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Return to the Planet of Cornelius

We talk to the elusive Japanese music maverick about the reissue of his genre-defying cult classic 'Fantasma,' which he's performing in full across the States this month.

With Dragon Ball Z, Ringu, Bathing Ape and of course, Pokémon, Japan hit a phenomenal stride in the 90s when it came to exporting pop culture to the Western world. Of all the media, however, music arguably had the smallest impact, but what it did send overseas certainly found its role in alternative music’s unlimited buffet. Japan’s most prominent musical contribution was a genre called Shibuya-kei. Named after the Tokyo district, the music aped the orchestral flourishes of 60s pop maestros like Burt Bacharach, Serge Gainsbourg, Brian Wilson, and Phil Spector, to produce a distinct, kitschy retro sound that was headlined by artists like Pizzicato Five, Fantastic Plastic Machine and Towa Tei; other artists like Buffalo Daughter, Cibo Matto, and Takako Minekawa were also part of the genre, but focused more on creating sounds of the future. At the center of this movement was a musician who named himself after the protagonist of the Planet of the Apes franchise.


Cornelius, a.k.a. Keigo Oyamada, first earned attention as the singer/guitarist in Tokyo indie band Flipper’s Guitar (previously Lollipop Sonic), who in the short span of a couple years released a plethora of material, including three full-lengths. Their wildly inventive style—a medley of jazz, soft pop, psychedelia, lounge, and UK indie pop—laid the foundation for the Shibuya-kei sound and turned the members into national musical heroes. When the band imploded, Oyamada continued making music in the same vein (and starring in an ad campaign for UNO hair mousse.)). He launched his own label via Polystar called Trattoria, which would not only release his solo work, but also that of fellow Japanese acts like Kahimi Karie, Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, and future spouse Takako Minekawa, as well as international acts like Apples in Stereo, Papas Fritas, and Corduroy. He even reissued a forgotten album by Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman simply because he “liked the name.”

The first Cornelius album, 1994’s The First Question Award, was a bubbly, retro-futuristic orchestral pop that picked up where Flipper’s Guitar left off, but also failed to establish him as a singular artist. It was his second album, 1995’s 69/96, though where Cornelius began to show off a desire to break new ground. In fact, the album was a not only a complete surprise and total 180. Abandoning the previous album’s sound completely, he switched to a restless, noisy, hour-long assortment that melded genres (metal, hip-hop, honky tonk, classical) and had to in some part lay the groundwork for Beck’s impending masterpiece Odelay. For his third album, however, Cornelius was cooking up something good.


Cornelius’s third album, Fantasma, was and still is an album that never leaves your psyche once you hear it. He built it using the philosophy that music is all just music and nothing is off limits; it’s a bold collage of immaculately and seamlessly sequenced music that seems flirt and celebrate the idea of working with contradictions, absurdities, and ridiculousness. Cornelius didn’t just hop genres and eras of music from song to song, he sometimes did it from intro to verse to chorus, making an adjustment at the drop of a hat. He designed the album to be a multi-media, immersive experience: deluxe copies of the record came with specially designed ear buds to listen to the record, and some performances of the songs were presented in 3D. Fantasma made him a huge pop star in Japan, and earned him an international deal with Matador Records, who signed him and re-released Fantasma after an employee brought back a copy of it from Japan. Although he didn’t quite match his Japanese success, Stateside he was either praised as a "modern day Brian Wilson" or the “Japanese Beck,” which isn’t too shabby.

Because it was practically criminal for such a thing to be out of print, Lefse Records recently reissued a remastered edition of Fantasma, complete with four unreleased bonus tracks for the hell of it. To celebrate the release, Cornelius will be performing Fantasma in its entirety for six shows across the US this month. We asked Keigo Oyamada (via his translator) about his seminal album, if there will be another Cornelius album, and what fans can expect from the upcoming shows. Plus, check out the video for Fantasma’s “Chapter 8 (Seashore And Horizon),” premiering below.


Noisey: There were a couple of Cornelius albums released before Fantasma that were pretty different. What do you remember as your approach to making this album?
Keigo Oyamada: I guess it might have been a bit of reaction to those albums but I think is was more a reaction to the approach I took on all of my previous albums. I think on each album up to that point, I tended to focus and express a certain particular or specific part of my musical interests and or influences. With Fantasma I aimed to bundle all those elements together into one record. When I was making the first and second album I didn’t think I would be making music for as long as I have been. So by the time the third album rolled around, I wanted to make something satisfying for myself, an album that mixed all the music I had heard and enjoyed through out my entire career.

You once said “Fantasma is a kind of album that only has one entrance and one exit.” Why was it important to make an album that needed to be listened to as a whole?
This album was meant to take the listener on a personal trip, to be a one-on-one experience between the music and the listener. It starts with you entering into the journey and ends with you returning back to reality. I wanted people to experience it like [they were] watching a dream. The world in between is not a collection of random songs but more a seamless piece of music with songs connected and placed in a certain order in which everything has it’s own important meaning.


With this in mind, how difficult was it to get the sequencing right?
Well, digital recording was not what it is today. The editing part was very difficult because we were still recording to magnetic digital reel tape recorders. So editing was more difficult compared to now but it was a fun experience. As far as the order of the songs, they were actually written and recorded in the order they appear on the album. That was one of the concepts, the story almost wrote itself because I would finish one song and let it dictate what the next one should or would be like.

