Interconnected and brought together by the city of Tokyo, their passion for electronic music and uncontested talent in their crafts, Alex Prat, Isao Kumano, and Kenichi Takagi together form Tokyo Black Star, a synergy of musical dynamism that have since its inception, set to break barriers and stand the test of time. Through their own individual and collective projects, and groundbreaking success in technology by way of Phonon Inc., the trio had spontaneously contributed to season the electronic music climate as we know it today as well as help fortify the oft-overlooked linkage between Eastern and Western cultures. Torture the Artist caught up with Alex in Berlin and Isao & Kenichi, Kumano san and Takagi kun respectively, in Japan amid their busy schedules to talk about the past, present and future of Tokyo Black Star, and inevitably touched upon club culture, some Japanese traditions, parties and music scenes across continents, and even tap into the balance between and interdependence of science and art. Find out which house music legend came up with the trio’s moniker, take an unadulterated sneak peek into Japanese underground culture in its earlier days, and learn how to succeed in global citizenship, in this up close and at times too personal exclusive interview with Tokyo Black Star. Additionally check out Tokyo Black Star’s Atlantis remix for Ghost Vision’s track ‘Shakuhachi’ which will shortly be released on ‘Love On The Rocks‘.
Torture the Artist: Hello Alex, hello Kenichi and hello Isao. How do you three prefer to be addressed, and more importantly, how do you address one another?
Alex: As a kid growing up in Japan, everyone called me ‘Alex’, but everyone else outside of Japan would call me Alex de Tokyo or Alex from Tokyo. Between the members of Tokyo Black Star, we call each other names according to the Japanese traditional way: Isao by his family name Kumano with the suffix ‘san’. Introduced to me as Mr. Kumano, he is ‘Kumano san’ by respect as my superior. I call Kenichi also by his family name but adding the suffix ‘kun,’ which is a familiar/friendly way of Mr. Takagi kun, as he was introduced to me by Isao.
Isao: People called me by different names and it is fine with me.
Kenichi: Isao, Alex
Torture the Artist:cSeems like Tokyo is a prominent theme in the fabric of Tokyo Black Star. In three words describe your relationship to Tokyo – not necessarily as the geographical location, it can be the culture, the vibe, anything, but in three words.
Alex: Dynamic, Tasty, Home
Isao: Concentration, Busy, Traffic Jam
Kenichi: Crazy, Busy, Noisy
Life is a journey in discovering yourself.
Torture the Artist:Alex, your biographies state you are based in Berlin, not so long ago, New York and before then, Tokyo and France. How do you juggle your global citizenship, and do you think you’ve found an equilibrium at this point?
Alex: That is a very good question! Life is a journey in discovering yourself. Moving to a new city in a country that I am not familiar with is a big challenge to push me further. At my age I feel I am starting to get a better idea of what I want and need to find a better balance. I am, myself first of all, a citizen of the world and I am excited to be back in Europe and in Berlin!
Japan invented Techno!
Torture the Artist:Japan has a vibrant music scene, particularly known for Japanese pop (J-Pop). Can you share a thing or two that the western world would not expect from Japan’s electronic music field. How does house music, as you know it, fit into the current trend?
Alex: Japan invented Techno! I feel people are not fully realizing the important contribution Japan has made to electronic music. As a kid, I grew up listening to all sorts of old, new, and traditional Japanese music on TV and on the radio – from modern enka (popular Japanese music that resemble traditional Japanese music stylistically), J-Pop before it was called J-Pop, to all sorts of West-inspired Japanese groove music like hip hop, electronic music and house music. Haruomi Hosoi and Sakamoto Ryuichi made some groundbreaking and ‘out there’ music, together and on their own. They also wrote and composed ‘variety techno J-pop’ hits for teen idols in the 80s.
Clubbing has long been part of the nightlife culture in Japan, and large cities such Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo were very connected culturally and musically with the world. Japan has embraced different types of music and trends from all over the world, and in many ways, has always been a craft culture with lots of attention put to details. In the late 80’s, I was lucky to experience in small underground clubs in Japan, what was simultaneously going on in New York and London at the birth of underground dance music, including house music!
