Supercell’s synthetic pop wins real fans

by Daniel Robson

“Most people become a musician intentionally and set out to find success,” says Ryo, the multi-instrumental talent behind art-pop outfit Supercell. “But me, I just uploaded a song to (video-sharing Web site) Nico Nico Douga without any big intentions. People on that site go by their user name, not their real name — though Ryo is actually my name — and never reveal their true identity. Since that’s the world I came from, that’s just what stuck.”

He’s explaining why his full name, his age, his face and, until now, even his gender are kept out of the public domain. It’s all part of the mystique that has rocketed this unusual unit to prominence. While Supercell’s sound is based firmly in sentimental J-pop (think Aiko, Yui or anime theme tunes), it also explores the genre’s jazzier, spunkier and dancier elements. But what first took Nico Nico Douga by storm in December 2007 was debut song “Melt,” created entirely by Ryo and featuring synthetic drums, synthetic synths and even synthetic vocals.

Indeed, the singer on Supercell’s early material was not born of sugar and spice. She was created by techies at Yamaha, christened Hatsune Miku, 16, shoved in a box and released for ¥15,750 as part of a series of singing software called Vocaloid.

“It is quite different from other sequencing software,” says Ryo in a soft voice, his youthful thirtysomething face framed by lank black hair. “Music normally consists of the sounds of the notes in an octave, like ‘do-re-mi’; but with Vocaloid, you can’t create a melody without also typing in some lyrics. Up until then, I’d thought of music in terms of the 12-tone scale, but by adding syllable sounds, it becomes 12 times . . . how many syllables do we have in Japanese — 48? It made me realize the importance of lyrics.”

“Melt,” and its minimally animated video, went on to generate a staggering 5 million views on Nico Nico Douga, and was followed by several more DIY hits before Supercell (who are named after a devastating type of supercyclone) signed to Sony last year. They are less a band than an industry: Ryo is the group’s only resident musician; instead, the unit loosely incorporates three illustrators (video-game artist Huke, digital illustrator Redjuice and manga artist Miwa Shirow) and designer Yoshiki Usa. Between them they are able to control every aspect of composing and packaging a CD, with an attention to detail that has been embraced by fans.

Like many Japanese kids, Ryo had piano lessons thrust upon him, but found respite in working out how to play the music from the “Dragon Quest” video-game series. In his early teens his parents bought him a synthesizer; then when the band boom of the mid-1980s struck, he learned the drums. In the ’90s he discovered Scottish electronica duo Boards of Canada, and quickly fell in love with digital music, citing Japanese crossover act Boom Boom Satellites as a current favorite. This wide appreciation of music has made Ryo a strong all-rounder, flirting with different instrumentation and styles on almost every song.

Supercell’s new single, “Sayonara Memories,” is their second since joining Sony and also their second to feature a living, breathing singer, a young woman who goes by the name of Nagi.

Not much is known about Nagi’s background, but her voice is very much in the mold of a voice-actor-turned-anime singer: bursting with emotion, if not distinctive in character. At her best she recalls pop-belter Yui, but on the discordant jazz-pop of B-side “Oshiete Ageru” (“I’ll Tell You”), she sounds as though she’s been directed to yelp like Yuki did on those classic Judy & Mary singles, and comes off a little flat. But like the other young artists in this project, she’ll no doubt settle into a comfortable groove over time.

Ryo says that although he loses absolute control over the tone of each and every phrase, working with a singer adds a human element that resonates better with listeners. As such, Nagi will be the singer throughout Supercell’s as-yet-unwritten major debut album (though Ryo will also revisit his digital mistress Hatsune Miku soon). Incidentally, the rest of the music has also been entrusted to homo sapiens, with session musicians taking care of all but Ryo’s keyboards.

” ‘Sayonara Memories’ will be released in February, so I used ‘February’ as the song’s theme,” says Ryo. “In Japan, the cherry-blossom season in April is a time for meeting new people or breaking up and saying goodbye. So in February, memories reawaken of the farewells we made under last year’s cherry-blossom trees, and we begin to long for the new meetings that might accompany this year’s blossoms. The song has that kind of sentiment.”

Ryo admits that as a grown man, he found it difficult to get used to writing tenderhearted lyrics to be sung by women. But it was par for the course. After all, Supercell’s music is sung by young ladies, living or not, and Ryo felt the lyrics had to follow suit.

“It was quite embarrassing to write these feminine words at first,” he laughs as he recalls his early attempts with Hatsune Miku. “I’d play the songs to friends, and they’d laugh at me. But if a 16-year-old girl is supposed to be singing, I thought it is best if she sings about romance. Sometimes I’d think to myself, ‘Why am I writing this kind of stuff?!’ ”

Though his humble manner, spindly frame and musical eccentricities may suggest otherwise, Ryo doesn’t conform to the otaku (obsessive) stereotype. He has few hobbies, beyond dabbling in video games and reading books picked from a list of recommendations to which he subscribes online. Instead, he says he throws himself entirely into his music all day, every day. He hopes in future to work with an overseas singer (his dream would be Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack or ex- Soundgarden vocalist Chris Cornell), and he’s even considering trying one of Vocaloid’s English- language vocal synthesizers, though he doesn’t speak the language himself.

In the meantime, he’s gearing up to write an album that he says “will run the spectrum of human emotions,” and also experimenting with his session musicians — they’ve been rerecording Supercell’s Hatsune Miku-era songs, sending the digital vocals through a set of speakers and capturing the output to make them feel more analogue. With such a playful approach, no wonder Supercell’s music is so compelling.

“Sayonara Memories” is on sale Feb. 10. For more information, visit www.supercell.jp