exclusive interview with Jon Taylor of Ryukyu Underground

interview by dimmSummer
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: I remember a friend of mine named Vijay, a third generation Indian living in Japan, coming across this CD and telling me "you have to check this out.." He sent me a copy and I was blown away. All the DJs in New York like it, and they agree that it is important and musically some of the best that they have heard in a long time.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: Wow, that's really great because we like their stuff too. We like Karsh Kale's stuff; we have been listening to Asian underground stuff since it started.

ET: When people first heard this, they thought, "oh, sounds like you are copying Talvin [Singh], the track "OK." I know that two people can come up with the same idea at the same time, and not really know that the other one is coming up with it, and hear about it later on...

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: I'll tell you the story: I met Keith [the other half of Ryukyu Underground] in Okinawa in 1998. I used to be in a band called the Subjects, putting out some Techno, Trance stuff. I hadn't been involved musically for a long time, so I started talking to Keith about making some music - Okinawan fusion stuff over hip-hop beats or something. Keith asked if had I heard of Talvin Singh, and I hadn't at that point, but loved the Sounds of the Asian Underground CD... and told me that he is actually does this stuff. I heard Talvin's track, but that was not exactly what I had in mind. I actually liked the remixes better than the album track. But it was great; he was working with Nenes, an Okinawan band. We came up with this pretty independently. We were thinking of approaching this is a different way, we never felt like we were copying him in any way.

ET: There is a slight similarity, though, because you are using Okinawan vocals. Do people ever accuse you, or do they say the music has its own merits. Do they compare you?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: Not in Japan. To them it's an unusual concept: two foreigners working with Okinawan musicians. We didn't hear much about the Talvin Singh thing. Talvin is and instrumentalist and a tabla player, and he gets these great musicians to play. What we are doing is a bit more basic.

ET: Do you know if he heard the album?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: I don't actually know. I know there was this Japanese guy living in London who played with Talvin Singh who had our CD. He had the demo, so I would imagine he must have. But we've never heard from him or tried to contact him...

ET: I was wondering what the process to making this music is. How do you go about and get the raw data of natural sounds of the people singing? And when you bring it back to the studio, how do you figure out what's going to work and what doesn't work because it seems like everything you used seems to mesh so well with the traditional sounds. Was it a painful process?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: The first album took a couple of years to make. At first, all we had were two laptops, we didn't have a studio. It was really basic, but we did have a lot of software. First we started sampling stuff we liked from the Okinawan CDs we had. Then we got them cleared, and that was easier then expected. I remember the 3rd song on the album; I heard the Okinawan song on the radio and thought that it would be perfect for a downtempo track.

ET: When you hear what you want to hear, do you hear it immediately or do you get an idea, downtempo or ambient, then work out how it is going to be?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: A little bit of both. When I heard Ashibi Shongane, I thought okay I can transfer the melody onto the keyboard. Other songs is more trial and error, messing around and trying all sorts of different approaches. Like Tinsagu Nu Hana Dub, I thought I want to make it a dub track and mimic the shamisen line with the bass line, from there we went on.

ET: Yes, that is a great dub track. I was wondering if you two were really big dub fans and if we can expect more dub tracks in the near future.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: We got a new single coming out in Japan next month, and its four versions of one track and one of the tracks is a dub track, a kind of 80's style dub. Another album will be out in Japan in early April called Mo Ashibi, and thatís got one dub track on it. I am a big dub-head from way back, I used to be in a reggae band, and I have got tons of dub albums. Keith is getting more into it. Keith and I are switching tastes, he now likes more world music and dub and I am getting into more house and breakbeat, English/European stuff. We thought about doing a whole dub album at some point.

ET: Any plans for contacting Bill Laswell, who is a pioneer in dub here in NY. He'd probably be interesting in getting some of the sound.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: I am a big fan of Bill Laswell, especially some of his ambient stuff. We are trying to contact Adrien Sherwood right now to do some mixes for us. We are just starting to work on the remix album.

ET: The artwork on the CD is pretty interesting. It's obviously very blue, and there is this fish in the center, and there is this sort of architectural thing. What's going on with the CD cover?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It's actually underwater ruins of a city found south of Okinawa, that's an actual photograph. The music is kind of like that, very ocean-based.

ET: Right, when I first got the CD, I didn't see the cover because it was burned, but listening to the music, it felt "blue," blue was there, the salty air, it was warm, blue-sky, blue water.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: Yeah, Keith does all the artwork. We talked about the concept of having an underwater picture. The second album's artwork is also an ocean, but it is above the water. You can say that the music is sort of connected with nature. We got inspiration from looking out the window, driving all around the island.

