Music

CVN: The sound of the Japanese underground

by Patrick St. Michel

Contributing Writer

A change in address altered the way Nobuyuki Sakuma approaches his songs. “I think of the music I used to make in Tokyo as a fantasy. It was completely inspired by my own image, what I thought up. It didn’t have much to do with what was happening around me or in society,” he says.

In 2016, though, he and his wife decided to get away from the crush of the capital.

“I think Nagoya has had a major impact on my music,” he says of his new home. “Also, since getting married, I think a lot about daily life — the things I have to do and deal with, such as economics or the future I’m trying to make with my wife. I can’t describe really well how the music changed — it’s not about composing or arrangement, or even specific sounds, but it is definitely different.”

Sakuma has always been restless when it comes to music. He has frequently created new aliases to release songs under over the past decade, using each to explore a different lane. His biggest success came with a project called Jesse Ruins, which started as a solo endeavor before evolving into a trio mixing dream pop with shadowy electronic touches, a sound reflecting that Tokyo fantasy thanks to melancholic melodies haunted by unease.

Sakuma says he eventually wanted to pivot again, and after that group disbanded in 2016 he focused entirely on a new project called CVN. In this guise he let his experimental urges run wild, merging clanging percussion with synthesizer notes and samples.

“I’m trying to think how to describe it,” Keith Rankin, co-founder of American label Orange Milk Records, said in a 2016 interview regarding the debut CVN album the label put out. “It’s like the sound of metal and meat hitting a surface.”

That sonic palette remains on the recently released “I.C.,” the second full-length from CVN via Orange Milk Records. “But now I feel more flexible and free to try out new things for the project,” Sakuma says. “Before that, it was always about changing the project, or the name of the project I was involved with. Now, though, I feel fine just changing the sound within CVN.”

The result is an album that retains the icy clatter he created before, but that also features reflective cuts and creations taking cues from American hip-hop. It doesn’t capture the sound of daily life — unless your days feature a lot of skittering drum machine beats and distorted voices — but rather the mindset of someone with space to think and play around with ideas thanks to their relaxed surroundings.

It’s also a celebration of a new experimental movement bubbling up in Japan, as the tracklist for “I.C.” features a plethora of guests. Furthermore, CVN will join fellow Japanese act Koeosaeme on a tour of North America later this month.

About a decade ago, Sakuma started creating because he couldn’t find many like-minded artists. “Back then, the Japanese music scene wasn’t that interesting. We mostly wanted to connect with people outside of the country,” he recalls.

Street lights: Nobuyuki Sakuma, who has helmed the music acts Jesse Ruins, Cold Name and CVN, has taken a different approach to music since moving to Nagoya. | NORIHITO HIRAIDE
Street lights: Nobuyuki Sakuma, who has helmed the music acts Jesse Ruins, Cold Name and CVN, has taken a different approach to music since moving to Nagoya. | NORIHITO HIRAIDE

Born in Mie Prefecture, Sakuma carved out a space in Tokyo via the Cuz Me Pain record label and party, which he founded alongside Yosuke Tsuchida, Yuji Oda and Keisuke Tsukanome. These events, held in small bars predominantly in Shibuya or Setagaya wards, allowed everyone involved to develop sounds drawing from techno, industrial and dreamy indie-rock.

Sakuma launched several projects during this time, but it was Jesse Ruins that attracted attention from international listeners and releases on labels such as Double Denim in the U.K. and Captured Tracks in the U.S. The start of the 2010s saw independent blogs promoting music and being taken seriously as tastemakers. New communities formed and geography was no longer an issue, thanks to the internet. Even a small set of people — say, 16 packed into a smoky room in Shimokitazawa — could be buzzing. Jesse Ruins represented the biggest success for Tokyo’s indie community back then, complete with overseas shows.

“There was still a lot I wanted to explore musically that wouldn’t fit with Jesse Ruins,” Sakuma says, adding that he filtered most of this into an industrial project called Cold Name, but the itch persisted. He started CVN initially as another side project, one built around a fragmented style featuring skittering beats and samples that had more texture to it than the wispy sounds of his main group.

“If I could describe it, I would say CVN is like soda water, but the type that doesn’t have too strong carbonation,” he says, comparing Cold Name to “almost like drinking sand” and Jesse Ruins to something smoother like coffee or tea due to the use of delicate female vocals.

“I wanted to finish up Jesse Ruins and focus on this, but since there were other people in the group I had to take my time,” Sakuma says. The band’s last releases even saw the CVN sound bleed through.

“Then I moved to Nagoya, though, and I decided Jesse Ruins would break up,” he adds.

Plenty has changed for Sakuma’s music since relocating. Whereas he once used a handful of real instruments in his songs, he says he now creates completely on his computer. He has also found like-minded artists in Japan.

Away from music, he works as editor-in-chief of the online magazine Avyss, a job that takes him to Tokyo frequently.

“I think (the underground music scene) is definitely more active than it has been in some time,” he says. “I think that more young people are connecting with it, and I think the entire community across Asia is really interesting right now.” Nagoya, in particular, houses a handful of the most intriguing creators in the country, such as similarly texture-obsessed acts Foodman and Woopheadclrms.

“When I create music by myself, it’s all only my ideas, right?” Sakuma says. “But due to the timing of this one, I wanted to hear the opinions and ideas of other people regarding my music.”

“I.C.” features appearances from younger artists, including Tokyo’s Cemetery and Osaka’s Le Makeup. Sakuma took cues from hip-hop, a genre overflowing with “featuring” tags, and actually features rapping courtesy of Kyoto’s NTsKi on the opening number. This more collaborative approach has expanded CVN’s sound, and makes “I.C.” a snapshot of a community coming into bloom.

It’s also a fitting change for the end of the decade. The promise of blogs and internet music communities has fizzled out and the period that allowed a band like Jesse Ruins to emerge has ended. Sakuma has changed with the CVN project, and learned that the personal can trump the digital. “I thought everything could be distributed online, but it turns out there are some things you can only experience in person. Like going to a show, or talking to people who are actually embedded in that community.”

CVN and Koeosaeme’s North American tour starts in Providence, Rhode Island, on June 20 and wraps up in New York on June 30. For more information and to listen to CVN, visit soundcloud.com/cvntrack.