The ‘weird’ world of techno’s Ishino

DJ and Denki Groove member talks about Tokyo's clubs and dance music's future

by Richard Smart

“Salarymen are fantastic,” says DJ and producer Takkyu Ishino. “If there weren’t so many of them doing their thing, then people like me would not be able to exist. If more people acted like me (outside the norm), then I wouldn’t have had the life that I’ve had.”

Ishino started producing music in the mid-1980s, inspired by such groups as Yellow Magic Orchestra and Kraftwerk. He then shot to fame in 1991 as a member of Denki Groove. The group’s biggest hit, “Shangri-La,” has sold more than half a million copies and is typical of their style: fun, slightly cheesy techno-pop. Perhaps the most telling sign of the group’s ethos, however, was its decision to cover the pioneering synth-pop tune “Popcorn,” made famous by Hot Butter in 1972. It’s a song that’s as likely to be heard at a kids’ party as it is at an all-night club event.

Denki Groove are also known for the weird visuals they use at their concerts. The band often appears in elaborate and surreal costumes, like the time Ishino’s bandmate Masanori “Pierre” Taki turned up at the Fuji Rock Festival dressed as Mount Fuji — complete with smoke billowing out from his head. It’s a strategy reminiscent of the way bands such as YMO would give equal weight to both music and persona at their gigs.

“Denki Groove are a weird band. From the start, we were always weird,” says Ishino while sitting in a plush Sony Music office that smells of acrid smoke. “All the members are weird. When weird people get together they do weird stuff. That’s what we aimed to do when we first got together.”

Interviewing Ishino can prove a challenge, as is often the case with Japanese celebrities. A seemingly impenetrable entourage of managers, executives and minders stand between him and the media. Despite this, meeting him is not an intimidating affair. It is pleasantly surprising to find a warm, down-to-Earth music lover rather than the stereotypical “star.”

While the band are not hugely popular overseas, Ishino says the response they get from foreign audiences has been excellent.

“We’ve toured a lot around countries such as Slovenia, Poland and Germany,” he says. “In those countries, 100 percent of the audience know they are coming to see a weird Japanese pop group and they are really up for it. The crowd is great and anything we do gets a massive reaction.”

Away from Denki Groove, Ishino is known as a DJ who can control a crowd like few others in Japan can. There is, however, some disjoint between the light-hearted pop his band plays and the more serious techno he DJs.

“As a DJ, the Denki Groove style of music is not going to get people on the dance floor,” he says. “If I play that sort of stuff, it’s just going to turn people off, so I keep the Denki Groove side of things completely separate from my DJing. If people would dance to the poppier side of my music, I’m sure I would spin it more, but people won’t so I need to think about that when at a club.”

For nine years, Ishino’s monthly Sterne night at Tokyo’s club Womb and his annual arena event, Wire, have kept their focus on more traditional forms of techno, even as the genre continues to grow ever more diverse. Asked about how he picks lineups, which can seem repetitive, Ishino answers: “We aren’t really into the styles that get hyped, as speed garage or electro clash have been in the past, so the events look like they always include the same people, but there are a lot of different types of music performed.”

Whether this will succeed in the long term, though, is questionable. Ishino admits that Wire has seen about a 20 percent drop in ticket sales (“but 80 percent are still there”). Then again, clubs up and down the country are closing due to an inability to generate crowds and even the biggest clubs are reporting declines in attendance similar to that of Wire.

“In Japan, clubs are really expensive so the fall in crowds may be a good thing,” Ishino says. “If the number of people clubbing continues to drop, then maybe clubs will cut their prices. The problem is, though, Japanese people don’t drink as much at events as those in the West, so clubs here are balancing on a tightrope if they want to continue into the foreseeable future.”

Ishino also believes the way that music is perceived and treated today is another problem that must be addressed. “These days, music is not as important as it was in the ’80s. If a kid bought a record it was really important to them. Now buying songs is about on the same level as buying a carton of orange juice.”

Despite this recent trend however, Ishino says he has little desire for a return to those days, arguing that perceiving Japan’s bubble era in the ’80s as a time when things were better is a mistake.

“The people back then were more optimistic,” he says. “They thought that the good times were going to go on forever; they acted a lot more irresponsibly and without inhibition. But if the bubble had continued, people would have gone crazy. Now, though, people are too miserly. Both situations are crap.”

This answer might be predictable from a man who has made his career playing left-of-center music for left-of-center crowds he describes as “probably a little odd. Not quite otaku (obsessives), but certainly different from the average person.”

Asked who he would be if he wasn’t making music, the DJ and producer says he doesn’t know, but his job would not be the standard office one. “I never wanted to be a salaryman,” he declares. “Or rather, I never thought I could be a salaryman, because their lifestyle looked tedious to me. My father was not a salaryman, he was in construction, so I never really understood, or took any interest in, what those people did.”

Takkyu Ishino’s Sterne event is held the first Friday of the month at Womb in Shibuya, Tokyo. For details, visit www.womb.co.jp.