|Goth-Trad: Inside the maze
The new album from Japan's foremost dubstep artist is (in part) inspired by the devastating earthquake that struck the country last year. Naoki E-JIMA explores why.
By the time a new form of music that emerged in London was christened "dubstep," Goth-Trad was already at the forefront of the scene—although being in Japan at the time, he wasn't yet aware of it. He created tracks that inspired some of the biggest names on the scene, toured overseas and laid the ground for the seeds of the new musical movement in Japan via his monthly Back To Chill night.
Fast-forward a few years, and dubstep is a global phenomenon. On his newest album, however, you can hear that Goth-Trad isn't listening so much to the outside world as much as himself. What else would you expect from someone that has opened up for indie rock band Mars Volta and builds his own instruments? New Epoch may showcase evolutions in sound, but it's always identifiably "Goth-Trad."
At least some of the inspiration for New Epoch came as a result of the horrific earthquake in Japan on March 11, 2011. In conversation with Naoki E-JIMA, the celebrated DJ/producer explains the impact that event has had on Japan, and his optimism for the future.
How long did it take you to make the album from beginning to end?
I first started properly thinking about the album in 2010, so about a year ago.
Is that when you had gathered together all the tracks to record?
Well, if you're talking in terms of numbers, we had enough tracks. But an album to me isn't a singular thing, it's a collection of individual tracks, so I felt it wasn't quite complete. So from around last year I re-listened to the tracks that I'd put together and began to feel that each one could stand alone.
Was there any particular track that made you think, "Yeah, this is it, this is the key"?
Actually it was the last track, "New Epoch," which I thought would become the pivotal one to pull the album together.
Did you decide on the title soon after you completed the track?
What kind of plan did you have?
Kind of abstract...from my own experience, and particularly what Japanese people have been through this year, I think it's woken up a lot of people. Now, I think I was already "woken up," but before March a lot of Japanese people simply didn't question the media or the government, they simply trusted them. Then after the earthquake followed by the nuclear crisis, hearing what the government and media were saying, a lot of people started to be aware that something is not going right, I think. They started to re-assess and question everything, even themselves. The realisation that they had been fooled all along started to occur to them, which was a good thing.
I think it's an important step. It might be an exaggeration to say Japan is changing, but maybe we're going to the next dimension. My hope and delusion have become clearer after 3/11, which eventually brought the album's name, New Epoch.
Were there any tracks that you made after the 3/11 quake?
Yes, one: "Man in the Maze." It has one of the most amazing beats in my collection, but only the intro melody was written. I've thought for two years that I wanted to put it on the album, but it was only after 3/11 that the title and an idea of how to finish it struck me.
Does the concept of album reflect the post-3/11 mood?
I think so. I mean, it was a really shocking experience. I think everyone living in Japan was a victim of it in some way, it was quite traumatic. So "Man in the Maze" is about everyone going through that, and struggling to find a way to deal with it, and feeling impatient, irritated, angry and so on.
But every individual has a little power of their own... so maybe we can change things. But...will the country change? I have kids, so that idea really stresses me out. Maybe it's gotten to the point where we can't even live in Japan anymore. No one really wants to say that, something so heavy. There's shock, and sadness, and anger. But there's also a sense of hope, the sense that everyone is trying their best to build things up... I wanted to compress all of that into the record.
I've just realised, but perhaps if 3/11 hadn't happened, this would have been an entirely different record. And now you just said that you'll understand that when you listen to the record. So you can feel the strength in the middle of all that confusion. It's not contrived or fake, but there's a certain "Japaneseness" to the record, I think, something that can't be easily translated into English, something kind of stoic and refined. And I feel that that very much reflects the post-3/11 mood in Japan. So bringing it out on January 1st 2012 instead of then changes the meaning of it quite a lot, I think.
Not like the album is about "everything up til now," but rather "something new is starting now..."
It makes me really happy to hear that. On the musical side, I chose songs that I thought would evoke that sense. "Strangers" was a newly made track, you know. When I lined up all the tracks for the album I realised you could still see a lot of the kind of industrial or noise music I'd made in the past, but also a whole lot of new directions as well.
"Maybe it's gotten to the point where
we can't even live in Japan anymore. No one
really wants to say that, something so heavy."
When you made the other tracks, did you have a clear concept of what you wanted to do when you started out?
Well, when I begin making a track, I kind of have a "baseline," you could say, and I work up from that. There's a beat, of course, but there's also a heap of data on top of that. I have a very strong desire to make something different to everything else I've made before, so I didn't really want to use so much drums and bass as I had before. Then, I started to think about what kind of reaction I wanted to get on the dance floor, and what kind of track would get people to react. Finally, because I want to play the tracks in my own DJ sets, I started to think about what point I'd play them in my own sets.
So when you chose the order of these tracks, did you think about the flow of your DJ sets?
I think there was an element of that when I made them, but when if you think about a DJ set, you don't use the whole five minutes of the track. A 60 minute album and a 60 minute DJ set is totally different, so I realised that for tracks like "Strangers" I had to give them a strong hook.
When you'd finished the album, who did you first play it to?
