Hi-5: An exclusive interview with Lo-Fi's Goh Hirose
Since forming and releasing their debut CD Stereo Soul in 2009, Jazz/Hip-hop/Soul outfit Lo-Fi has been very active in the Japanese gig scene, performing with artists from all over the globe, from Sean Lennon to Zannusi 5, and kicking back with alternative home-grown acts such as The SunPaulo, Kingdom Afrocks, Cromagnon and Julee Karan.
Now, as they prepare for world domination, Lo-Fi is set to hit Europe for some intimate gigs beginning this October. I was fortunate enough to grab some down time with lead singer/songwriter Goh “5” Hirose ahead of their first UK performance.
Welcome to The Music Fix, Goh.
Jazz Breakbeats x Hip-hop & Soul is how you describe your music. That’s quite a melding of genres. How did Lo-Fi set about creating this sound?
I dunno to be honest. I don’t think that those genres are all that far apart. But people like to disassociate them, so I guess I decided to write that stuff down when we describe our music. Describing music is like trying to describe what orange is like, or what food is like. You have to see it or taste it to really know what it is. I’ve grown up in different countries and always been an alien/outsider everywhere I go. My conclusion after all the traveling and experiences is that people all feel the same thing everywhere, they just express it very differently. To me music genres is kinda like the same thing, so we are not really doing anything special at all. That blend of what makes our sound is just who we are.
I grew up listening to a lot of blues and soul and a fair share of old rock. Nori (Noriko Yoshikawa), who was in Japan all her life was into the fusion/jazz thing that was popular in her family, and Yosh (Yoshifumi Ogoshi), our drummer, was just all our crazy from deep techno and ambient experimental music to traditional Japanese drumming and hard rock. Nori used to perform solo, doing Latin influenced music and has about three albums out in Japan I think. So that’s kinda where she comes from. Yosh has, I think, two major releases with his old band in Japan doing electro pop/rock.
I studied piano since I was around three, but hated the lessons I was getting. Even though I loved music and singing, the lessons I was privileged enough to get were all about discipline in playing hand dexterity exercises that sound like a chromatic mess! So I quit playing the piano when I started playing guitar after junior high. I played everything from rock to popular music just to blend in at school...something I wasn’t doing very well at the time. I kept moving from place to place and feel that pretty much everywhere in the world is the same. People feel the same things but express them very differently. I guess that’s what culture is. So naturally I want to bring things together that people like to disassociate in my art. Just like I want to bring people from all over the world together in one way or another.
So how did the three of you meet?
My band wasn’t a band when I first started out. I was just compiling tracks by myself to create recordings alone, but that was short-lived when I started doing shows. Recorded tracks are just to stale when you perform live. I did some rap style shows for fun and was a support musician for some bands around town. I just wanted to move my own project forward with live instruments because the sequenced stuff just got pretty old fast in my book.
Yosh is an old friend from school, so I called him up just when he quit his old band that he did a few albums with and we started doing gigs with any musicians we could find. We really didn’t get rolling until we were able to meet Nori, our keyboardist. She was introduced to me by a drummer I met supporting a Japanese pop singer one night and we had Nori play a few songs with us at a beach gig we had booked and things really worked out, so she kinda asked to join the band almost the same time we wanted to ask her to join. We went through a few phases of using midi triggers and digital sequence stuff mixed into our performances, but now we’ve settled down to getting a really live sound in our next album.
Your English is very proficient. What kind of study background did you have? or is this related to your travels?
Thanks. I was like 8 months when I first moved to Germany, so I learned German first. Then NY Long Island, and Los Angeles CA, Charlotte NC, and back to Germany. Then I went to NYC to study Japanese when I was 15 I think.
So this was all family?
Yup, my dad’s work took me everywhere. I had no idea that I was different from anybody. I have a undergrad degree in Cognitive Psychology and Language Acquisition.
For me language and music are all on the same wavelength when you consider it’s for communication, and the human mind’s development is a very interesting way to approach how it’s digested by people too. But my musical education is basically all self-taught in the beginning. I’m always thirsty for more and more chances to learn, so I’ve always had some kind of teacher or advisor in all my learning stages, be it a music teacher or classmate or local musician.
That can be a rare quality, I think it's easy to get set in your ways. I guess you find good ways to manage your time?
I wish I had about three times the amount of time, but these restrictions of time also shed light on who we are and what’s valuable to us. I think choices between things that are desirable really tell us who we are. Like I mean our priorities. Because we all want to do and be everything but what we really take action and do tells us the truth I think. That’s kinda what ‘Make a Change’ on our CD is saying. It’s about taking that step forward and taking action. It’s a very important theme in my life.
Something I feel I need to do myself.
Ha! Me to. There’s always room for improvement. I think that’s the wonderful thing about life.
Yea, trying to put down old habits and focusing on new areas.
I’m sure you can move on if you just tell yourself that you are going to do it and do it!
