Enter a male student bedsit in Britain in the late 1990s and you’d likely be confronted by a copy of the Alex Garland novel “The Beach,” posters of the movie “Trainspotting” on the wall and a bunch of albums from independent dance-music record labels like Skint, Wall of Sound and Ninja Tunes spread around the CD player.
Since then, while its rivals seem to have fallen by the wayside or been swallowed up by the majors, Ninja Tunes has continued to find an audience, nowhere more so than in Japan, where its artists often play to sell-out crowds.
The London-based label will bring a posse of its first-string producers and DJs to Osaka and Tokyo this weekend for a tour titled “Solid Steel.” One DJ to watch out for on the night is Jason Swinscoe, the composer/multi-instrumentalist behind electro-jazz outfit The Cinematic Orchestra. Swinscoe’s set coincides with the release of his band’s fourth album, “Ma Fleur.”
Since TCO’s 1999 debut album “Motion,” the band has developed a reputation for blending studio improvisations and slick production. But Swinscoe took an entirely different approach for “Ma Fleur.” During the early stages of making the album, he passed sketches of the songs to a close friend from his art-student days, Gavin McGrath, who then wrote a script for an imaginary movie inspired by the music. Swinscoe worked from the script to develop his own ideas for the album, which in turn influenced the direction of McGrath’s film.
“The script was a direct inspiration in developing — and finding deeper meaning in — the music for ‘Ma Fleur,’ ” explains Swinscoe, a globe-trotting, New York-based Brit who has also lived in Paris.
“It helped enormously to have a tool that allowed [The Cinematic Orchestra] to define the content of the music, and translate a narrative structure into musical form,” he says.
These musical forms led to some unexpected results, with album opener “To Build a Home” sounding not unlike a Coldplay ballad, its ponderous piano accompanying the androgynous vocals of Montrealer newcomer Patrick Watson. And while the album treads some of the same territory that saw critics worldwide cite the sleeper hit “Every Day” as one of the best albums of 2002 — somber strings, floaty sax, guest vocalists — there’s also a more organic folk feel, the synthetic beats of previous albums replaced by the loose rhythms of jazz drummer Luke Flowers. It’s a satisfying and cohesive listen, even if Swinscoe insists his magpielike musical instincts haven’t deserted him.
” ‘Ma Fleur’ to me is much more eclectic in its influences [than ‘Every Day’]. Electronic contemporary music has changed over the past few years and one of the predominant styles that has emerged is folk music,” says Swinscoe, who has stated his admiration for “freak-folk” singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom and now includes the likes of late ’60s/early ’70s folkie Nick Drake in his guest radio DJ sets. “I feel that the influence of folk music’s more minimal approach has helped develop the new Cinematic sound.”
The straight-ahead approach of folk perhaps influenced Swinscoe’s decision to avoid guest vocalists with the marketability of Ninja Tunes rapper Roots Manuva — whose spot on the track “All Things to All Men” was the highlight of 2002’s “Every Day.”
“It is not important for me to have ‘famous’ vocalists to help sell a record,” says Swinscoe, ever the contrarian. Instead it’s left to soul veteran Fontella Bass (coauthor and singer of the 1965 hit “Rescue Me”), Watson and Lou Rhodes (nominated for a Mercury Music prize last year and formerly of Lamb) to step up to the mic.
Swinscoe’s DJ set (scheduled for 1 a.m. on both nights of the forthcoming tour) will be a highly personal one, though he’s not giving much away.
“It will be purely a reflection of my record collection, profoundly different to The Cinematic Orchestra live show,” he says. “It’ll be just me predominantly playing other people’s music and some Cinematic tracks.”
A stack of Ninja Tunes CDs to win
The Japan Times is giving three readers the chance to win some of the following recently released Ninja Tunes/Beat CDs: The Cinematic Orchestra’s “Ma Fleur”; DJ Food & DK’s “Solid Steel Presents Now Listen Again” mix album; Bonobo’s “Days To Come”; Zero dB’s “Bongos, Bleeps and Basslines”; and Yppah’s “You Are Beautiful At All Times.”
To apply, send a postcard stating your name, address, telephone number, age and a comment on The Japan Times’ RE:MUSIC page to: Gakugei-bu, The Japan Times, 4-5-4 Shibaura, Minato-ku, Tokyo 108-0023.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.