A 58-year-old Japanese man with a dyed blond mullet in a thick, woolly sweater hunches over a series of a dozen keyboards. With a casual confidence his fingers trip through a few bright, up-tempo chords. There’s something familiar about the sound — a nostalgia tinged with just a hint of guilty pleasure. His music sounded cheesy even back when it was cool. But admit it, you kind of miss it now … this sound from a more optimistic time.
The man in the sweater is Tetsuya Komuro and I’m watching him in a video clip on Facebook to announce the release of his first new album in three years: “Jobs #1.” Not that Komuro appears that interested in announcing anything, so utterly absorbed is he in his keyboards.
Largely characterized by collaborations with artists on the fringes of the mainstream — dance producer tofubeats, oddball singer-songwriter Seiko Oomori and idol producer Kenichi “Hyadain” Maeyamada — “Jobs #1” looks like a low-key episode in Komuro’s gradual musical rehabilitation after his 2008 arrest and subsequent fraud conviction. It’s a far cry from the situation 20 years ago.
The year 1997 was when superstar producers reached the pinnacle of their power. The top-selling albums of the year — Glay’s “Review,” Mr. Children’s “Bolero” and Globe’s “Faces Places” — were notable not only for the artists themselves but also for their studio gurus whose influence lay behind them: Masahide Sakuma, Takeshi Kobayashi and Komuro himself.
Shooting to stardom 10 years previously with his old band TM Network and the classic “Get Wild,” Komuro was already an influential figure in tailoring dance music for Japanese audiences. Throughout the 1990s, Komuro-produced hits, mostly from the then-new Avex label, were an important entry point for new ideas from overseas dance music.
Model-turned-singer Yuki Uchida’s 1995 single “Only You” was notable for the way Komuro incorporated drum ‘n’ bass beats into a mainstream pop song. It sounds clumsy now, but it was still a remarkable risk to take on such a bankable star — especially considering that it came out five months before British drum ‘n’ bass pioneer Goldie’s first studio album had even been released.
Back in 1997, Komuro was deep into a run of massive hits for his own new band, Globe, and a variety of artists such as TRF, Ami Suzuki and Tomomi Kahala. He began the year with the song “Can You Celebrate?” by singer Namie Amuro, which remains the biggest-selling single by a female Japanese solo artist ever (not to mention a karaoke and wedding staple). From a production standpoint, however, Amuro’s followup, “How to Be a Girl” was even more interesting.
As with “Only You,” to understand where “How to Be a Girl” was coming from musically, we have to look back at what advances were happening overseas at the time. In 1997, the buzz in British dance music was all around the fusion of rock music and the post-acid house dance music style known as big beat — most popularly characterized by acts like The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and The Prodigy.
The Chemical Brothers’ “Setting Sun” (a collaboration with Noel Gallagher of rock superstars Oasis) had been a huge international hit in 1996, and it’s obvious listening to “How to Be a Girl” that Komuro had been paying attention.
Gone were the thin, tinny Eurobeat drum machines that had typified Komuro productions up to that point, and in their place was the same thundering, lurching drum loop that The Chemical Brothers had themselves lifted from the Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Amuro’s voice was buried deep in the mix, barking out a litany of her own improprieties as if shouting distantly through a megaphone, while a heavy riff reminiscent of Gary Numan’s “Cars” punctuates the verses. It sounds like nothing in J-pop, either before or since.
While echoes of the Komuro era can be found in producers like Yasutaka Nakata, who kept up the 10-year cycle of pop advances with electro-idol trio Perfume’s 2007 hit “Polyrhythm,” the music industry’s post-millenial decline meant that producers like Komuro would rarely achieve the same degree of power again. Komuro’s own career since the 2000s has been troubled, and his music is very much an artefact of its era. Looking back on his pomp, however, he is also a remarkable figure who brought something genuinely new to Japanese music. Maybe it’s time to let ourselves enjoy him again.
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