Let’s Dance Raw: In conversation with Shintaro Sakamoto


The polyhedric Japanese music artist guides us through his artistic process, discussing anything from his DJing past to his creative inspirations

Shintaro Sakamoto’s music is hard to pin down to a specific era, genre, or community. Having built an entire career on the ageless power of his voice and the raw, honest emotions this succeeds in conveying to the audience, the multifaceted Japanese musician creates melodies that seem to belong to another planet while hypnotising the masses with their irresistible bouncy lilt.

One of the founding members of the legendary Japanese psychedelic rock band Yura Yura Teikoku — which he launched along with two fellow art students back in 1989 — Sakamoto is one of the most influential music artists on the Japanese music scene and beyond, counting alternative American rock band Yo La Tengo and its bass player James McNew among his greatest supporters of all time.

Still, if Yura Yura Teikoku’s breakup was officialised in 2010, the Osaka-born musician, singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist has continuously experimented with the music realm to this very day. Standing out because of their ambivalence and ability to capture clashing sensations, some of his Yura Yura Teikoku successes were taken out of their frame of reference and used as the soundtrack for many avant-garde fashion shows by haute couture houses including UNDERCOVER, LOEWE, COMME des GARCONS and more.

“I want to make music that, while having meaningless lyrics, feels universal, speaking to everyone who listens to it,” Sakamoto tells Re-Edition, adding that he strives to “create a mood that drifts into the music” he loves. For the artist, the sound of a word can be like the tone of a musical instrument; before you even know the meaning of it, its sound bounces and echoes in your mind, communicating it all.

In Sakamoto’s music, the language’s rhythm thus becomes one with the notes of his songs, which insinuate themselves in our brain without us even realising it. Deep down, the polyhedric talent strives to achieve what one would call “the ultimate music universality”: in his work, he takes time to compose tracks that fuse different influences and come to the surface through an organic process that has a creative tabula rasa (“blank slate”) as its starting point.

Shintaro Sakamoto by Stefan Dotter

How to live with a phantom (2011)

Via Apple Music

Via Spotify

Just like his music, Sakamoto has two faces: the one embodied by his curly-haired style and his slender, elegant silhouette reminiscent of a rock star from the 70s; and the one represented by his transcendent appearance, which brings him closer to an esoteric, Buddhist-like figure. Again, similarly to his songs, his aura too is suspended between life and death, past and present world: a concept that reverberates in many of his musical compositions.

His songs trick you into thinking you have heard them before as if they invited listeners to retrace some of their most vivid memories. Adding to the complexity of Sakamoto’s artistic production are his album artworks, which he hand-draws himself to perfectly capture the overall atmosphere of each record. Since the beginning of his solo project, his music has lost some of the intensity of the psychedelic rock that informed Yura Yura Teikoku’s vision to progressively embrace a multilayered essence.

Sakamoto’s recent work is dense with grooves, nostalgic female choruses as well as traditional folk or vintage instruments such as congas, steel guitars, and rhythm boxes. This emerges in Like A Fable, his fourth solo album in six years, which came out in June 2022. A new body of work by the Japanese artist, the project explores the current climate, reflecting on the ongoing conflicts and socioeconomic tension that fill our days.

Without either accepting or resisting the harshness of today’s scenario, the album focuses on the enjoyment of music by capturing life in all its different aspects. At its core, Like A Fable is a celebration of the positive energy that, channeled in music, can bring people closer together, granting them a moment away from the challenges and melancholy of the world as we now experience it.

Below, the polyhedric Japanese music artist sheds light on his artistic process, reflecting on how artistic inspirations and real-life events are woven into the fabric of his musical compositions.

Re-Edition Magazine: Personally, I believe that, through your music, you manage to capture the raw mood of an era, extracting its “mold” and translating it into the verses of your songs. What can you tell us about your artistic process?

Shintaro Sakamoto: My motivation stems from the desire to create a record that I would want to listen to alongside some of my favourite albums. The idea is to create a record I would want to buy myself. I don’t have a specific idea in mind, or a role model, that defines what I am going to create; instead, I tend to follow my preferences in regard to my personal music taste so as to match them in my own music.

Though it is difficult to put into words, when it comes to drawing on other music artists to find inspiration for a new album, there are a couple of key factors I stick to and “judge”, which are: the sound of the drums, the singer’s voice and how they sing, and whether or not the end result of the record feels rustic and unfinished. This last element is crucial to me, as it denotes that there is some margin in the tracks and that these have been composed through an open, lighter approach rather than through strict programming.

Don’t Know What’s Normal (2013)

Via Spotify

Via Apple Music

RE: Your work appears to perfectly encapsulate a world, or distant universe, where life and death coexist and mix with one another. In Like A Fable too, these two forces seem to become one as the album tackles the many dichotomies of the human experience. How do you manage to reach and express this balance in your music?

SS: I normally approach music without any preconceived ideas about what I am going to create. What I do is just think about what would be a good fit for me to sing, so I start coming up with improvised lyrics and sing what remains after a process of elimination. My focus is always on how a specific song will sound and reach the listener so, whenever there is a particular theme running through it, this isn’t necessarily mentioned too literally. Instead, I like to keep things rather ambiguous and open to interpretation. I just hope the lyrics I come up with is at least as interesting as the music playing along with it.

RE: Imagine you could only listen to three records for the rest of your days. Which ones would you pick and why?

SS: There is so much music out there that it is impossible for me to choose.

RE: Who do you think is the “eternal sparkle” for you as sung in Star, one of the songs from your most recent album?

SS: It is hard to only pick one, but I would probably say Marc Bolan, Prince, and David Bowie. Although their music is different from the kind of records and music I am looking for now, they are the perfect example of someone whose artistic production and overall being feel transcendent. In Star, I tried to express my most profound admiration not only for them but also for the friends I have around me.

RE: What were your DJing days like? How did it feel to have the opportunity to introduce the audience to some of your favourite songs of all time?

SS: I think that listening to music played by a DJ on the radio is very similar to listening to a mixtape someone has made for you. It is not like finding records and hearing those songs by yourself, it is a whole different experience. What was so fascinating about it was having the chance to come across music I had never listened to before while searching for tracks to play during my radio sessions, which were always themed. It was a massive learning curve.

Swallow Season / Don’t Tinker With History (2020)

Via Spotify

Via Apple Music

RE: What is your take on fashion? Does fashion play a big role in defining your aesthetics?

SS: To be completely honest with you, I don’t know much about clothes. I have more and more trouble knowing what kind of things to wear and where to buy them, especially as I get older. I would love it if I could make my own standard pattern and wear that pattern repeatedly every day without thinking.

RE: What movies have caught your attention recently? And what is your go-to film?

SS: I really loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021), I found it very interesting, and I have seenBoogie Nights (1997) many times, though I mainly enjoy movies as entertainment.

RE: How do you feel about the direction the world has taken over the last couple of years? What realities, or events, should not be overlooked in your opinion?

SS: I am genuinely concerned about the political situation in the world because, generally speaking, it does not look good. I am also concerned about Japan and the possibility of an impending war. Without a peaceful daily life, it would be difficult to pursue pure creativity and create music spontaneously.

Shintaro Sakamoto Image by Stefan Dotter

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