The Most Prolific Composer You Have Never Heard Of — Yann Tomita, and the Doopees
Born in Tokyo, Japan in October 1952, Yann Tomita, also known as Dr. Yann, Yang Tomita, Dr. Domestic, Deyanns, is a master of his craft that has garnered a cult following over the course of decades. Tomita spent much of his career directly involved with the pioneering of genres on the fringe in Japan, such as acid jazz, lounge music, space age music, exotica, and even hip-hop, before founding his own record label, Audio Science Laboratory.
Like many other acclaimed Japanese musicians who erred on the boundaries of the obscure around the same time, such as Haruomi Hosono or Ryuichi Sakamoto, Yann Tomita possesses a large body of work that he created or contributed to that may never be accessible to western audiences. Due to the nature of the work, mostly appealing to pockets of fans in the pre-internet era, even information on the early years of his career is hard to find. Despite this setback, it gives value to the works of Tomita that have survived the transition from analog to digital.
Primarily active in the 1980s — 2000s, Tomita is part of a generation that ushered in a complete upheaval of sound while the music world converted from analog to digital. In addition to pioneering his own sounds, Tomita also pays homage to those who inspired him with unique covers on almost every project of his.
One of the most prolific steel drum players of all time, as a youth Tomita was captivated by the Van Dyke Parks album Discover America (1972) — who he later ended up playing alongside — and Tomita departed to Trinidad and Tobago as early as 1983 in order to learn how to play, eventually becoming a pioneer steelpan player in Japan. Tomita describes the steel drums as “the closest sound to outer space”, and the attachment to the instrument is alluded to in some of his works through spoken introductions during live performances.
Tomita played in a few bands before he began releasing his solo studio albums, most notably playing in Tiny Exotica Boys and Rude Flower in the late seventies — sadly, no records from this era exist, likely because of how obscure or private these releases would’ve been.
Tiny Exotica Boys, ironically, were an inspiration for Tosho Nakanishi’s band The Plastics, who Tomita would later join in the creation of a band called Water Melon Group, a group consisting of members of Nakanishi’s former band, and notable figures such as Percy Jones of Brand X, and Bernie Worrell of Funkadelic. Tomita worked on the 1995 Water Melon Group release, Cool Music, and contributed one of the only original tracks on the album — most of the other songs being inventive covers.
Tomita collaborated with many other artists during this time, particularly in the budding experimental and hip-hop spheres in Japan, but also internationally. Hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash enlisted Tomita for assistance with audio engineering during the eighties, as hip-hop began to explode in popularity overseas. Grandmaster Flash, another pioneer of genre-defying sound, worked in a lot of the same parallels as Tomita. Both were interested in the sounds that the budding digital side of production could offer, whilst also manipulating their technology in ways that had never been done before. The two remained friends and collaborators for years, Flash even makes an appearance on the turntables (and brainwaves, explained later) on Tomita’s last release in 2008.
During the nineties, Yann Tomita began to release solo works consisting of primarily his own works with the steelpan and avant garde electronic systems.
His first work, Music for Astro Age (1992), is a double disc collection of oddities and steel drums, consisting of both original work and covers. In some ways, this album pays the most homage to the progenitors of experimental music that inspired Tomita, while also showcasing how the broad spectrum of genres he has composed in mirrors his own personal tastes as a listener.
Amongst the artists covered, most notable are John Cage, the controversial father of post-war avant-garde, (Tomita provides a rendition of the controversial 4’33”) and Sun-Ra, the visionary afro-futurist free jazz musician hailing from Alabama, whose We Travel The Spaceways is reimagined with Tomita’s beloved steelpan. This is also the first of Tomita’s works to be released under his label, Audio Science Laboratory, which would eventually house almost all of Tomita’s works.
