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A Quietus Interview

Out Of Time: An Interview With Ken Sugai
The Quietus , October 15th, 2019 09:10

The prolific Japanese electronic artist, who bridges the gap between traditional music from his home country with modern touches, talks with Patrick St. Michel about drawing from the past, nature and his nation’s government. Computer enhanced portraits by Yohsuke Matsuoka

Ken Sugai is part of a bill presented by Tim Hecker tonight at ACCA Digital in partnership with Brighton Digital Festival

Ken Sugai grew up surrounded by reminders of Japan’s traditional culture. Raised in Kanagawa Prefecture, a quieter locale just outside of the constant buzz of Tokyo, the electronic artist comes from a family where the past played a prominent role. “My grandfather was a tatami maker and lived in an old Japanese house,” he says. “I felt attracted to the well-thumbed colours of the beams and pillars of the house. There was also a room wrapped in a dark mystery in the back. This primitive experience affected my present style very much.”

Sugai has channeled this interest in the culture and landscape of Japan into electronic compositions setting out to bridge his home country’s past with modern musical techniques. He builds around samples he records himself out in nature, ranging from birds chirping away to the sound of water, and then joins them with fragmented synthesizer melodies, along with percussion evoking Japanese street festivals and court music. The resulting numbers are never background ambience or textbook studies of his nation, but rather surreal soundscapes showing how the contemporary and traditional can co-exist, with a sense of mystery lurking just underneath.

He opens for Tim Hecker tonight (Tuesday, October 15) as part of ACCA Digital’s Brighton Digital Festival 2019, before continuing to tour around Europe for the rest of the month. Sugai is focused on this upcoming jaunt — this interview plays out over email as Sugai says he can’t get out of Kanagawa to talk in person, and several follow-up questions go unanswered as he devotes himself to bringing his worlds to life. “Perhaps fans can feel a unique atmosphere from my performance. I will do my best to satisfy European fans.”

That opening gig for Hecker hints at a development in Japanese electronic music Sugai ties right into. The sound he has probed over the last decade has become far more relevant in recent times, as listeners and labels outside of Japan have flocked to “ambient music” from the 1970s and 1980s, which similarly used physical space as a creative jumping off point. Electronic creators domestically and internationally are drawing from traditional Japanese sounds (such as Hecker, who was inspired by traditional Japanese court music for his latest release) while others are exploring how seemingly fragmented sounds can fit together into a whole. Sugai’s output sits in the middle of all these developments, and he’s managed that by following his own interests rather than grab on to trends.

“While a contemporary artist, Ken creates outside of time, working with sound in a way that is both familiar and far out. Ken’s compositions, while highly referential to traditional Japanese music and his surrounding environments in the south of Tokyo, is intimate as innate, interpersonal experiences,” Matt Werth, the founder of RVNG Intl., a label that has released Sugai’s music, says. “When I hear the voice of Yanagi Onna, a yokai monster of Japanese lore, in Ken’s music, I am not hearing a Japanese monster, I am hearing a monster that may have lurked in my childhood bedroom. Or still lurks there today.”

While Sugai’s grandfather helped spark an interest in the past, it was his older brother who drew him into music. “He was skateboarding and listening to hip hop. I underwent the same influence, and began to listen to hip hop when I was a teenager. I was influenced a lot by the freeform creativity of found in the genre’s culture.” He started creating his own music in this space while in high school, forming a rap project with friends. “I was the DJ. I bought a sampler and started making tracks.”

This helped introduce him to sampling, which would become the bedrock of his more avant-garde style in the years to come. He says he doesn’t remember clearly what the first sound he ever sampled was, though he believes it was “Polish jazz”, thanks to how charming the melody was. Over time he drifted towards more experimental territory, and also started exploring the sounds of Japan’s culture and nature.

“The reason I am fascinated by the sound of nature is that it cannot be made by humans,” Sugai says. “I tend to sample sounds with shadowy attractiveness.” He’s also drawn to images for inspiration: “I read picture books of Japanese folk crafts. I don’t know why... it’s fun.”

While he has been active in underground communities since the 1990s, the last ten years have been Sugai’s most prolific period. Starting with 2010’s ToKiShiNe, he has crafted numbers that use ample amounts of space as a way to highlight both is off-kilter synthesizer melodies and the samples he weaves in throughout his songs (water being a particular favourite for Sugai). Songs rarely follow a predictable path, and he always seems more interested in crafting a sonic place filled with details that sometimes just breeze by, such as a sample of crickets chirping or a brief wave of synthesized flute notes.

His breakout came in 2018 with UkabazUmorezU, released via New York’s RVNG Intl., an album focused on the night where field recordings captured after dark around Kanagawa brushed up against crystalline synth and manipulated vocal samples. It’s like wandering around the countryside at night and encountering glances into a spirit world.

This feeling taps into his interest in Japanese folklore and culture, another recurring element of Sugai’s sound that has been present since his earliest shared recordings. Sometimes, the influence can be more clear — earlier in 2019, he worked with Kohei Amada on a release that found Sugai reworking a piece heavy on koto and taiko originally composed in 1970 into something far wonkier thanks to modern electronic instruments — but these elements pop up in nearly everything Sugai has created.

There’s also a slight political edge to Sugai’s use of these older sounds. While many in Japan have adopted musical stylings from the past as a way to promote nationalism, Sugai cuts the other way.

“Japanese politicians are corrupt and only think about protecting their position, so Japan is declining both politically and economically. Therefore, I think that Japan is regarded as a pitiful country around the world,” he says when asked about what kind of image of Japan he wants to share with those outside of it. “In any era, scheming politicians try to get in the way of cultural exchange. The Japanese government is also not trying to contribute to cultural exchange or cultural development. Without yielding to such barriers I want to convey the ‘depth’ of Japanese culture to the world through my music.”

In recent years, he hasn’t been alone in this drive. Electronic artists such as Meitei and Soichi Terada’s Omodaka project have aimed to preserve fading musical stylings by adding a slight update to their DNA, while producers such as Foodman use samples of traditional instruments as part of their sonic palette. Some of the artists Sugai himself recommends from the current generation of electronic creators, from avant-garde disco composer Yoshinori Hayashi to beatmaker LisaChris, also add in plenty of nods to the country’s centuries-spanning musical history.

Sugai has been exploring this intersection between past and present before most others, however, and has opted to create immersive songs creating new worlds that treat sounds like landmarks. “Music transcends time.I learned this. People forget their time when listening to music. And when people listen to nostalgic music, they revivify the memories.”

Ken Sugai is part of a bill presented by Tim Hecker tonight at ACCA Digital in partnership with Brighton Digital Festival