Ken Ishii: the interview

The Japanese techno titan shows his fashionable side

Ken Ishii: the interview

It's Thursday afternoon at the Lamborghini showroom in Hiroo, and Miss Universe Japan 2008 has just taken one of the cars for a spin. The fortysomething Japanese guy in the striped t-shirt and trilby sits with an air of vague bemusement. This isn't a regular gig for Ken Ishii.

The DJ and producer, unarguably one of the most influential figures on Japan's techno scene, is here to promote this weekend's Tokyo Fashion Fuse, an event that aims to weld the worlds of clubbing and fashon. Ishii is appearing alongside DJ/model Van Cliffe.D and Womb resident Satoshi Otsuki, with models including the aforementioned Miss Universe Japan winner, Hiroko Mima, and pageant runners-up Rei Hamada and Naomi Obata. Oh, and a Lamborghini.

Fashion parties aren't exactly renowned for the quality of their music, are they? 'Yeah, I know what you mean,' says Ishii, who speaks in a British English brogue so soft that my tape recorder strains to pick it up. 'People don't care about the music so much.' And this one? 'I'm expecting a good fusion.' Well, they booked some reputable DJs for a change, so why not?

This has been a busy summer for Ishii. Last month, he revived Reel Up, his party with fellow techno stalwart DJ Yama, which has been going for nearly two decades now – albeit very infrequently. 'At the time [we started], 18 years ago, techno was very underground,' he recalls. 'In a way, it was like music for "chosen people." We didn't like that – we wanted the scene to be more open. That's why we started the party… but me and Yama are always busy, so we don't have much time to do it together.' That's putting it mildly: the last one was held back in 2009.

This month has already seen Ishii head to Sapporo to play alongside Takkyu Ishino at Rising Sun Rock Festival, and he's booked to appear at Freedomune Zero the day before Tokyo Fashion Fuse, and then at Ishino's Wire11 all-nighter on August 27. The latter will be a live set, something that he only does once or twice a year. 'I dunno, people don't really request it,' he says with a chuckle.

With gigs in such abundant supply, doesn't he ever feel sorry for younger DJs trying to establish themselves on the circuit? 'Personally, I like to see new guys coming in,' he says. 'But… I don't know, in a way promoters are still conservative, or maybe the crowd are a bit name-oriented... It's really strange. I'm very open to new sounds and new people, but the crowd are still hard on new people.'

Ishii himself found an audience in Europe – where he had a string of releases on heavyweight Belgian imprint R & S Records during the mid-'90s – before gaining widespread recognition at home, and he admits that emerging local talent might benefit from trying their luck overseas. Then again, he thinks it's easier once you get beyond the 'older countries' of house and techno. 'In electro and some new kinds of dance music, I think there are more rising stars in Japan, like Dexpistols and Yasutaka [Nakata],' he says. 'In a way, in local cities in Japan, they are more popular than guys like us. So, for the new kinds of dance music, there's probably still a chance to get in there.'

For his part, though, Ishii is content to be a purist. 'I still feel the power and the strength of techno,' he says, when asked if he hasn't grown sick of four-four beats after all these years. 'I still really like to see people shouting when I'm DJing: I like to see this energy. And also, it's techno that gave me the chance to become a musician and a DJ, to lead a musical life. When I make music now, I make it more about original techno...

'Sometimes new things get popular all of a sudden, like electro or electro-house or whatever, but I don't use it. Maybe if I had elements of these up-and-coming music styles, maybe my music would be more popular. I can see that, but I wouldn't do that.'

What, you've never felt tempted? 'There were a couple of times where I tried, but I felt it wasn't good in the end. So now I don't have to do that again.'

Ken Ishii plays at Tokyo Fashion Fuse 5, Tabloid, August 20

Interview & photo by James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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