Fifteen Years of Fantasma - Part Five

The final installment in a week-long, five part series celebrating the fifteenth anniversary of Cornelius’ musical masterpiece Fantasma. Read Parts One, Two, Three, and Four.

Part Five: After Fantasma’s Japanese Release

How Matador Came to Put Out Fantasma in the U.S. and Europe

From the Matador website (complete with timeless Monica Lewinsky reference):

February 5, 1998
Some thrilling new signings to report, the first of which being Japanese pop mastermind CORNELIUS. His U.S./European debut, Fantasma will be released on March 24. For background purposes, the biography prepared by Mr. Amory will be online shortly. For now, an appreviated [sic] version is on our upcoming releases page. I could add something like “prepare to be blown away,” but I don’t know how you prepare yourself for that (not without running for office first)

Personal recollection from Isaac Bess, Matador employee in the mid-1990s:

My family lived in Tokyo for a year in 1986, and my parents went back to Tokyo again in 1996 for their second research trip. I was working at Matador at the time, having started in 1994 after college and doing mostly domestic and international distribution. I went over to Japan for Christmas and did my regular routine of listening to anything that looked interesting in the listening stations of Tower and HMV.

I remember seeing Cornelius’ first single “The Sun is My Enemy,” which I thought was a super cool song title, and all the other Cornelius releases had this amazing aesthetic. They were the kind of records that jumped out visually. I bought some Cornelius records and an amazing EP from Fishmans Long Season that I still dream of someday releasing on vinyl.

I brought these CDs back to New York and played them in the office. I don’t know what it’s like at the Matador office now, but at the time there were frequent battles over control of the office stereo. At some some point after us listening to Cornelius, it was determined that we’d reach out to Trattoria, the label on the back of the CD. I had zero Japanese label connections myself — we’d put out Pizzicato Five records but that was about it. I sent a fax to the number on the back of the CD, and as I recall, my fax letter was written in the worst Japanese of all time.

We traded some faxes back and forth, then some phone calls, and then a crazy, crazy care package of Japanese records arrived on our door. The packaging on those Trattoria records at the time was absolutely insane. I remember the whole office being totally blown away by those huge elaborate compilations. I don’t know how they might have made money on those things

We got an advance of Fantasma’s lead single “Star Fruits Surf Rider,” and I put it through the office ringer. I still think it is not nearly the strongest track on the record, but I liked all that frantic drum programming stuff, which was just starting to percolate into the non-DJ world. The response was good but not insane.

But when we got the full length, we reached out. Matador started a deal process (that I was not involved in), and we were off to the races. I quit a bit afterwards, but I got to spend time with Keigo and Hiroko (from Polystar) and the band in NY. Then I moved to Tokyo and saw more of them then.

Even now, it feels like Japanese labels aspire to have international success stories, largely to no avail. And at the time in Matador, we had, at least in relative terms, three — Pizzicato Five, Cornelius, and Guitar Wolf (depending on how you define success story, I suppose). I think the key was really in the marketing angle Matador took, which played little or none on “Japan = crazy!” It was more about “This record sounds absolutely genius.”

Fantasma is still a super dense record. I remember all the reviews citing the studio wizardry, the attention to detail around the recording process. From that point, I had little hand in the trajectory of the record, in the US or elsewhere, but it was extremely gratifying to see such critical acceptance.

How I Discovered Fantasma

If I recall correctly, I was at a real-deal “cocktail party” in the Spring of 1998, talking to Matt Murray and Dan O. Williams about my interest in Japanese pop. Dano asked if I had heard Minekawa Takako, which I had not, and he asked if knew about Momus, which I did not. He then mentioned if I had heard of Kahimi Karie, produced by Momus. I had not. He then said, oh so what do you think of Cornelius — he’s this important DJ / producer. Although I had become a Buffalo Daughter fan by this time, I clearly knew nothing about anything. I promptly went to Newbury Comics the next week after class and saw the Matador release of Fantasma sitting in the “New” bins — at $10.99 loss-leader pricing. I picked it up and headed home.

