Kawasaki's astute A&R over the years is the main reason for that. He's looked outside of Japan as often as he has looked inside it for the music that has made his imprint so successful internationally. That's a rarity in Japan, where the stereotypical strategy to become big in the country is to focus on one or the other.
But while Mule is known throughout the world of house and techno, not much is known about Kawasaki. Formerly working in fashion, he's only recently started to DJ outside of Japan on a more regular basis. Yusuke Kawamura recently visited the label boss to investigate the origins of the imprint, and how Kawasaki has maintained such a high level of quality over the years.
When did you set up the label?
I set up the label as it is now in 2004, but before that "Mule Musiq" was originally a booking agecy, and I started that 11 years ago in 2001. I released one record from the label in 2004 [Dublee's Echo Euphoria, released on Mule Electronic], but it didn't sell as well as I'd hoped in Japan, and setting up worldwide distribution took ages. So the label really didn't do that much in the first year.
When you were doing bookings, did you think about starting up a label? Or did you have a specific aim in mind?
Originally I was working in fashion and was so busy that in the last year of doing that I just did contracts for a few companies and buyers. However, I put on parties every month, and was thinking about setting up a label, but just had too much work on my plate at the time. There were also signs of an economic downturn, so when my clothing contract came to an end, I really didn't want to renew it. I didn't have any start-up funds, so when I started to think about starting something new that didn't take up a lot of time, I thought about inviting artists to come and play in Japan.
At that time there weren't a huge number of European artists coming to Japan regularly, and I thought setting that up could be a job opportunity. There was also Kompakt. When I listened to Kompakt I always thought, "Wow, this kind of new music exists!" At that point Michael Mayer had become famous in Europe but was still unknown in Japan. I told the company in charge of his distribution that I wanted to call him and asked them to put me in contact with him. So we started emailing each other—that was around 2001.
You had global success in your sights from the very beginning, didn't you?
The parent company of the apparel company that I worked for was based in Paris, so I thought being restricted to Japan, or to be honest just Tokyo, wouldn't do. I've thought that since I was working in the clothing industry.
Personally my first impression of Mule Musiq was strongly influenced by releases from Kuniyuki, who's from Sapporo.
Mule Musiq was made to release Kuniyuki's material. Mule Electronic came before that. I met Kuniyuki about 14 years ago. When Dego's 2000Black compilation was released, it seemed like everybody had his remix of Ananda Project's "Cascades of Color," which he'd done for a friend. Anyway, I thought, "Wow, there's someone this good in Japan!" So from when I met him until I started the label, I was always trying to convince him to release something. We started with a single, and it sold well, so then we moved onto an album.
I just think that putting out the
CD is valuable in itself."
By the way, I think every label has its own concept, but for Mule Musiq, Kuniyuki's music is very impressive, it's raw but also sounds like disco, while my image of Mule Electronic is more techno, electronic deep house.
I've already stopped doing Mule Electronic.
Yes, in February this year. Recently I stopped listening to techno, or rather "inorganic" music, and I saw no point in forcing myself to continue with it. At the moment on Endless Flight we still put out disco-y tracks, but they've got guitars and keyboards in them, actual instruments being played. On Mule Music we release tracks that are more organic and have a more human touch. We put out sample-based tracks on Endless Flight.
Personally I got the impression from when Endless Flight put out Optimo's mix CD at the very beginning that it was more about DJ music, musician edits, that kind of thing. I guess that doesn't totally contradict what you've just said.
Yeah, I guess it's somewhat like that. On Endless Flight it's about simply putting out stuff that I listen to and think, "Oh yeah, this is good," without much thought. I don't mean that in a bad way, it's more there's a part that's OK even if it doesn't have soul.
What's the hardest thing about continuing the label?
The money, of course. First of all, the financial side in the music industry is totally different to the financial side in the fashion industry, mostly because the way you sell the product is different. Last summer in Paris, I talked to Gilbert from Chateau Flight, and he said, "It's like selling peanuts." It'd be great if we were still selling thousands like back in the day, but now it's more like 500 copies.
A download of one track is about the same price as a snack, isn't it?
Exactly. Where I suffered with money was right in the beginning. Until I started the label I used to buy pretty expensive rare jazz records and I sold quite a few of them. That was my capital for the first year. I thought that for things like that, I could always buy them back when I had money... it was very useful at the time.
What was the turning point for you running the label?
