Hailing from Hiroshima, Tokyo-based DJ / Producer Kinuko Hiramatsu aka Sapphire Slows has toured the globe several times over. Initially releasing music on local label, Big Love, Kinuko-san’s catalogue now graces respected labels from all over the world, Not Not Fun, Nous, and AD 93 to name just a few. With a focus in recent years on live performance Kinuko-san plays at the Zim Zam Zu! event held this Saturday, January 7th, at Bar Bonobo, in Harajuku. This upcoming show gave me the chance to ask Kinuko-san a “few” questions.
Translation by Ken Hidaka.
Where are you from, and where are you currently based?
I was born and raised in Hiroshima, but have lived in Tokyo since I was 18. People sometimes think that I’ve lived overseas, but in fact, I’ve never lived abroad, and only started traveling in my early 20s, after I`d made my recording debut. The first time was when I went on a DIY tour of the West Coast of the US, Canada and Mexico. In around 2016, I met my current European booking agent, Futura and since then have toured a few times a year, mainly in Europe. In addition to that, I now travel back and forth between Japan and Australia, a few times a year due to family commitments.
When did you first start making music?
I started making music properly when I was 21 years old, but I think I began composing music when I was about 17, although I didn’t record it. As for my musical background, I took piano lessons for a little while in elementary school, but quit after a few years, and then during junior high school, I asked my parents to let me learn to play the electric guitar. As soon as I entered high school, I formed a band and was in charge of guitar and vocals. We did covers of songs of Japanese alternative bands and western punk bands, and played at cultural festivals and live houses in Hiroshima. While the other members of my band started to become busy with cramming for their university entrance exams, I got an early acceptance to a university through a recommendation exam, so with my spare time I started writing songs on an acoustic guitar. I didn’t record them so they were just lyrics and chords, but I think I wrote about four or five songs, and performed them a few times at live houses around the time of my high school graduation.
What kind of music inspired you to start making music?
When I started composing music at the end of high school, I was quite bored with the cover bands that I had been playing in since I was 15, but at the same time I became fascinated by the bands of my seniors who were playing their own original music. This prompted me to try and write my own songs.
Throughout my teenage years, I listened to a variety of rock music, both new and old, but at the time I was really into Syd Barrett, John Frusciante, Fugazi, Mars Volta, and so on… I liked decadent rock and progressive post-rock, but didn’t know much about dance music. The only electronic music I listened to was Tangerine Dream and YMO.
After moving to Tokyo, I played bass for several years in a band that included a keyboardist playing a Korg Electribe and synthesizer, and I gradually crossed over to electronic and club music after going to WARP’s 20th anniversary event and attending my first outdoor rave. My original experience with synthesizer music was at Klaus Schulze‘s first concert in Japan when I was 20 years old, and Manuel Gottsching’s live set at Metamorphose Festival. When I also started going to record stores, I began seriously getting into indie music and underground music.
At the time of my debut as Sapphire Slows, at the age of 21, I was particularly fond of THE American underground electronic music that was coming out then. I liked the music that was being released from labels such as Not Not Fun, 100% Silk, English Spelling Bee, L.I.E.S., and in Europe, early PAN and Hundebiss. I liked music that was not straightforward techno or rock, but something that was more like weird, bedroom electronic music. I thought it was cool, and I also felt like I could make it myself.
Do you come from a musical family?
We were more of an art-oriented family. My parents graduated from art colleges in Tokyo, and my father was a record collector, especially Western music. My older brother played drums when he was a student, but other than that, no one else in the family played an instrument. Musically, I think I was quite influenced by my father’s record collection.
Going further back, my great-grandfather on my mother’s side, who was born in the Meiji era, was a painter and made several painting trips to Europe, which was unusual for that time. Other than my great-grandfather, neither of my grand parents nor my parents had been abroad, and we were not particularly an international family, so it`s somewhat strange that I also ended up traveling to Europe for music.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was a jazz lover, and an inventor who was into high-tech things. He had a high-end, 5.1 surround sound audio system installed in his house. So, with this system, he showed us movies at a high volume when I was young… I may have been influenced by that in terms of its acoustics.
