Q&A: Cornelius On His First LP In 11 Years, Mellow Waves
Keigo Oyamada has made many changes to his life since 2006, when he last released an album under the moniker of Cornelius. He moved his office/recording studio from Tokyo’s Nakameguro neighborhood — a place he celebrated in song and video — to the slightly quieter Sakura Shin-Machi area. He’s taken on a variety of new challenges, ranging from soundtrack work for educational TV programs and a reboot of the famed Ghost In The Shell franchise, to playing alongside Japanese musical legends Yoko Ono and Yellow Magic Orchestra. When he talks with Stereogum on a Tuesday afternoon, he’s replaced cigarettes — a staple detail found in interviews with him around the turn of the century — with an e-cigarette, which a friend turned him onto a couple years earlier.
Mellow Waves, his sixth album as Cornelius, arrives 11 years after his fifth, and with it comes an excitement around an artist who helped shape the ’90s musical movement Shibuya-kei, a genre-skipping and time-traveling take on pop that defined “cool” to many in Japan over the decade (not to mention get him critical love and a label deal abroad). But he didn’t vanish during that time, he’s just been out of frame. The minimal, every-sound-in-its-right-place approach he explored on 2001’s Point and 2006’s Sensuous popped up in big-name projects in his home country. He produced an album alongside J-Pop artist Salyu under the name Salyu X Salyu, one featuring the familiar chopped sounds and vocal experimentation he became celebrated for. And he joined the supergroup Metafive, an electronic outfit featuring Yellow Magic Orchestra drummer Yukihiro Takahashi and DJ Towa Tei, among others.
But with his long-anticipated return as Cornelius, Oyamada turns inward. His music has rarely been explicitly personal, save for a handful of songs in the Shibuya-kei-pioneering duo Flipper’s Guitar that wrestled with the end of youth. In the ’90s, he created sonic bricolages celebrating his favorite music, from Brian Wilson to Roger Nichols to Parisian pop, culminating in 1997’s still-stunning whirlwind Fantasma. In the Aughts, Oyamada told The Japan Times he was leaving space in his music for the listener to project their thoughts onto it. While Mellow Waves features familiar clipped drums and stuttering vocals — not to mention, on “Surfing On Mind Wave pt 2,” slow-burning drones broken up only by the sound of the sea crashing on the shore — it also features Oyamada using his voice to create melodies, rather than as another instrument to fiddle around with. Songs such as lead single “If You’re Here” and the skippy “In A Dream” turn to memories just out of reach, leaving space for guitar solos that sound improvised. He’s not the only presence here — Shintaro Sakamoto of psych-rock outfit Yura Yura Teikoku wrote lyrics for two songs, while Lush member (and Oyamada’s distant relative) Miki Bereny penned the words and sang on the deceptively sunny “The Spell Of A Vanishing Loveliness” — but he’s giving himself more space to reflect, while still being able to experiment with sound.
The 48-year-old artist looks slightly tired when we talk, as this marks his final interview of the day, but he’s thoughtful and friendly throughout our chat, laying out the timeline of how Mellow Waves took shape and his visual image of the album. With the help of a translator we talked about entering middle-age, virtual reality, and the legacy of the ’90s in Japanese music. Read the conversation below.
STEREOGUM: You’ve been quite busy since releasing your last album in 2006 — you’ve done a lot of soundtrack work and you’ve worked with a lot of other Japanese artists. When did you start working on the songs that would become Mellow Waves?
CORNELIUS: The earliest recognizable sound work on this album goes back to 2012, right after I had finished up on the Yoko Ono project, and while I was still working on the Salyu X Salyu project. The song “Mellow Yellow Feel,” that’s the oldest one.
STEREOGUM: What inspired you to work on your own material again?
CORNELIUS: More than anything, it was just the realization of how much time had passed from the last major Cornelius project. We were wrapping up the Metafive project and I was looking forward to the next thing to do, when I realized that, wow, it was really time to do a new Cornelius album.
STEREOGUM: Were you juggling projects when you started working on Mellow Waves, or do you have to focus?