Certain copies of Fantasma came with unique ear buds designed specifically for listening to the album, which had a sticker reading “Album of the Ear.” Should Fantasma be considered a concept album of sorts?
In the beginning there’s a part where I used a vionola mic to record and I wanted people to experience that so I included the headphones. Fantasma is a personal album, so part of it was that I wanted people to listen to it by headphones to experience it.

I think it’s a type of concept album but not the kind where every song tells a part of the same story. It is a concept album in the sense that the album is meant to be a personal trip, a personal experience, like I said before, the “one-to-one thing”—hence the headphones.

Your sound collages on Fantasma contained a lot of cut and pasted samples (i.e. Chunk from Goonies). How tricky was it to release that album the way you wanted to in 1997?
Sample clearance was a bit of an unexpected problem. I had used so many samples there were some I couldn’t even remember where I got them from. The original Fantasma had a song called “Monkey,” which contained a sample from David Seville, from Alvin and the Chipmunks, which wouldn’t clear for the U.S. release, unless I changed the song title to the original sampled track’s name “Magoo Opening,” and re-registered it as a cover track.


I read that Matador discovered you via one of their employees, who found some of your music visiting Japan and played them for the label. How surprised were you to hear from Matador?
We really didn’t have any intention or actual plan for releasing it overseas when we recorded Fantasma. But I was pleasantly surprised to be approached by Matador. For one thing, most of my musical influences came from overseas bands, so I liked the idea that now my music would be heard in places that produced or gave birth to so much of the music I loved. Also, around this time a lot of cool acts like Jon Spencer, Yo La Tengo and Pavement were also on the Matador. Even my friends Pizzicato 5 were already there.

What did having a record deal with Matador mean to you at that point in your career?
For one thing it gave me the chance to get my music heard internationally and of course, the opportunity to tour overseas. It also led to many remixes and collaborations with other international artists. Looking back, I can really see how it opened up a new playing field for me.

You mention remixes. There were quite a few high profile ones you did: Beck, Blur, James Brown, Philip Glass and Moby. However, Sting seemed like a very unusual one. How did that fall in your lap?
I think his sound engineer was a fan of my music and hooked it up. Later, Sting actually came to see one of my shows in London. He then invited me to one of his big shows in Japan and I was very surprised to hear him perform my remix version of his song “Brand New Day.” In fact, I was not only surprised but somewhat overwhelmed!


Fantasma really leant itself well to the remix. You had those two compilations of album remixes and your remixes of other artists’ music. What is it that you like about the remix as a form of expression?
At first my basic understanding of a remix was more like taking someone’s track and making a dance version of it. But then I started to appreciate it as an opportunity to re-express another artist’s song in a unique and original way. So when I ask someone to remix one of my own tracks, I want to hear their take of my song. I want to be excited about what they will come up with.

You’ve always been known as a bit of a gear whiz. Do you embrace all of the new technology or do you prefer to stick with more traditional, analog gear?
Both digital and analog have their different advantages and own greatness. But instead of leaning towards one, I tend to choose what’s right for the moment or task at hand. As far as the advances in technology, one big difference is time related. When I recorded Fantasma, we were still using commercial studios so the clock was always ticking, like a taxi meter. Technology has allowed me to build a home studio where I can spend as much time doing what I want, as much as I want, without as much of the time pressure.

The four bonus tracks that come with the reissue are a nice addition.
Those tracks are mostly from compilations we released on my label Trattoria in the 90s.


Your last Cornelius album, Sensuous, came out almost ten years ago. I know you have done some film scoring since then, but do you expect to make another Cornelius album?
I’ve done a couple of film soundtracks for the Ghost in the Shell franchise, plus recorded for Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, produced artists like Salyu x Salyu, and I play in many bands with the likes of Yoko Ono and more recently Metafive. I’ve also been very active as the sound producer for a popular kids show called Design Ah. But, I’m happy to say I’ve also been working on my new album and should have it finished and released by next year.

You’re performing Fantasma in full on your tour. The album was very much a studio creation, so how difficult has it been trying to adapt those songs to play live? The band is a four-person arrangement so it will be a very “live” sound, although some sounds will be generated from a hard disk. Compared to post-Fantasma songs, the arrangements themselves are not really that complicated.

In the past you’ve put on some spectacular live performances. In particular, the “Ultimate Sensuous Synchronized Show.” What do you have planned for the Fantasma shows?
The shows will mostly be a reenactment of Fantasma, although we do plan to perform a few recent songs as well. We will also be using some of the original visuals from the original Fantasma tour, visuals I personally produced myself. At the time, there were a few songs I wasn’t able to do the visuals for, so this time I’m actually personally creating brand new visuals for a few of those old songs.


I read that your second cousin is Miki Berenyi from Lush. Now that she’s back making music again, is there any possibility of a collaboration?
I actually didn’t know we were even related until about eight years ago. We connected at a family gathering and have stayed in close touch ever since. Of course, I knew of Lush but she wasn’t doing it when we met up. Now that they are back together, I’ve already done a remix, which should be released soon. I’m also going to have her guest on my new album.

Finally, how do you feel about the recent rebooted Planet of the Apes films?
No, to be honest, I’m really not even that interested. I like the first one—if you know what I mean.

Cornelius Tour Dates:

8/4 Oakland, CA - Fox Theater

8/6 Los Angeles, CA - Orpheum Theater

8/8 Tucson, AZ - Rialto Theater

8/10 Denver, CO - Gothic Theater

8/12 Eau Claire, WI - Eaux Claires Festival

8/13 Chicago, IL - Park West

Follow Cam Lindsay on Twitter.