I got the label to listen to it before it was mastered. But they really gave me the sense that I could do whatever I liked, so it was really only so I could listen to their thoughts about it and get them to check the track order.
Did you get stuck at all while making the album?
Hmm.... Well, Deep Medi trusted me and they let me make the kind of album that I really wanted to make. So I had to make all the decisions myself, which was good, but it was also a lot of pressure. So I listened to it over and over, and really felt that it was an album I could be proud of.
Was that the case with your previous albums too?
Yeah, they were the same too. I think there are two kinds of artists; one that aims to sell to the underground market, and the other that wants to remain creative and just put out music that they're really satisfied with. In the last two to three years, as the dubstep scene has got bigger, there are more artists with a pop slant coming out. I think there are many of my fans who expect me to get more progressive... I'm very grateful for that, actually, but in the end it comes down to how I do things in my own way. I put out "Mad Raver's Dance Floor" when I was part of the noise scene... that kind of thing. But in the end I just want to put out my own thing, something I'm proud of.
Does the production process have any impact on how often you tour abroad?
A little bit, but when I'm in Japan I feel like I can really concentrate and get on. But on the other hand, it's an exciting challenge to go on tour and show off the completed tracks, so that's good too.
You were playing dubstep before dubstep got its name. Do you still feel that you're playing dubstep?
Yeah, I guess. The word itself is a bit problematic for me. Maybe my image of dubstep is a bit different from most people's idea of dubstep. I guess it's definitely bass music... and at the very least I do want to say that my music is dubstep, yes!
For me, dubstep is very progressive, there are no rules. That was especially the case for the 12-inches that came out between 2006 and 2007. Even if you bought them all, they all sounded completely different. Even now there's so much being released and they're so diverse that you can't tell who wrote a track when you hear it. And I think there are more and more people in Europe who are getting tired of it. The fans I really love, they're going back to the old school bass music. When I hear dubstep music made by artists who say to themselves, "Right, I'm going to make a dubstep record," I find it really boring. The people who built the scene, and are still making music in the same style are great, but the music made by their followers is super dull.
"Maybe you get more into the overseas scene
if you play this kind of music, but in Japan
it doesn't matter if you've been overseas."
At the time that "Back to Chill" was welcomed by the dubstep scene did you actually think, "this is dubstep"?
I released "Mad Raver's Dance Floor" in 2005, and I went to London that year to play live. At that time, I was into instrumental grime. At the event I actually played hip-hop, and while I was playing about five MCs were handing the mic around. Then at the beginning of 2006, I got a mail saying, "There's a thread about you on Dubstepforum." After that several people contacted me saying, "Dubstep is really kicking off, I want to release something," or "I already DJ on the radio, but I want to get my sound out." I realised that my own sound was sort of dubsteppy, and the word itself became a lot more popular.
You're talking about the word spreading more in Japan, right?
Well, the Back to Chill event started around 2006, and I went to England, and I'd just got in contact with Mala on MySpace. He'd also put up songs on MySpace and he'd sent me a message saying "I'm going to FWD tomorrow so let's meet there," or "Tomorrow there's a party called Soul Jazz, you should come," and gave me the whole DMZ catalogue. I had already known Mala and Digital Mystikz's music at that time, but we just started contacting each other more. There was a label who put out the Back to Chill on 12-inch, and we talked about it there. When I came back, I put up my new track, "Cut End," and Mala contacted me to say he wanted to sign me to Deep Medi.
So things got interesting then?
No, they were quiet for a bit. Skud, the label that had released Back to Chill, offered to release an album from me, but after a while that trail went cold. I couldn't really speak English very well, and so contacting the label was pretty difficult.
Was that also because you'd already released records and you weren't obsessed about getting big overseas?
No, I've been really interested in foreign countries since I was about 20. When my first track was on the compilation Shikon, I had offers from Japanese labels as well, but I thought that I wanted to release it on a foreign label. I was maybe a bit too set on that! [laughs]. And then a few years passed, and the kind of music I was making changed, and it was as if I was actually releasing my first album. I learned a lot because of that. I live in Japan, I am Japanese, I work mostly in Japanese... and realised very quickly that I had none of that basis set up overseas. Maybe I made a mistake doing so, but it was a good learning experience. I was so glad to release a record overseas, but I was still thinking of the next step. Deep Medi also talked to me about releasing an album because I had a good stockpile of tracks at that point.
After talking to you now, I get the feeling that your path from beginning to end was a very natural one. In previous interviews I've read that you loved grime and that you wanted to put elements of rave into your music, but of course there's also parts of dubstep in there too. That happened at the same time in Japan as overseas, but without you being overly eager...
Yeah, I think that living in Japan was really important. Japanese audiences are really severe and stoic, you know? My fans increased one by one, and so did the number of people who were into dubstep. The first ones were friends, but I think that's the most important thing. Maybe you get more into the overseas scene if you play this kind of music, but in Japan it doesn't matter if you've been overseas. It's really competitive here, the DJs are very skilled. You make a track and get up to a certain level because you're always in competition. I think that if you look at the Japanese environment objectively that's actually a bonus because it's really good training, it makes you better.