Do you have any formal musical training?
Pop music was all around me, but I didn’t have a classical education. As I mentioned before, I took piano and guitar lessons after school. I studied performing arts at university, and after that, I actually earned a master’s degree in musicology, but not for composition, performance or music theory… instead I studied the sociology of music, observing the global independent music scene using ethography, a method used in cultural anthropology. I was conducting research to observe the global independent music scene using ethnography.
Where does the name Sapphire Slows come from?
It doesn’t have a deep meaning. I like the color blue, and I felt like I wanted a name that was abstract and gender-neutral. I also liked Matlix Metals, who was on Not Not Fun at the time. I liked his album and thought it was a cool name, so I thought I’d use MM, SS, or something with initials. I thought that to have a combination of a mineral name plus a verb or adjective would be kind of unusual and cool for an alias.
Your first release was on Big Love Records.
Yes, exactly! The title of this 7” was called Melt.
When I lived in Tokyo I used to really enjoy visiting that shop.
Me too. I was originally a customer, too, and I starting regularly going there when I was a college student. I would work at a part-time job and with my earnings there, I went there every week to buy records.
The selection of music was always totally different to anywhere else, and I could drink a beer while listening.
Same here. I would get very drunk after a pint or two of the draft Shiga Kogen beer that they serve at the store, and I would listen to the music playing and say, “What’s this? Cool!” and ask Naka-san and Maru-kun, the staff at Big Love, what it was. I`d end up buying more and more records!
I also loved the customized sleeves that decorated the walls.
They are all very music-loving and kind people loved by many artists from all over the world, who would all leave their autographs and messages on their record sleeves there. The wall of their signed sleeves is a sight to behold.
The first record of yours that I bought was the True Breath E.P. on Not Not Fun. I really like Spin Lights Over You.
I’m so glad that you’ve been listening to my music since my debut! Spin Lights Over You was my favourite song on the E.P. too. I still love it.
How did you connect with Not Not Fun?
I was originally simply a big fan of Not Not Fun. However, after the Great East Earthquake in 2011, I thought deeply about my life and decided to change my career, from working at a job, to a life focusing on music, and for the first time, I wrote and recorded my own music and sent it to Britt Brown at the label. I remembered that their website had their email address on it so I sent them a link to my Bandcamp and Soundcloud pages. Britt replied right away and suggested that I release an E.P. with them. The earthquake happened in March 2011, the demo was sent in April or May, the single from Big Love was released in September of the same year, and then the E.P. from Not Not Fun was released in December. When I think about it now, everything happened at such an amazing speed. The following March, I met them in person on my first U.S. tour, which included SXSW. I toured again with them after that and I became friends with the other artists on Not Not Fun and 100% SILK as well.
I`m in regular contact with Britt. They still releases a lot of music.
They are truly dedicated to music, because 11 years ago my debut E.P. was already number 241 in their catalog. Now, they have already put out close to 400 titles. If you include their sub-label, 100% Silk, and their other series, it’s probably close to 600 titles. I don’t think there are many other labels like that. Their labels has produced a lot of unique and powerful artists, such as Peaking Lights, Octo Octa, Zola Jesus, Sun Araw, etc. and my label mates and Not Not Fun family are a really diverse and free bunch. You could argue that Britt is like a father figure to the contemporary underground music scene in the US. As they did with my record – when I sent them a demo and they decided to instantly release it without knowing who I was or where I came from – they are great people who do this purely for the musical excitement, and without any regard for fame or sales.
Do you have any favourites on the label?
