Tofubeats: the art of reality in an era of ‘post-truth’

by

Special To The Japan Times

The final months of 2016 left Yusuke Kawai feeling confused. The electronic artist who records under the name tofubeats came across a BBC news segment touching on the concept of “post-truth” — the Oxford Dictionary named it word of the year and defines it as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” — and it struck a chord with him. In late October, he uploaded a seemingly angry lyric-focused rap song reaction called “Shoppingmall” to YouTube.

“It’s not aggression, it’s more like a void … an emptiness,” Kawai tells the Japan Times at cafe Anjin in Daikanyama, Tokyo. “Things aren’t getting better. There aren’t any answers to the problems we are facing. I don’t know what kind of music I should be making, or even what I should be doing to make a better future.”

Kawai realized, however, that he was well placed to voice these feelings. As tofubeats, he’s gained attention as a producer in the style of Yasutaka Nakata (who has remixed his work) and Tetsuya Komuro (whom he has collaborated with). He’s stepped up to the microphone plenty to deliver Auto-tuned vocals over wonky sounds that he fostered as one of the biggest names in Japan’s netlabel scene, but his major hits were born from creating music for guest vocalists such as Chisato Moritaka and Bonnie Pink.

“Lots of people say I became famous through the internet, but this post-truth stuff highlights the other side of what’s happening online,” Kawai says. “This is a topic I should sing about, not something I can ask others to sing about.”

So on “Fantasy Club,” his latest full-length it’s Kawai’s digitally filtered voice in the spotlight, whether rapping on “Shoppingmall” or gliding over synthesizers on cuts such as “What You Got.” Although shaped by world events, “Fantasy Club” still features plenty of escape to dance rhythms or pop hooks. Yet other songs confront confusion and loneliness, while also including some of his most disorienting musical passages to date.

“Rather than faking it and making something trendy or fashionable, I wanted to face the fact I don’t know (everything). Not knowing might sound angry, but it is just dealing with that reality.”

Kawai says his last album, 2015’s “Positive,” was put together as a way to reach new listeners who might not be familiar with tofubeats. It thus relied heavily on guest singers. This time, though, he was mostly thinking about existing fans. “I wanted to make something that felt a little more homemade,” he says.

“Fantasy Club” frequently brings to mind many of his pre-major-label works, where the lack of connections meant he had to sing through a thick layer of Auto-tune. Don’t call it a throwback, though, as Kawai has upgraded his equipment significantly.

“I bought a microphone from a company called Neumann,” he says. “You know, even if you don’t sing well, the detail comes through very well. It’s very sensitive.”

He also wanted to imprint more of the sounds he loved onto the album, which is where some of “Fantasy Club’s” stranger twists took shape. Take the end of opener “Chant #1,” a number full of interlocking vocal harmonies and hand claps. In its last minute, it slows to a crawl, a nod to the “screw” music invented by Houston’s DJ Screw. Kawai went through five different cassette players trying to get the effect just right.

Although the bulk of the album highlights Kawai and his intricacies, he does make room for two guests. One, acoustic singer/songwriter sugar me, matches the homemade vibe he wanted “Fantasy Club” to have, her wispy voice appearing on the sparse “Yuuki.”

“I knew that she was a self-produced artist,” he says. “I liked having someone who could handle the process herself.”

The other is rapper Young Juju of collective Kandytown, rhyming through a digital mist on “Lonely Nights.” Kawai was drawn to him after hearing his voice through Auto-tune software. The fact he was on Warner Music, the same as tofubeats, also helped.

Being part of a major label helped shape the album’s penultimate number “Baby,” a lush love song cutting through the void before it ends via a flourish of violin. The strings come from a sample of a Yumi Matsutoya song. “When I made it, since it has a sample prominently featured, I thought that it would be tough to release officially, so it was almost like a hobby,” he says.

Originally uploaded to SoundCloud near the end of 2015, “Baby” proved popular, and the label worked to clear the sample. It took a while, but they managed to get it done in time for “Fantasy Club.”

Other opportunities have come Kawai’s way thanks to this position. He’ll play his first international show ever, in Taiwan, in mid June, despite being unable to fly on planes for too long. (“I felt like Taiwan was close enough. I’ve declined a lot of opportunities overseas.”) “Shoppingmall” has proved a surprise success on Spotify in Taiwan (as it has in Indonesia).

A few hours after our interview, Kawai takes to the decks at nearby nightclub Unit for Lost Decade, a party he founded with friends. This is the 10th installment, and it is a significant step up from what he described as “basically a house party” — its first installment at Waseda’s Sabaco live house. With a physical copy of rapper Kendrick Lamar’s latest album “Damn” leaning against the left CDJ, he plays dance music that gets the crowd moving. It culminates with his own “What You Got,” which punters shout along and generally lose it to. Kawai has, at least for a moment, brought escape to several hundred people.

The issue of what to do as an artist in the world today, though, still nags at him a bit.

“But I did make an album reflecting on life in 2017,” Kawai says. “When I look back in 2020-something, I’ll know that this was what 2017 was all about for me.”