In discussion with djrum about “Grinning Cat” by Susumu Yokota (2001)
What was your first encounter with „Grinning Cat“?
I just saw the CD in a shop when it first came out. I hadn’t heard of Susumu Yokota at all, but I knew the Leaf label. I was just attracted by the exquisite cover design, and it had a sticker with some rave reviews. I took it to the counter to have a listen and was instantly captivated.
Although Susuma Yokota was a very productive artist, „Grinning Cat“ is acknowledged to be one of the best of his career. What makes it so special to you personally?
I haven’t even listened to all of Susumu Yokota’s releases. There are quite a few. To be honest I find his output to be quite hit and miss. There are a few of his albums that I only like one or two tracks from, and some that I just can’t get into at all. “Grinning Cat” is the only one that has no tracks I want to skip.
Is this best listened to as a whole, or are there highlights?
I tend to listen to it as a whole. Like I said, there’s nothing worth skipping. Everything flows really nicely from track to track. There are definitely highlights. For me one of them is the beginning of the first track so I often go to listen to that and end up listening to the whole thing.
It is interesting how many different musical directions Yokota achieves on one single album. Every single tracks seem to move in different directions as they proceed. How does he manage to make this still sound so coherent?
Yes, this is one the things I find most inspiring about this album. I think the coherence comes from the specific sound palette he works from. Most tracks centre around piano samples from French Romantic composers. Then there are a few from American Minimalist composers, and a few other sources such as jazz. But it’s a really narrow pool actually. I think this consistency allows him to structure his compositions in really exciting and surprising ways without sounding all over the place. The structures make the music very dream-like. Listening to “Fearful Dream” or “So Red” is like being led from scene to scene in a dream. There’s an over arching narrative, but it’s told through different scenes each with a distinct sound. Sometimes when you change scene in a dream it’s almost imperceivable: you can flow from one location to the next without even really noticing the change. Different locations and characters can overlap and merge. Other times the change can be quite abrupt. I’ve never heard anyone capture this as well as Yokota on “Grinning Cat”. You can hear something like it in film music sometimes, but it’s never so psychedelic. I think that the fluidity between different sections is helped by ensuring that the individual elements don’t blend too well. He separates sounds with a very unique use of stereo, and he is very loose with pulse, with different elements often going out of phase with each other.
As mentioned earlier, Susuma Yokota has a really extensive back catalogue. Are there other releases you cherish as much as „Grinning Cat“?
I have to say no. Not in terms of releases. “Sakura” and “Wonder Waltz” both have great moments, but I’ve not listened to them much. A track I do cherish is “The Dying Black Swan” from “Symbol”.
There has been quite a resurgence of interest in Japanese electronic music recently. Is this just because the media and reissue outlets needed another topic, or does Japanese music offer a certain quality that other worldwide scenes could learn from?
I’m not sure that I can answer this. I’m not particularly aware of a resurgence for one. But also I’m not sure I know all that much about Japanese music. Is this Japanese music? It was made by a Japanese man in Japan, but it sounds very at home on The Leaf Label (Based in Yorkshire, UK) and as such feels like part of a British musical tradition that I guess you’d call Trip Hop or something. And as I mentioned before, the majority of the samples are from France and the USA.
There is a statement by Yokota on „Grinning Cat“, where he explains that moving to a new house, and living there with three cats inspired the music: „The everyday life with cats is like a fairytale, and also it was like I met the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland. In my works, I always create philosophy and ‘childlike’ images. This album Grinning Cat came into existence because of having this wonderful life.’ I think you can really hear someone at ease with his environment and transcending the experience into sound. Listening to it also reminded me of the interaction between children and the weird and wonderful creatures that populate Studio Ghibli movies, „My Neighbor Totoro“ for example. Is there a cinematic quality that is more rooted in Eastern than Western culture to this music? Are there special moods he created, and with what means?
I think there is definitely a very cinematic quality to the music. What I was saying before about scenes in a dream could also apply to cinema to some extent. I think that the mood of this album is very special. It’s like a combination of wonderment at beauty, and joy at uncertainty.
Your own music also often displays dense atmospherics, extensively constructed and arranged by means of sounds and samples. I assume you are inspired by many artists, but does Susuma Yokota have a special status for the way you idealize music?
Certainly. I still learn from this album now, even having listened to it hundreds of times already.
Do you favour music that instills complex images into the listener, or do you also like music that is purely made for club functionality?
I don’t think that those are mutually exclusive. I would say that club music doesn’t have just a single function. A DJ needs simple bangers as well as complex, more emotionally rich music throughout a night. I generally prefer to play at the later part of the night, because I feel like people tend to be more open to music that requires more attention. When I’m making music in my studio, I let it take me where ever. If I have a functional club track, and I add an element that mellows the whole thing out, as long as it works musically I won’t fight it for the sake of keeping it functional.
There was a tradition of clubs or dedicated floors where this kind of music could be listened to. Then it seemed those areas were neglected for other priorities. What happened, or is it actually happening again?
This is mythical to me. It sounds amazing, but I’m very really experienced it. I think Mix Master Morris does this kind of thing still, but I’m not sure where. I guess this happens at festivals on a small scale, but never with major acts. I love the idea of hearing this kind of thing in a club. If there are any promoters reading, PLEASE BOOK ME FOR A CHILL-OUT SET.