Music

Perversion. Purity. Pop. An Interview with Post-Electropop Producer LLLL

Still from LLLL "Blue" Official MV from "Faithful"

Frustrated with Japan's profit-driven music scene, Kazuto Okawa began making music that rejected Tokyo's parochial consumer culture and moved as far away from J-pop as possible, creating his own sound.

Kazuto Okawa, the Japanese-Canadian producer of post-electropop project LLLL (pronounced four-el), hovers around 5'9 with amber-almond skin and bedhead locks that hang just past the chin. He's midway through prepping for a live set, nodding to a slew of production coordinators and audio engineers as I sneak in through the back-alley warehouse entrance. I wave at him, and we exchange knowing glances before he's is swept upstairs to soundcheck and I'm ceremoniously ushered out by staff.

Later that night, Kazuto stands near the guardrails of the second-story balcony, draped in a relaxed black long-sleeve shirt with a flaccid tote bag hanging over his shoulder, facing a sea of swaying drunkards bathed in aposematic light. He might have looked different streaming in 720p, but through MDMA-glazed eyes from the ground level, there's a semblance of Pornography-era Robert Smith to his silhouette and stare. Visual projections show warping 2D waifus in various states of undress and expression—your perfect teenage psychedelic porn-browsing experience.

I was dead center in a party co-hosted by hentai site FAKKU and the cult-status netlabel ZOOM LENS—the pinnacle of perversion. Wasted weeaboos, industry listers, and amateur cosplayers packed the room and lined the walls, danced and nodded and stomped their heels. They were here for the booze, here for the crowd, and definitely here for the hentai. But Kazuto isn't a drinker, lister, or cosplayer. He doesn't even like hentai. And yet he flew a thousand miles to this sold-out pervert's party to make his North American debut.

Born and raised in Japan during his formative years, Kazuto Okawa began playing guitar in his tweens, and moved to Canada for a decade, where he attended high school and later applied to the University of Guelph. While pursuing music studies and learning MIDI, Kazuto dabbled in music scoring and played with an acid lounge-hop outfit, where he first met singer Meghan Riley. They would eventually come to work again, but not long after graduating, Kazuto returned home.

"When I went back to Japan, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, but I know I wanted to do something with music—that's what I did when I was in Canada. So I compiled a demo CD and I sent it off to a lot of different management companies, and [Agehasprings] is just one of the ones that wanted to meet me. After that I got a contract with them, and they basically set up different competitions for pieces that they were looking for."

In many regions, landing an industry position to write for label-backed artists renders a certain white-collar portrait: the salary earner that capitalizes on musical aptitude for rent, divides free time among passion projects, and has maybe two storage lockouts' worth of boutique gear. An idyllic life for the live-adverse, maybe even the tour-wearied. As a pop composer, Kazuto received songwriting and arrangement credits to a modest number of Oricon-ranking hits, including singles by famed idol singer Mika Nakashima, and Yuki Kuramochi of Judy and Mary. He was good at what he did, and it was good for a while.

But because of Japan's extended economic recession, major label music executives had to continue their strategy of driving production efforts toward genres with strong fandoms and strong profits.

"Just as any industry would shrink when doing badly financially—like the American recording industry—when things go badly for your business, I think you have two ways of combating that: change direction, find a new avenue to get a new customer or a new audience; or shrink yourself down to the people that you know are going to buy your products, and cut off everything that's considered adventurous.

"The Japanese pop industry definitely reacted in the latter way: they cut a lot of avenues off everything that was, to me, adventurous pop music, and they left the safest ones to sell—anime music and idol music. I'm not here to say [those two genres] are bad music. There's a lot of bad music in them, but there's a lot of bad music in everything."

While Japanese music and arts flourished in the afterglow of Shibuya-kei and the onset of the anime-influenced Superflat movement, many idol groups began incentivizing their fans to purchase first edition releases with tickets to handshake events—exclusive opportunities to meet and greet the performers—which Kazuto remarked had "nothing to do with music at that point." The music was clearly made to sell, it was nakedly subservient to other cultural commodities, and coming to grips with those sentiments wore him down as much as the continual stress of competition.

"...a lot of anime fans, a lot of idol fans were still buying CDs, so they're still doing fine. But that meant every competition I got as a composer was geared towards anime and idol groups... to me anime music, J-pop music, has a very distinct sound. I was just really frustrated. I just didn't feel any connection to anything they wanted me to write. I didn't feel the association with these two genres of music, and I kinda lost my place.

"When those genres became more dominant in music, I felt like my role in these kinds of music was done, and I felt like I had to reinvent myself. And at the time I didn't think it was going to lead to anything significant to my life, but I had a clear intention of moving somewhere."

On 11 March 2011, Japan was hit by the 9.1 magnitude Touhoku Earthquake, generating a tsunami, a series of aftershocks, a body count of 15,000 dead and 2,500 missing, and an estimated $360 billion in damages. The earthquake also contributed to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown, which Japanese mainstream media outlets minimized throughout their ongoing disaster coverage—presumably to mitigate panic and unrest. It was a good a time as any for Kazuto to make music that rejected Tokyo's parochial consumer culture and move as far away from J-pop as possible.

"When I first started composing for LLLL, I had a distinct idea that this should represent a sound of Tokyo that people weren't really creating. Some people were, but there's a lot of music—like anime music and J-pop—that people associate with Tokyo. Whereas, I felt like there was this atmosphere, this distinct feeling that resonates with certain sounds, but a lot of people were ignoring it. A lot of darker feelings, a raw energy, desire, lust, broken dreams, vanity—these kinds of feelings that are not really covered in Japanese music. And of course there's this whole thing with the Fukushima earthquake happening. I felt like this needs to be captured. My persona as LLLL was not so much of myself, but rather a reflection of what the city meant to me."

