New YorkGramercy Theatre
May 29, 2019
Arriving backstage a bit early for my interview with Hosono Haruomi, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on rehearsals. A drawn velvet curtain did little to muffle his warm baritone, much less the lilting voice of Yano Akiko—a longtime collaborator, whose lasting influence rivals Hosono’s own. Listening to them practice “Ai Ai Gasa” for that night’s encore, I considered my luck: seeing Hosono in the intimacy of Gramercy Theatre was a rare treat for fans whom, outside of the States, number in the millions. Not only the visionary artist behind Japan’s great musical export, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Hosono has pioneered a plethora of genres—from psychedelia to exotica, pop to ambient—as both musician and producer. Yet despite a half century in music, this was his first solo tour in the US, a country whose influence is perhaps the one consistent element running throughout his kaleidoscopic, breathlessly prolific career.
Born in 1947 in Tokyo, Hosono grew up steeped in American culture. “My mother was very into music and Hollywood,” he told me through a translator, “and my maternal grandfather was a piano tuner” (his other grandfather, a railway bureaucrat, famously survived the Titanic’s sinking). Raised on a diet of American popular music, Hosono’s professional career began as a young bassist in a ’60s psych get-up, Apryl Fool, that soon reassembled as the more folk-driven Happy End. Fusing Japanese lyrics and American music, Happy End was the first band to prove the viability of Japanese-language rock—a hotly debated idea at the time—wholly transforming the industry.
In search of the “Burbank” sound, Happy End headed to Los Angeles in 1972. Brandishing a suitcase of cash (and a pearl), they managed to enlist Van Dyke Parks and Little Feat for the recording of their final, self-titled album. And although Hosono and the band learned a great deal from Parks about American studio production, namely sonic depth, America itself left them disenchanted. Just the year prior, their hit record Kazemachi Roman had enthused that “Hi-collar (Western style) is beautiful,” but the real California created songs like “Sayonara America, Sayonara Nippon.” Facing cultural and linguistic barriers on both sides of the Pacific, their frustration was later articulated by former band member, Matsumoto Takashi: “We had already given up on Japan, and with [that song], we were saying bye-bye to America too—we weren't going to belong to any place.”
With the dissolution of Happy End in 1973, Hosono moved to American Village, an idealized slice of 1950s America originally built for the families of air base troops. An hour north of Tokyo, this island of Americana was neither truly the US nor Japan, and offered him perspective, cheap rent, and convenience. Cramming his small Western-style house with Japanese musicians and equipment, he recorded the first of his many phenomenal solo albums, Hosono House. A touch surf-pop, honky tonk, and cosmic American music—a blend held together under Hosono’s effortless swagger—the album is downright contagious.
At the Gramercy show, the audience emphatically responded to “Choo Choo Gatagoto” and “Bara To Yaju,” familiar House hits recently reworked on Hosono’s latest Hochono House, a playful renovation of the original. Quite a few heads did tilt, however, unable to place the early American tunes making up nearly half of the set—from the boogie-woogie number “Down The Road A Piece” to the jump blues style “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens.” Indeed, a famously encyclopedic man, Hosono has been preserving these forgotten songs the past few years on albums like A Night in Chinatown, Heavenly Music, and, most recently, Vu Ja De—whose title references a sense of strangeness when encountering the familiar (certainly a poignant idea when playing old America to young Americans). Being so artfully revived by Hosono and his band, songs like Artie Shaw’s “Back Bay Shuffle” felt so much like a love letter to New York—“a musical sanctuary,” he had told me earlier.
The soaring popularity of Hosono House in the west, and indeed Hosono himself, is largely thanks to Light in the Attic Records. The Seattle-based label has been tirelessly repressing and compiling a host of once obscure Japanese gems, many never before available outside of Japan. These include a number of Hosono’s key albums, from his work with Happy End to his many pre-YMO solo albums—an idiosyncratic era dominated by one of the musician’s foundational fascinations, exotica.
