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Tokyo Black Star is the New York based DJ Alex from Tokyo and Tokyo based producer and engineer Isao Kumano. Since 2005 they have released so far five EPs and their debut longplayer Black Ships on the high profile Innervisions label from Berlin. Also the first release on the Italian taste makers Slam Jam label Reincarnation and an EP on DJ Deep’s label Deeply Rooted House are cornerstones of their multidimensional output. Beside their own 21st century galactic Funk productions that range from House rhythms to playful deep electronica they produced various remixes for such artist like Japanese producer Kuniyuki Takahashi or New York based collective Nublu Orchestra. To take a look behind the scenes we talked with Alex from Tokyo about their history, work, and his DJ activity.
Can you tell us the story behind Tokyo Black Star? How did you both met?
Alex from Tokyo: Isao and I met in Tokyo 13 years ago through some music friends in the recording studio Isao was engineering at. He was in charge of a DJ mix program on digital TV. I would go to the studio every month to record a mix. We became friends very quickly. He then went on with another engineer to start his own studio called Mozambique. They produced an underground compilation album and Isao asked me to do a track. This is how our collaboration started.
Tokyo Black Star is not easy to pigeonhole in terms of a predominant musical style. When you founded the duo what was your motive?
Alex from Tokyo: Our first collaboration as Tokyo Black Star was on this remix we did for this track called For you by Big Moses feat. Janelle on Kerri Chandler’s sub label Bass Mental Records. Isao is a very talented sound engineer and producer and I am a DJ. We are so different but we clicked immediately. We were both super busy with our activities when we met, we quickly really enjoyed being and hanging out together in the studio playing around. It was very fresh for both of us. Isao is not a DJ, he knows so much about sound and music, he is a total unique master on his own with a great vision always ready to experiment, he is such a hard worker and a very curious person. We both share a big love of all kinds of different music, art, films and have similar sensibilities, it was never about making one type of music, for example music for dancefloor, it was about sharing, collaborating, being personal, being free through music, making a statement together and using our imagination! We vibed and inspired each other. We felt that as artists together we could join forces, say something different and bring something new in our way from Tokyo. Our approach is definitely more artistic. From the very first sessions, we enjoyed so much jamming together! And it is still the case today!! It was never a job. Isao became a true partner. And now today we are part together with some other people in Japan of this new audio brand/company called phonon we set up which is super exciting!
Can you describe us a little bit the working process of Toyko Black Star? Who is in charge of what and how you both complement one another?
Alex from Tokyo: Our music is mostly made in Tokyo at Isao’s studio. Isao is the sound engineer in control of the computer and the machines. Our working process is a real collaboration, a jamming session as we describe it. I am more directing the picture. Sometimes our roles in producing would change too. We do really complement one another. I have to say it is a pretty cosmic and magic relationship we have.
How would you describe the musical bandwidth of Tokyo Black Star in your own words?
Alex from Tokyo: It is all about the Funk! Our sound can be described as a fiction of traveling through the world of our imagination.
What kind of equipment you use? More analog? More digital? And why?
Alex from Tokyo: Isao’s studio is one of a kind studio! He made it all by himself over the years from scratch, building the room, making cables, customising equipment etc. He has taught himself to become a sound master, from recording, producing to mastering. Our sound comes from this very special unique set-up we have. It is not only about the actual equipment we use. We do have a few analog synthesizers we love, and of course we do use a lot of digital softwares etc but as well a few essential outboards like top hi end eqs, compressors and other special devices like the phonon phd we are representing which really make the difference! The idea is to be simple as possible. Sound is our primary focus!
What do you aim at with your music?
Alex from Tokyo: To enjoy myself, to create, to be free, to feel good and make beautiful things, to share feelings and to communicate with people around us!
How do you think Tokyo Black Star is going to sound in five years?
Alex from Tokyo: We are right now working on a new series of music. Our first album Black Ships which was released in 2009 on Innervisons was the story of both of us in Tokyo. We had a strong message, our identity from Tokyo to express first. I have been living in NYC for 5 years now, time is moving on, we are looking for some fresh new air and some new inspirations. NYC has always inspired me a lot. I feel all my influences are fusing together now. I am really into the melting pot of sounds and the free creative spirit thinking here in NYC. We can’t say what it is going to sound like. We are about to take the Tokyo Black Star project more international, opening up and collaborating with some people for example. As Tokyo Black Star we are getting ready to go on another fresh adventure trying to keep pushing limits.
What was your biggest hit so far?
Alex from Tokyo: We are not really hit-makers! We should probably think about this!!!
How are you connected to the labels Innervisions and Reincarnation and what makes it special to work with them?
Alex from Tokyo: They are both super special and talented people with similar aesthetics, sensibilities and artistic visions! It has been really inspiring and fun to work with them. They are family! I really want to thank them for all their support.
