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Sunday, Jan. 4, 2004
Nothing lost in the digital translation
Sitting in his record distributor's office in a small house in Naka-Meguro, Riow Arai is ostensibly being interviewed. But he isn't answering questions, he is asking them.
His latest album, "Device People," is about to be released in Britain, and with only a faint knowledge of English, he is worried how English-speaking fans will interpret the title.
People obsessed with their computers and mobile phones?
Arai visibly relaxes. "Yes, that's it exactly."
If the listener can't get what Arai is on about from the title, then the short intro that begins "Device People" should clarify his point immediately.
A piano plays a phrase lifted from George Gershwin, which is followed by the warm throb of an acoustic bass. A collage of sounds sculpted from the distinctly warm human rustle of the street hums in the background. A few notes, Jimi Hendrix-style, echo from an electric guitar before the listener lands onto the smooth beats of Arai's funkified electronic hymn "Break Literacy."
The last hundred years of music are collapsed into a few seconds. Welcome, it seems to be saying, to the abstract realm of machines.
Hearing this spelled out by a listener is another eureka moment for Arai. "I actually wrote that song unconsciously," he says. "I wasn't sure what it was about, but now that you've said it, I think maybe that was what I was trying for."
Is he also a device person?
"Of course," he answers. "I use computers, a mobile phone and the Internet, and I don't play the violin or guitar.
"Still, samplers were made with the same technology used for weapons of war," he says with a characteristic thoughtfulness. "That's not so good."
Unlike many Japanese musicians who think only of how their music is made and are, as a result, notoriously boring to interview, Arai seems to actually give a damn about what his music means.
After picking apart the meaning of "Device People," he is anxious to turn to his other album, "Mind Edit" (1999), also being released in Britain at the same time. Lined up with "Beat Bracelet" (2001), the middle release, they are a trilogy that announced Arai's arrival as a mature artist (after a few rather uneven releases).
"It's not my favorite," says Arai of "Mind Edit." "I like all my records, but the album was a turning point for me. I was able to finally connect with my own creativity.
"It was an exercise in self-control. Prior to that album, I was putting out a lot of demos and exploring a lot of different styles, though I didn't intend to release any of it. I discovered a lot of things though, and so when I actually came to recording an album, I really had to discipline myself.
As befits a former drummer, the beat is the most noticeable element of Arai's music. There are no snippets of melody, no vocal flourishes, just pure rhythm. And even that is from samples, not from synthesizers.
"I used to use synthesizers," he says, "but I got bored with it. With a synthesizer, you are stuck in 'do re mi' mode. I use sounds. This is where editing or sequencing are really no different.
"There is no particular sound that I'm looking for -- I use all kinds. I usually have hundreds of sounds in a sampler and usually even if there's a good sound, it is also important that it sounds good with other sounds. There are edgy sounds, round sounds. I consider it almost like designing a song using all of these different sounds."
The absence of leavening has led to his music being called experimental, even abrasive.
"Oh no, don't call me experimental!" Arai exclaims. "Eccentric is OK, but not experimental. My music isn't based on melody, but I feel that the beats bring everything together. It's not pop music, but it is pop -- the beat becomes a hook. I'm free of the 'do re mi's.' "
Unlike many so-called "important" electronica records, "Device People" is, in fact, easy to listen to. Put it on and you are apt to find yourself unconsciously swaying over your breakfast plate, shimmying as you read the newspaper, bouncing as you check your e-mail.
A large part of this is no doubt Arai's allegiance to one of the least appreciated eras of pop music: '80s new wave electronica. Not even the hardest of hardcore music cognoscenti have gotten around to resurrecting the joys of Thomas Dolby or Scritti Politti. Horrendous hairstyles aside, however, their use of early electronics and the sounds they coaxed from them were ahead of their time. They were also, like Arai, eminently accessible.
Yet lurking behind Arai's barrage of electronics is a yearning, a nostalgia even for the analog world. Most samples are, in fact, from old films and television dramas. He particularly likes those serendipitous moments of sound that were, in fact, mistakes.
"If you go into the studio today, you can't make a drum sound like The Beatles. I love those old sounds from the '60s, so I construct my tracks from them."
Digital music from analog sounds?