What do you want from a label, as a music fan? I think in the main, most music fans want a label that’s something more than just a guy who phones the vinyl pressing plant and distributor and a name slipped into the small notes of a release. From a fan’s point of view, you want a good label to act as a trusted curator, to know that you can listen to the music they put out safe in the knowledge that it’s going to be good, regardless of genre or artist. Japanese label FLAU is a label like that. Founded in 2007, in their 13 years of life they’ve proven that the music that passes through their doors is of the authentic quality that fans look for, made by artists who really care about their craft and artistic expression. Founder Yasuhiko Fukuzono has shown himself to have that sense that lets him find the artists with something special to show, and to give them the platform to express it.
FLAU’s roster of artists includes musicians from all over Japan, across all genres from synth-pop to folk, and stretches to a wide roster of international artists too (we recently covered their release of Tara Nome Doyle and Henning Schmiedt’s Stille Natt. So as we move into a new decade, we decided it was time to Yas and some of the artists who’ve been along the way with FLAU on the journey to the label they are today.
Yasuhiko Fukuzono is the man behind FLAU, having started the label back in 2007. He also records and releases chilled electronica as Aus.
Going back into your own background, what was it that motivated you to get involved in music when you were growing up? What was your own journey before you came to Flau?
I attended a Yamaha Music School during my childhood [The Yamaha Corporation in Japan began running music schools in 1954. These later become the Yamaha Music Foundation, started with permission from the Japanese Government. Now the schools exist across Japan and abroad]. I’ve been playing since childhood. After I started listening to Depeche Mode, I woke up to the fun of electronic music. and when I was 13 or 14, I made my own songs with electones and cassettes. At home there was experimental radio like St. Giga, and my brother was collecting a lot of vinyls from the early days, so I remember recording them all to a Kenwood’s Mini Disc. I studied educational psychology and speech therapy and worked in a hospital. I decided to quit because of the increase in overseas tours [with his music], though I didn’t think I could make a living out of music. So it was natural to make music, and listen to it.
So going back to the very origins of the label, how did Flau get started? Were there any other labels that were an inspiration for you when you were getting started?
I was already tired of the club – the excitement of midnight, and the emptiness of dawn. The club is a nice place, but I would like to be more chilled with the music, so I started an afternoon show with a friend where we could sit down and enjoy the show in the afternoon. This was the beginning of FLAU. At the time, there were some wonderful, but unknown artists around me, and MySpace inspired me to connect with my favourite artists around the world. I wanted to create a platform for these people. In particular, I was influenced by the Moteer Label (run by The Remote Viewer), they made very delicate music and packaging, all amazing. Of course, I also respected Ninja Tune, Mo’ Wax and 4AD, among others, and many nice Japanese labels too.
What would you say the local music scene in Japan was like for the label, both when you started and now, over ten years later? How is community for alternative, independent music there, and how does the community interact with itself? Would you say the scene is more open to the outside world, or is it quite self-reliant and enclosed?
When we started the label, we always stood outside [the scene]. In Japan at that time, experimental sounds were in-trend, and our music was too pop. But it was experimental from J-Pop’s point of view. We did shows sometimes, but mostly with foreign artists. Our local connections were very weak and everything seemed a bit exclusive, and that’s why we tried to reach overseas as much as possible. I didn’t know anything about running a label, our distribution and a press factory always helped us and were very kind. If there was any scene, it was found in independent record shops and at Tower Records. Since our age was born between paper and the Internet media, their shelves gave me confidence in how our music would be introduced. With the influence of the Internet, a new era started, naturally open to the outside world, both physically and mentally. Now I can clearly see the scene. And exporting and connecting seems easy. There is a lot of information and tips to help you make your own music and develop it. What has remained the same as 10 years ago are the chances of opportunity and the financial support.
What’s been your typical method of finding artists, and has it changed much since the label started?
I used to be a heavy listener and collector, so I went to many record shops and found new music and artists on the internet. There have been a lot of demo tapes and sometimes we’ve found wonderful artists like Noah and Machinone through that, but most of them are either friends like Sparrows and Rayons, or artists who are already favourites like Rima Kato. As I booked tours from overseas to Japan, I started to release artists who became friends with me. Now, rather than looking for new artists, I am interested in how to develop with the artists I work with.
If FLAU has a philosophy as a label, how would you describe that philosophy?
Music is personal thing, so I really care about how deep it gets to a person. The bigger the market, the more orthodox it is, so you have to make the world smaller if you want to do what you want to do. I think it’s worth it if there’s even just one person who loves it.