ET: You just came back from Okinawa recently right?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: We just had out first live show. It was kind of like a DJ thing. We have a second album coming out, and instead of it having samples, we used real musicians. We had one singer in particular who sings on the new album. We did a live show with her singing and we mixing, a short set that lasted about an hour. We just wanted to try this live thing out.

ET: What was the reception like for that:

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It was amazing. We have a pretty big following in Okinawa. The club was packed, and people were jumping up and down.

ET: What were the demographics like of the crowd? Were there a lot of islanders or a mix with Europeans and such?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It was a mix. There were locals there, and some of our friends and associates. There were English people, European people, some Australians, pretty mixed crowd.

ET: What was the reaction like from the people who "owned" the music, the people who you sampled, to the final product?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: What happened was, before we had a contract, we were selling some of our music as a demo at local record stores just to see what people would think. We were selling it at one particular record store, and the owner heard the stuff and called Keith and said "Hey, these are my artists. What are you guys doing?" So we thought we better go sort this out, so we went and talked to the guy, and he was very enthusiastic about it; he gave Keith more CDs to sample in the future. The records company that we are signed to then reached a financial arrangement with those guys. I met the record company owner a couple of times because the singer we are working with is one of the singers on his label. It worked out really well for them; they are making money. And they are happy because Okinawan music really had never reached an international audience. And plus, they just liked the new approach. I studied the Shamisen for a few years in Okinawa-they know that we have respect for their music and we are trying to commercialize it.

ET: So there was no accusation of exploitation or anything?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: We are asked that a lot by the Japanese press, but I have not heard anyone say anything bad. Our new single uses stuff from one of the most famous Okinawan singers, Shoukichi. The record label wanted me to play it for him and he loved it. So itís a good situation; I have never heard anything negative. I am sure not all the old guys like it.

ET: Is it because there is a lot of technology involved?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: Yeah we did hear that. People donít quite understand sampling or arranging using the computer. People thought that we just pressed buttons and didnít play any instruments or anything, which was kind of annoying. What people donít understand about electronic music is that there is a tremendous amount of work involved. It is actually more difficult than making acoustic music, but not everybody gets that.

ET: Yeah I can understand that. A lot of classical Indian musicians that I work with say the same thing because they spend 30-40 years learning one instrument, and they are playing the raag at midnight and it is perfect and amazing, and there is certain amount of tradition and respect involved in that. But them when somebody comes along, they would say "oh you just recorded it, threw some effects on it and put it out; you didnít do anything." Thatís what they feel. But then there are others who have an open mind and go with.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: The Okinawan musicians are more in the second category. For the new album we recorded, we were pretty much recording young people. There was this one guy who is and amazing instrumentalist, and he plays the shamisen, the koto on our next album. He just really loved our first album, and he was very happy to play on our second one. We never had anyone who had their nose up and accused us of anything.

ET: So it has been very open...

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It is just the way Okinawan society is. We both speak some Japanese, and Keith lives there, and my wife is Japanese. We are somewhat integrated into the society, we know how to act. So we donít really get accused of musical colonialism, which is good, because that was something we were concerned about when we first started. We wanted to make sure that never happened. There are people in the world who do that, go to other places and commercialize the music and water stuff down, and use stuff without permission. All the people we worked with at out label and other places all have a background in the traditional music, so it was impossible for it to go that way.

ET: You had some vinyl released with this last CD. Were there any remixes on that vinyl, or are there any remixes floating around from the first album?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: From the first CD, there have been no remixes at all. The vinyl was just four tracks from the CD. We are going to put out a vinyl, 4 different mixes where one is going to on the CD, and we are putting out a single with 3 mixes on the vinyl. All those were done by ourselves. We did a lot of remixes for Japanese artists. Two for a guy named Miyazawa. The 10th song on the first CD was actually a remix we did for somebody else. They didnít want to use it, so we erased his vocals and had someone else. We did a dub remix for someone else, and that has not come out either. I think our remixes are a little too unorthodox for them.

ET: But usually thatís because what you are doing is so fresh, so new, and they're catering to a pop audience. Sometimes they just underestimate the audienceís tastes because there is so much money involved and it is so commercial.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: That was the good thing for our first album. No one really had any expectations for how well it would do, and it did quite good in Japan than we thought it would or the label thought it would. Now there a little bit more pressure because there are expectations. So that is why we want to make the third album a remix album. We are going to remix our own stuff and kind of mess around with it, and get some other people to do the same thing.

ET: It is a viable solution for a remix, I think there are a lot of people interested, and you will definitely get some feedback.

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It is just fun to hear other people's take on your music. We also collaborated with a Japanese artist called the Sunaga T Experience, a kind of acid jazz, bossa nova thing. And that is halfway between Ryukyu Underground and lounge music, and that was kind of fun.

ET: Do you enjoy doing remixes?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: I love doing remixes.