Isao: J-Pop is a de-graded copy of Pop from the U.S. and the U.K. Very few genius talents perform a wonderful job so it becomes a recurrent cycle of copy competition. But I think that kids who are into music grow up listening to various types of music but eventually settle down with house music when becoming an adult.
Torture the Artist: Say you have just completed mastering a track you are happy with, where in Tokyo would you go to celebrate and what would you eat and drink?
Alex: We would go to our friend Buggy’s Izakaya in Sangenjaya in Tokyo to eat some seasonal specialties from all over Japan and drink some sake!
Isao: Eat some sashimi and drink some sake at home.
Torture the Artist: How and where did you all meet?
Alex: Kumano san and I met in the mid to late ‘90s in Tokyo in Nakameguro at one of Tokyo’s biggest studio where he was working at. He was in charge of a DJ club music radio satellite TV program. All the DJ’s in Tokyo would go to record mixes in his little studio room. This was during the big club music explosion in Japan. I would go there regularly and we started to become friends. I met Takagi kun through Isao in the very early days of Tokyo Black Star.
Isao: I met Alex at this radio program I was in charge of. I met Takagi-synth (this is how I like to call him sometimes because he is such a synth nerd and he actually makes them) as a teenager, when we were both learning music.
Kenichi: Isao and I are friends from our teenage years. I met Alex at Isao’s studio for some remix work, maybe 2002 or 2003? I played the guitar at that time.
We celebrated the release at Yahya’s where Kerri excitedly named us ‘Tokyo Black Star’ over some champagne!
Torture the Artist: How long after you first met did you begin to conjure the idea of forming Tokyo Black Star?
Alex: Kumano san left a big studio where he worked as the sound engineer, to start a production company with a colleague. One day, he asked me if I was interested in participating in a track for a music compilation they were producing, about the new Tokyo underground dance music sound. I immediately accepted and he helped me. It was such a great experience working with him, so we continued the partnership, collaborating on different projects including an exclusive Tony Allen remix project for the Japanese label P-Vine, which was only available in Japan.
Then, later, the New York DJ/producer Yahya McDougald who was living in Tokyo asked me if I wanted to do a remix for the label he and Kerri Chandler were launching. Bass Mental Records released our remix of ‘For You’ by Big Moses feat. Janelle in 2000, and Kerri loved it. We celebrated the release at Yahya’s where Kerri excitedly named us ‘Tokyo Black Star’ over some champagne! We were in Tokyo and at that time, Moet & Chandon was running a special champagne campaign in the U.S. where Kerri is from, called ‘Black Star’. It was a fun, memorable moment and Isao and I felt the name suited us, so we decided to keep it. Plus, we loved the name!
Torture the Artist: How often do you talk to each other?
Alex: These days I speak to Isao every week as we run the audio brand Phonon together. We make music as Tokyo Black Star when we are together in Japan every 3 months.
Torture the Artist: Alex, describe Isao and Kenichi through an alcoholic beverage. Isao and Kenichi, vice versa.
Alex: Kumano-san – locally made namazake (fresh unpasteurized sake); Takagi-kun – barley shochu; and myself, sparkling sake.
Isao: Junmai daiginjo sake! Moet Chandon Moet Imperial! Soy sauce!
Kenichi: Black beer, Japanese sake, Red wine
Torture the Artist: Isao and Kenichi, when producing music with Alex, what is your least favorite habit of his? Alex, what is the most fun part about working with Isao and Kenichi?
Kenichi: Some silly chat.
Alex: There is a great chemistry between us, relaxed and constructive. We complement each other and are always open to having fun. A true collaboration!
Torture the Artist: With the success of the Berlin-based label Innervisions in today’s music scene, do you feel some sort of attachment or maternal connection, as producers of IV001 (Innervisions’ first EP). Would you consider working with the label again?
Alex: They have supported us from the very beginning. They are family. We would love of course to work again and release some new music with them in the near future!
Torture the Artist: You have collaborated with NYC based Japanese painter Tomokazu Matsuyama on ‘Black Ships’, how did adding a strong visual component to your project affect your artistic process? Did it speed up or complicate the project development?
