An Interview With KEN ISHII (Part 1)
The Beat That Keeps Driving
I first met KEN ISHII in 2015 in San Francisco, California. He performed his song EXTRA in front of the big screen of the Castro Theatre, reviving his famed collaboration with anime director Koji Morimoto. I was able to catch Ken-san this time in Shibuya, Tokyo. Just as I remembered, he is easy going: a fluidity, I suspect, that comes from a combination of his innate humility and decades spent in the international music scene as Japan’s trailblazing producer of techno music. As his career has shown, the unstoppable KEN ISHII has been quite busy these years with tons of gigs and collaborations worldwide, more singles released, and a brand new full-length album pending release this year. For this interview, Ken-san shared with us snippets from his long and awesome career, and also three albums that are precious to him.
―― Derrick May of Detroit techno and early YMO are described to be some of your great influences. What was the very initial moment that made you want to make music?
My parents were people who never listened to music, so until I insisted on listening to music when I was in grade school, there wasn’t even a tape player in our home. Despite growing up with no musical influence coming from my family, I discovered YMO, who were huge in Japan at the time. So, I bypassed pop and rock and got heavily into electronic music. From then on, I retrospectively listened to Japanese techno-pop, Kraftwerk and the late ‘70s and ‘80s music from the genre. Finally, a more contemporary music emerged around 1990—house music—and that got me interested in the club scenes and DJ culture. When I heard Detroit techno for the first time—it was a new trend in Europe—and that’s when I thought to myself, “This is the music I want to make!” So that is how I started collecting gear to start making music.
―― What gear did you initially use?
It was a workstation called M1 by Korg. It was a keyboard that also had rhythm tracks: it had a “multitimbral” setting. Why did I buy this machine? Because I didn’t have a clue what gear to get. There was no one else in Japan making “techno,” or at least none around me. The Detroit guys were using Roland TR-808 and 909, but I didn’t know that. None of the stuff I was interested in were listed in Japanese magazines so I had to get British DJ magazines to get information. I was just a teenager that wanted to make music despite the fact that there was very little knowledge about it in Japan, and I had no idea how to go about making it. So I went to a music store and told them that I wanted to make music. They showed me a new product that is “incredible” and “a huge seller.” Until then, keyboards and rhythm machines were separate and then linked together, but this one can do it all in one! So I started with that one. After a while, I understood more, and although I used the M1 for a long time, I found it lacking sounds that I wanted, so I started adding more gear like KAWAI and used finds.
Of all the music I was into, Derrick’s style stood out the most for me: perfect beats with electronic overtones. His music was very rich in sound, although he was also limited in the choices of equipment. I also really liked YMO and Kraftwerk, but their sounds could not be copied by some teenager: they used synths that cost a fortune and they seemed untouchable. But Derrick was making cool music with less. That is how I came to love his music. Like how the punk era, slightly before my time, inspired a lot of musicians—my time was electronic music—realizing that electronic music is what I wanted to make, happened to coincide with “Maybe I can do this, too!”
―― Your 1993 debut with Belgium's R&S Records is often described as if you emerged out of nowhere. Can you tell us about your activities that lead up to releasing with the label?
I was a normal college student, and I wasn’t doing anything professionally. So yes, I was totally unknown. I would DJ at school fairs or host parties with friends at small clubs, and I was continuing to make music at home. Eventually, I started to feel that my songs were pretty good, so I decided to send a demo tape to my favorite techno label, R&S Records, in Belgium. My thoughts: “Wouldn’t it be great to be one of their artists.” Then I heard back from them right away and after a few more demo exchanges they sent me a contract and so I made my debut.
―― Regarding the emergence of your alias or alter ego, Flare, in 1996, from what "need" did your separate music projects come about?
Fortunately for me, my career took off very quickly and I got notoriety. So there was a decision made that any music that didn’t fall under the KEN ISHII style, stuff that was more experimental, should be released under a separate name—to not confuse listeners.
Video: Awakening [70 Drums / Exceptional] (2002)
―― You make music under many aliases and it seems that creator KEN ISHII and DJ KEN ISHII play two different roles. Is the process of “creating” and “performing” approached differently?
As artist KEN ISHII, I take on my main project, “KEN ISHII,” wholeheartedly as the music producer. As DJ KEN ISHII, I am a performer that provides entertainment to my audience. As Flare, I make music that isn’t limited to techno and is more experimental and free.
―― Any albums from Flare that we can expect in the near future?
I am actually releasing a new album under KEN ISHII this year—it’s been a while—so, I don’t think there is anything coming from Flare for another year or two. Of course, I may change my mind and say: “I had all of these ideas suddenly!”
―― You are a superstar, yet you have managed to keep your ties with the underground—where the "new" and "raw" emerge from—and you have also maintained a long and steady career. What do you think made you stay true to your art and your own direction?
