March 05 2013

From Tokyo with Love

New York-Le Bain

A pair of our favorite artists, AIKO and Tomokazu Matsuyama, are part of a brilliant new exhibition going up at The Japan Society Gallery, Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints, and we're throwing a party to celebrate. This Sunday, March 10th, Nouveau York welcomes DJs Satoshi Tomiie and Alex from Tokyo to help toast the two at Le Bain. Before the big show, we put Tomokazu and Alex together to talk art, music and the Japanese scene ...

TOMOKAZU MATSUYAMA: How did you first get into music?

ALEX FROM TOKYO: Through my dad, initially, who is a big music lover, especially blues. Later on, it was through Japanese and international friends in high school in Tokyo and through my cousin in Versailles in France who was in a New Wave band. My dad would make mix tapes for his friends' dance parties and I would sometimes follow my parents and fall asleep next to the stereo system. One of my best friend's dads was also a big music producer who did a lot of work for Sony Music Japan. On weekends, my friend would play me new music from the US, and we'd go to clubs. That's when I first became fascinated by night life.

Any specific memories of Tokyo back then?

Growing up in the mid-'80s there was pretty special. The city was booming and we had access to all this amazing music and the latest trends from all around the world. I remember seeing a big poster promoting the movie Wild Style in Shibuya at the department store Parco. Around that time I got heavily into hip hop and the whole DJ culture. The Lycée Franco-Japonais in Tokyo was a pretty funky school with great characters and also the kids of celebrities in the Tokyo fashion and music scenes. We'd go to clubs every weekend in Roppongi, Shibuya and Shinjuku and roller-skating in Korakuen. But our school dance parties were the best. Two friends and I got together and started to DJ.

Tomokazu Matsuyama

When did you get into house music?

I was already buying dance music records and one day my friend at the Wave record store recommended I check out this underground house music club called The Bank. That first night there changed my life in every way. House was exploding in Tokyo, and I started to be part of the movement, DJing and organizing parties with my friends. This was around 1990 or '91. When I graduated from high school, I went to study in France where I discovered a similar underground scene bubbling up in Paris.

What was Paris like?

I was very lucky to be there at that time. I met some other DJs, like DJ Deep, Laurent Garnier, Dimitri, St Germain, DJ Cam, and with DJ Deep and Gregory started this DJ unit called A Deep Groove. We'd play and had a daily mix show on the radio station FG 98.2. It was great to be around all those talented people; it really inspired me. I was still a student figuring out my life but already deep into the scene. Then, in 1995, when the French Touch was about to blow up, I went back to Tokyo and started to work at a record store called Mr. Bongo in Shibuya. I was representing the French label F Communications and helping other French and European labels in Japan. That's when I started to make my living from music.

Tokyo Black Star's Black Star (featuring Rich Medina)

We’ve collaborated together on your album covers, and also did a 20-page booklet for your Tokyo Black Star album. Why is art important to you?

I'm so proud of what we did together! It's probably one of my greatest achievements in life. As you know, I've always been curious and into other artistic fields, especially painting. The visual aspect of the music has always been very important to me. I was introduced to your art by a common friend of ours in Tokyo and fell in love with it. I realized we shared this unique East-meets-West connection. I gave you the music first, and I knew that you would describe it through your painting, and you did it so well.

You're an interesting mix—you grew up in Tokyo, New York, and Paris. Where do you feel most at home?

All those places have shaped my identity, but the music, the street culture and the art from New York has definitely inspired me more than anything else. That said, the unique mash-up style of Tokyo, the pure and spiritual Japanese approach and attitude, the soul, funk and raw energy of Manhattan, and my European sensibilities have all contributed to my sound identity. But New York has become home for now.

Matsu's painting for Alex'Tokyo Black Star project. Some of Matsu's paintings for Alex's Tokyo Black Star album.

You also have this traditional-contemporary dichotomy to your music, like mixing house with classic disco, or Asian folk with current bass and beats. Where do you find your inspirations?

I love discovering all kinds of old and new music. As a DJ, I present myself through my sets based on my feelings and my instincts. I try to incorporate all those elements and music I find interesting, fun and relevant for the party for people to dance to. I like to make them discover something new. For me, as a world citizen and an artist, New York is a great place to be. It's the most international city, the dance music culture comes from here, and it's definitely a place where you can mix up all those things, stay fresh, and be original.

Do you still like music? There can be a real love/hate relationship when you're so passionate about something. When I criticize other people's work, I sometimes ask myself whether I still even like art or not...

It's always been tough as an artist to stay creative, on top, to keep it going, to be relevant when trends go by, and the music industry has been through some major changes in the past decade. But music has the power to make you free, as long as you have a vision, some focus, and keep it unique to yourself. You can really make it happen in your own way. Music keeps inspiring me today, and also art in general, which is crucial for survival in all our lives.

Alex's mix for Beats in Space

Digital technology has certainly had a huge impact. There are barely any record stores left in New York, and I rarely see DJs with record bags these days. What's your take on all this?

Digital has made access to everything easy, and people consume music differently and don't really listen to it. On great analog or digital sound systems, an mp3, which is a compressed file, will not sound good. Everybody can tell. So I'm still old school. I like the analog feel when I DJ and the emotive aspect is very important. It's so stimulating and it brings me so much pleasure to play a nice 12" vinyl record of an old disco or house track that was recorded so well back then and still sounds good. But there's no simple analog-vs-digital debate; it's about the right combination. The idea of having all your music digitally recorded and classified on hard-drives is amazing to me. I'm pretty attracted to DJing through a computer with a controller and some other outboards. It makes you want to challenge yourself!

Sunday March 10, honoring Le Bain favorites AIKO & Tomokazu Matsuyama for their art works in Japan Society Gallery's Edo Pop: The Graphic Impact of Japanese Prints exhibition, Nouveau York welcomes Satoshi Tomiie & Alex from Tokyo for a very special celebration. Doors 9pm. The Standard, High Line.