Interview with Cornelius: Pop chameleon

Keigo Oyamada, a.k.a. Cornelius, has made a reputation for taking pop music in unexpected directions, first with his manic sound collages in his 1997 debut album Fantasma, and then with the crystal clean tones and effects of last year’s lush long-player Sensuous.

This month, Cornelius is returning stateside with a five-stop mini-tour for a new 12” EP, Gum, which features contributions from The Books, Prefuse 73 and Petra Haden. I spoke with the Japanese artist during his U.S. tour last year to find out what goes into his music, how he came up with his video-heavy live performances, and what he thinks about potentially gaining a much, much younger fan base.

Cornelius’ answers translated by Ricky D.

Meniscus: How was playing Coachella?

Cornelius: I had some issues with the setting up and there were strong winds, but I enjoyed it.

Did you get around to seeing any other bands at the festival?

I didn’t have much time, so I didn’t get to see any other bands. But I met a lot of other people. There were a lot of people who came up to me and just started talking to me. Met an interesting Mexican guy. There were quite a few people from Mexico who apparently were fans and came up to talk to me.

How did it compare to 1999?

It was much harder last time. I did the show at an earlier time, there was no AC in the dressing room; this time there was. But I had more time last time to see more bands than this time. Last time I played during [Rage Against The Machine’s] last show, and it was them getting back together this time at the Festival.

Think you had an effect?

(laughs) I had nothing to do with it!

About your last album, Sensuous, how would you describe it compared to Point and Fantasma?

It’s an album that changes or flows along with whoever’s listening to it, according to their senses.

What was the creative process going into the album?

There’s not any specific recording style. I just go to the studio and record any ideas I have at that day or that moment, listen to it and build on it afterwards.

Was that similar for Point and Fantasma?

Point was quite similar, but with Fantasma I wasn’t using my own studio. I was using a rental. So I had to decide what to record the next day and go according to that schedule. It’s easier on my mind to have my own studio.

Your live shows are very multimedia—full of lights and videos. Where did you get your inspiration for that?

There’s not just one thing that I’ve been inspired by for the live shows. It comes from many things: watching other bands and seeing their shows, watching performance art, movies, and many other places.

How planned out is that process?

It’s completely a different process than recording. Recording is basically done alone with a mind to create an album and to do it within the time frame of an album with the idea that someone will be listening to the CD themselves. The live show is done keeping in mind that there’s an audience and there’s interaction, a vibe with that audience. The videos are prerecorded on DVD, and [when we play live it’s choreographed] with the videos.

Given that the videos are so integral to the live show, have you thought about experimenting with film?

I would be interested in doing movie soundtracks, but I’ve never thought about making a movie on my own.

I want to bring up something that you said in an interview before, after Fantasma was released. You said that you were mixing music in the 20th century and producing something new, and there were alternate possibilities to create music beyond that. What do you think about that now?

I don’t really remember saying that, but Fantasma was more of a sampling and collage. After Point I didn’t use samples and recorded my own sounds. There [are] many influences in my own music, but now it’s mixing my own sounds together.

I do recall hearing non-musical sounds used in Sensuous, like that fax or a Xerox machine on “Toner…”

That was the sound of an inkjet printer, something that I hear all the time in my daily environment. It’s not something you hear in music normally, but the sound I hear and the rhythm of it…there’s times when there’s something in the daily environment that I hear that sounds musical to me. What I wanted to do is to get those sounds and incorporate [them into] my music.

Given that your lyrics are in Japanese—something that most non-Japanese fans wouldn’t understand—do you think there’s something to be said about the use of vocals as a music instrument?

I have trouble in interviews, yes, but I’ve been listening to music from overseas. I may not understand the lyrics, but it crosses over the language barrier.

I can think of [the voice] as an instrument, but the difference is that there’s meaning to the lyrics. But at the same time, when I can’t express the meaning [to non-Japanese audiences] because it’s in Japanese, then I can think of it as an instrument.

Anything special you did this time around for this tour?

I also did a TV shoot for a [Nickelodeon Jr.] TV show called “Yo Gabba Gabba.” It was really fun! (laughs)

What, have you played for kids before?

(laughs) New experience!

Was the crowd any better than the usual crowds?

The audience was actually the staff that was shooting there. Had a similar vibe, but I enjoyed the shoot. Just thinking that kids around the world may be watching me performing on the show is just thrilling to me.

Think you’re getting a younger fan base out of it?

I want elementary [school] kids to come see my shows, too! Actually, the first show we did in Portland, I pulled up a kid to play the theremin with me.

Think you’d get kids to play in the band with you?

Maybe when I’m about 60, I’d like to get a band together full of kids!

Cornelius’ U.S. tour runs from Jan. 17-26 and includes stops in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York. For ticket information, go to