Tomita’s next solo album, Happy Living (1994), is known for being more listenable. Steel drums are still ever present, but much of the experimental synthesizer sound of his first release is subdued, making the final project more accessible overall. Interestingly, one of the final songs on the album, Love in Gas Music, an emotive instrumental steel drum piece, is used (with new added vocals) for the only Doopees song slated to be a part of their later cancelled sophomore album. This album is also credited to the “Astro Age Steel Orchestra”, reflecting Tomita’s penchant for aliases and perhaps a desire to spread his music without it being anchored to his own name; Tomita can be found credited under the guise of a pseudonym in very obscure places during his heavy studio involvement with others in the eighties and early nineties.
Alongside the collections of studio work, Tomita also released a live album, An Adventure of Inevitable Chance (2000). Featured on this performance are a wide range of songs from across his solo discography, both experimental and more traditional, as well as interludes from Tomita speaking plainly on the ethos of his works and relation to the steelpans. Fittingly, Tomita’s cover of John Cage’s 4’33” is performed as well — an experiment in music, for the layman — that is four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence where the noises of the environment become the performance. This album was re-released in 2000, both times presented through Tomita’s Audio Science Laboratory.
This marks the end of Tomita’s early career, before his focus shifts more towards the more contemporary projects that he is most known for.
“Are you telling me, all kinds of thoughts are wandering in space?”
The next chapter of Yann Tomita’s life would be characterized by cult success, when he released Doopee Time (1995), the only studio album by his space age and plunderphonics band, The Doopees.
The Doopees, consisting of Tomita on production, Chica Ogawa on drums, Suzi Kim and Yumiki Ohno (of Buffalo Daughter) providing vocals, were a group seemingly devoted to an aesthetic of youthful search for love and happiness in a confusing and massive world. Influenced heavily by earlier inspirations to Tomita like Van Dyke Parks, Phil Spector, and the Beach Boys, Doopee Time is a truly unique work that broaches almost every facet of life, growing up, and navigating the world in its hour and thirteen-minute runtime.
The album, in stark contrast to the less cohesive collections of songs in Tomita’s other works, is actually a concept album, with Yumiko Ohno playing the main characters, Caroline Novac, (based on the classic Beach Boys song, “No, Caroline”) and Suzi Kim, with Tomita providing the vocals for the characters of Sun, and Dr. Domestic as well. The length of the project is surprising, given that despite the complexity of the genre-bending debut it is still the product of Ohno and Tomita alone.
Surprisingly, though Doopee Time exists as a concept album, there are several covers present in the tracklist aside from the Beach Boys, notably The Ronettes’ “How Does It Feel”, Petula Clark’s “Now That You’ve Gone”. As always, Tomita aims to combine his own personal project with paying homage to those that inspire him, one needs only look at the list of samples and covers for this project to see the degree that Tomita’s influences are woven into the fabric of the Doopees. Instead of detracting from the ideas Tomita is presenting, these covers feel completely natural within the work and actually seem written for the characters, another example of a master’s skill in his craft.
As far as the story being told here, much is up to interpretation. Caroline, the character who appears the most, seems to be plagued by a number of issues — most notably her search for the meaning of love and happiness, her subsequent pain and longing as a result, and an implied illness, alluded to be cancer, that is treated with “sonic therapy” in the middle of the album, during the jarring interlude that connects the first and second half of the album.
One of the most intriguing motifs that seems to reoccur within the works of the Doopees is the “flow” of life, the idea that the world is something occurring to both the characters and the listener. The journey of Caroline’s happiness is just that: a journey. The sense of transition is strong in this album. The beginning introduces the characters, the middle describes the journey, and the last few songs on the 21 track album give us the closure for Caroline, but also for the project. The closer, Tomita’s cover of “No, Caroline”
This concept manifests itself in many ways, even on Dooits, the EP released a year after Doopee Time. In “Love In Gas Music 2”, an older instrumental song featured on Happy Living with newly added vocals, Suzi and Caroline make a reappearance and once again and discuss this “journey”, with what seems like a slightly more weathered, matured tone that one can only assume would be central to the later cancelled second Doopees album.
While we may speculate, we will never for sure know what “Monalisa”, the tentatively titled sophomore Doopees album, would have to say about the subject, because Tomita is reported to have suffered an injury during the production of the album that halted all progress indefinitely after six months of dedicated work. Tomita cancelled the album, briefly mentioning his decision in a booklet from the later release, “Music Meme 4 Variations”; as time passes, it seems that this is the only word we will be given on the cancellation or status of Monalisa.
