Yamashita Tatsuro 80 Questions Interview (2012)

80 questions & answers with Yamashita Tatsuro. Straightforward enough.

Find out the answers to all your burning questions, such as what Yamashita Tatsuro would wear if he was a chick, what car he drives, what he likes to drink, whether or not he ever goes to the convenience store, and what his favorite kind of donut is. Gripping stuff!

I should mention that the original interview actually has 100 questions, but I took the liberty of dropping 20 that were rather esoteric or irrelevant to non-Japanese Tatsuro fans, as well as questions that he answered more thoroughly in this 2016 interview.

Interview & text: Mori Tomoyuki (Japanese text)
English translation: Henkka
Yamashita Tatsuro on the web: Official Website

Making an appearance on our popular “100Q” column today is Yamashita Tatsuro who is releasing Ray Of Hope, his first new album in six years. […] Hearing his answers to our questions, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed by his extensive knowledge and unwavering sense of values. When something doesn’t strike his fancy; when he thinks something is simply wrong? He gives it a resounding “NO.” But when it’s something he loves; something he approves of? He pours all of his affection into it.

One can sense a direct connection between Yamashita Tatsuro as a person — as well as the music he creates — and the sheer passion of his answers in this column. All things considered, he truly is a profound person. Even just going through all of the works he introduces during this interview… It is probably going to take me around a year of very enjoyable research to get through it all.

Q2: If you could only bring one record with you on a deserted island?

Yamashita Tatsuro: I can’t do just one. At least let me bring a shelf of them. Or a box.

Q4: Your favorite childhood summer vacation memory?

Tatsuro: My greatest memory is climbing to the summit of Mt. Fuji — which I’ve actually done twice. My uncle first took us to Lake Yamanaka, and then me and my cousin, who is the same age as me, climbed it starting from the fifth station. The sunrise seen from the top of a mountain really is something else. I’d like to climb it again, but I wonder if I still have the strength…

Q5: What sort of fashion would you like to try if you were a woman?

Tatsuro: Cosplay. If it’s to satisfy some kind of a desire for change, I might as well go for some far-out fashion like that.

Q6: Any up-and-coming musicians you’re keeping an eye on?

Tatsuro: There’s this great trumpet girl by the name of Ichihara Hikari who played the flugelhorn on my latest album. She’s got a totally different notion of jazz than all those old geezers. Her phrasing is so delicate, and she’s a great composer and arranger. Her new album (UNITY) is fantastic, too.

I do listen to rock, too, but I feel like haven’t been hearing any new, young bands that are just outstanding as of late. I like bands along the lines of ANARCHY, BLUE HEARTS, eastern youth, MICHELLE GUN ELEPHANT, The Birthday, and MO’SOME TONEBENDER, but I don’t yet know of any young bands that are up to their level. That could just as well be due to lack of research on my part though.

Q7: Your favorite word or phrase?

Tatsuro: It changes with time. In the past it used to be “naseba naru” (“where there is a will, there is a way“). Eh, I guess I’ll go with that.

Q8: Your least favorite word or phrase?

Tatsuro: “Artist.” I hate being called that, and I hate saying the word, too. The way the word “artist” is used in Japanese media today, they’re not using it in the true sense of the word.

Q9: Words you used to propose?

Tatsuro: I’m shy so I never said any words like that. We both just kind of went, “Should we get married…?” You won’t see me actually saying anything you might hear in my song lyrics.

Q10: Favorite Takeuchi Mariya song?

Tatsuro: That’s tough. But if I was to pick just one, maybe “Junai Rhapsody.” My arrangement for that one turned out well.


Takeuchi Mariya & Yamashita Tatsuro

Q11: Book recommendation?

Tatsuro: I’m a big fan of Higuchi Ichiyo, having read through all of her works including her diaries. If I had to pick just one favorite from her works, it might be “Nigorie.” I’ve read it hundreds of times. But I really don’t read as much as I’d like — if anything, I’ve got an inferiority complex about how little I’ve read. See, when I was younger, whenever I had enough money to be buying a book I’d always use that money to buy a record instead.