CORNELIUS: I tend to want to concentrate on certain projects and finish them up first, but I often find myself working on projects that often overlap with one another. Sometimes I’m doing three projects all at the same time. That’s kind of my limit — anything more than that, and it starts to get really distracting. The trick to focusing is simply not to have too much on my plate. If I have a few different live performances that overlap, it’s like I have to remember and learn so many songs. It gets a little hectic. I just try to avoid that situation. The hardest thing about making this album was maintaining my schedule for it.
STEREOGUM: What was on your mind while writing Mellow Waves?
CORNELIUS: When I set out to make new music, I don’t really have a clear mindset or theory or concept behind what I’m doing. It’s more like, as I combine works that I’m doing, I find a common thread or mood between a certain amount of songs. I thread those together, and that morphs into the concept. In this case, I found that there were a lot of songs I was working with that were mellow. And they were very wavy when it came to the sound.
STEREOGUM: In older interviews, you’ve said that specific sounds served as a sonic theme for your albums — the sound of water for Point, a glass wind chime for Sensuous. How about for Mellow Waves?
CORNELIUS: I think it would be the tremolo sound. On the past couple of albums, I really worked everything out on a grid, in terms of laying out the sounds. But this time, I was more interested in something moving over that grid, a continuous form that sort of waved over it. Some kind of winding line, a continuous line of sound that was on top of that grid.
In the past, I used words more as an instrument. I would use literal words as building blocks. But on Mellow Waves, there was something much more melodic about it. There was something about a melody and singing that appealed to me. I had done all these projects and done all this producing and live performances, all of these different aspects of music, that reflected back to me and made me realize I hadn’t been writing songs to be sung by myself. So this was definitely something I was conscious of: I was going to write music that I was going to sing in a melodic way.
STEREOGUM: While we are talking about words, for “If You’re Here” and “Dear Future Person,” you worked with Shintaro Sakamoto, who wrote the lyrics for that song. You’ve worked with him before, too. What was your first meeting with him like?
CORNELIUS: It goes way back, to the late ’90s. Yura Yura Teikoku had just released an album called 3 X 3 X 3, and it was one of my favorite albums at that time. I went to see them do a live performance, and met him afterwards. On that album, they were doing a really psychedelic sound, and I really didn’t know what to expect from him in person. But after meeting him, he was quite a normal person [laughs]. We actually became really close friends — partially that was because we had children around the same age. We became close acquaintances. That led to us working on things together and playing shows.
STEREOGUM: How did your other projects influence Mellow Waves? Did you learn anything from them and apply those lessons to the album?
CORNELIUS: Each individual one has brought something different to this project. But the biggest thing was the combination of all the projects I had been working on making me realize everything I hadn’t been doing. What I hadn’t done.
The other, maybe, is that when you are working as part of a collaboration, you can never do something 100 percent your way. That was another realization, this is 100 percent me. It offered an opportunity to have total control of what I wanted to do.
STEREOGUM: Now that you had this feeling of control, did you decide to try out anything you had never done before?
CORNELIUS: The biggest difference for me is, if I’m working for Yoko Ono, I’m very much working for her. That is the thing behind it, one way or another. That applies to all of the collaborations, or soundtracks for that matter, like Ghost In The Shell. When it becomes a solo project, it has to be dreamed up from that theme. And it can only be finished when I’m satisfied. That’s a big distinguishing difference.
STEREOGUM: Listening to the music, I got the sense that this album was very reflective. Songs such as “If You’re Here” feel like you are looking back, trying to capture a specific memory. Was that something you were consciously thinking about?
CORNELIUS: I can definitely relate to the feeling of getting older. The feeling of middle-age-ness, the reflection of what it’s like to learn and grow older and live life. I can relate to that.
STEREOGUM: What’s the biggest change in your life as you enter middle age?
CORNELIUS: What’s on your mind is what changes. For example, our childhood idols dying off, like Prince and Michael Jackson and David Bowie. And then you have friends who die on you as well. It gives you a sense of mortality. Things that are on your mind now just weren’t there before — your health, your eyesight going. You become more conscious of it.
STEREOGUM: Who was the first artist to die that really got you thinking about your own mortality?