Isao: We both love and share the same color sense. I think his ideas are compatible with our Tokyo Black Star sound.
Alex: Tomokazu Matsuyama has been creating our visual identity from our 1st Innervisions EP to our last conceptual piece ‘Fantasy Live 1999’ which was released two years ago, on my label World Famous. It has been a wonderful, inspiring natural east/west collaboration all throughout.
The idea behind Tokyo Black Star is a real collaboration; to challenge ourselves and to create something different which we can only do when we are together.
Torture the Artist:Has the emergence of Phonon changed the dynamics of your partnership? Has it affected your roles and goals?
Isao: I became very busy running the company’s operations once we started Phonon in 2010. We decided to officially add Takagi-synth as a new member, to further develop Tokyo Black Star.
Alex: After we released our 1st Tokyo Black Star ‘album’ in 2009, we started Phonon in the summer of 2010. Releasing the SMB-01 and SMB-02 was like creating a new Tokyo Black Star album. We took a break from making music for a while. Over the years we have become busier with Phonon. I was living in New York. Tokyo Black Star has always been an organic jam session project between us where we would get together at the right time when we feel it, without any strict plans and goals. The idea behind Tokyo Black Star is a real collaboration; to challenge ourselves and to create something different which we can only do when we are together. It was never about becoming just another dance music unit! Welcoming Takagi kun as our 3rd official member was a natural step for us as we have been working with him for a long time to explore new territories!
Right now I am more fascinated by a stone monument than a new software.
Torture the Artist: Isao, in addition to engineering sound and headphones, did you have prior experiences in science and technology? How did you come to let art and science coexist in your life? Do you see yourself more as an artist or an engineer?
Isao: I only know things from what I have learned through my musical activities. I think that art has been a part of science for a long time. Right now I am more fascinated by a stone monument than a new software. When you want to improve certain things or get some new perspectives in your activities, you may have to have a science-based approach. Takagi-synth’s modular is scientific. Music theory and instruments, etc. are also scientific.
Torture the Artist: Put in order of how much each facet takes part in your careers at the moment? DJing, music production, Phonon.
Alex: These actives are all connected to each other and the amount of time each activity takes in our everyday life changes all the time!
Torture the Artist: Describe your typical daily routine. How do you usually start off your day?
Alex: I light incense and listen to an album on my audio system every morning to put me in the mood to start the day. I work on different projects everyday.
Isao: Every day I do different work: mastering, music production, acoustics, development, or management, for example.
Kenichi: I wake up, power up my modular and make some noise.
Torture the Artist: Who are some of your greatest musical influences? What was the first record you had ever bought?
Alex: Some of my greatest musical influences while growing up in Japan were Yellow Magic Orchestra (they were big in Japan since the late 70s) and Sakamoto Ryuichi. From my dad (a big blues fan and music lover), I learned about blues music: Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Howling’ Wolf, Ottis Redding, James Brown and rock & disco by The Rolling Stones, Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Donna Summer, Roxy Music, Talking Heads, Brian Eno etc. Through my older cousin in France who had a new wave band, I was exposed to Joy Division/New Order, The Cure, Depeche Mode. My love for hip hop, house and techno came later in Tokyo during my teenage years. I think the first record I bought with my pocket money was ‘The Message‘ by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five on Sugar Hill Records.
Isao: ‘Chicago 17‘
Torture the Artist: The electronic music scene is vast and a small world all at once, who are among your inspirations not just as artists but as friends or people in general.
Alex: We have been very lucky to connect with an amazing network of friends and professionals all around the world working in different fields with a similar music and audio sensibilities as us, from top DJs like Dixon, DJ Harvey, Jeff Mills, Laurent Garnier, Carl Craig, to top music producer and sound engineer Philippe Zdar, mastering engineer Chris Gehringer at Sterling Sound in NYC, to Grammy-award winning sound engineer Tom Lord-Alge and to Spike Lee! It has been very inspiring.
Torture the Artist: If you were to go back to a previous year throughout your alliance as Tokyo Black Star, which year would it be, where would you spend it and why?
