Interview: Keiichiro Shibuya

Interview and photography: Andrey Bold


Keiichiro Shibuya is a curiosity. Having made a name for himself with glitchy, (un)easy listening music he enjoys recognition and commercial success of a pop star. His music can be heard anywhere from dance floors and invitation-only Louis Vuitton parties to movies, TV commercials and prestigious music halls. With his most ambitious project to date, the first ever vocaloid opera, The End, premiering this November in Paris, he's got a good shot at becoming one of the biggest Japanese musical exports since Ryuchi Sakamoto.

We meet on a rainy gray day at the composer's studio, located near Daikanyama T-Site which he frequently visits. Shibuya looks vulnerable, it's been two days since the 5th anniversary of the death of his wife and muse, Maria. His studio, largely occupied by a grand piano, is clustered with boxes of his CDs and art books.

Composer Keiichiro Shibuya

Composer Keiichiro Shibuya

  • ABTell us about your early, pre-ATAK days.
  • KSI studied classical music, composing and grand piano at Tokyo University of the Arts. After graduation I worked as an arranger, producer and a studio musician. I was only composing acoustic music back then, but the technology kept improving and I asked myself—Where do I go with this? It was around the time of PowerBook G3 launch.
  • ABIt was a game changer.
  • KSYes, also meeting Carsten Nicolai. My partner, Maria, influenced me a lot as well. She was a model and often DJed. She liked experimental electronica and had many records. We got married six months after we met, on September 11th, 2001.
  • ABSeptember 11th?
  • KSIt was her birthday. She was a quarter Jewish, a quarter Ukrainian and half-Japanese.
  • ABReally? I also have Ukrainian blood, my grandfather was from Western Ukraine.
  • KSI think me too, even though my parents say I’m 100% Japanese. Still, I'm a little big for a Japanese, and sometimes I find blonde hair on my chest. [Laughs]
  • ABAnd the two of you established ATAK.
  • KSYes, the first release was our collaboration—laptop duo “Slipped Disc.” It's a nickname for hip cancer, very imaginative and a bit erotic, our idea of pop at the time. [Laughs] First ATAK's release, “ATAK001.”
  • ABWas there anyone you looked up to during this period?
  • KSHmm... Carsten Nicolai, Pan Sonic, musicians producing electronic music without a score. It was very different from what I did. I concentrated on making music on a laptop. ATAK is misspelled “attack.”
  • ABBut the meaning is the same, right?
  • KSYes, accidents and mistakes frequently appear in my life, we wanted our name to reflect that.
  • ABAn error.
  • KSExactly. The key sound on the first CD was the tone of ATAK. We were very influenced by experimental music, but we hated conventional techno and house. Every time we went clubbing and heard techno, we'd go “Fuck, let's go back home.” Now, I like it in a kind of nostalgic way. [Laughs]
ATAK Dance Hall

ATAK Dance Hall

  • ABTogether with Takashi Ikegami you pioneered a scientific approach to making music since the early 2000s.
  • KSMany artists were influenced by Ikegami's “Complex Systems.” We first met in 2005 and fell in love from the first sight, like with Maria. [Laughs] Right away we decided to do something together. Our first project was a sound installation at ICC. In 2007—08 we made a very successful installation, “filmachine,” originally shown at Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media and later in Berlin. At the time, I got fed up with technology. Then Maria started having a mental disorder. She died in 2008. For the first time since we started ATAK I couldn't use computers anymore, all I could do is play piano. I decided to do a solo concert in Maria's memory on her birthday and record an album. I wanted it to sound like the piano is playing right next to you, very intimate, yet hi-fi at the same time. A year later, on September 11th, with the help of Seigen Ono I released For Maria, my most popular CD to date. Since its release my life changed drastically, I started working with many popular Japanese musicians and gradually began to use computers again.
  • ABHow did your view of death change after Maria passed away?
  • KSI can’t hear her voice anymore. I accept I can no longer see Maria, but I can’t stand not hearing her.
  • ABIs your perception of death directly connected to her?
  • KSThere are multiple layers when we talk about life and death, it's very deep. I haven't reached an answer yet, but I don’t particularly have a negative impression of it either. What is death? I don’t know. Everyone can distinguish between death and sleep, except for a person who's dead, or asleep.
  • ABTrue.
  • KSThere is an aria at “The End” which starts with a sentence: “Am I dead, or just sleeping?” You can judge for yourself, the answer is open for interpretations.
  • ABYou once told me past music doesn't interest you. Any new music you're particularly into?
  • KSRecently I like Snoop Lion and Skrillex, but my favorites always change.
  • ABIs there a uniquely Japanese musical quality?
  • KSHmm... I think vocaloid culture is uniquely Japanese. I don’t listen to pop music much, when I'm at home I listen to classical—Mozart, Wagner, opera. I'd occasionally check Kanye West, and some electronic music, but rarely find anything interesting, most of it sounds very similar.
ATAK Dance Hall

ATAK Dance Hall

  • ABDon't you think the level of entertainment has fallen dangerously low in Japan, with hardly any true, original talents in sight?
  • KSI don’t want to think about music industry, musicians, and how to sell CDs. I'm interested in culture, long-term. My music is neither pop, nor dance. I don’t know the difference between Western and Japanese music because it rarely interests me. At times I find fashion to be more inspiring.
  • ABWhat are your favorite fashion labels?
  • KSLouis Vuitton, Prada, Saint Laurent... the list goes on. [Laughs]
  • ABWhat do you attribute your popularity to, particulary with female audience, considering often “difficult,” glitchy music you produce?
  • KSI guess one thing is my character—I'm very frank. Many men say they can't follow my music, but women somehow tune in easily.
  • ABOn an emotional level.
  • KSYes, women may not know about experimental music, but they get it. Perhaps they hear a piano behind the noise. [Laughs]
    I want to develop new music and noise is very important to me, it has infinite possibilities. I’m not interested in noise music, I'm only interested in the noise. I also don’t like men. [Laughs] Men operate with logic. It doesn't interest me.
  • ABWhat is your take on Japanese obsession with teen, doll-like idols?
  • KSI like them, but probably I grow too old, can’t remember their faces. [Both laugh]
  • I collaborated with Yamapi last year, it was an interesting experience. The director of Warner Music Japan asked me to write a song, he'd say—“Put a break here to make it more karaoke-friendly.” [Both laugh] Karaoke is vital for Japanese pop, but there is nothing new here—classical music was also influenced by what was in demand at the time, like church for example.
  • ABWho are your favorite artists?
  • KS“The End” was very much influenced by late Andy Warhol's paintings.
  • ABWhat is your biggest ambition?
  • KSI’m 40 now, I want to make it really big when I'm 50, in 10 years.
  • ABOne thing you can’t live without?
  • KSMusic.

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Interview transcript: Shoko Tanaka

New Keiichiro Shibuya CD, ATAK019: Soundtrack for Children who won't die, Shusaku Arakawa, is out now.