10 years in the making! Gentouki’s new album Birth Day is finally here! Special extended interview with Gentouki founding member and composer, Jun Tanaka.
(3rd October 2016, on Skype)
Interviewed by Mizuho Kokubo
Translated by Mizuho Kokubo & Jake Hudson
— Hi, it’s been such a long time! I interviewed you when Kanjou no Tamago was released. This album Birth Day is your only release in 10 years. Can I ask you about what you have done in the last 10 years and what made you think that you would like to make a new album?
Jun Tanaka: I had to work as a producer and songwriter after Gentouki became my solo project. It doesn’t feel like it’s been such a long time but time just passes so quickly! I wrote the songs Birth Day and Fifty-Thousand Year Survivor after the great East Japan earthquake and then I thought I should develop them further into an album.
— Do you think your work has changed because of the great East Japan earthquake?
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, I remember that it was not only us musicians, but everyone was in a state of confusion. We were made to feel helpless, like everything we were doing was pointless. In my case, to be honest, more than “helpless”, I felt like I had, in a self-centered way, been producing pointless works, as if what I’d been doing was meaningless. But as you’d expect, there comes a time when you realize that you just have to get over what had happened and get on with life. When that time came and I thought about what was really important, the answer was music. And so I started writing songs again. With the songs I write for other people, too, I’ve been writing more about the thoughts I have when observing the state of the world. At the time of the disaster, I think social media showed its power. It has enabled us to spread a lot of information into the world and share it at once, it’s great! I really feel our world has changed a lot and that’s why I write songs on the theme of the world we are currently in.
“I couldn’t make music for a while – I felt helpless, as a human, as an artist. The great East Japan earthquake (the 11th of March, 2011) was a great tragedy.”
— Yes, I do think your songs have changed, especially the lyrics.
Jun Tanaka: I think that we are in the middle of a dramatic transformation.
— Do you think your way of writing songs has changed greatly?
Jun Tanaka: Mmm... I wanted to do what I couldn’t do when Gentouki was a band.
— I compared your old albums and this new album and the sound is completely different. Do you think that your new home studio affected that?
Jun Tanaka: Yeah of course, but I think I can also say that the evolution of technology has affected my songs. You can sample any sound and use it in a recording these days. But to record live music, like live guitar or vocals, you need studio quality equipment. So I saved up, I bought it.
— I see. When I rang you, you said you were in your studio so I vaguely imagined you were in the basement.
Jun Tanaka: My studio is out behind my garage, it used to be rented out as a shop. I’ve put sound insulation in. There’s very little reverberation, so I can get a good, clear recording.
Jun Tanaka: We can’t record orchestra sounds but almost all sounds can be recorded now. If you have a special microphone, you can also record drum
sounds. So the new studio might have affected my sound. Also, I can spend as long as I want on any given track until I’m satisfied with the finish.
— Ah, right! That’s great.
Jun Tanaka: The overall feel of the album should be improved. My new studio isn’t a full professional one, but the sound quality isn’t far off.
— The vocal style seemed more refined to me, I felt that it had changed quite a lot. Your previous albums were pretty much pure pop, but there’s a wider range of styles here.
Jun Tanaka: I agree. I hadn’t really realized that before, because you hear your own stuff all the time. As a producer, you try to write material that mimics or suits the voice of the artist you’re writing for. So no doubt that’s rubbed off on me to a certain extent.
Times change and people change, although time passes equally for everyone. How have the past 10 years been for Gentouki’s Jun Tanaka?
— That makes sense. So looking back, what do you think about the past 10 years?
Jun Tanaka: I was working so hard to develop the foundation of my career as a professional songwriter and producer that I didn’t really notice the time passing.
— It went by so quickly for you.
Jun Tanaka: I’m so surprised when I hear about people I went to high school with, and they’re adults with jobs, families... I once heard about a girl who bought my CD as her very first CD, and she’d gone on to become a pro musician. It really impressed me.
— Wow, that’s amazing! Her first CD! Your music must have had a real effect on her. That’s really exciting stuff!
Jun Tanaka: I’m turning 40 next year, and sometimes I feel pressed for time. I’m surprised I’m still getting away with this at my age.
