DJ Nobu: Japan’s Tireless Techno DJ

Cedric Diradourian

As one of the leading figures in the Japanese techno scene, and a regular fixture in clubs across the country for well over the past decade, one would expect DJ Nobu to be comfortable – if not necessarily enthusiastic – when it comes to his media duties. Instead, he blitzes through my opening gambit of questions perfunctorily. His hometown? A seaside city called Kamogawa in Chiba prefecture. His musical upbringing? He used to play guitar. And clarinet, he adds, without batting an eyelid.

It’s tempting to put his terseness down to what looks certain to be a punishing weekend ahead. After our interview, Nobu will head straight to Womb in Tokyo’s Shibuya neighborhood to open for Hotflush boss Scuba, after which he will drive to Nagano, where he’s due to play at 11 in the morning at the Ringo Music Festival. Nobu is one of a handful of underground DJs in Japan making a living solely from playing out, and he is under no illusions as to why few others attempt it. “It’s seriously tough,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a harder job [than being a DJ] here – but it feels like that’s what I’m living for.”

I don’t think there’s a harder job [than being a DJ] here – but it feels like that’s what I’m living for.

There is, also, the sense that Nobu is keenly aware of the alternative. Although he shies away from launching into full-blown anecdotes, he recalls a period of his life when it wasn’t his musical exploits that were paying the bills; a past that can be traced in the contours, and even scars – albeit unobtrusive ones – across his face. Now, Nobu’s focus is solely on music, and there’s plenty to keep him busy: he’s a DJ, a producer, the owner of record label Bitta, and the organizer of a full-on techno and house party called Future Terror. Held at Unit in Daikanyama, Future Terror has been going since 2001 and continues to pack the sizable venue – a testament to Nobu’s popularity as a DJ, and its adventurous booking policy (guests in recent times have included composer Charles Cohen, Morphine Records boss Morphosis, and Philadelphian duo Metasplice).

Cedric Diradourian

Although recognized primarily as a techno DJ, Nobu is equally adept working in any number of styles and genres, and boasts a vinyl collection over 10,000 records deep, although he admits he struggles to keep them all organized. Over the next few weeks, Nobu will play alongside a variety of artists, including German house connoisseur Prosumer, UK techno upstarts Livity Sound, and Detroit’s Big Strick. But it is the prospect of a back-to-back set with London’s Ben UFO in November for RBMA that perhaps whets the appetite most. Nobu is no stranger to playing back-to-back sets, occasionally spinning alongside DJ Masda from Cabaret Recordings, and having shared the booth with Peter Van Hoesen and Sandrien earlier this year. “There was something [Peter] said that left a strong impression on me,” recalls Nobu. “He told me that he dislikes DJs who let their ego come to the fore when they're playing back-to-back – it should be about expressing mutual respect for one another as DJs.” Nobu recalls. There should be no shortage of respect when Ben UFO and Nobu bring their records to Oath in Aoyama – a perennial favourite amongst Tokyo clubgoers, particularly for its afterhours events – and those in attendance can expect a master class in selection.

Like Ben UFO, Nobu favours diverse, eclectic strains of dance music. His most recent mix CD, Dream Into Dream, navigates between underground techno favourites such as Yves De Mey, Rrose, and Kangding Ray, and the more rough-and-ready sounds of New York’s L.I.E.S. imprint and Metasplice. The mix reflects Nobu’s own musical origins – not in electronic music, but in punk and hardcore.

“I used to love punk and hardcore so I still listen to all that – I go to live shows, I even went to a grindcore festival in Asakusa the other day [the Obscene Extreme festival, featuring the likes of Doom and Cripple Bastards],” he says. Sharing a stage with Osaka noise musicians such as Maso “Masonna” Yamazaki and Incapacitants eventually paved the way for Nobu’s early electronic productions – so-called “collages” constructed on an AKAI S3000 sampler and Cubase. “I was friends with the UK group Subhead in the late ’90s. I produced a collage on the AKAI using samples from Street Fighter 2 and they ended up putting it out on their label 2CB,” he explains, before hastily adding, “I would never let anyone listen to that now!” As a DJ, Nobu's early forays into house and disco have transitioned into a more techno-centric style. “I always liked unconventional tracks – I was more into Ron Hardy’s strange edits than straightforward New York house. That’s why even now I like the sort of tracks that might presently be termed ‘raw house’ or ‘outsider house’,” Nobu says. “I used to mainly play house and disco, then [Naohiro] Ukawa, [founder of Dommune], offered to have me play at Mixrooffice and I DJed on a Funktion-One sound system for the first time. Whilst looking for a style that would make the best use of the sound at Mixrooffice – highly defined and yet simultaneously delicate – I became completely absorbed by techno.”

The main thing is to account for your audience. If you can’t understand their feelings then you can’t play a truly superlative set.

His career as a DJ has since gone from strength to strength. As well as regularly playing all across Japan, Nobu frequently tours abroad, with visits to Berghain and Plastic People already under his belt this year, and further dates in Holland, France, and Germany which followed shortly after this interview took place. Nobu’s sets are punctuated by what I have come to consider somewhat of a trademark of his: long, unwavering stares, gazing out towards the dancefloor. “If you can’t read the atmosphere of the room then you can’t DJ well,” Nobu says. “Of course, there’s the technical aspect and other things too, but it’s about people – the main thing is to account for your audience. If you can’t understand their feelings then you can’t play a truly superlative set – you have to want to guide their focus towards the music.”

That’s not to say that Nobu resorts to playing crowd-pleasers – far from it. His sets do not just twist and turn, they lurch and judder, dragging audiences through some of the most irregular, warped strands of techno around. Meanwhile, from his position in the booth, Nobu directs the dancefloor like an expert composer, perceptibly reacting to the human element that ensures the atmosphere is constantly in flux.

Cedric Diradourian

Since I used to be in the world of punk and hardcore, I take things like music and societal issues seriously.

Indeed, it is on the topic of interpersonal communication that Nobu begins to really open up, lamenting how certain Japanese politicians have appeared to approve discriminatory attitudes against minorities with their actions. “In my spare time I used to go and rally towards stopping hate speeches,” he recalls. “I hate discrimination. I’ve been discriminated against myself, and it’s something that cannot be permissible. When I went to Germany I went to an LGBT event hosted by Tama Sumo that was rallying against Russia’s anti-gay laws. It might sound strange, but when I DJ at Berghain it’s a very spiritual moment for me. There’s no way that I can understand, for example, what the gay people in the audience might face in their lives, but in that one moment in the club you can feel a mutual sympathy.” He surprises me by telling me of the backlash he receives on social media when he speaks out on political issues. He shows me a message someone recently sent him on Twitter: blank, except for a close-up portrait of a certain politician, provocatively smiling from ear to ear. “Since I used to be in the world of punk and hardcore, I take things like music and societal issues seriously; that's where that inclination came from. To me, it seems like such an obvious mindset, and yet there are people who insult me for it.”

By this point in the interview, Nobu’s demeanor is worlds apart from when we began – it feels like he could go on talking for hours about socio-political issues. Stylistically, Nobu may have moved on from his punk and hardcore days, but that initial fire still burns in him and through his music, and that’s why he continues to be one of the most exciting and important DJs in the country.

By Mike Sunda on October 23, 2014

On a different note