The first three LLLL EPs were digitally self-released over several months in 2012. Unlike Kazuto's past works that fit neatly into the archetypal boxes of J-Pop, compositions of the self-titled debut matched new wave revivalism and nootropic psychedelia with garage emotion. Eventually, Kazuto felt the irresistible vastness of the net close in around him, become his chrysalis and his home. Two years went by aimlessly as he amassed gear and tinkered with VSTs.

"I had really no interaction with people beyond the blogs so after a while I thought, maybe I should just stop this? I was spending a lot of money on LLLL, and I was like, 'Maybe I should just concentrate on my career—I need to survive.' And I was gonna stop, but then [Meishi Smile] said they wanted to release something on ZOOM LENS."

Back then, Kazuto had only known of the yonsei pop provocateur Meishi Smile and their homegrown label through a music journalist. But after taking some time to trade listens and conversations, he remarked that there was a deeper level of understanding between the two that motivated him to continue with the project and see himself not as a faceless producer, but as a Japanese artist in a distinct, diverse, and internationalized scene.

LLLL's debut album Paradice was released in 2014, around the time Kazuto performed at a live/stream event with artists from ZOOM LENS and Maltine Records, one of Japan's most enduring and influential net-music catalogues. Aptly produced in part by Shibuya's net-culture TV station 2.5D, the event opened Kazuto's eyes to a new, borderless community of creators like Kosmo Kat, bo en, Yoshino Yoshikawa—artists from the fringe scenes carved by Soundcloud reposts, last.fm scrobbles, and internet radio stations.

"...When I did the [Maltine 2.5D] show, I just couldn't believe how many compliments and welcoming words I got from people in Japan and overseas. They even live-streamed the event on Twitter, and that's what gave me the confidence to keep going. I tell [Meishi Smile] this all the time, but I think if I never met them, I would have just quit."

Through Maltine 2.5D, Kazuto moved on to release remixes, compilations and one-shot singles with imprints domestic and international, like PROGRESSIVE FOrM, Modular Field Recordings, Bad Panda Records, and Secret Songs. In time, LLLL started rotations in Tokyo's nightlife with one-off festivals like DOMMUNE and local club music events, notably those by Tokyo-based collective dos・ing. His live performances, which chained several arrays of MIDI controllers and contrasted sharply with the rhythmic aggression of most club scene artists, made even dos・ing co-founder Calum Salmond do a double-take when the two first talked in 2015.

"LLLL's music is not exactly 'club' music, but it's chill, unique and very interesting to watch live, especially with the projections and flashing lights from [Kazuto's] gear... I think a lot of artists here look overseas for their inspiration, whereas [Kazuto] looks more internally. He utilizes technology and is inspired by the environment he lives in. His music tells a narrative about this and I think that's what draws everybody into his music."

With the sophomore full-length More Faithful, LLLL's direction also turned away from a dissociated, clinical analysis of the Japanese pop landscape for greater exploration—and connection—of identities. The music reacted to a moving cast of vocalists across a myriad of genres, like the aforementioned Meghan Riley, Asia Marie, Aya Fraqsea (Shelling), former idols Chifumi Horikoshi and Maki Noa (sic), and most notably ZOOM LENS labelmate Yeule, whom Kazuto identifies with most. She's featured in the first song of 2017's Chains, a yearlong effort that saw a rejection of the album in favor of exquisite corpses in the form of singles divided into four distinct phases (EPs).

"A big reason for starting Chains is I didn't want to have a time lag to express myself and what I'm thinking at the moment, and I didn't want to wait until I accumulated all the songs. And I also knew a lot of visual artists that I wanted to showcase... artists I believe in."

Though LLLL's lineup has remained singular, it's still referred to by the royal "we"—partially to distance it from Kazuto's major label past, partially to distance it from himself, and partially to acknowledge its architects in toto. LLLL's discography and digital persona are credited not only to the vocalists featured, but also the many talented photographers, artists, and designers that he's worked with and sought to uplift—Ei Toshinari, Asia Marie, Brian Vu, perle, Minami Yahiro, Brendan Savi, Tetsushi Tsuruki, and countless others to name.

"When you invite other artists, it's impossible for it to be just you; it needs to be a collaboration. And I carefully choose the one(s) that I can respect, whose voice(s) I can reflect on. But it's too egoistic to say [LLLL] is my persona—they're different people."

According to Kazuto, people still compare LLLL to anime music—Japanese, urban, and sci-fi. He takes these critiques at face-value, "...That's them reacting to my sound as Japanese, [like the] Tokyo cityscape. I don't think everyone listened to it without noticing my intention." And the style is not without its merits: that je nes sais quoi set the mood for collaborations with local fashion brands, arthouse films, and even an experimental venue in Shanghai (see below). But in his exploration of new partnerships with different mediums, Kazuto has come full-circle to accept music's mutability—that, even if it isn't to do with major label vehicles and idol brands, its allure is strengthened in part by the images, ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that it co-mingles with.

"It takes a certain kind of curiosity to really just listen to music as it is. There's no doubt, even to myself, that when you combine music with sex, it makes such a powerful part of entertainment."

To see Kazuto standing there, eyes closed in capitulation, hands splayed over the flashing controllers as the people below twist and turn, it's evident that he has laid that polarizing view to rest. His presence at this party is indicative of a truth reaffirmed in our conversation, with LLLL, and with himself.

"I embrace it as well."

LLLL "Chains 4" (EP) releases Friday, 28 February.

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