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LLLL (pronounced 4-L) is the music-making moniker of Kazuto Okawa, 41. Since his first eponymous self-released album in 2012, Okawa’s sparkly, J-pop-inflected brand of shoegaze has attracted the attention of labels such as Maltine Records, Progressive Form and the California-based Zoom Lens. A Fukuoka native, Okawa has written tracks for J-pop acts including Kaela Kimura, Akiko Yano and Yuki from Judy and Mary, scored the music for various commercials and soundtracks, and recently composed and performed the theme song for The Japan Times’ “Recultured” podcast series.

1. What is your earliest musical memory? I remember seeing pop group Hikaru Genji when I was around 8 years old. They were a roller-skating boy band, they looked so glamorous!

2. Why did you decide to start making music yourself? It was my calling. I didn’t decide it, music did.

3. You spent 10 years in Canada, what do you miss most about life there? The people. I found them to be really considerate and caring, and that’s what I think about now when I think of Canadians.

4. What does LLLL stand for? Nothing in particular, I just really liked the shape of the characters.

5. What is the anatomy of a good J-pop song? The structure of J-pop is similar in that there’s an introduction, and a verse that goes into a chorus, but there is usually a pre-chorus in J-pop, too. There are four or five patterns that a lot of Japanese artists like to use, so if you follow those rules you are safe. The creativity comes when you play around with those rules, but at first it’s a very specific formula …kind of similar to haiku in the sense that there are set rules but you can still be creative. Aside from that, J-pop tends to be sentimental, but happy and energetic at the same time.

6. What inspires you? My dreams, the people around me, altered consciousness.

7. Which artists and musicians do you most admire? Hmm, that’s tough to say. I’d say the best art I have witnessed can be found in nature. Like, if you look at something like a leaf, there is so much interesting detail and it just looks perfect. There’s a limit to what we can make as people, but it feels like nature is infinite.

8. How do you approach making music for commercials? It’s like playing a game with a group of people. Think of what would make the customer happy or the product most attractive. It’s a fun game and, of course, I get paid for it!

9. You did the theme for the “Recultured” podcast for The Japan Times. What did you have in mind when you wrote it? I was told the subject matter of the pandemic and at first I went a bit dark with it, but I didn’t want to make listeners upset. So the way the notes go up is kind of uplifting, but I still kept some minor keys.

The sound of J-pop: Kazuto Okawa, aka LLLL, writes music for commercials and, more recently, podcasts.
The sound of J-pop: Kazuto Okawa, aka LLLL, writes music for commercials and, more recently, podcasts.

10. You’ve also done music for NewsPicks. What’s the difference between writing for the media and writing commercials? With commercials, clients want the finished product to be a certain way, and they have their own music directors and ideas. For the JT and NewsPicks, I’m my own music director. NewsPicks used a previously existing LLLL track, but I wrote the “Recultured” theme from scratch. I think, for that reason, it’s something I could also release as LLLL.

11. You described your most recent album, “Impure,” as your most personal project yet. What makes it so personal to you? It was about love and the loss of somebody.

12. What is your songwriting set-up, where do you like to work? I used to hop around different places for inspiration. There was one internet cafe on the top floor of a skyscraper in Chiba that had a view of the ocean that I liked. Recently, though, it has mostly been my room. Physical spaces don’t matter, though: When I write I’m all in my head.

13. Is there a secret to making a hit song? I wish I knew! I think it’s the perfect balance of conformity and rebellion.

14. What do you think is the future of J-pop? The industry itself is shrinking rapidly, which gives me a lot of hope because we will be free from a lot of constraints that the industry tries to put on us as artists.

15. Who should we look out for in 2021? LLLL.

16. What are three things you couldn’t live without? Music, people and a really good sleep.

17. What’s your favorite form of non-musical art? Can I say philosophy? My favorite is Michel Foucault, and recently I like reading Hiroki Azuma. He did some interesting work on postmodernism by way of Japanese otaku (nerdish obsessive) culture

18. You’ve been working on a project, and you can finally sign off for the night: What do you eat for dinner? Ideally, I’d go to Hanahorishuka in Shinjuku. It’s my favorite Chinese restaurant just now.

19. In what ways has the pandemic affected your creativity? Honestly, not much. At least, I haven’t noticed it creeping into my work. The 2011 earthquake and Fukushima nuclear crisis really affected me, but the pandemic not so much. Maybe because it hasn’t been as severely felt in Japan as it has in other countries.

20. What are you most looking forward to this year? Making great music.

For more information on Kazuto Okawa, check out his YouTube profile. For videos from LLLL, check out the artist’s separate YouTube page.

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