Strangers: An Interview with Tomoyasu Hotei

Oct 21st - The Islington Assembly Hall. Renowned Japanese musician, Tomoyasu Hotei, has just finished sound checks for tonight’s performance, which is guaranteed to blow your eardrums out if you’re not careful. It’s the last gig of the year in the UK and one of utmost importance as the rock veteran celebrates the release of his first international studio album ‘Strangers’: a work of diverse elements, incorporating some of his trademark wizardry and introducing a few new surprises.

Hotei greets with a warm smile and soft voice, relaxed as if he’s just been out on a pleasant stroll. It really is a second nature to him. I sat down to ask about his latest offering, curious as to how it evolved from last October’s Japanese release ‘New Beginnings’, a title which bared a clear significance.

“The first time I came here was three years ago and I first thought that maybe it would be better to push my more oriental side, those mysterious melodies and rhythms. Should I add such colour? But, having spent more time here since, I feel more natural in my surroundings. I don’t have to push so much of that side, it’s in my blood, I don’t have to think about it. So, living in London all this time, although I’m Japanese, I feel like a Londoner. For example I’m taking the bus, the tube, and I see many different nationalities. It’s quite a complex city, a lot of strangers, hence the connection.”

‘Strangers’ is Hotei’s second fully English-language album, since 1988’s ‘Guitarhythm’, which originally marked the beginning of his solo career. Returning to London to begin another chapter in his life seems almost too fitting. Quite notable is that the artist doesn’t actually sing on any of the tracks present.

“It’s been thirty years since I recorded at Abbey Road and after such an amount of time I feel very different. Singing and playing guitar at the same time is so difficult. Before I even start I have to concentrate on my guitarists, track mixers or producers. So, for this album, I decided to stop singing myself. ‘Strangers’ is totally different from ‘Guitarhythm’, in that I am focusing more on the music itself.” Excited by this evening’s performance, “You’ll see tonight just how much I concentrate on playing. I’m singing with my guitar, so it feels to me that I’m not just playing instrumental music.”

Over his many years in the industry, touring with legendary performers such as David Bowie and The Rolling Stones, Hotei has made a lot of friends. ‘Strangers’ proves to be a huge collaborative effort, made during quite a lengthy period. The process seemed fairly organic he recalls. “Well, for Iggy Pop I made up two new tracks, and while I was listening to the demo with my bassist I realised just how strong they were. I needed to think about who might be suitable on vocals and Iggy’s name came up. I had actually met him a long time ago, when I was in my twenties, at Berlin airport. That was the last time we saw each other, but when we sent the demo tapes to his people he immediately agreed to work with me. Matt Tuck was introduced to me through Spinefarm Records. He was working on his latest album at the same studio as us. We just started a conversation and one idea in particular was to come up with a James Bond-like spy theme, as if it were directed by Tarantino. He’s a great guitarist, we collaborated very comfortably together.”

On Texan-born Shea Seger, whose spunky, mowtown voice brings to life tracks ‘Kill or Kiss’ and ‘Texas Groove’. “Shea is kind of an old friend. My manager used to manage her and I would go to her gigs. I found her to be a very soulful, powerful singer.” Seger, however, isn’t the first person to sing on these tracks, both having appeared on ‘New Beginnings’ and featuring Vula Malinga, who had previously worked with Basement Jaxx. “Vula did great. I’m really a huge fan of Basement Jaxx and I got in touch with her through the band. This time though I had recently performed at The Lexington (referring to his previous gig in Islington on July 7th) for a showcase gig, and I asked Shea, as a friend, if she’d sing on the tracks for ‘Strangers’. We were actually discussing whether or not to cut the tracks entirely but after hearing Shea’s take we felt it could well be the next single. She did great...a very strong, vibrant woman. I feel very inspired when I see her perform.

Retaining something of an eighties vibe, being peppered with electronic, punk and disco rhythms, ‘Strangers’ still manages to deviate from expectations as it feels closer to delivering a fuller, cinematic-like experience. The opening track in particular, ‘Medusa’, is quick to make a serious statement and wouldn’t be out of place in a modern thriller. Likewise, the poignancy of ‘Into the Light’ and the energetic bravado of ‘Departure’ continues to cement Hotei’s reputation as a killer writer; his new pieces here promising to become fan favourites at live performances. Though humble, he does acknowledge his gift. “My music is quite cinematic I believe. That’s my strongest point, making catchy, cinematic themes.”