Upon returning to my door room, I popped Fantasma into the communal stereo and thought something was wrong with said stereo for the first minute as nothing came out but mostly inaudible sound effects. The rest of the album was equally mysterious and incomprehensible, although I distinctly remember liking the part in “Free Fall” where they say “Slow down” and then the song slows down. For the first three or four or five listens, I still prefered Buffalo Daughter, but went around believing that this was an epic, important record even if I didn’t particularly enjoy it or understand why. So I tried to convince myself that I loved it by convincing everyone else that it was amazing. During some study session, I let my classical music aficionado girlfriend hear “2010” which she saluted but then played her “Magoo Opening” which she did not. The fundamental problem was that mind just did not possess the capabilities to understand the musical sounds contained within — I didn’t get the references and did not even know what half the musical instruments were.

Upon visiting Tokyo in 1998, I took the album with me, listened to it in my lonely days walking the streets, and then started collecting used copies of Cornelius’ other CDs at the lowest prices I could find. I first picked up the remix album 96/69, which is not a good place to start. I do distinctly remember, however, finally getting my head around Fantasma the 15th or so listen, and I soon found myself in Ochanomizu, haggling over prices for a SP-202 phrase sampler and DR-202 drum machine.

Through convoluted circumstances of my internship at Kodansha, I ended up at a photo studio at the end of the summer where Oyamada Keigo was a model for a A Bathing Ape shoot, destined for the next issue of Hot Dog Press. I sat near Oyamada but did not talk to him until he was leaving, where I got him to sign my copy of Fantasma (coming directly out of my CD player) and the cover/CD of 69/96. He signed in an oddly bombastic backwards graffiti — SUILENROC. As I slinked away, Nigo came over and handed Oyamada a copy of the UNKLE album, which I then ran out and bought as well.

Cornelius toured the U.S. later that November with Natural Calamity, coming to Boston and playing to a room full of Japanese exchange students. I faithfully wore my A Bathing Ape T-shirt like the rest of the crowd, and Cornelius showed up in Ape uniforms. (Read Alex Pappademas’ early brilliance in this Phoenix review: “Amid thunderous applause, he laughingly accepted a “You da man!” high five off a dude in the front row.”) By this point, the Cornelius touring band was a tight unit, transforming his complicated Fantasma tracks into high-energy crowd pleasers. He also added a few particularly good live tracks “E” and the soccer themed “Ball in Kick Off,” with Horie (of Neil & Iraiza) in charge of blowing the referee whistle. (I spent too much money later on some weird German compilation that had “Ball in Kick Off” as the opening track.) He also passed around the SP-202 phrase sampler for the crowd to “play,” and since I had one at home and knew how it worked, I grabbed it confident that I could jam along with Oyamada. Unfortunately he had put something to block you from touching any of the controls so the best you could do was wildly press the buttons to make random noise.

What truly made the show though was the video visuals accompanying every song in perfect timing — cut-ups of lost children’s shows, retro 1960s groovy movie footage, and early visual effects. It appeared that the backing tracks were played off the videotapes, and drummer Migu faithfully listened to a click as she played. After the show ended, I said hi to Cornelius’ manager Takahashi, who vaguely remembered me from earlier in the summer. My roommate Chess and I walked home down Lansdowne street singing the a cappella opening to 69/96. That had been the best concert I had ever seen, only topped by Cornelius’ Point tour in 2002.

Cornelius After Fantasma

With Matador releasing Fantasma in both the U.S. and Europe, Cornelius transformed into a globally-recognized musical genius, which of course, made him an even bigger deal back in his home country of Japan. Cornelius spent the first few years after Fantasma in constant tour with his increasingly tight live band. This was documented in the video EUS, where Help! Films and long-time Oyamada visual partner Tsujikawa Koichiro’s Harvard Design turn cheap miniDV footage of the tour into an endless pageant of Pokemon seizure beauty (a few fragments are included on the Fantasma re-master boxset.).

