WeTransfer supports Breaking Through. Download an exclusive track bundle from Wata Igarashi. "Mantle" and "Displacement" are taken from his upcoming Ciphers EP for Midgar.
Late one Saturday night this past September, Wata Igarashi ticked off one of his production dreams. He was in the crowd at The Labyrinth, the famed Japanese techno festival, where each year he works the door and takes in the music, and during Nuel's closing set he heard something familiar coming through the Funktion-Ones. "I could tell from the first hi-hat that came in that it was my track," he told me over Skype from Tokyo a few months later. The cut was Igarashi's remix of Ruhig's "Pulse Width," a sizzling, hypnotic techno track released earlier this summer on the Berlin label Midgar.
And then Nuel's copy of the record began to skip—first once, then again and again. I'd been in the crowd that night and remembered the exact moment, though it hadn't been more than a blip in an otherwise flawless night of music. But I can imagine for Igarashi, the universe would have felt brutal in that instant. He had a good sense of humor about it when relaying the anecdote to me, though—he was mostly concerned that Nuel would be embarrassed to have a story printed about his record skipping. It probably helped that the following day, Peter Van Hoesen, a longtime Labyrinth resident, played another of his tracks, one he'd signed for Stealth, his new mix compilation and curated EP series. This time it went off without a hitch, and Igarashi was practically moved to tears.
Igarashi is relatively new to techno, and he's even newer to being in the limelight. Getting there, though, has involved a longer and more circuitous route than his modest discography, ample enthusiasm and youthful appearance would suggest. I first met Igarashi at the beginning of this year in Tokyo. He'd been hired as my translator for the piece I wrote for RA about Roland. When I arrived at his apartment on the morning of the interviews, he was waiting outside with his 909, which he brought along as a kind of homecoming pilgrimage. In the car to Hamamatsu, Igarashi spoke fervently about techno releases, Berlin nightclubs and the intricacies of electronic music production, but he also held forth on psychedelic rock, Jimi Hendrix, more experimental music and guitars. I got the sense that techno isn't Igarshi's first deep musical relationship, but that he's also not a serial monogamist with styles.
By the time we spoke over Skype months later, it had become clear that 2015 was a breakout period in Igarashi's career. "A few years ago, I was just one of these guys who enjoys DJing and making music," he said, sounding truly surprised that he's now mentioned in the same breath as many of the artists he takes inspiration from. Chris SSG, formerly of the influential techno blog mnml ssgs and a friend who's worked with him on musical projects in Tokyo, sees a broader context for Igarashi's upswing: "After Nobu, he has established himself as one of the best techno artists in the country," he told me. "I am really hoping that Wata can play an important role in strengthening the techno scene here in Tokyo."
Igarashi's story begins, weirdly enough, with baseball. Like many boys growing up in Tokyo, it was an early passion, and he played on one of the city's elite youth teams. "I would wake up early in the morning to go to practice," he said, "and then I'd go to school. Then after school I would go to practice again. It was my life, you know?" When he was 11, his father, who worked for Fujitsu, told him that the family was relocating to England. Igarashi was crushed. "I wanted to become a baseball player, and they don't have baseball there." In the UK, Igarashi enrolled in an American school, where they did actually have a team. But his peers were into other things that caught his eye: guitars and skateboards. It was the late '80s, heavy metal was all over the airwaves, and Igarashi had found a new obsession.
At 15, his family uprooted again, this time to Madrid, and Igarashi, who'd just spent the last few years learning English and reordering his ambitions, couldn't believe he'd have to do it all again. He might not have known it at the time, but it was a turning point for his musical life. "Before then, I was just playing for a hobby," he said. "But then when we moved to Spain, I was playing in a real band." The band was called F.O.D.—Fuckers Of Defeat—and the sound was hardcore skate punk. Igarashi sees that as the time in his life when he first got deeply into music, though he says he was too young to really dive into Madrid's punk scene. "We were just a bunch of skater kids," he said of F.O.D. But the experience laid the groundwork for a different direction he'd take after moving away from Spain.
After high school, in a bid to rediscover his roots, Igarashi headed back to Japan to study political science at Keio University. He stayed in the department for the duration of his university career, but he realized early he wasn't hugely interested in the topic. Instead, he fell in with a group of jazz players, and their music felt of a piece, however tangentially, with the improvisational moments he'd loved on Black Flag records. Fellow guitarists like Pat Martino became a huge interest, along with the further-out sides of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, ECM signees like Keith Jarrett and the world of free jazz. "A lot of my knowledge about chords, progressions and music theory—I learned it when I was studying jazz," he said. After graduating, Igarashi found work in the international department at Fernandes, the guitar manufacturer, but he knew he'd rather be playing them than selling them. He left the company after about a year and a half to devote himself to playing music, teaching English on the side to make ends meet and recording two albums with the avant-garde-leaning jazz-rock band Indigo Cage Airlines.