I have more than I can count! I have a whole corner of my record shelf at home devoted solely to Not Not Fun-related releases. Some of the most memorable releases are… Matrix Metals` Flamingo Breeze, Sex Worker`s The Labor of Love, the split E.P. between Psychic Reality and LA Vampires, Peaking Lights` 939, KWJAZ, Holy Balm`s It’s You, Maria Minerva`s Will Happiness Find Me? On 100% Silk, The Deeep`s Muddy Tracks, Magic Touch`s I Can Feel The Heat, Octo Octa – I still vividly remember the early Silk releases like Let Me See You, SFV Acid`s Grown, etc. I bought the entire label for a while, and I still occasionally play them in my mixes and DJ sets since Silk is more dance-oriented. The a recent release from the label is Dubharp`s Spiral Heights.
More recently, how did you hook up with Nous and AD 93?
I received a message via Facebook from Geo, the owner of Nous. At the time, I was starting to feel some resistance to my image and direction going in a more a synth-pop direction, so I wanted to reset myself. I had a stock of ambient tracks that I`d been making so I sent them over to him to listen. He liked them and immediately had them mastered and pressed. His label released two ambient-techno E.P.s in a series called Mundus.
As for AD 93, I also received an email from Nic who asked me to send him a track. I didn’t have anything to hand at the time, but after a while, I made a killer track called Swirl, which I sent him. This was right around the time when he made his switch from Whities to AD 93, and he put this track out on a split E.P.
Thinking back, the only time I that approached a label was Not Not Fun, and after that I’ve been blessed by label owners approaching me. So, the same goes for Hover Discs and Kalahari Oyster Cult… I`m still fortunate to have a few labels that want to hear my new music and want to release it. However, I produce music at my own pace, the timing has to be right for everyone. I’ve done a lot of compilations and remixes in the past few years, but I’d like to release some original work soon as well.
Your pieces sound like complex collages. How long do they take to compose?
Indeed, you can more aptly call it production rather than composition. I try to use sound as material to give shape to images and textures.
Sometimes it`s quick. Sometimes it takes a few days to take shape. But since I`m self-taught, it takes me a lot of time to get the right texture and mix. At the time of my debut, I knew nothing about DTM techniques so I sampled instrument sounds from the junk section of Hard Off (a major chain of thrift stores in Japan) and clips from YouTube that had nothing to do with music, and blindly cut and pasted them together, and sequenced them like a collage on Ableton. I also made a mess of using effects like compressors and delays. But as I didn’t know the right technical solutions at the time, my production speed was fast. As I learned more technical things, it took me many many times longer to make adjustments and give shape to what I was striving for. While technology and knowledge helped me to create what I want to do, it also has held me back somewhat as well. I still have nearly 20 demos, but it takes me such a long time to finish them. I leave them alone for a while and then listen to them again, allowing new ideas come to me…they have matured a lot.
Do you have a favourite piece of equipment, or something that is central to how you create?
Now it’s the Buchla Music Easel. The sound that comes out of it is so wonderful, and the process of creating and producing sounds on it is like meditation. I`ve been captivated by the Music Easel for 3 or 4 years now. I reached a point where performing live became personally unrewarding – since it was mainly me playing back sounds on my laptop. Then I came across the Buchla and it reawakened my interest in playing live. At the time of my debut, I was into junk equipment and vintage Casio keyboards. I gradually became attracted to synthesizers, but I never got into modular machines. I played around with gadgets, software, iPhone apps, and anything else that I found interesting. After I started playing the Buchla, I found the synthesizer as a machine, and the way it creates sounds appealing. I started to perceive sounds in terms of time, and as a three-dimensional axis, and my mind started to become more and more psychedelic (Laughs).
In your music I hear a mix of dub, techno and ambient. How would you describe your music?
I seem to have naturally perceived sound in terms of texture even before I became aware of sound synthesis… I don’t know if I’m explaining it well, but when I make music, I have a kind of rule for the speed of the rhythm and texture which is different for each frequency in my mind. I compose music with layers of textures and melodies that feel beautiful and comfortable to me. So for example, the lower frequencies have a dubby movement and roundness or bodily thickness of texture, the middle frequencies tend of have percussion-like tones – like toms and mallets or mid-tempo ticks of melody, the higher frequencies have textures like water bouncing around or are transparent like glass. I also add pads and voice for ambience. So, from each part, I try to construct a spatial perception and divide each role. I often use a low-pass filter, and also use noises and ear-piercing high frequencies as part of the overall sound. The techno aspect of my music came naturally after I became enthusiastic about high-end sound systems at festivals and raves. I am not fixated by any particular genre, just reflecting my own input in my own personal way.
