Besides his involvement in these many projects, in the past few years Ukawa has become most closely associated with Dommune, the Tokyo club and online streaming studio. Dommune is known for streaming DJ sets and live shows by acts from Japan and around the world, as well as talk shows covering a wide range of cultural topics. It's emblematic as a forerunner in media streaming.
Dommune has also given rise to some new projects for Ukawa. The devastating Northeastern earthquake in 2011 prompted him to set up the charity festival Freedommune 0. No entry fee was charged for the event, with the aim to support reconstruction efforts in Fukushima. Many Japanese and foreign artists were booked, including Jeff Mills and Isao Tomita, but the festival was unfortunately cancelled due to heavy storms. On August 11th of last year, Freedommune 0 A New Zero 2012 was held at Makuhari Messe, again with the aim of supporting the restoration efforts in the stricken areas.
What has been the most important experience you've had with sound?
If you limit that question to dance music, it's got to be the Hibari System. It was developed based on a soundsystem designed by Jim Toth for the club Shibaura Gold, and Mr Hassy of SymcomJapan and MetaDesign was responsible for its maintenance and management. Toru Takahashi was living in New York in the mid '80s, and he was completely enthralled by Paradise Garage at the time. Hibari System was a project which started when Toru happened to come across the brilliant Toshihiro Sato, who produced these legendary dance floors in Japan like Tsubaki House, Tamatsubaki and Club D. Together they envisioned that from that point on it would be the age of the sound system.
Shibaura Gold was initially opened in 1989, and at the time the idea of nightclubbing itself was fresh. It meant that everyone was preoccupied by the clubbing experience and subsequently clubs didn't prioritise their sound systems. But those two, inspired by Richard Long and Larry Levan's monster sound, decided to bring a house sound system (not a reggae/dub system) to Tokyo, which as a city was just beginning to get a taste of clubbing.
So my firsthand experience hearing four-on-the-floor beats was at Shibaura Gold. It was there that I heard the likes of Larry Levan and Tony Humphries play, and it was then that I felt the real thrill of house music. I was completely won over by it.
Well for example, consider Jamaica's reggae/dub sound systems, or the PA systems at rock festivals. I think back then was a time when the idea of sound quality was still a novel concept... I heard about Steve Dash, who was the sound engineer at Twilo and Club Shelter in New York. (These days, he takes charge of soundsystems at Womb in Shibuya and Cocoon in Frankfurt). I eventually started to recognise the dance floor as a "sound venue."
Later on, I came across a party called Life Force, where Yasushi Asada, who also does the sound design for us at Dommune, was in charge of the sound quality. I was completely mesmerized by the sound system at this party. They played at huge volume, but the sound was still clear on the floor, and their use of Thorens turntables and Koetsu needles were in line with the dance floor philosophy of David Mancuso. It meant that your ears would be just fine, even if you were on the dance floor for 12 hours, and that had a real impact on me.
The philosophy on sound quality that I learnt from Asada was this: "The aim is to deliver a high-resolution sound on the dance floor, so volume doesn't necessarily mean quality." Furthermore, the idea of a good sound is essentially subjective, so there isn't really a general criteria you can apply. So if you ask what is perceived as a "good sound" in the club environment, it's got to be what the DJ, as the priest of the dance floor, wants to play in that place and in that moment. That's what a "good sound" is. So my soul was moved by the realisation that it's not about volume, but actually about quality. My aim was to faithfully stick to that ethic, and what was formed as a result was Dommune's forerunner, Mixrooffice.
Continually looking up to Asada, I brought in the Master Blaster and Funktion-One, and aimed to target the weak points of Tokyo at the time by creating a dance floor with the best sound quality in the city.
Mixrooffice was actually located in the basement of a nine-storey-high office building. What gave you the idea of turning an office into a dance floor?
We were always aware of the club scenes abroad, and got the idea after thinking about legendary dance flooors. How can clubs still have notoriety across generations? We found this common feature: It was that legendary dance floors, in actual fact, weren't based in clubs at all. [Laughs] Take firstly, David Mancuso's Loft. That was a rooftop. Paradise Garage where Larry Levan was resident was a garage, and Nicky Siano's The Gallery was a gallery, right? Frankie Knuckles' Warehouse was a warehouse too, wasn't it? And there wasn't an office amongst these! It meant that office romances were everywhere, but that there wasn't any house music in them! [Laughs]
So what we thought of was that we wanted to make an office with the best sound in Tokyo, a place where someone like Gwen Guthrie or Loleatta Holloway would want to work. [Laughs] And that's where my quest for sound with Asada started from. Asada is a significant figure for PA in Japan, and he was even learning about sound quality from his teens, during the pioneering era for rock concerts.
