Have you heard Yellow Magic Orchestra? Might be the best pop group ever.
Now, if you're the kind of reader who's suspicious of such shameless hyperbole (and huzzah for you if you are), then consider these crunchy, fact-like nuggets: In 1978, when YMO released its self-titled debut, there was nary a thing called synthpop. Five years later, after the group split, the Tokyo band's bleeps and blips were firmly embedded in global pop music, where they've remained ever since. In that half-decade, YMO's sound matured at a pace rivaled only by the Beatles in the mid-'60s. Its zany exotica-disco spoofs quickly evolved into a sensuous musique concrète perfected on the last two albums of its classic period, 1983's Naughty Boys and Service. For YMO's members -- Ryuichi Sakamoto, Haruomi Hosono, and Yukihiro Takahashi -- it was quite a ride. The tenor of those times was vividly illustrated by this 2008 exchange in the Guardian:
"We were very big," sighs Sakamoto, "that's why I hated it. We were always followed by paparazzi."
"Yes, and teenage girls," says Hosono. "They would literally chase us down the street and rip our clothes to shreds."
"I quite enjoyed that," says Takahashi.
Sakamoto, YMO's vocalist and keyboardist, spoke with us by telephone where the band were rehearsing for the tour that brings it to the Warfield this Monday, June 27.
In the United States, you're primarily known for being one of the first electronic pop groups. Is that how you see YMO?
[Laughs] I think that's a fact. It's something we're proud of. We were heavily influenced by Kraftwerk. Actually, I introduced Kraftwerk to the other members of YMO and they immediately became huge fans. But instead of imitating Kraftwerk, obviously, we wanted to invent something original -- technopop from Japan. Kraftwerk was very German. We wanted to create something very Japanese.
Do you remember the first time you heard Kraftwerk?
Well, before I got to know Kraftwerk, I was already a fan of German rock of the '70s -- now it's called Krautrock. And I liked the bands Can, Faust, and Neu! So in the middle of the '70s at a record shop in Tokyo I picked up a record by Kraftwerk. This was before they were a technopop group. Then, soon after, Autobahn (1974) came out. So it was interesting because I listened to them go from experimental rock to technopop.
You mentioned your desire to do something similar to Kraftwerk but said you wanted to make it very Japanese. What did that mean back then? How did you start with something that was distinctly German and make it distinctly Japanese?
First of all, I was tired of copying the West and America because we had had enough of that by then. [Laughs] So I wanted to be very unique. Also we were tired of being told the Japanese were copying everything -- the cars and TVs -- at that time. So we thought it was time to make something very original from Japan. Because everything else was very much an imitation of the West at that time. Kind of coincidentally, when YMO came out, the Japanese cars and TVs also came out and it was very controversial. Some American workers were destroying Japanese cars. [Laughs] It was an interesting time.
It's interesting that both YMO and Kraftwerk took up issues of national identity in their work. Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk has talked a lot over the years about Kraftwerk being a bridge from the Weimar culture of the '20s to the future, sort of bypassing the Nazi era to create an unsullied German culture. It seems YMO had a similar cultural-historical idea in mind.
We are still amazed by the strong concepts behind Kraftwerk -- their visuals, logos, live presentation, everything. It's very, very formalized. We thought that was very German and we knew we couldn't do that. So, instead, in Japan we have everything. We have Japanese traditions and heavy Western influences on everything like music and food and architecture -- everything. So it's kind of chaotic, Japanese culture. That was something we wanted to reflect in our music -- that chaos, that everything. So instead of reducing and purifying one's style (as Kraftwerk did on their technopop albums) we did the opposite. We let in everything: techno, but a little bit of jazz and classical. Asian, Western, American ... Hawaiian, even! [Laughs]
That's a very interesting point and very true if you listen to YMO next to a lot of the British synthpop groups you guys influenced -- like OMD and Human League, who seemed to go for a kind of austerity. Now, before I let you go, I thought maybe we could talk briefly about the way you make your music. The thing I appreciate more and more about both YMO and your solo work is your sense of melody. What is your approach to writing a melody?
Of course, there is no single method. If there were I would champion it. Because once I had it I could generate lots of melodies. [Laughs] It might make my life easier but there is no one way. But I can give you one example. There's a song called "Tong Poo" from the first album. I was very conscious about writing that melody. I was referring to some very unique music, which was made during Mao's Cultural Revolution in China in the '70s.
So, written to serve the Cultural Revolution?
Exactly. At the time the Chinese refused to play Western music -- not even Beethoven or Schubert. [Laughs] But they were using instruments from Western orchestras -- piano, for example -- combined with traditional Chinese instruments. So at that time Chinese composers were trying to invent something very unique. By chance, I bought some records of their work and I thought it was very interesting music. And that was the basis to "Tong Poo."