Goth-Trad hatches postdisaster pop

Dubstep artist goes back to roots of genre

by Arni Kristjansson

Special To The Japan Times

Talking with Takeaki Maruyama in a Tokyo cafe, I’m caught off guard when the dubstep artist better known as Goth-Trad suggests that his fourth and latest album is pop. When I let it sink in, though, I realize that “New Epoch” could in fact be the perfect postdisaster-pop album.

Don’t get him wrong: The 33-year-old isn’t talking about the kind of pop-dubstep, or “brostep,” that has grabbed hold of U.S. clubs in the six years since he released his third album, “Mad Raver’s Dance Floor.” That form of the genre (so-called for its popularity among U.S. frat boys) has crashed commercial charts via songs such as pop princess Britney Spears’ “Hold it Against Me” and Japanese R&B singer Daichi Miura’s “Black Hole”; it’s the defining sound of British producer Rusko and the hugely successful U.S. export Skrillex, who is nominated for five Grammys at this weekend’s awards show in Los Angeles.

No, Maruyama’s idea of dubstep — and pop music — is different. He sees pop as being easy to understand, and disagrees with descriptions of his own work as being experimental and complex. He says good pop music allows you to visualize what you’re listening to — even if those visualizations are kind of dark.

“If the music doesn’t easily conjure up images, it’s often classified as deep or difficult,” he says. “However, if you bring soul to the music it becomes easier for people to understand it, no matter how dark it is. I might be called experimental, but I feel my music is very easy to understand — like pop.”

It’s the “dark” description that may make “New Epoch” one of the first effective musical commentaries on the radiation fears and lingering neurosis that have followed the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11 last year. Maruyama was in the middle of working on the album when the disaster caused him to change course.

“I got angry and I had to represent my own situation on the album,” he says. “It was a scary time. I have a child whom I was very worried about and I even considered leaving Japan.”

Maruyama says he appreciates that a lot of musicians chose to create happy music after the earthquake in order to raise people’s spirits, but he thinks it’s important to relay the actual feelings of what the country went through.

“When it comes to me, I want to appeal to people and make them feel that sense of crisis,” he says. “I think expressing that with sound is what art is all about. It’s like with Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (a painting about the Spanish Civil War), you can express yourself through painting or through sound, but I think it’s the artist’s role in society to express his or her own situation.”

“New Epoch” isn’t solely a commentary on postdisaster Japan, though. The album’s main goal is to bring dubstep, as a genre, back to its roots — especially in the wake of its growing popularity.

Brostep reduces the dubstep sound down to aggressive mid-range basslines and whiplash-inducing half-step beats, a compressed and simplified version of the sonic qualities of early dubstep (2005-07). Those earlier tracks could only be played on high-end sound systems for their full effect, the pop versions are easily playable on laptops. “New Epoch” is rooted in copious amounts of sub-bass and dark atmosphere. Maruyama’s continuing fascination with industrial music and noise comes through clearly in the sounds used on “Air Breaker” and “Departure,” while the tracks “Cosmos” and “Babylon Fall” (the latter featuring roots-reggae legend Max Romeo) pay respect to early dubstep’s wobbly basslines and reggaelike, major-scale melodies.

Maruyama explains that there has been an explosion of new techniques and equipment in the underground dance-music scene that has affected how the music sounds. He believes it’s not necessarily a good thing, though, and that songwriting should be given priority over the rush to focus on technical innovations.

“If you use an old Akai sampler to make a good track, it’s still a good track,” he says. “Old music from LFO is still amazing, and so is Portishead. Music like that doesn’t sound stale even after 15 years. I want to make songs that share those qualities.”

Maruyama’s first two albums were a mix of noise, industrial music and a dose of ambient. He then discovered dubstep through listening to grime, a form of British hip-hop that along with U.K. garage contributed a lot to dubstep’s sound.

The 2005 track “Back to Chill” off “Mad Raver’s Dance Floor” landed on the radar of some influential DJs in London, which brought Maruyama into a growing dubstep scene. His break came in 2007 with “Cut End,” his first single for U.K. label Deep Medi Musik. That track cemented his place as a leader in the global dubstep scene.

Meanwhile, at home in Japan, Maruyama teamed up with DJs 100mado, Kaji Peace and SKE in September 2006 to create the country’s first dubstep club night: Back to Chill. The event, which continues to this day at Clubasia in Tokyo’s Shibuya district (an Osaka version ran from September 2009 until February 2011) has been important in fostering local talent.

Maruyama has become a much in-demand DJ and live performer, making regular trips to Europe, Asia and North America. He was on the bill of last year’s popular Coachella festival in California.

Dubstep as a genre has taken many stylistic leaps through the years, blending with minimal techno and most recently Chicago’s latest brand of house music, known as juke. As such, the genre has become increasingly difficult to define.

But Maruyama has his own firm idea of what dubstep is: “It’s the sub-bass, the bass line and the groove it creates. I couldn’t care less about the beat: That’s not at the core of dubstep. Most people probably think that dubstep is that (half-step) beat and some mid-range bass, but it’s the groove created by the sub-bass sounds.”

With the genre only making slight ripples in Japan, Maruyama hopes that he can use his latest album and the press around it to shine some attention on other Japanese artists. He wants to relay his relatively successful experiences abroad to newer acts and support them through his Back To Chill event. While he says he won’t stay fixated on dubstep forever, he hopes that young artists will explore its positive attributes more before moving on to the next buzz-building genre.

“The younger generation is a lot faster than me in picking up on new things. They are also quick to switch between the styles they do, going hard with it but moving on in less than one or two years. I think that’s a problem, coming from an artistic standpoint. Digging deeper delivers a better result that’s easier understood.

“I still feel that dubstep has a lot of potential. I have a lot of ideas and I hope I can create something new.”

“New Epoch” is out now. Goth-Trad will play release parties in at Clubasia in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on Feb. 18 (11 p.m.; ¥ 2,500 in advance); and Triangle in Osaka, on Feb. 19 (5 p.m.; ¥2,000 in advance; [06] 621-2264). For more info, visit www.gothtrad.com.