Alex: I would choose probably 2009, when we released our 1st album ‘Black Ships’ on Innervisions. It was also the year when Kumano-san and I performed live in Japan for the first time, and went on tour with our machines to celebrate the release of our album in Italy and in Germany where we played live together at Panorama Bar. It was a very special trip for me as it was also Isao’s first trip ever to Europe It meant a lot to spend it with him after all those years working in the studio together, it was beautiful!
Isao: Our 1st Europe album release live tour in the fall 2009 made a strong impression.
Kenichi: 2009? I was not an official member of Tokyo Black Star at that time. I joined them and played with my handmade modular synth when they performed their 1st live show on top of Roppongi Hills.
Torture the Artist: Random year in electronic music: 2012. What are three things 2012 could’ve learned from 2018. Name three trends/phases the past six years could’ve done without.
Alex: I think in 2012 EDM was exploding all around the world! We never really cared about these trends. It was also right after the March 11 2011 earthquake tsunami disaster in Japan and times were tough in Japan.
Torture the Artist: Describe one of the most life-changing parties you have been to.
Alex: As a teenager in the late ‘80s, I was introduced to the Tokyo underground through clubs such as The Bank and Another World, and was completely blown away by the sonic experience and the music selection by early Tokyo underground DJs like Dj Hiro and Katsuya. Of course, finally going to NYC for the first time in 1989, took my Tokyo experience to another level!
Isao: I had various memorable experiences at the Outergaze parties in Tokyo which DJ Jun Kitamura organized and played at.
Berlin style, the real deal!
Torture the Artist: When DJing, which is your favorite venue to play at? What is the first thing you would love to do in that city the morning after your main gig?
Alex: Lately I have had so much fun and such amazingly moving times playing at one of my favorite parties in the world called ‘Cocktail D’Amore‘ in Berlin. It is everything I love about DJing: being in a club, feeling the music, interacting with the people, the ultimate club experience! Yes, it is still possible in our crazy Instagram world. It is a wild party, Berlin style, the real deal!
I do miss our Sunday afternoon hi-end sound system tea-dance style party ‘Gallery’, a real family home-party style series. My friends Dj Nori, Kenji Hasegawa, Fukuba and I have been running for almost 20 years at CAY, this great venue in the center of Tokyo.
Torture the Artist: Just curious, if you were to live with just one musical equipment, which would it be and why?
Isao: The YAMAHA CS1x because it is easy and great to use to perform and because I like the arpeggiator. Also the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 has a great sound.
Kenichi: The acoustic piano because it’s acoustic.
Torture the Artist: What is your favorite headphone for day to day use? And what is your most played track this week?
Alex: The phonon SMB-02! My most played track this week is ‘Grott’ by the Japanese producer Kentaro Iwaki aka DAT who very sadly left us a few days ago late March.
Isao: The phonon SMB-02! The track I have been listening this week is ‘Tokyo’ by the Japanese rapper 5lack.
Torture the Artist: What is one of the greatest wisdom a pair of good headphones have taught you?
Alex:With Kumano san we never really found a great pair of headphones we liked for the studio. This is what Kumano san tried to do creating the SMB-02 for our own studio needs. We have always been using the SMB-02 as a reference to check.
One of the main ideas behind the label is to collaborate with music friends from all around the world who I admire, love, am inspired by.
Torture the Artist:Is there a track you are dying to remix at the moment? Any new producers you would wish to work with on a track, maybe even an EP?
Alex: I am finishing up now an EP for my label World Famous with my great friend the very good DJ Willie Graff in NYC. One of the main ideas behind the label is to collaborate with music friends from all around the world who I admire, love, am inspired by.
Torture the Artist: Can we expect any Tokyo Black Star projects in the near horizon, or are you both focusing on individual projects?
Alex: By the second half of 2018, I will re-start my label World Famous, from Berlin. I plan to release a new Tokyo Black Star EP this year as well as some old unreleased tracks. I am also about to finish a collaboration EP with my friend Willie Graff and Darren Eboli in NYC, for the label. On the side, we have been working on a Tokyo Black Star live project which we hope to present in Europe soon!
Tokyo Black Star’s Atlantis Remix for Ghost Vision’s track ‘Shakuhachi‘ will be released April 23rd, 2018 on Love On The Rocks. (Marie)