A couple of years ago, I started to get a sense of deja-vu while loitering on the weirdo fringes of Japan’s club scene. Whenever I asked DJs or producers what homegrown music they were most excited about at the moment, the same name kept coming up: Goat.
The Osaka quartet (stylized “goat,” in a vain attempt to avoid confusion with the similarly named Swedish psych-rockers) had been busy frazzling minds with its ultraminimalist brain-funk. Using a deceptively simple lineup of guitar, bass, drums and saxophone, the band conjured a rhythmic assault with a pointillist rigor that verged on inhuman, like an alien funk outfit playing Steve Reich, or U.S. math-rockers Battles after a Ritalin overdose.
Koshiro Hino, Goat’s guitarist and sonic architect, explains that he discovered power in restraint: using melodic instruments as percussive elements, paring the drum kit back to just a snare, kick and hi-hat.
“When you think you can do absolutely anything with an instrument, you just end up creating something indistinct — or at least, that was my experience,” he says. “The initial concept with Goat was to use only a limited array of sounds, and then I’d write pieces that explored what you could do within that narrow space.”
If you haven’t yet seen the group live, at least in the lineup captured on 2015’s stellar “Rhythm & Sound” album, I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance. Goat recently bade farewell to original bassist Atsumi Tagami and drummer Tetsushi Nishikawa, whose mathematical precision had provided the framework for its music. But if Hino is bothered about having to find a new rhythm section, let alone one so accomplished, he isn’t showing it.
He describes his plans for Goat Mk II: a quintet in which he plays guitar alongside two saxophonists (including original member Akihiko Ando), a bassist and a drummer, with the players sometimes downing their instruments and switching to percussion. While the group evolved on the live circuit, this new incarnation will be “closer to theater, playing a single piece that goes on for 60 minutes.”
“The next version is going to be more of a band, but it’s probably not going to sound like one,” he says. “And yeah, I realize that’s a contradiction.”
Actually, it sounds pretty typical of Hino’s peculiar creative output, which also includes the post-hardcore eruptions of Bonanzas, the myriad electronic mutations released under his solo YPY alias, and the steadily evolving “Virginal Variations,” his first foray into composing for a large-scale ensemble.
His approaches to each of these projects can seem counterintuitive. He composed “Virginal Variations” by hand, but creates Goat’s ascetic music on computer before presenting it to his (one imagines, slightly nonplussed) bandmates. When he performs as YPY, he eschews the record decks, laptops and sequencers typically used by nominally dance-music artists in favor of a pair of multitrack cassette recorders.
“I did it at first because they were cheap,” he says. “As I started experimenting, though, I discovered all these different possibilities — it’s more flexible than DJing.”
A native of Shimane Prefecture, in western Japan, Hino moved to Osaka to study civil engineering at university, but dropped out to immerse himself in the city’s band scene. He began playing with Nishikawa and Tagami as Talking Dead Goats “45, a more straightforwardly postrock trio that made extensive use of live looping and tricksy rhythms.
“I was kind of anti-club music at first,” he recalls. “I thought it was easy to make that kind of ‘boom, boom, boom’ stuff, so I tried to go in a completely different direction with the band, using irregular time signatures and making music where it was hard to count the beat.”
He credits the eclectic Flower of Life and Powwow parties in Osaka with nurturing his interest in dance music, which he came to understand was a more nuanced art than he’d originally thought.
“With a band, a kick drum is a kick drum — obviously the size is important, but there’s only so much variation you can get through the way you play it,” he says. “But with club music, the kick drum is so much deeper: I realized that the quality of just this one element can determine whether people dance or not.”
On his second full-length album as YPY, “2020,” released on U.K. label Where To Now? Records, Hino comes closer to straight-ahead techno than he did on last year’s more abstract “Zurhyrethm.” That’s not entirely by design: He says he sent the label three discs’ worth of material, loosely organized by theme, expecting them to choose a selection of tracks from each. Instead, they opted to release the most club-ready of the three sets in its entirety.
“I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” he says, laughing. “Either way, I don’t think of it as a coherent album.”
Still, he says he’s pleased with how the record turned out, which he should be: “2020” is a banger. The title track, a slab of grubby lo-fi techno, is both a sardonic reference to the upcoming Tokyo Olympics and a nod to cult sci-fi “Akira,” in which a futuristic “Neo Tokyo” is preparing to host the Games in — you guessed it — 2020.
“It’s not a deliberately dark song, but it comes from a confusing place,” he says.
Confusing, maybe. Or, as with so much of Hino’s work, maybe the rest of us just need to catch up.
“2020” will be released via Where To Now? Records on Feb. 10. YPY plays at Urbanguild in Kyoto on Feb. 18 and Soup in Tokyo on April 2. For more information about Koshiro Hino, visit birdfriendtapes.tumblr.com and goatjp.com.