Cornelius is not a man. Nor, for that matter, is he an ape (though the name comes from Planet of the Apes). Cornelius is a musical group founded by Oyamada Keigo (小山田圭吾) in the early 90s after his Shibuya-kei duo with Ozawa Kenji, Flipper’s Guitar, split up. Suddenly a solo act, Oyamada spent the next five or so years crafting his persona and honing his production skills, a sabbatical ultimately culminating in what made it all worth the wait—the music.
1997 saw Cornelius break into various European and American indie scenes with the infectious Fantasma (Matador Records, 1997), a melodic blending of traditional and esoteric poprock elements alongside sounds of nature wrapped candylike around backdrops of digital wash. I remember driving down Venice Boulevard toward the beach when my friend first put it in the CD player, mentioning something about “addictive…” In the strange part of my mind which catalogues beauty, I’m still on Venice Blvd, heading toward the beach, listening to “Chapter 8: Seashore and Horizon.” I’ve never turned back.
Recently HESO Magazine sat down with Oyamada at his Nakameguro studio. Between sips of Oolong tea, cigarettes and stealing glances at his massive cd collection, we chatted about his defunct label Trattoria, his plans after Sensuous (Warner Music Japan, April 2007), and the supporting Sensuous Synchronized Tour(the final Japan performance of which HESO attended at the Grand Cube Concert Hall in Osaka), back in Japan after finishing up some dates in Europe. When asked about his success abroad, he laughed and demurred, talking about other bands. But in the end, he added, “on this past tour, quite a few people came out to see me in the US and I even played at Disney Concert Hall. I’ve been doing this now for ten years, and finally I get to play live in a hall—I thought that was pretty good.”
What he sensuously synchronized in front of that audience was an audio-visual extravaganza. A veritable smörgåsbord for the senses. Imagine two hours of expertly crafted electro-rock music synched to an ever-changing reel of nebulous videos featuring miniature landscapes a la Hieronymus Bosch, walking fingers, children and animals, and a million other things you will have to buy the DVD to catch.
HESO: I’m guessing you’ve probably been on tours all over, but which has been the most interesting place so far?
Keigo Oyamada: Anyplace I’ve never been before is interesting.
H: I think most bands tour in the US and Europe, but Björk for example goes to places like China and Indonesia. Have you ever been to any places like that?
O: Haven’t been to China yet. I’m going to Korea for the first time next week. That’s about it in Asia.
H: What about South America?
O: Never been to South America, either, though I’d like to go. I’ve been invited to Brazil, but it’s half a world away. Taking all my equipment there would incur enormous expenses, so it’s near impossible to do.
H: The last date of your Sensuous Synchronized Show was in Osaka I think…
O: Actually, we have a few more dates in Korea, but yeah, the last in Japan.
H: What are you thinking about doing after the tour? Collaborating with some other artists or making a new album?
O: I haven’t made any decisions yet. Well, maybe a few small things. I’m making a jingle for Tokyo FM.
H: Do you have any plans to exhibit your videos at any galleries or art institutions?
O: I made a DVD with images from my live performances using 5.1-channel sound. It’s already out in Japan, and will probably be out in the US in the summer. It’s coming out from Everloving, my label. That, and a tour DVD called Point from about five years ago. I’ll be showing those two at places like museums.
H: Are you doing all that by yourself? Or are you collaborating with anyone?
O: I have a film director for the video, Tsujikawa Koichiro. We’ve been working together for a long time. He made nearly seven or eight tracks. There’s also a film director in Kyoto—Groovisions. And then the Kyoto artist Takagi Masakatsu, who made one track.
H: Speaking of collaborations, you recently put out an EP titled Gum.
O: That was only in the U.S.
H: That’s right. And wasn’t Sakamoto Ryuichi on that third track?
O: Sakamoto did the chorus for me on that one. Hosono Haruomi is another of the members of YMO. It’s something Sakamoto and I did for a tribute album for the leader of YMO.
H: You were on tour with Hosono, weren’t you?
O: Yeah, as a guitarist.
H: If you could work with any artist you like, who would it be?
O: A band? Someone recent?… (He thinks for a while) He’s not very recent, but Takemitsu Toru—you hear a lot of him on film soundtracks. He’s from the 1950s or 60s. I listen to a lot of people who do contemporary Japanese music or film music.
