Techno superstar Ken Ishii talks with the Weekender about audiences around the world and composing for the 1998 Winter Olympics.
By Christopher O’Keeffe
Techno DJ Ken Ishii has been releasing music since 1993 and now stands as one of the biggest names on Tokyo’s club scene. Frequently touring around Japan and in Europe, the Detroit Techno–influenced artist shows no sign of slowing down, in fact when I catch up with him in a little Nakameguro cafe the artist apologizes for his timekeeping. “Actually I’ve been in Japan for the past few weeks working on my new music but I came from New York about 6 weeks ago and next weekend I’ll be back again so I’m always kind of jet lagged.”
Despite his hectic schedule no signs of tiredness show on the face of the seasoned veteran. This year has seen the release of a new album, Dots released under the pseudonym Flare, and he still regularly plays in events both at home and abroad. On December 14 he can be seen at the latest installment of the Tokyo Fashion Fuse Party at Izumi Garden Gallery in Roppongi for the seventh incarnation of an event that’s been mixing top DJs with catwalks and models since 2010.
It’s not Ken Ishii’s first time at the event; he played at Fashion Fuse 5 and is enthusiastic about the night. “The vibe was very very good. The party was a good mixture with some fashion, dance and drinking.” But surely it’s a different atmosphere from the techno events he usually plays? “Thats why I kind of enjoyed it, the atmosphere was quite different and it was a challenge for me to play to a different crowd. But you know it went very
Dance music has always been changing, there’s always something new on the scene, so maybe with my kind of music, techno, it’s the same. Always when there’s a new thing coming on to the scene people are like, “no, no, no.”
well and my gig was successful; I was really satisfied with that and the fashion parts were really good too. I was also able to enjoy it as a member of the audience.” I had to wonder what a guy who’s pretty serious about his work felt about this combination of fashion and music, but Ishii brushed away those concerns. “Well you know it’s a good feeling for the DJs and musicians to play for those kind of people. Sometimes the fashion people are not really into music but if you get some moments that grab the people you can really feel it. It’s good inspiration.”
Ishii is a frequent flyer, with Spain, France and Germany being regular destinations, but as someone who regularly tours the world what does he make of the current state of Tokyo’s nightlife? “I fly all over the world and usually I don’t hear any good stories; you know everybody complains about the techno scene and says it was much better five years ago, but in Tokyo it’s the same story compared to other countries, for example in Europe. I think it’s OK; whenever I play in Tokyo I have a good time and we have good reactions so I think it’s healthy enough to attract the really great DJs.” Is there a difference between the crowds here in comparison with those in Europe and America? “Maybe because I’m from this country I feel the Japanese crowd are a bit more enthusiastic, like some of the reactions to tiny bits of my playing movements and they know music more. Also there’s a higher percentage of real music lovers in the audience. I love to play in Europe but they are more party people: they really know how to party. Thats the main difference.” But Ishii doesn’t have favorites, saying that each type of audience has its appeal. “Maybe if I play a big venue I expect more party people but if I play an out and out club or a smaller place I want to see the reactions, I want to have a bond with people.”
While electronic dance music has been around for decades, it is only recently that it has been embraced in American mainstream culture. EDM (electronic dance music) as it’s become known, has made superstars of a lot of DJs who have a very different style and sound to Ken and his European counterparts who have been honing their skills and selling out venues for years. When asked about this recent explosion into mainstream acceptance and the celebrity aspect of the culture, Ishii was dismissive of the music but saw positives in its accessibility. “Actually we DJs talk about that a lot and quite recently when I was talking to Jeff Mills (Detroit-based Techno DJ) we came to the same conclusion. It’s more like celebrity music; the known guys are the popular people who would have been rock stars 20 years ago or doing some different kind of music.
“Some new meat!? Maybe normal people would have thought of someone like Sakamoto Ryuichi but maybe there was one guy in charge who wanted to do something different, something new.”
So they probably chose the style to be famous or something like that. But still, that music gets a lot of young people, a lot of kids to get into the club scene or dance music, so I’m hoping it would be a good entry point for them to know real dance music eventually.” But what about the current generation of Tokyo DJs? “Dance music has always been changing, there’s always something new on the scene, so maybe with my kind of music, techno, it’s the same. Always when there’s a new thing coming on to the scene people are like, “no, no, no.” I think the music is just something for now.”
One topic that’s going to be on everybody’s lips for the next six years is Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics. Somewhat surprisingly for a DJ that makes works outside of the mainstream, Ishii was asked to compose music for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, and he said that he was shocked to be chosen for such a prestigious event. “Yes, I was. I had five years’ experience after my professional degree as an artist so I was panicking about the technical aspects. First it was like, ‘Am I able to do this’ and I thought ‘Oh come on, just try it out’ and some people helped me and then finally it was very interesting because I made a track with a homemade, very simple bedroom setup, just with a few machines like a simple mixer and a custom board, so it was really dynamic.” When asked why he was chosen for the role and what it was they were looking for he seems as perplexed as anyone. “Some new meat!? Maybe normal people would have thought of someone like Sakamoto Ryuichi but maybe there was one guy in charge who wanted to do something different, something new.”
With an eclectic discography, a steady stream of new projects in the works and no end to his event schedule Ken Ishii is a busy man. Is there any chance he will work on the next Olympics? “Well, if I get the chance I’ll do it but maybe they’ll choose someone who does EDM!”.
Main image courtesy of Rob Walbers