YMO’s Yukihiro Takahashi recruits Towa Tei, Cornelius, Yoshinori Sunahara, Tomohiko Gondo and Leo Imai for an impressive supergroup

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

One of the unspoken rules in the progress-fixated world of electronic music is that you don’t get bonus points for dwelling on past glories. So when Yukihiro Takahashi — drummer, vocalist and dapper elder statesman of electro-pop — convened a star cast of musicians at Tokyo’s Ex Theater Roppongi in January to perform faithful renditions of songs that he’d first recorded 30 years ago, it was, he admits, “partly tongue-in-cheek.”

In his work with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono in Yellow Magic Orchestra, and solo albums such as 1981′s “Neuromantic,” Takahashi laid the groundwork for Japanese techno and electronica. Now he was sharing a stage with some of the artists who’d picked up the baton during the 1990s: among them, DJ and producer Towa Tei; multi-instrumentalist Keigo Oyamada, better known by his stage name Cornelius; and Yoshinori Sunahara, formerly of major-league dance-pop act Denki Groove. With the exception of singer-songwriter Leo Imai, all of the members (Tomohiko Gondo rounds out the group) are in their mid-40s; as Takahashi puts it, “They’re all YMO generation.”

“At first, I didn’t think it would be possible to get all these people together for a concert,” he continues. “When I realized it was doable, I thought we should have a go at playing songs from the 1980s that were true to the sounds of the originals. … What I asked them to do was half parody.”

The spirit of flippancy extended to the group’s name — Yukihiro Takahashi & Metafive, a play on the long-running kayōkyoku (traditional pop) combo, Hiroshi Uchiyamada & Cool Five — and the knowingly absurd title of the concert itself, “Techno Recital.” Captured on a live album that’s released in Japan next week, it’s a warmly enjoyable affair, whether Takahashi and co. are reprising YMO staples such as “Ballet” and “La Femme Chinoise” or gamely covering John Cale and Brian Eno’s “Lay My Love.”

“Techno Recital” is actually one of two releases from Takahashi this month, and they could hardly be more different. The other, “Phase,” is an extravagant Blu-ray, DVD and CD box set documenting the final date of his 2013 tour with In Phase, the band heard on last year’s sepia-tinged “Life Anew” album. Featuring former Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha alongside a host of regular collaborators, the music harks back to the soft rock and blue-eyed soul of the late 1960s and ’70s, formative influences that Takahashi had never previously tapped on record.

He estimates that at least half of the audience was the same for the Metafive and In Phase shows, but suggests that “Life Anew” probably came as a bigger surprise to long-standing fans.

“They’re completely different types of music, but they’re both part of my roots,” he says.

Just don’t accuse him of getting retrospective. “Everybody’s telling me that at the moment, but it’s not true,” he insists. “Basically, I don’t have that much time left, so I feel like I want to try out lots of different things. I’m always wondering how much longer I’ll be able to carry on like this, and I want to make sure I’ve done everything I hoped to do while I’m still in good health.”

He’s laughing as he says this, but the comment took on an altogether different tone a couple of days after our interview, when bandmate Ryuichi Sakamoto revealed that he has been diagnosed with throat cancer. Takahashi has declined to release any official statement on the matter.

At the age of 62, Takahashi has been working in the music industry for more than four decades now. The youngest child in a musical family, he was already doing studio session work while still at high school. He first met future YMO bandmate Hosono, five years his senior, when the two performed at a dance party in the holiday resort of Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, in the late 1960s.

“We were just first- or second-year high school students, but Hosono said the music we played was more interesting than his band’s,” Takahashi recalls.

Asked about how he got off to such an early start — he bought his first drum kit when he was 11 years old — Takahashi is commendably frank.

“Quite simply, if you weren’t fairly rich, you couldn’t do that in Japan,” he says. “Buying drums and practicing them at home isn’t an option for most people.” That said, it sounds like his neighbors didn’t take kindly to the local prodigy. “The people in the house down the road used to throw stones, shouting at me to shut up.”

Though he enrolled at Musashino Art University, Takahashi ended up dropping out in 1972 to play drums with Sadistic Mika Band, an anglophile rock group that toured the U.K. with Roxy Music and cut one of the decade’s seminal Japanese albums, “Kurofune” (1974). But this was just a warm-up for YMO, whose five-year run between 1978 and 1983 marked something of a zenith for Japanese pop — perhaps the only moment in the country’s musical history when its most popular group was also its most cutting-edge.

When the trio officially reformed in 2007, however, there was little sense of nostalgia. Drawing on the experience they’d accrued over the decades, Takahashi, Sakamoto and Hosono brought a radically different perspective to their earlier hits, rendering familiar earworms such as “Rydeen” virtually unrecognizable.

“We played the old material like a rock band,” Takahashi says. “We could do completely faithful renditions of the originals if we wanted to, but there wouldn’t be much point.”

The group’s reunion was also marked by a penchant for activism. Their comeback gig was at the Kyoto edition of Live Earth in 2007, a globe-straddling series of concerts held to raise awareness about climate change, and they headlined a fundraiser show for victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in 2011.

Most famously, they spearheaded No Nukes 2012, a high-profile music festival held when Japan’s post-Fukushima protest movement was at its peak. The event was conceived by Sakamoto and Yoichi Shibuya, president of the Rockin’ On music magazine empire, and Takahashi is quick to concede that his bandmate — a vocal campaigner on environmental issues — is the driving force behind YMO’s politicking.

“Hosono and I don’t tend to speak out publicly about politics,” he says. “During the Vietnam War, when it was a question of whether or not you sang protest songs, I probably would’ve been one of the people who didn’t.”

A rare exception came in 2011, when Hosono suggested making an explicitly anti-nuclear statement during the group’s performance at World Happiness, the music festival that Takahashi organizes in Tokyo each summer.

“We were going to parade together with a banner, but then he changed his mind at the last minute,” Takahashi recalls. “Sakamoto tutted, ‘Hosono, it’s no good if you chicken out.’ ”

No Nukes 2012 also gave YMO an opportunity to share a bill with the group to which it is most often compared, German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. But whereas YMO’s original lineup was still intact, their Teutonic forebears now perform with just one founding member, Ralf Hutter.

“Kraftwerk haven’t changed at all — they’re almost like folk music,” Takahashi says. “They reproduce the songs just the way they used to sound. Ralf’s the only original member, and the others in the band probably grew up listening to Kraftwerk, which I think is why they can play like that. If Florian (Schneider) and more of the old members were still involved, they probably wouldn’t be interested in playing the same songs again.”

In fact, the group’s current incarnation isn’t so different from what Takahashi is doing with Metafive.

“If you put that next to Kraftwerk, most people probably wouldn’t notice the difference,” he jokes.

“Techno Recital” and “Phase” will both be released on July 23. Yukihiro Takahashi with In Phase play at Fuji Rock Festival in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, on July 27 and alongside Yukihiro Takahashi & Metafive at World Happiness 2014 in Yumenoshima Park, Tokyo, on Aug. 10. For more information, visit www.room66plus.com.