For over 20 years, Yura Yura Teikoku turned on with their blend of Krauty pop, easy soft rock and squeaky-clean-freakout psychedelia. Prone to rock wild hair and shaved eyebrows, spindly frontman Shintaro Sakamoto had unmistakable drawing power, knocking browless teenage girls to the floor in a single swoon. Now sans band, Sakamoto unveils a new solo album, How to Live With a Phantom, that sucks out all of Yura Yura’s easy listening, tropicalizes it, lounges it up and re-serves it with gloomy song titles. Below we discuss unreal worlds, the space between life and death, and record shopping. This interview by Nikki Normal and Chris Ziegler.
Are there unpredictable things about eyebrow-shaving you can only learn by doing it?
The first time, I just shaved them off with a razor. But then I realized that members of a band called Katsurei were famous for their shaved eyebrows, so I decided to just cut them short using scissors to be different. With shaved eyebrows, sweat runs down directly into your eyes when playing live shows and it’s quite painful. By shaving them off, I was able to discover their important role on a person’s face.
Early devotees of Yura Yura Teikoku used to shave off their eyebrows in solidarity with the band, and you’ve said that you were uncomfortable with that. Is worship something you consider harmful?
I dislike very much both adoring someone and being adored. It’s both creepy and scary. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about a typical composition at a rock concert, where it’s like a religious gathering with a charismatic figure up on stage, and the whole audience being his followers. But at the same time I was troubled by the contradiction that my own concerts were turning into something like that. I thought it would be cool if someone at the center of the stage—in other words, I—was just a hole. That idea lead to Yura Yura Teikoku’s last album, Hollow Me.
You said about this album that you ‘wanted to make something where you had normal songs played by normal human beings, but somehow without any trace of actual living people in the music.’ This would seem to be a very pure form of musical expression—so pure the actual musician is no longer part of it. Is that what motivates you at this point in your lengthy career—pursuit of purity?
The most important motive power for me when working on a song is that I myself want to listen to better songs than what I’ve come up with in the past, and that I want to be moved by my own songs. And I’m really moved when I encounter something uncertain, or something that I can’t grasp where it originated from, or something with uncertain intention of the creator. Here is where a contradiction is born. It’s impossible to create something without my own intention. If I lose my mind, maybe this is possible. Perhaps I’m sort of ‘challenging’ myself how far I can go with this act while keeping a sane mind.
You’ve also said a good description of your album is that it ‘sounds like a bunch of dead people, who for some reason haven’t figured out that they’re dead yet, having a good time playing music.’ If your next album sounded like a bunch of people who have finally figured out they’re dead, how would it sound different?
That description was made by my friend after listening to the album, and I really liked it. What appealed to me was the fact that the dead people were not just dead, but ‘haven’t figured out that they’re dead yet.’ This is a third person’s point-of-view—once they find out that they’re dead, that viewpoint will be gone. So if they’ve figured out that they’re dead, it should sound totally different. I don’t know what kind of music it’ll turn out to be, but perhaps to the ears of us living people, we won’t even be able to recognize it as music.
Yura Yura Teikoku’s name is linked to the concept of—if we have the translation correctly—an ‘empire of nonreality,’ and you said in an interview that you link the new album to a band of no specific national origin playing in an imaginary club somewhere. What is your fascination with places that do not exist, and the ‘unreal’ over all? Is this like a more evolved version of a band trying to do a ‘Detroit’ or ‘New York’ sound? To create a sound for a place that doesn’t exist?
I make my music based on what I feel living in the real world, but I don’t really like to express my feelings straightforwardly through music. I think ‘good lies’ are more fun and musical than ‘boring true stories.’ And sometimes, songs about imaginary worlds resonate more truthfully than realistic message songs—capturing the essence of the real world.
Your song and album titles reveal a kind of fascination with the supernatural. Are you interested in the ‘other world’ because of a dissatisfaction or disinterest with this world? Is this an idea you’re exploring to see where it takes you, or an idea that’s already a part of you that you’re expressing?
‘Death’ has always been the concept for me when working on a song. In my latest album, I tried to capture ‘death’ and ‘life’ in the most unsentimental and flat way as possible. I feel that many Japanese now share a sense of ‘despair’ and ‘a feeling of entrapment with no exit.’ ‘In a Phantom Mood’ is a song about a technique to live with a barely positive mentality, by placing yourself in between the hard real world and the unreal world, and also in between life and death. I got the inspiration from an interview I read of a Japanese cartoonist, Shigeru Mizuki. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of, ‘I am half dead. If you look at the world from a half dead person’s viewpoint, everything seems fun.’
Mizuki was quoted recently saying that Japan has lost its sense of traditionalism. Is tradition important to what you do?
Tradition is not important to what I do. But I feel sad when thinking about traditional cultures dying out, and have a selfish wish that someone will carry it on.
You said once that what Yura Yura Teikoku did was for ‘the common person.’ What did you mean? Is the new album written for this type of person?
I meant Yura Yura Teikoku was playing and making music not only for music enthusiasts, but for people of all kinds—even children—to enjoy. This is something that comes naturally to me because the kind of music I enjoy listening to are like that. For example: T. Rex. When I make music, I don’t write for a certain kind of people. I only make music that I myself want to listen to. I’m always interested to know what my close friends whom I trust think of my finished work, but other than that, I don’t have a clear grasp of what kind of people listen to it. This album is a more personal one, but my way of thinking is the same.
This album seems less ‘psychedelic’ than Yura Yura’s records. Is psychedelia something you think people grow out of? Is there a sense of freedom that comes with abandoning that kind of reference?
I’m not sure about this. If one can connect the sounds of fuzz guitars and tape echo to psychedelia, then I guess you may be right.
Who plays the saxophone on the new album, and how did you encourage them to play so passionately?
The saxophone player is Tetsu Nishiuchi. He is active mainly in the reggae scene. I didn’t encourage him with anything. He gave me that sound with almost just one take. My ideas are abstract and it’s hard to connect them with words. But people who get it can come up with the exact sounds I want from just a few simple key words I give them. So I choose the people I work with very carefully, but after that part’s done, there’s no need for me to give detailed instructions.
Very often, Japanese collectors come here to L.A. to buy up records that locals don’t care about. For example, there was a giant buying wave of new age/easy listening music a few years back, which were all records then completely ignored by L.A. record buyers. What American album do Americans underrate?
Either in 1989 or 1990, I listened to Peter Ivers’ Terminal Love and was shocked. The album has been my favorite since then. I’ve heard that even though it’s been rated very highly amongst certain Japanese enthusiasts, that wasn’t quite the case in the U.S. At that time, Terminal Love sounded to me like music from a completely mysterious world. It sounded both cosmic and microscopic at the same time, and very sexy too. And though I listened to it over and over again, I never got tired of it. To this day, I’m not aware of another record like this, and if anybody knows, I’d like to be informed.
Where in America would you most like to spend 24 hours completely on your own? No phone, no responsibility, just free exploration.
My choice would be San Francisco. Because I’ve heard from my musician friends that San Francisco is the craziest city in the world. I want to drink beer under the San Francisco sun and just do nothing and relax. If I get bored, I would go to a record store, and then drink beer again at night and relax.
SHINTARO SAKAMOTO’S HOW TO LIVE WITH A PHANTOM IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM OTHER MUSIC. OTHERMUSICRECORDINGCO.COM.