Monday 27 March 2017

Looprider "Umi" Interview

With the release of Umi, Looprider’s third album in less than two years, Ian from Call And Response and Ryotaro from Looprider met up for one of their biannual discussions about music and band life. A single, largely instrumental, 25-minute long song, the album sets itself up as a challenge to the listener, but as some reviewers have already pointed out, it’s a rewarding one.

We start out reading the transcript of an earlier interview with Ryotaro’s former bandmates Tropical Death, laughing at lame attempts by Ian and Tropical Death guitarist/keytarist/vocalist Eugene Roussin to stoke some kind of fake Blur/Oasis-style rivalry between the bands.

IAN: With these interviews, we often seem to have a few musical reference points that we can use to kick off the discussion. Last time, when Ascension came out, you even brought a stack of CDs for me, so what song should I listen to to understand your album this time round?

RYOTARO: From another band?

IAN: Well, obviously. I’ve already heard your band.

RYOTARO: Maybe Mono, or Yes, Close to the Edge

IAN: OK, Close to the Edge. That’ll keep us going for a while. It’s eighteen minutes long, so you beat it by seven.

RYOTARO: There are other songs on that album though! No, but really the reason Umi was 25 minutes is because in Tokyo, bands always play for 25 minutes. That’s a typical live set, and I wanted to make something we could play as one set.

IAN: It’s interesting that even an album that you worked the studio so hard to make is still tied to the format of a live performance. I’ve always thought that’s the reason the mini-album format dominates in Tokyo indie scene.

RYOTARO: I think that’s a fair assessment. I mean, the 25-minute thing was only partly because of doing it as a live set. I also just thought it was a cool idea. And another thing was if we ever did a one-man show, the encore could be Umi.

IAN: A 25-minute, one-song encore!

RYOTARO: I just thought it would be funny. That’s where most of my ideas start from!

IAN: Close to the Edge has more vocals than Umi as well.

RYOTARO: Yeah, it has maybe three minutes of vocals or something. I knew I wanted to do this kind of record when I started the band though. It’s a natural place I wanted to go to.

IAN: So even at the time of your first album, My Electric Fantasy, you were already thinking this direction?

RYOTARO: I had some of it written. Not all the sections in their current form, but I had the concept.

IAN: You’ve also been pitching it as a kind of semi-concept album

RYOTARO: Yeah, about the sea, the ocean.

IAN: And also the origin of life, right?

RYOTARO: Well the artwork is this long piece, and it starts dark and gets lighter as it goes up, and the album’s the same. It starts chaotic, and then it gets brighter. I described it to the band as like you're rising out of the water, into the sky, and out into space, like the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey. That was kind of an afterthought though — it just seemed that way to me after it had been put together.

IAN: So it wasn’t called Umi from start?

RYOTARO: The first demo I think was called Autumn, because I wrote it in autumn. The first part I wrote was the quiet part after the opening section.

IAN: You guys also don’t have as much glitter as Yes. No spangly cape.

RYOTARO: That might be a way to go.

IAN: I don’t think you can really go there until you’re already playing stadiums.

RYOTARO: It was a really hard album to make, though.

IAN: Why was that?

RYOTARO: We couldn’t learn it as one song, even though it’s supposed to be listened to in that way. It was written in parts and then we learned and practiced it in parts, but it had to seem like one song. Then there was the double drummer thing, plus all these layers of guitars and other instruments we don’t usually use.

IAN: Like what?

RYOTARO: Well, there were bells, keyboards, synths.

IAN: I always thought you didn’t like keyboards.

