Zankou, Lamp’s collection of new material and previously unreleased songs was released in March 2007. This interview regarding the album was posted in 2007 on a site called mf247 that no longer seems to exist. I’ve also included translations of liner notes of three of the six songs on the album; these were written by Taiyo Someya between 2004 and 2007. Enjoy!
You can buy Lamp’s music directly from the band, both physically and digitally, on Bandcamp.
If I was to summarize them very briefly: they’re a hidden gem of pop music. Give them a listen and you, too, will quickly hear that they’re truly deserving of the title. City pop, soft rock, MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira, a genre of Brazilian music that came after bossa nova), soul, AOR, bossa nova, etc… You can find components of many musical genres in Lamp’s material. Now, nearly two years since their last release, they’re breaking their radio silence to release their first collection of unreleased material, Zankou, while they’re busy working simultaneously on their fourth and fifth albums. With a focus on this collection that gives us a glimpse into their future with its newly-written songs, this interview zooms in both on Lamp’s past as well as what they wish to achieve going forward.
Interview & text: Masaru Yokota
— How was Lamp first formed? Where were you at the time, musically?
Taiyo Someya: Nagai was one year my junior in high school. We both liked The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, and since we had that in common we began doing music together. We started university and got into lots of soft rock, bossa nova… all kinds of music. Later we met Kaori which got us closer to what my vision of our band looked like, and she was also responsible for teaching me that Japan, too, has music that isn’t like all the mainstream pop music out there — bands like Happy End and Sugar Babe. Up until then I’d just been listening solely to Western music, but learning about those bands felt like Lamp finding its foundations.
Kaori Sakakibara: An acquaintance of mine passed me a message from Taiyo, asking me if I’d like to join the band, and that’s how we met. After a while we started doing shows and events, and upon lending and borrowing CD’s to each other and stuff, or when we listened to music together, we noticed that all three of us would like the same songs.
— Compared to other bands, you don’t play live often and you seem to put a lot more time into recording than most bands — you do things at your own pace. Would you say this is accurate?
Someya: Well, to us it feels like we’re doing as much as we’re capable of doing. (laughs) It’s not always easy. We just don’t want to feel like we’re forced to do anything.
— Your music strikes me as the kind that really rewards the listener the more one listens to it. I believe your intention is to make music that is as close as possible to your ideals, and so I want to ask: is there something that you feel especially focused on when making music? For example, in a past interview you’ve talked about wanting to “express something without actually saying it” in your music.
Someya: Recently I’ve been thinking about something called “absolute music.” For example, let’s say I put Japanese lyrics in a song and you give it a good listen, you’re almost bound to then try to make sense of those lyrics. If the word “wind” is on there, it’s going to bring up your mental image of the wind. But if I didn’t put any words in there, you’d be forced to form your image of the song based only on the music. To put it in other words, I want to make the kind of music that makes you feel just because of the music. Because that’s the way I listen to music myself: the reason Western music is easy for me to listen to, purely as music, is because I don’t understand the words — I can focus on just the sounds. There are times when lyrics can get in the way of the music. That said, it’s also true that you can feel something different entirely when you absorb the music with the lyrics. But I think it might be a fun idea to release something where the vocals are just hummed or something and have the listeners feel our music that way. When you take out the meaning that lyrics bring, the music itself becomes more distinct. So that’s one of my ideals, and I think that might have to do with the “expressing something without actually saying it” thing, too. Not to say that that’s the only thing that matters to me. Besides, I actually like writing lyrics, too.
Yusuke Nagai: It’s all relative — I mean, with the music and the words. I think for us, the words are indeed relatively less important than our sounds.
— We’ve previously talked about your many theories regarding songwriting. How do they affect your songs in practice?
Someya: Basically, when I’m composing music, I try remember how I feel when I’m listening to or playing music I like. I’ve always felt that if I think something I’ve composed sounds good, other people aren’t going to think it sounds completely worthless, either. Theories aside: at the end of the day it just comes down to listening to what I have and deciding if it’s good or not. After all, theories are just methodologies. What’s interesting is, to give an example, I used one theory to compose “Sugiru Haru no” for this release. But if I tried to employ that theory to write another song, it’d just sound like a rehash of the first song. I can use each theory to write but one song — if I tried to write more, I think the listeners would hear it, too. That’s why I’ve kept developing my methods so far — I have to. It’s like I’m constantly seeking, fighting to find more theories.