The Doopees released an EP in 2006, ironically the year the second studio album was to be released, entitled Forever Yann Music Meme 3. This album is a reimagining of three songs from Doopee Time, each completely overhauled. Of the three songs, two reuse the original vocals over new backing instrumentals, but the third introduces a Modular Music System that warbles in the background and provides new (or perhaps unused from 1996) vocals.
In what appears to be a final joke from Yann Tomita to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Doopees, at an Audio Science Laboratory exhibit from the Acid Test series, 200 numbered copies of a special 7” vinyl by the Doopees were released to participants. This single, titled “End of the Vinyl World”, is a tongue-in-cheek gag from Tomita that is entirely silent when played, despite possessing liner notes and all of the makings of an actual record release. This is a poignant reminder from Tomita of the good natured playfulness that characterizes all of the work from the Doopees, something that even the cult following can appreciate despite the desire for more of the beloved project.
Tomita’s works after Doopee Time are usually compilations of prior works, outtakes, and new experimentation in sound. Instead of continuing in the vein of his most successful work, Tomita instead pivots once again towards the more experimental parts of his career, aiming again to pioneer sound and music through completely new means. The first album to be released is Music for Living Sound (1998), a three disc collection of music that combines a wide breadth of past sounds and collaborators from Tomita’s career.
One notable thing about this album is the level of collaboration present. While Tomita’s audiences are treated to some reappearances from the beloved Caroline Novac and Suzi Kim, who appear on vocals interspersed throughout the songs, most notable of the contributors is Grandmaster Flash, who returns to man the turntables on a truly bizarre song, aptly named “Vinyl Beat Of Two Turntables With Cybernetics And Bio Feedback”, where a narrator states that Grandmaster Flash’s turntable performance is accompanied by brainwaves of Grandmaster Flash from muscles around his eyes and mouth, with Tomita’s heart providing the sound of the ultrawoofer.
This experiment is a great characterization of the growing interest from Tomita during later years in using the body as an instrument. Already a practitioner of the avant-garde in electronic music, Tomita pushes the envelope by converting the rhythm of organic processes into electronic music, even if it becomes dissident in the process.
Tomita’s most recent release, Forever Yann Music Meme 4 — Variations (2008), is another compilation of collaborations, unreleased works from previous projects, and new material. Despite Tomita’s leanings toward biorhythmic musings and other new experiments in sound, he still has an ear for producing more linear music, as evidenced by the guests on the tracklist. Of the artists present on the album, there are some notable acts, with Kahimi Kirie, Kyoko Koizumi, the Cymbals, and the Naives (a project with longtime collaborator and prolific Japanese hip-hop artist, Seiko Ito).
Interestingly enough, this album also comes with a few items that collectors of Tomita’s work must have — most notably a sizable booklet authored by Tomita (only available in Japanese, however) and an extremely rare promotional sticker for the cancelled Doopees album, Monalisa.
In the present day, Tomita hosts several Audio Science Laboratory events per year, catalogued on the official website (http://asl-report.blogspot.com/). These “Acid Tests”, presumably a tongue-in-cheek entendre about the process by which you test the purity of gold, range from a large variety of events. With no studio releases in over a decade, it is safe to assume that Tomita’s focus has shifted more from the album process to a more personal demonstration of his work as the founder of the Audio Science Laboratory with live music performances at almost every exhibition that is hosted.
Wherever Tomita may focus his efforts as time passes, his impact on music is set in stone. Much like those who inspired him, Tomita’s works have been recycled, remixed, and brought into the underground of the digital era by his admirers. Tomita has explored many facets of the human condition throughout his work, dipping into almost every possible genre during his time with one of the widest ranges of projects and collaborators in the landscape of music. The beauty of his long, sprawling musical career is a testament to the ideas presented in his works — namely that whether you like it or not, life will take you on a unique and winding journey; you can only experience the highs and lows as they come and marvel on the peculiar beauty of being.