Interview: Yosi Horikawa

Max Cole speaks to the Chiba-residing sound designer and Academy alum Yosi Horikawa, who demonstrates a keen ear for capturing distinct field recordings and evocative percussive soundscapes that chart the poetry of nostalgia as much as they play with our sense of aural perception. In anticipation of his Wandering EP being released next week on First Word, the DIY audio fanatic brings a selection of new sounds and tracks to the SonarDôme this Thursday, June 14th, inviting us to climb inside his multi-dimensional panoramas.

A DIY ethic has always been at the core of what Yosi does. Ever since childhood, growing up in Osaka’s sub-tropical temperatures, he would make his own toys. His curiosity for engineering and craftsmanship eventually spilled into making music, inspired by the picture of KRS-One shouting into his headphones on the cover of the Return Of The Boom Bap. Yosi’s quiet demeanor doesn’t initially strike you as a close fit with KRS-One’s loud swagger, but they share similar pioneering values: if you want a job done properly, better do it yourself.

Fortunately for us, sound and its many characteristics are high on Yosi’s agenda. His relationship with audio goes beyond a fascination with its physical properties. He likes to play with the possibilities of its graphic, emotional scenery, operating within the fuzzy zone of memory and dreams. “When I start making music,” Yosi explains, “first of all I decide on a concept for it. Then I see some imagery, but it’s not vivid yet. It’s like a fog. I choose some sound materials to use, and usually start with a rhythm. As I continue, the sounds remind me of a scenery, and I imagine other sounds that might exist in the scenery. Little by little, the scenery becomes more vivid.”

“I like to see how people notice the sounds in my track. I'd like to think it brings new joy to our everyday lives.”

 One of Yosi’s earliest releases was back in 2008, when his track “Skipping” found its way onto an EP sampler by French beat label Eklektik Records, who subsequently released his debut album Touch. It sets the template for Yosi’s approach right from the beginning, as he condenses the constituent sounds of skipping, the stomping of feet and the whistling of ropes to harmonic and romantic effect. It’s closer to “Double Dutch” than “Eye Of The Tiger”, tapping into childhood memories and schoolyard joie de vivre. Yosi has a knack for picking evocative sounds that speak to us, whatever the story. Sitting somewhere between locked percussive grooves and psychoacoustic postcards, his atmospheres confound as much as they reveal.

But there’s more to Yosi’s music than some careful pruning. His tracks have a readymade quality to them – he encourages us to hear familiar sounds in new musical ways. During his own school days, Yosi studied a combination of craft, design and technology, covering hands-on skills such as welding and film-developing, before graduating with a degree in architecture. This foundation of concept and craft informs his music-making process. “I think it’s a bit unusual how I’ve come to think about the themes and concept of my music. I like to see how people notice the sounds in my track. I’d like to think it brings new joy to our everyday lives.”

You might be tempted to place Yosi in the same Expedit rack as sound conceptualists like Matthew Herbert, Matmos or Scanner. But while these musicians and their sample-based projects tend to have a certain thematic rigour, Yosi chooses everyday sounds that people can relate to, but that lack obvious significance. His track “Cook From South”, which samples a host of kitchen utensils and cooking noises, has more in common with Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson’s short film Music For One Apartment And Six Drummers. It brings to mind Disney-esque fantasies of inanimate objects being jolted to life, a kitchen in the grip of cartoonish fever. There’s a certain playfulness and fairytale-like naivety, and while the song contains no clear meaning, it also seems to pose some questions that aren’t easy to answer.

"I imagine everything has somebody's memory attached to it. I hope people can feel their memories again when they recognize the concrete sounds."

 Sourcing some of Yosi’s unique samples can be an adventure in itself. There’s stories about getting lost in forests, or Yosi melting his microphones trying to record the sound of fire. These experiences also help him decide how to arrange the tracks, as he navigates his way through the fog. He tells us about the story behind the title track from his forthcoming Wandering EP, and how he set off to record some birdsong before losing his way when it got dark. As panic crept in and he began to worry that he might not make it home, the birds found him, and guided him out. “I like the story of the sounds,” he admits. “The story can make us feel like we’re in a movie. Sometimes I like to try and tell a story, but more often than not, the sounds start telling it themselves. If I find a story then I pay close attention to making it flow as best as possible. But it means no edit or arrangement is ever the same!”

The picture of Yosi standing in a forest, boom mic and headphones at the ready, is oddly reminiscent of the scene in 24 Hour Party People, where Martin Hannett’s hilltop recording session is interrupted by Tony Wilson. It’s easy to imagine a club of die-hard field recorders, all desperate to capture the perfect silence, but thwarted by the world that keeps getting in the way. Does Yosi find this is the case for him? “Well not really,” he answers. “My wish list for specific places to record is pretty long! In my experience, I loved the midnight park in Tokyo. There were a lot of buildings around the park, so the reverb sounded very strange. I have many other places on the list, but it’s hard to tick them off, because I find other interesting places by chance so often.”

By allowing chance and the environment to play such a prominent role in how his tracks develop, Yosi steps back from the process.  He’s like a facilitator, and it’s the songs themselves that are the main attractions. His dedication and attention to detail seems to stem more from a sense of duty than simply artistic ambition, as if he owes it to the song, or to the listener’s mnemonic self. It’s a duty he takes very seriously. When faced with the problem of his kalimba feeding back from the pick-up he installed, he went back to the drawing board and designed a new kalimba from scratch, building it to his exact specifications. And let’s not even mention the challenge of studio monitor fidelity – Yosi has built over 20 pairs of speakers to date.

“My favourite instruments are kalimbas and instruments which came through the Silk Road,” Yosi admits. “I feel my own roots from these instruments, like Tibetan bells, Chinese gongs and singing bowls. But I like to think about each sound from many angles. From a physical point, as well as a spiritual point of view. I think all the elements influence how we feel about a track. Personally, I need to hear the textures of real sounds. I imagine everything has somebody’s memory attached to it, I hope people can feel their memories again when they recognise the concrete sounds.”

Yosi Horikawa’s Wandering EP is released on First Word Records on June 18th. He performs this Thursday on the Academy's SonarDômestage at Sónar Festival.

By Max Cole on June 13, 2012

On a different note