Igarashi couldn't make a career out of music until the early 2000s. At the suggestion of a girlfriend who worked in TV, he dipped his toes into commercial composition. But he'd need to learn his way around digital audio workstations music first. "Instead of getting a really expensive guitar," he said, "I got a Mac. And that was the turning point." He found a job at a TV commercial music production company that was looking for a bilingual composer's assistant, and it was his job to know the ins and outs of the analog synths they had in the studio. Like plenty of young people in Japan during the period, he had experienced psytrance parties and danced in Tokyo clubs like Maniac Love, but he said what really grabbed him about electronic music at first was how it was made, and the fact that he could do it himself. "It was really hard to keep up with people, getting people's schedules together," he said of his time with Indigo Cage Airlines. "I was looking for something that I could do on my own. My head was evolving from jazz."
That evolution happened slowly and organically—production lead to DJing, which lead to a residency (together with Jelomu, now a close affiliate of Tokyo ambient event Sound Garden) at a party called Drone, where Igarashi would share the bill with the likes of Perc, Samuel Kerridge and famed local Iori. He also released his first set of tunes, a four-tracker for Australia's Gynoid Audio featuring a remix from Tokyo veteran Go Hiyama. On the back of Drone, Igarashi was asked to play at Mariana, the ultra-deep techno party promoted by the late Dave Twomey. "I was really surprised that I was asked to play," Igarashi remembered. "From then on, I started to meet a lot of people." This included the crew behind the Rural festival, which Igarashi has played every year since 2013. But it also connected him with Abdulla Rashim, with whom he shared the bill at Mariana. Rashim stayed with him when he was in town for the party, and Igarashi played him some of his productions. One of them in particular impressed Rashim, and when Twomey asked Rashim for a track to include on the first (and, as it turned out, only) release on a new Mariana-affiliated label, he put forward Igarashi's track instead. "He didn't have anything, or he was busy," Igarashi said, "but Dave really liked it." The record, released in 2013, featured Mike Parker, a hugely popular underground techno artist both inside Japan and around the world. Igarashi described the association as a game-changer: "A lot of people heard me through that record."
Igarashi's gig calendar in 2013 and 2014 reads like a who's who of Japanese techno events. He played regularly at clubs like Air, Unit and the since-closed Eleven and Louver. He shared bills with likeminded international artists like Skirt and Peter Van Hoesen when they came through Japan. It wasn't until 2015, though, that Igarashi began to make inroads abroad. He played a series of live shows in Europe, including a date at Tresor in Berlin. While he was there, Berghain hosted a showcase for The Bunker New York, where he reconnected with Van Hoesen. They met up at Van Hoesen's studio, and Igarashi thought to bring a CD of unsigned tracks. "I thought, if I'm going to go there, I might just give him some music and see what happens."
A few months later, Van Hoesen got back in touch to ask about a few tracks on the demo and to request even more material. "His music sounds very informed, and he has the right amount of psychedelic sensibility," Van Hoesen told me in an email. "One can hear that he understands production deeply and is clearly developing his own voice." In the end, he signed two tracks for Stealth: the ambient opening cut "Top Secret" and "Night," which Van Hoesen calls "the moment in the mix when things are kicking off."
With records in the works for The Bunker New York, DJ Nobu's Bitta label and Semantica, Igarashi's international profile should only increase in 2016. But he sounded at least as excited about what's happening with techno in Japan as with the worldwide scene he's now in dialogue with. "Maybe it's because they haven't had any release, or they haven't had proper podcasts or anything like that, but there are so many really great DJs," he said. "There is a scene in Hokkaido, there is a scene in Osaka, in Sendai. It's not just in Tokyo—not at all." He likes that in Japan, techno doesn't just have to be party music. "The Rural crew, Chris SSG, FRUE, Ena, DJ Nobu and Future Terror—all these great people in the scene are playing really deep music. I think that's what's leading the movement here in Japan."
As an exceptional techno DJ, an impeccable sound designer and producer and a fluent English speaker, Igarashi would seem like a good spokesperson for what's happening in Japan right now, although I can't see a guy as humble as Igarashi ever letting himself be the face of a scene. But as he continues fleshing out his live set and crafting more dance-floor records, he probably wouldn't mind the opportunity to spend more time working the world's better soundsystems—so long as he's still got Tokyo to come home to. "I could live in Europe, I guess, being able to speak English and all this. But it's my choice to stay here right now. I learned a lot from just being in this scene and hanging out with people. And in that way, since I really appreciate being here, I think staying in Tokyo is a really good choice for me right now."