The concept of Mixrooffice was simultaneously addressing the problematic definition of the Fueiho [the Entertainment Business Control Law prohibiting dancing after 1AM] at the time in Japan. To start with, it was a given that we were not a club. David Mancuso, who grew up in an orphanage, had the idea of putting the home parties thrown for him by the sisters who raised him on top of a loft borrowed from Broadway. We had the same kind of wavelength, throwing a private party in our own genuine office.
It meant that our work was to party... That's why the audience, rather, employees who'd come to work would need to have the membership card that we'd issued to them. Essentially, they'd clear the SECOM security, and come to the dance floor outside of normal hours to work overtime. Our employees would be working so hard they'd be sweating all over, staying up all night, working double time! [Laughs]
DJs from Berlin would say, "Your office is like the Panorama Bar!", and those from Detroit would say, "This is the image of Music Institute!" The ones from New York would say "Ukawa, this is how The Loft started." We just ended up having all this input from these great influences and two years down the line, our sound system started to produce a considerably clear sound.
Information about Mixrooffice was limited, and as a club it had a closed feel thanks to the membership system. This is quite a contrast to Dommune, which is consistently delivering a live streaming service.
That's right. At Mixrooffice we never once distributed those so-called paper flyers. At the time, a social networking site called mixi had just started to gain popularity in Japan. What we did was have our employees sign up to the mixi community page and then we were able to deliver news and updates through the site. I think Mixrooffice was the first in Japan for a party to send out updates using only a SNS. We'd suddenly have DJs or organizers call up and then they'd end up playing for us the very next day.
That's why it was standard to give notice of sets the day before, and on one occasion we even made an announcement about a particular one, four hours before opening. In that way I think from a DJ's perspective, the club was similar to having a fuck buddy living in Japan. It was convenient and sounded great, of course had long sets and accepted any kind of perverse play. I think that's what Mixrooffice was, a kind of party freak in Tokyo.
Unfortunately our rental agreement was for two years only. In Jaunary 2008, due to this Mixrooofiice dance floor contract ending, we threw a closing party lasting one month before it finally closed its doors. We had 12-hour sets from EYE of The Boredoms and Takkyu Ishino, and also had Fumiya Tanaka, DJ Nobu, Moodman, and Derrick May play over that month. And in the final closing party, which lasted 27 hours, Sven Vath even played for us while he was puking up something green all over! By that stage I'd already envisioned that if I were to establish a new dance floor, it'd be a live streaming studio. I wanted to communicate the creativity in Mixrooffice as an exclusive venue, this time completely legally and openly to the world.
Usually the latter half of a Dommune show features DJ sets. Where does this stem from?
Dommune isn't limited to dance music. We play noise, avant-garde and free jazz. On the show so far, we've had William Bennett of Whitehouse, who is the founder of power electronics, and the god of harsh noise; Merzbow, as well as the divine being [laughs] Keiji Haino. Also Brazil's god of music Hermeto Pascoal and the folklore legend Carlos Aguirre, as well as the pioneer and teacher of the electronic planet, Isao Tomita.
What is the relationship between Dommune and the changing face of media?
When Dommune opened in 2010 it was after the Twitter revolution had taken off, when social media had started to infiltrate the Japanese society incredibly rapidly. For moving images in general, TV still takes the main spotlight, doesn't it? And within that situation this technology called social streaming was released to everyone. Due to the establishment of YouTube, where videos are shared freely, a sense of rarity and value that used to be found in privately owning rare footage or sound recordings from the past has disappeared.
A paradigm shift has occurred and now owning something doesn't mean as much as it used to, in this age of sharing. On YouTube for example, footage of Fela Kuti inhaling a thick joint, and a video of a cat getting high on catnip might turn up in the search result for "trip." [Laughs]
In comparison to streaming videos stored online, at Dommune we stream live so what we are dealing with is the present. A slice of linear continuation of everyday life, transmitted out to the world. The reason why we were able to attact a large audience to Dommune's timeline is because we deliver what's happening now, and it's valuable because it's a fresh moment that is going to be old and stale tomorrow.
It's a different kind of rarity, because it's not a rare artefact from the past, it is real-time footage that's alive and kicking. It goes without saying, but that's the beauty of live streaming. And people are sharing that precious moment with countless strangers online.
