Musician Shugo Tokumaru starts to adjust to the spotlight

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Among the many billboards looming over Shibuya Station crossing, one of the busiest and most famous intersections in Tokyo, is one for Tower Records that features musician Shugo Tokumaru. The picture looks slightly awkward. The artist sits on a spiral staircase and clutches a guitar, positioned just to the right of the center of the frame, as if he’s trying to sneak out of the shot.

He says his shyness goes beyond photo sessions and carries over into his recording process.

“I trapped myself in a dark room, with all of my windows closed,” Tokumaru says. “That kind of depressing atmosphere made me want to write material that was positive, vast and expressive.”

The Tower ad campaign is definitely that. The introverted artist’s image now appears at one of the busiest train stations in the world, though, viewable to the approximately 2 million commuters who pass through it daily.

“I’m not really a person who likes showing off, but people find stuff like that fun,” Tokumaru says referring to fan reaction to his increased exposure. “I want to continue doing (ads) if there’s demand, but it won’t be a priority in my career. It feels kind of strange.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v =k-dMxN4LcUk&feature=plcp

It should feel strange: Artists who make music like his rarely receive the kind of widespread acceptance that Tokumaru is getting. He mixes Brian Wilson-esque pop structures with whimsical sounds from traditional instruments, toys and animals; all of his lyrics are inspired by dreams. The idiosyncratic pop musician has become a critically acclaimed artist abroad and a commercially successful one at home. In Japan, he has landed on the Oricon music charts, lent his songs to commercials by the likes of Sony and Japan Airlines, and has become the type of artist who’s expected to sell out a decent-size concert venue. He has just released a fifth album, titled “In Focus?,” on P-Vine Records, a release that was his most anticipated to date. And he’s done it all without compromising his trademark sound.

The Tokyo native started playing music from the age of 6, and in his teens he joined several friends in a band called Gellers. Eventually he started recording solo material at home, and in 2003 released a demo album that attracted the attention of independent American record label Music Related. They released his debut album “Night Piece” in 2004 to critical praise from overseas websites such as Pitchfork Media and, surprisingly, to strong sales. Tokumaru steadily gained in popularity through the rest of the 2000s, eventually joining P-Vine and releasing two more critically acclaimed, mostly home-recorded albums (2005′s “L.S.T.” and 2007′s “Exit”).

“Of course, the fact I gained some attention abroad has made it easier to introduce my music to a Japanese audience,” he says. “However, it has gradually become a topic that doesn’t really matter too much over time, which I think is a good thing in itself, too.”

Tokumaru’s commercial breakthrough in Japan came at the end of the last decade, when Sony featured his rollicking song “Rum Hee” in an advertisement for a touchscreen computer. This exposure helped him crack the Oricon Top 100 for the first time in his career with the “Rum Hee” EP. It also set up his 2010 album, “Port Entropy,” for bigger accomplishments — his fourth full-length disc made it as high as No. 33 on the Oricon album chart. Every venue of his subsequent nationwide tour sold out. Suddenly, the reclusive artist who once said he wished he could play live shows from the comfort of his own home was being seen by more people than ever.

“I’ve gotten busier, since I mainly manage all my jobs by myself,” Tokumaru says about his life post “Port Entropy,” though his eyes, a tad bloodshot, are giveaway enough. “I’ve got a lot more jobs now.”

Despite the increase in work and attention, Tokumaru says he didn’t feel the need to alter his songwriting process. Like his previous work, he recorded all of the music in his room save for some of the drums, and continued consulting a personal dream journal that he’s been keeping since he was 14 for the lyrics. He says he started writing the songs that would make up his fifth album following the release of “Port Entropy,” though he came up with the concept for “In Focus?” at the start of 2012.

“After the last album I recorded a lot of songs, more than 100. I listened to all of them, and had difficulties creating a concept for this album,” he says. “It’s kind of everywhere, but I feel I’ve made an album out of it all.”

