Japanese virtuoso Shugo Tokumaru has recently unfurled his fifth proper full-length solo record, In Focus?, via Polyvinyl. It, like the rest of his back catalogue, is a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of twee-pop, with syrupy indie hooks and saccharine beats that have led him to be compared to the avant-garde experiments of Deerhoof.
It’s a devilishly peppy LP, meticulously worked over by Shugo, who recorded the whole thing himself; the spectacular array of instrumentation has been selected and performed by him, in an almost obsessive way – it’s his brainchild, his cavalcade of miscellany, his cirque de sucré. His last LP, Port Entropy, broke him into the Japanese mainstream, scoring him a top 40 hit – so with a wider eye scouring his music, have things changed? It doesn’t look like it. It doesn’t look like he’s even noticed the success.
The whole work process is lengthy for Shugo, as he tends to write isolated from the outside world. But there’s an honest, respectable work ethic that he has, a DIY ethos and hands-on approach that would see other artists scurrying in fear. Shugo takes it upon himself to make a record he can safely say is his own. “During two and half years since the last album, I worked on demos for about 100 songs of various types. Then I narrowed the list down to 15 songs and polished and developed the demo versions. It might have been good to call in someone else for help, be it a producer or a mixing engineer. However, I came to a conclusion that for this album I just go back to basics and do it all by myself. I don’t remember specific ways of writing the songs, as I used every possible way to make it work.”
Those scores of demos began life somewhere, and the gradual evolution was a closely guarded secret – a fresh pair of ears was never needed. Producers have the tendency to strip back to the bone, but the technicolour flesh is what Shugo is about. “Basically I tend to start working on instrumentals. Then sometimes they become in need of some singing. The rest is simple. I play all the instruments by myself, record them and mix them. Once a song gets closer to the finished form, I go through the process of polishing it until it becomes a triple excellent cut. However, nothing was more painful than simple work. I didn’t let anyone hear the music this time until everything got finished.” It’s easy to see that Shugo is a perfectionist, with an eye for painstaking detail. He doesn’t rely on assistance from others, allowing them to sully his sounds or nosey about in the noises – it’s a process that’s his own. “Some of the work was done in the same ways as before, while I tried different ways as well. I wanted to put various types of songs in the album. More than anything it took a long time to finish it. It might be the first album with which I thought I was really glad when I finished it.”
Multi-instrumentalism has always been a vital aspect of Shugo’s music, allowing an awe-inspiring cacophony where you can get lost in the sounds for hours, discovering new ingredients with each subsequent listen. But for him, it’s just a natural way of working. “I love all the instruments and find each of them interesting. I use a lot of different instruments from different countries, but I don’t really use something that unusual. Even if I did, I wouldn’t use it as the main instrument for a song, so it might not weigh with me whether or not I actually used it for recording or not.” More important than the instruments though is how he comes up with ideas for his songs – his dream diary. “Imagery or stories which I see in my dreams becomes a clue for writing the lyrics. I frequently try to do a cover of a live performance of an unknown band which I see in my dreams by keeping it in mind as it was.” Covering an imaginary band from inside your own head has never been a staple of famous songsmiths, but it’s unmistakeably Shugo.
Due to his reclusive, controlling nature, very few foreign bodies seep in. It’s all very personal, with everything coming from within. What’s his take on influences, for example? “There weren’t any. I just wanted to make things I wanted to make and put them in the album even if in a somewhat untidy manner. While I was working on the album I felt like I was challenging my own limits, almost like an athlete.” And although it’s kooky, and a bit off the wall, it’s not gone down badly at all. “I have received the most pleasant responses ever for this album. I’m tempted to believe it turned out to be a good album as well.”
The lead single ‘Decorate’ has a fantastic video. “I made the song with imagery in mind where something like a moebius strip is spinning, so I told the director about this spinning image. Then he came up with an idea of using this old motion picture device called zoetrope, which was not far from what I was hoping for, so it turned out that way.” With its toy piano and xylophone arrangements, it succeeds in being a massive pop song that’s just pure pleasure to listen to – enough to brighten the sourest moods. Though there are plenty of frills and Shugo’s trademark shunning of the minimal, nothing detracts or distracts, and far from being a heavy-handed dollop of mess, it’s actually pretty light on the palate, veering into dream-pop. “I spent about 100 hours mixing this song alone. We also manufactured postcard flexi-discs for this song. You can’t really hear anything in that format when it comes to all the effort I put into the song with attention to every small detail, and I love that!”
However, being the workaholic that he is, his solo work isn’t his only work. He’s a vocalist/guitarist for alt. rock band Gellers, who draw influences from The Clash and Pavement – not really what you’d expect after hearing something like In Focus?. “They are completely different from each other. If my solo work is something well planned in advance, Gellers are the complete opposite. It’s more about unexpected happenings!” A five-piece made from childhood friends, Gellers released a debut back in 2007, and a single in 2011 – but it’s been a largely stop-start process. It doesn’t seem Shugo is keen to distance himself from the band any time soon, though. “Well, that band has been trying hard to work on some new songs for a long time, but we haven’t had any luck completing them. What do you think we should do about it!?”
Looking back, 2012 was a big year for Shugo. “I was finished with the album release and the subsequent tour in Japan by the end of the year, so I finally managed to take some rest. 2012 was a really busy year for me. I was mostly in Japan. I made the album, released it and then did a nationwide tour. I had to spend many sleepless nights working on the album, so I was always getting out of shape. Now I feel that I have finally got to a point where I can satisfy myself.” But now he looks to the future, with ambitions of dominating the West: “Last year was mostly about making music, so this year I would like to play shows in many different places. I will be touring the West Coast and beyond with Kishi Bashi in February and March, this time as a solo act. Then I will be heading to Austin for SXSW. I’m hoping to tour Europe/UK in the spring or summer as well. I’ve also started thinking of doing something new and am trying to work out various ideas to make it possible…”
2012 may have been busy and exhausting, but that doesn’t seem to have changed him – even with a hectic touring schedule, he’s already alluding to mysterious extra-curricular projects. But then that’s exactly the way he operates – the relentless, obsessive workings of a mad scientist, occasionally screaming “Eureka!” and unleashing another album. It’s a quirky, hellish way of working that is incredibly demanding – but it’s how Shugo is. Without all these idiosyncrasies, we wouldn’t have his fantastic music.