Haruomi Hosono Has Made So Many Great Records He Can't Remember Them All
Upon his long-awaited return to the United States for sold-out shows on both coasts, the 71-year-old Japanese legend reflects on a lifetime of playful experiments.
Photo courtesy of the artist
Haruomi Hosono seems amused that he’s become one of the most worshipped figures in experimental music over the past few years. “Why are there so many people coming to my shows?” the 71-year-old artist asks me with a chuckle as he prepares to round out his first ever solo tour of the United States. As we sit together on a small bench in an alleyway outside the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, press agents and show organizers hover about us excitedly, while congregated fans outside make audible proclamations about how God is in the building. Amidst all this adoration, Hosono is the absolute picture of calm; he just sits smoking his cigarette, shrugging it off as if he can’t be bothered with all this commotion.
While Hosono achieved a surprising level of popularity in America in the ‘80s through his work as the chief operator behind Japanese techno-pop megastars Yellow Magic Orchestra, recently his music has spread to the West through entirely different channels. Besides the fact that his albums have gotten a notable bump in popularity thanks to their regular appearance in YouTube’s algorithmic rotation of old Japanese ambient music, Hosono has also recently entered a new sphere of exposure in America thanks to Light in the Attic’s reissues of some of his most crucial releases.
But even before Hosono crossed the ubiquitous Spotify barrier, he had long inspired a cult-like obsessiveness in his fans due to how bafflingly unique his multifaceted discography is. Leaping from vintage California folk-rock to psychedelic exotica to deep-end avant-garde electronics to joyous synth-pop with a nimble, playful ease, Hosono has always juggled the esoteric with the accessible as if it were the most natural thing in the world. His advocates include the likes of Jim O’Rourke, Van Dyke Parks, and Mac DeMarco, the latter of whom was standing around during soundcheck as Hosono prepped for his show this past Monday evening. (DeMarco would eventually take the stage to rehearse a duet with Hosono of his sweet Tropical Dandy cut “Honey Moon”.)
These U.S. shows were launched in support of Hosono’s recently released Hochono House LP—a new reworking of his beloved solo debut Hosono House that transforms the album’s shaggy folk songs into a shuffling suite of electro-lounge boogie. While his performances have included several of these new songs, they’ve largely leaned on old boogie-woogie numbers, with Hosono leading a primarily acoustic band complete with sighing accordion and heavenly slide guitar. “I used to make electronic music...but I came here to show how much I love American music,” he stopped at one point during his performance to say, waxing on how the sounds of Benny Goodman and Disney musicals left a permanent impression on his brain as a child growing up in post-World War II Japan.
Sitting and chatting before the show, Hosono seemed nostalgic about these old American standards that have meant so much to him. As he conferred back and forth with our translator in his soothing baritone, he remained a courteous conversationalist while never giving away too many of his secrets (probably due to the fact that he says he can’t remember most of them). But every once in a while, he’d let slip some of the eccentricity that’s made him such a fascinating, humble hero to listeners around the world.
NOISEY: How do you like being back in America? Has it changed over the years?
Haruomi Hosono: Neither New York nor Los Angeles have changed much, but there are less record companies in L.A. now compared to back then, which makes me a little sad.
How have you been spending your time here outside of playing shows?
I visited the studio that Happy End recorded at 46 years ago called Sunset Sound, and checked it out. I was quite immersed in nostalgia. I've also been hitting all the diners.
You used to have some kind of notoriety in America through Yellow Magic Orchestra, but have you noticed that your solo music’s gotten more popular here recently?
Yes, I can see that. I don't really know why that's been the case, but I'm very happy about it.
The songs on your new album were written at a time when you were really obsessed with American bands. What’s it like looking at these songs now that your perspective has changed so much?
I'm more and more into the sounds of the ‘40s and ‘50s. I like them even more now. A big part of that is because people aren't inheriting them, and I want to make it known to new audiences. Do you know what I mean?
So do you still like America the same way you did when you were a kid and you seemed like you just wanted to be in one of those California bands?
