When musicians from around the globe gathered in Tokyo last autumn for the 2014 edition of the Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA) — an intensive series of lectures, gigs and studio sessions that aims to nurture promising artists — many of the participants had already found a foothold within the music industry. But Hirotaka Umetani, one of only two Japanese musicians who took part, admits that he was still “a total beginner” at the time.
The 29-year-old Tokyo resident, who produces gauzy electronica under the moniker Albino Sound, had been picked from a field of more than 6,000 candidates on the strength of just two recorded tracks, along with his passionate, detailed answers to the RBMA’s notoriously dense application form. While he had some prior music-making experience, the tracks he submitted were the first he’d ever produced on a computer.
“I wasn’t good with the grid,” he says, referring to the basic framework used by most music production software. “That’s why I’d always stuck to making guitar drones and improvised music. … With Albino Sound, I was doing something that I thought I was really bad at — but the thing I thought I did worst ended up getting the best response.”
A year later, Umetani has made peace with his laptop and turned out a solid debut album, “Cloud Sports,” which was released earlier this month by heavyweight indie label P-Vine Records. The record includes reworked versions of the tracks he submitted with his original RBMA application, and he says it reflects his experiences of taking part in the event.
“There were so much squeezed into those two weeks,” he says. “I was unconsciously absorbing all this input — all those different people, constantly watching shows, constantly watching others make music — and when I hit the studio to work on the album, it’s like it all came gushing out.”
Before his Albino Sound project took shape last year, Umetani had already worked on creating soundtracks for fashion videos and short films, sometimes collaborating with Kohhei Matsuda, guitarist from London-based psych-rockers Bo Ningen. The process informed his approach to creating his solo work, which he says is often visual in nature: “Each track has a concept — not so much a story, as a film playing inside my head, complete with camera angles.”
As an example, he describes the scene he conjured up for “Culture, Over again,” the most danceable cut on the album: “There’s a despairing salaryman who has been made homeless by the financial crisis, and now he’s living across the street from the nightclub where he used to be treated like a big shot.” As the camera pans across the street and zooms in on the dispirited protagonist, it becomes clear that the song is actually playing inside his head.
“These are just images I come up with myself,” Umetani says. “I don’t want to tell people how they should be listening to the music.”
With its blend of shimmering textures and sturdy rhythms, “Cloud Sports” feels like a constant push and pull between the dream realm and the dancefloor. The album’s title comes from a genre tag that Umetani concocted to describe his music when he first uploaded it to Soundcloud. When he enlisted veteran producer Aoki Takamasa to mix the album, he asked him to keep the constituent parts cleanly defined — to tweak the beats to sound like techno, but mix the billowing layers on top like psychedelia.
“It’s not exactly club music, is it?” he says, listening to the end results with a wry grin. “It’s like fake club music.”
Although he has been following recent developments in the underground club scene — he mentions Bristol’s Livity Sound and Young Echo collectives as particular favorites — Umetani’s greatest love is for the sounds of the 1970s. He’s a particular sucker for the fecund sonic experimentation of the German Krautrock scene, synonymous with bands like Can, Faust and Cluster.
“Krautrock was the most important influence for me — it’s where techno and noise music came from,” he says. “The music from that period predates the whole notion of club music, so it’s less compartmentalized. There’s a lot you can take away from it. Even though it was created before I was born, it still feels really fresh.”
He’s less complimentary about the current EDM (electronic dance music) scene, where overblown visual spectacle often compensates for a paucity of musical ideas.
“The thing I really don’t like about EDM is that it doesn’t require any imagination,” he says. “The staging at things like (Belgian EDM festival) Tomorrowland is total overkill: lights, visuals, fireworks. Music isn’t a visual medium, but they make it all visual anyway. … Art is supposed to stimulate the imagination, but EDM is music that robs people of the power to imagine, which is just really capitalistic.”
Spoken like a true dreamer.
“Cloud Sports” is in stores now. Albino Sound joins a slew of artists for EMAF (Electronic Music of Art Festival) Tokyo at Liquidroom in Shibuya-ku on Nov. 7 (11 p.m. start; ¥4,000 in advance; 03-5464-0800). For more information, visit www.soundcloud.com/hirotaka-umetani.