For Fumitake Tamura (aka BUN), the path to his signature sample-heavy, hip-hop inflected style began with his university studies of Western music and contemporary composition. “I originally studied classical music.” he tells us via a translator on a sunny afternoon in Tokyo. “Around that time, I accidentally heard an album of the hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, I found their music very interesting and I wondered how this structure was built. I adopted methods I know, using things like scores to analyze it but that didn't work after all because, rhythmically speaking, hip-hop isn't music that easily fits into Western notation in which a bar is equally divided into quarter or sixteenth notes.”
Following his fascination with hip-hop, Tamura started making beats himself and tried out different approaches to reconcile the art of chopping samples with the analytical skills he picked up studying 20th century art music, which, to him, seemed to be an extension of the Western music tradition. “When I was young, I did Western music experiments like rendering 12 tone technique in sampling but I didn't find it interesting at all – it was just transferring one structure to another. Having done this stuff, I came to realize that it was much more fun working intuitively after all.”
This intuitive approach has seen Tamura release a number of solo and collaborative albums and EPs on the LA-based Leaving Records, his own Tamura imprint, and distribution through Ryuichi Sakamoto's Commmons platform. All the while, his productions have continued to evolve and mutate along with his conception of sampling. “Sampling is like taking in part of someone’s miniature garden into yours” he says. “It’s like transferring a well-arranged flower bed and concrete blocks of a house into your miniature garden by replacing the flower with another one and painting a color on the wall. And there are observers outside. In the miniature garden, there are fragments made by various people, re-processed and rearranged to the creator’s taste. Those fragments are originally from various drum hits and singing and the garden is nested within another structure and so on. When it comes to the way I make hip-hop and sampling music, I’m conscious of this nested structure and I try to bring out the complexity of it.
Ultimately, sampling music has many chance elements in a broad sense because it is music that audibly and equally juxtaposes different materials from a record you pick on a particular day or a song you choose on iTunes by chance – as opposed to conventional music, where there is a stronger focus on sounds themselves. Sampling music treats premade materials and is more intuitive, kind of looser, which conventional music lacks most, I think.”
You were in the US recently touring with LA-based rapper/producer Busdriver, with whom you have been collaborating for a few years. One of the results of your collaboration is Free Black Press Radio, which can be described as something like a podcast or radio show. How do you describe it?
I think things like the podcast is what Busdriver considers to be a representation of his attitude.
And how does the collaboration with Busdriver actually work? Do you just send tracks back and forth?
Let me explain our encounter first. Once, when Busdriver was on tour in Russia, a Russian DJ played a track of mine which prompted Busdriver to get in touch with me via Twitter. Until I met him in person for the first time recently, were we in contact almost entirely via email. When I sent him a song, it came back with something he added or he used it for his album without me realizing it. This is how we are. He doesn't send me messages about the use of my music. I found on my US visit that lots of my songs had been used. I'd sent quite a few songs but only a few of them had received responses. Then I went to LA to discover he'd stocked up the songs with lots of raps added.
The music for Busdriver's albums and the music for Free Black Press Radio are completely separated in his mind. It seems that more beat-driven stuff goes to Busdriver and things with fewer beats go to Free Black Press Radio.
You also have an ongoing collaboration with the American producer Dakim, with two releases on Leaving Records. How did you come into contact with Dakim?
I might be digressing a little bit, but in the mid '00s I liked Carlos Niño's Ammoncontact project and sent a demo to Plug Research, the label who had put out their first release. Around that time, the label shared an office with Dublab and the demo went to Matthewdavid, who worked for Dublab. Soon after he got in touch with me, he started Leaving Records, and its first release was by Dakim.
He was making a sound I'd never heard at the time. I don't remember whether I asked Matthew his e-mail address or I found it on his website, but I made contact with him and asked for his remix for my album.
So how did your collaboration work? Did you meet in person or did you send files back and forth?
We mainly exchange files. For our Mudai album, I made some tracks and sent them to him and he took them over. Also, I used his tracks as ingredients, turning them into new ones. Some of the tracks in the album are solely from me. He just chose and left them as is. When it comes to meeting with him in person, the release of our first Mudai album coincided with a live show where we played together and he showed me some of his MPC techniques. I guess learning his character from watching his performance and disposition gave me a hint about how to put Mudai Version together.
I believe that this negative space can have a stronger pull that attracts attention to music than a continuation of the sound, which is why I use sidechain.
Was there a change in approach between Mudai and Mudai Version?
Mudai was a collection of collaborative pieces we made until 2014. Mudai Version put together what we finished with further productions until the beginning of 2016. For Mudai, we considered each track an ingredient. Dakim layered one with another, pieced them together and added extra drums. We see that it's an album where the whole of one side makes up one track. It was mastered to cassette with heavy compression applied. I think the album is infused with a lot of Dakim's rawer sensibilities.
Mudai Version on the other hand includes all the tracks separately. It is more on the hi-fi side of our productions. It was made over a two-year period after its predecessor and I upgraded the tracks with various processing. So, you'll feel me more in this album. Mastering was done by Matthewdavid in his usual manner.
On your collabs with Dakim as well as in many of your own productions you are using sidechain compression in a very interesting way – the rhythmical pumping of the compressor is like an instrument itself. Do you have any tips for using compression creatively in this way?
I often use not only sidechain compression but sidechain gate. The key to both is the capability to make negative space, or gaps in the sonic space.
Technically speaking, it's important adjusting the attack and release time as well as what source the sidechain uses. By sourcing a drum sound you can force the groove of the compressed element into the drum's rhythm. With gate, you can pull the gated element into the drum's rhythm while creating a negative space that would otherwise be filled with a sound. That gives the the sonic field a greater sense of perspective.
I believe that this negative space can have a stronger pull that attracts attention to music than a continuation of the sound, which is why I use sidechain. I judge whether it works by seeing if confounding expectations that the sound will continue creates a certain feeling as if the ground was being pulled out from under you or some kind of technical glitch briefly stopped a movie you are watching.
Two of your albums seem to follow fairly strict concepts, at least in the naming. On Bird, every track has the name of a different avian species. And on Minimalism, each track is named for a minimalist artist. Were you following some specific concept when you were making these albums?
There’s also my previous album, Adieu a X, whose tracks titles are all female names. I was asked "Are they your ex-girlfriends?" but they're not. Rei, for example, is named after Rei Kawakubo and Yoko is Yoko Ono. They are all female creators I respect. What I wanted to do with it was be playful. With the presumption that people would ask that question, I experimented and made the album look conceptual.
There is a track called “Judd” on Minimalism, and my friend who is an artist told me he felt Donald Judd from the track. But in fact, there's nothing I took from Donald Judd. I wanted to make fun of people's tendency to make assumptions. So when it comes to those three albums, there's hardly any concept other than musical ones. I only named it Minimalism as an afterthought and it's just a kind of a joke and has no deep meaning.
There is a musical concept though. The tracks on Minimalism were originally twice as fast. What happened when slowing them all down by half was that the sound image of the delay sounds changed and felt pleasantly syrupy at half speed. Then I thought "I can use this sonic shift as a concept for an album" and Minimalism is based on it. I just reduced the sample rate by half, which was fun because spatial effects like reverb and delay sounded fascinating. As you slow things down, they become exciting to me and it is interesting to rediscover the shift.
After that, what I wanted to do with Bird was to make a statement that music matters. By making the album look conceptual with consistency in track titles, the music behind the concept paradoxically shows through. In other words, I wanted to say it’s all about music.
Fumitake Tamura has generously shared a collection of chords and textures recorded to VHS tape for extra warmth and grit. Download the free VHS Sound Pack.
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