Japan’s electronic-music scene has long seemed to suffer from a stylistic and unbridgeable gap between popular and independent music — one side characterized by overzealous polish, the other by lo-fi charm. In the case of N.O.R.K., the two sides have collided in spectacular fashion.
The duo consists of Nariaki Obukuro and Ray Kunimoto, two 20-somethings — one fresh out of university, the other soon to graduate — whose initials form the act’s name. Although the two only began recording as N.O.R.K. as recently as August last year, the project is already turning heads with a brand of beat-driven, contemporary R&B that recalls the likes of How to Dress Well and Inc.
“At first we wanted to make EDM. Zedd, Skrillex, that sort of thing,” Kunimoto says. “We started making tracks last spring, but that style wasn’t going so well. Then, last August, we both stayed in a hotel and used that as an opportunity to work on tracks. After three days cooped up in the room, we found ourselves making quite dark music that really worked.”
Kunimoto takes care of the beats, constructing delicate, orchestral instrumentation that compliments Obukuro’s soulful falsetto vocals. The violins and strings prominent on each of N.O.R.K.’s tracks are recorded live, then coupled with synth-driven percussion (the title of their debut release, “ADSR” [Attack-Decay-Sustain-Release], references such technology), resulting in a level of warmth and depth that stands out against the hushed whispers and minimalist beats of so many Tokyo-based bedroom producers. But then, Obukuro doesn’t even have a bedroom, so to speak.
“Yeah, I live in a temple”, he casually replies after I ask for confirmation, assuming I must have mistakenly heard hoteru (hotel) as otera (temple).
“It’s a real inspiration — the whole area smells of incense,” Obukuro says. “It’s a manshon (apartment) that has been scheduled for demolition. The windows are broken, there’s no toilet, no gas . . . I tore down one of the rooms and made it into a studio. I can even blast out gangster rap in the temple graveyard,” he jokes, seemingly paying as little heed to superstition as he does noise complaints.
It’s a markedly unique approach and one that has left its mark all over the pair’s productions. Obukuro’s lyrics make frequent references to spirituality, especially on “Yell Out” when he sings, “I learned that gods reside in everything” and “Confession won’t relieve me in this town.”
Just as Obukuro’s vocals hint at a specifically Japanese perspective, Kunimoto brings a similar approach to the instrumentation, rather than simply copying Western producers. While his contemporaries in the West fawn over Prince and The-Dream, Kunimoto credits composer Ryuichi Sakamoto as the biggest influence on his style.
“I wanted to interpret pop and R&B in a Sakamoto-esque way, with that orchestral, classical sound. With R&B in the West, the high-end is really isolated and the compositions are very tight, but when we tried producing in that style ourselves it wasn’t very interesting,” Kunimoto explains. “I wanted to come up with a sound that wasn’t particularly vibrant — almost deliberately ‘muddy,’ even — and I felt that would convey a certain Japaneseness.”
The end result is full of disparate elements: live instrumentation and digital beats, romance and religion, orchestral halls and nightclub dancefloors. It’s just as possible to imagine N.O.R.K. topping the Oricon charts as it is seeing them carve out a niche in the indie scene. Obukuro’s history with major labels, however, suggests that he’ll be happy going down his own route.
“I started singing at 19 — until then I’d only been playing baseball, I was a jock,” he laughs. “I wanted to be a professional singer and I started working with Sony Music, but it was boring so I quit. I would just sing tracks that someone else had written. It was all Japanese pop — “ai shiteiru” (“I love you”) and stuff. It was sh-t!”
“I don’t have any background in musical theory, I don’t understand any of that,” Obukuro admits. “I have relative pitch, so I work things out between that and trial and error. Honestly, I know Do-Re-Mi and that’s about it!”
What he lacks in theory, Obukuro makes up for in business nous, happily styling himself as the makeshift “manager” of the two.
“The music business used to be about resources, but now all you need is a laptop. It has opened up for everyone. But precisely because of that, it has become more important how you portray yourself,” he suggests. “Of course the music itself is still important, but so are other things. With N.O.R.K. we also pay lots of attention to things such as music videos, artwork and so on. I think that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been getting positive feedback. With SoundCloud anyone can upload music for free, so it becomes important to tell a story with videos, visuals and the like.”
One look at their EP and it’s easy to appreciate Obukuro’s attention to detail in the way that he has involved other contributors. For what is essentially a four-track EP on a distinctly independent label (Tokyo’s AY), “ADSR” is extremely polished. The release includes three remixes from some of Japan’s best underground club producers. One music video — a murky, urban exploration of nocturnal Tokyo — has already been uploaded in anticipation of the release, with another coming soon. The tracks were engineered by the DJ Illicit Tsuboi from Japanese hip-hop unit Kieru Makyu, and mastered in London by Andy Baldwin, who has previously worked with Blur and The Who. Even the artwork was created by Jin Okuma — accessory designer for the likes of Lady Gaga and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
“I have lots of ideas but I can’t do them myself, so I get other people to do them,” Obukuro says with another laugh. And if N.O.R.K. continues as brightly as it has started, you can’t imagine many people turning his requests down.
“ADSR” is in stores now. N.O.R.K. plays the Craxon event at Club Asia on May 17 (¥2,000 in advance; 11 p.m. start; 03-5458-2551). For more information, visit www.nork.asia.