I like your idea that music should be “heard” and not read (in relation to providing lyrics translations to your songs). It’s something I believe in myself, as someone who listens to a lot of foreign music. I think just feeling the music is a big key. But why do you choose to present your songs in English? I don’t often hear this from Japanese bands.
I sing in English because English is my first language and I don’t want language to be a barrier in expression, just like I don’t want my musical skill or my band member’s musical skill getting in the way of our expression. As for being common I think there are a large number of singers who sing in English, from Moscow to South America. I know there are more languages out there, but maybe I am only thinking of trying Japanese in the future because I live here for the time being.
Is your music well received then back home, even if people may not understand the messages behind it?
I think they do understand the message behind it because I talk about it when I have a chance. Sometimes of course they would misinterpret songs, but I guess that’s just the fate of some arts and it doesn’t make me uncomfortable whatsoever.
But to be honest our music is popular in Japan for it’s atmosphere of being “Oshare” (stylish). Hmm, I can’t think of a good translation for that but I guess people think it’s hip and cool. I’m a totally outdoor sportsman that loves hands-on stuff and animals, but for some reason people associate our music with night and the city. I guess I do have a sophisticated side to me depending on how you twist the interpretations of who I am, but the simple blues/soul sound that I feel I have has a very different interpretation in Japan. It’s interesting to see how people think that it's “cool” and hip to sing in English. It’s no more cool than singing in Swahili or Korean.
Well the one thing I certainly notice is that hip-hop, for example, is very much embraced in Japan, from the fashion design, to radio stations blaring out American billboard hits.
Yeah, it does have a following I agree. But Japan has a severe case of bipolar Xenophobia vs. non-Asian foreigner love. About 90% of the music consumed here is J-pop rock or Idol music, so just 10-20% spread across other genres is not a lot. Also, within that the Hip-hop sound from overseas is like 2-3% consumption. The Hip-hop scene in Japan is very different from the U.S. sounds. It’s more centralized on fashion more than the music. Well, I guess that goes for almost all of the genres.
Absolutely, the J-pop craze is phenomenal, completely oversaturated. But then you do have others who do OK with their style of music. Is it just that there are far too few unique bands to challenge the current trends?
Nah, there are great bands everywhere in the world. I just feel that the industry is not the only problem. Consumption is not driven by needs but by the herd mentality. So people are just waiting to see what other people buy and then justify themselves for buying it.
That pretty much describes our scene to a tee if you take a look at the charts.
Yes, the world is the same in one way or another. The business model is too old and there has been a paradigm shift in all areas of business, but the music industry is always very slow in responding. My main point is that people will eventually be exposed to our music someday, because we’ll just keep playing live and putting out albums, so we hope to be there for the few people who are really looking for something that we can provide.
You have to stay true to yourselves right? Whereas some artists may feel that they need to change themselves to keep up with current trends.
Well I do agree with adjusting to current trends. We are after all just entertainers. Even Picasso was just an entertainer if you see it from my perspective. I don’t think that just doing what is popular is what people want though. People want to see the truth, since everything is a half-lie these days in the media overflow of misinformation. So at least we can try and be authentic to who we are even when we think about adjusting to musical or cultural trends of the time. Some songs in Stereo Soul like ‘What We Fight For’ is a very simple response to the feeling I got from the wars that have been going on forever.
Musicians and artists alike are reflections of the time period that they exist in. And every person has a different take on what they see. So why just paint a picture that people want to see? I think it’s our duty to portray things regardless of whether people want it or not.
Speaking of Stereo Soul, it’s very much romantically inclined, with five of the eight tracks sharing a common theme.
Romance is a very important theme in my life, so I like taking that topic and putting it to different scenarios. It definitely is the most used theme in modern music anyway. To be honest, it was just around when I got married that we were getting these tracks down (laughs).
Lo-Fi’s central theme is not just romantic stuff though. The big theme is in being happy I think. It’s really hard to talk about this in one song, so I try and spread those values that I believe in throughout the music.
Well, that's the ultimate sentiment really. In an ideal world…
I never really sing about heartbreak and dismay. We have too much of that already in our daily lives, so I try and talk about what picked me up from that point into where I am now, because I am a really happy guy I think. I guess the whole band is a pretty happy bunch, not that we're high or anything…
Take something as simple as ‘When I Wake Up’ for example. It’s about the moment that you wake up and realize how happy you are to be where you are. We should all have moments like that right?
‘Live’ is another take on that topic of “Now”. Living is only something you can do at one moment at a time. The only way people will know how to live their lives is by listening to themselves, not by looking for the answers outside. Music and groove has taught me that and I wanted to shine a light on that.
I actually really like the opening of ‘Live’. The first minute and a half is very dreamy, melty. I think that’s what I particularly like about Stereo Soul, that it has a very mellow ambience to it. The lyrics are there to digest, but as an overall piece it’s a very easy way to wind down and soak up the myriad of sounds.
