With a buzz-generating EP and a catchy piano-house collaboration under her belt, Kinuko Hiramatsu has come a long way since purchasing her first thrift-store keyboard with no knowledge of how to use it. In the two years following the release of her rookie EP True Breath under the name Sapphire Slows, the Tokyo-based producer has worked her way up the DJ ladder and prepared a full-length album, Allegoria, to be released on Nov. 5. Pulsing rhythms, delicate vocals, and ethereal washes of synth on the LP are distantly evocative of a Grimes tune, if Grimes lived in Japan and toned everything down a little.
In the midst of her first American tour, Hiramatsu swung by our very own Old Meth to play an immersive set at BuHo this past Wednesday, Oct. 23. With the intermittent help of Japanese translators Neo Sora ’14, who also performed that night, and Hibiki Mizuno ’15, The Argus sat down with Hiramatsu to talk about electronic music and the all-too-familiar perils of the post-grad job hunt.
The Argus: How is the tour going?
Sapphire Slows: Great! I just came from Philadelphia today. I went to Toronto, Montreal, New York City, and Baltimore. Each city has a different vibe and a different audience. I met many artists and many new people. [Lapses into Japanese. Laughs.] It’s still hard to explain what I experience. Still too many things happen. This is a very DIY tour. I don’t have any booking agent, so my label and artist friends are helping me, and I’m staying at friends’ houses. But it’s better than staying in a hotel sometimes. I got many explanations from friends and artists. And my friends are all very sweet. Yesterday I got a cold, so that’s not good, but other than that everything’s okay.
A: How does the electronic music scene in America compare to Tokyo?
SS: Especially in New York State, I hung out with artists like ITAL, Luke Wyatt, Aurora Halal, and musicians of the L.I.E.S. label. The shows I play in NYC are kind of mixed with electronic music and indie rock. So, uh [speaks Japanese].
Neo Sora: She’s saying that, looking at the electronic music scene from Japan, she hears that, like…this artist comes from New York, but actually going to those places and being there, you realize that there are a lot of musicians that surround those musicians, and there’s actually like a whole scene instead of just isolated artists.
So these artists sort of share their studios and their houses and live together and stuff like that, and oftentimes the genres are very different, and they still somehow collaborate all the time. There’s a community. Whereas, in Tokyo, what’s different is you don’t really have that genre-mixing going on as much as in America, and you don’t really see indie rock artists collaborating with electronic artists.
SS: We have communities in Tokyo, but the community is very weak compared with the United States. It’s one of the reasons there are not so many artists in Japan coming up to the international music scene.
A: You’ve said that you were motivated to start making music after the [2011 Tohoku] earthquake. Why is that?
SS: Yeah. It’s just one of the reasons why I started making music. After the earthquake, I was job hunting. I was in the University in third grade, and next year I’d have to graduate and get a job, so I was doing job-hunting to get a job in journalism. Yeah, I wanted to be a journalist. But the earthquake happened, and many things changed, including journalism. Actually, the Japanese economy was not so good, and job hunting was so hard. And I struggled.
Suddenly I stopped all job hunting things and shut in in my room. [Laughs.] And made music. I changed my mind about what I should do. I thought, “What should I do? What’s the most important thing for me now? Is it to get a job? No.” I should do what I really want to do, what I can do.
A: You wrote on your SoundCloud profile that you make music mainly with 80s Casio keys and Ableton. Can you talk a little about your production process?
SS: At first I used 80s Casio keyboards and Ableton and 100 yen…
Hibiki Mizuno: So, like a dollar.
SS: Yeah, five dollars. Because I had my first keyboard called SK-1. Very classic sampling keyboard of Casio. In my parents’ house, because that was my toy when I was a child, and also we have a thrift store called Hard Off. [Speaks Japanese.]
HM: It’s like a big Goodwill of Japan.
A: What’s it called again?
SS, HM, NS: [Simultaneously] Hard Off.
A: Hard Off… [All laugh.]
NS: Yeah, it sounds pretty sexual.
SS: I love Hard Off. I find twenty-dollar keyboards like Casiotone: very cheap, junk, broken instruments. So I bought this kind of instruments and started making music with them.
Before I started making music, I got my MacBook Pro, and I started making music at first with GarageBand. And I learned how to record sound. Push this button; I can record sound with this button….And then I bought Ableton, because I like Ableton’s interface, and recorded from the Casios and sang. At first I didn’t want to sing because it’s too female. [Speaks Japanese.]
NS: At first she didn’t want to use her own singing at all in her songs, because as a solo female artist, it’s a really stereotypical thing for a female artist to just sing. So at first she was using vocal samples mainly for her songs. But then at some point she just decided to do whatever she wanted to do for a song, so “Animal Dreams” features a lot of her vocals.
A: Has your approach to producing changed at all since releasing True Breath?
SS: Not so much. Now I learned how to record and how to mix, how to make music better than when I started. So it gets more difficult, kind of. [Speaks Japanese.]
NS: So when she made True Breath, she really didn’t know how to mix or record, so it’s sort of all over the place in terms of mixing. In certain places where it should be stereo, it’s mono, and all that stuff. So she just did that all intuitively. Now she knows how to do it better, so it’s a lot harder. She actually just knows [what to do] now, so she has to be more precise.
A: Allegoria definitely has a deeper, more complex feel to it. What were some of your inspirations on this album?
SS: [Speaks Japanese.]
NS: She doesn’t know, she says. For True Breath, she’s saying, it was right after the earthquake, and she stopped job hunting, so there’s all this negative energy. This album took a really long time to make, so the earliest song she made on this album was like a year and a half ago, and the most recent is this year. Throughout that process she’s changed a lot, so there isn’t this one inspiration.
A: Where does the name “Sapphire Slows” come from?
SS: Just came up. I just like blue, and I like slow more than fast. [Laughs.] I wanted to name something Sapphire Slows, S.S., same initial. I think it’s beautiful, and I like other artists that have the same initials, like S.S. or M.M. I don’t know.
A: What are your plans for after the tour?
SS: I want to make new music. One other album is coming November 6, but all the songs I finished this March. Already over half a year passed since I finished all the songs on the album, so my mood has already changed. I want to make a little bit different kind of music, maybe solo or with someone. I would like to make something different.