A late ’50s craze first popularized by American Martin Denny, exotica painted a Technicolor impression of the “oriental” culture surrounding American military bases. Denny, a WWII veteran, described it as “what a lot of people imagined the islands to be like...[but] pure fantasy.” In turn, Hosono’s Tropical Trilogy (he called it, more sardonically, “soy sauce music”) brilliantly subverts the genre’s blurry Shangri-las. Tropical Dandy (1973), Bon Voyage Co. (1976), and Paraiso (1978)—replete with birdcall, vibraphone, and the “oriental riff”—exoticized American exotica itself. I was ecstatic to hear Hosono play, and wildly reinterpret, a number of selections from Bon Voyage Co. at his show, like “Hong Kong Blues,” “Pom Pom Joki” and, my personal favorite, “Roochoo Gumbo”—a bouncy New Orleans-meets-Okinawa number of jazzy piano progressions originally backed by a Ryukyuan choir. Pushing such high saturation, “East” and “West” bleed into each other on these numbers, obliterating definition—Hosono’s very vision of utopia, a word literally meaning “no-place.”
Hosono’s appetite for cultural fusion deeply influenced the modern history of Japanese music, from Yano Akiko’s knockout debut, Japanese Girl (1976), to Sakamoto Ryuichi’s own Thousand Knives of 1978. The same year, Hosono furthered his own exploration of exotica in technique as well as scope on Cochin Moon. Created in collaboration with renowned pop artist, Yokoo Tadanori, this fictional Bollywood soundtrack was inspired by their visit to India—a “utopian” experience, he reassured me, despite UFOs and his near-fatal food poisoning. Heavy with synth and sequencer, the album also features his future YMO collaborators; a first glance at their techno-pop future. Revving up for their debut that year, the boys also joined him on Paraiso and Pacific, the latter another collaborative album created with Suzuki Shigeru and city-pop icon, Yamashita Tatsuro. Awash with Beach Boy rips, lazy bass, and crashing waves, Pacific captures Hosono’s exotica fixation much further west, though still at international waters.
Although continually mining the tropes of so-called Eastern and Western music, Hosono rarely docks in either fully. It’s from such hyphenated space that he founded YMO, whose surprise electro-exotica hit, “Firecracker”—itself a Martin Denny cover—brought him vast international fame. Last week, the only YMO song played was “Absolute Ego Dance,” though Hosono did give electronic music an obligatory nod with “Sportsmen”—the hit track off his 1982 solo album, Philharmony. Undoubtedly the crowd favorite, Hosono nevertheless transformed the new wave classic à la Gram Parsons, lap steel and all. Brilliantly executed, this number especially showed off his top-notch band that, whether soloing like a Birdland quintet or going full Byrds, managed to keep up with the 71 year old.
Such surprises are the fun of being a Hosono fan. Following the break-up of YMO in 1983, his ever-curious mind shifted from techno-pop to ambient—a territory he had begun to explore on their 1981 album, BGM. Ambient had become popular in ’80s Japan thanks to Eno’s ambient series and Ashikawa Satoshi’s Kankyō Ongaku (“environmental music”) movement. Among the earliest Japanese artists exploring ambient, Hosono released a number of seminal books and recordings through his labels Yen, Monad, and Non-Standard, including his Mercuric Dance (1985), as well as Inoyama Land’s exquisite Danzindan-Pojidon (1983). Consciously realigning his “paradise view” under a banner of Kankō Ongaku—a pun meaning “sightseeing music”—the next decade largely found the island-hopper “adrift in the sea of ambient music.”
As the 21st century approached, Hosono once again returned to the 20th, though less as a tourist than conservationist. One of my favorite albums signaling this pivot is 1996’s Swing Slow, his collaboration with vocalist Koshi Miharu. Long time friends, Hosono has produced a number of Miharu’s albums, including Tutu, Boy Soprano, and Parallelisme—some of the best of ’80s Japan. Mixing their shared passion for mid-century popular music on Swing Slow, the record drips with that irresistible kitsch of chanson and lounge, demanding a martini. I asked Hosono, ecstatic to hear of my interest in Koshi, about their sole collaboration. “We never got many reviews for it,” he told me regretfully, “but we’ve talked about a second album numerous times. Maybe next year.”
At this point Sean Ono Lennon, preparing his opening DJ set just beside us, drowned out our interview with sampled pornography tracks. We were forced to end abruptly, so I quickly asked Hosono about the legacy of 20th-century American music. “There are many treasures that haven’t become known yet to the world. Americans don’t really dig deep,” he laughed, “and foreigners like myself are more willing to dig and listen. So as a way of giving back, I want to make Americans listen more to themselves.”
Hosono’s show opened with Sidney Bechet’s “Si Tu Vois Ma Mère”—the first of many jazz age classics he would play that night. Cradling a beautiful 1930’s Gibson in his hands, he took a moment to look across his young New York City audience, the jet lag leaving him more heavy-eyed than usual. Regardless, his first words to us remain deeply stirring: “Thank you for American music.”