Hikaru Utada’s “First Love” may have sold more copies, but it’s hard to think of a Japanese album from the 1990s that has endured like “Fantasma.” Keigo Oyamada was 28 years old when he released his third full-length as Cornelius in 1997: a dense collage of polychromatic meta-pop, full of improbable genre collisions and loving nods to its creator’s wide-ranging record collection.
As he prepares to revisit the album during a six-date “Fantasma” tour in the United States, Oyamada says there are things on the record he might have done differently now.
“The songs are 20 years old, so some of them still sound fine to me, but I’ll often listen and think, ‘Oh, I wish I’d done it more like this,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t have made those songs at any other time — because of the era, sure, but also because I was young.”
“Fantasma” was the creative apotheosis of Shibuya-kei, the hyper-referential music scene that blossomed around the record stores of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Oyamada had first come to prominence with Flipper’s Guitar, his Anglophile band with schoolmate and fellow music nerd Kenji Ozawa. When the group split up in 1991, he embarked on a solo career, naming himself after one of the simian characters from “Planet of the Apes.”
He recalls spending his formative years “going to record stores literally every day, buying records and listening to them with friends,” and his ravenous vinyl habit informed his own work. Flipper’s Guitar appropriated elements of their heroes’ music — from Primal Scream to Brian Wilson — with a literalness that would probably invite copyright lawsuits nowadays. The first three Cornelius albums are crowded with musical references, both in the song titles and in the songs themselves.
“I’ve never consciously set out to make Japanese-style music, but if I had to pinpoint a distinctively Japanese quality, I’d say it’s the editorial sensibility,” Oyamada says. “Mixing lots of overseas music and different elements together and creating something totally different — that’s very Japanese.”
In a lengthy appreciation of “Fantasma,” published to coincide with the album’s 15th anniversary in 2012, writer W. David Marx described it as “an important textbook for an alternative musical history where Bach, Bacharach, and the Beach Boys stands as the great triumvirate.”
The album’s list of influences extends to acts as diverse as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Aphex Twin, Joao Gilberto and TV’s Mr. Magoo. In one of the most elaborate tributes, Oyamada invited Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney — of U.S. indie group The Apples in Stereo — to contribute a song, then interwove it with a similar composition of his own.
“Fantasma” built on the approach that he’d taken with his previous album, “69/96,” of developing songs from scratch in the recording studio. The process, which he describes as involving “a lot of trial-and-error,” took advantage of recent developments in music production technology that made it possible to record directly to a computer’s hard drive, rather than to tape.
Unusually, the songs were written and recorded in the same order they appear on the record: ” ‘Fantasma’ is an album where everything links together seamlessly, kind of like a journey, starting with ‘Mic Check’ and finishing with (the title track) ‘Fantasma,’ ” Oyamada says. “Once I’d completed the first song, I was like, ‘OK, what should come next? And what comes after that?’ That’s how I made it.”
He was fortunate to be recording at a time when Japanese labels were flush with cash and unlikely to balk at the studio fees required for such a project. Oyamada’s label, Polystar, even entrusted him with his own imprint, Trattoria Records, which clocked up 250 releases of varying obscurity before eventually shutting shop in 2002.
“The 1990s were the peak of the Japanese music industry, especially around ’97 and ’98, when ‘Fantasma’ came out,” he says. “Hikaru Utada shifted 8 million copies. The music industry was selling so many CDs that it had plenty of money to go around, and that meant they could invest in alternative music. They had the resources to release that kind of stuff, and there was a relatively large audience for it.”
There was an audience for it overseas, too. When Oyamada performed a complete run-through of “Fantasma” at the Nippon Budokan in 1997, the crowd included representatives from U.S. indie label Matador Records, who presented him with a contract the following day to release the album internationally.
Though it drew mixed reviews at the time (“he’s really just cobbling sounds together,” sniffed Spin magazine), “Fantasma” has endured in a way that many more extravagantly praised albums from the era haven’t. It was given a deluxe CD reissue by Warner Japan in 2010, and last month was reissued in a double LP edition by the Oregon-based label Lefse Records.
That vinyl reissue was already in the works when Oyamada was asked to perform “Fantasma” at Eaux Claires, a two-day boutique music festival in Wisconsin organized by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. The invitation provided the spur for a proper U.S. tour, his first in eight years. He’ll be playing in a quartet with drummer Yuko Araki and keyboardist Hirohisa Horie, both longtime accomplices, and Buffalo Daughter bassist Yumiko Ohno, a new recruit.
“I thought it would be a good warm-up,” he says — already looking ahead to the tour for his next, as-yet-unfinished album. It’s been 10 years since the last Cornelius full-length, 2006’s “Sensuous.” While he’s been tirelessly active during that period, from playing with YMO and supergroup Metafive to soundtracking the “Ghost in the Shell: Arise” anime series, Oyamada has treated his solo career with benign neglect.
“I’ve spent the past 10 years or so doing a lot of things apart from Cornelius — producing various people, doing remixes, playing in bands, collaborating,” he says. “I want to do some of the things I couldn’t do in those contexts. I haven’t had much chance to do vocals, so I think I’m going to make a bunch of songs I can sing myself.”
Cornelius’ six-date U.S. tour starts at Fox Theater in Oakland, California, on Aug. 4. For more information, visit www.cornelius-sound.com.
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