First of all, when we had a hit with Rub N Tug's remix of Sly Mongoose's "Snakes and Ladders." I think that was how a lot of people got to know Mule Musiq. It's not that I want to get away from it, but I did want to get a bit of distance from the Japanese scene. If I looked at myself from others' perspectives then I thought putting out licensed releases that even I did not really know that well would give us standing, and that it would encourage people to take an interest in us.
The tune was a conduit for other countries to hear about Mule Musiq, wasn't it?
Yes, I thought that was interesting. That was one of the first turning points. After that there was when we added DJ Koze, Lawrence and so on to our roster. Then recently DJ Sprinkles' album Midtown 120 Blues was chosen as RA's best album... I felt that if I was going to aim at anything, it would be to be the best, and that was the first time we'd achieved that. And even albums that weren't very "pop," like Sprinkles... But to have them picked up by the media, like RA, gave me a real feeling of "Oh, we've made it."
We talked just before about serving as a conduit between Japanese people and overseas audiences, but didn't you just put out a compilation called The Definitive Japanese Scene Vol. 1? Was that because you wanted to introduce foreign audiences to those artists?
Probably, I think so. The scene as a whole and sales were still pretty good, so while it may be presumptuous to say so, I did think it served that purpose. Also, there aren't very many people like those on the compilation so I kind of wanted to introduce them to a larger audience.
I also get the impression that you're very quick to play current remixes or artists of the moment, both in Japan and overseas. Where do you start from to do that?
It's only the remixes that start with me asking people. Otherwise it's like the artists are friends of friends or something. When I put out a remix people ask, "Can you put out the original?" as well. It's like that. However, I also get a lot of demo tapes, so many that I really can't listen to them all.
You've put out a lot of fantastic artists and albums, do you have any basic standards or criteria for them?
Basically their single has to be somewhat successful, and it's also very important whether I get on with the artist as a person and whether I can work with them. Singles are pretty simple, you don't have to think too hard about them. But albums are really a reflection of the label. It might be going too far to say this, but I don't really care if it sells or not, I just think that putting out the CD is valuable in itself. I like to only put out records of artists that I feel have grown and matured to the point of being able to make a whole album.
Mule Musiq has a very original visual image.
As I used to work in fashion I do value aesthetics very highly. Maybe for that reason some people see Mule Musiq as a "fashion" label and some people don't like it for that. But actually people in the fashion industry work very hard and it's really not easy to keep up with trends and stay fashionable, so I think people who are cynical about the fashion world should really learn a little more about it. Also, for example, when you're in a record store, if a sleeve doesn't look nice, you're not really going to be tempted into buying it, are you? The difference between hits and the records that are always left behind is often about the design on the jacket.
It's the face of the record, right?
I think so. Of course, it's important not to go over the top, just to emphasize the design a little and make it smart. I don't like really decorative stuff. It's not good for the environment either.
Speaking of packaging, you've continued to make analogue music. Unlike CDs, which are on their way out, lots of people say that vinyl will survive.
I would like to think so. But in just a year-and-a-half sales changed drastically. Mule Electronic sometimes sold very well, sometimes not, while Mule Musiq was a lot more stable in terms of sales, but over the past year-and-a-half even if we've put on good tracks it doesn't really translate into profits. For example, five years ago you could say "We'll put out this remix by this famous artist and it will sell X copies," and it would create about ten percent of our profits, but now you really can't do that kind of calculation.
In these circumstances, if you pay a famous artist an advance to make a 12-inch, sometimes it's good, but now I lean more towards digging out a new unknown artist. That's what independent labels were originally about. For about three to four years I did that, while occasionally putting out tracks from famous artists. But I never felt that was really what Mule Musiq was about—it was more about releasing new artists, and even if they didn't sell so well at least those who heard it would really listen to it. I began to lean more towards making a label that people would simply really respect.
My aim is to get to that level."
What's your ideal label?
I really liked Playhouse in its prime. As the A&R of a label, there's no one I respect more than Ata, they simply did the best A&R. I thought it was excellent. The DJs were also good, but they also used instruments like people, and released artists like Ricardo Villalobos and Isolee. Because of that, we really started from zero. Early Warp stuff is different, but I think Playhouse in the years around 2000 was probably my perfect label. My aim is to get to that level.
Have you thought about doing a tie-up with anyone else in the future?
I talk about this a lot with my friends, but if I was to find a sponsor, I think I'd open up a "Mule Musiq" restaurant. At the moment my head is just full of things related to food—and wine! [laughs]
I imagine it would have a fresh, creative feel to it.
Well, more than that it would be a new challenge. This is the 12th year of the label, you know. Of course I want to continue with it. I feel like challenging myself by trying something new, and that would surely bring something positive to the music. That's what I feel.