What FLAU wants to do is to shine a light on alternatives, and more than anything else, it’s a process of acknowledging that there are multiple worlds, so whether or not it’s a viable business is a different question.
When you sign an artist, what is it that makes you want to sign them? The musical styles might change between artists, but are there any qualities that the artists you sign to FLAU share, maybe even outside of their music? And when you sign an artist, what are your aims when you help them develop?
It’s important to have their own style and aesthetics, that they have a unique expression that can’t be found anywhere else, a meta-perspective, and a range that always exists in the individual. The role of the label is to slightly widen the contact point between the music and society.
You have a background as a speech therapist and audiologist. It occurs to me that you’ve worked in very sound-sensitive jobs, even outside of FLAU, and that a lot of the artists in the label tend to make very careful, detailed compositions where every sound and how the soundscape is produced is very important to the music. Would you say you have a fascination for the small details of sound?
My favourite German phrase is ”Der Ton macht die Musik.” It is important how words are conveyed, and as this proverb says, the sound of the same music depends on what kind of sound is used and how the sound is arranged and placed. But, of course, we don’t make music for the tone, it’s always for the music.
Outside of just releasing music, what kind of activities does FLAU work with? You celebrated the label’s 10th anniversary with an exhibition at a bookstore [at Daikanyama Tsutaya Books], do you enjoy pushing Flau into activities that might be a bit unorthodox for a label?
We organise a live show called FOUNDLAND, and it has been held irregularly since 2011. It’s for delicate and intimate music, perhaps mostly quiet show, Sharon Van Etten, Ólafur Arnalds, and Vincent Moon have played. We also released a record with a new technology called Orgel. You can automatically hear music through your hands, and just like a famous DJ, you can change the tempo. We can make music that is truly yours through handmade custom detuning.
Last year, we organised a release party with Kitsuné by The Future Eve feat. Robert Wyatt. We collaborated with a restaurant called Happy Mouth, and tried to expand the album’s concept into a different sense. We’re doing sound walk project with Ulises Conti from Buenos Aires. The label has also released toilet paper and slippers. Each has its own concept, but the important thing is not the label’s goods, it should always be related to the music and that it’s some kind of record.
Looking back on the label’s history, are there any interesting stories or moments that stand out for you? And what are some of the things FLAU has done that you’re most proud of?
There was a big burglary just before the 10th anniversary exhibition, and a lot of CDs and all our data was lost. It was a very hard time, the artists also were abused and harassed by the burglar. But we are here now with a lot of support from our friends and audience, and we’re continuing as we did like as before. I have been working with many artists for a long time. I’m proud of it. I am proud that I have released music from as broad a range of origins as possible, regardless of gender, nationality or genre. I also receive resumes from new graduates every spring [applying to work for FLAU], even though the label is only run by myself, but it makes me so happy and thankful.
And finally, what’s coming up in the future? How would you like to develop FLAU going forward?
This year we have Henning Schmiedt, Masaki Hayashi & Seigen Tokuzawa, Sylvain Chauveau in spring. CRYSTAL, Cuushe and new artists Kumi Takahara, Schmo, Patrick Ellis are ready too. FLAU continues to deliver reliable light, even if it is small.
Rayons is the musical project of Masako Nakai, whose work as a composer takes her into multiple different fields in addition to her own solo work (in 2019 she released her work on the score for the TV series Sagrada Reset). Her debut album The World Left Behind came out in 2015.
What was the music scene in Nagoya when you were starting out as an artist? And how is it in Yokohama where you are based now?
At that time, I was particularly influenced by Sylvain Chauveau who was the pioneer of post-classical, and Japanese composer Nobuyuki Nakajima, and Claus Ogermann who I always liked. In producing the first EP, I received a lot of hints from the producer at that time about what kind of world view I wanted to express.
You studied various different forms of music at university. Were you always interested in the science of how music works, and the technical side of things?
Not really. But I had learned basic things when I was a child through learning piano. I had written simple piano pieces. I realised I had those interests after I entered University.
This year you released the album of your work for the Sagrada Reset soundtrack. Is working on a project like that an exciting challenge for you? You do a lot of soundtracks for films too, do you enjoy creating music to complement visual art?
Yes. It is an opportunity to think about music from different aspects and try different types of music. It’s such hard work, but fun.
How does a typical day of working on music look for you? How does your studio look, and what is your usual working process?
