Susumu Yokota: “Walking amongst the big trees I can hear my heartbeat and the echoes of the earth.” Interview by Bim Ricketson


Like a long, slow walk through a cool forest or an afternoon snoozing in the grass watching clouds, Susumu Yokota’s The Boy and The Tree LP is a mystical, earthy and folksy Japanese ambient journey.

Magic Thread, Sakura and last year’s Grinning Cat albums have earnt Yokota a special place in people’s collections all over the world, making him the Leaf label’s biggest selling artist. Brian Eno and Radiohead are said to be fans. The Wire named Sakura album of the year and he has supported Philip Glass in concert. It’s certainly encouraging to see people’s desire for ambient music extend past the recent glut of generic Ibiza chill out compilations.

Yokota would be better known by some for his house production. German trance ‘meister’ Sven Vath released Yokota’s first house album on Eye-Q in 1992. There have been innumerable compilation appearances and remixes, some under such curious aliases as Ringo, Prism and Sonicsufi. But despite the growing popularity of his beatless releases, Yokota has no intention of giving up house. ‘I’m still producing house and want to continue for a long time,’ says Yokota. ‘It feels natural for me to do both dance and ambient, it’s a balance that exists within me.’

Following in the footsteps of thousands of years of Japanese folk music, Yokota’s ambient output captures the serene natural beauty of his homeland. Having recently returned from living in Europe, Yokota now visits the mountainside ‘a few times a week’, travelling from his home in the Tokyo suburbs. ‘The smell of grass and trees, the air in the woods makes my mind clear’, says Yokota, ‘and it gives good effects for making music. Walking amongst the big trees, I can hear my heartbeat and the echoes of the earth.’Yokota is a man with his fingers in the soil, as much as on the keyboard.

Equally inspiring for Yokota on his The Boy and The Tree, was cult anime film Mononokehime, which explores the ‘beautiful thing’ that happens when in-tune humans meet the raging gods of nature. ‘I’m trying to achieve that beautiful thing. There is always fear, rage, and ugliness existing behind beauty. I have been trying to express ki-do-ai-raku (the four emotions; joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness) through music. I would like to express even one’s hidden emotion with reality. It’s my eternal goal.’

Somehow Yokota does succeed in capturing the unseen, the mystical, the ‘ugliness behind beauty’. The Boy and The Tree features moments of extreme fluid dreaminess, with sounds that seem to echo back to you from a far off mountain. In other moments the building rhythms and chanting are unsettling and full of dread. The combination of sampled African and Asian voices, traditional string and wind instruments, combined with Yokota’s own beats and guitar playing do not fail to express ‘the origin, root, and hidden parts of nature and humans,’ as well as sounding fantastic.

In many ways The Boy and The Tree could be likened to a soundtrack to a Baraka-style film on Japan. This filmic quality is something Yokota would be very interested in perusing. ‘I want to work on a film soundtrack very much,’confirms Yokota. ‘I would like to work with Jean Pierre Jeunet and Vinsent Giaro and if it’s possible, to work with an old director, Parajdanov. As I always produce my album like a film soundtrack, I dream that a film which has my all soundtrack music will be produced.’ However The Boy and The Tree is so evocative of Yokota’s landscapes you will be able to clearly imagine your own film.

So get yourself a big nori roll. Light up the incense. Assume the lotus position. Put the headphones on and be ready for a spiritual musical experience.

Bim Ricketson


About Author

Seb Chan founded Cyclic Defrost Magazine in 1998 with Dale Harrison. He handed over the reins at the end of 2010 but still contributes the occasional article and review.