A Natural Process; An interview with Keigo Oyamada of Cornelius

In 1997 Japanese songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Keigo Oyamada donned the moniker Cornelius, named after the Planet of the Apes character of the same name, and released one of the most interesting albums of the 90’s. By listening to his albums you can chart the passage of time through his eyes. His bombastic 20’s are captured in the sporadic sound collage style found on 1997’s Fantasma. His more toned down 30’s are found on 2002’s Point and 2006’s Sensuous. Recently, on Mellow Waves – his first album in 11 years – we find him more mature and settled, riding the mellow waves of middle age. I spoke with Keigo via his translator, this interview has been slightly edited.
Ghettoblaster: What made you decide to make a new Cornelius album after 11 years?
Cornelius: It’s not that I didn’t want to record this album, I’ve been wanting to do it for a while but I’ve been working on a lot of different projects: YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra), Salyu x Salyu, Yoko Ono, Metafive, I do a kid’s show too called Design, Ah. So there’s a lot of projects I was involved in during that time. I’d been writing songs throughout that time for the project but a lot of time had just flown by before I realized it.
GB: How do you start to write a song? Do you start with a certain instrument, with the lyrics, or is it different every time?
C: When I start a song I’ll pretty much get the song going and then complete it all the way through my arrangement before I ever get to the singing or the final touches of the song. My starting point would often be tempo. I start with tempo, get a beat going, get some chords going, and then get a melody going.
GB: Did you do all the instrumentation on this album or did you have other people collaborating with you?
C: All the instrumentation is done by me, all myself and then I have a couple engineers who I work with.
GB: That’s impressive that it’s all you.
C: It’s an easier world to do the music in, a lot of good technology.
GB: Did you find a lot of technological differences? 
C: There are differences like software has become easier to use or sounded better, but the differences were subtle compared to like sampling that paved the way for hip-hop, or synthesizers that’ll give you sounds you’ve never heard before, or hard disk recording that really freed you up to record like it hadn’t been done before. There haven’t been any drastic changes in the last 10 years like that.
GB: A lot of your music in the past has been more high-energy, what made you want to make it more mellow this time?
C: Maybe just getting older, it wasn’t that I had been that conscious of it but when I realized it was this really mellow wave that just made sense to me.

GB: You do a lot experimentation while keeping the songs catchy and engaging, how do you balance those two elements?
C: It’s a natural process for me to come out with something that’s catchy and engaging, but also I would say doing all the projects that I did up to this point each sort of influenced this album in some way. I realized that I was doing a bunch of different stuff but hadn’t been writing songs to sing for myself and that was maybe the big difference with this one is that it was time for me to write songs for myself to sing.
GB: Your songs have a lot of layers, how do you know when it’s done?
C: I don’t actually consider things on a layer basis so much. I try to engineer my sound to where there’s only one particular sound actually sounding per location, so that you’re hearing each sound or each instrument really clearly for what it is. Instead of layering things on top of those I try to structure things so that they’re uninhibited, so that they have no obstructions. I like to think they’re not a bunch of layers, they’re all actually on the same plane.
GB: What are some of the themes the lyrics explore on this album?
C: On my previous albums words were used in more of a coded way, sort of as a collage, improvised sometimes. On this one I wanted to explore being more focused on single lines having complete melodies and complete thoughts. Complete lyrics that drive in a certain direction. In general if I had to pick a theme out of the album it would be about being middle aged.
GB: Does this album feel like a culmination of everything you’ve tried in the past?
C: It’s hard to say if it’s a culmination because I feel that way after each album, that it’s somehow a collection of what I’ve done up until that point. So it would be correct to say that it’s a culmination of everything I’ve been doing up until now, except I know for a fact that it will change and it will be different again for the next thing I do.
GB: What made you move away from the “cut-and-paste” style of Fantasma?
C: When I did Fantasma I was in my 20’s and being in my 20’s in Tokyo at that time there was a lot of music and information coming through and so much music and culture in Tokyo that I was experimenting with trying to ram pack this information into my work. I would make a heavy collage of these sources of information, but I feel like I kind of got full of that approach and of all the information and kind of backed off of it for a little while. I found myself working with things that are necessary for me or for the music that I was working on. This was kind of maybe a result of the world in general but also something personal about me growing and maturing into sounds that were more bare necessities.
GB: When Fantasma was remastered your music was introduced to a younger generation. Did you notice a younger audience taking interest in your music?
C: Doing that Fantasma tour gave me a glimpse that there was still a youth audience out there. Of course there was the middle age audience, but there also was a younger audience. It seems like the remaster was probably a part of it and people being able to explore music through YouTube, and being able to explore subcultures easily on the internet probably played a part. One of the staff members here was saying that 1/3 of our Facebook users are from a younger generation, so it’s definitely reaching a younger audience.
GB: Your music really connects with people in the States, as well as in many other countries. Why do you think you have such a multi-cultural appeal?
C: I listened to American music, therefore I appealed to an American market. But it would probably not be that way if I had catered too much to an American sound. It had to be something that was inspired by but original, which is something that I strive to be. The multi-international following is mainly based on the fact that I enjoy music from multiple cultures. I like to explore music from different countries, from different languages, so it would be natural for my music to be inspired by and inspire in that sense as well.

GB: The “If You’re Here” music video was one of the best visual representations of sound I’ve ever seen. What was the inspiration for those visuals?
C: The visuals that you’re referring to are done by Koichiro Tsujikawa and it was very deliberate for me to have the visuals express the different sound parts of the song, so that you’re seeing every sound that you hear. A kick drum would be a cup of coffee or a hi hat would be a key and you would have visual references to specific sounds and thoughts. The visuals were really made for live performances rather than to be a music video. Visual representation is something that I’ve done throughout my career but maybe I’ve just gotten a little better at it.
GB: You’ve had an amazing career, played with legends like James Brown and Yoko Ono. What has been the highlight of your career?
C: It’s actually the faces of people enjoying the live performance. When I see people enjoying my music I’m thankful for the career that I have.
GB: Do you think it will take another 11 years to release another Cornelius album?
C: Right now I’m concentrating on the live show, so I’m not even thinking about the next album. But it took 10 years to put this album together, so if it takes another 10 years to put the next one together I’m gonna be well over 60 and very possibly dead. I hope that I’m able to continue doing things on my own clock but within reason. I really do want to tour America so if you get the chance to see my live show do not miss it. I hope everybody gets a chance to listen to my music.
Words: Luke LaBenne
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