This interview originally appeared in Popmatters.
Landing in Chicago for his debut U.S. performance, Japanese singer-songwriter Shugo Tokumaru started the Saturday night show at the Empty Bottle before a sold out crowd deploying an acoustic version of “Parachute,” a song busting at the seams with blissful sunshine and a perfect lead single from Exithis third album and the first to be released stateside.
He bows humbly, sits down and wastes no time going right into a furious mix of arpeggio pop and classic jazz fingerings with beaming with Beatle flavors. But it’s all Tokumaru in the interpretation as he stops and starts the chord progressions on his own terms, swiftly with playful agility and pure ease, sending the crowd into a hush of awe.
Tokumaru albums are one man bedroom symphonies created and produced on computer in his bedroom as he plays fifty plus instruments on Exit’s ten tracks, blending electronic, folk, blues and Japanese pop into a dreamy transcendence that melts the language barrier to almost nothing, leaving only the sweet melodies of Tokumaru’s gentle emotive croon to tie the finally knot firmly around your heart.
Sometimes he plays with band but tonight it’s just him and his guitar, a different listening experience that what you hear on Exit but just as engaging if not more as his fingers fly across the frets, as he sings of abstract thoughts mined from his dream diary.
Though his 11pm set ended way too soon, I did have a chance to sit down with him afterwards, as Saturday night ticked away and Sunday morning rolled in.
In the Empty Bottle’s musty basement green room and its graffiti spattered walls as our backdrop—and with a bit of translation help from his manager Koki Yahata—Tokumaru revealed the details behind dream diary inspired songwriting, his jazz influenced trip to the US a few years ago, and why, though he’s happy to play live, he still doesn’t want to have his parents come to his shows.
This being your first time playing in the US, what are your thoughts so far?
It was raining a lot in Japan when I left I was expecting some change in weather but it hasn’t really changed at all. [chuckles] so I guess it’s kind of disappointing [chuckles].
Normally it pretty nice this time of year but with Hurricane Ike we got tons of rain the last few days. How did you feel during the show?
The reaction from the crowd was better than I expected. I was very happy with the response.
So after your first US show how would you compare playing before a Japanese audience versus a US audience?
In Japan people usually come to the show to hear the music and concentrate on the performance, so comparing with the bar being so close to the stage, it was loud in the back and it was difficult to play by myself on stage.
You did do a great job of overcoming the crowd chatter, though. When I see that happen I often wonder what people could be possibly talking about while the show’s going on and they apparently paid money for the show.
But I was very happy with the large part of the crowd who was enjoying the performance.
You play a lot of different instruments on the album. How do you decide what and how the songs get played live?
When I started making music or even playing the songs from Exit, I had no intention of playing them live on stage in front of an audience.
Your performance tonight was very different from what first time listeners would hear on the album or vice versa. Seeing your play your guitar is just as fun as it is to listen to the album. Is that intentional? Because it seems that fans would be in for a surpris whether they first hear you at a concert or on record.
Yes. And when I play other shows I sometimes play with other band members but tonight it was just me and my guitar. But it is almost impossible to recreate what I do on album, so I won’t usually recreate the whole album on stage and just sound simpler and I try to find a way to present the songs.
You had a stay in Los Angeles from 1999-2001 learning jazz and it was obvious that you’ve melded that with other guitar styles to create your own style.
I didn’t have any intention of going to Japanese college so I tried something else before I had to start working at a regular job in Japan. I really had nothing else to do so I started studying jazz [chuckles].
Tell me about your dream diary. Your lyrics are all sung in Japanese but the way your melodies are sung the language barrier is almost eliminated.
I don’t think that much about how to write lyrics form the dream diary, but I have been writing my dream dairy since my childhood and it was a very natural thing for me. Then when I was a teenager I started making music, and I looked back at what I wrote and took some hints from the pages to begin making the music.
So first came the dream dairy, then the music and then at some point you came across the Beatles…
[playfully chuckles] Yes.
They have a significant influence on your music. Was there a specific song or album that had the biggest impact on you?
There’s not a certain song, necessarily, but because I have been listening to them since I was kid, there are certain melodies and chord progressions that unconsciously influence me and it certainly shows up in my music.
I can see the influence but you’ve certainly made it your own. What is it like for you when you recording the albums in your bedroom? Are you surrounded by the instruments?
I am always surrounded by a lot of different instruments. So I can start recording them at any moment. My writing process is more like making a song up in my mind, like an image of the song, and once it is completed in my mind, then I begin recording it.
So you see the song first in your mind? Do you see the song and notes in colors like Jimi Hendrix allegedly saw music?
Yes, very similar.
What is inspiring you to make your music?
I don’t really like the lyrics to have a certain meaning. I don’t want a song to mean something specific. I try to stay away from that and that’s why I go to my dream dairy for inspiration. I always want to create something that I haven’t heard before or would like to hear by myself.
Is the dream diary something literal as if you write down songs the morning after they come to you in a dream or are the songs pulled from journal entries you’ve written years ago?
It depends. Each song is created differently from the dream dairy and it doesn’t happen the same way each time. Usually I don’t rend to turn a dream into music right away. Because when an idea of a song is half created in my head and I take an instrument right away it will be very different from what I want to make in the end, so I almost intently stay away from an idea until it is fully developed in my mind.
Do you play your music for friends before you record it?
I know exactly how I want to make it the way I want. I like to hear responses, but I generally know what I want when I hear it.
If you had a choice would you rather play live or only record in your bedroom?
Well,…basically…I like to stay at home [chuckles] and I wish I could play at home without having to travel.
Maybe you could just hook up a live feed into your bedroom…
So how did they get you out of your bedroom and out on the road? Did they have to drag you out kicking and screaming?
[chuckles] I don’t really know it happened…
I hope nobody drugged you or hit your over the head…so did you then all of a sudden find yourself on the Empty Bottle stage, asking yourself ‘how did I get here?’
Well, I’m really glad you did come out of your room, however it happened.
I am too, and the experience of playing live show in the states is not that far from what I expected. I’ve toured Europe before, and so far, it’s very similar.
Playing live is very different than you playing in your bedroom. So who was the first person to hear your music when you first began to create it as a teenager?
Various people who were beside me, friend and original members of my first band Gellers. I was in that band with a childhood friend and it was my friend who also did the cover art for Exit and he was a friend since Kindergarten.
How did he create the artwork?
He had a good idea of what he wanted to do since he was someone who first heard my music and he had also done some of my demo CD artwork.
Do your parents play music or support your music?
[emphatically shakes head and waves arms] No.
So you’re going against some family grain and taking some big risks. Do they come to your shows?
No. it’s not their fault because I asked them not to come.
It’s very embarrassing to have them in the audience and see me live on stage.
Because of the things you’re signing about?
[chuckles] …it just very personal for me…
Do you have brothers or sisters…?
Do they come to your shows?
Yes, once or twice.
So do you invite them or tell them to stay away and they come anyway?
[laughs] no, they come to shows when they can. Either way, I’m really happy that I’m been able to do what I love to do which is make music, and I would love to go to other places to make music.