Like a lot of musicians, Daiki Tsuneta wants to expand listeners’ minds.

“Most of the top artists in Japan … the sounds are the same,” the 28-year-old tells The Japan Times. “I just want to share more variety.”

Usually, this is idealistic talk. Tsuneta, though, has made the fantasy work. He’s the mastermind behind King Gnu, a rock quartet that went from Fuji Rock Festival’s Rookie A Go-Go Stage in 2017 to NHK’s “Kohaku Uta Gassen” at the end of 2019 thanks to one of the year’s biggest surprise hits, “Hakujitsu.” This January, the band released its third full-length album, “Ceremony,” which served as something of a coronation.

Each member of the band has enjoyed newfound attention, but none more than the curly-haired Tsuneta, who, in the past six months, has starred in Dior campaigns and nationwide beer ads.

“I feel like I reached a milestone with King Gnu last year,” he says. “This year, I wanted to do something different. Make something different.”

That something different is Millennium Parade (stylized all in lowercase), which is less a solo side project and more of an audio-visual collective that Tsuneta describes as being closer to pop art than King Gnu’s more mainstream-adjacent rock stylings. Songs range from nervy electronic meditations with jazz underpinnings to rumbling synth mutations.

While Tsuneta’s path isn’t uncommon — an artist finds themselves catapulted to pop glory and seeks creative challenges somewhere else — Millennium Parade is connecting with listeners in a way that’s often not guaranteed when it comes to artistic side projects and Tsuneta’s claims that what he’s doing is counter to what works in mainstream Japanese music. It may be an encouraging sign for experimentation. The project’s newest song, “Fly With Me,” tightropes between blasts of sampled orchestras and rap-rock, and it serves as the theme song for Netflix anime series“Ghost In The Shell: SAC_2045,” which will spread awareness of the project even further.

“Sometimes, I have to limit myself when I think about how listeners will respond,” says Tsuneta, who has used his position to sneak new audio palettes into the nation’s musical consciousness. He says his musical curiosity comes from his parents. His father played jazz piano, while his mother opted for classical, meaning he explored all types of genres while growing up in Ina, Nagano Prefecture.

“It wasn’t like Ghibli countryside, all we had was mountains,” he recalls. “I think I listened to everything I could at the local record stores and rental shops.”

Over time Tsuneta became a musical polyglot, but his first forays into instrumentation came with the cello. That included a period spent at Ozawa International Chamber Music Academy, run by renowned conductor Seiji Ozawa, also in Nagano Prefecture.

While Tsuneta is at times somewhat guarded during our interview, the mention of the academy gets him buzzing.

“I vividly remember the expressions Ozawa made, or how he made music,” he says. “You might find the sound boring, but when you are in the orchestra … it’s totally different. It’s an amazing feeling.”

For all Nagano Prefecture offered him musically, Tsuneta’s end goal was always Tokyo, a place he envisioned as a mishmash of cultures waiting to be explored. He enrolled at Tokyo University of the Arts, but dropped out after a year. His first musical project after relocating, Srv. Vinci, highlighted his love for mixing a little bit of everything together. Songs ranged from minimalist experiments to flat-out rockers.

“That project had two branches to it,” Tsuneta says, when asked to reflect on Srv. Vinci. One lead to the world of J-pop and mainstream rock, which he viewed as set in its ways. “It’s often not about the beats, or even the actual sounds of the music. Rather, it’s more concerned with the melody, or the lyrics.”

King Gnu came from this road, and saw Tsuneta joined by drummer Yu Seki, bassist Kazuki Arai and keyboard player and vocalist Satoru Iguchi, who also grew up in Ina. The members also play other instruments from time to time.

Jack of all trades: As well as writing songs, Daiki Tsuneta has brought vocals, guitar, cello, double bass and programming to his musical projects. | TOMOYUKI KAWAKAMI
Jack of all trades: As well as writing songs, Daiki Tsuneta has brought vocals, guitar, cello, double bass and programming to his musical projects. | TOMOYUKI KAWAKAMI

Millennium Parade — originally called Daiki Tsuneta Millennium Parade — allowed Tsuneta to explore sonic ideas rarely prioritized by Japanese pop, while also showcasing the range of styles bubbling up in Tokyo.

“My role for this project is to make a playground, so that the people I work with can play around with music and come up with something,” he says. Since starting Millennium Parade, he has sought out other artists whose work he connects with, which have included other players in King Gnu, members of “experimental soul” band Wonk and more.

“I knew Shun Ishiwaka and Masashi Nukata from Tokyo Shiokouji, who I think introduced my music to Daiki,” Tokyo artist Ermhoi says, recalling that Tsuneta messaged her on social media and asked her to sing on some of his work. “I thought his stuff sounded really strange … and I loved it.”

Ermhoi became an early collaborator for Millennium Parade, handling vocals on most songs and writing lyrics for all of them (another detail that flies in the face of J-pop convention, and which is embraced by Tsuneta, is that everything is sung in English). Beyond music, Tsuneta brings together visual artists to make the project’s videos and live shows more engrossing as well, often turning to a creative studio he’s involved with, Perimetron. Gigs make use of 3D technology, while music videos go heavy on CGI to build whole worlds.

It’s tempting to view the split between Millennium Parade and King Gnu as some sort of commentary on the intersection of art and commerce, but that’s unfair to the latter project. That band spikes its rock with off-kilter instrumental flourishes (lots of singing hollered through megaphones) and lyrics far away from the “gee, golly” platitudes of older Japanese rock mainstays (like a lot of rising J-pop acts, words touching on a lack of money and exhaustion with the city aren’t cynical but realistic). Millennium Parade, likewise, features plenty of quirkiness, but also includes catchy choruses.

Tsuneta understands how to present music to the world, and how, by doing that well, he can experiment with the actual craft. When I mention that Millennium Parade’s output reminds me of the Los Angeles beat scene of the early 2010s, Tsuneta says he did have a lot of interest in artists such as Flying Lotus, who mixed elements of jazz with electronic sounds, along with domestic creators such as Seiho and Metome.

I like to think of Tsuneta as a Seiji Ozawa of the social media age, conducting not just the sound but the visuals and experience that have come to be just as central to listeners in the 21st century as the music is. He wants to use these channels as a way to get a wider array of styles out there — and he may just have the clout to do it.

For more information, visit https://millenniumparade.com.

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