Thanks. I like that approach to listening to our album, because that’s exactly what we intended. We wanted to create an album to really listen to in different places, different occasions. Then, when we do these same songs live they take on a completely different form. We try and drive an energy into the songs to be kind of a sequel to what you heard on the album, or a “could have been” version of the song. ‘Live’, for example, we really throw around on our live shows. We did like a 12 minute jam on that song when we had a saxophonist and guitarist join us as guest musicians for a performance we did recently at an art show. Surprise is an important element in entertainment and we really want that to be there musically when we do our shows. This makes it pretty unpopular in the J-pop major music scene, but I guess times just need to change.
So being spontaneous, mixing things up, that’s generally how you work live?
Every track man. I love jazz music ’cause it really takes some of this kind of improv to the extreme. Changing keys and tempo and solos must be built on the spot! Did you know that Japanese music fans are upset if the solos or adlib-esqe phrases played by the musicians are altered live?
No, I didn’t.
I’ve never confirmed this myth, but I am not surprised. I worked a little bit supporting a Japanese upcoming idol in the Akiba scene, and they don’t want “Live” music, they just need people with instruments dancing around them. This is what it boils down to for the artists creators/manufacturers here I think. It’s interesting to a point, until you start thinking about music seriously. Which you are not supposed to do! (laughing) Lo-Fi is way to serious.
That’s kinda worrying, almost like the industry wants its artists to be Hatsune Miku types.
Yeah, of course they want that kind of thing. I guess it’s cool? In a way? But I wouldn’t worry about it, it’s not necessarily bad.
Well, that's certainly debatable. I'd much rather see an artist do something new on stage. I mean some of my fave songs of all time are live versions, from people like Jackson Browne and Billy Joel.
Wow! Jackson Browne? We play at this bar-restaurant in Kanagawa and the owner loves Jackson Browne. I’ve heard so much about him. He’s most definitely got his own style.
Yea, ‘Running on Empty’ (1977 Merriweather Post Pavilion live) is amazing. I must go to your bar next time.
Yeah, you should. We do like crazy extended jam sessions when we play there. They also own a beach house in Zushi beach and we play there during the summer months. Everyone in Lo-Fi loves the ocean. We are all horrible surfers though (laughs). I’m a decent longboarder and snowboarder though.
Right now we’re having a bit of a heat wave in this odd October. You guys hit the beach, do the barbecues etc when not doing the music then?
Yeah, we don’t really “hang out” together, but our music takes us places and we are outdoors a lot too. We do a monthly show in the forest near some surf spots in Chiba - an area called Kujukuri - and have also done the Surf Jam events there. So we do end up on the beach a lot! I am on my motorcycle a lot of times when I’m not making music or playing. It helps me focus on the now. It’s kind of like meditating for me.
We all have our own means.
So, on to your tour. How’s this all come about?
To go back to what we said earlier about “just doing it”, it’s kinda like how we planned out this crazy UK-EU tour that ended up being a few shows in the Netherlands and London. We just did it.
This is your first time in Europe as a band?
Oh yeah, Lo-Fi has played in Hong Kong before but this is our first time in Europe. We wanted to spread our music to places outside of Japan because it seems like we are kind of running in circles in Japan right now. The music scene is really dwindling, so we’re one of the very few bands fortunate enough to be booked every month for some really well paid gigs. So we are very grateful, but also know that we need to look around globally too. I speak three different languages and that helps too. Next we’re also thinking of going to the US to get something started there as well.
Are you looking to release CDs internationally? I think so far it’s mainly mp3, though Stereo Soul is available on CD in Japan.
Yes, we are looking for distribution with Stereo Soul and our next album internationally too. We tried inviting some people to come check out our shows, but without a large crowd and following in the UK it might be an uphill battle getting recognition. So we are planning to come back again and again until the fans over in the UK take us seriously. I know from experience here in Japan, but the music only gets out into the scene when you give the ball to the right players. It’s like stalemate until you find out who is in charge.
From what I’m told the industry has long been this way, it’s all about who you know.
Exactly. But when those key points, by some miracle align, my belief is that you need to be 100% ready for that small window of opportunity.
I’ve interviewed some great unsigned artists. I mean they put out really strong stuff, and yet can’t get a look in with music companies, so they stick to pleasing the fans, and distributing their work themselves. I suppose with the digital era that's a very easy option to take.
It is. It’s a good way to go I think. With Lo-Fi though, I want to try and drag more players into the arena, to spread the business side of our projects as well. There definitely is a limit to what you can do with only a limited amount of people and resources backing you up. For us Lo-Fi is a really long-term investment. So long-term that maybe we might not ever get recognition while we are alive, but we think it’s our duty to dish out great tracks as a record of what was going on at the time. I think that’s how great art should be.
Lo-Fi will be performing their first UK gig at “Zigfrid von Underbelly”, Hoxton Square on Saturday October 22nd - a charity concert in support of Aid For Japan.
For more information on the band visit their official, English friendly website here