Q12: You have great English pronunciation. What did you do to learn to speak it?

Tatsuro: Nothing. I just listened to records and memorized stuff. I can sing it, but I can’t actually speak it.

Q13: Your motto?

Tatsuro: This changes with time, too, but right now it’s this poem by Sugawara no Michizane. “Kokoro da ni makoto no michi ni kanainaba / Inorazu tote mo kamiya mamoran” (“When your spirit is in accord with the way of truthfulness / Even without prayers will the gods protect you“). In the past, it was this quote by a British politician (Benjamin Disraeli): “We make our own fortune and call it destiny.” I love proverbs.

Q14: What car do you drive currently?

Tatsuro: BMW 320i. I’ve been driving it for around 20 years now, and it’s never even had a blown fuse. People all over the world love this model so they still sell parts for it even now. I bet I’ll end up driving it for the rest of my life. I even had ETC installed on it. I do like the small cars with powerful engines, and for me the absolute peak of that are Porsches, but they’re so hard to drive. And besides, you can’t fit a family in a two-seater. (laughs)

Q15: Could you explain to us in layman’s terms how you make your albums sound so good?

Tatsuro: My albums don’t actually sound that good. There’s still so much for me to learn. I do think this latest album sounds quite good though. But then “good-sounding” differs from person to person, and it also depends on one’s listening equipment. Frankly, I can’t explain it to you in “layman’s terms.”

Q17: Tricks for mastering funk guitar strumming?

Tatsuro: Practice.

Q18: If you could say something to yourself from 35 years ago, just when you were about to debut?

Tatsuro: I’m doing all right even at this age, so don’t worry.

Q19: How many guitars do you currently own?

Tatsuro: I’ve gotten rid of quite many… But acoustic and electric guitars, maybe 10 of each. I’m not a professional guitarist in the true sense of the word so there’d be no point in me having that many more. Right now my main guitar is a Telecaster I bought from a friend 30 years ago for 50,000 yen. It used to be just a back-up guitar for the longest time, but the sound on that thing has only gotten better and better throughout the years. It sounds way better than other guitars I’ve bought in New York for 2,000 or 3,000 dollars.

Q20: Your favorite alcoholic drink?

Tatsuro: Wine. I like California wine, and I’m able to buy it cheap because I order it directly from the manufacturer. I don’t want anything to do with those expensive restaurant wines. I also like sake, and when I’m at home I’ll drink scotch. Well, anything’s good as long as it gets me drunk.

Q21: If you were to live outside of Japan, which country would you choose?

Tatsuro: I’ve never felt like I wanted to live anywhere but in Japan. But maybe somewhere like New Zealand. I’d prefer some country that’s peaceful and completely disconnected from the world’s affairs. Well, obviously no such country exists though.

Q22: What do you do to maintain your singing ability?

Tatsuro: Nothing special. For diaphragm training though, I do use this thing that’s meant to strengthen one’s respiratory organs. It’s this machine called POWERbreathe, and apparently quite a lot of people besides me use it, too.

Q23: Where would you like to go on a trip?

Tatsuro: Hmm. I haven’t been to New York in a while, so maybe there. I don’t really like going on trips though. I’m a “homebody.”

Q24: Your favorite kind of shoe?

Tatsuro: The 60’s were my youth, so it’s got to be the suede side gore boots for me. Back then, those things were pretty much the only thing that rock musicians wore. I still wear them on stage even now. I get them order-made for me — not to say they’re that expensive or anything.

Q25: Rice or bread for breakfast?

Tatsuro: Bread. For breakfast, I pretty much just have yogurt, bread, and salad. But what on earth is anyone going to do with this information…?!

Q27: Have you ever bought one of your own records at the CD store?

