A couple of months ago, Shugo Tokumaru released a video on YouTube that showed him preparing an elaborate meal from an unlikely set of ingredients. In it, he took a selection of toy instruments — a ukulele, a recorder, some castanets, a party horn — and chopped them up, dusted a few pieces with flour, then simmered them together and served them in a miniature drum over a bed of pulped sheet music.
It was the last in a series of videos that he had posted over the previous two years, documenting the recording process that yielded his latest album, “Toss.” As visual metaphors go, it was also pretty accurate.
The record, Tokumaru’s sixth, marks a significant departure for the 36-year-old indie-pop polymath. On his previous two albums, “In Focus?” and “Port Entropy,” he played every instrument himself except the drums. For “Toss,” he still left ample room for his own instrumental talents, but he also recruited a host of collaborators, including members of his regular tour band, a chamber orchestra, and drummer Greg Saunier, of U.S. avant-rock act Deerhoof.
“Rather than making songs purely using my own input, this time I wanted to make them from sounds that had come from other people,” he says. “Maybe listeners won’t notice any difference, but for me, that created a major change.”
Enlisting a varied cast of musicians was only the start of the process. When Tokumaru first entered the studio, he didn’t actually have any songs. Instead, he coaxed his players into supplying him with a variety of raw material, which he later refashioned into the music heard on “Toss.”
“The way I did it this time was almost like a remix,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what kind of songs would come out of the process while I was doing it. It was like I couldn’t see the goal — it felt a bit like a puzzle.”
In one of the earlier YouTube videos, his collaborators seemed mildly amused, if not slightly baffled, by this approach. Guitarist Masamichi Torii compared it to playing in front of a blue-screen background; bassist Kei Tanaka speculated that Tokumaru had “forgotten” how to record in a studio. Saunier, striking a more diplomatic note, said simply that he’d “never recorded with this philosophy” before.
“Greg played drums for me, but he wouldn’t recognize any of the songs on the album as ones he played,” Tokumaru says. “These songs didn’t exist at that time — I just got him to play to a click track.”
He contrasts the process with his experience of recording with Gellers, the indie-rock band he has played in since he was a teenager: “If someone says, ‘Play an A-chord here,’ I’ll play an A. But with this album, even if someone had played an A, I’d change it to a G.”
While Tokumaru’s previous albums have been cohesive statements, “Toss” is a more skittish, wide-ranging affair. The first three tracks sound like spikier variations on the kaleidoscopic baroque-pop that he perfected on “In Focus?” in 2012, but some of the subsequent detours are more surprising.
There’s a lo-fi ballad drenched in tape hiss (“Migiri”), a virtuosic finger-picked guitar instrumental (“Dody”), and a weird, lurching pop song made using a graphic score, in the vein of modernist composers like Cornelius Cardew (“Hollow”). “Vektor” enlists the talents of instrument-making oddballs Maywa Denki, while “Bricolage Music” features a dense patchwork of sounds that were crowd-sourced from the public.
Most unexpected of all is “Cheese Eye,” an exuberant orchestral piece that Tokumaru co-wrote with composer Chikara Uemizutaru, in tribute to classic American cartoons such as “Tom and Jerry.”
“I didn’t originally plan to make an album,” he admits. “I wasn’t making music with that purpose in mind: I just wanted to create a series of stand-alone songs with their own concepts.”
He has coined the term “concept songbook” to describe this format, in contrast to the longform concept albums of old: “It’s like a collection of short stories.”
If the existence of the album itself feels almost like an afterthought, Tokumaru is less flippant about the creative process that it entailed. He explains that his decision to post regular updates during the recording process — not only on YouTube, but also via a dedicated website — was a reaction against how ephemeral music has become in the streaming era.
“It’s so easy to hear a song now, using iTunes or Spotify or whatever,” he says. “But you don’t really understand what that song means: there was probably a really interesting process involved in making it. When it can be listened to so easily, I find something about that rather sad.”
When Tokumaru released one of the first fruits of the recording sessions, “Lita-Ruta,” in December 2014, he chose a willfully impractical format: a 10″ vinyl record, housed in a package that could be folded out to create a primitive record player. There wasn’t any download code. Though the song has become a staple of his live shows, its inclusion on “Toss” will be the first chance that most people have had to hear the recorded version.
With the album finished, Tokumaru is due to embark on a 14-date nationwide tour, starting next month. His live shows used to be charming-but-diffident affairs, like a small-time indie act that had accidentally been booked for the main stage. (A typical bedroom musician, in other words.) Recently though, he’s emerged as a more dynamic front man; where he once played with his eyes screwed shut, he actually seems to be having fun now.
“I didn’t particularly enjoy playing shows in the past, but I’ve started to understand what the attraction is,” he says. He speaks admiringly of bands that have nailed the art of the good gig: “They’re not just playing music, it’s like they’ve reached another level beyond that.”
“Normally, you hear that people played best when they were young,” he continues. “You often get that in rock music — ‘They used to play better before, their shows were better in the past’ — but with jazz, there are a lot of people who you want to watch right now. I really admire that: I feel like that’s the kind of musician I’d like to become.”
Given how established he is on the Japanese music scene at this point, it’s easy to forget that Tokumaru was once better known overseas than at home. His 2004 debut album, “Night Music,” was released by U.S. imprint Music Related, and earned an 8.6 rating on influential music site Pitchfork. It wasn’t until third album “Exit” in 2007 — the first on his current Japan label, P-Vine Records — that he began to gain a wider audience in his native country.
Unlike some of his compatriots, who’ve tried to tailor their music for overseas listeners by performing in English, Tokumaru continues to sing exclusively in Japanese. However, he expresses the hope that his music will be heard “throughout the world,” describing it in terms that sound a bit like a pilgrim on a quest for enlightenment.
“I’m spending all this time shut up at home, working alone, it’s still a mystery whether there are people out there who really want to listen to my music,” he says. “I feel like I want to take my music to wherever those people might be — and if I find someone there who can tell me what it is I really want to be doing, I’ll be happy. I still don’t fully understand it myself.”
“Toss” will be released in Japan on Oct. 19 via P-Vine Records. The album tour starts on Nov. 18 and includes dates in Sendai, Morioka, Kobe, Kyoto, Tokyo, Takamatsu, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Osaka, Kofu, Matsumoto, Niigata and Sapporo. For more information, visit www.shugotokumaru.com.
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