Cornelius, the solo project by Keigo Oyamada, released his new studio album Mellow Waves on July 21. In recent years, the innovative Japanese musician and producer had worked on various projects — recording as a member of METAFIVE and creating the soundtrack for the animated series Ghost in the Shell: Arise — but the last time he released a studio album under the Cornelius moniker was 11 years ago, with Sensuous in 2006.
Turns out, his much-anticipated new album was well worth the wait. Kicking off with a contemporary guitar rock sound and encompassing everything from minimal to Brazilian music characteristic of past Cornelius works, Mellow Waves also features a more emotive feel that breaks new ground for the veteran artist. Billboard Japan spoke with Oyamada about the ideas that inspired his new album and the process that went into its making.
Billboard Japan: The way Mellow Waves is structured is striking in that it apparently adheres to the concept of a physical album or vinyl record. You’ve spoken about working on a new album in various interviews in the past few years, but when did you actually begin working on it?
Cornelius: I’d been working on it on and off. The oldest song on the record is “Mellow Yellow Feel.” The date on the file was 2012, but I’d taken time to work on it since before then. There were stretches of time when I focused on other projects [e.g. METAFIVE, the collaborative project led by YMO legend Yukihiro Takahashi, and the soundtrack for the Ghost in the Shell: Arise series], but I also worked on my solo project in between, and the songs accumulated after repeating that for a while. I got started on bringing them all together around the end of last year.
Sensuous was in 2006, so it’s been 11 years since your last studio album.
Well, I guess time flies if you’re not careful. [Laughs.]
You did something novel by releasing two 7-inch singles ahead of the album, which is something rarely done by Japanese artists signed to a major label [Warner Music Japan]. The artwork you used on the covers of these singles and the album is by the renowned printmaker Tadayoshi Nakabayashi, who happens to be your uncle. Have you always considered using his art for your works?
A retrospective exhibition of Mr. Nakabayashi’s works was held in 2005 when he retired from teaching at the Tokyo University of the Arts, and I’d been vaguely thinking about using his works since then. I’d seen some of his works before, but only used to see him fairly often up until when I was in elementary school. He had copper plates and engraving equipment lying around his house. He really enjoyed DIY and worked on everything around the house himself, so the interior of his home was fascinating and I remember it well. [Points to the cover of Mellow Waves] A black-and-white print like this, with a perspective that blurs the line between dream and reality, used to be illuminated on the wall by the stairs. I’d sort of wanted to use his works ever since that exhibition, and I think to a certain extent the worldview of his art influenced how this album turned out.
The artwork of Mellow Waves looks like a woman’s body.
It does look like female breasts. But you can’t really tell for sure, and I chose it because I thought there was a “wavy” feel to it.
What were your other inspirations for the album?
Not an inspiration exactly, but more like a connection in that I found out that Miki [Bernyi] of Lush [who helped write the lyrics for “The Spell of a Vanishing Loveliness”] was a relative of mine at a family gathering when my father died about 10 years ago. I didn’t know this when I was a kid. Then we got to know each other when I went to the U.K. for the Sensuous tour. She asked me to work on a remix last year when Lush reunited, so I asked her to write lyrics for my work in return. She’s around my age and has two kids, so she’s nicely middle-aged and we have things in common.
You’ve been collaborating with Shintaro Sakamoto since salyu×salyu’s s(o)un(d)beams in 2011. You said in an interview for PMD magazine that you asked him to work with you at a bar after recording “Anata o tamotsu mono” in 2015.
That’s right. We were discussing what kind of music we should do, and at first he was saying, “We should do blues-rock.” [Laughs] Then we went on to talk about maybe doing a love song, so I expanded on that idea and wrote “Anata ga irunara/If You’re Here.” It’s not blues-rock, but the bluesy emotional feel and [guitar] choking is reminiscent of it.
That’s interesting. There has never been such a straightforward love song in Cornelius’ catalog. Love is usually the standard choice as the theme in pop music. Why haven’t you written very many songs about it?
Because it’s just so typical and I wanted to steer clear from that. But [when the idea came about] I thought it was interesting. I knew it’d be OK with Shintaro.
You disassembled the vocals and rearranged them in a lot of your music from your album Point onward, but the vocals in this album are very melodious.
Yeah. I was vaguely thinking, “This time I’ll do music with singing” while I was working on it. I did stuff like break down the vocals in my last few albums, so for this one I wanted more components like lines and planes and curves. And although I’d worked on various other projects, I’d never really done much singing before, so I wanted to try focusing on that a bit.
You’ve produced other singers for Ghost in the Shell and other projects. Did working with them influence you?
They did influence me. They were all good singers. Salyu and Ichiko [Aoba] and Maaya [Sakamoto] all carefully considered each note when they sang, and I thought, “Vocalists are awesome.” [Laughs] I can’t sing properly like they do, so my goal was to try to come up with something good that I could handle. Also, the equipment nowadays is incredible and you can fix almost everything like the pitch and rhythm, so I was able to focus more on the song’s nuance. It used to be really difficult to save takes before, so there used to be times when I’d gradually lose interest while singing the same part over and over.
Your albums Point and Sensuous seemed to focus more on the senses rather than on meaning or narrative, including the content of the lyrics. In this album, it seems like a narrative of sorts emerge when you listen to it from start to finish. Was that intentional?
Well, I guess it was. Point and Sensuous were sort of flavorless, like water and air that anybody could readily consume, whereas I intended this work to have more of a quirk. Kind of like how things with sharp smells are more addictive. I’m not sure how to say it, but like blue cheese and things that you couldn’t eat when you were a kid but acquired a taste for once you got hooked on them. I wanted it to be something like that.
The album includes part two of “Surfing on Mind Wave,” which was included in the soundtrack album for Ghost in the Shell: Arise.
Yes. When I came up with the title Mellow Waves, I thought that waves represented a world without grids that constantly changes, with no structure, where various things just occur and continue endlessly. And when I thought that I had to write a song like that, I realized that I’d already written one. [“Surfin’ on Mind Waves”] part one had “dark” chord structures to match the world of Ghost in the Shell, so [for part two] I made the key more ambiguous in terms of “bright” and “dark” and also changed the development in various ways. The next track is “In a Dream,” which is completely a dream world, a trippy world. I thought the way “In a Dream” continues from “Surfing on Mind Wave” was beautiful. And this is more of a pop album of songs that feature singing, so by putting an instrumental track in there I thought it might completely change the way it sounds. That’s why I included it.
You’ll begin touring from Fuji Rock Festival in July and play at various locations in Japan until November. Do you have plans for a world tour after that?
Yeah. Probably next year.
Are you preparing synchronized visuals for your new songs again?
Yeah, I am.
That’s something to look forward to. But preparing for the tour must take a lot of work. Just playing “If You’re Here” must be difficult.
It’s pretty tough. The rhythm is normal in that the kick drops on the first beat and the snare on the third, but the other instruments are all slightly off. They’re off but coherent, and that’s how the groove is created, but it is weirdly difficult to play.