Tatsuro: No. Has anyone?

Q28: Your most memorable school teacher?

Tatsuro: My music teacher in junior high school. He was in charge of the brass brand… He was such a weird teacher. When we formed a band he let us use the music room to practice. He did have a bit of a temper, but he’s pretty much the only teacher who left an impression on me. He was from Kochi, and when he went off to arts college, Takemasa Eisaku — his master — wrote the song “Nangoku Tosa wo Ato ni Shite” apparently as a send-off present to him.

Q29: What would you eat for your last meal?

Tatsuro: Eel. In the past, anyone who wasn’t well-to-do in childhood would answer that question either with eel or fried shrimp.

Q30: What’s a fun song to play live?

Tatsuro: I’ve never once had “fun” performing one of my songs. I’m there to give something for the audience to listen to — it wouldn’t be right for me to be having fun. Besides, since I’m the band leader I’m always busy paying attention to the guys behind me. Like, “Are they all keeping with the program?”

Q33: Is there any instrument you’d like to learn to play?

Tatsuro: I was thinking of picking up the shamisen once I turned 50, but it’s already been eight years since then… My thinking was that in my old age I’d be playing the occasional live show while spending the rest of my free time playing the shamisen, but now I suddenly find myself quite busy. I really do want to start though. Just playing the shamisen while singing some dodoitsu or kouta music…

Q34: Why is the bicycle that is mentioned in the lyrics of “Shin Tokyo Rhapsody” green and not yellow?

Tatsuro: It’s just simple wordplay. The idea was to make it some color — at first the only color I could think of was dark purple. (laughs) But “midori” (“green”) had prettier intonation. This question had to have been submitted by a fan, right? Listen, there’s no deep meaning behind things like that. Bob Dylan has fans who like to read way too deeply into his lyrics — they’re called “Dylanists.” But apparently, even Bob Dylan himself dislikes people like that.

Green bicycles are pretty, though…

Q36: Do you ever go to the convenience store?

Tatsuro: Pretty much every day. What kind of a question is this? I guess you’re basically asking me, “Do you just tell your butler to go out and buy things for you?” What nonsense.

Q37: If you could sing a duet with any one person of your choosing?

Tatsuro: Hara Setsuko. Although Ronnie Spector might be a good choice, too… But no, I’ll go with Hara Setsuko. I’d be even more out of my element singing with her. (laughs)

Q38: What would you be doing had you not become a musician?

Tatsuro: I wanted to be an astronomer — I just wanted to spend all my days watching the stars. But that was no longer an option once I dropped out of high school. I might have also been a music publisher or a record producer. Otherwise, I would’ve just become homeless. At this point it’s hard to answer the question though… I don’t know.

Q39: If you were to form a band right now, what would you name it?

Tatsuro: I have no interest in being in a band. When SUGAR BABE broke up, I swore to myself that I’d never form another band in my life. I’ve been going at it solo ever since then, for 35 years. I’ve never even named any of my live bands. That reflects my feelings about the whole thing. Although even today I do feel that I’d like to give a shot at having my own a cappella group.

Q40: Words of advice to young people whose ambition in life is doing music?

Tatsuro: If you’re going to go pro, please have a firm understanding of contracts. When you avoid talking about the money stuff, that is 100% going to come and bite you in the ass later on down the line. And on the music side of things… It really all comes down to how far you’re willing to go to accomplish what it is that you want to do.

Q41: What is the difference between a song that goes on to be loved by all people for decades, and a song that is forgotten about in a matter of months?

Tatsuro: I’m convinced it’s all luck. There are countless of great songs that have been buried in the sands of history. Which songs become evergreen standards and which ones don’t, it’s all arbitrary. A song like “Christmas Eve” — that would’ve been thought of as “just another song on MELODIES” were it not for JR Tokai using it in their commercials. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Q42: What do you do when you’re stuck on a project?

Tatsuro: I have a drink and go to bed.

