Music

Shintaro Sakamoto: The art of disappearing in plain sight

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

From long-sequestered J-pop acts making their Spotify debuts to neglected artists getting the reissue treatment, the past few years have seen ample opportunities for musicians looking to make a mark outside Japan.

Speaking after returning from his first solo tour of the U.S., Shintaro Sakamoto is happy to admit that he’s feeling the benefits, too.

“I think the fact that a lot of people are listening to my music overseas, in countries I’ve never been to, is thanks to things like Spotify and YouTube,” the 52-year-old says.

When he embarked on a solo career at the start of the decade, after more than 20 years fronting rock trio Yura Yura Teikoku, Sakamoto didn’t expect his new music to click with an international audience. Compared with his previous band’s output, his 2011 solo debut, “How to Live with a Phantom,” seemed too understated, too lyric-driven.

“I was under the impression that people in the U.S. who listened to Japanese music were interested in things that were really extreme — strange, experimental avant-garde or psychedelic stuff,” he recalls.

Yura Yura Teikoku had ticked all of those boxes at some point in its lengthy career, albeit while retaining a strong melodic sensibility rooted in the late-1960s heyday of garage and psychedelic rock. Musically, the group was a kindred spirit to American indie perennials Yo La Tengo, but in terms of cultural standing it was closer to Radiohead, the alternative band of choice for a generation of discerning Japanese music fans.

After the members parted ways amicably in 2010, having decided they’d achieved as much as they were going to, Sakamoto didn’t try to trade on past glories. He retired from touring, started his own label — Zelone Records — and retreated into a hermetic sound world where he was answerable only to himself.

“I was really just looking to make music that would slot in comfortably alongside the records I listen to normally,” he says. “I wasn’t planning on playing it live, and the music I enjoy at home isn’t necessarily something you’d perform in front of a big audience — it’s more for listening to in a small room, by yourself.”

While he didn’t exactly make a clean break from his earlier work, he pared things down, trading in the guitar fuzz for muted exotica and sotto funk. On first listen, the sound of solo Sakamoto could almost pass for easy listening, but this was music for a holiday resort where the drinks were poisoned and the swimming pool had run dry.

“They’re not light-hearted songs,” he confirms. “They’re generally dark, but I like to give it a little twist, or inject some silliness.”

Crowd pleaser: Shintaro Sakamoto recently hit four cities for his first solo tour of the United States. | ZELONE RECORDS
Crowd pleaser: Shintaro Sakamoto recently hit four cities for his first solo tour of the United States. | ZELONE RECORDS

Like 1970s rock perfectionists Steely Dan, the smooth surfaces of Sakamoto’s music conceal a sour lyrical core. Titles like “Never Liked You, But Still Nostalgic” and “Dancing with Pain” offer a warning to unwitting listeners, and the songs are populated by robots, phantoms and other denizens of the uncanny.

The title track of 2016 album “Love If Possible” puts a very literal spin on the old cliche about having your heart ripped out: “Look at this gaping hole in my chest. It’s embarrassing, isn’t it?” It’s the kind of mordant nihilism that flourished in postwar Japanese literature, as if Kobo Abe had tried to write a pop song.

In person, Sakamoto is impeccably deadpan. Each question is greeted with a “sō desu ne” (“that’s right”), delivered in a laconic monotone considerably lower than his singing voice. When he cracks a joke, his poker face expression creases into a smile so slight you could almost miss it.

“I don’t have a sunny disposition, but I don’t think I’m that gloomy either,” he says. “I’m just not one of those straightforwardly cheerful people who’s always trying to get the party started.”

These are the sorts of inflections that tend to get lost when music crosses the language barrier. Overseas audiences grooving to the tropical lilt of “This World Should Be More Wonderful” probably don’t realize they’re dancing to a song about an impending apocalypse, let alone how serious it’s intended to be.

Yet, Sakamoto says that language is no longer the deal breaker it once was.

“I think people in other countries have probably lost some of the hang-ups they once had about listening to songs in Japanese,” he says. “There used to be this idea that you wouldn’t make it overseas unless you sang in English, but now I feel like singing in a different language might actually be seen as a benefit.”

This is validating for a musician who has always been a staunch advocate of working in his native tongue. Back in the 1960s, there was a widespread perception in Japan that English was the authentic language of rock, with Japanese an ungainly, inadequate substitute.

Despite the efforts of subsequent generations of musicians, this idea still persisted when Sakamoto was starting out. Along with likeminded bands such as Maria Kannon, Yura Yura Teikoku resolved to make rock that actually sound good in Japanese, working with the natural rhythms and phonics of the language.

“I was always giving a lot of thought to how the lyrics fit the music, not just in terms of meaning but also the way they sounded,” he says. “So if you look at it the other way around, I guess people can appreciate the sounds of the words, even if they don’t understand the meaning.”

Having been a music festival fixture for years, Sakamoto’s retreat from live performance following the band’s split took many people in Japan by surprise. After fending off numerous requests to play at home, he eventually accepted an offer to appear at the Week-End Fest in Germany in late 2017.

“I’d got some good players together,” he says, referring to his core band of bassist Aya and drummer Yuta Suganuma, “so I knew we could do shows if we wanted to. But I could see how that good feeling we had playing in the studio would disappear if we took it to a big venue.”

The solution, however counterintuitive it may seem, was to play quietly. Sakamoto recalls watching Canadian multi-instrumentalist Mocky on his first Japan tour and being struck by how low the volume level was.

“I was surprised at first, but as I gradually got used to it, I realized that small changes were having an amazing effect,” he says. “As it’s so quiet, it only takes a little extra push to create this huge impact, and you can appreciate even the subtlest nuances in the playing. That offered me a few hints.”

The secret now, he says, is in keeping things fresh. Sakamoto has deliberately limited the number of shows he plays in Japan — his current tour encompasses just four dates — and has so far resisted invitations to appear at domestic music festivals.

“It’s all about making sure I don’t get sick of doing this,” he says.

Fans in Japan who missed out on tickets for his latest gigs can catch him in a different setting in January, when he voices the lead character in “On-Gaku: Our Sound,” a band-themed anime based on Hiroyuki Ohashi’s cult manga. Sakamoto says he was a fan of the original, and was impressed to hear that director Kenji Iwaisawa had spent seven years working on the screen adaptation.

As an artist himself — he is a prolific illustrator who creates all the visuals for his albums — Sakamoto couldn’t help respecting the dedication. Though he initially declined overtures from both Iwaisawa and Ohashi to appear in the film, he ultimately surrendered, happy to do a favor for someone as single-minded as he is.

“Knowing that he’d spent seven years animating it, I couldn’t really say no,” he says. “If I’d been asked by someone else, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

Shintaro Sakamoto plays Showa Women’s University Hitomi Memorial Hall in Tokyo on Nov. 26, and Sakurazaka Central in Naha, Okinawa, on Dec. 6. For more information, visit zelonerecords.com.