As the producer behind electro-idol trio Perfume and oddball techno-pop style icon Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, Yasutaka Nakata has been behind some of the most interesting and forward-thinking pop in Japan, consistently pushing back the boundaries of what the mainstream can handle while maintaining a musical identity that marks anything he touches as distinctly his.
In a year where Kyary’s “Nanda Collection” and Perfume’s “Level3″ have both streaked to the top of the charts and staked strong claims for end-of-year J-pop bests, Nakata may have been saving the best till last with “Caps Lock” by his own project, Capsule (in tune with the title, the album and band name are officially stylized in all caps as the shouty “CAPS LOCK” and CAPSULE).
Analyzing Nakata’s work can sometimes feel akin to hunting for a man in a hall of mirrors, his various projects forming a labyrinth of reflections, none of which gives a complete picture. Ideas flow back and forth between Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Capsule, but as some seem to converge, others pull apart and the relationship remains in flux.
Capsule’s last two albums, “World of Fantasy” (2011) and “Stereo Worxxx” (2012), were full-on club albums in contrast to the bubble-gum pop he was doing with his better-known projects. But with both Kyary’s new material and Perfume’s new album, “Level3,” demonstrating growing EDM (electronic dance music) and club influences, Capsule has taken a radical lurch into the leftfield.
“Caps Lock” certainly contains pop songs, but its creative heart lies in the way different and sometimes unexpected sounds are layered, with a much heavier use of samples, a more experimental approach to rhythm and hooks, and a treatment of vocals that slices, chops, pitch-shifts and reassembles with almost murderous glee. One way of looking at it is as a reaction to the shiny dance-pop anthems of Perfume, although in the mirror world that Nakata’s work inhabits, it’s not quite as simple as that.
“It seems that way when you think of the other projects as the centerpieces,” Nakata says, “but when you think of Capsule as the centerpiece, I’m just doing the things that I can only do with each project, but taking them to their limit.”
The direction of each project is determined not just by Nakata himself as the songwriter and producer, but by the individual characteristics of the performers he is working with, the demands of the media and with commercial concerns.
“Recently with Capsule and my other work,” he explains, “I’ve been making music for soundtracks, commercials and all these things that are pre-arranged. With this new album, none of these songs are tied up with commercials or movies, so it’s making music for music’s sake. Very much like when I first started out making music.”
Temporarily freed from outside pressures, as well as the self-imposed constraints of making music for club or live environments, Nakata seems to have reveled in a platform that has allowed him to do whatever he wanted and explore music anew. Capsule isn’t just Nakata, however. The duo includes vocalist Toshiko Koshijima, who appears on “Caps Lock” in such a heavily processed form that on first listen you might be mistaken for thinking that the group had become a Vocaloid voice-synthesizer project. Nevertheless, Nakata cannot imagine Capsule without her.
“It feels like we’re playing one instrument together in the studio,” he says after some thought. “She’s not singing things that are pre-determined by me. It’s more like we’re playing an instrument that we wouldn’t be able to play unless I had her with me. One way of looking at it might be if Toshiko was a pen and I’m using her to draw something, but because it’s that particular pen, it influences what sort of thing I draw.”
“Caps Lock” could turn out to be a very important creative step for both the group itself and Nakata’s wider work. Where his production style has gained a reputation over recent years for a reliance on heavily compressed, in-your-face “brickwall” mastering, “Caps Lock” is all about having space to breathe.
“The feeling of plunging into the unknown, of not knowing what’s going to happen next in music has become weakened these last couple of years,” Nakata says. “Take the example of SoundCloud, where you can see the waveform visually, so you can see when the song gets really loud or dynamic. When you hear that part, you already knew it was coming, and you can play only the most exciting parts.”
Particularly with the American EDM boom, but also in Japan partly as a result of Nakata’s own work, the trend has been to go for impact over subtlety, something that Capsule took to the point of parody on “World of Fantasy” with its uniform 128-bpm tempo and song titles such as “I Just Wanna XXX You.” But it’s impossible to completely separate Nakata’s work into its component projects and those ideas started to bleed through into Kyary and Perfume’s music. Nakata admitting that, “Since I’m doing (the EDM stuff) with my other projects, it seems like a good time to do something new with Capsule.”
“The recent trend in how people consume music,” he continues, “is that they don’t really spend much time listening to a whole song, but because of that I wanted to make an album that’s very layered … that you have to listen to carefully.”
The feeling of “plunging into the unknown” has a parallel in Nakata’s love of science fiction, and after seeing his work appear in overseas films such as “Chronicle” and “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” he sees film music as a possible way for his music to reach a wider international audience. He doesn’t see himself as the kind of musician who is going to go on tour and travel the world though, and having grown accustomed to working in his own home studio, where he can take charge of everything from writing to mastering to art direction, he comes across more as an enthusiastic, occasionally philosophically-minded mechanic, the man at the heart of the machine.
“It’s like arranging dominoes,” he says of his creative role, “You flick a switch to make the first one topple over and then something cool happens. A lot of people think of computer music as being automated, but you need a person there, hammering out the details. I wanted to show the gears in the music and how it works together.”
While the metaphor of dominoes could well prove to be an uncomfortable one in a music industry going through an uncertain period of transition, “Caps Lock” shows that there are still creative talents not only capable of pushing back boundaries at the same time as making chart topping mainstream hits, but also of showing us the reflection of one in the other.
Additional reporting by Ryotaro Aoki
CAPSULE’s “CAPS LOCK” is in stores now.