Tokyo’s Nana Yamato emerged from her bedroom to deliver a debut album immersed with kitschy pop goodness.
Before Sunrise weaves minimalist dance instrumentals with a succinct confidence and shimmering horns. Throughout the album Yamato puts her charming songwriting prowess on display against a backdrop of grey, majestic movements.
We caught up with Yamato to talk about Iceage, Big Love Records and work and life balance.
What was that first Iceage album that you purchased at Big Love, and how did that record make an impact on your desire to become a musician? Were you able to catch them live before lockdown?
I first heard their song when I was 14 years old when I saw a YouTube video of them singing “Morals” in a big hall and I was shocked. I had been listening to old music from my father’s CD collection like The Doors, Television, David Bowie, Prince and The Strokes. But when I saw this live video of Iceage, I got excited because I thought it was the sound of my generation. Then, I really wanted to buy their records so I found out about Big Love in Harajuku. I knew I had to go there right away. The first time I went there was after I passed my high school entrance exam after being too young to go. It was a little scary because it was a smaller store than I had imagined. I really started coming every day after school. Everyone was doing club activities, but I went to Big Love instead because it meant so much more to me.
I caught an Iceage show when they came to Japan in the Beyondless era. But, I felt it was different from what I expected. Even though they were great. I think I created a distance between my imagination and reality.
I read my Pitchfork article yesterday, and I thought they were writing about my life as they imagined it. It’s so much better than reality.
There are so many different layers to comb through when listening to the album, can you share how the project was created and the inspirations behind the full pop sound that breathes through every track?
To be honest, I didn’t have a clear vision of what I wanted the sound to be from the beginning. I’m aware that this is a big problem as a musician. I’m a fan of Fat White Family, but I also have Idles records. When I listen to an album, I’m not so much interested in the sound as I am in the background of how the writer felt when he or she wrote the lyrics. I think it’s more fun to imagine the life of the person who wrote the song than to listen to the sound. Including Japanese language was an afterthought, and the lyrics were all in English on the demo. The reason why it’s half Japanese and half English is because I’ve never liked music sung all in Japanese.
How difficult has it been to balance your student and work life while working on this album?
To be honest, I don’t think I’m balanced. Somebody please tell me how I can find the balance. The only reason I’m going to university is because that’s what my parents wanted. They wanted me to be a bureaucrat. In fact, I once told my parents that I would like to quit university, but they said absolutely not and they told me to just get my diploma. I’ve caused them a lot of trouble in the past, so I thought I’d at least try to meet their wishes.
I love working because as long as I’m working, I don’t have to see myself at my worst. In fact, last week was the busiest week of my life, with the release of my album, the Before Sunrise exhibition of my paintings at Big Love, preparations for the in-store live, replying to email interviews, painting the Wolf Pack for the countdown to the release, and arranging other minor goods. It was also the most fun. I’m grateful for the situation I’m in right now, which allows me to be busy, because when I’m not busy, I’m not mentally stable.
Can you share why you believe Japan is currently in the midst of a guitar-based indie pop revival? The success of Chai and the reputation of Big Love across the world as a punk homebase has set people’s eyes on Tokyo as becoming a new creative hub.
I know the name, but I really don’t know anything about Chai; they don’t sell it in Big Love and people don’t talk about it. I guess for us it’s the same image as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu or Perfume. I respect the fact that they are more appreciated overseas than in Japan, but I don’t think I’ll ever meet them. But it’s very interesting that you mention the name Chai. Maybe I’m getting through to you in a different way and you’re interested in me. Even in the age of the Internet, I can see the magic of distance; I don’t interact with Chai or any other guitar band, because I don’t have any friends my own age, and I don’t want to make any. Kikagaku Moyo is the only Japanese band that I think is amazing, because the guys in Big Love are not interested in any of the current Japanese bands.
I’m not a fan of their music, but their energy is definitely something to learn from. I can’t emulate them, and I don’t want to. It would be nice if there was a scene in Japan, but it seems like everyone’s goal is to get along, and that’s not my thing at all. It’s fun for everyone, and I know that’s how a lot of the culture was born, but I don’t like the idea of people laughing together, so even if there was a scene, I don’t think I could be in it.
Can you explain the importance of the role that isolation plays in your life, and how has Tokyo’s bleakness influenced your creative energy?
As I said before, I’m lazy and I can’t do it unless I’m cornered. If I don’t do anything in Tokyo, then I don’t deserve to be there. I’m from the countryside in Chiba, so I have to show my value as a person. I want to stay in Tokyo. That’s why I became a musician. If I had been in London or New York, I certainly wouldn’t have become a musician.
Are you excited to share these songs live once shows return, or would you prefer keeping this as a studio project?
I want to play live. I don’t want to play in Japan, though. The reason is the same as I said before, I don’t think I’ll be part of any scene in Japan, and of course I’d be happy if people liked my music, but I don’t think I’ll be doing shows in Japan to get people to like me.
Japan doesn’t have the same venues as The Windmill in London. There are venues that specialize in punk and jazz, but there are no venues, bars, or stores that provide hobbies like Big Love here. There are a lot of people from overseas who think that because Tokyo has Big Love, everyone has this kind of culture, but there is only Big Love!
That’s why I don’t perform in Japan, and not just because I’m a difficult person (laughs). So I hope to be able to perform in London or New York someday. But I don’t think I could tour. For example, if someone in the van made a witty joke for me, I would be so nervous that I would be forced to laugh and my face would get all scrunched up, and I can only imagine how weird it would be for everyone to see that. I can’t stand to be in a van with someone all the time in the first place. The more I think about it, the more I think of the trouble I’ll cause to everyone, and I don’t think I can do the tour. So if I could do it, I’d like to do one time in London or New York that I’d like to visit. Just as a personal trip. I know it’s selfish.
Your album’s cover is very striking, did you self-produce the artwork and can you describe the scene that’s happening?
I made everything myself. I’ll say it over and over again that I didn’t have any other friends to ask. The characters I’m surrounded by are fictional heroes called the Wolf Pack. They’re the special forces that protect the security of the Tokyo Empire. But their strategy meetings are always a tabletop discussion. They’re always having meaningless meetings. For example, in the Slug Battle, they keep arguing about whether to use natural salt or artificial salt. They could solve it either way. In the end, Ponkichi, the smartest raccoon, says it doesn’t matter which, and sprinkles both salts at the same time. And the wolf army won. It’s a microcosm of society, I think.
Are there any books, films, records or podcasts that have kept you going through this difficult year that will play a part in your future projects?
- Joanna Robertson – Painting Stupid Girls
- Duma – Duma
- Otto – Clam Days
- Choir Boy – Gathering Swans
- Cindy Lee – What’s Tonight to Eternity
- Cindy – I’m Cindy
- Actress – Karma & Desire
- Chronophage – Th ‘pig’kiss’dn Album
- Good Sad Happy Bad – Shades
- Aldous RH – Respect 4 Devotion
- Salem – Fires in Heaven
- Robbie & Mona – EW
- Monokultur – Ormens Vag
- Trash Earthers – Pet Shimmers
I also read books, such as Bouvard et Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert, and many novels by Vladimir Nabokov. I also read The Waltz Invention, which was very funny. Recently, I watched an old movie, Sergei Parajanov’s Sayat Nova / The Colour Of Pomegranates and This is the End. These two are totally different though, the two best movies I’ve seen so far.
This interview has been edited for clarity.