My studio is so simple. iMac, speakers, piano, some small instruments, and microphone. I usually make demos playing that piano. Or singing, playing ukulele or synthesizers. But when playing the piano, I think of the tone of various instruments in my head. I always ask myself what kind of song I want to write, what I want to convey, and what kind of atmosphere I want. Once the demo is complete, I write a score as needed and go to the recording studio.
What are you working on now? What’s coming up next?
I’ve been arranging a singer’s song. And I’ve been scoring for a short film. In January, director Kentaro Hagiwara’s new film Sayonara made no 30 hun, which I scored, will be released in Japan.
What other artists from your music community should we look out for?
Actually, I am inspired by many rock musicians recently. Wilco, Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers, Anna & Elizabeth. I want get to know contemporary pieces of Jonny Greenwood more.
Machinone is an artist whose music shines with the skill and time he puts into his craft, with his delicate, organic compositions using gentle instrumentation to summon up an atmosphere and sense of place. Based in Tokyo, his latest album, “Pieni”, came out in 2018.
You’re originally from the small town of Tohoku. What was it like being a musician there growing up, and what was the contrast when you later moved to Tokyo?
The place where I grew up was a seaside town surrounded by mountains. I lived only in my childhood, but I think of Iwate Prefecture in Tohoku as my hometown, and my parents and grandparents have lived there for a long time, so I have inherited the feeling of the local atmosphere, I think it is also reflected in the atmosphere of the songs. The song Leaf Boat recorded for Pieni was created based on memories from Iwate Prefecture.
Your album, Pieni, takes its title from an essay by a Japanese author. Can you tell us more about this essay, and why it helped inspire this album?
It was inspired by an essay called In a Small Town by a writer from Kyushu, Because my experience was very similar to the essay episode. I really sympathised with the troubles of the youth that everyone had when I was young, the loneliness of going to Tokyo, and the feeling of losing my hometown. However, what’s important is that this book is simply a wonderful book interspersed with poetic expressions.
Both of your records are instrumental albums that are inspired by places. Is trying to capture the atmosphere and feelings of a place in sound something that inspires you musically?
Because I often record in my room, I think that the atmosphere of the town or place where I live has a great influence on the sound. If I had lived in a different places, I think that I would have created a completely different work. It’s probably a lot more involved than a place. The place where I live now is not a country or a city, but it is a quiet place, but since it is not soundproof, I can hear various sounds. However, there are some sounds that I don’t want to enter [the studio], so recording can be very difficult.
How does a typical day of working on music look for you? How does your studio look, and what is your usual working process?
I make and record songs in my normal living room, but rather than deciding to make songs, the impetus is more having spare time and there being an instrument nearby. If you play it, there are many patterns with which you can create a melody and immerse yourself into. I feel like I am in a relaxed environment where I have something I like. However, I am also interested in making music in a completely different environment.
Your sound is this really delicate and detailed acoustic way of composing, with a huge range of different instruments and techniques in use. Do you have a clear idea in your head of how you want a musical composition to sound before you begin work, and is it important for you to translate that sound in your head to reality as accurately as possible?
I am not a technical performer, but I like expressing things differently to other people in my work anyway. We will finish things according to the concept of the work. So there may be a lot of accidents, and I like things that have unintended and interesting sounds. The first demo I play may be included in the album. There are songs that are re-created through trial and error, and phrases that come out by chance are difficult to reproduce, and sometimes they are practised many times.
What are you working on now, and what’s coming up next?
I’m in the middle of the production of a new work, about 90% of the song creation, recording and arrangement is done. I’m thinking about the title of a song that doesn’t have a song title right now. The work of assigning song titles where they are finished and collected together may be the most fun. This work [the new music] places more emphasis on melodies, but the proportion of instruments other than guitars is increasing. Interesting places in the songs use old strings synthesizers, cheap keyboards and triangles. I don’t know if it’s done, but it’s a little sci-fi fantasy. I’m looking forward to it.
Ryota Miyake can usually be found in Tokyo synth-pop band CRYSTAL. But a couple of years ago he started an additional solo project, Sparrows, that spread its jazz-pop wings in multiple different directions, and in 2019 he released an album, Berries, that included features from Fazerdaze and more.
You’ve been in the Tokyo music community for a long time now in various bands. How would you describe the music community you operate in, and what are the good and bad sides of the Tokyo music scene?
I have been doing CRYSTAL and Sparrows for like 10 years, but CRYSTAL’s first few EPs were released by French labels, and Sparrows’ works were sold in like the shops like small book stores rather than record shops, so I haven’t felt like I am in that music community. Also I released an album with Flash Amazonas (the band I do with Colombian musician Julián Majorga) this year, but it was on a Colombian label. As a member of CRYSTAL, I am naturally (also consciously) trying to blend the atmosphere of early Japanese techno pop and so-called avant-garde music in 80s, but I don’t really know what is happening in Tokyo right now.
