Kensuke Ushio is on the verge of becoming a household name in the western anime fandom, thanks to his exhilarating and sensitive contributions to numerous modern anime classics’ original soundtracks, namely Space Dandy (as part of LAMA), Ping Pong, A Silent Voice and the recently released Devilman: Crybaby.
However, Ushio already had a decade-old alter ego of sorts in his stage name agraph, which he adorns when producing and releasing his own solo albums, exploring the pure, unadulterated creative impulse within him. ‘the shader‘ is his third solo electronica album release.
The following is a translation of the interview conducted with the artist by Natalie Music.
It’s taken five years to arrive at this “music that keeps listeners at a distance.”
(Translator’s note: Interview originally published on Natalie on February 17, 2016.)
On February 3, 2016, the artist known as agraph released his third album, ‘the shader’. With this work, he has reinvented the ‘beautifully melancholic electronic music’ that he is known for, a reputation built up through his body of work to date. Along with the electronic sounds that he has strung together so delicately, abstract and disquieting sounds are layered on top of one another, producing a sound that is quiet and yet brimming with nuanced detail.
This is agraph’s first original album in five years and three months – since ‘equal’ in November 2010. In the meantime, he has been active in numerous other projects under his real name, Kensuke Ushio. He’s a founding member of the four-person band, LAMA, has performed as a support member for Denki Groove, written music for a whole range of artistes, and even composed the background music for the TV anime Ping Pong. Today, we ask him about what flows through his mind as he writes new music, and how he thinks about the difference in the stances between ‘the craftsman Kensuke Ushio‘ and ‘the artiste agraph‘.
Interview: Daisuke Tsuda & Shōhei Hashimoto | Text: Shōhei Hashimoto | Photography: Wataru Umehara
The ‘Eureka!’ Moment That Was Sparked by Luc Ferrari
Interviewer: You’ve probably been asked this question multiple times in the interviews you’ve given so far, but I would still like to start with it. Why has it taken you five years to release a new album?
Ushio: I started creating this album on the day that we mastered the previous one, ‘equal.’ But no matter how much time I spent on it, it just wasn’t turning out well. It was basically a continuation of ‘equal’. About two years into the process, it had started to take shape, but I ended up throwing it all away because it felt like you could just listen to my previous album instead. And right at that point, I had a bit of an “eureka!” moment and flipped over to the current direction and started creating again.
Interviewer: A eureka moment…?
Ushio: Back in 2012, UPLINK Shibuya hosted a festival of films by the modern music composer Luc Ferrari, and I just watched them non-stop, listening to his music. His signature work, Presque rien, means ‘nothing, basically’, and it was pretty much just a musique concrète of field recordings that he’d made and layered on top of one another, but I really enjoyed listening to it. At that time, I was into music like ‘super-minimal techno’, and a Vaporwave-like sound that could have been sampled from Japanese CMs from the end of the 1980s. Music that didn’t really paint a scene but just kept flowing. When I really thought about it, I realised that when I listened to that music, I wasn’t listening for any melodies, chords, or rhythms. I was enjoying something that wasn’t composed of musical melodies, but rather something like a worldview, an atmosphere, something like the smoke that rises when you burn kindling. And so I thought that I wanted to create music that wasn’t bound by a certain rhythm or melody, music that you could listen to in a different way.
Interviewer: I’m totally on board with the notion that what this album presents is the scenery of sound that you see, that worldview. Possibly because it’s a bit like listening to the soundtrack of a film. The worldview that you tried to express this time, is it something concrete that you can represent with actual scenery? Or is it something more abstract?
Ushio: It’s something that’s really abstract… Like I went on a walk in the middle of the night, then the sun slowly rose and the shadows started coming out, and I thought “I see, I can observe the physical phenomenon of light.” If I place my hand like this, I’ll know the shape of my hand based on its shadow; if the light shines from this direction, then this kind of interference (of light) occurs. Those are the kinds of things I was thinking about as I created these songs. They’re instrumental pieces, so even I can’t really put into words what they’re about, but they’re incredibly poetic images that only I know.
Interviewer: Describing one’s worldview verbally is, in some ways, quite old-fashioned, so I’m sure that you’d prefer to be able to say “Just listen to my music”. But please let us dig a little deeper. You’re a support member for Denki Groove, a unit with fierce individuality, and you yourself are a cheerful and amusing character. But the music that you create as the artiste agraph is really sensitive in its expression – that’s really interesting to me. How do these two parts intermingle within you? Is there a switch that you flip to go between them?
Ushio: Well, over the past five years, I’ve increasingly become involved in other projects. Denki is one of them, but I’ve also started up a band, created background music, produced other artists or written songs for them, etc etc. agraph is different from these projects in two important ways. The first is deadlines. If an anime is starting in April, there’s no way I can say “I’m not satisfied with the music, so please wait another five years”. And the second thing is that there are people other than me judging it. For example, when I work with Chara-san, then Chara-san’s judgement is needed; if I’m working on the music for a film or a commercial, then the director also has a say. But agraph has none of that. No one will say anything besides me, and it doesn’t matter if I take five years. Though that’s not exactly a good thing (laughs).
“I’d say that agraph is my flagship”
Interviewer: The way you put it, it seems that agraph is more like the name of a project, rather than the name of an artiste. Instead of putting out your own music as an artiste, you’re looking at the entire enterprise, including yourself, as a producer would.
Ushio: No no, I’m fairly sure I’m doing this as an artiste. The other work is where I put on my producing hat. If a director listened to agraph and asked me to write background music like what I do as agraph, then I could probably do it. That’s because I have a producer’s perspective within me. I’d say that agraph is my flagship. To be more concrete, when I’m doing other work, I don’t have the time to try new methods for song creation, or the time to hit upon new ideas. But if an artiste that can single-handedly take on those duties is inside of me, then I can bring breadth and depth to those other works as well. That’s agraph’s raison d’être.
Interviewer: I see. And because that artiste is such an important existence for you, you can’t cut any corners.
Ushio: agraph is inside of me. Meeting Takkyu Ishino (composer and music producer, a member of Denki Groove) was the impetus for me to enter this line of work, but when I met him, I told him “I don’t want to work for you as an assistant or (music) engineer, I want to become a musician, an artiste, myself”. That’s something that’s I still remember very clearly.
Interviewer: To me, when it comes to art that represents what you feel in an abstract way, allowing an audience freedom to interpret that art is something that will expand people’s worldview. But creators also have a need for social approval and self-esteem, right? They’re happy when something they’ve created moves the people who listen to it. How do you feel about this point?
Ushio: You might be right. But personally, I’m pretty satisfied with getting to the output stage. Previously, I was as you’ve described—I did feel that “I’d be happy if this music is able to move someone”. But after chiselling down what I want to create over these past five years, I’ve come to think less and less about other people. So I don’t listen to what others say until I’ve finished creating something, nor do I think about how it will sell, or how it will be interpreted. Because agraph has become a project where I do what I want to do.
Interviewer: I totally understand that, but it also raises another question: why are you releasing this as a commercial album? If you really are satisfied with just producing something, then you could even put it out on YouTube, right?
Ushio: Well, to be completely frank, if I could just do what I wanted the way I liked and still put food on the table, I’d be happy with that.
Interviewer: In short, there’s a part of you that wants to create an environment where you can continue doing this kind of thing, by giving what you’ve chiselled down a form and releasing it out into the world properly.
Ushio: That’s probably it. If the staff that work with me can become happy with that, then that’s what I’d prefer, and I’d also be glad if I could make a living without thinking about anything other than music.
(The interview continues in the next page. You can find the page numbers below the ‘related articles’ section.)