Q43: Out of all the cities you’ve visited on tour, which ones have left an impression?

Tatsuro: I only get to see the hotel and the venue — I mostly never go out to town. After all, I’m not there for pleasure.

Q44: What was the impetus for your decision to go pro?

Tatsuro: There wasn’t one. It was purely an accident. I dropped out of high school and quit college just three months in. I didn’t have anything better to do besides music.

Q45: Favorite donut?

Tatsuro: Maybe honey glazed.

Q46: When you’re making an album, at which point do you stop and decide that it’s done?

Tatsuro: Hey, that’s something I’d like to know that myself. (laughs) I’m someone who continues to struggle making my albums to the last minute; to the last second. I’ve never given a final “OK” to anything I’ve done. It’s always just me being forced to give up when someone tells me I’m out of time.

Q47: Is there anything you do deliberately to gain insight for your songwriting?

Tatsuro: I try to interact with people from as many different walks of life as I can. Watching films and reading books is obviously a given, but what feels the most fresh to me is just talking to people who work in fields that are completely foreign to me. Rather than a story about yet another celebrity relationship scandal, I can write a much better song about “a regular office lady who broke up with a guy.”

Q48: Your dream at the moment?

Tatsuro: My dream… That’s a tough one. I want to give a shot at shamisen and clay pigeon shooting, but those aren’t really dreams, are they? Well, I suppose something I think about is… “How many more albums can I make? How many more songs can I write?”

Q49: Is there anything you have yet to accomplish as a musician?

Tatsuro: Countless of things. I happen to possess such an unfortunate personality. See, whenever I finish making an album, I’m overtaken by this immense sense of self-hatred. In my twenties and thirties it was to the point where I was always going, “What the hell have I just made? That’s it — my life in music is over.” But then when I’m working on the next thing, my previous album always sounds better to me than the one I’m currently making.

Now, at this age, I’ve finally become more forward-looking in my thinking so I don’t get quite as depressed. But even now I still can’t stand to listen to my albums for about a year after making them.

Q50: If you had a time machine, which era in time would you like to go to?

Tatsuro: I feel that I’ve been fortunate enough to live in the most tranquil moment in history, so I have no desire to go to any other time. Just like your earlier thing about the one record I’d bring on a deserted island, this one’s a bit of a worthless question. Sorry for being so argumentative.

Q51: Your recommended pre-war Japanese film?

Tatsuro: Yamanaka Sadao’s Humanity and Paper Balloons. This is one of my absolute favorite films. He made this film in 1937, the year he received his draft papers, and the following year he died in China from dysentery. Were he to survive, I’m sure he would have eventually been considered one of the greatest film directors of all time, alongside the likes of Ozu Yasujiro, Mizoguchi Kenji, and Naruse Mikio.

Q56: What do you eat and drink before a concert?

Tatsuro: Just water. I don’t eat anything in the three hours preceding a show.

Q57: Are there any musicians out there who make you feel like you’re just no match to them?

Tatsuro: Oh, there’s plenty. To begin with, I’ve never thought of myself as a good singer. Maybe in terms of some very specific genre of singers in Japan might I be considered okay. But to answer your question, someone like B. J. Thomas for example. But then who would want to hear me sing something like that?

Q58: How do you feel about Vocaloid?

Tatsuro: To each his own.

Q61: Having made music your occupation, what about it makes you glad to have done so and what about it makes you feel less so?

Tatsuro: Music never lies — it beats having to deal with people. The thing about this profession though is that people are so quick to think of you as a “performer.” That’s something I don’t like. I like to think of myself as a rather social person; someone who has common sense by nature. But people tend to just chalk that up to me being a “performer.”

Q62: What is the most relaxing part of your day?

Tatsuro: When I’m sorting through my records.

Q63: What would you wish to improve about your sound system at home?