How did the Sparrows project get started, and what was your motivation to start a solo project?
When we started CRYSTAL, we wanted to do uncool music: the music that we hadn’t listened to at that time. For us, a slightly exaggerated and flashy kind of electronic music in 80s was that. It helped us to discover a wonderful other musical world we haven’t known. But, I felt that I needed to make the music I had been into before. More personal, intimate styles of music. That’s why I started Sparrows.
On new album Berries, you brought in collaborators from all over the world. Where did the idea to work with these artists come from, and how did you recruit them to contribute to the record?
I took part in Red Bull Music Academy in 2016. And I met all of them there…
On the album’s jazzier songs, you talk about the concept of the “phony jazz band” or “imaginary band”. What does that concept mean to you?
In brief, I can’t play the drums and keyboard very well. But I love the ‘band sound’, and we can pretend, by using technology, that I can. So actually, I am a fake band. Also I love the idea of the ‘easy mechanised music’ you can hear in supermarkets.
The album incorporates a lot of different musical styles, from indie rock to city jazz. Do you prefer being album to switch between styles on a single record?
I don’t think I could make a city jazz-only album. I don’t know what jazz is enough to do it for 40 minutes, so this was the right balance for me, I believe! And I tried to let the songs in the album have the same vibe, to be sound like one album. For me they sound like they’re from one album, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just for me, haha.
What’s your usual process when writing a song?
It depends on the song, though I tend to start from setting the drums or ‘groove’.
Finally, what are you working on at the moment, both with Sparrows and CRYSTAL?
I have been working on CRYSTAL’s new music.
Rima Kato started her career as a teenager in the lo-fi band Strrows in the 90s. Now based in Kanazawa, she released her second album as a solo artist, Sing-Song, with lyrics from Victorian poet Christina Rossetti, in summer 2019.
You’re originally from Tokyo, but are now based in Kanazawa. What was the music scene like in Tokyo when you were starting out as an artist, and how is it now in a smaller city like Kanazawa?
I started making music in Tokyo in 1996. They very exciting days for me as a teenager, and I worked at a vintage clothing store in Harajuku, the centre of fashion culture at the time. I felt that there was no border between fashion and other cultures and music. We didn’t meet other musicians of the same generation or the same lo-fi music, because we only recorded at home, except for when we played at high school festivals. We went to lots of live shows and handed our cassette tapes to the musicians we liked. In the 90s we didn’t the choice to play at venues other than live music clubs, so we sometimes played at the same events as musicians who didn’t suit each other’s styles. After I returned in the late 2000s, live events were planned at various venues that were not live music clubs, and I met younger musicians. However, even though they and I liked the same music, I am lo-fi, but they had skills of playing and singing well. When I was a teenager, I was ironic and thought that emphasising singing and playing skills was not cool. They were not ironic, they were honest and they were all good friends. I had a bit of culture shock, but the scene, without malice and irony, was cosy. At that time, the indie music scene in Tokyo had many musicians who played solo instead of bands, so independent organizers in local cities like Kanazawa invited various musicians from Tokyo. Apart from that, Asuna lives in Kanazawa. He is a sound artist and the owner of the label called aotoao. He was asked to host many Kanazawa shows for overseas indie musicians on Japan tours. A wide range of musicians performed, including folk, rock bands, electronic music, post classical and experimental music etc. There were borders between famous and unknown. I moved to Kanazawa, but I could often enjoy their performances here and I performed at the same events.
Kanazawa is one of the core cities (population is about 460,000), but it is not easy to get audiences for independent music events. It is necessary to inform people with different tastes. So organisers, managers of the venues and people from the neighbourhoods have to work together.
You started off in the band Strrows in the late 1990s. But there were over ten years between the break-up of that band and you returning as a solo artist. Did you want to take a break after Strrows? After Strrows, how did you work your way back to starting your solo career as Rima Kato?
I needed to take a break because I was so tired. We made our debut when we were high school students. We were featured in some magazines and many live shows were organised. The label’s director in charge of us was a funny and proven person, but he was unfit to work with unstable teenage girls. He was too busy because he was in charge of many other bands. Some bands were blatantly coldly treated after they stopped working with him. He also became more demanding about the quality of our songs. A few months after our debut, the editors of some magazines wrote a misleading article about us. I found some anonymous writing on the BBS that rude about our looks. I was shocked.