Cornelius also began to remix every musician on the planet — a list that extended from fellow Tokyo bands like Buffalo Daughter (“Great Five Lakes”), Towa Tei (“Butterfly”), and Salon Music (“Galaxie Express 69 Mix”) to like-minded international stars Beck (“Mixed Business”), The Pastels (“Windy Hill”), and Coldcut (“Atomic Moog 2000”). In many cases, Cornelius improved on the original (Money Mark’s “Maybe I’m Dead,” in particular), but many of the tracks were mostly rebuilt with the Fantasma sound library to sound like Cornelius’ outtakes with guest vocals. The process of remixing, however, represented Cornelius’ entry into the global pantheon of producers. The kid who wrote “Goodbye, Our Pastels Badges” was suddenly remixing the actual Pastels. (It’s also telling that remixes of Cornelius have never been particularly good, as there is no much core “song” under the production to re-construct.)

Perhaps this over-use of Fantasma space noises and guitar riffs from 1997 to 2000 is what made Cornelius move so far away for his 2001 follow-up Point. Where Fantasma was additive — building soundscapes by piling on sounds on sounds, references on references, genres on genres — Point was completely subtractive. Oyamada essentially worked to free himself from the DJ cut-and-paste aesthetic, and instead, tried to deconstruct his own tastes to a building blocks of “pure” but original sounds. Cornelius told Suzannah Tartan in Japan Times, “This time I drew my ideas more from myself, my own biorhythms and environment. With ‘Point,’ I wanted to enable the listeners to immerse themselves in the music to have more blank space or open margins around the music. Because, by doing so, the listener will be able to include more of their own influences, of their own personal memory, or environment.” Essentially, Cornelius understood his own references to be too idiosyncratic — crowding out fans building better personal relationships with his music.

So Point contains almost no explicit references to other music, other than a relatively tame robot-vocaled cover of the classic “Brazil.” Instrumentation revolves almost exclusively around acoustic guitars, digital tones, and clipped live drum samples. If Fantasma was always on the brink of disaster, with loud noises and drones bleeding from one song to another, Point is in perfect control, with sounds muted and ended precisely after they serve their purpose. The song titles of Point even moved away from band names (the one exception “Tone Twilight Zone” is a joke on the outré pop label Tone Twilight founded by friend Emori Takeaki). We move from the nearly fourth-dimensional “Microdisneycal World Tour” to the one-dimensional “Drop,” the formless “Smoke,” and the zero-dimensional “Nowhere.”

Oyamada may have grown tired of Shibuya-kei’s melodic plunderphonics after doing it for almost a decade, but his peers were also moving to a similar direction. Point’s most direct influence is Kanda Tomoki’s landscape of smallers music from January 2001 — an atmospheric sound safari where Rhodes plucks sound like raindrops and Minimoog oscillators imitate buzzing insects on an African veldt. Between Point, Kanda’s record, Emori’s Tone Twilight catalog, Takemura Nobukazu’s “Sign,” Sunahara Yoshinori’s ice cold Lovebeat, and Kahimi Karie’s increasingly slow and abstract whisper pop, we suddenly had a new mini-genre “Nakame-kei,” named after the retreat of 30-year old Tokyo hipsters from the Shibuya commercial district to the slow-life of the cafe-heavy Nakameguro neighborhood where Oyamada’s 3D studio is located. Maybe too many people were doing the sample pop thing and the originators needed some distance, but Cornelius certainly chose a reverse course — away from music that contained explicit cultural signifiers to one completely intended to be sculpting of acoustic space.

Few were thrilled with this new direction. Oyamada’s friend Momus publicly referred to the album as “Disappoint,” and most of the foreign fans, who had only heard of this Oyamada character in the last two years, did not understand why he needed to change up the classic Fantasma formula. There certainly were ways to push the Fantasma methodology even further; I would argue that unofficial disciples Plus-Tech Squeeze Box used a massive base of samples to hyper-extended a Fantasma view of the music into an even more intense frenzy (listen to “Fiddle Dee Dee”). Oyamada instead decided he would rather make the kind of “original” sounds that get copied and referenced rather than try to recreate others’ iconic recordings.

The question is whether Cornelius gained something in moving away from eclecticism and diversity. Everything on Point essentially sounds the same. It is holistic, but it is one ride at Epcot — not the entire Magic Kingdom. While the opening track “Point of View Point” may be one of the most clever and rewarding songs of Oyamada’s career, the rest of the album is essentially re-thinkings of the same idea. The metal interlude “I Hate Hate” even feels rote.

