Yasutaka Nakata in 10 Tracks
The name may not ring a bell at all, but if you’re a fan of electronic music, you’ll likely hear the man’s influence everywhere. The Japanese songwriter/producer is responsible for producing some of the most well-known Japanese pop acts over the past two decades, including Perfume, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and Capsule. A huge variety of Western artists have quoted him or his acts as influences: Madeon, Porter Robinson, SOPHIE, Passion Pit, Zedd. His work with group Perfume is overtly and explicitly obvious on the likes of Madeon’s and Porter Robinson’s work, PC Music’s pop eclecticism immediately traceable to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s music, and so on. As of the writing of this article, we’re even due to hear the release of ‘Crazy Crazy’, a collaboration between Yasutaka Nakata, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, and Charli XCX.
His sound often feels like Daft Punk except more intensely maximalist, bubblier, with more overt cues to technopop and new wave music. This is not true of all of his acts, and the likes of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu demonstrates a kookier, completely different side to his production style. There’s a lot of common threads though: gorgeous indulgent anime-esque melodies and jazz-inspired chord progressions are staples of his music, for instance.
His production discography is expansive and worth checking out in full, but here’s 10 tracks to give you a taste of his music.
Perfume — Polyrhythm (2007)
‘Polyrhythm’ is the song that catapulted Perfume to popularity, as the second single off of their debut album, GAME. Perfume have always occupied a unique space, as their popularity has often been far more extensive compared to other ‘idol’ groups, likely because of Nakata’s touch, who has acted as their executive songwriter and producer throughout their career and has made them popular in electronic music circles.
For the most part, it’s a rather unassuming electropop song: a propulsive 4-to-the-floor beat and spacey, fuzzy synth chords back the voices of Perfume, who are turned by Nakata into mechanical, auto-tuned vessels (somewhat comparable to T-Pain’s use of autotune, or Daft Punk’s use of vocoder). It’s a pretty poppy and immediately loveable song (and was even featured in a scene in Cars 2).
At 1:31 in the song (1:37 in the video), the song’s title becomes more clear. “Polyrhythm” or multiple conflicting rhythms being played simultaneously, a trick seen in a lot of Classical music and Sub-Saharan African music, pops up in full force in the song’s bridge. The song, which was wholly in 4/4 time, suddenly breaks down into a huge variety of meters: the vocals go into a combination of 5/8 and 6/8, while the drums play in a quick 3/2 meter. It’s not an entirely conventional pop choice: their record label asked for a radio version without the atypical bridge, giving you a rather bizarre ‘Polyrhythm’ without any polyrhythm. The bridge of this song still holds up as one of Nakata’s most genius moments in music.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — Invader Invader (2013)
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu represents Yasutaka Nakata at his very weirdest. People may know her from 2011’s ‘PONPONPON’ on account of its bizarre video going viral (which demonstrates Kyary’s aesthetic: kawaii mildly dosed with a hint of the sinister and violent). Nakata brings out a lot of bizarre production choices to accompany fairly conventional pop melodies (although even those are tinged with an Eastern pentatonic touch a lot of the time), such as video-game synths, distorted vocodered vocals, percussion and sound effects that sound straight out a toybox.
What’s the song about? Well, it sees Kyary Pamyu Pamyu play an alien wanting the take over Earth, shooting ‘lasers from her eyes’ and ‘missiles from her ears’. It’s as goofy as it sounds. In many ways, it matches the musical content, which behind the superficial bubblegum nature of it all, is actually hugely musically complex. While Nakata is maximalist, every note and sound he chooses to put in is there for a reason.
The song’s most entertaining feature is the faux-brostep breakdown halfway through the song, although it’s executed with an outsider’s view (a very Japanese version on the Western trend), perfectly contained and neat and packaged. As quickly as it enters the song, it immediately and almost to comical effect goes back into a sugary piano-led verse.
You can see how her music has become an influence for a lot of the material of London collective PC Music, which often demonstrates all of the previous features.
Capsule — FRUITS CLiPPER (2006)
Capsule is Yasutaka Nakata’s band that he formed in tandem with vocalist Toshiko Koshijima in 1997 when they were both merely 17. ‘FRUITS CLiPPER’ is very much Nakata’s version of Daft Punk’s ‘Technologic’. To reduce it to a copy however would do the song no justice: the 90s Ray of Light-era Madonna guitar intro is hugely entertaining and immediately makes the song interesting in its own right. I mention ‘Technologic’ mostly for the song’s offbeat chanting of “earl-grey drinking harmony croquis crisis many money break-it fruity earl-grey drinking croquis crisis fruity boy” is completely nonsensical and ecstatic in nature. It sounds overall a lot like some of Kylie’s material in the early 00s such as on Light Years or Fever, with Nakata becoming a semi-frequent remixer for Kylie Minogue now.
Meg — OK (2007)
One of the other popstars that Nakata has produced for is Meg. ‘OK’, written by Nakata and Kouichi Tsutaya, evokes a lot of Perfume’s material, although Meg’s voice is left a bit more untreated and let shine on the glides from note to note in the highest notes of the chorus. Nakata’s production has always been principally informed by dance music, but his take on technopop feels more intimate and emotional than most. Synths play countermelodies and little musical snippets by themselves, rather than just being delegated to unimportant backing. In terms of songwriting, while you’d struggle to pinpoint it to any one thing in particular, the way Nakata treats melody often feels far more innocent and nursery rhyme-esque than the soaring, huge melodies that feel like very conscious attempts to make a festival anthem that a lot of Western producers create on EDM pop songs.
