Berlin-based Kyoka was one of the first Raster-Noton artists I heard to really challenge the imprint’s sonic stereotype. Her 2014 album Is (Is Superpowered) featured an idiosyncratic and whimsical use of her own vocals, in contrast to the rather serious poly-rhythmic glitch that defined previous releases (aside perhaps from Atom™’s wickedly satirical muse on pop-culture, HD). Using her voice in an improvised and non-lyrical style, her vocal samples were spliced and resampled in a method that mirrors Dada-ist cut-up techniques.
Years before her affiliation with Raster-Noton however, Kyoka was already obsessed with machine-generated sound. In her early years she used tape recorders to manipulate audio and the obsession grew from there. Picked up by Mitte Musique sub-label Onpa))))) in 2008, her releases have evolved slowly; the chaotic, adrenaline-charged feel of her early tracks slowly refined, maturing in sound.
Her latest release, ‘SH’, was created following a series of recording sessions at Stockholm’s EMS Studio, a place which Kyoka refers to as ‘paradise’. The record sees her shedding her use of vocals while still retaining plenty of the stylistic quirks of her previous releases - albeit in a more subtle, dynamic way. With the record released a few months ago, we decided to catch up with Kyoka to discuss the new EP, chance online encounters with Ryuchi Sakamoto and clubbing culture around the globe.
Hi Kyoka, first off how are things? You were in Japan recently right?
Good thanks! I was in Japan and then Barcelona for a show. It was really nice in the end, even though it was different from my usual set and it was a new challenge for me. I chose a movie I’ve liked for many years and then created a live soundtrack for it. It was fun! I used a short film from a Korean artist. When I was in Japan I played at the Contemporary Art Museum in Oita, Kyusyu, as well as clubs in Tokyo and Iwate. All amazingly beautiful as usual. But now, in Kyusyu, they’ve just had a big earthquake… I feel very very sad about it, and hope they can live a normal life again soon…
Tell us a bit more about how you first started working with Raster-Noton… I read you were first introduced to the label after Frank Bretschneider saw one of your gigs in Berlin. Do you remember the occasion? How long after did the ‘Ish’ EP come together?
It was my first concert in Berlin, in 2008. It was at Dense Records - it was everyone’s favourite record shop. There were always people there, it was a very charismatic store. Frank just happened to be there. My first EP for Raster-Noton was released in 2012, but I’d already started working on it in 2010 or 2011. In 2010 I released on Onpa))))) and some of the tracks that weren’t taken by Onpa))))) would luckily be taken by Raster-Noton. It helped me to understand how judgement works - that musical taste has no rules. This fact helped me to feel more free. I respect both label’s choices and actually both really sound like myself to me. The first release in my life was in 2008 on Onpa))))) - at that point I had already been making music for ten years.
I love the people on Raster-Noton like family, so I’d love to continue to release with them. They’re just very nice and inspiring people to work with. Plus, though it is a bit of a different point of view, I’m not super good at networking and it would take a lot of energy to meet people from new labels. Why should I find another label besides Raster-Noton? I am very happy to spend my effort and energy on music creation, not finding labels…
Frank and Robert Lippok helped a bit with Is (Is Superpowered) I believe too, what was their role in the process?
They are mentors. When I finished the demo for my album I asked them both to listen, and they gave me their own ideas. Their ideas are very surprising to me sometimes. I battle to see myself in an objective way and they helped me balance my objectivity.
I could see Frank and Robert were different in their approach and both are wonderful artists. That difference encouraged me to be natural. For example if I see only Frank’s way of working, it might cause a sense of inferiority for me… because it is very hard to control things as perfectly as him. Also, Robert can express special wild beauties in music. But also, I’m not the same as him.
They helped me a lot in gaining confidence as an individual. I’m originally Japanese and it seems we are not educated to have much confidence because having confidence can be considered arrogant in some situations. This is an extreme example, but for us, the person who says ‘Oh, sorry, I’m so stupid’ or “I am such a naive musician” can also be a great/respectable/smart/polite person. Or, it might even be a unique way to let people around you relax… It is a kind of practical joke on yourself. Working with Frank and Robert let me get far away from this Japanese, polite-cultural-confusion.
In the end, in Berlin I am trained to be very direct. When I met Frank he told me he liked my direct expression with music. Maybe I was direct already but it came out in the music more. Here I learnt more direct expression and it grew my potential more and I really enjoy my life because of that! I feel I am able to open a lid on my head when I need to since I got to Berlin.
I read you grew up playing a range of classical instruments - piano, flute and the syamisen. Were you interested in electronic music even then?
I’m not sure if I was at that point. Because I didn’t know the existence of electronic music at that time. But I already liked the noises of tapes and video players. I even liked the light reflections from CDs (laughs). Actually at around three or four years old I was already excited when I would see machines. I wanted to open them and look inside to know what makes them function… I would open them up but I was very little and I had nothing to do with them so I would close them again (laughs).