Despite the tepid response to Point, Cornelius did successfully turn the material into one of the greatest live music spectacles of all time. Far from the DIY days of the Fantasma tour, Oyamada no longer cut up from silly video tape footage of the past, but created high-quality productions that perfectly embodied every single song. The songs suddenly became incredibly good soundtracks to interesting short films rather than “songs.” These videos, combined with clever lighting and projection effects, brought the Point songs to life on tour, and the resulting DVD Five Point One of the video work was a legitimate standalone audio-visual journey rather than a “DVD of the videos for an album.” Oyamada moved from musician to multimedia artist. Most importantly, he moved far from “curator” to an un-ambiguous original creator.

After Point, however, Cornelius went further down the rabbit hole, into a music based increasingly on abstract expressionist sound detached from the history of music. The first sign of this was the Eno-esque cherry blossom tone poem of “From Nakameguro to Everywhere.” Then Cornelius really doubled-down by choosing an entire album of young “Logic glitch-squirt bedroom cases” like dj codomo and DRITT DRITTEL for his “remix Point samples” contest. (As well as “MC Cat Genius’ BomBassTic Re-bomb / Animal Family featuring MC Cat Genius,” one of the strangest works ever committed to a major label release.) When Tokyo Fun Party organized a session at Uplink for all the Point remixers in 2004, Oyamada showed up to play a secret spot at the end and treated the crowd to strange guitar-manipulated digital delay jams much like Sensuous“Wataridori.” Gone were the cartoon clips or videos, replaced with dynamically generated computer visuals that reacted in time with the sounds.

This was even a step from Point, and when Sensuous hit in 2006 — five years after his previous album — Cornelius had made a full transformation into painter of the soundscape (my full review here). Besides the clever “Toner” duet with a inkjet printer, Sensuous is almost completely humorless, beginning with a four minute exploration into wind chimes and acoustic guitar strums. The Cornelius palette has recently contracted to a very small set of digital synth sounds that reverb into nothingness. The original quest for complete control over sound fragments in Point has transformed into a kind of digital mania. Oyamada may be the only person in the entire world who prefers fake digital piano samples to the majesty of the real thing.

To his credit, Oyamada is at least not repeating himself, and he has moved miles from the questionably derivative parts of his musical output. For a while though, everyone secretly wanted him to go back and make another Fantasma. Viewed in the lens of Simon Reynolds’ exhaustive indictment of modern culture’s Retromania, our enjoyment of Fantasma clearly stems from it being so directly referential — rewarding us for our obscure musical trivia, borrowing from the hallowed aura of Brian Wilson, and regurgitating retro timbres thought lost to the detritus of society but that still existed in the deepest trenches of our brain. It felt good. But after Fantasma had delivered this drug, he decided to instead become a true techno-optimist. He has attempted to make sounds that are fiercely new, that push digital technology far beyond the comfort zone. Noise bands cannot shock anymore with noise alone, but there is something deeply disconcerting about intentionally making songs with fake piano samples. This may have often felt boring and anondyne on Sensuous, but these production techniques worked wonderfully for singer Salyu on her breakthrough 2011 record s(o)un(d)beams (listen to the machine funk of “Mirror Neurotic”).

The great lament around Cornelius is not really related to Oyamada — we no longer live in an era where an album like Fantasma is joined with 3-4 other concurrent releases that proclaim and prove a brand new wave of creativity. Something like s(o)un(d) beams stands in isolation, a strange quirk of the music industry that Salyu’s industry drones would tap an avant-garde talent to produce her record. In the 15 years since Fantasma, the Japanese music scene can no longer muster the power to create albums that make the world wake up and even think their own domestic bands in a new context. Cornelius was able to achieve that and much more, but the album also came out during the penultimate year of sales for Japanese music — a time when there was tons of money to burn on eccentricism, and more importantly, there was something important at stake. Japan’s top musicians were possessed with a burning desire to make big, meaningful, genre-changing albums, because they knew that if they succeeded, there would be an equally meaningful response. If Fantasma appeared in 2012, no one in Japan would know what to do with it.

