Interview: Ken Ishi
Sunday, 1 January 1995No Sleep 'Till Tokyo - Tokyo. It's a city that captures the spirit of all things futurist. This is the city where commuters have been known to wear gasmasks to protect themselves from nerve gas attacks, and where the very air itself can be so bad that there are oxygen bars. This is the city where life and science fiction become confused, and some moments in some streets seem more akin to a scene in a manga cartoon. There was millennium fever about Tokyo ten years before it was set to happen. "I'm frightened by Japan," a young Ken Ishii told Generator magazine in 1995. "I'm frightened by the Ohm cult and I'm worried by earthquakes."
Not that Ishii is a timid individual - this is the man, afterall, who produced the Jelly Tones album four years ago, which boasted one of the best techno music videoclips of the decade. The visual accompaniment to his single Extra was four minutes of manic manga mayhem directed by Kouji Morimoto (of Akira notoriety) and was its own violent splat-fest; it effectively fused the mentality of A Clockwork Orange with the atmosphere of Bladerunner. The music itself was labelled '90s industrial; a direct descendant from Cabaret Voltaire's work in Sheffield up until 1980. "Nowadays most pop videos just consist of flashing images and girls dancing," explained Ishii in that self-same Generator article. "I wanted to do something much more original, something which nobody had done before."
Born on the Japanese island of Sapporo, Ken Ishii spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and, from the age of 13, he would hang out in Shibuya and Yoyogi Park, Japan's most concentrated centres of the various subcultures from punk through to rockabilly. After being 'discovered' by Belgian label R&S, he's gone on to release records for Sublime in Japan and ESP in America; he's also made music under the aliases of Rising Sons and Flare.
"I started DJing and making tracks at nearly the same time, around 1989. It was more [a case of] making music and demos than actively presenting myself as a DJ at first. I also started doing live sets around the same time, my first being in front of 20,000 people at Hellrazor in Holland. So it's been around nine years."
Ken Ishii's music has obviously developed and changed over the time since, and it's poignant to observe the differences between, say, Jelly Tones and his new album Sleeping Madness four years later. "Basically it's freestyle techno," Ken muses. "I believe that variation of the music inspires me; freed from any kind of specific genre is my rendition of techno. Thus, I think my music throughout all three albums I've produced to date have differed and fused."
It's for his DJing skills that he's being brought out to Australia, and Ken has a short and sweet description of one of his sets. "Dance with futuristic sounds, beats and some different ideas."
Ken's X-Mix compilation for Studio !K7 a few years back included the likes of Silent Poets and Buckfunk 3000, who push the perimeters of more progressive electronica. It's a twist that continues to infiltrate his sets. "My set always changes, of course, but I always try to put some spice into my set like non-dancefloor tracks or more complicated ones. I'm actually playing with Buckfunk 3000 this week at a club in Tokyo called Harlem." And the other producers that tend to crop up in his mixes- "FLR, Technasia, Co-Fusion, Tanzmuzik and The Boredoms, Basement Jaxx and Fresh Fruit's records."
In electronic music circles Ken Ishii's probably the best-known Japanese artist these days - so how does he feel about such a reputation, and does it affect his creativity-
"If that's true, I must say that I am quite honoured," he responds with a genuine sincerity. "It would in no way affect my creativity, but the fact that music - especially of this genre - is free from any boundaries or nationality gives a lot of people motivation and energy, including myself."