— I know what you mean, I’m not getting any younger myself. If it makes you feel better, I think your music is very mature. Well, can I ask about the exmembers?
Jun Tanaka: Only Itoken (Kenta Ito / Ba.) is still with me, as a support musician. He’s been in that role for about 5 years.
— When I first heard your music in around 2002, Itoken had just joined Gentouki. That was after you moved to Tokyo.
Jun Tanaka: Was that our first mainstream album?
— It was a double CD album, with a label compilation on one CD and Spitz covers on the other. By the way, I know you’ve uploaded a written commentary with each song on your website, but I still want to ask something about each of the songs.
Jun Tanaka: Of course! Ask me anything.
“I felt like my life couldn’t keep going forward without making music. I couldn’t go anywhere, and that thought made me make the album.”
Beyond the liner notes! Times, society, social media, changing values, and Brazilian music... we chatted about various topics.
— Thank you. Getting right to it, the first song, which is also called Birth Day like the album... You said you’re thinking more these days about the changing times and society. Have you ever consciously thought about that when you’re writing?
Jun Tanaka: No, not at all.
— Was the trigger the great East Japan earthquake?
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, that was certainly important, but I think what was more important than that was the influence of social media. Do you remember Myspace?
— Yes, it was very popular. I had an account even though I wasn’t making music. When was that? I don’t really remember...
Jun Tanaka: I think it was about 2007. I believe it was the first social media which really connected Japanese people to the outside world. Mixi didn’t really do that. Mixi was a completely closed, domestic system. Probably few people remember now, but at the time people wanted to shift from Mixi to Myspace because Myspace is very open and popular worldwide.
— Right! I have never thought about that.
Jun Tanaka: General users could paste their favorite songs and also use HTML so we could lead people to our own website, and we could also customize it how we liked. But it got to the point where the pages took too long to load... to get around that, you had to make it a simple, standard page. That meant you’d lost a lot a lot of features, and the ability to customize properly.
— It makes sense. I completely forgot I even had a Myspace account...
Jun Tanaka: And then Twitter and Facebook replaced Myspace, right?
— I see, so nobody uses Myspace now?
Jun Tanaka: I don’t think so.
— What do you think about Soundcloud and Mixcloud?
Jun Tanaka: I have their accounts but I don’t think they’re worth having. I don’t think these are good places to be actively uploading your work, but I know they are now mainstream. On those sites, your work gets lost among all the amateur stuff. I really put time and effort into my stuff, so I think YouTube is better... I’d like to make music like a director makes a film.
— That’s a nice metaphor. So I’d like to talk about the 2nd song, FiftyThousand Year Survivor. Now I empathized with this song.
Jun Tanaka: Actually I’m not saying negative things about modern technology. It’s like when you change your job, or start going out with a new partner. At first, there’s a feeling of awkwardness, and sometimes a pang of loss. I think that’s what it’s like when times change. And the times are changing more and more quickly these days, and our values need to keep up with this. In fact, I think that, in the near future, there will be a split between the values we can choose.
— A split? （This interview took place before the American election of Donald Trump as President.）
Jun Tanaka: For example, a choice between the material world, or liberation from it. Think about the clash between communism and liberalism in the past; that’s an ideological shift. I think there will be a polarization between materialists and others in the future. I feel like it’s hard for me to choose. I grew up in the material world, and I feel at home here. Sometimes it feels like it would be easier to give it up, though.
— I see, it’s deeply impressing. I took the meaning more positively.
Jun Tanaka: No, you’re right, the song means that the whole world is gradually getting better.
— I thought it was funny when you sang, “Forgive my empty song”. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it, given that your songs tend to have a lot of meaning. Witty, too, I loved it!
Jun Tanaka: There were heaps of “empty songs”, especially in the 90’s. For example, like incomprehensible literary songs... It tended to be cooler if your song had no meaning. We don’t really have songs like that now.
— Ahh, right...! Next song, A Seagull’s Heart, it’s catchy, I found myself singing along pretty quickly. And also it’s really fascinating. I could get an idea of your perspective on a society and a world in chaos from your lyrics like ‘if the world ends now’ and ‘Ignoring imperfect borders’.