Tatsuro: I’ve found that I just can’t properly do both digital and analog. My system is tuned for playing singles and LP’s, so when I do play CD’s the sound always breaks. So the fact of the matter is that I’d really need two separate sound sets, but my place is so tiny that it just isn’t doable.

Q64: Any advice for people who want to make the music they listen to sound as good as possible?

Tatsuro: Sadly, the thing about digital is that the more money you put into it, the better the sound you’re going to get. That is not the case with analog. Honestly, you just need to save up the money and buy good equipment. “Bang for your buck” just isn’t a thing with digital.

Q65: What is the meaning behind the title of your new album, Ray Of Hope?

Tatsuro: The title was originally going to be WooHoo, but then I changed it to that after the Great East Japan Earthquake. They played “Kibou to Iu Na no Hikari” on the air a lot after the earthquake, and I just felt like I wanted to be close to people’s hearts.

Q66: How long did it take you to make the album?

Tatsuro: Three years in total, but then I also did two tours in that time, so in actuality it was a little less than a year and a half. The tours ran on a very tight schedule, too, and I even released five singles. (laughs) So in terms of making the actual album, I felt like I got really busy with it from the end of last year to the beginning of this year. It was actually supposed to be released in June, but what with the electricity instabilities due to the earthquake, it got pushed back by two months.

Q67: Previously you’ve said how in your youth you disliked singing songs about “real people.” Why is that?

Tatsuro: Well, first of all, because I dislike people to begin with. I formed my band back in the 70’s during the whole yojohan folk boom, and I just hated those kinds of songs about trivial human relationships. My music is much more Western-oriented — they’re “English-language melodies.” So, it’s then of course important for me to choose carefully the words I use in my lyrics. But if you put too much meaning into the words, you run the risk of the sound losing its color. So rather than people, I prefer singing about the seasons and about nature. Broadly speaking, the main theme of my lyrics is the loneliness and isolation of city life. But even in the city, it still rains; the wind still blows. That’s something I found interesting.

But now, at 58 years old, one starts to experience life and death more, whether they like it or not. When that happens, you start paying more attention to things like people’s feelings, life, and what it is to live.

Q68: How did your songwriting change following the earthquake?

Tatsuro: Hmm. How to answer this one…? Well, firstly, when it’s something you’ve been doing for 35 years, changes don’t come easily. There’s changes in the short term — with this last album, for instance, I made the decision to not have any negative songs on it, causing me to revise the list of included songs. But I don’t think there have been any long-term changes in my songwriting. It’s the world that’s changing, not me. The question is, will the changing world continue to accept my music the same way that it has in the past?

Q69: What are the pros and cons of recording digitally?

Tatsuro: Tapes are magnetic, so from the moment you’ve recorded something it begins to deteriorate and change in sound. Recording digitally, the sound never changes. So that’s definitely convenient. As to what’s difficult about digital… The dynamic range has gotten bigger, which has made it harder to produce distortion. Distortion is actually very important — it’s what gives the sound energy. With digital, everything tends to sound too gentle. That’s no problem if you’re doing delicate music, but with music like mine it’s almost like the sound doesn’t have any guts. So you have to think about how to overcome that.

Q70: How do you see the role of music evolving in the future?

Tatsuro: The decline in physical sales is destroying the entire foundation for the survival of music as a commodity. Now with sites like YouTube and Nico Nico Douga, young people aren’t paying any money for music. And that’s only natural — I bet I’d be doing the same in their position. I’m guessing that if things go on as-is, we’re going to go back to how things were before there were records. If you want to make a living on music, your only option will be to play live.

We might see a resurgence in things like dance parties of the past — people dancing to live music. In that sense, it’s only obvious how dance and music have become so inexorably linked. But, well, it’s still too early to say. I’ll have to see how things play out a little bit further before I can make any definitive prediction.

Q71: What is your next album going to sound like?

Tatsuro: I want to have a couple more up-tempo songs. More funk, more guitar riffs… I want to go back to the basics like that. Also, while I might not yet be able to pull it off on the next one, I’d like to play it all live. Once I can do that, that would really be going back to the basics.