But this youthful frustration brought me to the library in my elementary school. To be honest, it was not easy to find books which I could understand. So, I just tried to touch the broken machines and made improvised self tests with them. I was addicted to the connection between machine systems and their functions since I was around 5 or 6 years old. I even had an envious feeling towards the people who made them before I was born.
‘Groopies’ was one of your early projects right? I read Ryuchi Sakamoto contacted you about that and there is a quote on the Raster-Noton website about you from him. How did that come about?
I think it happened by an internet miracle! One day I was surfing on a lot of different websites, trying to find a good one. When I found a web-designer from Nobuko, I contacted her and told her I liked her site. She offered to teach me how to make that kind of website … But at that moment I was in Los Angeles and she was in Tokyo.
One day I went back to Tokyo for a while and I met her. We made three songs the day we first met and put them on Myspace. After a while, some miracle connection happened. Ryuchi Sakamoto kindly contacted us… there was no reason behind it, just chance.
Kyoka at the EMS Studio
‘SH’ came out recently - something you worked on at the EMS studio in Stockholm… How did you end up working there?
EMS has a Buchla synthesiser which is probably one of the most biggest original ones in Europe. On my first day at the EMS, the engineer locked me into the studio with Buchla for eight hours! He gave me some instructions on how to use it and kindly locked me in (laughs). I was very happy about that! Then I kept exploring how Buchla sounds and how it responds to each function. The next day I continued exploring it.
I tried to understand about basic sound generation in Buchla. It was simple. Before Buchla, when I used an analog tool, the machine was already complete - like with a synthesiser for example. But with Buchla I build it up by patching. It was like mediation for me - to really understand the meaning of synthesisers. Then I recorded some sounds and found they were good for jamming with, so I decided to include them on my new EP. I’m always thinking about composing music, so when I find the right sounds I have to make music with them.
Can you tell us a bit more about the history of the EMS? I only found out about it recently.
A few years ago, it was their 40th anniversary - they have a long history. They started as a collaborative project between radio stations. So, they have about six studios, a conference room and also a library. They also have a tool shop. So if I want to make a new synthesiser I can use the tools there. For me, it’s an amusement paradise. I even thought about living in Sweden for a while. EMS increased my potential and I always experiment when I am there.
And how long were you in Stockholm to visit the EMS?
Last year I was there probably for a few one-week sessions. The city is very nice but whenever I go I’m always inside the EMS (laughs). Hotel or EMS.
There is a nice river in front of the studios - twice I was there in the winter and the river was frozen over. Sometimes the river freezes in Berlin but it was the first time I saw people skating on a natural river. It’s super big so the people looked like ants! The first time I thought there might be dust on my contact lens (laughs), but it was humans skating. A taxi driver told me twenty years ago they could drive on the ice. So in the winter they could make a shortcut to Finland! It was beyond my reality.
I’ve only been to Stockholm once but that part of the world feels very relaxed compared to living in London…
It seems very busy in London… Maybe I imagine the lifestyle as similar to Tokyo somehow. A lot of clubbing I imagine. One of my Japanese friends told me - she used to live in London until four months ago - people go clubbing, but when the clubs close they have an after-party, then a second after-party and a third after-party without any special reason… It’s already morning! But is it true?
One time I went to the UK to perform and I went to some parties with the organisers and their friends. I realised if I went out with these people all the time I would die soon. (laughs)
Tokyo had quite a strict clubbing scene until quite recently with the Fieho laws no?
Yeah the anti-dancing laws. Now it’s getting better but they’ve already destroyed the clubs and clubbing scene once. Now, it is time to recover or transform into something else.
How did you end up settling in Berlin? What is it you like about the city having lived in a number of different countries?
My first visit to Berlin was July. It was a beautiful summer day. It was the reason I moved here to Berlin. For me, living in a safe country is important. I used to live in a less-safe situation - fear stole my freedom and creation. Berlin is safe enough. It is a wonderful thing for me every day.
Your vocals are a feature that have defined previous work to some extent. Why did you decide to leave them off this latest release?
This time I wanted to make something super-neutral. Even from my first release I’d always try not to show my nationality, or categorise myself. But my voice always helped me when I was composing music; whenever I started writing I found my voice could pull it in any direction.
This time I wanted to try something different though. But I didn’t know that people think my voice is the character of my music until I released ‘SH’. When I am asked by people ‘why no voice?’, at last I realise that vocals are quite a defining character of my music!
Do you think much about the reception to your work when you’re writing?
I just think about sound itself when I compose. I should not be swayed by the reception. To keep throwing people fresh and pure ideas is more important.