Jun Tanaka: Right, but I wasn’t really conscious of that in this song. I tried to write an empty song.
— Empty song! Hahaha...! So the lyrics just came to you spontaneously...
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, I mean the idea might have been somewhere in my mind even if I wasn’t aware of it consciously.
— It’s very interesting! Now the 4th song. Bye-Bye was originally written for Kaoru Miyazaki, but you sang it by yourself on this album.
Jun Tanaka: I wrote it about the same time that I wrote Birth Day, and I wanted to sing it myself, too.
— It has very sentimental lyrics and beautiful melody lines.
Jun Tanaka: Thanks!
— Next one, Desert of Love. Now, this is just like the kind of song that you used to write for Gentouki, isn’t it?
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, I think so, too. It’s just like me.
— It might be a bit different, but it makes me think of Top News (from 3rd album Kanjou no Tamago). The punchiness of it, and the balance between lyrics and melody.
Jun Tanaka: Yeah right. Actually, I wanted it to be the lead song on the album, but compared to Birth Day and Fifty-Thousand Year Survivor, the lyrics are much plainer.
— Plainer lyrics?
Jun Tanaka: The lyrics didn’t have the impact. The music is very typical of my sound, but when I thought about the whole song from the perspective of a record producer, the answer was “No”.
— I see, so that was the judgement. And the next song, Anniversary of Ice Cream and a Skirt. This was written for Tokyo Bossa Nova. I had the compilation album TOKYO BOSSA NOVA -vento-, but I didn’t realize that it was also your work.
Jun Tanaka: You know, it does say “Gentouki” in the credits.
— Really? Sorry about that... I didn’t even know you were a fan of Brazilian music.
Jun Tanaka: Oh yeah, I was a bit frustrated that I couldn’t really bring it into my music when Gentouki was a band. The other members were into American pop and British pop.
— This song is so beautiful especially the last part with scat and electric guitar sounds, it gave me goose bumps!
Jun Tanaka: Thanks.
— So Birth Day has been quite well-received so far, hasn’t it?
Jun Tanaka: I haven’t really heard anything bad about it yet. And I’m hoping it’ll be a good seller.
— Well, hopefully it’ll do well!
Jun Tanaka: Even if it doesn’t sell, it’s like a business card... It’s something of myself that I can give to others. I feel like my life couldn’t keep going forward without making music. I couldn’t go anywhere, and that thought made me make the album.
— Yeah, I certainly get that feeling. Well, onto the next song Algorithm. Now, as with Desert of Love, Yoshinari Takegami played the sax on this track.
Jun Tanaka: He is a very popular and important player in the world of Japanese pop.
— How did you meet him?
Jun Tanaka: I met him through Ryoki Matsumoto. He wrote Yuki no Hana for Mika Nakashima. Takegami also plays sax for May J, who I’m also writing songs for. I’ve heard his sax on various tracks before, but working on this album was the first time I’ve actually met him. He’s an exceptionally talented player, and a really nice guy as well.
— That you were able to work together with a guy that you think so highly of, on your first album in 10 years... That was really lucky! And the next song, Busy Days. I thought the album liner comments were was really interesting: “I thought I’d challenge myself, and see how far I could get writing a song with just the riff, without the chord work. But of course I ended up going back to the chord and the melody. It is pop music, so it can’t be helped.” It’s the frustration of the working musician!
Jun Tanaka: The blood of a blues musician doesn’t really flow through my veins.
Jun Tanaka: I’d like to try writing from the riff in the future, which reminds me of how many black American blues players write. But as I said, I’m basically a pop musician.
— So, black music didn’t have much of an influence on your music, even though you’ve obviously listened to it!
Jun Tanaka: I have obviously heard a lot, and I’d like to try writing something blues-inspired. Like an 8-bar riff that sits in one chord.
— Yeah, right! So onto the last song on the album, Suteki na Anohito (acoustic version). It’s awesome to see this as the last track, but there are no liner notes on the album for this one?
Jun Tanaka: I probably should have got around to writing those. I was going to master the album as 8 tracks, but the director of Victor Entertainment suggested adding this song last, as an old favorite for fans of Gentouki.
— I very much appreciated that myself! It made me feel like, Gentouki is back!
