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For artist Tokumaru, music is but a dream

Singer-songwriter draws from subconscious for overseas success

by Daniel Robson

Shugo Tokumaru’s music is a dream come true — literally.

“I couldn’t write lyrics, so I came up with the idea of using phrases from a dream diary I was keeping,” explains the acclaimed multi- instrumentalist singer-songwriter. Since the age of 14 (he’s 30 now), Tokumaru has kept a small notepad by his bed. And when he is able to recall them he fervently scribbles his dreams down, building up a library of surreal subject matter to inform his psych-edged pop sound.

“Even now, all my lyrics come from my dream book,” he elaborates. “It’s quite hard to write down your dreams, but you get used to it if you do it every day. Sometimes I can’t put a dream into words, so I spend a long time thinking about it or sometimes just give up.”

It doesn’t stop there. To further elucidate his slumbersome sound, Tokumaru uses a wide range of instruments — more than 100 of them, from the ordinary (piano, guitar, drums, xylophone, clarinet) to the not-so-ordinary (an ashtray, a doorbell, a selection of windup toys).

“I don’t really have a favorite,” he says. “But I love piano. It can make so many different sounds, even though it’s acoustic. I think it’s a perfect instrument.”

All of this he records alone with Pro Tools software in his home, which he says is cluttered with microphones, effects units and all those instruments (“There’s no room to move!” he says).

“I don’t really know what producers do, and I can’t really describe to someone the sound I want to make,” explains Tokumaru. “It’s fun doing everything myself. Sometimes it’s tough, but never really impossible. It’s quite difficult to re-create the sound that’s in my head, but I really like to find my own way to do things, just by trying them. I’ve never asked anyone for help.”

The result is a phantasmagorical lo-fi sound that is rich in texture, recalling an offbeat Beach Boys or a melody-heavy Cornelius, with the ponderous soul of onetime Sonic Youth member Jim O’Rourke’s solo output.

Tokumaru was born and raised in Tokyo, and he began playing piano around age 6. During high school, he also picked up electric guitar and listened to punk bands such as The Clash. Eventually he formed an experimental rock band called Gellers, with whom he still performs occasionally (they played at this year’s Fuji Rock Festival in August).

After finishing high school, Tokumaru traveled overseas for more than two years, most of which was spent in Los Angeles. There, he played in a jazz band and began home-recording as a solo artist.

“I thought Americans had a great way of playing music,” he recalls. “The bar is very high.”

He later returned to Japan and to Gellers. But the lure of his home studio proved impossible to resist.

“I was writing so many songs for my band, but there were a lot of songs that just didn’t work in a band setting,” he says. “So I figured it would be good to record them myelf and put out a CD. I just went ahead and did it. It was really natural.”

By 2003, he had amassed enough material for a 10-track demo CD called “Fragment,” which caught the ear of leftfield U.S. label Music Related. The label wanted to release the demo as it was, but Tokumaru, ever the progressivist, preferred to record something new. In May 2004, the label released “Night Piece” to strong online sales, and by the end of the summer the album had also been released in Japan.

He has since released three more albums, each selling better than the last, culminating in “Port Entropy” breaking into Japan’s Top 40 when it was released in April 2010 — no mean feat for an independent artist making decidedly eccentric music.

“I didn’t do anything differently this time around, so I don’t know the reason,” says Tokumaru on his chart success. “I suppose it’s interesting, but I don’t really care.”

Doubtless, the reason can be partly ascribed to the use of his songs in several commercials, for companies such as Sony, Shiseido and Japan Airlines. In Japan, television has powerful penetration, and even adverts can give an artist vital exposure — so much so that it’s not unusual for a record label to pay the advertising agency to use its artists’ music (by signing over their royalties), rather than the other way around.

“Sometimes I write a song specifically for a particular advert and sometimes not,” says Tokumaru. “I don’t really treat those songs any differently; I guess those advertising people just like my music.”

Another key factor in Tokumaru’s success in Japan is his success abroad. With so few Japanese artists releasing music and touring overseas, it tends to filter back to Japanese fans when one does. As a nation, Japan can be terribly curious as to how it is perceived abroad, and the acceptance of one of its sons or daughters as an international musician is validation indeed.

Since that 2004 debut, Tokumaru has released music in many Western countries and toured the United States and Europe many times.

“I play the same way whether in Japan or abroad, but the reaction from the audience is slightly different,” reflects Tokumaru. “Japanese fans listen very quietly, whereas abroad, people tend to be noisier.”

Though he occasionally tours alone, with just an acoustic guitar, Tokumaru usually plays backed by other musicians, who use a range of instruments to bring to life his aural tapestry. Since the recorded songs are so far removed from the standard band format, however, Tokumaru expends plenty of energy rearranging them to fit a live setting.

“When I’m making a CD, I don’t really think about how the songs will sound live,” he says. “I look at the live show as being a separate entity, and I rearrange and remake the songs for the stage. Sometimes it’s a quick process and sometimes it takes a long time. There are several songs where I’ve just given up completely and made a new song instead.”

Fellow solo artist De De Mouse (interviewed on today’s Re: Music page) was so enamored of Tokumaru’s live show that he invited him to perform on the first night of his Mousetrap event, on Oct. 7, in Tokyo.

“I’ve seen De De Mouse’s live shows before, and we’ve met many times over the years,” says Tokumaru. “He really knows how to whip up a crowd.”

Something the pair have in common is an extreme shyness. In De De Mouse’s case, this reserve manifests only on stage; behind the scenes he is quite outgoing. Tokumaru, on the other hand, comes across as almost aloof — as we chat, he gives many one-word answers and says that he has been this way since childhood. After a live performance, he says, he usually goes home directly rather than stick around and hang out.

When asked how he reacts in social situations, such as being introduced to a friend of a friend at a party, he replies: “I avoid those situations. I don’t know why. I guess I’m just not interested in talking to people. It’s a pain. I’m happy to hear what someone else has to say, but I don’t like talking about myself.”

He explains that he rarely considers his next musical step, preferring to write and record naturally — a process that has served him well so far. The same goes for his career, and he says he harbors no ambition to hit the No. 1 spot. But despite this ostensibly laissez-faire attitude, there is clearly more than meets the eye, a side to Tokumaru that he is reluctant to reveal.

“I think about the future sometimes,” he admits. “I have goals deep down inside, but I’d be too embarrassed ever to say them out loud.”

Tokumaru is currently writing material for a new album, which he plans to release “sometime next year.” He says he tries deliberately to evolve his sound for each album, drawing fresh influence from trying songs out live and listening to the music around him.

“I haven’t decided on the direction of the album yet,” he says. “I’m just making all kinds of songs for now. Some are instrumentals, some have vocals, and some are really out there.”

For now, Tokumaru remains in his dream world, creating chimerical tunes drawn from the depths of his subconscious. When asked what he had dreamed the night before our interview, which follows his set at a music festival, he replies: “I had a dream about today, being on stage. The show was exactly as I dreamed it.”

See? Told you his music is a dream come true.

Shugo Tokumaru plays Oct. 7 at Mousetrap at Liquidroom in Ebisu, Tokyo; Oct. 10 at Keihin Rock Festival at Higashi-Ougishima East Park in Kawasaki; Oct. 16 at Kyoto Rissei Elementary School; and Nov. 23 at new venue WWW in Shibuya, Tokyo. For more information, visit www.shugotokumaru.com (Japanese only).