“You should be able to go into any sort of club and not be sure exactly what to expect,” says Keith Gordon of Okinawan-styled electronic duo Ryukyu Underground, as he sits drinking tea in his record label’s office in Aoyama, central Tokyo. “You should be surprised every once in a while.”
He’s talking about the difference between Japan’s more laid-back approach to musical genres compared with the highly tribal pressure-cooker of the U.K. music scene in which he grew up. Coming of age musically as an arty David Bowie fan during the first wave of punk in the late 1970s, Gordon felt a bit out of sync with the mods and metalheads around him.
“I was labeled a poof,” he admits. “That’s how it is in England, especially in Newcastle, where I grew up.”
Starting out with a synth and a bucketload of Human League influences, Gordon first started performing as a musician in the early ’80s before moving into DJing and organizing events in Manchester. He arrived while The Smiths and New Order were reaching their peak, and just in time for the acid-house boom.
“It was a good time to be in Manchester,” as Gordon puts it.
Nevertheless, the tribal aggression that underpinned Britain’s music scene sometimes made DJing perilous. “I was DJing at this Goth club with a cage around the DJ booth,” explains Gordon, “and this guy came up who I’d obviously p*ssed off somehow, and he tried to grab me by the throat (through the cage). So I pushed him and he fell back and smashed in all these chairs. Then the bottles start flying, glasses smashing over the decks, and I’m hiding under the table.”
Finally, as the ’90s came around, he’d had enough and wanted to get away.
“That was the time of the poll-tax riots,” he says, referring to the violent protests against then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s wildly unpopular new tax, “and at that time I was just desperate to get out of England. I had this wanderlust.”
He ended up in Denmark, where he found a different attitude among music fans (“They didn’t care what kind of music I played. That’s how it should be.”) and had an unexpected hit with a remix of the theme tune to the TV series “Twin Peaks.”
“I only found out last week that it got to No. 1 in Finland,” he said, before conceding, “that might mean it sold 200 copies.”
More travel eventually took Gordon to Okinawa, where he teamed up with Jon (“unfortunately not ex-Duran Duran”) Taylor, who was visiting for his Ph.D research in 1998. Gordon credits Taylor’s skills as a musician and a motivator with kick-starting their whole two-person Ryukyu Underground project.
“He heard my first attempts and said, ‘The ideas are good — the execution’s sh*t,’ ” says Gordon. ” ‘Let’s work together. But if we’re going to do it, let’s be serious about it.’ “
Blending the sounds of traditional Okinawan minyo folk music with Western dance music and dub, Ryukyu Underground have been known to complain about the difficulties the music industry has had in classifying their work.
“It’s always difficult if you span two or three genres,” explains Gordon. “We get put in the ‘world music’ section, but then you get these old guys going in there and they might hate us, because they’re more purist.”
More than 10 years down the line, though, Gordon believes they are now finding their niche.
“What has happened is that there’s a lot more music like ours now, and what we do doesn’t seem quite so unusual anymore.”
He puts this partly down to Ryukyu Underground’s exposure through French label George V Records’ popular “Buddha Bar” compilations, which featured it on Volumes 6 and 7. As well, he credits the growing number of musicians, both in the West and in Asia, who are making a similar fusion of traditional and modern music.
After creating such a distinctive style of music for so long, though, the duo might be forgiven if they were to start feeling constrained.
Gordon agrees to an extent: “Jon more so than me,” he admits. “And sometimes he’ll talk about, ‘We don’t have to do anything particularly Okinawan’ on a track. And with (2006 album) ‘Shimadelica,’ I think that was Jon’s attempt to break out and get a more rock and psychedelic sound.”
Gordon, however, is still happy with the balance the duo have achieved, stating, “I think we have a very wide range of styles, but at the same time we have a very identifiable sound — on the production side, and not just the Okinawan aspect.”
On their new album, “Umui,” Gordon was keen to keep pushing the Ryukyu Underground sound forward, with the tracks “Paikaji” and “Urizun” moving away from the more sample-based electronic music of previous albums and into cleaner sounds, built up from editing simple computer-generated sound waves.
It’s also the group’s most cohesive release to date, with a distinctly laid-back dub sound throughout. Gordon says this is partly influenced by his becoming a father.
“While we were making this album, I was listening to a lot of dub, because we’d play it to the baby to calm her down when she was crying,” he says. “But at the same time, I’d be playing these Okinawan children’s songs to her as well, so it was very natural the way we brought them together.”
This attitude also fed back into the album title. ” ‘Umui’ means ‘feeling’ or ‘thinking’ in Okinawan,” Gordon explained. “It can have a wider remit than the Japanese equivalent, ‘Omoi.’ “
“It’s the feeling between parents and children, between lovers; many kinds of feeling. But for me, it was definitely about having this child in my life.”
With Taylor now living in Los Angeles, where he works as a geography professor and in his spare time researches the effects of hallucinogenic drugs on art, Ryukyu Underground develop their music by exchanging files online. This involves Gordon going into the studio in Okinawa (where he still lives) with vocalist Mika Uchizato and multi-instrumentalist Toru Yonehana to work out the basic songs “as a normal minyo session” before sending the data to Taylor to work on in California.
Having settled into both his family life and a style of grooming that he claims navigates the narrow channel between looking like a U.S. serviceman and a Jehovah’s Witness, Gordon’s life is a far cry from the intensity of the ’80s club scene in Manchester, and he isn’t sure where his music is going next.
“You’re always thinking new channels and directions, because if you don’t progress, you stagnate,” he says. But he is reluctant to push forward simply for its own sake, adding, “Our label boss is always trying to get us to do a crazy concept album. I’m scared of that idea right away.”
“Umui” is out now.