So our nostalgia and respect for Cornelius’ masterpiece will remain tied with with nostalgia and respect for the era when music rained as the king of popular arts. And what better record to symbolize this than a long musical tribute to music itself. There may be albums that inspire more nostalgic longing and more succinctly prick up the painful melancholy of teenage longing, but the sheer depth and innovation of Fantasma make it an album that can be enjoyed over the long run. The album is now historical — it stands for a certain age in the 1990s — but at the same time, it is an important textbook for an alternative musical history, where Bach, Bacharach, and the Beach Boys stand as the great triumvirate. We students have spent years decoding and translating the work, but more importantly, we have listened over and over and over again. Thank you for the music.

W. David MARX
September 14, 2012

W. David Marx (Marxy) — Tokyo-based writer and musician — is the founder and chief editor of Néojaponisme.

7 Responses

  1. Anymouse Says:

    I admit I have not had a chance to read or listen to this series all the way through, but I can say that it is a nice introduction and overview to this music. I have enjoyed it.

  2. Carl Says:

    I guess this is the part where we talk about our own experiences with Fantasma?

    I was in high school when I started getting into the music of Beck and Sean Lennon. As I recall, there was some website where horribly compressed music videos were available, and I would watch those a bunch. Sean Lennon was signed on the Beastie Boy’s Grand Royal label, and through their site I also learned about Buffalo Daughter. From there I somehow got into Takako Minekawa and Cornelius. It was the summer of 1999 and one of the early music sites had clips from Fantasma that I would listen to over and over again before I finally ordered it.

    I dug into my archives and found an email I wrote to a friend about it Aug. 3, 1999:

    > Cornelius remixed something for Buffalo Daughter, so I buy his CD and he turned out to be like a super genius. He makes Beck look like a guy with just a single guitar and a guy on drums.

    Not elegantly put, but it gets the idea across, I suppose. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that an interest in Shibuya-kei was one of the things that made me go to Japan as an exchange student in college. The rest, as they say, is history. Thanks for the music indeed!

  3. E Says:

    Fantastic stuff. Looks like there was, like, one weird dude like us at each stop on Cornelius’s first US tour :)

    Like David and Carl allude to, the late 90s was just a damn exciting period for pop music, even if much of it hasn’t aged well and the albums never truly delivered on their promises. Grand Royal, Trattoria, Astralwerks… Every, like, month saw the release of an album that, it was implied, would change EVERYTHING. Even when they didn’t, I enjoyed the ride and look back with fond memories, like everyone who commented on these posts.

    Either David or Simon Reynolds implied that Cornelius went experimental minimalist in response to Shibuya-kei becoming too big, too popular, too mainstream. How big did Shibuya-kei get in Japan before it was essentially absorbed by the mainstream?

    I still haven’t properly sat down with s(o)un(d)beams yet but suspect that no analysis of Cornelius’s career trajectory is complete without taking this work into account.

    Looking forward to the upcoming 10-part dissection of Kahimi Karie’s K.K.K.K.K.

    E

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    How big did Shibuya-kei get in Japan before it was essentially absorbed by the mainstream?

    I think it got as big as “college rock” got in the U.S. in the late 1980s but not as big as “alternative” got in the 1990s. None of these guys became top ten rock stars but they were on the fringes of the mainstream pop world. They appeared on Music Station and standard J-Pop music shows time to time. They sold records in the 100,000s sometimes. And when a CD is 3000 that’s a lot of money.

    Looking forward to the upcoming 10-part dissection of Kahimi Karie’s K.K.K.K.K.

    Not going to happen. I even listened to Take Off and Landing the other day, which is also a Shibuya-kei masterpiece but even that is not worth a major deconstruction. Fantasma truly stands alone in the prose it can generate.

  5. miffy Says:

    This is one of the great reads on this site. 10,000 words but it’s so accessible that anybody can enjoy, even by those with no interest in Japan. Just a curious mind about music

    I eagerly anticipate the next great read. I hope it be about cats…

  6. Ammianus Says:

    David,

    In a similar vein, would it be possible for you to do a retrospective article on the shoegaze/electro-rock band Supercar? Their seminal album Highvision was released exactly a decade ago, and I’m sure you’ve got something to say about them.

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    I loved Supercar’s first album back in 1998 and then got mad at them as they went all electronica and lost the hooks. I know that people love Highvision but I was never able to really follow them that far.