Last month, the return of Ultra Japan to Tokyo provoked the usual eye-rolls with its parade of EDM superstars gallivanting onstage to obviously pre-recorded sets. But trust Takahide Higuchi — the Nagoya-based producer better known as Shokuhin Matsuri aka Foodman — to see the funny side.
“It’s a bit punk, isn’t it?” he says, chuckling at what the current crop of dance music acts can get away with. “They’re not doing anything — they just play something off a USB device and the crowd goes wild. I’m not sure, but it’s probably the same with someone like Aphex Twin. He seems like the kind of person who’d do that.”
Before the Warp Records heavyweight sends his lawyers calling, it’s worth noting that Higuchi doesn’t mean this as a criticism. Both in person and in his music, he delights in seeing what happens when things are done wrong, reveling in the creative potential of mistakes and mistranslations, and generally making a hash of it.
When his work as Foodman first started to attract attention in the early 2010s, it was as part of the Japanese juke and footwork scene, a virile homegrown variant of the frenetic dance music born in Chicago. But Higuchi’s oddball productions made him an outlier from the start, and have drifted ever further into the uncanny — if he’s evoking the dancefloor now, it’s of a virtual club in the online world of “Second Life.”
“Music progresses through people making mistakes, doesn’t it?” he says, talking at a coffee shop in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district after a gig at core underground venue Forestlimit the night before. “You use something in completely the wrong way, but then you like how it sounds and decide to go with that instead.”
Yet he still sees footwork as the basis for what he’s doing.
“Other people probably don’t hear it,” he admits. “It’s not about the BPM or the rhythm, it’s a way of thinking.”
Higuchi’s first encounter with footwork wasn’t over a club PA but via laptop speakers, meaning that he heard the music’s abstracted rhythms and samples without the seismic bass that binds everything together. That initial experience continues to inform his approach. On new album “Aru Otoko no Densetsu” (loosely translated as “One Man’s Legend”), he all but abandons the low end that’s an integral part of most club music, footwork or otherwise.
It’s an extension of the methods he’s used when playing live in Europe and the United States over the past couple of years.
“I’m challenging myself to see if I can get people to dance without using kicks or bass,” he says. “I want them to dance just off the higher frequencies.”
If that sounds like an exercise in confrontation, the album itself — released on Sun Ark, the label run by American musician Cameron “Sun Araw” Stallones — is surprisingly warm and inviting. Higuchi drew on a variety of inspirations: Opening track “Kakon” is a deconstructed piece of poemcore, a micro-genre pioneered by Japanese artist Bool that uses spoken poetry as the framework for tracks; the loping “337” is based on a Japanese clapping rhythm often heard at baseball matches and on festive occasions.
Closing track “Mozuka,” featuring vocals by London-based artist Pillow Person, incorporates elements of traditional Okinawan music while seeking to evoke what Higuchi calls the “shamanic” atmosphere of the former Ryukyu kingdom. His mother comes from Okinawa’s Ishigaki Island, and he spent a year living there as a child, but he says this is the first time he has directly referenced it in his music.
Perhaps the most important influence is found on the album’s penultimate track, “Sauna.” Higuchi developed a taste for steam baths a couple of years ago, after the rigors of work and touring left him feeling run-down and in need of a natural restorative. He describes the experience of sweltering in a sudatorium and then plunging into a cold pool as “deep relaxation, like a kind of high.”
“When I looked around, I realized that saunas are really big in Japan at the moment, especially with young people,” he says. There are sauna conventions, sauna-themed manga (Katsuki Tanaka’s “Sado”) and an outdoor sauna festival in Yamanashi Prefecture that’s “like a rave, but with saunas.” Earlier this year, he and fellow enthusiast Taigen Kawabe (of London-based rockers Bo Ningen) even contributed a track to a sauna-themed music compilation, under their Kiseki alias.
“When you go in the sauna and cold bath and then take a rest, sounds take on a psychedelic quality — they become really three-dimensional,” says Higuchi. “It’s like a modern psychedelic culture — psych culture for ‘no-drug Japan.'”
The therapeutic effects of Higuchi’s sauna obsession are audible in the relaxed tone and melodicism of the album. “Aru Otoko no Densetsu” doesn’t have an overarching concept like his previous full-length, the more pointedly experimental “Ez Minzoku,” which conjured a futuristic version of Rastafarian Nyabinghi music using flimsy MIDI instrumentation.
“The idea of coming up with a concept has started to seem a bit silly to me recently,” he says. “I still like concept albums, but at the moment I’m more into creating music every day and letting it all come out naturally, without thinking about it. It’s kind of like graffiti — I’m not deciding what to write in advance.”
The visual metaphor is an apt one. The album takes its title from a manga comic that Higuchi drew while he was at elementary school (“I wanted to try making something with that same sense of freedom,” he says), and comes with a booklet of illustrations that he created for the release. They’re a series of colorful, primitivist abstracts drawn on kraft paper, like Bill Traylor after a dose of psilocybin — or a lengthy sauna session.
In their playfulness and naivete, they make a good complement for the music.
“I wish I could go back to that head state I was in before I started making music,” he says, reminiscing fondly about his first clubbing experiences in the early 2000s. “When you don’t understand something, but you know you like it — that’s a good place to be.”
“Aru Otoko no Densetsu” is out now. Shokuhin Matsuri aka Foodman plays WWW X in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Oct. 20 (11:30 p.m. start; ¥2,000 in advance; 03-5458-7688). Follow him on Twitter: @shokuhin_maturi
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5