Are there any other artists making music similar to yours?
Hmmm. I don’t know since I don’t usually compare myself to others, but one contemporary artist that I’ve been listening to a lot lately, and feel very close to in terms of texture and musical storytelling is Sunju Hargun. His releases, mixes and label, all hit the spot. I got in touch with him not so long ago, and, recently, I finally got to meet him. I’m looking forward to seeing what he has in store for us in the future, and there is talk of a collaboration. Maria Teriaeva is a good friend of mine, and the person who inspired me to play the Buchla. We`ve collaborated several times because her music is great and we get on well together.
Is there a healthy electronic music scene in Tokyo?
I’m not sure what you mean by “healthy”, but I believe there`s always an esoteric, healthy, respected and treasured underground music scene, and community, amidst all the unhealthy fads, consumption, and vanity.
Are there clubs and venues that support new up and coming artists?
The damage that the pandemic has done to the music scene is so great that clubs and venues are struggling to survive, so they can’t afford to be adventurous and be supportive, so I think we should be understanding of their position. Even in such a situation, there are venues and parties that continue to experiment, but I think it was very difficult to throw successful indoor parties once the the flow of people going out had stopped.
During that time I visited many outdoor parties, held in various locations. Events that I’ve found great inspiration in, and a spirit of experimentation – festivals such as Bonna Pot, which allows a vast range of artistic sonic expression, Hokkaido’s Approx, which showcased many of the best local DJs, who are still unknown to most, Labyrinth which is dedicated to fostering a community like spirit within the music scene, and Balance, which focuses on supporting domestic artists. Frue showcases live music and alternative dance music from Japan and abroad. Slick which blasts up-and-coming DJs, with a strong political stance and overwhelming energy.
The club that I loved, Contact, closed recently, but the same owners have just opened another new club, Enter. I also thought that another club that I played recently, for the first time, Spread, might produce many musical discoveries that I don’t know of yet, and might grow into an interesting venue in the future. Womb is a club that I used to visit less often, but recently it`s become more and more fun to go since they are holding more intriguing events, that put less emphasis on commercialism… and the sound quality is getting better as well. I’m also really enjoying discovering new artists at after-hours clubs such as Red Bar, Tunnel, and Hachi.
Is there a community of likeminded artists who are supportive of one another?
Well, that`s how I personally feel. My goal is to use music to inspire and heal people, and I hope that through music, there will be a positive change in the way people perceive the world, and find the freedom to live their lives. In that sense, I`m supported by a lot of behind-the-scenes people in Japan, including dedicated and passionate organizers, sound engineers, decorators, and lighting directors, as well as the artists. The community that I have close relationships with is a very pure group of people who support each other to realize their ideals through music and parties.
Are there any up and coming artists that you recommend we check out?
Maria Teriaeva, yes/and, New Chance, Salamanda, Sunju Hargun, and many more…. They`re not up and coming artists, but more veteran artists who continue to keep releasing new material, and that I personally always looking forward to hearing. I recommend you to check them out.
Some of my favourite labels at the moment are Behuá Icára from Peru, Nous’klaer Audio and yeyeh-ninih from the Netherlands, Garzan Records from Israel, and Vargmal Record from Kosovo, which just started this year and whose future I find very interesting.
Do you have any all time favourite artists?
Even the same artist is different from one work to another, and there are so many artists I like that it`s difficult to name them all. As you can probably guess, the music I get into changes rapidly, different music for different points in my life, and I try to check out new releases as much as possible.
However, there are some of artists where I I check out their every release: Forma, Gunnar Haslam, Leif, Donnacha Costello, John T. Gast, Huerco S, Jordan GCZ, Chaos In The CBD, and Pale Blue… they are just the ones off the top of my head. No Label, Wah Wah Wino, Interdimensional Transmissions, Astral Industries, Spectrum Spools, 2MR are some of my favourite labels, and I also love their artwork and their direction.
