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Journey to the center of Cornelius

by Suzannah Tartan

Some trips involve buses and airplanes, others need chemical assistance. Some trips, however, require only a stereo. Keigo Oyamada, a k a Cornelius, is an expert choreographer of the latter form of travel. His last record, “Fantasma,” catapulted listeners through an orange-colored psychedelic wonderland where Beethoven and the Clash contributed to a natural sort of high.

The “Fantasma” remix album, “FM,” is something of a paradox; “Fantasma” is already the ultimate remix. The artists involved, from cutting-edge clubbers like James Lavelle to jangly pop princes like the Pastels, were already in the mix before they even touched a cut. They were all part of Oyamada’s musical memory, the raw material from which “Fantasma” was wrought. Its companion record, “CM,” is a mirror, with Oyamada making cut-and-paste fantasies of pieces by many of the artists that remixed “Fantasma.” All are marked with the indelible Cornelius touch — an almost geek-like fascination with sound.

“It was my idea,” explained Oyamada in a recent interview. “When I was making the ‘Fantasma’ album, I was also working on a lot of remix requests from other people. After a while, I recorded all the remix work onto one CD and thought it would be interesting to release it as one album. I thought it would be even more interesting to have another album with people remixing my stuff as well.

“I think of it as something like a trilogy,” he says, “like the ‘Star Wars’ series. If you listen to all three albums as a whole, there should be something in that too, a completeness to it.”

Although Oyamada’s music is often likened to remixes, the artist has only recently been experimenting with them. “When I first did a remix, I didn’t understand what remixing really was,” said Oyamada. “But after that, I worked on a lot of remixes and came to the conclusion that anything is possible. I just have to concentrate on expressing what inspiration I received from the song. You really don’t have to make it into something that people can dance to. For instance, I could just change the title of the song or just the vocals or just the back track. I look at it as communicating with the song.

“My opinion is that there should be numberless remix albums. I think it would be interesting if there were 1,000 remixes of the same song by 1,000 different people. Like on one whole album.”

The wide range of artists participating in “CM/FM” reflects the growing foreign appreciation for Oyamada’s work. With the release of “Fantasma” overseas, Oyamada’s head-trip has become a terrestrial journey as well. Most Japanese groups, with the exception of the small but well-organized hardcore tour circuit, never make it beyond Club Quattro. The Cornelius crew has been crisscrossing the U.S. and Europe with an itinerary that includes spots such as London and New York, as well as a fair share of more obscure ones like Pontiac, Michigan, or Fribourg, Switzerland, as well.

“I think touring changed me a lot,” says Oyamada. “First of all, you can’t have that many people touring with you like how I tour in Japan. Just the four people in the band and two staff members. We also had to carry our own gear in and out of the club, etc. It made us become more like a band, in the sense that a small amount of people had to look after everything ourselves. Until then, I had very little experience touring extensively with a set group of people and same band members.”

A Cornelius concert has always been a mixture of pop and Pop Art but touring has made him more of a performer. In the past, Cornelius has used massive light and video shows that worked to take him out of the center of attention. However, in the grungy clubs of the U.S. and Europe, such distractions were impossible.

“At first I felt like being stripped naked. I had to really grope my way through the set — what to do, how to do it, and so on. But after a few shows, I got used to the simple stage.”

Another impetus for more immediate, less-contrived performances might be his newly found interest in hardcore. Though his previous album “69/96” had flashes of heaviness, it was drawn more from the fluffier Manchester dance scene than full-on guitar rock. His next album, due out later this year, will reflect this new interest, though there are other issues that seem to be weighing on Oyamada’s mind as he prepares to enter the studio.

“I met Beck when I was in the U.S.,” he says. “I could feel that there are some similar points between us. However, Beck is younger than me, but more mature. He seemed so sound, like a grandfather. His new album also has this philosophical view of a grandfather. He still looks like a kid with those cherry red cheeks, but his mind seems to have already reached enlightenment. I want to make the next album more mature.”

And what is the Cornelius definition of maturity? “That’s what I’ve got to start thinking about,” he says

Dohb is Sony’s generous attempt to bankroll the sort of music that wouldn’t usually make it onto their roster in Japan. Soundohb, March 21, will showcase the Dohb approach. It’s a wide mix with everything from the indie-flavored rock of Supercar, to Chicago Bass’s harder take on new wave. Switzerland’s Sportsguitar, purveyors of shambolic rock in the Pavement vein, will make a special appearance.