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de-VICE #2

from the back of the fridge: ken ishii (1999)

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de-VICE #1

This one was written by Andrez as the cover-story for Zebra magazine in Melbourne way back in December 1999; little did he know that he'd be living in Tokyo less than two years later!
...heh-heh...
How're those depleted oxygen supplies going...?

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No Sleep 'Till Tokyo

Tokyo. It's a city that captures the spirit of all things futurist. This is the city where commuters have been known to wear gasmasks to protect themselves from nerve gas attacks, and where the very air itself can be so bad that there are oxygen bars. This is the city where life and science fiction become confused, and some moments in some streets seem more akin to a scene in a manga cartoon. There was millennium fever about Tokyo ten years before it was set to happen. "I'm frightened by Japan," a young Ken Ishii told Generator magazine in 1995. "I'm frightened by the Ohm cult and I'm worried by earthquakes."

Not that Ishii is a timid individual - this is the man, after all, who produced the Jelly Tones album four years ago, which boasted one of the best techno music video-clips of the decade. The visual accompaniment to his single Extra was four minutes of manic manga mayhem directed by Kouji Morimoto (of Akira notoriety) and was its own violent splat-fest; it effectively fused the mentality of A Clockwork Orange with the atmosphere of Blade Runner. The music itself was labeled '90s industrial; a direct descendant from Cabaret Voltaire's work in Sheffield up until 1980. "Nowadays most pop videos just consist of flashing images and girls dancing," explained Ishii in that self-same Generator article. "I wanted to do something much more original, something which nobody had done before."

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Born in Sapporo, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Ken Ishii spent most of his childhood in Tokyo and, from the age of 13, he would hang out in Shibuya and Yoyogi Park, Japan's most concentrated centres of the various subcultures from punk through to rockabilly. After being 'discovered' by Belgian label R&S, he's gone on to release records for Sublime in Japan and ESP in America; he's also made music under the aliases of Rising Sons and Flare.

"I started DJing and making tracks at nearly the same time, around 1989," he says over the phone from Tokyo now. "It was more [a case of] making music and demos than actively presenting myself as a DJ at first. I also started doing live sets around the same time, my first being in front of 20,000 people at Hellrazor in Holland. So it's been around nine years."

Ken Ishii's music has obviously developed and changed over the time since, and it's poignant to observe the differences between, say, Jelly Tones and his new album Sleeping Madness four years later. "Basically it's freestyle techno," Ken muses. "I believe that variation of the music inspires me; freed from any kind of specific genre is my rendition of techno. Thus, I think my music throughout all three albums I've produced to date have differed and fused."

It's for his DJing skills that he's being brought out to Australia, and Ken has a short and sweet description of one of his sets. "Dance with futuristic sounds, beats and some different ideas."

Ken's X-Mix compilation for Studio !K7 a few years back included the likes of Silent Poets and Buckfunk 3000, who push the perimeters of more progressive electronica. It's a twist that continues to infiltrate his sets. "My set always changes, of course, but I always try to put some spice into my set like non-dancefloor tracks or more complicated ones. I'm actually playing with Buckfunk 3000 this week at a club in Tokyo called Harlem." And the other producers that tend to crop up in his mixes? "FLR, Technasia, Co-Fusion, Tanzmuzik and The Boredoms, Basement Jaxx and Fresh Fruit's records."

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In electronic music circles Ken Ishii's probably the best-known Japanese artist these days - so how does he feel about such a reputation, and does it affect his creativity?

"If that's true, I must say that I am quite honoured," he responds with a genuine sincerity. "It would in no way affect my creativity, but the fact that music - especially of this genre - is free from any boundaries or nationality gives a lot of people motivation and energy, including myself."

Japan really does have a healthy cross-section of musicians these days, from Fumiya Tanaka and Takkyu Ishino through to Silent Poets, DJ Krush, Susumu Yokota, DJ Miku and Fantastic Planet Machine, drum 'n' bassist Yoshihiro Sawasaki, and DJ Wada and Tani from Co-fusion. Is interaction between all these artists something that they have the option to pursue? "Actually, all of them are my friends and we have known each other for quite some time now. Some are label-mates as well and, as for Co-fusion, they've collaborated with me on my album."

If all these producers are any indication, then Japanese electronica in general seems to be in a healthy state as the twentieth century ends. "I think the electronic music scene has matured in a natural way. In the case of techno, it's really now placed itself into the Japanese music scene, as compared with 1995 when it was just a start. There are quite a number of DJs so that a lot of events can mobilize a full crowd with just DJs from Tokyo. More and more artists are releasing their records on a worldwide level, and electronic music itself has progressed and eliminated boundaries over the years."

Asking someone their favourite five records is a tough call, but I pry anyway and Ken does his best to put his entire life's listening into a nutshell. "Riuichi Sakamoto's B-2 Unit, DAF's Alles Ist Gut, Steve Reich's Drumming, Talking Heads, and Innovator by Derrick May on Transmat."

It was a Yellow Magic Orchestra record, however, that changed Ken's life and steered him along the path of electronic muzak. "I heard it when I was in grade school. It changed the whole concept of music, which didn't have to do with a lot with lyrics or being able to play various instruments. I was never really inspired by music which had a lot to do with lyrics. Then I met Detroit techno, which changed my way of life, actually. It made me realize this was something I may be able to do myself; it had a more aggressive attitude towards music than just being a listener."

Ken has a brand new album out - so what exactly does Sleeping Madness mean to him personally? "I tend to be attracted by things that are contradictory - something beautiful which shows a glimpse of dark and poisonous elements beneath, or a simple, happy music that is based on an incredibly complicated musical challenge, and so on. So I wanted to hint at an unpredictable madness which, on the surface, is yet to be seen . . ."

Does the album, then, tell a new story for Ken Ishii? "In many ways. First of all, this was my first challenge to collaborate with other musicians. DJ Spooky, Talvin Singh, etc, had given me a new perspective towards my music, and I was able to re-acknowledge my music and originality."

His previous work has been remixed by the likes of Luke Slater and Joey Beltram, and this process will be reapplied to the new album "Misprogrammed Day is one the singles from this album, which contains remixes by Dave Angel, DJ Q, Susumu Yokota, and The Afronaught."

It's here in Australia, at Earthcore, that Ken Ishii will spend his new year's eve for the crossover from 1999 into 2000 - so what does he hope to get out of the trip down here? "I hope everything! …it will be the first time for me to come over there. Beautiful country, beautiful people, and beautiful music scene!"

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