"I'm not sure why people are listening to my music," Soichi Terada told me in a diner during a recent visit in February to Oberlin college, neatly cutting his hamburger with a knife and fork. "A lot of the music I made came out before you were even born!"
Despite his humility, 50-year-old Terada is one of Japan's most original electronic music maestros, best known for the soundtracks for beloved video games like Ape Escape. In 1989, Terada founded Tokyo-based label Far East Recording, putting his distinctively cheerful, proto-chiptunes stamp on the deep house sound nurtured by New York imprints like Strictly Rhythm and Nu Grooves. Shortly before his death in 1992, the legendary DJ Larry Levan even remixed Terada's collaboration with 80s superstar Nami Shimada "Sunshower," turning it into a favorite on the Paradise Garage dancefloor.
However, up until recently, Terada's music was hard to find abroad, relegating his music to a pretty small audience of serious crate-diggers. But in June 2015, Amsterdam-based DJ Hunee scooped up Terada's most essential tracks from the 90s into a compilation on Rush Hour called Sounds From the Far East, setting off a new wave of international appreciation for the Japanese producer.
Following the success of this compilation, Terada has joined Hunee for live sets around Europe and Asia. In February, he embarked on his first North American tour, which included a stop at Oberlin's student-run Dionysius Disco. During his three-night stay, I had the honor of introducing him to the real Midwest—including nearly freezing to death every minute we were outside, and eating a lot of mediocre food. We even went to the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame, where, in front of an exhibition about hippie culture, he started to tell me how meth was invented in Japan, speaking in depth about the difference between stimulants and hallucinogens—all with the kindest smile and the softest tone. On one occasion, I caught a glimpse of how much the American tour had worn him down when we went to an Asian fusion restaurant. Upon taking his first bite of teriyaki chicken, he exclaimed with happiness, "I'm going to cry."
Now that he's safe and sound in his Tokyo apartment, I had the chance to have a candid—and often cheeky—conversation with Terada over Skype about his newfound American audience (who he describes as "wild and naughty"), making house music with an Asian accent, and why he's always liked the West's misunderstood image of the Orient.
THUMP: What city was the most fun to play in?
Soichi Terada: I had so much fun in each city so I can't say. I guess LA left me with the strongest impression. Someone in the crowd poured water on my laptop during my set and all the music stopped. Even before that, someone started playing my synthesizer when I wasn't looking. American crowds are so young and energetic—they're wild! Maybe they're naughty. Does the word "naughty" sound mean-spirited in English?
They're wild and naughty then. I'm used to polite Japanese crowds so maybe it's normal in America.
It's interesting that you're surprised by how many young people are listening to your music. Why do you think your music has become so popular?
I really don't know! It might be how my house music sounds like it has an accent. If I were to compare it to a language, I think I'm speaking it fluently but other people hear a heavy accent. House music is already an established sound in America and Europe, so people might like hearing house music with an Asian accent.
Are you conscious of "Japanese-ness" when you're making house music?
I'm not really conscious of it, but people will come up to me after I play and tell me they like how I combine Asian elements with house music. That makes me happy.
What do you think people mean by "Asian elements"?
Apparently my melodies sound Asian. Sometimes I'll sample or play old Japanese folk songs so that might be what they mean. There must be a difference between what I think is Asian and what American and Canadian people think is Asian.
Isn't it frustrating that people attribute your entire musical to how you're "Asian"?
It actually makes me really happy. I've always liked the misunderstood image of the Orient– I can laugh about it. When someone tells me my music is a mix between Asian and classic house sounds, there might be a misunderstanding happening, but I like that in itself. Haven't you had American people tell you "this is so Japanese", and you think, "no way"?
Halloween costumes, food… the list goes on.
Like Katy Perry in her miniskirt kimono! I bet everyone thinks that's a real kimono. I think that's so interesting.
Speaking of the misunderstood image of Asia, did you have this in mind when running your Far East Recording label?
Yes, I wanted to have fun with the confused version of the Far East, where Japan, Korea and China are all one blur. On my records I used images of soda cans, but I used Chinese and Korean ones instead of Japanese ones. I also trimmed the Japanese flag and made it a weird color. I wanted to mix these things together and make the label seem really sketchy. Kind of like an American sushi restaurant, where all the Japanese writing doesn't make sense. It's fun.
Are you ever going to release material on your Far East Recording label?
Maybe. I can't reissue my old material for a couple years because of my contract with Rush Hour, but I may release new music.
I was really hoping for a reissue of Sumo Jungle…
I do want to reissue Sumo Jungle. I also want to perform it with sumo choreography, actually. I want to come up with a crazy premise that there are underground sumo battles in Japan where people bet with cash—something shady like that."
Like Fight Club? Like Fight Club! Illegal sumo wrestling… doesn't that sound good? I want to spread false information as if it were real. I'm sure that's how sumo was back in the Edo period before it became a part of traditional culture. Japanese people hide it but it's still happening today… and all the wrestlers are on meth!
Let's talk about the music that you're making now. Do you have any plans on releasing new material?
The song that I performed using origami on my tour is new. It's already out digitally but will be released on vinyl in March. I have new instrumental material that want to talk to Rush Hour about, but there aren't any plans of releasing it yet.
You produced most of your house music in the 90s. Isn't it difficult to recreate that sound in your new music after more than 20 years?
I have all the instruments that I used back then, so I just pull those out. I still have a feel for the chord progressions from back then, and that makes my music sound older. New synthesizers can produce beautiful, big sounds, but synthesizers from back then aren't as showy. They don't sound as shiny—they're matte.
Do you hear a difference in the music you made back then and the music that you're making now?
Of course. 90s house music had so much space between sounds. It's not as dense, it's kind of like a skeleton. There's a structure but not a lot of meat on it. I didn't think that at the time, but the music sounds simple when I listen to it now. It's a no-makeup look. No shimmery foundation.