CORNELIUS: I can remember back to my childhood, in elementary school, when John Lennon died. That moment is quite vivid to me. But that was still something from a very distant land — it was from an older generation, it didn’t have the same impact on me as seeing people who made music during my generation, people like Michael Jackson or Prince. You just expected them to be around, because they were part of the pop culture landscape. They really drove it home for me.
STEREOGUM: A song like “Dear Future Person” has a bit of a forward-thinking outlook to it…are you more worried about the future now?
CORNELIUS: There are a lot of different meanings in a song like that. Getting older or thinking about the future isn’t all bad. Feelings of the future, of passing, of one’s own mortality…those don’t have to be a negative thing. I think you have to be able to take a step back to understand some of that stuff. Being able to come to terms with it is also positive. Both sides of that are going on there.
STEREOGUM: Who is the vocalist on “The Spell Of A Vanishing Loneliness?”
CORNELIUS: That’s Miki Berenyi from the British band Lush. About 10 years ago we realized we were distant relatives. She’s actually my father’s sister’s…brother’s…cousin? My father’s cousin’s daughter. When Lush got back together last year, I did a remix for them, and she returned the favor by collaborating with me on this one. She wrote the lyrics for that one, and it mostly concerns her mother, who lives in LA.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting that you do let others step in and offer perspective on this album, Berenyi and Sakamoto.
CORNELIUS: It’s all part of a vision I had. I wanted to work other perspectives into Mellow Waves. That was deliberately put in there.
STEREOGUM: A highlight for me was “Surfing On Mindwave Pt. 2.” How did that one come together?
CORNELIUS: There is actually a part one to that, which appeared on the soundtrack to Ghost In The Shell. I reached a point while making this album where I really wanted a song that was about a continuous wave — it wasn’t even on a grid, it was just this eternal droned-out wave pattern: a wave pattern that could be reflective of a wave that comes from within yourself, that you can practically surf on. Like a mindtrip that you could take a surf ride out on. When i was trying to visualize that and come up with the soundscape for it, I remembered the song I had done for the soundtrack. I thought it was the perfect inlet for this, and built from there.
STEREOGUM: With Sensuous, that album was accompanied by the Sensuous Synchronized Show, where images and music matched up perfectly. Was thinking about the live show that would accompany Mellow Waves something that you kept in mind?
CORNELIUS: For sure. This newest show will have totally new lighting, it will be a new, synchronized show that I’m working on now. Maybe more relevant, though, I’m currently working on a virtual reality version of the album right now, which will be released as soon as it is finished.
STEREOGUM: What inspired you to do that?
CORNELIUS: The VR version comes out of discussions I had regarding doing some sort of visual representation of the album with Yugo Nakamura, the visual designer for this album and the director of the “Sometime / Someplace” video. He suggested we work with VR, and he showed me a lot of stuff, and some of it was just so mind blowing. It was a chance to jump into something and do it.
We talked a lot with people about the way people consume music now, maybe not as a full album and as not being able to grasp the full immersion process, which has been a big part of my work.
STEREOGUM: Such as including headphones with early copies of Fantasma.
CORNELIUS: Yeah, before I made the most of surround sound, or did the Sensuous visuals. I really submerge the audience. That’s more difficult in these modern times, though, to make that experience. I think that maybe VR might be a totally new immersion technique to continue on that theme.
STEREOGUM: Do you keep up with what’s happening in Japanese music right now, J-Pop and so on?
CORNELIUS: Not really, I don’t have any really interest in J-Pop at all. Except when I go out, I’ll hear new music when I’m outside of my house. But I don’t really seek out a J-Pop experience.
STEREOGUM: It’s interesting, right now, because J-Pop right now is really interested in the ’90s. There are even artists who seem deeply inspired by Shibuya-kei, which you are associated with. What do you think the decade’s musical legacy in Japan is?
CORNELIUS: The 1990s were really a time of mixing cultures together. There were subcultures, there were su-genres, there was a wide variety of musical options available. That really defined that era. But in retrospect, the 2000s didn’t really have anything too new to add to that, anything that was distinguishing. Maybe even to this day. That might have been the last era that saw such an eclectic mix of sounds. I think now it is more about the platforms for music, rather than the music itself.
Mellow Waves is out 6/28 in Japan via WMG and 7/21 worldwide via Rostrum Records.