Towa Tei wallows in optimism for art’s sake

by Robert Michael Poole

“In Tokyo, there is too much information,” says famed Japanese producer and DJ Towa Tei. “Even if you don’t want to listen to music, you are raped into listening to something you don’t like at the convenience store. So I try to go somewhere quiet and listen whenever I want to!”

Announcing the release of “Big Fun,” his first album in four years, former New York resident and Deee-Lite member Tei, 44, has maintained a mystique and allure thanks to his creative sound collages that defy genre, fashion or fad, mixing modes as he creates almost entirely electronically. “Sweet Robots Against the Machine” (2002), “Flash” (2005) and “Big Fun” are all linked by their quirkiness, creativeness and optimism.

“This time I tried to write the songs when I was having fun,” explains Tei, who spends most of his time at his home in Nagano Prefecture. “So first of all I needed to enjoy life, not only force myself to write songs like some routine job. If you try to become an antenna to receive information from outside, you need to be relaxed, especially for something creative. I think humming comes when you are relaxed. If you are under pressure, you don’t hum.

“When you are having fun, time flies. And music is like that. If it’s boring, you want it to end, but music is a trigger that can take you back to your teenage years or other times. Good music can be like a time machine.”

Tei’s approach to music has always been a little left-field. As a member of Deee-Lite, he was known as the geek who brought the bossa nova and easy-listening grooves. But times have changed, and technology now allows him to make music in ways previously unthinkable, especially when it came to the many guest vocalists on “Big Fun.”

“MySpace helps,” he says. “The guy on the second track (‘Taste of You’), Taprikk Sweezee, I don’t know who that is! He is from Germany; I liked his singing, and even though we are in different parts of the world, we can communicate.”

Despite the benefits of new technology, Tei also feels it has distinct disadvantages.

“This time, the concept was ‘no concept,’ ” he says. “As times change, it is very easy to access a lot of information. However, as a creator, I should not do that. If something is hyped, everybody seems to look in the same direction, so all the creators sound the same to me. Creators should be futurists!”

The choice of the right collaborators to give voice to his productions is one of the key elements of Tei’s music. Previously, artists such as Kylie Minogue and Bebel Gilberto have featured. This time, many of the names will be unfamiliar to most.

“(The important thing is) the sound the musician has, their voice; the expression; a high note or a low voice; a sound intensity, either powerful or delicate,” says Tei. “I believe the most important thing is one’s nuances, and those come from one’s personality and experiences.

“Another important thing is the person’s natural voice. I think these two qualities are the definition of originality. Since I am not a good singer, I can choose whoever I want. I wish I was good at singing but then it would be just me and a guitar!”

The first collaborator to begin work on “Big Fun” was Miho Hatori, who appears on two tracks, and who Tei also connected with through MySpace. A longtime New York resident and currently a solo artist, Hatori was the vocalist in experimental pop band Cibo Matto and later sang on the self-titled album by Gorillaz.

“I lived in New York for seven years, but she has been living there more than 15 years,” says Tei. “She can speak really good English, but still to natives it is a little exotic. A unique English. What is a native New Yorker actually? So that’s the point: I picked her because it’s not typical. To Japanese she sounds English, but to me she is exotic.”

Tei’s music is also renowned for the kitsch and outlandish nature of the artwork, videos and packaging that accompany each release. “Big Fun” is the third album to feature the cover and packaging designs of San Francisco artist Barry McGee.

“I really liked the last one,” Tei says. “Maybe it’s too much to ask him one more time, but he said, ‘Of course!’ Again, there is not much communication between us, because I respect him so much. He is always changing.”

With Tei’s effective delegation, and choice of creative partners, he has recently decided to set up his own company, Hug, to bring it all together. He reveals that its formation was inspired by his wish to leave a tangible legacy.

“The last few years, I was thinking about my future career,” he says. “But slowly I thought about what I should leave for the younger generation. So maybe I can help pass down creative design, music, DJing. . . . Things I can comment on.”

When asked what sort of company it is, Tei replies, “Hug is managing me. And also making sunglasses! But you cannot define it; it’s not just management, it is creative, connecting people to people. We will build and hopefully we will have the capacity to discover new talent.”

As the future of the music business for rock musicians seems clearly to be in the form of constant touring, Tei contemplated how electronic artists and DJs will fare in the evolving music world.

“I don’t care about how other people make money, but for me I’d say I don’t like concerts much,” he says. “I hate to train myself, so that’s why I like producing more, using computers. I think the Internet and technology are closely bound up with these things, including the fact that CDs don’t sell.

“These days, so many things can be done just on a PC — not only music. But I think we all have the herd instinct as human beings. We want to share time with other people. So clubs and concerts are interesting, though demand and supply are poorly balanced now. I can feel it from my parties, many of which have to limit admissions. More people want to come to events but only a few places are good, so everyone goes to the same places and we need more.

“Maybe I should try to help build a nightclub,” he ponders. “But that’s big money and related to alcohol, sex and drugs! The music part is OK. If someone has enough money, let me know! Maybe I’ll just make more sunglasses though . . . “

“Big Fun” is out now. Towa Tei DJs at events around Japan through February and March; see www.towatei.com for more information.