Cornelius pops back with touching sounds

by Daniel Robson

Keigo Oyamada, better known as Cornelius, is one of Japan’s most recognized musical exports. His innovative approach to electronic music on his 1997 breakthrough album “Fantasma,” which has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide, and then on 2001’s “Point” have won him fans in Europe, America, Australia and beyond, leading to endorsements and remixes from such foreign luminaries as Beck and Damon Albarn, who seem to regard the multi-instrumentalist as something of a wunderkind.

Moreover, his music and the methodology behind it are revered by a young generation of Japanese electronic musicians. And the older generation too, for that matter: last year Oyamada toured with Ryuichi Sakamoto as the guitarist in his backing band alongside Steve Jansen from the group Japan.

He’s also famous for biting off at least as much as he can chew. Alongside a plethora of side projects, he closely controls the stunning visuals for his live show, his mesmeric music videos, and myriad merchandise items that have included record players, watches and Cornelius-themed A Bathing Ape T-shirts.

His own label Trattoria ran for a decade; feeling he’d done all he could with that, he closed it in 2002 after a staggering 250 releases that included his ex-girlfriend Kahimi Karie, Hideki Kaji, Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her and Cornelius himself. “I was getting too busy with my own music,” Cornelius told me of the decision. “It had been 10 years, so I felt it was time to reset.’

And not to mention that he has a son, Milo, now aged 5, with Takako Minekawa, herself an experimental electro-popstrel with several unusual albums under her belt. Just as Cornelius took his name from a Planet Of The Apes character, Milo is named after that character’s son.

This month Oyamada releases his new album, “Sensuous,” five years after his last full release, “Point.” The diminutive boffin is well known for his innovative use of the studio as an instrument, and “Point” set new limits to the sound he’d already created with “Fantasma,” his third solo album, and itself a world away from the Shibuya-kei guitar pop of his formative band, Flipper’s Guitar.

While not attaining the commercial success of “Fantasma,” a skewed pop album that earned Oyamada’s reputation as a mixing-desk magician by fusing shoegazing guitars and studio trickery with catchy hooks, “Point” easily overshadowed it, with expansive soundscapes and cutting-edge sampling that created a natural, organic tone.

And with “Sensuous,” this artistic soul has crammed in detail yet again, from the rhythmic printer-cartridge sample on “Toner” to the pulsing electronic heartbeat of “Beep It.” An air of calm surrounds the album, as glass wind chimes create a warm and inviting atmosphere despite frenetic time signatures and a couple of upbeat tracks. It’s hard to say how his ever-more experimental sound will be received today. But “Sensuous” has much to recommend it, with unique and mesmeric sounds that invoke a sense of boundary-pushing wonder.

When I last met Oyamada exactly three years ago — in London during promotion of his “PM” album of fan remixes — he looked exhausted. It seemed as if the rampant creativity of “Point” and the tour that followed had burned him out, and he sounded unsure of the direction he should take next. “My sound will change,” he said back then, “but I don’t know where to.’

But today, as we chat through a translator in his Naka-Meguro office and studio, Oyamada seems quietly energized. He smokes slowly, intermittently, at ease in a hooped shirt, here in his own domain. He looks good, and seems extremely content with the album he’s about to unleash, relieved to have broken the silence at last.

What did you hope to achieve with “Sensuous”?

I had no particular goals for this album. Five years was a long time for me. At first I didn’t know what I wanted, but whenever something came up in my mind I’d make something out of it. Once I had several of these little ideas, I picked them up and put them together.

Do you agree that the new album is quieter than your previous releases?

Maybe. To start with, I used the sound of a furin, a glass wind chime, which is very quiet and relaxing. That sound became a symbol, a theme for the record. With “Point,” one of the themes was the sound of water. It makes you imagine things. You think about the images you get from the sound of water. And you get the same kind of thoughts when you hear the wind chime ringing. So there’s not really a distinct thing that you’re supposed to think when you hear it.

Did “Sensuous” turn out how you wanted it to?

It’s no fun when you think of an idea and then try to realize it in exactly that way. If things come up that are totally different from what you’d originally conceived, it’s much more exciting, more fulfilling. So I didn’t think about the end result, I just got on with it. I think the album is more interesting for it.

Is that typical of the way you work?

