Silence is a virtue for Tokyo’s Flau

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Back when he still worked as a speech therapist and audiologist, Yasuhiko Fukuzono used to observe an interesting phenomenon. When deaf patients were fitted out with hearing aids for the first time, they complained that everything was just noise. “Even when they were at home, not doing anything, it was still noisy,” he says. “You know what it was? It was the sound of the fridge. We don’t even notice it, right? When you don’t recognize a sound, you hear it as noise, but once you know what it is you’re okay: your noise threshold changes.”

That threshold is a key concept in Fukuzono’s work — he just chooses to set it lower than most people. As “curator” of the Tokyo-based Flau label and its associated live events, he’s cultivated a world of hushed, understated beauty, where small details count for far more than brash gestures. The gigs that he organizes under the Foundland banner can sometimes strain at the limits of audibility, while Flau releases — which range from electronica to acoustic folk to modern classical — share a certain gauziness and restraint.

Duncan Cooper, associate editor of U.S. music magazine The Fader and an enthusiastic champion of Flau, has compared it to sounding “the way a cherry blossom looks.”

“There’s such a unique sensibility to the label — this sort of delicate and miniature and quietly-go-with-the-flow quality,” he says by e-mail. “Everything on Flau seems a little quieter than if it were done somewhere else; in that way there’s both confidence, because many artists boldly use negative space, and fragility.”

Those artists are a mixed bunch: In the past year, Flau has released albums of solo piano and vibraphone (by Henning Schmiedt and Masayoshi Fujita, respectively), chamber folk (French trio 0), immersive sample collages (Twigs & Yarn, Liz Christine) and ambient electronica (Fujita again, this time under his El Fog moniker). Most recently, it’s been getting strong reviews for “When You Arrive There,” the second album by Ikebana, a diaphanous duo whose chief songwriter apparently hasn’t moved on since the early 1990s.

“She doesn’t have any Internet connection, just a really outdated mobile phone,” says Fukuzono. “She’s totally clueless about new music: it’s like she stopped at My Bloody Valentine and Cocteau Twins. But when you listen to Ikebana, it actually sounds quite contemporary.”

Somewhat unusually for a Japanese indie label, Flau doesn’t restrict itself to domestic acts, nor does it focus its activities purely on the local market. Releases are promoted to international blogs and media and sold worldwide via the label’s website, which is completely bilingual. For the first few years, in fact, the website was exclusively in English. “I thought it was cool to do it that way,” says Fukuzono. “When Japanese artists sent me demo tapes, they wrote everything in English — they didn’t realize it was a Japanese label.”

As a child of the MySpace generation, Fukuzono — who releases gorgeous electronica of his own under the moniker Aus — was already accustomed to befriending fellow musicians online when he stumbled into starting his own label at the end of 2006. The first release was a CD compilation that he and co-organizer Yuri Miyauchi gave away at their inaugural Flau gig, a daytime event held at a bar in the Tokyo neighborhood of Sangenjaya. Fukuzono had approached a variety of artists via MySpace, at the time the most popular online meeting place for musicians, and ended up amassing nearly 30 tracks, enough to fill two discs.

A few of the acts featured on the compilation would go on to become part of the regular Flau roster, including electronica artist and singer Cokiyu — who’d already contributed guest vocals to Aus records in the past — and Manchester-based duo The Boats. The latter’s close relationship with Boomkat, an online record store that posts authoritative reviews of most of the music it releases, helped give the label a profile overseas when it was still getting started.

Miyauchi parted amicably with Flau after a couple of years, since when it’s essentially been a one-man operation. Fukuzono jokes that the only thing his acts have in common is “the fact that I like them,” but there’s some astute curation going on here. Mindful of the potential appeal of artists overseas, he only gives certain releases a promotional push internationally (he focuses on blogs nowadays, since advertising in print media “didn’t make any sense”). His choice of remixers can also cast acts in a flattering light. The minimal psychedelia of Ikebana sounded even more sublime once Yo La Tengo’s James McNew and ambient beatmaker Matthewdavid had had a good tinker, while singer Cuushe’s occasionally insubstantial narco-pop was given renewed focus on last year’s “Girl You Know That I Am Here but the Dream” EP, which paired her with remixers including chillwave producer Teen Daze and avant-pop musician Julia Holter.

The latter is a good example of what Fukuzono can do when he gets hands-on with an artist. While Ikebana came to him with their album already recorded, he’s been considerably more involved in nurturing Cuushe: the EP project was part of an effort to get her tagged as a “dream pop” artist rather than an “electronic pop” one, while he ended up contributing production work to her forthcoming sophomore effort, “Butterfly Case.”

In person, the pair act almost like siblings, with Fukuzono playing the cool older brother while Cuushe — real name Mayuko Hitotsuyanagi — is all guilelessness and giggles. She describes being inspired to make music by listening to Boards of Canada, and admits that most of the references that people make in relation to her own work go way over her head.

“When I get featured in the media overseas, I’ve normally never heard of the artists they compare me to,” she says. “I listened to Beach House and Cocteau Twins afterward, though, and I really liked them.”

“She finds out about them when people say she sounds like them,” Fukuzono interjects. Cue more giggles.

Although her soft, reverb-swathed vocals are compared to Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser, Hitotsuyanagi says they are the product of the constraints that will be familiar to any Tokyo-based musician who’s had to nurture their craft within the confines of their apartment.

“The walls are really thin in Japan, and if you sing loudly you’re going to annoy your neighbors,” she says. “Plus I do a lot of recording at night, so that’s how I ended up singing in this style.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the gigs that Fukuzono organizes have been prone to the same kinds of limitations. Foundland’s regular Tokyo venue, Vacant in Harajuku, has such lousy soundproofing that “they even had complaints about people applauding.” This is hardly an insurmountable problem, though: previous headliners such as Portland drone doyenne Grouper were almost vaporously quiet, while the latest gig is given over to fingerstyle acoustic guitarists James Blackshaw and Ryan Franseconi, neither of whom seems likely to rile the local residents. But then again, to some people it’s always just noise.

“Foundland,” a Flau compilation of live recordings, is in stores now. The next Foundland show is at Vacant in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on July 21 with James Blackshaw, Ryan Francesconi & Mirabai Peart and Dustin Wong. Cuushe’s “Butterfly Case” is set for release in September. For more information, visit www.flau.jp.