Jun Tanaka: I’m glad to hear that. It’s a nice song, even after so much time has passed. Recently, I’m very interested in music which makes full use of the latest technology.
“I like exploring new values and ideas...and people who are unique in their way of looking at things.”
“Artists who just say what they want to say aren’t working as musicians anymore.”
— What you said in the CINRA.NET interview about technology not conflicting with art was impressive for me.
Jun Tanaka: It’s good for me to keep moving forward... I get bored pretty easily. I like exploring new values and ideas... anarchists of all types, irrespective of the genre...
— Ah, people who aren’t really loved by anyone?
Jun Tanaka: Uh, I mean, people who are unique in their way of looking at things?
— I see, I think this is also linked with the changing times and society so do you think the current Japanese music is not really good for you?
Jun Tanaka: I don’t mean avant-garde for its own sake, although of course there are always some people making that kind of music. The Japanese music scene doesn’t encourage that kind of expression. There is a tendency for Japanese musicians to be goody-goodies, to just say what they think others want to hear.
Jun Tanaka: I’m not saying that it’s wrong to be conformist. According to Kenichiro Mogi (Ken Mogi), we shouldn’t judge people based on which company they work for. We tend to include this in our online profiles, it’s common in Japan.
— Ah, yes.
Jun Tanaka: It’s understandable if you’re an office worker. But if you’re artist, do you think you’re going to write that?
— I know what you mean. That’s not exactly artistic expression, is it?
Jun Tanaka: Right, we’re supposed to be allowed to express ourselves in this world, but it’s like we’re chained to the machine. For example, when you get a job, you’re supposed write what your position is and what’s expected of you in the employment contract, and even well-known performers write their names as “so-and-so from company X.” It’s one of the things that makes the world dreary. Also, we’re living in a world where trolls can savage you online with impunity.
— Ah, so do you think it has something to do with the rapid spread of the internet?
Jun Tanaka: I think so. That’s why there are many artists who are saying boring things. I sometimes wonder, if Kiyoshiro Imawano was still alive, what would he be doing? If he had been born in the present, he wouldn’t have been a musician. Artists who just say what they want to say aren’t working as musicians any more. If that came back to the music world, that would be great but it doesn’t seem likely, does it? I also think that music at the moment is shifting toward something like a new expressive form.
“There are lots of things I’d like to do, and I’d like to make music that gets recognized overseas.”
— So do you want to make music that changes the world?
Jun Tanaka: I really want music to get its power back... It’s not that Japanese music is without power, there are some great bands around at the moment. RADWIMPS is doing some great things, I don’t think there has been a band like them before. That movie, Your Name has been getting rave reviews. But I really think there’s potential for more. What am I doing, saying nice things about other people? So there’s lots of great work being done, but it’s Japanese society that just sucks the life out of art. It’s a very tough time in the music world at the moment, and most likely that’s not limited to just Japan.
— I see. And do you have any thoughts on what you might do, or how you might get involved, to change the Japanese music scene for the better?
Jun Tanaka: Well, I can’t promise anything. You must find a balance between music and the rest of your life...
— And if music is developing new expressive forms, as we said a minute ago, do you have some thoughts on that?
Jun Tanaka: I remember the words of the anarchists. For example, Toshiyuki Inoko (Team Lab) said that “happiness and emotion isn’t something you have, it’s something you experience.”
— In the music world, it means live music or something like improvisation?
Jun Tanaka: A live concert is usually for a night, but it’d be good if you could experience it over a few days. Like an art exhibition is usually held over a few days or weeks, right?
— Yeah, there’s a certain period.
Jun Tanaka: And films usually screen over a certain period, too.
— I guess you’re thinking of it as longer than a music festival?
Jun Tanaka: That would make it like a film schedule, wouldn’t it? But yeah, I guess longer than a festival.
— And are you interested in doing the soundtrack for a film?
Jun Tanaka: I have done one before, but if the chance came up again, then I think I would be keen.
— I’d like to see you do one.
Jun Tanaka: It’s something that I do think about a lot, but it never seems to get off the ground. The band’s name, Gentouki, has a connection to film.
— Wow, it’s like a destiny thing!
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, I hope it’s meant to be.
