Even if you don’t see Yasutaka Nakata at Summer Sonic, you’ll probably hear him

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

Punters heading off to Makuhari Messe this weekend for SonicMania — the all-night event preceding the annual Summer Sonic music festival — should try to arrive at the venue early to secure a prime spot for the evening’s first act: pop trio Perfume.

Once Perfume steps off the Mountain Stage, rush over to the Sonic Stage to catch the tail end of French electronic act Madeon (real name: Hugo Leclercq) followed by American electro-popper Porter Robinson.

If you hear similarities in the sounds of all three acts then you’ve got one man to thank: Yasutaka Nakata. The maximalist sound producer has helped Perfume win thousands of fans over the past decade, and Leclercq and Robinson are among the growing number of overseas artists who cite Nakata as a big influence.

“I think that he is a master of doing much of what I want to do. He writes stuff in a poppy format with hooks and bridges and verses, but they’re always quirky and captivating,” Robinson told Australian website Music Feeds about Nakata last year. “I know that Madeon is another one who really loves him.”

“(Nakata) gives his music a very unique character. It’s really the most genius pop ever,” Robinson added.

No Japanese musician of the past 10 years has proved more influential to artists outside Japan than Nakata, and this year’s Summer Sonic festival line-up features some of his most prominent fans. In addition to Robinson and Madeon, the two-day gathering features American band Passion Pit, whose lead singer and primary songwriter Michael Angelakos has said most of his “left-of-center” creations are influenced by Nakata. Anton Zaslavski, better known as Zedd, told Tower Records Japan in an interview he liked Nakata, though all you need to do is listen to his early work to pick up on that. One of the world’s most well-known EDM trackmakers, Zedd will play the main stage at Summer Sonic this year.

Of course there’s also Perfume and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, who is set to play a Saturday morning set, both of whom are produced by Nakata.

The 35-year-old producer’s reach goes well beyond the stages at Summer Sonic, though. Artists such as Ryan Hemsworth, Anamanaguchi and A.G. Cook of London label PC Music have expressed love for the producer’s style, with hints of his sound creeping into their work.

“I know a lot of my peers are into Nakata and I get a sense that a lot of my producer friends are listening to more J-pop influenced music,” says Mark Redito, a Los Angeles-based musician recording under the name Spazzkid. He says Nakata’s style inspired him, and he’s upfront about shouting out Nakata’s work in his music — he sampled the Perfume single “Fushizen na Girl” on his track “Weird Girl,” and at a DJ gig at this year’s South By Southwest music conference, he peppered his set with Nakata-helmed numbers, while stopping one track to shout to the crowd, “Perfume forever!”

“The thing I love with Nakata is that there’s a ton of melodies and counter melodies going on in one song,” Redito says. “He always continues to explore and pursue new styles while staying true to his sound.”

It took a bit of time for non-Japanese artists to fully embrace Nakata. Capsule, his first project, alongside vocalist Toshiko Koshijima, started in 1997, but the pair didn’t release a debut single until 2001. Initially slotted into a throwback genre dubbed neo-Shibuya-kei, Nakata’s style evolved into a denser, dance-oriented sound in the middle of the decade, taking cues from French robo-outfit Daft Punk but pushing the pop elements higher into the mix.

It was also around this time he started producing for fledgling idol trio Perfume, eventually helping to guide them out of obscurity and, with 2007 single “Polyrhythm,” turn them into J-pop chart-toppers. Besides his continued work with Perfume, he’s also helped guide artists such as Meg and, most recently, Kyary to notoriety, while also being hired to add a dash of cool to pop groups like SMAP.

His rise, though, was initially confined to Japan. Despite the Capsule project existing in the same sonic realm as the briefly popular “bloghouse” genre that focused on acts that were popular on the Internet (French duo Justice at the forefront of that one), Nakata’s name was more likely to pop up on anime message boards than hip music sites.

Things changed, though, with the rise of YouTube — and the number of people uploading artists’ entire discographies to the video service — made it easier for people outside Japan to listen to Nakata’s work. More importantly, a generation of would-be music makers who embraced Japanese pop culture came of age. Redito says that while he was growing up in the Philippines, he loved Japan’s “Super Sentai” TV programs and old-school anime, which eventually lead him to discover Shibuya-kei artists such as Pizzicato Five.

This youthful interest in Japanese cultural exports — whether it be cartoons, video games or music — pops up in many Nakata-inspired artist’s bios. Robinson has cited the rhythm game “Dance Dance Revolution” as an important discovery in his musical growth, while Hemsworth has mentioned an interest in Japanese films.

And now, in their own music, Nakata’s impact comes through. In an interview with travel site Infinite Legroom, Leclercq says Nakata’s ability to “go into very weird jazzy chords in the middle of a sequence” has inspired him. Leclercq tries out this frantic technique out frequently on his most recent album, “Adventure,” highlighted by advance single “Pay No Mind,” featuring fellow Nakata-phile Angelakos on vocals.

Robinson experimented with it on last year’s “Worlds” (beyond Nakata-worthy sounds, that one also features heavy use of Vocaloid technology, another nod to Japanese music), while Zedd’s 2012 single “Spectrum” is practically a Capsule song in its construction — especially in the vocal-less passage about a minute into the track when a flurry of synths bring in the main melody, which is something of a signature on the Capsule albums “Fruits Clipper” and “More! More! More!”

Despite more popular artists taking cues from him — along with Perfume and Kyary playing sold-out shows abroad — Nakata himself remains a bit of a cult producer. Yet, with his influence more prevalent in pockets of Western pop music than ever before, he has already left a bigger musical imprint than anybody else out of Japan since the 1990s.

“There is definitely something in the way Nakata makes his music,” Redito says. “Maybe it’s his background or understanding of music making? I can’t quite point it out. I do know for myself that the first time I heard (Perfume’s) ‘Chocolate Disco,’ I knew it was going to be the start of a hopeless obsession.”

 

UPDATE: After the publication of this article it was announced that Passion Pit had canceled its appearance at Summer Sonic due to singer Michael Angelakos’ health issues.

SonicMania, Summer Sonic and the Hostess Club All-Nighter take place at QVC Marine Field and Makuhari Messe in Chiba on Aug. 14, 15 and 16. One-day tickets cost ¥15,500 and the Hostess Club All-Nighter costs ¥8,500. Summer Sonic takes place at Maishima in Osaka on Aug. 15 and 16. One-day tickets cost ¥10,500. For more information on timetables and performers, visit www.summersonic.com/2015.