RYOTARO: Oh, it was a, what would you call it, a "knobby synth”! Not a keyboard synth: a modular synth. We worked with [engineer] Graeme a lot. I really have to talk about how important he was to this album. He’s the guy who’ll do whatever the album needs. Not everyone thinks like that. I remember saying, “If we need the throw a piano from the second floor of his house to make the album sound better he’d probably do it.” He was a good foil and he became really invested in the record, as much as I was, and hopefully we both learned a lot about recording and how to put together something like this. And also just hanging out with him, having coffee and biking around, talking about Werner Herzog, the feeling of all that is on the record — I don’t know if anyone else can hear it, but it's there! We did it in the summer and there are cicadas, so he recorded some of them and if you listen really carefully, you can hear it. It brought a kind of character that I don’t think I would have got if I’d just asked a typical studio guy. It would have been more calculated and cold, I think.

IAN: Alright, so maybe now’s a good time to listen to Umi then. Usually I like to listen to a few other songs for a while before going into the album we’re talking about, but since we’re talking about the recording process.

RYOTARO: You want to wait?

IAN: No, Close to the Edge is as long as eight normal songs anyway. As long as nine songs on your last album.

[Umi comes on the stereo]

IAN: There are some Eno-ish bits near the beginning that remind me of the instrumental tracks from My Electric Fantasy. On that album, because everything was so disparate, so diverse, it was hard to know where they came from, and that’s partly what made that such an interesting album. But here, hearing this helps makes sense of what was happening then — it contextualises it.

RYOTARO: Yeah, I wrote some of this album at the same time. The Boredoms were a big influence in this bit.

IAN: Although you do it with 98 fewer drummers than they did! Was it difficult working the twin-drums thing? When you play parts of Umi live, you do it with Sean on drums and Haruka hitting a floor tom.

RYOTARO: It was designed to work with just Sean, but the other drum is important to add a layer you can’t get with just a floor tom. Visually it’s exciting, seeing two drummers play in sync. I didn’t realise how much of a pain in the ass it would be, but it’s been worth it.

IAN: So the visual impact is also important. That again seems to reflect the way you see a link between the recording and the live rendition of it.

RYOTARO: When I’m writing the music, I like to visualise the band actually playing it, yeah.

IAN: In some ways, I think there’s a disconnect growing between live and recording. They’re consumed so differently, especially with the way so much music is listened to quietly on tinny laptop speakers and crappy Apple earbuds. To make music work like that, musicians and producers seem to have gravitated towards sounds and styles of working that don’t play to the strength of a live environment.

RYOTARO: Yeah, but at the same time, I’m suspicious of the idea that live is the only authentic version of a band. Live and recording exist in parallel.

IAN: Sometimes something that’s interesting on a record can also be interesting live, but there’s still a disconnect in how they’re interesting. Like, in some music, especially pop music, so much of the music happens inside a computer that to make it work as a live thing, a whole kind of theatre abstracted from the music needs to grow up.

RYOTARO: I think rock people tend to be more enamoured with atmosphere, with how it feels, rather than if it’s played well, if it’s catchy or whatever. They enjoy the swagger, that sort of thing.

IAN: The attitude, maybe? Although you don’t see so much “attitude” in the Japanese indie scene.

RYOTARO: I think people are more neurotic. More “brainiac".

IAN: Also, because of ow small the scene is, if you give it all that rock swagger, people just going to think, “You wanker! You were just down here a minute ago, drinking at the same bar!” With Looprider, you’re obviously very enamoured with “rock” as a thing, but I guess you have to walk a line between acknowledging that you exist in this indie world but not downplaying your ambition to rock.

RYOTARO: Yeah. I don’t want it to be arty: I want it to rock. You get what I mean right?

IAN: I noticed you like rock!

RYOTARO: But some people are so shy about liking rock: they don’t want to admit to liking Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones.

IAN: I’m not sure I agree with that. I think I’m the only person I know who actually doesn’t like those bands — certainly in Japan. I wonder if the shyness more in how they don’t let it into their own music.

[Looking at the album covers in his iTunes, Ian notices that the Looprider albums don’t show up in chronological order, and this annoys him.]

IAN: iTunes insisting on listing them alphabetically kind of bugs me. I want to see them in the order they came out.

RYOTARO: Maybe I should make a narrative around it, like in Star Wars where the release order wasn’t the same as the narrative order.

