands can practice in?
Tokumaru looks nonplussed. “Because of the food,” he says.
Clearly unimpressed by American fast food, it’s no wonder Tokumaru has been holding off on his return trip to the United States for so long.
Shugo Tokumaru’s latest album “L.S.T.” is out now in Japan on Compare Notes.
He plays Shimokitazawa Shelter Dec. 16 (7 p.m. start, tickets 2,300 yen in advance) and Shibuya Eggman Dec. 22 (6.30 p.m. start, 2,000 yen in advance). For further information, including ticket reservations, visit www.shugotokumaru.com
Shugo Tokumaru’s NY connection
Trevor Sias runs Music Related, a “very small record label” run out of a “very small apartment” in Queens, New York City. It released Shugo Tokumaru’s debut album “Night Piece,” and future Japanese releases are planned for 2006.
How did you come to hear Shugo Tokumaru’s music?
100 percent random. A friend of mine living in Tokyo was given a CD-R by Shugo, from Shugo. He ripped me a copy and sent it to me. He knows I’m a sucker for unreleased music by unknown people.
What sort of distribution were you able to give the album?
I did most of the domestic work [with U.S. mail order distributors]. Then Other Music [a small but influential New York music store] got really into it, and was selling it like crazy. Also around that time, Shugo was getting big write-ups and reviews all over the place. Then Shugo’s label in Japan [Compare Notes] stepped up and they did a lot in Japan with it, the fall [of 2004] after Shugo’s album came out [in the U.S.]. I just sorta jumped in and figured I wouldn’t make any money, or really sell many copies.
What excites you about the Japanese underground scene?
I can’t say I’ve ever connected Shugo to any kind of Japanese underground scene. It just goes back to my general interest in Japanese underground culture, or my delusion of Japanese underground culture. I don’t pay attention to American music, or even what’s going on here in NYC. I’ve always felt more at ease with the Japanese sense of style and art. It’s just hard-wired into my brain.
Do you think it’s as hard for underground artists in Tokyo to get established and make a career as it is in New York?
Probably harder in Tokyo. There are just so many more people. I would think it would be hard to get your head above the crowd . . . whereas in New York you’re just ignored till you make it. Then you make it and everyone hates you. I think it’s less of a thing to be “indie” in Tokyo though — many young groups I know are trying really hard to be successful . . . to the point they are compromising their own music.
For more information on Music Related, visit www.musicrelated.net