There are quite a few Japanese DJs and musicians that I love, and who you should experience live, even if they`ve not yet made it big internationally: Haruka, Shhhhh, Occa, Iryoku, DJ mew, Bing, YPY, Goat, Yosuke Yukimatsu… They are really great artists, with distinctive styles, whose releases I would like to follow in the future as well.
Listening-wise, I’ve been listening a lot lately to obscure jazz, live instrumental ensembles, and beatless synthesizer music, including some classical.
Some of my most listened to Spotify favorites this year include: Jon Hassell, Mary Lattimore, Arooj Aftrab, Slow Attack Ensemble, Roberto Musci, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Anna Strom, Sam Gendel, Tomaga, Colleen, and Susumu Yokota.
I’ve seen some amazing footage of you performing on a tokyo rooftop – during the pandemic. Have you played in any other unusual / interesting locations?
It was on top of the Shibuya SKY skyscraper! That was one of the most amazing places I`ve ever played. It was curated by a friend of mine, and it`s one of those places that you should definitely check out when you visit Tokyo, as they put a lot of effort into their exhibitions and performances. Other unusual places I’ve been to include a church in Niigata, on a boat in Tasmania, a planetarium in Berlin, and an abandoned town in the Czech Republic. The only other place that was special in terms of circumstances was when I was asked to play the Buchla at the end of an Ayahuasca ceremony, and I think the cosmic sounds of the Buchla matched the end of the trip.
Where have you toured?
I went to the US area twice in 2012 and 13. I`ll never forget the DIY tour that I went on in 2013, especially since I did 17 shows in just 3 weeks. I entered the country from Canada and went to Toronto, Montreal, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Middletown, Mexico City, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, all by myself. Some of the artists and friends that I befriended and who helped me at that time, I am still connected to them today.
In 2014, I went to Europe for the first time, performed in a park in Paris at the invitation of a Parisian select store, Colette. In 2015, I participated in the RBMA Paris, and the following year in 2016, I performed at the Sonar Festival in Barcerona, where I met my current agent. Since then I`ve been touring Europe every year. In the Asian region, I`ve had the opportunity to play in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, South Korea, and Bali. There are still many Asian countries that I would like to visit, and I hope to be able to visit more in the future.
Other than the Bonobo / Zim Zam Zu! gig, do you currently have any other live shows lined up?
I`ll be playing in Melbourne, Australia, at the beginning of March 2023 – a party that Oren Ambarchi and others have played at before – so I`m really looking forward to it! For my schedule next summer onwards, I`m making plans with my agent now, to go back to Europe.
Do you prefer composing in the studio, or playing live?
Before I started playing the Buchla, I often felt somewhat uncomfortable performing, and to be honest, I preferred production by far. Now I enjoy performing, and I find performance rewarding in a different way to recording. My recordings will be around even when I am long gone, but now, while I am alive, performing is a means of communicating, expressing myself and my energy in the present.
Are you working on any new music at the moment?
I`m in the process of creating a remix of a very meaningful and beautiful Thai poem for Sunju Hargun’s label.
What are your plans for 2023?
I`ll be in Australia from late January through March, spending the spring in Japan, and touring Europe in the summer or fall. I`d like to do more studio work,so I would like travel a little less in 2023 than in 2022. This year, I was at my Japanese home only for half the time, and the rest somewhere else, so I was unable to really focus on producing music. In 2023, I would like to focus on creating my own work as much as providing music for others.
You can catch Sapphire Slows live at Zim Zam Zu!, at Bar Bonobo, on January 7th. Resident DJs, Ken Hidaka and Max Essa, will be your hosts, and the evening will also feature guest sets from Maria Latina & Glossy Mario, founders of Madrid-based reissue label, Glossy Mistakes. The lovely Dani will be up on the rooftop, serving delicious freshly cooked food.