— There’s an English version of your website, and the album liner lyrics have also been translated. It’s like you’re reaching out to the English-speaking world with this album, which I think is great!
Jun Tanaka: Thanks!
— Let’s upload an English version of this interview as well! Are you conscious of the overseas market when thinking about what you’re going to do next?
Jun Tanaka: I’d like to make something that does well on the domestic market. It would be great if I could do something that not only Japanese but also people abroad could get into. I’m still looking for that, but as far as this album goes I just made the music that I’ve been wanting to make. I wasn’t thinking of the overseas market in particular but the internet makes it so easy now and I was happy with the album, so I thought I’d send it out there.
— That’s great. Well, what are you planning to do in the near future?
Jun Tanaka: Truly, there are lots of things I’d like to do.
— Right, you did say that you get bored easily. I can imagine that you’ll keep your eye on what’s happening, and catch the wave that seems to be coming in at the time.
Jun Tanaka: The wider world outside Japan would be like a dream come true for me. As a Japanese guy, I’d like to make music that gets recognized overseas. There are 7 billion people in the world and there’s no reason to make music for just a hundred million of them.
— Yeah, it would be a waste if such great music was only listened to in Japan.
Jun Tanaka: I think there is a big gap between Japan and overseas, I’d like that to be gone. There are some reasons for that, like the fact that Japanese tend not to be good at English. Also, our market is pretty big so we don’t have to rely on something selling well abroad. Of course I love Japan; I was born here and I’ve been here all my life. If you asked me, “Is Japan a good country?” I’d answer “yes” straight away. But I’d like Japan to develop more and be an even better country.
We remember the 90’s.
— You were young in the 90’s, and your career as a musician started in ‘95, right? How have things changed since then?
Jun Tanaka: Mmm...In those days, you didn’t really talk to musicians who were working in genres different to your own.
— They were like people from a different country?
Jun Tanaka: Exactly! There was a music periodical called “rockin’on” that had a section called “Number 10 Metal game (Metal Juban Syobu).” It had interviews with metal musicians. But the point of it was to make fun of metal heads, like, “Oh my God, what complete losers!” And I remember that Blur and Oasis fans used to get into fistfights in those days.
— Ah, right.
Jun Tanaka: In the 90’s, a musical genre was almost like a religion. One genre was completely distinct from another, or that’s what it seemed like at the time. It’s not like that now... people get on even if they’re into different genres...
— Oh, that also means we all are “Goody-goodies” now?
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, right! These days I don’t worry too much about categorizing stuff... hard rock, heavy metal, it’s all good, and they’re good bands. Like Extreme, or Mötley Crüe, those guys have some punchy riffs.
— But, you weren’t into them in the 90’s?
Jun Tanaka: No, I thought they were painfully uncool.
Gentouki’s musician friends, and the all-important jacket artist Yusuke Nakamura.
— Well, I’d like to ask about your friends, who you’re still on good terms with. Especially in the 2000 ‘s’.
Jun Tanaka: HARCO and I are still good friends.
— HARCO! How is he? I did some writing work for him – for his website, and fliers - but it was a long time ago.
Jun Tanaka: Oh right. Yeah, he’s well, he lives near me, actually. And KIRINJI and Yasuyuki Horigome, who are like mentors to me.
— They wrote some comments for the Birth Day page on your site. And what about Kansai musicians like BEBECHIO and ANATAKIKOU? I remember I used to see you guys performing at the same gig.
Jun Tanaka: Yeah, we’re still good friends.
— I think I must mention Yusuke Nakamura... Now, he did great art work once again on the jacket for this album.
Jun Tanaka: I think he’s become one of the best artists in Japan. I’d like to be like the music world version of him. I have a lot of respect for him, in many ways.
— Actually, I offered to do this interview because I saw the conversation between you and him on Twitter.
Jun Tanaka: And I’m very grateful for that!
— I’m also happy that we could do an interview together again after all this time. “Birth Day” happened to be released on the same day as my birthday... It’s like it was meant to be... I didn’t mean to be pushy about the interview...
Jun Tanaka: Don’t be silly! I’m very glad, too, and I really appreciate your offer!
— Thanks a lot!
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