Midori Hayakawa sits down for an extended interview with one of the finest practitioners of minimal dance music.
In the early '90s, when dance music was taking root in Japan, Tanaka started his DJ career spinning techno in Osaka. At 21, he launched Torema Records and started releasing his own music, which was rough around the edges but had energy to move the crowd. He also started working with major labels in Japan, which, along with his charisma, made him one of the key figures responsible for the spread of dance music and DJ culture inside the county. Alongside his techno career under his real name, he started several side projects that explored a more versatile and intuitive approach to music. One of them is the Karafuto alias, under which he's touched on different styles, from minimal techno to breezy house to ambient. As Individual Orchestra, he collaborated with musicians to craft emotive, jazz-leaning compositions.
In the mid 2000s, Tanaka teamed up with the musician and director Yoshihiro Hanno to launch the label op.disc, releasing minimal techno and house productions by Japanese producers. Around the same time, he launched Sundance and started putting out his own work, as well as collaborations with Ricardo Villalobos and Thomas Melchior. In recent years, he's released incredible music on Perlon that can be described as an organic take on minimal with a housey groove. I sat down with Tanaka when he flew into Tokyo for another edition of Chaos. The conversation revealed the person he is: a man who's devoted to his craft, but isn't afraid of change.
You hold the Chaos party at Contact in Tokyo. What made you choose that venue?
Chaos is organised with Taro Yoshida and it was his decision. We have known the people at Contact for some time. They worked at Club Eleven and before that they worked at Space Lab Yellow. So we built trusting relationships during this period and managed to keep holding parties there. Before Contact, we had parties at Liquidroom. They also have their own direction.
Since the last party [in December 2018] Contact has reached the level of our minimum quality requirements for a soundsystem. When they opened the club, the soundsystem was far from satisfactory. They did not have much preparation time before they opened and their intention was to upgrade it bit by bit. I was told in the beginning that there'd be teething problems. As we waited for them to be able to focus on the soundsystem, we carried on holding our parties there for three years. And three years is a good amount of time to do something before making a first judgment.
The quality of the sound is so important.
The quality of sound is one of the main factors of good clubs. If you care about sound, deal with it and give attention to it, then it will be reflected in the programming of the events. Giving attention to the soundsystem and being particular about sound means you care about the music that's played there. The venue as a commercial entity might want to book various bands with different genres and distinctive styles of their own, but the foundation of the music relies on the quality of sound. One should consciously make an effort to deliver good sound, I think that is absolutely essential.
Preconceptions usually prohibit you seeing things as they really are, be it clubs or other things. You will be fixed to a single viewpoint formed by your own taste or strong personal feelings. I have been listening to so much music and naturally I have developed certain preferences. Consciously or unconsciously you sort them into your favorites or non-favorites. Being particular about music is good, but it can lead to you becoming stubborn or inflexible. I try to be conscious about it. If I don't, it will narrow my mind.
I have the impression that your DJing style is rooted in a challenging selection of music, and dynamic mixing with sudden changes. And at the base of your style I sense a self-disciplined character.
One of the things I'm consciously aware of when I DJ is to use all my ability for the set. And that is hard. There are many requirements as a DJ: taste, physical strength, ideas, creativity, the ability to think fast, being proactive, flexibility and adaptability, quick judgment of situations—all those skills will be reflected in the sound. The sound manifests all of them. I reckon those abilities show one's personality.
My set at the previous Chaos party wasn't that good. You can keep it going when you are on top form. And still there are things you can do when you are not doing so well, like trying to find something to motivate you. And maybe those attitudes gave you the impression that I am devoted to my work.
To be honest, your set at the last Chaos party wasn't one of the best. I have been listening to you for some time now. Maybe you were not in good condition that night?
Sometimes when you are DJing, you fall down a kind of an air pocket, and you struggle to get out of it but you can't. It happens to me about twice a year. It did this time, and nothing worked. In the case of a football match, you have a first half and then a second half, so you can rest and rectify at half-time. And in a tennis match sometimes the game changes after one break. But with DJing, there is no break in the set. You need the ability to get out of it.