Perfume — Voice (2011)
‘Voice’ from Perfume’s sometimes much-maligned 2011 album, JPN, is a shining case-study in pop songwriting. The song revolves around its stunning, floating chorus, with the half-nonsensical lyric of “everything you need to lose the voice”. The song starts with it in contracted form, except harmonised under some interesting jazz chords which I could probably spend a few hundred words analysing to death, but won’t (not to mention the slightly off-beat unorthodox vocal harmonisations too).
The verses are fairly nonchalant, but once we come to the pre-chorus which first pops up roughly a minute in, the pace of the song suddenly switches up, where the beat leaves in favour of faint taiko, and the melody becomes far more intimate. What is the melody however? It’s actually just the chorus at half-speed, once again reharmonised and re-interpreted. By the time the chorus actually appears in its full, proper form, it’s pretty familiar and singable by virtue of exposure. Hints of the chorus also appear as countermelody in the subsequent verses in the synths.
Just to bring the message home, the song closes with pretty much every trick in the book. The half-speed rendition of the pre-chorus builds up in intensity into what people think is going to be the normal chorus, but it instead tricks you by playing the intro version with the jazz harmony instead, then giving you the proper chorus afterwards. The song then ends with a minimal rendition of the pre-chorus. This is Nakata’s songwriting at its best.
Ringo Sheena — Netsuai Hakkakuchū (2013)
Nakata’s collaborated a song with Ringo Sheena, a Japanese singer with a career as extensive as him (who’s jumped from rock and punk to electronica and pop throughout it). ‘Netsuai Hakkakuchū’ is one of the few songs produced by Nakata that wasn’t also written by him, instead being fully written by Sheena. The production is far more aggressive than the work for his other groups, the synths raw and abrasive in nature. Still, we hear a lot of the whimsy that works well for Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, with hits of timpani and hints of video-gamey dubstep throughout. There’s also the tinkly toy piano which is a very typically Nakata choice in production. Nakata’s probably collaborated with most notable Japanese musicians at least once at some point or another. They’re definitely all a worth a listen.
COLTEMONIKHA — fantastic fantasy (2006)
COLTEMONIKHA is Nakata’s project with model/fashion designer Kate Sakai. The music that came out of this project was consciously made to compliment Sakai’s fashion line, “Made in Colkinikha”. The COLTEMONIKHA project harks back to a lot of 90s Japanese music, in the picopop and shibuya-kei genres, which were influenced by bossa nova, jazz and easy-listening and so on. ‘fantastic fantasy’ almost feels straight out of Super Mario Sunshine or something. This style appeared time and time again in Nakata’s earlier work (and sometimes in his newer material too, such as when Kyary Pamyu Pamyu covered old Capsule songs on her albums).
Madeon — Pay No Mind feat. Passion Pit (Yasutaka Nakata Remix) (2015)
(Note: I actually recommend listening to this song on Spotify or another official platform, where the production sounds far cleaner.) Yasutaka Nakata is also a pretty prevalent DJ and remixer. In 2015, Nakata remixed vocal Nakata fan Madeon’s ‘Pay No Mind’, featuring fellow Nakata-lover Michael Angelakos of Passion Pit. Where the original feels very much a product of Madeon’s French house influences (particularly from Daft Punk and Justice), the remix is audibly Nakata’s work. The whole song is sped up, bongos are added Kyary-style, Michael Angelakos’ voice is resampled and distorted, and the Chic guitar that Madeon used becomes a sampled piano, which plays bashed, completely left-field chords, often changing chords between beats. An interesting interview worth reading is with Madeon and Nakata, where they talk their music and also this remix at length. “…but in the remix Nakata made the chord progression is a bit strange,” Madeon says, even though Nakata says the same of his original chord progression. There is very much a cultural difference between Nakata and many of the artists he has inspired, which has led to similar yet quite different musical philosophies.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu — Fashion Monster (2012)
Every so often, Nakata lets loose and adds a lot more organic instrumentation to his production: usually in a left-field Kyary track. ‘Fashion Monster’, a 2012 Halloween-themed single was far more rock-influenced and guitar-based than Nakata’s usual dance-y output. Gone are the drum machines in favour of an actual drumkit, and most of the synths evoke guitar tones rather than his techno fare.
His pop songwriting is equally as strange here. At several points, the instruments are playing minor chords over Kyary singing in the parallel major key, an incredibly weird trick in most forms of music, let alone pop music. Nakata’s mixing of major and minor modality is but one of the many ways he avoids falling into standard pop pitfalls (such as the much bemoaned ‘four chord’ syndrome that people use to disregard all pop music). Alternatively, check out the middle of the song where a drone music-inspired interlude comes in: Kyary’s vocals get drenched in reverb, although they hardly feature at all, instead leaving it to the flurry of drums and hypnotic distorted guitar-synths.
Yasutaka Nataka — NANIMONO feat. Kenshi Yonezu (2016)
A lot of Nakata’s most recent material has felt more Western-inspired, with his latest Capsule project being firmly rooted in EDM. The same goes for this song under his own name, ‘NANIMONO’, a collaboration with singer-songwriter Kenshi Yonezu. It feels bigger in scale, more informed by a lot of the EDM pop songs that we see producers release in the West with some impressive guest vocalist. Even when the main similarities to the rest of his work disappear, we still hear a lot of his old quirks. The synths are treated quite differently to how a Western producer might have, since they still seem quite fundamental and less complex (the opening synths seem far softer, for example, that one would expect). A lot of the supporting synths seem more techno-influenced, a trend that most in the West probably abandoned in the 00s.
It’s likely that we’re hearing dialogue from Japan to the West, and back to Japan again. If one looks to the tracklisting for the NANIMONO EP, we see a remix from Danny L Harle, of all people. PC Music and Nakata seem to be getting closer together than ever, and you hardly even need the remix to hear their influences. The clipped, chopped vocals of the drop are basically a trick straight out of PC Music’s book.