Interview / Alixkun / Jazzy Couscous

雲の向こう(Kumo No Muko) Volume Two will be released on September 16th. The compilation, and its predecessor Volume One, have both been labours of love for “Frenchman in Tokyo”, Alixkun, and his Jazzy Couscous imprint. Trawling through the city’s second-hand record stores to curate a damn fine selection of fragile pop songs accompanied by classical and gentle electronic arrangements – “kinda jazz, kinda new age”. Prior to the album`s release, I asked Alix a few questions – trying to determine how he got interested in these esoteric sounds, and how easy it is to find them. 

Where are you from?

I’m from France. More precisely Rouen, in Normandy.

Where are you based?

I live in Tokyo, Japan.

When / why did you come to Japan? What made you decide to stay?

I first came to Japan in 2005, as an exchange student. I`d been fascinated by Japan since I was a kid. Growing up in France in the 80s meant being influenced by Japanese video games, Anime, Manga, Toys etc…It really shaped a whole generation. And so in 2005, when I had the opportunity to come to Tokyo, I just seized it, and loved it. Interestingly enough, I didn’t love it because of everything I’ve just mentioned. No. I discovered a country where people are kind, polite, not aggressive, honest etc etc…And at the same time, sometimes completely crazy. I totally fell in love with it, and decided I should try to live in Tokyo for a long period of time. And here I am now, having lived in Tokyo for 11 years (laughs).

When you first arrived where were you going out to dance, to listen to music?

I wasn’t very knowledgeable about the club scene when I first got here. I think my first club experience in Japan was at Harlem. Then in 2008 I discovered Club Yellow, for their closing week actually. I really enjoyed it. After that, I started going to Air on the regular. That was my favorite place to go clubbing.

CLUB AIR TOKYO

Where do you go now?

I don’t go clubbing much anymore, because of an ear problem I`ve developed. I enjoy going to more laid back parties- places like Forestlimit in Hatagaya for example, or Bonobo in Harajuku.

Your first compilation, ハウス Once Upon A Time In Japan…, released in 2015, focused on Japanese house music. The Kumo No Muko comps are more avant-garde. How did you discover and get into these more ambient sounds?

There was no key moment, like finding one specific record, that put me into that kind of sound. I started digging non-house Japanese Music in 2008, as I was discovering Yamashita Tatsuro, Yoshida Minako or Ohnuki Taeko. I started to get heavily into City Pop at first, but I quickly noticed that on each of my new favorite findings, names like Haruomi Hosono, Hiroshi Satoh or Ryuichi Sakamoto would be credited on the keys, or bass, or drum programming…So I started to dig for their productions, and it’s while finding the more experimental and ambient-ish sounds of Hosono or Sakamoto that I really started to dig this kind of sound. A track like Sargasso Sea, produced by Sakamoto on Ohnuki Taeko’s Sunshower LP in 1977 is already heavily hinting the future ambient sounds to come. It is mind-blowing listening to it now.

Have you amassed a huge record collection?

Not huge compared to the old-time diggers I know, but I have a solid 3,000 records sitting at home now. It will never be a number game of course. I only buy records that make a strong impression on me.

How hard is it to find this stuff? Do you know what you’re looking for, or is your digging completely speculative?

I would say my digging has changed over the years. At first I was looking for the rare stuff I already knew about but had not found yet, but after 11 years in Japan, I’ve gathered pretty much everything I knew and wanted. Now I’m more into discovering new stuff I’ve never seen before. I love to go to theme sales in Disk Unions, for instance Japanese Jazz or Japanese Ambient, and then when I see artwork that I’ve never seen before, I’m like “whoa, what is that??”. Then I check, and I buy if it turns out to be good. So in a way yes, it’s harder to find new stuff now, but I still manage to be happily surprised. I’m still discovering Japanese records I’ve never heard of.

How hard was it to license the tracks that you wanted? Does licensing contribute significantly to the cost of putting something like Kumo No Muko together – and subsequently its retail price?

“Hard” would be an understatement. It was expensive, hard, and time-consuming. A lot of major record companies like Universal and Sony just refuse 99% of the time to sub-license their catalog for compilation projects that are not produced by them, so it reduces the pool of available tracks drastically. Then, I think there is some kind of “daydreaming” on these labels` part –  they keep hearing about a vinyl revival and so charge outrageous fees for licensing. It’s 100% licensing prices which drive the price up. It’s the biggest cut in the budget. My first compilation project hit the shelves with a retail price of nearly $50, mainly because of licensing fees. It really hurts the sales…

Were any harder to get than others? Are there any stories attached?

