There’s nothing like a deadline to pull things into focus. “When you’re making music on a computer, it’s hard to know when to stop — you could keep going forever,” says Hirotaka Umetani. “It helps to have a cut-off point.”
For the 28-year-old Tokyo resident, who performs under the name Albino Sound, that cut-off point was March 18, 2014: the application deadline for this year’s Red Bull Music Academy. Umetani spent two months working on the tracks that he submitted with his application, a pair of instrumentals in which layers of gauzy melody drift and billow over a rapid rhythmic pulse, like listening to Brian Eno while running up an escalator. He also poured himself into the application form, scribbling out a detailed chronicle of his varied musical obsessions.
The judges were sufficiently impressed to offer him a place among the Academy’s 60 participants, selected from a field of more than 6,000 candidates. Never mind that the tracks he’d sent were the first things he’d ever produced on a computer.
“Sonically, they’re not quite there yet,” he admits (listen for yourself: they’re on his Soundcloud page). “But the Academy staff were really complimentary about other things — the way I managed to express images through music.”
Speaking between mouthfuls of spaghetti at a bustling cafe in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, he describes his work as a soundtrack to “encounters, memories and emotions” that he has experienced. Like a promotional video made in reverse, he conceives a visual idea first and then channels it into his music. The tracks that he made for his RBMA application, he says, “each had their own script, their own story.”
Umetani says he’s critical of electronica producers — including many of his compatriots — who spend too much time fussing over the technical side of their art while missing the bigger picture.
“All they’re really doing is making stuff that sounds nice,” he says. “It doesn’t end up evoking anything.”
Umetani played bass in a high school band and later branched out into crafting ambient drones on processed guitar and analog synthesizer, recording everything to tape for his own consumption. He cites the sonic experiments of the German Krautrock scene in the 1970s — particularly Can and Cluster — as a major influence, though he also name-checks acts ranging from Arthur Russell to Caribou. Current favorites include the PAN and Tri-Angle labels, reliable bastions of envelope-pushing electronic music.
The Albino Sound project started life in August last year as an improvised performance at the Kata space in Ebisu, where Umetani played guitar alongside industrial duo Group A and Kohhei Matsuda, of London-based psych rockers Bo Ningen. It was all a bit incestuous: Group A’s Sayaka Botanic is an old high-school classmate (“we didn’t get along back then,” he confesses), while Umetani works in the kitchen next-door to the venue.
Though he’s since adopted the Albino Sound name for his solo work, and is focusing on making a laptop set in time for the RBMA, he hasn’t lost his taste for improvisation. “It’s really important to what I do,” he says. “I love it when even I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
For more information, visit www.soundcloud.com/hirotaka-umetani.