By his own admission, Shintaro Haioka was a late bloomer. The 32-year-old producer, one of only two Japanese artists taking part in the upcoming Red Bull Music Academy Tokyo, says he was an avid music fan as a teenager — but a lousy musician.

“I’m completely tone-deaf,” he says. “I don’t have any sense of rhythm and I’m a terrible dancer. I’m too embarrassed to go to karaoke, even.”

Only after discovering the liberating power of music technology, with its sequencers and quantized rhythms, did Haioka embark on his present career. In his early 20s, he joined Bremen, a pop-savvy dance-rock trio who skirted the periphery of mainstream success during the 2000s, even snagging a slot at the Summer Sonic music festival in 2006.

However, the demands of a commercially minded record label started to grate after a while.

“We’d often get asked to copy whatever was in fashion — to make something more like David Guetta, more like Avicii,” Haioka recalls. “But if you’re always playing catchup with whatever’s popular at the moment, you’ll never be able to overtake it.”

With Bremen currently on hiatus, Haioka has continued to work alongside bandmate Kohjiro as a production duo, churning out slickly functional EDM (electronic dance music) and drum ‘n’ bass under the moniker The Kah. At the same time, he has been working on a solo electronica project with a rather more ambitious goal. Aware that the hip-hop, jazz and techno he grew up with all originated in the West, he’s attempting to forge a truly “Japanese style” of music.

Haioka (he just uses his surname for his production work) is hardly the first musician to blend koto, the traditional Japanese zither, with synthesizers and programmed beats. Yet he insists that there’s more to it than that: He’s trying to encode his music with the rhythms and sounds of his daily life, and with “concepts that are important to Japanese people, like space and stillness.” (The koto, in case you were wondering, was borrowed from his grandmother.)

This might explain how he came to be involved in NHN, a collaborative art project in which he provides a soundtrack for installations by shodō (calligraphy) artist Bunsho Nagata and Yasuhiro Nakano, a post-production whiz who blends sumi-e ink painting with computer graphics. Nagata is in his 70s, Nakano in his 40s.

“We’re from different generations, but we think in a similar way,” Haioka says. “Simply put, we want to push Japanese art forward.”

When the RBMA rolls around next month, he says he’s hoping to introduce some of his fellow participants to the authentic Japan. Asked which spot in Tokyo he’d recommend to visitors, he suggests Todoroki Valley, a verdant oasis buried in the sprawl of Setagaya Ward. He relishes Japan’s abrupt transitions from urban clamor to pristine nature, its jarring collisions between modernity and tradition.

“It’s just like what I’m trying to do with my music,” he says. “I want to take the new and the traditional and put them all together in the same place.”

For more information, visit haioka.jp.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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.