ET: Suppose your remix becomes really big, and everybody wants you to remix that way. Also, there is a particular sound going on... so the new album, is it a continuation of whatís going on in the first album, or are you taking this in a new direction?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It's hard for me look at our own stuff and be analytical about it. Like many artists, when you are done with something, you don't look at it anymore, you worry about working on something new. The only think I'm worried about being pigeonholed is that sometimes we get pressured to make everything super Okinawan. Many times we have tracks with not so much Okinawan elements but we have a good idea for the track. I guess looking back at the first album we thought it was a bit diverse. We both have many tastes in music, so we tried to change the tempo and styles. The second album, I think even more so than the first, just sort of trying different things just because we like a lot of music and we experiment when we are making stuff.

ET: So how many tracks is the new album going to have?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: The new album has nine tracks. First track is a single, a pretty famous Okinawan song, and it is a house track. The second track is a more wild party track that people tend to go nuts to. Third track is a dub track, we have a bossa nova track, a trance track, a downtempo/chill track, and the last track is an acoustic track, something quite different, much more traditional.

ET: Do you see a difference in 200-year-old songs or say songs from the 80s in the way you approach them, or that maybe one speaks to you more than the other?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: I would say a little bit. Okinawan music has a real continuity. In our first album, you wouldn't be able to tell which of the songs are old and which are newer. For example, the second track on the first album called Shimajima is a more recent song, whereas the third track Ashibi Shongane is a much older, traditional song. Okinawan music never became watered down. Even with pop incarnations, old songwriters write new songs as if they were old traditional songs. I think it is a little like Indian music in a way, I cannot tell if some sound is an ancient raga or whether itís new.

ET: You know in the back of CDs, it sometimes says: File Under: World/Asian or Indian or something. Would you be World, or Electronic? How would you market it?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: In Japan we're in three sections. We would be in the Electronic section, sometimes we would be in the Okinawan section, and sometime we would be in the Japanese pop section. That's great. In the US, it's a tough call. I would think if a good store has a world fusion section...honestly, I would like to be in there with the Six Degrees Records stuff, that is where I think we fit, with Karsh Kale, Talvin Singh, with State of Bengal, Afro Celt Sound System. Just all those different types of international electronic music. Not all stores are set up the same way. I used to work in a record store for many years, and it is hard to file music if there is not many of that kind. But it would be nice to get some publicity in terms of getting our name out there a little more in the US.

ET: How often do you go to Japan?

<b>Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: Every four to six months. We actually made the first and second album through the Internet. Both of us have high-speed connections. One of us would be working on a track, and we would transfer it to the other guy, and he will work on it for a while, and we would trade it back and forth about twenty times. Then, when we are all done, I am pretty much in charge of the final recording, so I would take the tracks to a studio in LA, and mix the final versions. Then I was supposed to do the mastering, but I got sick with pneumonia, so I send the CD to Keith, and he and the other people at the record label mastered it. So it was really like an international collaboration. We do try and get together once or twice a year and sit down and listen to the sounds, play keyboards, and play instruments and work on stuff together. We do a lot of creative work apart, and it works very well. Many people are doing that these days. People who do aggressive house and stuff they FTP tracks to New York work with guys in Europe.

ET: You came back you made a video in Okinawa?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: Yeah we made a video in Okinawa directed by an Okinawan who made a couple of feature films. His films are pretty interesting; he entered on in the Berlin Film Festival. The Cinematographer/Cameraman shot the whole thing on a 8mm film; the plan was that it would be a pretty experimental type of video.

ET: Is the video for a song off the new single or the old CD?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: It is the new single. The old CD kind of crossed over the US and Europe very slowly. It came out in Japan last April, and it sold very well April, May, June, July, and it started going down in the Japanese charts as it started to come out in the US. So people here are confused and asking why we are releasing another album so soon. but in Japan it has already been out an year. In Japan we have really good label support, we have excellent support. We did tons of interviews in Japan, also on the radio. And the word-of-mouth thing spread very well, so we are pretty decently well known in Tokyo and Japan in general. Over here it is a completely different story. Think about the average person going to a CD store, how likely will go to the Japan/Far East section? Although we have got some very good press here, it has been tough in the sense of promotion because this is Okinawa. Many people don't know where it is.

ET: Is the music that you guys use, is it all traditional songs that have been passed on generation to generation or are you looking at more newer compositions?

Jon Taylor [ryukyu]: The single is a song from the 80s. Then there are couple of tracks in the album that are originals where we have Okinawan musicians playing on them. Some of the songs like the dub track are extremely old, where the authors are completely unknown and date back to couple of hundred years. Some of them are from different islands. We are tying to include some lyrics in the new album so we know what the songs mean.

Fade into "Kuijin Nu Hana" -original composition