Even more remarkable than whittling down 100 songs into a 15-track album is that “In Focus?” sounds distinctively Tokumaru. It’s relatively common for Japanese indie artists to alter their sound when they start experiencing mainstream success — see rock outfits such as andymori or Nokies!, who have edged away from their early indie-pop style in favor of more commercially reliable rock sounds. “In Focus?” retains the whiz-bang pop Tokumaru established on his lesser-known works, the album featuring both proper songs and brief instrumental interludes that find him making the most of his collection of instruments.

“I wanted to have an equal amount of instrumental songs and actual songs, but I’ve made the shorter songs more commercial, making them transitions, since most people get tired of listening to too many instrumental pieces,” he says. “But I would like more people to be interested in them.”

All of the songs on “In Focus?” burst with childlike joy, a sentiment that shows he has mastered in his sound: “There are a lot of happy, catchy songs on this album.” He combines traditional rock instruments with those usually found in a kindergarten classroom, such as whistles, xylophones and toy pianos among others. He piles instruments on top of one another on every song, creating an intricate and dizzying noise. Some critics haven’t been fond of this layered approach — in a review of the similarly constructed “Port Entropy,” Pitchfork writer Jayson Greene said that “15 minutes of his maniacally giddy pop should be enough for anybody” — and Tokumaru says even he thought a lot about his style while recording “In Focus?”

“I imagined the album as a country, where each song is a person,” he says. “So there is no way everyone could get along well together, and I thought, ‘Is this right?’ The title comes from questioning myself as to whether the album is in focus or not.”

Tokumaru also incorporates household items and other noninstruments into his recordings. On the album’s first single, “Decorate,” the sound of an alarm clock interrupts the otherwise twinkling tune; the brief instrumental “Gamma” includes the quack of a rubber duck. The approach can sometimes be excessive — the country-tinged bounce of “Down Down” doesn’t need a cow’s mooing to remind the listener what he’s going for — but this method usually adds a charming touch of reality to otherwise fantastical pop songs.

“I just like things that create interesting sounds,” Tokumaru says. “I like artists who play around with anything that’s around them, and I’m one of them.”

He’s so in love with sound that the deluxe edition of “In Focus?” comes with a bonus CD called “99 Instruments.” It lives up to its title — it features 99 hyper-brief tracks consisting of nothing but the sound of one instrument, the whole disc lasting about 11 minutes. It’s an interesting look at the building blocks of Tokumaru’s music, touching on the ordinary (piano, drums) to the offbeat (singing saw, ocarina) to the nonmusical (frying pan, frog). It’s also another side of his refusal to give in to commercial demands — whereas most deluxe CD offerings tack on a few extra songs, Tokumaru offers listeners a bonus disc featuring a song that’s nothing but five seconds of vuvuzela.

Tokumaru, though, admits he considered taking “In Focus?” in a different sonic direction at one point. “I thought about having outside producers or recording at different studios, but I wanted to face my own art.”

That decision explains why the album continues exploring the same gleeful sounds he has been poking at for almost a decade. He says that in the future he would be open to working with someone else though.

“I’m not thinking about a person in particular, but a producer with different taste. I would want them to do everything for me, since it was hard work creating this album,” Tokumaru says.

For now, though, he’s still handling everything and sticking with the sound that has brought him the exposure he enjoys today. The only difference between now and 2004 is that more people are listening. Tokumaru’s currently on a nearly monthlong tour of Japan in support of “In Focus?,” and if trends continue, the crowds at these shows might be the biggest he’s seen yet. The same artist who feels awkward posing for billboard ads says he’s excited to hit the road.

“I really want to explore the possibility of live performances, and would like to seek ways to express my recorded material to suit gigs,” Tokumaru says. “I used to dislike live performances, but that’s started to change.”

Shugo Tokumaru’s “In Focus?” tour will go to Gensanya in Morioka, Iwate Pref., on Nov. 24 (6 p.m.; ¥3,500 in advance; [022] 222-9999). From there, the artist plays venues in 12 more cities including Umeda Club Quattro in Osaka on Dec. 12 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; [06] 6535-5569); Club Quattro in Nagoya on Dec. 13 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; [052] 936-6041); and Shibuya Ax in Tokyo on Dec. 14 (7;30 p.m. start; ¥3,500 in advance; [03] 3444-6751) For more information, visit www.shugotokumaru.com.