I made “Point” and “Sensuous” upstairs [points to the studio above the office] and with the same people — the same engineer and mixer.

“Sensuous” was leaked onto BitTorrent download sites three weeks before release. As an artist who takes particular care in presenting each release beautifully, does it annoy you that people can download the new album before you’ve had a chance to present it your way?

Well, there’s nothing you can do about it nowadays. It could be good in a way; it gives people a chance to hear my music and if they like it, hopefully they’ll buy it. On YouTube, somebody used some of my music and made new videos around it; it was almost like a collaboration. I saw it and I found it really interesting.

You didn’t ask the offenders to take their videos down?

No! I want people to use my music to make new things. It’s fascinating. My music becomes like seeds, sprouting all over the place in unexpected ways, especially online. YouTube is a great place to mix up ideas and show your work, and a lot of things happen on that site.

You work closely with every aspect of your art, and take on a lot of production and remixing work besides. Do you consider yourself a workaholic?

Well, I take two days off, Saturday and Sunday, like anyone else [laughs].

The last time we met, you told me that in order to keep up with all your various projects, you have to work, work, work. You said, “I don’t know if I like being so busy. I find myself doing it, so I must like it deep down inside.” Is it still the same?

It depends. When I’m recording, I can do things at my own pace. If I’m hungry, I can go out and get something to eat. If I’m tired, I can go home and sleep. But soon I’ll start touring, and that involves a lot of people, so I won’t be able to set my own pace. I’m a bit apprehensive right now, actually. Quite nervous!

When we spoke last time, you seemed drained by “Point” and the tour that followed. Is that right?

Well, on that U.K. trip, I was exhausted. I must have looked awful. We were doing interviews all day long, from morning till night, with only a sandwich for lunch. I had to talk about myself all day long; it made me a little crazy.

Doesn’t that affect your creativity?

Maybe. That was pretty rare, a trip as busy as that. I’m not really sure how it affected me, how it came out in my music. But I think that everything you experience comes out again. Everything you eat, everything that goes through your mind, it mixes up and comes out in your art. You let it in and let it out.

One thing that sets you apart from other musicians is that visuals have always been integral to your work.

Yes, and they still are. Visuals are a part of my band, just like guitar, drums and bass. Especially when I tour abroad, using visuals helps me to communicate more easily with the audience.

Where do the visual ideas come from?

Most of the work is done by my old friend [digital video innovator] Koichiro Tsujikawa. We’ve known each other a very long time, so when I’m recording, we’ll often meet up, and while we’re chatting we’ll come up with images. The music comes first, but the visual ideas start to come around the same time.

Collaboration has clearly played a big part in your career. For example, Erlend Oye from Norwegian band Kings Of Convenience appears on new track “Omstart.” How did that happen?

Erlend remixed one of my tracks, “Drop,” four years ago, so that’s how we met. When I was recording, Erlend came to Japan and asked to come to see me in the studio. I said that if he’s coming, why not make something together.

You also played guitar at Sonarsound Tokyo this month with Yann Tomita of Doopees. How was that?

Amazing. I’ve been a fan of Yann Tomita for a long time, and I’ve always been keen to work with him. We played 30 minutes of improv. His set was totally different from every other act at Sonarsound. It was so special. I hope I can work with him again.

Last time we met you were working with Beck on some songs. What happened there?

Well, we were working on something but it petered out about two years ago. I guess Beck’s doing a lot of collaborations and his own stuff; I have no idea what he’s up to really. I don’t know whether the tracks we worked on together will ever be released. It was Beck’s project, not mine, so it depends on him.

You often mention Naka-Meguro in your releases. Is there a reason?

Well, my studio’s here in Naka-Meguro, and I used to live here. I now live in Sangenjaya, but Naka-Meguro is like my home.

When you were in Flipper’s Guitar you were closely linked with the musical genre Shibuya-kei, and Shibuya’s just down the road from Naka-Meguro. Is that why you chose this place as a base?

No, it’s nothing to do with it. Shibuya-kei was someone else’s invention. There were a lot of record stores selling foreign music in Shibuya, and my music sold well in those shops, so people just called it Shibuya-kei one day. It’s nothing to do with me. Naka-Meguro’s my local area, and I’m either here or at home, that’s it.