TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s trail-blazing techno king Ken Ishii has rocked massive crowds the world over with his dance floor beats, but for his latest album he drew inspiration from what some may think an odd choice much closer to home — a luxury Tokyo shopping mall.
Ishii, 41, is nothing if not unconventional and even as his popularity has grown — he has risen from playing clubs to the MTV Video Music Awards, made the cover of Newsweek magazine and composed the theme song for the 1998 Winter Olympics — the master music mixer has tried to remain true to his roots even as his songs make their way into spaces as common as elevators.
“I didn’t want to become commercial but music always does,” Ishii told Reuters. “I’m an old-school techno kind of guy.”
His new project “Music for Daydreams” has the formal title “Ken Ishii presents Metropolitan Harmonic Formulas” and is released in February, almost 20 years after Ishii cut his first track.
The 11-song album marks a small departure for the soft-spoken producer and DJ with a delicate shift in pace from his staple, techno voodoo. He collaborated with jazz musicians, and took two years to complete the record that grew from his work mixing music for the Tokyo Midtown Galleria, a trendy shopping, restaurant and hotel complex in Roppongi, Tokyo.
“I wanted to do something for daytime,” Ishii told Reuters. “I always DJ at night so I wanted to do something different. Something for day people.”
He said the songs cross many genres and have a timeless feel, but are “still my kind of electronic music.”
Ishii burst onto the music scene in the early 1990’s, tearing up dance floors in Europe before Japan knew what techno music was.
“Techno changed my life. In the late 80’s I was into electronic music like Kraftwerk,” said Ishii, who was heavily influenced by Detroit’s underground techno scene. “‘Space Invaders’ got me into electronic noises as a kid.”
His big break came from Belgium’s R&S Records, a major techno label, when he was still at university.
“I just wanted to be on their label so I sent a tape. It started as a way of killing time as a bored student,” he said.
A No. 1 hit on the techno chart of British music magazine NME in 1993 was followed in 1996 by an MTV video award for the single “Extra” — both firsts for a Japanese artist.
“It all exploded in Europe very quickly. I thought it was very strange,” said Ishii. “I was just a student and all these faxes kept pouring in from European record companies.”
He played his first ever live set to 20,000 people in the Netherlands that year. His seminal album, “Jelly Tones,” came out in 1995 and featured “Extra,” boosting his fame further.
Then came the call from the Japanese Olympic committee.
“Producing the theme track for the Nagano Olympics was a huge thing for me,” said Ishii. “But some people don’t want to be recognized on the street.”
Struggling to stick to his roots as an underground sensation and avoid becoming mainstream eventually led to a key career decision for the artist who so shuns glitz that he is still driven to gigs in his manager’s old Toyota even today.
“At the end of the ‘90s my record labels in Japan and Belgium wanted me to play more commercial,” he said.
“I said ‘Okay, sorry, this is finished. This is not what I want to do.’ I became independent.”
And success kept coming. Ishii formed his own label in 2002, and in 2004 he was voted best techno DJ at the “Dance Music Awards” on Ibiza, Spain’s clubbing island.
His 2010 dancefloor smash hit “Right Hook” proved Ishii could still strip paint from the walls before he turned his hand to the multi-textured “Music for Daydreams.”
“What I do keeps me energized,” said Ishii. “When I play my old tracks of 20 years ago on the dancefloor and the crowd are cheering and mad for it still, it’s so special.
“That’s when I feel I created something timeless.”
Editing by Elaine Lies and Bob Tourtellotte