I always say this in interviews, but Dommune works in three levels. I guess you could say it has three "venues." The first one is our Dommune studio with the dance floor where people share physical space, sweating and dancing. The second "venue" would be whatever environment the online viewers are accessing from. And the third is the timeline in which people experiencing Dommune, whether physically or digitally, post their thoughts and spread info in text form. There is no hierarchy in any of these three levels, just people witnessing a reality that can only be accessed at that specific moment in time.
Did it become bigger than you expected?
We were probably the world's first live streaming studio dance floor, so we didn't have a precedent for anything, and it was completely undetermined. Boiler Room was established soon after as well. Because of the time difference it's hard to catch their shows, but I've talked to them on Twitter before. I'd like to collaborate with them someday. Anyhow, in the sense that Dommune is the first live streaming dance floor, I could go as far as to say that it will be a legendary dance floor remembered in history like The Loft, Warehouse or Paradise Garage.
In addition, by broadcasting these programmes, we are helping the rapidly declining market of packaged media. Every weekday we film, stream, and record high fidelity portraits of musicians that live in the present time. This in itself acts as a promotional tool for these artists. You could look at in the sense that we are producing five hours of promotional videos for them every day. In fact, at several of the large-scale music stores we already have a Dommune section, where CDs of artists that were featured on Dommune get promoted the next day, and on Amazon we've seen numbers of some of the artists' CDs actually change during our broadcast.
In Japan, copyright is regulated by JASRAC, and we have to send in a playlist of songs to get cleared before a show. The record companies retain their related rights of the songs. Basically, the way we deliver live streams is in the grey area in Japan, but we are absolutely not exploiting anything. We just have a deep love for the music and we don't mind devoting ourselves to promote it, and we do deliver results.
So because of that I believe we've gained their trust, and that is why we coexist. I have a friend named Yuko Asanuma in Berlin who does bookings for Berghain. I heard from her that the situation with GEMA is quite serious. As a matter of fact, since we've switched to YouTube last year, they haven't been able to watch our shows in Germany. I think that the framework of the current copyright law is a product of the 20th Century, so I aim to change that and make a shift towards a new paradigm in the law.
Freedommune 0 unfortunately didn't raise as much money as expected. However, many of the artists and others who wanted to support the cause voluntarily called for more donations through social networks, which was very moving.
The reason why we brought Dommune, which is usually held in a tiny space that holds 50 people, to a massive venue with a capacity of 16,000 people, is because of March 11th. This day changed all of our lives, and it became a common experience in redefining and rethinking how Japanese society should be. In setting up the festival, we were inspired by the philosophy of Human Be-In and ideas of the Situationist International, and wanted to exemplify these ethos through the internet, especially Google+ and YouTube.
Although I think we could have done more to get people to donate I still believe in the aura of music. I am indescribably grateful for those who attended having understood that. At Dommune we are still soliciting donations over the web.
Will Freedommune 0 continue every year from now on as a charity for the 3.11 earthquake?
As it says in the title, "Great Easter Japan Earthquake Reconstruction Event," Freedommune 0 was set up with the aim of converting the energy of music into direct support, helping children who'd lost their families in the earthquake, as well as animals who'd lost a place to go following the nuclear accident. The current reality of the disaster-stricken area is that it is still far from full recovery. So if we all tried to learn and grow together with the children affected in that earthquake, I think we will able to make positive changes little by little. We will also think of new ways to collect donations, although I'm not exactly sure how yet.
What will the new project with Tower Records be like?
Tower Recordommune Shibuya will be a collaboration between our live streaming studio and the large-scale record store Tower Records. We are planning to set up satellite studios utilizing all the different floors of the Tower Records building. Shibuya is a symbolic place in the music business world, and I guess you could say Tower Records is the "Tower of Babel."
The recent reopening of the new Tower Records shop is a touchstone in predicting the future of physical music sales. It's like giving out free food samples at a department store or doing a demonstration of a knife polishing machine at an electronic store. The basic principle behind selling something is "word of mouth" and "demonstration." We are putting a modern twist to that by holding live in-store events on each floor. We'd have artists talk about an album, play it, and then sell the CD in the store. Of course, it will be available to watch online, and you can purchase the CD online also. I believe that this will create new energy circulation between the artist and the fans and will increase the value of owning CDs and records.
What are some other things you might want to try your hand at in the future?
I'd like to try to get somewhere as a musician before I die, however many detours I may take, again and again...