What lead you almost 20 years ago to the decision to become a DJ?
Alex from Tokyo: I love music, dancing and the contact of people. I grew up around music thanks to my dad, friends and cousins. I had to fight for it of course but DJing and music became naturally part of my life. This is life for me! No music, no life!! But I am not only a DJ. I have managed to link my music activities with all my other interests, art, fashion, travelling etc. I am so lucky to still do what I love today.
How did your style change within the last decades and why?
Alex from Tokyo: My style and my approach to music hasn’t really changed I think, I still do it with my heart, but my tastes keeps expanding, your skills get better, you grow up, you get to know yourself better, you adapt yourself to this ever changing world, your desires change. Moving to NYC has definitely played a big role in my life. For me it is very important to be honest with yourself in everything you do. Travelling, playing all over the world, sharing music with people have been so inspiring. Working with Isao has been such a learning experience.
What is your most beloved club and why?
Alex from Tokyo: The Club Yellow in Tokyo was my favorite club! It was for me a real music club in every sense and not in a pretentious nerdy kind of way: the sound system, the people, the mixture, the vibe, the energy… It was our home. A real music and nightlife family! It was truly magic. The sunday afternoon party Gallery we have been doing with friends in Tokyo in this beautiful South East Asian restaurant from 5pm to 2am for more than 13 years is my favorite party. It is kind of our version of the LOFT in NYC! And everytime David Mancuso comes to Tokyo we organise together a special party. Japan has some very good clubs. DJ Bar Dai and its new club Mother in Morioka, in the North of Japan, is truly a special little club with one of the best crowd and people I have ever met! Everytime I play there for at least 10 hours. You take your time, you build a real journey with the people, you play everything, at some point people will even lie down on the dance floor to a beautiful ambient song, or some guys will dress up in the morning in white swans and do a dance performance. The feeling is so pure! I love this! Club Praha in Niigata is very similar with the most faithful, nicest and best dancers too. And of course the legendary temple, the club Precious Hall in Sapporo, Hokkaido with it’s amazing analog sound system, it’s super dedicated passionate and spiritual crowd! I find the same vibe in Europe in clubs like Robert Johnson in Frankfurt, Panorama Bar in Berlin, Zukunft in Zurich, Garito Cafe in Palma de Mallorca and in TROUW in Amsterdam which I love!
Can you tell us a funny story out of your rich DJ history?
Alex from Tokyo: In the beginning when I started to play outside Japan, some people would come to me while I was playing asking me where the japanese DJ was!
What are your current Top 10?
Alex from Tokyo: There are so much good music around! I really try to listen to as much as different old and new music all the time. It is very important. The new Cassius EP on Ed Banger is so fresh and mind-blowing! Right now, I am really into the new record Morgan Geist just released on his label Environ as Storm Queen, the new remix by Henrik Schwarz on Innervisions for Emmanuel Jal is awesome. I like this remix of the Aloe Black song I need a dollar by Tensnake, the killer Deetron remix of Tony Lionni’s track Special. Germany has some of the best labels with Running Back, Permanent Vacation, Dial, Live at Robert Johnson, Ostgut Ton, also all the latest releases of Floating Points on Ninja Tune, the Stop Bajon remixes by Theo Parrish and Isoul8 feat Marc de Clive-Lowe, all the stuff DJ Nature has been releasing, the latest futuristic deep Techno releases on DJ Deep’s label Deeply Rooted House, the crazy funky productions of DJ Koze, I have been enjoying what the Lovemonk label in Madrid has been releasing, and all the very good releases on the Rush Hour labels from Amsterdam. There are some great labels from friends in NYC and Tokyo that are very good, like Golf Channel, ESP Institute, Wurst, Ene Records I always play. The Arthur’s Landing album supervised by Brennan Green is very good too! The list goes on and on. I have been listening a lot at home to the Sakamoto Ryuichi record Playing the piano box set CD after seeing him performing in NYC a few months ago. I am going crazy on blues music also after visiting the Mississippi region twice in the past year.
How did you select the tracks for the Carhartt Radio show?
Alex from Tokyo: Instead of doing a normal DJ mix show that I am used to do, I imagined immediately what I wanted to do, I thought to do a proper listening radio show with all Tokyo Black Star productions that are from accross the board would be a nice flow with us talking and hosting in Japanese, English and French was definitely more relevant, different, fun and special for the great brand Carhartt is that I really like from my early days in Tokyo listening to Hip Hop. I am so honoured to have done this show. Thank you so much Carhartt!
If you could take a year off work, how would you spend it?
Alex from Tokyo: Travelling all around the world I guess to all the places I would love to visit!
You live in New York and Tokyo: can you tell us some nice spots and secrets about the town’s that you can’t find in any travel guide? Restaurants, bars, whatever ….
Alex from Tokyo: You can check my blog on my website and you will find some cool secret spots!