— In spite of this latest release, “Zankou,” being a collection of unreleased tracks, you nevertheless get to know Lamp all the way from 2003 up until present time, and it actually sounds to me like a good introduction to the band.
Someya: While the old songs might be a bit lacking sonically speaking, yeah, I do think it’s as good an album to start with as any. Your results may of course vary depending on your taste.
Sakakibara: I like how the booklet lists when each song was made. I actually prefer the three older songs. (laughs)
— With the release including a couple of new songs, could these tracks be considered a hint of what’s to come from Lamp in the future, sort of as in like a sneak peek of upcoming material…?
Someya: We do feel that way about “Mood Romantica No2” especially. I’ve gotten hooked on Brazilian music since finishing our third album, Komorebidoori ni te, and it feels like that’s the direction I’m personally going to be taking in the future. With that in mind, “Sugiru Haru no” might be a bit of an unusual song — though that could be partly because me and Nagai wrote it together. But yeah, I think our music is going to start sounding a bit more Brazilian in the future.
— Which songs are you the most fond of?
Someya: Maybe the second song, “Mood Romantica No2,” and the sixth song, “Utakata Kitan.” Those are some of my personal favorites of all the songs I’ve written.
Nagai: For me, the sixth song, “Utakata Kitan.” That was the first song we made where it felt like we were starting to find our own feet. Plus, we managed to record it well. Looking back on our first album, Soyokaze Apartment 201, it was so messy and it felt like we weren’t doing anything properly. (laughs) Like, a real “indie” kind of approach. This was the first song where we were starting to get the hang of it — rhythm, performance, vocals and arrangement included.
Sakakibara: “Utakata Kitan” is a really old song and I remember us all liking it. We have an emotional attachment to that one. We were always talking about recording it, but it took a long time until we actually did.
— Could I ask you to talk more on the direction you’re going to be taking in your upcoming work? I understand you’re simultaneously working on your fourth and fifth albums…
Someya: I want to create something that focuses on Nagai and Sakakibara even more than in the past, and I want to make something that’s deeper than any of our past work. I want to make something that can force its way into the listeners’ daily lives — I want them to think, in a good way, like “I want to listen to this album specifically at this time of this day of the week.” While maintaining our musicianship, of course.
Sakakibara: I want to make albums that are whole entities. Like, of course different songs will still express different things and all, but I want the albums to sound consistent. I’m very excited about both our fourth and fifth albums and I’m looking forward to making them.
Nagai: I think they’re both going to be albums very full of flavor — partly because it’s been such a long time since our third album. They’ll probably sound like we’ve aged a little bit. (laughs)
Here are some liner notes covering the last three songs from Zankou: “Natsu ni Chirashita Chiisana Koi,” “Omokage” and “Utakata Kitan.” Before I let you get to it, let me say a few words about the other three songs which Someya also briefly detailed in a blog post in 2007.
- 1. “Sugiru Haru no“ was newly recorded for this release. At the time of writing, it’s one of just two released Lamp tracks with a shared songwriting credit for Someya and Nagai (the other one being “Tooi Tabiji” from the 2011 album Tokyo Utopia Tsuushin). It’s the only released Lamp track with a lyrics credit for all three band members.
- 2. “Mood Romantica No2“ was also newly recorded. It’s obviously a very different arrangement of “Mood Romantica” that later appeared on Tokyo Utopia Tsuushin. For a bit of trivia: Lamp had been playing “Mood Romantica” live as early as 2006.
- 3. “Gozen 4ji“ is a musical piece constructed by Someya in the winter of 2006 that collects and meshes together song fragments of over 10 versions of the same song done in different takes and arrangements.
With that, here are Someya’s liner notes for the other three songs.
4. “Natsu ni Chirashita Chiisana Koi”
This is a song I wrote around the same time as “Machi wa Amefuri.” The chorus vocal in the intro is something Kaori came up with and sang by herself. The chorus vocals in other parts of the songs were my work, but looking back, it feels like I could’ve done a bit more to improve them. Writing this song at home, I was basing it on the image of Hawaiian pop like Kalapana and Tender Leaf, but it ended up sounding nothing like them.
As someone who isn’t very good with musical scores, arranging songs is something I aspire to do more of, and yet, it’s also a major challenge. I always have a lot of trouble with arrangements. Listening to it now, there’s nothing special about this song’s arrangement, but at the time when I’d just finished writing it, I felt quite proud of the overlapping backing strings, horns, and flutes. Plus, it was thanks to writing this song that I was able to feel confident about moving on to record our second album, “Koibito e.”
