“I see capsule as a J-pop group, but then again, I don’t think J-pop should be made into a particular genre with its own rules,” says Yasutaka Nakata of electro unit capsule and producer of idol sensations Perfume. “There are professional producers who try to create ‘J-pop music,’ but really any pop music made in Japan should just be considered J-pop.”
With the release of “World of Fantasy” on May 25, their 12th original album, Nakata and capsule vocalist Toshiko Koshijima have had 10 years’ worth of releases on which to hone their particular vision of Japanese pop, beginning with the post-Shibuya-kei technopop Japonica of 2001 single “Sakura” and culminating now in the relentless 128-BPM electro-house thumping of the new album. However, of the decision to restrict himself to such a strict rhythmical limitation, Nakata just laughs.
“It was like a game rather than any kind of grandiose concept,” he explains. “Like when you were little, you might try to see how long you could hold your breath.”
Given the relative rarity of capsule live performances and the way Nakata’s DJ parties, particularly his regular appearances as resident DJ at Shibuya Club Asia and Daikanyama Air, dominate his schedule, it’s unsurprising that his first, and still primary, project’s new material continues to move in a more club-oriented direction, but he insists that the situation is not as simple as that.
“Not all the songs are necessarily for clubs or DJing,” he claims. “I mean, some songs, even though they’re the same BPM, they sound faster or slower depending on the arrangement.”
With the title track and the retro synth-disco of “Keep Hope Alive,” there is a clear 1980s influence that counterbalances the more aggressive, contemporary sound, particularly reminiscent of Dutch house, that dominates the album. Rather than citing the more obvious Giorgio Moroder or kosmische influences, though, Nakata cites sounds from his own childhood as the root of this element of his music.
“I was born in 1980,” he says, “and in the ’80s there were some TV commercials advertising household appliances that used these amazing synthesiser sounds, so I might have been drawing from those memories.”
He also cites certain kinds of classical and tribal music from Europe and Asia as being among the music that he is currently interested in and inspired by. Anyone who has seen a Nakata DJ set over the past couple of years will probably be aware of the bombastic, almost absurdly camp electro-mix of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from “Carmina Burana” he often plays, but Nakata’s interest includes more general observations about the structure of music.
“There are a lot of things electronic music can learn from old tribal music,” he believes. “Fundamentally, both types are based on rhythm and dancing, so many of the features of tribal music can be useful or interesting to electronic producers.”
In addition, he feels there is something in the alien nature of the music that is interesting, stating, “I like music that lets you feel the environment. The exoticism of the various times and cultures that the music was created in are attractive to me.”
In a sense, this goes partially to the heart of what Nakata believes capsule are about. The initial title of the album, “Killer Wave,” and its March release date, were obviously among the (admittedly less significant) casualties of the earthquake and tsunami, while in contrast, the new title, “World of Fantasy,” seems to almost consciously will listeners to turn their minds away from such earthly troubles.
“The initial title was quite an abstract image at its inception,” says Nakata. “The title ‘World of Fantasy’ wasn’t necessarily a direct response to the earthquake, but it is, I think, something that defines what capsule’s music is about. It’s escapism, so when people listen to it, they can go into another world and forget about their work, their worries, that sort of thing. One artist can’t do everything — I can make music that deals with escapism, but there are other people who can deal with more realistic, more grounded concepts.”
What has acquired a firmer foundation, however, is Nakata’s own concept of what capsule is, with his use of sampled vocals — which reached an apogee on the group’s preceding albums “Player” (2010) and “More! More! More!” (2008) — replaced by a much greater integration of vocalist Toshiko Koshijima into the music.
“I feel with this album that, in a way, I’ve kind of finished what I started capsule to do,” he explains. “Before, a capsule album would be half songs for Toshiko to sing, and half my own solo material, but with this album, I don’t see myself so much as Toshiko’s producer so much as that the pair of us have finally become a duo.”
Compared to 2010′s “Player,” the contrasting writing and production process seems to have been a big part of this change.
“On ‘Player’ there were a lot of songs already done before we even started working on the album,” Nakata continues, “because we did the songs for the movie ‘Liar Game’ and for commercials and things, so it was hard to create an album like ‘World of Fantasy.’ The biggest difference is that everything on this album was capsule music for capsule’s sake: it wasn’t like music made for Perfume, or something that was already there, it was just for capsule.”
It’s also an album perhaps guaranteed to scare off the kinds of casual fans and otaku (geeky obsessive) types who found their way to capsule through Nakata’s work with Perfume, with its emphasis on beats, loops and repetition standing in stark contrast to the lighter sound his more mainstream work employs.
Nakata seems aware that he might be alienating elements of capsule’s fanbase that the duo had previously courted through their pop-oriented compilation “Flash Best” (2009), admitting that, “Perhaps people who aren’t necessarily that into music, or are just more casual listeners, might think that ‘Player’ was more song-based,” but in some ways the need to differentiate the two projects seems to have been an inevitability.
“Before, what I would often do is use capsule as a forum for experimentation, and then I could take the result of that and apply it to Perfume,” states Nakata. “A lot of the songs I wrote for capsule, I would have this option of ‘maybe I could use this song for Perfume,’ but with this album, I’ve made things that I think only capsule could make. Maybe certain small bits and pieces could transfer, but there’s no way I could move a song in its entirety between the two groups anymore.”
Part of the change seems like it might be influenced to some degree by shifting necessities as Perfume, now firmly established in the J-pop mainstream, become more entwined in commercial activities, with the associated demands from nonmusical sources that go with that.
“Even if I did move a song between the groups, in the mixdown I would use totally different levels between capsule or Perfume songs now,” he says, explaining that, “with Perfume, before I even start work on a song, it is already assigned to a certain commercial, so it’s all about getting a single idea or hook that stands out, whereas capsule’s music is more complex and part of the fun is in finding new sounds every time, or how different people can hear different sounds whilst listening to it.”
It’s also notable how recent Perfume material has harked back to the very earliest capsule music, with the “Popcorn”-style pico pico (technopop) synth lines and distinctly oriental melody of new single “Laser Beam” recalling elements of the style that capsule were playing with back in 2001 on “Sakura,” not to mention containing melodic echoes of older Japanese pop from the 1960s and ’70s. Again, however, Nakata laughs at this suggestion.
“I’d say it goes back even further than that,” he smiles. “I haven’t talked about this in the media that much, but to me, ‘Laser Beam’ is like bon odori or summer festival music.”
In this sense, there remains one point where the different sides of Nakata’s work still seem to converge, and it’s an idea he returns to later on, when trying to summarize what capsule is all about.
“It’s just matsuri (festival) music,” he concludes. “Just for today, let’s forget everything.”
“World of Fantasy” is in stores now. The “World of Fantasy” release party takes place June 3 at Club Diamond Hall in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture (¥3,500; 10 p.m.;  265-2665). For more information, visit www.capsule-web.com.