IAN: You often seem to decide the meaning of things you do after having made them.

RYOTARO: It’s interesting though. Lots of people think the girl on the album covers is the same girl. I never really thought about it that way.

IAN: It’s a more interesting reality if they are all the same girl. Now you bring it up, I’m already starting to imagine a richer world by thinking about how she might be the same. It’s interesting how on this album it feels like you can start to hear everything from the previous ones. You talked before about how the fourth was where everything was supposed to come together, but it seems to be happening here already. They already make a trilogy.

[Ashes in the Snow by Mono comes on]

RYOTARO: I’d never thought of it like that. It helps make the band more cohesive though. I’m very committed to the idea of these four people: our next one will be the first album that’s just the four of us — no guests, no elaborate production, just four people in the room, playing. Hopefully that’ll finally bring it all together.

IAN: So who was on this album?

RYOTARO: There was me, Haruka, Sean, the bassist was a different guy from Wookie, who plays with us live, and then there was Kazuya, who’s the drummer from Day And Buffalo and Start of the Day, and then Eugene from Tropical Death.

IAN: Who was talking shit about you in the interview I did with his band!

RYOTARO: He loves me! So what this album has helped to is that it makes it easier for us as a band to see what we’re going for and helps tie everything together. The idea of a guitar band that mixes shoegaze and metal in a Japanese and American context. There are different things on each album, and with just two, the first might seem like us and the second a detour, but by changing again for the third one, it establishes the second as not just a detour.

IAN: It tells people you’re on a journey.

RYOTARO: And it tells people it wasn’t a joke. Also, putting them out in a short timespan was important.

IAN: Yeah, you made three albums in one and a half years. Most bands wait three years between one album and the next.

RYOTARO: I think this is one of the ways you and I are similar: We keep having ideas and want to see them to end. I'll get dispirited and think, "Why am I doing this?” but then I'll see film or something and, “Oh, maybe if I do that!”

IAN: And the same cycle of disappointment continues!

RYOTARO: I’m getting into the habit of putting out stuff quickly. This is more for the band — well, more for me — just to keep it exciting. To me, albums are a record of that time, so why wouldn’t you want to make as many of these records as you can?

IAN: That’s why they call them records.

RYOTARO: Touche! But this really is a record of that time, and of the relationships that have been born and evolved as the band has grown into being a real band. Like, our bassist couldn’t play, which had an impact on the shape the album took. And then there was the drummer Kazuya, who I met through Sachiko, who I worked with on Ascension. It’s the first album Haruka’s on. And also working with [engineer] Graeme and being in Fukiage out in Saitama for a long time. When I listen, I can still smell his house and remember biking around Fukiage. It’s a record of time, with everything in flux, so it’s interesting moment in time. It’s going to be interesting to see how it looks later when hopefully we’ll have albums with the four of us.

IAN: Bands often lose by waiting so long before making their first album. They lose that record of themselves in development — of themselves in flux.

RYOTARO: If someone told me to make this album now, I’d tell them no.

IAN: Pretty sure I told you not to in the first place, but you didn’t listen!

RYOTARO: Another thing is that I just don’t think a lot of bands don’t really consider what the stuff they’re doing will look like 10 or 20 years down the line.

IAN: Maybe they’re more concerned with the immediate problem of, “Is anyone going to actually care enough to buy this now?"

RYOTARO: But when I’m fifty, it’s not going to matter how many records we sold or how many people came to our gig. What’s going to matter is what we made — what we have to show for ourselves. I think that’s what being in a band’s about though.

IAN: What do you mean?

RYOTARO: A band will go through a set of experiences, meet people, go places, and then the band will have an opportunity to preserve that in some form, which is a record usually, and that record will be a catalyst for the next step, which is more experiences, meeting more people. That’s all a band does, so why wouldn’t a band want to keep records as much as they can.

IAN: Lots of bands just stop. They get the record and then, “OK, that’s done. What next?” and they split up.

RYOTARO: Well, that’s their problem.

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