H: Really? Recently, I’ve found the There Will Be Blood soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood to be pretty good.
O: Oh, I listen to a lot of Radiohead myself—In Rainbows for one.
H: If you could have dinner with any three people, alive or dead, who would it be?
O: Hmmm… dinner? Alive or dead?… People I would want to eat with?… My own family (laughter).
H: What first got you interested in music?
O: When I was about 7 or 8, we did taiko (Japanese drums) at school. In class, we would all dance, but the sound of those drums probably made me want to make my own music.
H: When did you first start thinking about becoming a musician?
O: Becoming a musician… I did music because I liked it, but I never really thought I could be a professional so I never really thought about becoming one. But then someone from a record company heard our band and asked us to put out a record. It was completely by accident.
H: It seems like your music draws influence from all over. You can hear natural sounds and Zen-like sounds like wind chimes. There’s a lot of East and West. With each album, do you think about which direction you are going to take it? Or do you simply listen to all kinds of sounds and go from there?
O: I love all kinds of music and am influenced by all kinds of music as well. I think most of those sounds just naturally come out. It’s not as if I like rock or only listen to classical—I have a great love for all kinds of music. My father is a musician, and I used to look through his record collection. It’s all because my father’s got some great records.
H: You mix sound and visuals and even produce it yourself—the DJ mixing, too.
O: It’s multi-media, isn’t it? I don’t do the DJ mixing, but I do kind of act like a VJ for the live shows.
H: I recently heard one of your old Breeze Block mixes on BBC’s Radio One…
O: Ah… I do radio programs. NHK, too. Now that you mention it, I was a DJ on NHK. I don’t DJ at clubs.
H: A friend asked me recently to sum your music up in a word and I couldn’t. What kind of music would you say do? How do you define your music?
O: Mmmmm, that’s a tough one. I don’t really know what to say, but basically it’s just Rock.
H: On stage, you play guitar, have keyboards and a Theremin, use a Tenorion with a projection behind you. How is it different from your process of making an album in the studio?
O: In the studio, I am playing most of the instruments myself. Live, I’m playing together with other musicians. I guess I’m basically interpreting the album.
H: It’s pretty common in the US, for example, to feature someone on your album, but do you ever play with anyone in the studio?
O: I work alone, but on Sensuous, I worked with the Kings of Convenience. They sang a track for me. Their acoustic guitar duet is kind of like Simon and Garfunkel. Other than that, I don’t really work with anyone else on albums. I do, however, work on quite a bit of collaborations and mixes with overseas artists.
H: How did you wind up with Kings of Convenience?
O: They just came to Japan for a tour and we happened to know each other—I had met them in England before. Hell, they were in Japan so I figured we should just do something.
H: It’s pretty damn good. I thought the synchronization between the sound and visuals was particularly strong. How did you start out with that?
O: I’ve been synching sound and visuals for about ten years now, since about the time I put out the album Fantasma. I gradually developed from there, and with the current title Sensuous Synchronized Show, I had the concept of synching everything—the visuals, the sound, the lights—and I’ve been doing it this way for about two years now.
H: Who made the videos in your show?
O: My friend Tsujikawa, whom I mentioned earlier, made about ten of them. After that, there are several other directors I’ve made some videos with since long ago. I guess I work with several people, but Tsujikawa is the main guy, and he makes most of them.
H: Where most other Japanese artists haven’t had similar success outside of Japan, why do you suppose you’ve had such international success? Some of the few Japanese artists with any popularity in America are Pizzicato Five and Cibo Matto.
O: What about The Boredoms?
H: Yeah, I guess them, too. And Ozawa Seiji.
O: (laughter) Before I was Cornelius, I was in a band called Flipper’s Guitar. It was in Japan, when I was about 20. There were only two members, but one of those members was Ozawa’s nephew!
H: Was it one of the so-called Shibuya-kei bands?
O: It was before Shibuya-kei. It was a little before that word “Shibuya-kei” came out. After we broke up we were labeled Shibuya-kei.
H: To finish up, what do you like to eat?
O: (laughter) What do I like to eat? I like rice.