Kohei Matsunaga does not see things like you and I see things. Take the 3-D glasses that he is rarely photographed without, for instance. Throwaway red-and-blue anaglyph paper frames from cinema’s distant past, they have become an apt visual trademark for the Osaka-based artist, who delights in operating within different planes and dimensions to most people.
Primarily working in leftfield, even avant-garde strands of electronic and noise music, Matsunaga’s discography dates back to 1998 when he released his debut on Mille Plateaux, the influential German imprint that had already released key works by the likes of Alec Empire and Cristian Vogel. Still a high-school student, he soon found himself rubbing shoulders with legendary Japanese experimental musician Merzbow — an intimidating prospect for most, but not for Matsunaga.
“I was booked for a live show in Kyoto that he was also playing at,” Matsunaga says. “I told him that my album was going to be released soon and asked whether we could make music together — I think it was because I was a high school student that I felt like I could become friends with anyone.”
And he did. Matsunaga became friends with Merzbow, and over the following years he went on to collaborate with a whole host of eclectic figures within the fields of abstract and extreme sound art: Rudolf Ebner, John Watermann and Ralf Wehowsky, just to name a few. It was with the latter that Matsunaga began his series of “telepathic collaborations.”
“I was living in Japan and Ralf was living in Germany,” Matsunaga says. “We came up with this idea of doing simultaneous recordings even though we were in completely different places. There’s a seven- or eight-hour time difference between Japan and Europe, but the concept consisted of pressing the record button at exactly the same time. It’s something that I’m still involved with today. Recently, I started doing it as a group with Laurel Halo, Julia Holter, Rashad Becker … around seven of us all-together. Do you know Nicolas Jaar? Apparently he’s going to release it from his label.”
Were it anybody else, it might sound like name-dropping. But Matsunaga is so incredibly friendly — disarming with both his warmth and humor (I spend most of our Skype interview laughing) — that it’s easy to see how he’s amassed such an impressive body of collaborators. Quite simply, it’s hard to imagine anybody that wouldn’t want to be his friend. One of his longest-running collaborative projects, the search-engine-defying “NHK,” is a duo with fellow Osakan Toshio Munehiro. (Although still working under a number of pseudonyms, Matsunaga also uses the acronym for his solo work, mainly performing under the name NHK yx Koyxen.)
The two recently released their first full-length, “Program,” on American label Line — an imprint that places a strong emphasis on visuality and multimedia. Its rhythmless, glitchy compositions point to an ethos that looks beyond the typical kick-snare skeleton of electronic music. An architecture major at university (he recalls being deeply influenced by surrealism and postmodernism), Matsunaga’s approach to music is similarly one that looks to destabilize conventions of time and space.
“When you assign a rhythm to music and work within those parameters, it’s like imposing a limit,” Matsunaga says. “There are pluses and minuses to it, but there came a time when I wondered if I could express the idea of something both interesting and beautiful without things like rhythm. Once, when I went to Finland, I got on the plane without equipment or even any money. I turned up to the live house with nothing but a contact microphone, assembled a bunch of rubbish and started ‘playing’ it.”
For all his anecdotes and humor, I still get the sense that Matsunaga is deeply serious about his music. The depth of his back-catalog suggests a dedicated work ethic, and he admits that he can produce up to five tracks on some days. Since 2008, Matsunaga has spent half of each year living in Berlin, where many of his friends and collaborators are based and he can take European bookings more easily. He does, however, allude to another reason behind his move.
“When I was 18, I became skeptical about the Japanese music media,” he says. “There’s a guy called Atsushi Sasaki, who runs (media collective) Headz. He was pushing a lot of the stuff that Mille Plateaux were putting out, but never my releases. That actually hurt quite a bit. In Japan, I began to feel like it wasn’t just about the music you’re putting out, but also the resources you put into promotion, which was something I really disliked. Whereas in Europe I just had to send my music out to get good reactions.”
Matsunaga does not dwell on his gripes with the domestic media, but his upcoming “Phantasmagoria” night at Tokyo club Unit — an event he’s co-organizing with techno stalwart DJ Nobu, and featuring the likes of Mark Fell (with whom Matsunaga is also currently collaborating) — is also aimed at addressing the perceived shortfalls of the Japanese scene.
“In Japan, when artists come over from abroad, often it’s sold as a space where you can ‘experience the international scene,’ ” he says. “Then they go back and it’s like the Japanese scene is purely one of transit, without its own unique identity. Nobu and I want to create something that could only happen in Japan, and we’re already thinking of it as something to continue for 10 years.”
As commendable as the message might be, it wouldn’t be Matsunaga without an injection of humor, and the event’s idiosyncratic poster design — a couple of intentionally badly drawn dolphins on a plain green background — is just one hint that this won’t be the typical chin-stroking techno-fest that Tokyoites might be used to. Even his upcoming collaboration with Mark Fell will apparently be titled “Potato Version,” riffing on Raster-Noton project “Diamond Version.”
“People from Osaka are happy with something as long as it’s funny or interesting,” Matsunaga says. “If it’s not funny then it’s no good, it’s got no value — that’s the Osaka way of thinking.”
Kohei Matsunaga (aka NHK yx Koyxen) performs with DJ Nobu, Mark Fell and Takamasa Aoki at Phantasmagoria at Unit in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, on May 22 (11 p.m. start; ¥3,000 in advance; 03-5459-8630). Matsunaga and Fell continue on the Potato Tour with stops at Emeralda in Gifu on May 23 (058-263-7132); New Osaka Hotel Shinsaibashi on May 24 (4 p.m.; ¥3,500; 06-6121-5559); CMVC in Oita on May 30 (9 p.m.; ¥2,000-¥3,000); and Rizin in Kagawa on May 31 (7 p.m.; ¥3,500; 087-805-7215). For more information, visit www.koyxen.blogspot.jp.