I’m into the old America. Not the current America. I have longing for the old times.
Why are you returning to your debut album now? What inspired that?
Let's see...I made that album when I was around 24, and it was my first solo album. And...how do I put it...there are many shortcomings. In other words, it was incomplete in a way where I feel that I left things unfinished. So, I was curious to see if I returned to these songs now and played them with my current feelings, what would happen? That curiosity led me to recreate the album.
So how do you think the vibe of this album compares to the original?
It’s turned into a completely different thing. It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but I enjoyed making it. I'm satisfied.
In America, so many of my friends have become fans of your work in the last several years. Do you see a lot of younger people in Japan still listening to your music too?
All in all, it's great that the younger generation has been listening to my music more. Even in Japan, there are a lot of younger people who are listening to my music with the help of YouTube and the internet. I feel like it’s pretty much the same around the world.
Even your background music tape for MUJI was recently sampled in a Vampire Weekend song, and you’re also doing a song with Mac DeMarco tonight, who’s another big American indie guy that loves your music . How do you feel about having your work reinterpreted by all these younger Western artists?
At first, I didn’t understand why anyone would be into the music that I made for MUJI. I created it as in-store background music, and it was just a job that I did a long time ago, so I had since forgotten about it. But hearing what Vampire Weekend did with the song, how they discovered it and created a great track, it's extremely fresh. I was like, "oh, this is how you create!" I wish I had done it myself.
Have you kept up with mainstream J-pop? In the last few years, Asian pop music in general has become way more popular in America.
I don't listen to much of that. The sound is good. The sound quality has improved. But in terms of music, it’s not something that really interests me.
So what is it about all this old American boogie-woogie music that you think is so enduring after all this time?
The vibe of that time, the culture, the whole atmosphere, including life then. Also how the records sound, how the studio sounded, as well as the groove musicians had. All those have been lost now. It's gone. So I want to extract that essence from that time and hand it down to the current age, to pass it on.
Are you still interested in experimenting with new technology? It does seem like this new album manages to inject these old-fashioned songs with a more modern edge.
Yeah, there are all kinds of things I want to do. With boogie-woogie now, I've been doing it for about 10 years. But I want to do something new again now, and I'm currently lining up the equipment for it.
Looking back on all the different kinds of music you’ve worked on over the years, what do you think you’re the most proud of?
Let's see, among my solo albums, I like Philharmony and omni Sight Seeing, and...let's see…I forgot the rest [laughs]. I've done too many things. I've been doing this for 50 years, so I don't think about my own work that much.
This is a bit of a personal question, but I think my favorite record that you’ve ever been a part of is Pacific, and it’s really hard to find information about that album out there. What was the idea behind that record? I still don’t think I’ve ever heard anything else quite like it, even in your own discography.
I have no recollection of it [laughs]. It was an album project by Sony that gathered a bunch of different people—I was only called in to do it. But I've never listened to it much after making it.
Nice. How do you like to spend your free time these days?
I'm an old man now, so I enjoy taking walks, sleeping, and watching TV [laughs]. The normal things.
And how’s your relationship with Ryuichi Sakamoto?
Sakamoto is busy being all over the place, so we don't get to see each other much. But I hear a lot through other people about all the different work that he’s been doing. I see Yukihiro [Takahashi] quite often though. He's coming tonight too.
Throughout your career, your music has often managed to sound very futuristic, even when you’ve been tackling more old-fashioned genres. How do you feel about the future at this point?
What I'm doing now, as I mentioned earlier, is passing on what's been lost from the ‘40s and earlier times. That is the future for myself—I'm envisioning the future by returning to the past. Aside from that, today's vision for the future is very negative. I don't have much hope for it. Although, I actually am very fond of this dystopian idea for the future.
What are you going to do once this tour is wrapped up?
I want to get back home, fast [laughs]. I want to go back to a small country. America is too vast, it's extreme.
Sam Goldner is a writer based in Los Angeles. You can find him on Twitter.