Of course there were lots of fun and precious memories, but I didn’t have enough toughness so I couldn’t protect my will for music. I couldn’t survive the bad situation and threw everything away.
I thought it was my own personal problem but it was a typical situation for young creators. Even grown‐up people are pressure by expressions in public, so it’s not easy for teenagers to maintain a mental balance. However, everyone around me was not thinking about taking care of my mental health.
I want you to know the background of my stress outside of the music. In Tokyo in the 90’s, a terrible culture began where ordinary middle age men openly revealed their sexual desire for high school girls. The media reported on it a lot, but the human rights of those children were ignored. Now I know it was crazy criminal act, but at that time I couldn’t get angry about it. I thought it was only something around the sociable bad girls and I thought it didn’t affect me. However, it’s something that had relevance to some men’s disrespectful attitude towards me.
After we broke up the band. Then, in the indie music scene in Tokyo in the early 2000s, there was a folk-rock revival of Japanese lyrics called ‘Utamono’.
I always wrote lyrics in English, but some people expected me to write in Japanese. A music manager acquaintance invited me to be part of a ‘Utamono’ compilation CD. However, because of the pressure from that director, I had trauma about writing lyrics in Japanese so refused the offer. After that, I felt helplessness and sunk deeply.
Over the next few years, I was studying graphic design in correspondence courses at an art university. While I was working on university subjects, for example, drawing hundreds of illustrations, my motivation for creativity was reviving. Around that time Vashti Bunyan [English singer-songwriter who returned to music in the 2000s after a 30-year break] restarted. My brother got the reissued CD. I felt it was my ideal music. The story of her restart from a long silence encouraged me.
At the same time, I found a CD store with very good selection in my neighbourhood. I often went to the store until I moved to Kanazawa.
In that store, I could find out about the unknown and legendary musicians of the 60s and 70s and many female musicians today. Such as The Innocence Mission, Joanna Newsom, Julie Doiron, Tara Jane o’neil, Cat Power, Meg Baird, Ruth Garbus, The Finches, Josephine Foster, Laura Gibson, Sharon Van Etten, Lau Nau, Heather Woods Broderick, Grouper, Colleen, Masha Qrella, Pascal Pinon, Judee Sill, Karen Dalton, Sibylle Baier, Connie Converse, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Jean Ritchie, and more.
And MySpace had started a service that allows anyone to upload their own songs. I was quietly excited because I had started making some new songs.
As I got older, I became tough and wasn’t overly sensitive like when I was a teenager, so I thought I wouldn’t mind if someone said bad things about me.
Your music is very lo-fi and minimalistic, often just you and your guitar. Do you prefer to write in that simple way?
When I restarted as a solo artist, I thought I had to make music that was completely different from the band. That opinion delayed my restart. Guitar is very important and natural for my song-writing. I learned a piano from a friend for a short time, she was a good teacher but it was difficult to me. After all, I was good at making simple and lo-fi music. The [songwriting] method is the same from I was 15 years old, but I think it now includes various experiences and thoughts [picked up over the years]. I can’t change my own musicality according to trends. Both emotionally and technically.
Your new album is based on poems by the Victorian-era poet Christina G. Rossetti. How did you come across those poems, and what inspired you to make music with them?
About 10 years ago, my boyfriend bought SING-SONG at an antiquarian bookshop and recommended it to me. It was a reprint of book published in 1872.I didn’t know about Christina Rossetti until then. But when I read the book, I really loved it. Then I tried to combine her poems with my own melodies. I felt that my melody and her poems matched well, so I made a lot [of songs] in the same way. About two years ago, I decided to make an album by compiling those songs and started studying her. I thought about the barriers that 19th century women experienced in making poetry and paintings. I need to learn more about feminism. because I think that may help me to continue making music.
With Sing-Song out this year, what’s your next project?
I’m writing my own lyrics and making a new album. I have to have an idea of what kind of music I want to make while recording, so I don’t have a concrete image yet. I want some new musical instruments and a good recording room.
What other artists from your music community should we look out for?
Eddie Marcon, Moon Face Boys, Tekuragari, Tumulus, Muffin, Aki Tsuyuko, Shizuka Yamaga, SHOES, mmm, Kayo Miura, Seijiro Kuroda, Macomelogy, How To Count Planets, Ten Yote, ASUNA, Family Basik and more.
Check out the magnificent FLAU catalogue at flau.bandcamp.com
All photos courtesy of FLAU.