Formerly of the decades-spanning project Yura Yura Teikoku, Japan's Shintaro Sakamoto creates mood music, sonically light while skimming the surface of a deep, dark, heavy longing. "I wandered the wide avenue like a dead man," his new album, How To Live With A Phantom, begins. Released earlier this year on Other Music's new Fat Possum imprint, it offers a pleasant blend of laid-back funk, psych, soul, and folk. Sakamoto utilizes classic funk grooves, often danceable, and accents them with backup singing arrangements, saxophones, delay-heavy shimmering guitar, and crisp, smartly applied bass. In English translation, his songs read like love poems to dimming memories, and whether we fade them consciously or if they naturally fade on their own. His lyrics are rich and somewhat aloof, such as when he ponders the state of inertia within a city's confines, and the feeling of anonymity that can result: "Living in this town/Watching people come and go/And trying to keep your cool when you should be excited."
How does one live with a phantom? After discovering Sakamoto's record, it wasn't an easy question to shake. Are phantoms independently existing entities, or are they extensions of ourselves? "Be careful handling phantoms", he warns us towards the end of the record. "Prepare yourself when confronting dreams and phantoms/At times, phantoms will swallow you." Sakamoto's album swallows the listener whole, a well-crafted imaginary documentation of a heavy-lidded lounge singer encouraging us to dance with gusto as his gaze fixates sadly on some strange invisible distance outside the window.
Shintaro's influences, he claims, are rarely from after the 1970s or 1980s. During an email interview I conducted with him last month, an excerpt of which is reprinted below, he said that these days he's been listening to an American soul band from '70s called Love Apple. I compiled a mix of songs following this guideline-- residual "phantoms" that I was reminded of while listening to his record, several of which appear on albums that never quite broke into the mainstream, but continue to haunt contemporary musical practice.
Ad Hoc: Reviews I’ve read of How To Live With A Phantom reference "mood music" or "muzak" or even "elevator music.” How do you relate to these genres?
Shintaro: I thought it would be cool to make music that at first seemed to be a kind of vacant mood music, but actually had really heavy, dark thoughts and a crazed kind of worldview behind it. Death is one of the themes of the songs, but I tried to express it in a lighter way, not in a spiritual way.
Ad Hoc: Would you say the songwriting and arrangements have been influenced by your work with Yura Yura Teikoku?
Shintaro: I didn't think at all about consciously making something that either sounded like or didn't sound like Yura Yura Teikoku. I just put together the sort of sound I wanted to hear at that time. But for better or worse. I think my habits in terms of the chord progressions and melodies I like come through in the music.
Ad Hoc: What was your biggest surprise in working on this album?
Shintaro: How fun it was to play the bass.
Ad Hoc: You’ve said that you wanted the instrumentation of the album to sound like the work of “invisible players.” Can you tell me more about that intention?
Shintaro: The record has the feeling of humans performing, but I wanted to make a sound that was devoid of any kind of physicality. Because I imagined a kind of pleasant music that would be heard in the background in the space between life and death. I thought that kind of music could also sound sad at the same time.
Ad Hoc: The female background vocals on the album add a lot of character and flair. Did you have any specific influences in mind while crafting the arrangements?
Shintaro: I've always liked American female chorus groups from the early ‘60s. More so than any specific thing though, I think I've been influenced by all the records I've listened to and liked up to this point.
Ad Hoc: There is also a saxophone! I haven't heard a saxophone on a pop album in a long time. Do you think they lost steam after the '80s?
Shintaro: I have very few records that were made after 1984. So I'm not really sure.
Ad Hoc: Some people have developed their intuition in such a way that has enabled them to experience ghost presences. Do we simply attract ghost and phantom presences, particularly those which we are creating out of our own experience and memories?
Shintaro: This is a difficult question for me to understand and I'm afraid my answer may be a bit off... I made this album imagining a world balanced between "the state of being alive" and "the state of being dead." But normally I don't think about those kinds of difficult things, I just lead a normal life.
1. Dusty Springfield: "Am I The Same Girl"
2. Cymande: "The Message"
3. Beach Boys: "Little Bird"
4. Betty Harris: "All I Want Is You"
5. Emmit Rhodes: "Somebody Made For Me"
6. Caetano Veloso: "The Empty Boat"
7. The Meters: "Cissy Strut"
8. Harry Nilsson: "Sweet Surrender"
9. Alexander "Skip" Spence: "Little Hands"
10. The Upsetters: "Medical Operation"
11. Grateful Dead: "France"
12. Donovan: "Riki Tiki Tavi"
13. David Bowie: "Golden Years"
14. Ofege: "Nobody Fails"
15. Berry Lipman: "Get A Blow"
16. Rickie Lee Jones: "Chuck E's In Love"
17. Dr. John: "Mama Roux"
18. Os Mutantes: "Tecnicolor"