I felt like I’d challenged something new with the lyrics as well. As with the title of the song “Konya mo Kimi ni Telephone Call” that I wrote later, I made a deliberate attempt to use a lot of English words written in katakana in the lyrics of the song — even though it’s something I find to be really uncool.
The lyrics, melody and chord progression of the “Long Beach wo~” bit were added later. That, as well as the dated feel of the progression of the entire outro in general — I don’t expect many people to have gotten this, but that was a kind of nod and a wink towards the whole image of indecisiveness that comes with youth.
All that aside: needless to say, we were trying hard to make a good song with a high degree of perfection with this one.
By the way, Sakakibara’s vocals were recorded in one take. I think she sings great here.
I think what makes this song good are Nagai’s lyrics and the gentleness and transience of his voice here. Following its initial release on a compilation album, me and Nagai were talking about how listeners didn’t seem to be getting what was good about this song. Listening to it as of late myself, though, I come to recognize its greatness once again. Sometimes gentleness can come off as weakness, and it can be hard to go places when one is trying to be as transparent as possible. I think this holds true, and that may be the issue some listeners have with this song.
I remember the first time I heard this song. Nagai brought me an MD of six home recordings he’d done. “Omokage” was one of those songs, being still split up in three smaller sections at that point. But the verse and chorus — the heart of the song — were already there, complete with his chorus vocal work. Other songs that had their demos on that MD included “Hirogaru Namida” and “Tsumetai Yoru no Hikari,” but to me, this song in particular stood out. I just loved hearing the key change and the three-part vocal harmony at the beginning of the chorus.
As for the actual recording, things I like about it include Misawa’s electric piano phrases and other embellishments, in unison with Nagai’s electric guitar, the chorus work in the “asa ga kuru koro ni wa~” passage, and Nagai’s ephemeral vocals. I feel that his singing sounds especially heartrending during the “tsuyoi kaze ga~” bit.
Sasaki’s cymbal work, too, is equally impressive. I asked him how he could make the cymbals ring out for so long, and he explained to me that there are these things called sizzlers that can be attached to the cymbals which can really prolong the sounds they make. I felt that that sound really suited this song.
Meanwhile, Sakakibara contributed accordion, flute and backing vocals, which were all recorded beautifully. It was my idea to put in those accordion phrases in the interlude and ending parts, but we actually had to spend a long time arguing over what to have there. I wonder if the listeners like the end result.
We didn’t have a lot of time to record this song, so the arrangement is quite simple compared to many of our other songs. But in this case, I felt it was good that we didn’t go too far with it. Speaking of my own contributions to this song, that would be coming up with the idea of the chord changes in the verse after the second chorus. I really like the effect, and I tried doing the same thing in my song “Nichiyoubi no Owakare” as well, but there it felt like I didn’t succeed very well in achieving the element of surprise a good chord change can bring.
6. “Utakata Kitan”
Lamp was formed in the beginning of February 2000. This song, “Utakata Kitan,” was written on July 17th, 2000.
Back when we’d only just started out, the three of us would discuss things like the kind of music we wanted to do; our individual roles in the band; about what our activities as a band would be like. As someone who’s not a particularly gifted singer nor instrumentalist, I told the other two to leave the guitar playing and songwriting to me.
That said, in the beginning I was filled with doubt as to whether I would actually be able to write the kind of songs that the three of us desired to do. Upon writing this song, “Utakita Kitan,” and the song “Amaashi Hayaku” slightly before it, I could finally sweep away those thoughts of self-doubt. Looking back, I think having been able to write this song from scratch is something that in many ways must’ve had a big influence on the Lamp songs, activities and works that followed since.
When we come up with songs that we’re personally really fond of, we sort of place them on this pedestal and it can take a long time before we actually decide to record them. This was one of those songs. In the summer of 2004, we finally decided it might be time to release it, so we set out to record and make an accompanying video for the song. Timeline-wise, this was before we began recording our third album, “Komorebidoori ni te.” Overall, the recording process was a smooth one. We were starting to have a little bit more confidence in ourselves as far as recording goes: for example, we captured sounds we made using this bowl filled with water, and we kept the sound of Sakakibara clearing her throat before she begins to sing. The percussion work, too, is effective, and I like it a lot.
Sakakibara and Nagai really like this song, too. I’m very glad we made it. By the way, I used a keyboard to compose this song which is something of a rarity for me.