Towa Tei goes deep on death and puns

by Patrick ST. Michel

Contributing Writer

Towa Tei has mortality on his mind.

“More and more, I’ve been thinking about what death means and what life is. One of my best friends died about 10 years ago, and then there was March 11,” says the 53-year-old musician referring to the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. “I really feel like life is short … too short.”

Tei is currently promoting “3,” the first album released under his Sweet Robots Against the Machine moniker in 16 years. It finds the long-running electronic artist and former Deee-Lite member constructing simple, twinkling tracks over which comedian Hidetomo Masuno (better known as Bakarhythm) lays down goofs galore.

The songs feature humorous conversations about dinner plans (“Dakitime“) and mock fitness instruction (“Gymnastics to make”), but I didn’t expect an album loaded with puns to inspire a chat about death. Tei maintains that it connects to the idea of “less is more,” which has become something of a maxim to him in recent years, guiding his past few solo albums.

“Back in the day, I was less confident, and I think I put more sounds into my songs to cover that up,” he says.

Just as important, Tei says this time he welcomed the chance to let other people shape the final product.

“With the solo albums, I have to be a control freak,” he says, adding that on “3” he could just focus on the music and leave the lyrics to Bakarhythm. “I enjoyed seeing what he would hit back with at the track I sent him.”

This isn’t Tei’s first time working with comedians — he produced songs for Geisha Girls, duo Downtown’s short-lived rap group in the 1990s that found them cosplaying as the titular characters, and also worked closely on Koji Imada’s Koji 1200 project.

“They are all so hilarious, but I think Bakarhythm comes at it from a totally different angle,” Tei says, admitting he has been a fan for a while but that it was the “Fictitious OL Diary” (“Kakuu OL Nikki”) series in which the comedian wrote from the viewpoint of an OL (office lady) that really wowed him.

“At that time, we had already been conversing through emails, and I told him that book was super good. I don’t even read books much anymore.”

Tei’s song “Love Forever” ended up being used as the intro theme for the TV adaptation of “OL Diary,” and the two talked about doing something more.

“I guess I’m getting bored of doing the same thing consistently,” Tei says, adding that recently he feels approaching his solo work can feel a bit predictable. This feeling, plus an encounter on actor Riho Yoshioka’s radio show wherein she improvised spoken word over a new track (“Radio,” included on “3”), inspired him to go forward.

“I thought something like ‘techno-reading’ or ‘spoken techno’ could be interesting,” he says, deciding to release it under the then-dormant Sweet Robots name. “This can be a fresh start.”

Playing with comedy: Towa Tei says it is important when working with a comedian for the musician not to take a back seat to the jokes.
Playing with comedy: Towa Tei says it is important when working with a comedian for the musician not to take a back seat to the jokes. | DAN SZPARA

Tei and Bakarhythm worked on their respective parts, sharing words and music via email (with an assist from Yoshinori Sunahara, a member of electronic supergroup Metafive alongside Tei. He contributed two original tracks, and finalized the recording. “Sunahara didn’t like the idea — too much work,” Tei says with a laugh. “But he did it!”).

For Tei, he decided to keep things tight in large part due to a recent plunge back into vinyl, complete with a burgeoning Discogs habit.

“Mostly old stuff … lots of stuff from my New York days, like funk and jazz,” he recalls. The forced space of a record made him think 30 minutes was an optimal run time.

“One thing I don’t do is lower the music quality and play background to the comedy,” Tei says. “Some comedians are produced by musicians and the musicians don’t have a sense of humor, so they just surrender to the comedian. I try to respect the comedians, and try to clash with them, but not lean on them.”

“It sounds simple, and each time I listen I laugh a lot, I snicker at new parts,” he says about “3.” “Bakarhythm’s words and performance is … durable.” The fact Tei revisits the album at all is noteworthy. He mentions he doesn’t do that with much of his solo work, including last year’s “Emo.”

“If I struggle, like lots of trial and error, later on I don’t want to listen. That reminds me of bad memories. I was so hungry at the time,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes I need to invite people in who (are unpredictable).”

A lot has changed for Tei in recent years. Whereas he once took up production and remix work, he’s now far less hesitant to do so, to the point where he says nobody even contacts him anymore. Tei has long hated performing live and has cut down on DJ appearances.

“I was always sleepy when I was in the club, and I always wanted to just go home and sleep,” he says.

He has also become more comfortable on sharing his words, albeit mostly on solo works and not the Bakarhythmic “3.”

“If there was a singer, I would just talk and give them a hook, like on ‘Luv Connection’: ‘You don’t need a phone … blah blah blah. The rest of that, (they could) write.” Following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, however, Tei felt inspired to “do something different,” starting with the track “Apple,” which featured Ringo Sheena. It’s his way of keeping fresh.

“Some people I watch, and I feel sad and sorry for. They are getting older and older, but they still want to be the same age,” Tei says (when pressed to name names, he declines with a smile). He’s not stretching out too much, though. Besides music, he says he wants to enjoy his favorite activities as much as possible, from visiting hot springs to “eating whatever I want.” But to do that, he had to switch his life up, to maximize his remaining years.

“I just went with the flow when I was younger. But then I got kids, and then the kids became adults, and now I’m getting older,” he says. “I still try to feel young, but I don’t do the things I’m not really into.”

One thing the musician tries to do is support younger artists, whether it’s through his company, Hug Inc. (“Since I’ve been in the industry for almost 30 years, I want to help younger artists not get ripped off”), or by making sure younger producers get a shot.

He tells a story tied to his days with Imada, when he heard a song by Kobe act tofubeats borrowing from a Tei production. His management wanted to sue.

“One hundred percent we could win but I didn’t want to do that to a young artist,” he says. So a deal was struck, and since then tofubeats has had a successful career — and remains close with Tei. (“He’s almost like the age of my son. I’m like his father,” he adds, laughing.)

But Tei isn’t worried about seeking out the newest sound or sonic trend.

“I’m closer to death,” he says, laughing to take the tension off that statement. “I don’t have much time to discover so much young music. I’d rather enjoy my favorite old music, like James Brown. On vinyl, of course.”

“3” is in stores now. For more information, visit www.columbia.jp/SRATM.

Three amigos: (From left) Yoshinori Sunahara, Hidetomo
Three amigos: (From left) Yoshinori Sunahara, Hidetomo ‘Bakarhythm’ Masuno and Towa Tei join forces on the album ‘3.’

‘3’ features a slew of guest vocalists

Towa Tei’s first album as Sweet Robots Against The Machine after a 16-year break makes guest collaborators a priority. The main musical figures joining him for this project are the comedian Hidetomo “Bakarhythm” Masuno and electronic artist (and partner in electronic supergroup Metafive) Yoshinori Sunahara.

Plenty of other voices make an appearance, though, making the album, “3,” one of the more star-studded comedy-electronic albums of, well, ever?

One of the first voices people will be familiar with comes from Kaho Indo, who is better known simply as Kaho. She has been acting for quite some time and appeared alongside Bakarhythm in the TV adaptation of “Fictitious OL Diary” (“Kakuu OL Nikki”) last year. She joins him on “3” chatting about dinner options on the advance single, “Dakitime,” and pops up a few other times throughout.

Also appearing on “3” is Kumiko Aso, an award-winning actor who actually appeared in a video for Sweet Robots Against the Machine’s song “Free” back in 2003. This time, when recording vocals for “Boxes,” she says Tei and Bakarhythm encouraged her to “sound like a mama at a sunakku (a type of small bar) in Saitama.”

Rounding out the vocalists on the album are Ayaka Nakata, Riho Yoshioka and Ryo Sato.