If Japan seems, at times, on the verge of unrepentant nerdiness, then Masaya Nakahara, instigator of the noise act Violent Onsen Geisha, is a contender for King of the Nerds. Ubiquitous in Tokyo are the school boys in their heavy wool black uniforms with white clerical collars, the otaku-zoku (computer nerds) furtively stuffing mangas (comic books) into their oversized down parkas as they shuffle home to jack in and log on, and the bespectacled salary-men who have elevated nerdiness and high-test-score geekiness to new international heights. Westerners don't like to write it or say it, resisting the cultural stereotyping that smacks of political incorrectness, but loads of Japanese men and boys are crippled by congenital geekiness and unremitting momma's boy-ness. Few societies in the world lavish as much praise on
stellar test takers and data memorizers while disregarding the corollary awkward physical
manifestation, bestowing relentless promotions, perks and favors upon the exemplary uncool while the occasional iconoclast who embodies a James Deanish rugged individualism is relegated to unmarriable pariah.
Interview by Michiko Toyama
As a Japanese woman, I can dare write it: many Japanese men don't know how to be cool. All this makes it even more admirable that Masaya Nakahara has emerged as a pop culture phenomenon by embodying that nerdiness but somehow making it seem cool.
Now, as he sits in Aoyama's Spiral Cafe, amidst wirey, cagey sculptures that are part of whatever avant-gardish show is up at this museum cafe, Nakahara comes across as a bad little boy, his hair shorn in a Japanese school boy haircut - black bristles and too-white scalp - wearing a black parka and T shirt with a portrait of Vanessa Paradis. But he makes a smirking, judging, appraising, sneering, condescending, snide little boy, the kind of bad litle boy, maybe, who I wouldn't mind slapping around, undressing and suiting up in a good Italian two-piece, because Nakahara, 25, is handsome in a cleft, sullen sort of way, the rugged loner, defiant in the face of mono-culturalism.
Nakahara is organically individualistic, often writing film crit praises for B-movies, authoring a collection of essays about such flicks, and directing promotional videos. He is a renaissance geek, art directing his album covers, penning obtuse lyrics, performing Nancy Sinatra covers. And he records alone, plinking away on toy pianos and rattle-trap drum sets over samples of his parents having an argument or his sister practicing karaoke.
"I record alone because I don't have any friends," explains Nakahara as he looks at a menu. He announces how delighted he is that this cafe serves creme brulee. I ask him if that's his favorite food. "It's very good, you should have some." Nakahara orders and watches the big-hipped waitress as she walks away.
I ask him who he makes his music for, if his constituency is perhaps primarily the otaku-zoku and related sub-cultures. "I make music for intellectuals with masters degrees and super models. I'm not an otaku kind of musician. I'm not a representative of that pathetic subculture. Those people aren't creative; they are compilers and disseminators of already existing information. I take some existing data, reconfigure it, remix it, through samples, whatever, and then put it out and it is something new, rejuvenated if not totally original."
Nakahara's first three albums, Que Sera, Sera, OTIS and Nation of Rhythm Slaves have established his niche in the Japanese music scene, a cultural cocktail blending sampled animated films, cartoons and computer games with the somnambulistic mania of a more mellow Beck that already makes him the arbiter and definition of Japanese noise music. Natahara is musically obtuse, plinking and winding his way through atonal, sometimes dreary cul-de-sacs before anything emerges that could be called a song, or even a form. Primarily, he seems interested in creating unease, and is as likely to lull the listener into despairing disinterest as any other emotion.
"I don't set out to confuse people. I feel that this generation processes music differently, is more willing to accept odd varieties as 'pop."' says Nakahara. Explaining how he developed his peculiar aesthetic, he says, "I used to listen to the radios lot when I was in elementary school. NHK had some contemporary music programs, so I had a chance to listen to a Greek composer like Xenskis. Also, I watched movies, paying attention to the music - I especially liked Kenneth Anger films. I learned the sense of electronic sounds far the sake of sounds, sort of a musique concrete. Then I started dabbling, using just a tape recorder and electric piano, since I didn't have a synthesizer. I am the last of the analog warriors."
The waitress drops off his creme brulee. He scoops some custard with a spoon and keeps talking. Eager to dispel the notion that he is an otaku-musician, and to distance himself from Japan's other preeminent noise act the Boredoms, Nakahara points out that his "music is pop music, I think. Experimental or free music is not generally considered to be pop music, but to me it is. Noise music is playing with music, which is a pop thing to do, therefore it's pop music. But most people don't think so, so they try to label me." Nakahara presents himself as an enigma - "I don't use samplers, yes I do, no I don't, well, write that I use a dozen open reel-to-reels" - but the mystery is somewhat undermined by the curious fact that he still lives at home with his parents in the Aoyama section of Tokyo. How cool is it for a cutting edge noise musician to live with his mom? Nakahara won't talk about that, saying only that when he is a rock star he will move out of the house. He changes the subject and reveals that he records in his pajamas, "for maximum musical comfort."
Violent Onsen Geisha's live performances have posed special problems for Nakahara, necessitating that he hire or cajole musicians to play Black Sabbath and Nancy Sinatra covers over which he projects his warbling voice, the resulting music being nothing like his albums. "Lately, I've started to think I should do it properly. I take recording seriously, though. And my future is as a pop musician. I am not one of those types who wants to die on the fringes. I want mainstream success, but a success that allows me to record the kind of music I like to record." And what's that? "l am always changing. I don't know if I would ever be a musician, because I just create things that happen to be music."
I ask Nakahara, it you could be anything else other than a super cool noise musician, what would you be? "I would run a bar or be a baseball player," he laughs. "And I would not live at home."
Interview by Michiko Toyama