Q73: Do you like performing live?

Tatsuro: I wouldn’t be doing it if I hated it.

Q75: How do you feel about AKB48?

Tatsuro: They are unnecessary to my life. But then I bet they feel the same way about me. (laughs)

Q76: What do you like about Tokyo?

Tatsuro: I’m not sure there’s anything I like about it… I was born here, so what can you do?

Q77: What do you dislike about Tokyo?

Tatsuro: While it’s a characteristics of many Asian cities, there’s way too much “scrap and build” going on. I know it can’t be helped — ours is a paper and wood-based culture after all. Still, it’s all just so careless. That’s why I wrote the song “Ore no Sora(a funk tune included on Ray Of Hope whose lyrics are a criticism of haphazard city policies.)

Q79: The first thing you do after you wake up?

Tatsuro: Go to the toilet.

Q80: The first record you ever bought?

Tatsuro: The Ventures’ “The Cruel Sea.” I bought the EP. I was in the first grade of junior high school.

Q81: The first concert you ever went to?

Tatsuro: The Ventures. Again, I was in the first grade of junior high school.

Q82: Your most recent CD purchase?

Tatsuro: Maybe Something Big by Mary Mary. They’re a duo of sisters who sing gospel, and they’re just great. Also, Candi Staton’s Fame Records compilation, and a Kokontei Engiku CD box.

Q83: How do you usually spend Christmas Eve?

Tatsuro: At home with my family. I try not to work during that time.

Q84: How many records do you own currently?

Tatsuro: CD’s, LP’s, and singles included, about 60,000.

Q85: What are your daily habits?

Tatsuro: The POWERbreathe machine I was talking about earlier, nasal rinsing, lower body baths, and taking my supplements. Lactic acid bacteria and stuff.

Q86: Are you more of an indoor or outdoor person?

Tatsuro: Indoor person, without a doubt.

Q87: Out of all the countries you’ve visited, which one have you liked the most?

Tatsuro: Even though it’s a city and not a country, I might just have to say Paris. It really felt like a proper city. Same thing with New York, actually — I love how it feels like it hasn’t changed a bit in the last 50 years.

Q88: When do you find it easiest to write songs?

Tatsuro: I’m someone who writes songs when I choose to do so. I just sit down at the piano and start writing. I’m not the type who can come up with songs in the shower or whatever.

Q89: What were you doing on 3/11, the day of the Great Earthquake?

Tatsuro: I was in the studio, recording. I was doing the drum overdubs on “NEVER GROW OLD.

Q91: What are you like as a father?

Tatsuro: When my daughter was in junior high school, they were given an assignment where they had to write some words about their parents. What she wrote about me was: “He’s annoying, but he can be useful sometimes.(laughs) I’d like to think she got it right.

Q92: Throughout all your tours, has there been one food or local cuisine that has been especially delicious, or that has otherwise left an impression?

Tatsuro: My shows always end pretty late, so there’s not many places left still open at that hour. While it’s not quite a “local cuisine”… I once went to this place out in Hakata that had great tonkotsu ramen. It was to the point where I was going, “A place with ramen this good actually exists?!” It was so good I actually had two bowls — the only time that has ever happened. I wonder if that place is still around…

Q93: What’s your definition of the word “stylish”?

Tatsuro: That’s a tough one… Being stylish is all about self-control. Appearance and self-control.

Q94: Any message to the people of your generation?

Tatsuro: It might be a bit of a cliché, but… “We’re living in tough times, but let’s all just do our best together.”

Q95: Any message to the younger generation?

Tatsuro: Don’t lend your ear to old men’s nonsense.

Q96: Your type in women?

Tatsuro: Women who are slender and have long hair.

Q97: Your type in men, as in men you find it easy to get along with?

Tatsuro: Men who are humble and well-educated.

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