akiko kiyama is not your average techno artist. she speaks softly and moves quietly. you’ll rarely find her on the dancefloor. she prefers the studio to the club scene. her music, likewise, is not your average techno endeavor. she never creates with an end result in mind. she favours weird samples and strange sounds. her label, kebko music, releases cassette tapes, not vinyl. but her innate eccentricity is exactly what makes her so capable. born and raised in japan, she shares her time between berlin and tokyo, making music both for her own imprint and for labels like nerv music, lick my deck, and sleep is commercial. during her last visit to berlin, we sat down at a cafe in mitte to talk kebko, musical expression, anti-conceptualism, and the value of weirdness.
your music is quite weird and often very melancholic or unsettling. do you feel the way your music sounds?
yes, for sure. i’m a pretty melancholic person. of course, to be happy is nice… but just sometimes i just can’t! if we had the same feeling of happy all the time, we wouldn’t like it anymore. so it’s better to be happy sometimes, but melancholic other times. it’s more specific to each time; there should be some reasons behind it, but i think melancholy is necessary.
does it take that kind of personality to be a good artist? do you think you need to be a little bit strange to create well?
(laughs) maybe. maybe not weird, but you need a strong personality. for me, i’m a very intense person… but i stay very quiet, even with my friends or my family. i don’t know why! i’m not very talkative, i’m not good with words. i don’t know the way to transform what i have to say from my inside to my outside in words, so the easiest way is through music. it could be in other ways, like painting or writing or photography.. it’s just a way of expression. words are actually not necessary. i need music to express what’s inside. everything weird about me comes out in my art.
it’s an outlet for your weirdness that can’t be expressed in any other way?
right. i have something inside that i want to explore, that i want to say. i just don’t say it with words. i’m convinced that if i had a normal job, i’d go crazy because i would have no way of letting everything out.
your most recent release, ophelia, is a nice reflection of that, i think. here is a character who is a little bit crazy, melancholic, sad. but the story is beautiful, much like the narrative of your release.
ophelia, of course, this is the name of the shakespeare character, but it actually comes from natsume soseki, a japanese writer…. he wrote the kusamakura, which translates to “the three-cornered world.” there’s a lady in the book, she is compared with ophelia in the painting by john everett millais. i saw this painting, and this was very inspiring! i can’t say if i liked it or not but it made me think so much. she was dead in the water, her mouth was a bit open, she looked a bit sad… a bit angry. i don’t know what she’s thinking but… i connected with this very much. i was making the second track, “ophelia,” so that track is especially a reflection of this. like you said, it’s melancholic but it’s beautiful. beautiful in a different way: there’s weird violins and vocals and her voice is very intense and angry. it’s beautiful because it’s not just pretty, it has some emotion.
do you think there’s more of a market now for music like that? music that’s more than just pretty, but has some kind of emotional intensity?
there’s more of a place for experimental music now, that’s true. but even still, i’m not sure about this for myself. i’m practicing a lot more and bringing a vocalist with me and we’re doing a lot to improve our set… but still, i don’t know how this will be received. i try to play more and more experimental stuff. but at the same time, electronic music, especially techno music… it’s all based around the same thing. who can really tell what’s experimental?
in that respect, are you finding that tokyo is a more welcoming city for the kind of experimental stuff you’re making? more than berlin?
actually, i haven’t even done any experimental music since i moved back! i did a little bit but not so much. but actually this month, while i’m in berlin, i made three tracks which are very experimental, so maybe it’s better here. easier to create.
in berlin, i don’t go out! (laughs) i have more time at home and in the studio. in tokyo, i still go out… i’m pretty easily influenced by my friends, so i go out often. when you go to a berlin club, you can hear the same kind of stuff every night, because it’s a techno party, you’ll hear a techno dj… it’s not as inspiring for me as in tokyo. but here there is more time to take that inspiration and use it for creating music.
do you get bored of techno easily? i mean, is it necessary to turn things are on their head when it comes to electronic music?
for me, the repetitive structure is still very important for me. i like how it develops… i like minimalism. but at the same time, if you are focusing on music as an outlet, like me, then it’s better to change sometimes and do something that’s maybe more fun. i sometimes will listen to a drum n bass track, just to see and see where that might push me to make things. sometimes i’ll put the bpm at 180 or something like that, sometimes i just play around with audio samples. it’s good to find inspirations in things that are not normal for you.
i read that you don’t like to start with any kind of concept or goal in mind.
right. if i set out to do something experimental or techno or whatever, it always ends up being completely different anyway! (laughs)
if not from a concept, where does music start for you?
just by making! the thing is, even if i didn’t think about anything, any goal or concept or idea, i still create. if i set out wanting to create a track at 130 bpm… it doesn’t even matter because for sure by the end it’ll be at 120 bpm or 90 bpm or 150 bpm. wherever i start, i end somewhere different. how can i change this phenomenon? i can’t. so, i shouldn’t try! i focus on creating music, not necessarily creating music that fits into a certain framework.
like, why bother imposing limits on yourself?
i can’t change myself. i don’t want to base my music on a goal, i just want to make what comes out naturally and easily. it’s somehow very fragile. i don’t want to do something with “intent,” otherwise i can’t finish the track. i just don’t want to do something inauthentic.
is that why you decided to start your own label?
partly. what’s most important is the atmosphere, the soul of music. i like anything that’s kind of against the grain of the typical “only functional” dancefloor electronic music… when i was in moscow for a gig in 2010, i started talking about my by-productions of techno music, i already had some experimental music on my computer. i made a few tracks with a friend from russia, and we didn’t know what to do with it. i loved the material a lot, so i just released it myself.
what’s it been like so far for you, running kebko?
i had already the stuff i wanted to release so that was easy, but to run the label is totally a new experience for me. i’m not very good at communications when it’s not necessarily directly related to music. this way it took much more time for me to get used to. since the last year, i’ve felt like i should focus on this and improve that skill so i’ve been working at it! but it’s good to be able to do the ideas i like… just what i want! (laughs) i’m kind of selfish in that way. a bit arrogant.
what kinds of ideas?
well, i found a lot of cassette tape labels in the us and the uk, and they’re actually pretty strong, so it gave me some inspiration. i didn’t know anything about the tape scene at all, i had no idea if my fans even had cassette tape players… but i wanted to make the releases more like art objects than just music. i wanted to make a special package, handmade and screenprinted in berlin, so i decided to do the cassette tapes. if you buy the tape, you also get a free download so you can listen on your computer. i am happy with this even if the releases take much more money and much more time…
i love the cassette tapes. they’re beautiful and they feel so special. i think kebko is a very unique label, not only in aesthetic but in its personality as well. i’ve heard you call it “anti-trend.”
i can release it on the label as long as it expresses the artist’s personality. that’s the most important thing. in the end… the result, the music will tell. sometimes i find a track which sounds very unique or different from the others, but still feels too intentional for me. genre doesn’t matter. at all. it could be indie rock, experimental, techno, whatever…. it’s more about the personality.
yes, sometimes i can really understand that artist’s personality from their works… when i hear their track, i feel like i know them. and it reveals things that are common to us, and that’s something that’s maybe hard for me outside of music.
i felt really isolated from the techno scene because i’m not a very party person. i don’t drink. i cannot be awake for four days, right? somehow i’m too healthy or… i don’t know! but still, in music, i can fit in. i love music and i found finally my team or my collective… even if the way we interact as people doesn’t match, our music personalities match. that’s what’s important.