Moreover, ‘Strangers’ treads a darker path than one might initially expect. ‘Walking Through the Night’, featuring Iggy Pop with his inimitable growls marks a spot of cynicism perhaps, while Noko 440 on ‘Barrel of my Own Gun’ makes for something hauntingly beautiful. A few songs from ‘New Beginnings’ have either been replaced or reworked: Formerly known as ‘New Chemical’, ‘Move It’, for example, has metamorphosed into a far angrier beast, featuring Rammstein/Emigrate frontman Richard Z. Kruspe, while ‘Kill to Love You’, with Bullet For My Valentine’s Matt Tuck, proves a standout number. “It took quite a long time to rebuild the music, but for me it’s a totally different album now, for a different audience.” If there are any themes to explore here, Hotei seems slightly surreptitious about it. “Because I made this in London?”, he jokes. “If I lived in California maybe I’d have made a different album. Well, I’ve always been influenced by British/European rock bands, like Roxy Music, those kind of melancholic, dark and avant-garde musicians.

Of the albums closing track we see ‘Battle Without Honour or Humanity’ make another appearance. Granted, the Lupin III piece, written for last year’s live-action adaptation based upon Monkey Punch’s celebrated Manga, turned anime, probably isn’t going to resonate with most casual overseas listeners. Still, one wonders if Hotei ever tires of it. “It’s become my signature piece. Truthfully this might be the last chance I get to use it on an album, because I don’t want to use it forever. I made that in 2000 and it still feels fresh after fifteen years. It’s my masterpiece of course.”

Interestingly enough, I recall what Hotei said during his previous gig, when talking about how a member of the audience later congratulated him for doing a great cover version of his own song. Perhaps even surprising is that few people outside of the Japanese fans who usually turn up at his shows, even realise that the track originated from a film in which he starred and wrote the score for: Junji Sakamoto’s New Battles Without Honour and Humanity - a reworking of Kinji Fukasaku’s seminal series from the seventies. Prior to this, Hotei had made his cinematic debut in Horoyuki Nakano’s entertaining period comedy Samurai Fiction in 1998. Acting, then, seemed to be something he simply fell into. “well, Samurai Fiction. We did that in a special way. We shot the film first and when I watched through it I placed markers on every frame, putting in snare accents and beats and calibrating the bpm. It took a long time but that’s why it looks as if the actors are dancing to the music, the entire movement was calculated.” His performances in films such as Samurai Fiction and New Battles Without Honour and Humanity are entirely credible. He has something of a natural presence, although clearly his parts are tailor made, Samurai Fiction relying on very little dialogue. “Yea, because I can’t remember my lines. I’m terrible,” he says smiling. So do offers come in every so often? Is there a part of him that would like to get back on a set? Hotei responds with an emphatic “No, no, no, no, no. I don’t want to do any more. It’s a whole different world. For Samurai Fiction, the director is my friend, he’s very rock and roll, always shot my music videos. He understands me and how to make the camera work for me. That goes for Junji also. I’m not just an actor acting in those films, I had a lot more creative involvement as a music director.” Humble as ever but with good humour “Well, maybe some day. Some day, if Angelina Jolie wants to call.”

Sticking with the topic of film we touch upon the upcoming documentary by Mirza Javed and Lauren Lorenzo: An Electric Samurai in London. “We’re still working on that one. I hope it’s finished soon,” he laughs. “It takes a long time, everything takes a long time here. In Japan everything moves so quickly, they’re very organised, maybe too organised. Everything is on time. Here…very slow. I mean it’s taken me two and a half years to make this album. Normally it would take four to five months from start to finish. That’s why I’ve been able to release around forty albums in my thirty five years in the industry.”

Having spent a good few years in London now, Hotei and his family seem to have settled in well. He feels that he can see it becoming a permanent home. “I’m really enjoying life here. It’s very different from Tokyo. Tokyo is good but sometimes even I would lose myself. It became too much of everything. I’m not young but I’m not too old, so I feel that now is a good time to change my life, to enjoy it more with my family. London is the perfect place for that. Everything is a bit too expensive though. Even when buying one coffee I feel like asking for maybe tap water please instead,” he says jokingly. “But it’s a very relaxed and multi-cultured, great for the arts and always something to be inspired by.

And of playing in London? For someone of Hotei’s stature, revisiting his roots after playing sell-out stadiums seems like a natural progression. “I feel like I’ve started again, which is great. I started my career doing small venues and coming here is like being a beginner, so one by one I’d like to play different kinds of venues so that people can better understand my music. It’s easy to introduce myself as a multi-million selling artist, who is famous for Kill Bill and playing with The Rolling Stones. There’s that whole big image thing. But for me it’s simply about seeing if people like my music or not, and I believe this is the best way to introduce myself. We’ll go from London to Europe, maybe U.S.A. next year. I just have to keep building toward that.

It helps that he has a cracking band accompanying him on tour of course, his current lineup consisting of Noko 440, Cliff Hewitt and Andy Wallace. “They are all great musicians, and I feel I was really fortunate to have met them. Especially Noko. I share the exact same birthdate with him, and we’ve shared the same music history: punk, new wave and electro, since the seventies. The fact that he’s in tune to my own channel means a lot for me. I feel like they are not just my band, more like I’m a guitarist in a band. I truly value our ‘musicianship’.

And with that we shake hands and prepare for what promises to be a great evening.

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