Not particularly. Anyone who has dealt with Japanese corporations knows what I’m talking about. – very process-driven, attached to the rules no matter what, no compromise…All this results in very long discussions in general and can be frustrating. Indie labels and individuals are by far easier to deal with.

kumo no muko volume 1

Who does the artwork for the compilations? It`s pretty distinctive. 

For both Vol.1 and Vol.2, the artwork was handled by Lucy Harris, a British artist specializing in drawings for children. She’s very talented, and she was perfect for the light, and dreamy style I was looking for. I contacted her and introduced the project to her, and fortunately for me she loved it so we decided to work together. I’m glad we did because I get a lot of positive feedback about the artwork!

kumo no muko 2 artwork

What do you think of the current Western “boom” in Japanese music? Why all the interest, why all the reissues, and why now? What do you think sparked it?

I’m happy it’s happening. Japanese music has been sitting here for decades, and it was very hard to access. Only a few references had made it past the pacific and beyond until the years 2010s. What started it? I believe it’s a combination of two factors: first, there’s a whole generation of people like me, who grew up in the 70s, 80s, 90s and who’ve been influenced by Japanese sub-culture, which started to swarm Europe by the late 70s/early 80s. So we’ve all been unconsciously heavily-influenced by Japanese music, visuals, culture, design etc… And then, when my generation started to be in their 20s or 30s, we all came to Japan, as tourists, or to settle here. And this was precisely around the 2000s, 2010s. Then, it took some time, but Japan started to become aware of the foreign interest for their local product. That’s when the reissues started to flourish, and HMV really took the lead with those. I think diggers of the world just love novelty. Genres like Jazz, Soul, Funk have different sounds depending on the era it comes from, and it’s really hard to recreate the sound of an era perfectly. So when people started to realize there was a treasure trove sleeping in Japan, full of incredible sounds from the 70s, 80s, 90s…interest started to increase and I believe that’s what started the boom.

How about the Western interest in “listening venues” and kissaten? Are there any listening venues / parties of jazz kissas that you regularly attend?

I’ve always loved the concept of the “listening bar”, and always thought I’d open one in France myself. Some guys opened one in Paris called Frequence I believe? My friends told me it’s a great place, so you should visit it if you’re in Paris. I haven’t been there myself yet though. In Tokyo, yes, I have my spots. I definitely prefer to go to low key places. Like, you won’t see me at JBS in Shibuya. It`s really become a tourist spot now. I also enjoy listening sessions, like the Ideala Party at Forestlimit. Very chill.

Ideala Party at Forestlimit

Are you currently DJing – I know you had the ear problem – if so do you have any residencies?

Unfortunately I’m not DJing anymore due to the ear thing – just making mixes at home sometimes. I’d like to do a bit more radio stuff, but haven’t had the time & opportunity so far.

Is Kumo No Muko Volume 3 already mapped out?

I wish I could say yes, but there are two things that make it a no:

First, my experience with labels in Japan. It really takes a toll man. It’s extremely tiring to deal with labels here, and I’m not sure I have the strength to do a Volume 3 in those conditions.

Second, I feel the niche is too crowded now. I’ve always tried to do things that had a real interest for people, bringing something original, not something that looks like a copycat of other products other people are doing. I don’t want to participate in the exhaustion of Japanese music revival. I feel like I did my share, and many other people and labels have too. I respect those who do it for love, with passion. Now I think there are enough products around to provide people with enough clues about the rich Japanese music scene, and that they should now go and dig it by themselves. That’s how I conceived my compilations: just an entry door to an unknown world. Exploring it is up to you.

Alix, could I ask one more question – if Kumo No Muko Vol. 3 isn’t on the cards – which is a real shame – because in my humble opinion the first two are among the best comps to come out of this Japanese “boom” – are you currently working on any other releases for Jazzy Couscous?

Yes, right now I’m working on Matthieu Faubourg’s first album.

Jazzy Couscous will release 雲の向こう(Kumo No Muko) Volume Two next Monday, September 16th. The best place to keep up to date is the Jazzy Couscous Facebook Page.

One thought on “Interview / Alixkun / Jazzy Couscous

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s