No matter what incredible art an artist is creating, nothing comes of it without public recognition, so I try to maintain some media attention. I don’t really consciously differentiate what is “commercial” from what is “underground,” and I have always just done what I like, and what inspires me. The era and the scene I chanced upon happen to hugely welcome what I did. But there have also been ups and downs.
―― You had an exciting fall and winter with your collaboration with Drunken Kong: a new release with them from Tronic in October, and performing with them around the world. How do you find the time to be the constantly traveling DJ, and the constantly producing and collaborating creator?
It’s pretty simple: when I am making music, I still feel like I am a teenager. In other words, I find a lot of joy in making interesting sounds or cool songs. That is why I do it. But after a while of studio work, I start to get restless about touring: to feel that excitement of performing in front of a crowd. The same thing happens while touring: after a while, I start to long for making music in my studio. It has always been a repetition of that pattern for me. Also, as a DJ, I have a habit of routinely checking out new music, so that keeps me inspired. I often feel: “This artist is doing something so cool. I better get to work!”
“...recently I have had more requests for vinyl only sets
—an old-school techno set—so whenever I get a chance,
I take my worn down records and show up to play.”
―― How do artists get to "collaborate" with KEN ISHII?
Most of the time it’s actually meeting the artist and feeling the chemistry. Then it naturally leads to “Let’s make a song together.” I think the vibe of that person is important. Of course, before all of that, I have to like their music and respect them as an artist.
―― What are some notable collaboration experiences you have had?
It is pretty straight forward to collaborate with fellow electronic music artists. It’s easy to imagine how things will go. Unexpected things happen, however, when I work with live instrumentalists, like vocalists. What really stands out for me was recording with saxophone player Naruyoshi Kikuchi—one of the great maestros of jazz—I really noticed the difference of a “pro.” He just played all of the stuff that was in my head: “Like this? How about this way?” Boom boom boom! Just like that, and he was done and he went home. I was never an instrument player. I started out because I really loved music and I can make music with the help of these machines. So, that was a moment when I was reminded of the real strength of a “musician.”
―― What is vinyl to you?
A black and thin disc-shaped thing with music on it. It comes with a perfectly sized cover that supplies visual enjoyment as well. It is the object that got me into music in the first place.
―― What was the very first record you bought for yourself, and why?
I bought one of YMO’s best song collections that came out around 1980. I was in grade school then and my friend’s brother let me listen to it for the very first time. It impacted me so greatly that I made a beeline to the local record store with my allowance gripped in my hand.
―― What was your latest record purchase you made for your personal listening pleasures?
Early Electronic And Tape Music by John Cage (Sub Rosa)
―― Do you currently use vinyl records as part of your music making process?
I don’t use it for sampling anymore but I did a lot in the ‘90s.
―― What is your take on the “vinyl resurgence” and how does that affect you?
As a DJ, I have noticed a lot more young DJs using vinyl since a few years back. It takes much more technique than using software, so it boosts the realness and coolness for the audience watching the show. My current setup is mainly digital and I use vinyl only for accents, but recently I have had more requests for vinyl only sets—an old-school techno set—so whenever I get a chance, I take my worn down records and show up to play.
―― Pressing singles and promo versions on vinyl format is something that DJs have always done. What is your take on putting out complete albums on vinyl? Also, is that effective in the techno world today?
When you love a song or an album, it is not enough to just listen to it over and over. Owning the whole package—the album jacket with the record in it—makes it even more precious for the listener. I still have all of my favorite records I bought decades ago. In the current techno scene, DJ music is often released as singles, and most listeners and DJs buy and listen to songs that way. As an artist that is putting out music, however, creating practical music is not always what we want to do. An artist really wants to show all of their musical abilities and expressions, so an album is definitely effective in order to show the world what kind of artist they are—even in the techno scene. Now that we have entered the digital era, I think the trend of buying songs as a unit is going to continue, but as long as artists with aspirations and ego exist, albums will be effective as something beyond its commercial value. Releasing a record like that will definitely give your fans something more to love and cherish.
KEN ISHII has shared with us 3 autographed records of "Kitai" VAN CZAR & KEN ISHII! Stay tuned for PART 2 of this interview to sign up for a chance to win!
made his debut on the legendary Belgian techno label R&S Records in 1993. In that year he reached No.1 on UK’s NME magazine’s techno chart which led him to worldwide recognition. In 1997, the video for the single ‘EXTRA’ (directed by Koji Morimoto) won MTV's ‘Dance Video of the Year.’ Since then, Ken is regarded internationally as one of the Japanese pioneers of world class electronic sounds. Ken produced the official theme song for the 1998 Nagano Olympics and have worked on various film scores. Ken spends half of his time travelling in Europe, Asia, North/South America DJing, and he is currently producing an original KEN ISHII album for the first time in 13 years that is scheduled to release in 2019.
Interview and photos (in Japan) by Mika Anami
Cover photo by Dave Golden (courtsey of J-POP SUMMIT)