This story is pretty amazing. One day, I get a message from P-Thugg of Chromeo. He had recently unearthed an interview he did with the legendary Hiroshi Sato on his hard drive. My mind was blown! I won’t go into more detail, but I'll just say it's a great conversation between two legends. Below, P-Thugg’s introduction followed by the interview.
An introduction from P-Thugg:
To set the scene, it’s 2005, I’m still living in Montreal at the time and I just came back from digging records in 25¢ bins. In my bag, amongst 50 other records, I had Seaside Lovers - Memories In Beach House. The term “City Pop” hadn’t yet resurfaced from the forgotten 80s genre, and I didn’t understand what had just hit me before I looked at the credits, realizing this was a Japanese version of Christopher Cross and The Doobie Brothers circa Michael McDonald era.
I’m curious by nature, especially about music and usually things that most people don’t care about, so naturally I start obsessing over it and try to find out more. I kept an eye out for more records from the band in my weekly vinyl digs and my Limewire saved searches. None of which returned any results in six months. Then, it happened.
Later in 2005, I got a hit on Limewire for one of the members, Hiroshi Sato. The song was Say Goodbye. I finish downloading it three hours later on dial-up network, pressed play and proceeded to lose my mind. I liked the Yacht Rock style of Seaside Lovers, but this record was different. Exactly in my lane… The funkiest thing I had heard in a while: Vocoder, synths, drum machines, funky guitars and lyrics that still make me cry today.
I kept doing my research and found the album Awakening which became my life’s soundtrack. The more I listened to it, the more I got curious about Hiroshi himself. But it was personal. As a Lebanese immigrant living in Montreal, I grew up removed from funk and soul and my only way to absorb and learn about it was through old records. I was really curious to know what his story and trajectory was.
We had just released our first album with Chromeo and between shows filled with all of the seven fans that would come to see us play, I had quite a bit more time on my hands. I didn’t have a single atom of journalism in me, but there was no way his music and story was going to stay in the dark. I can’t explain it… Something told me I just had to talk to him. Information was scarce, so armed with Netscape Navigator on the family’s Pentium II, I put my web-detective hat on and started looking for him.
Search engines weren’t quite there yet, so I used Ask Jeeves, Altavista, Infoseek, WebCrawler in addition to Google. Crawling from link to link and finally ending up on his Angelfire hosted website: www.hiroshi-sato.com (It’s still up, unaltered since 2003, visitor counter included).
I tried reaching out through his website, but it wasn’t very clear where the contact page was and I got lost in translation. Multiple searches and a couple of weeks later I somehow ended up finding a management contact on CDbaby.com out of all places, and got an email back from his management. My moment had arrived. I finally got on the phone with Hiroshi and we chatted, in length, about pretty much everything. Music, synthesizers, drum machines, upbringing, mental health, Elvis Presley, you name it.
I had no clue that 15 years later, Hiroshi would posthumously become a legend and his original pressings were going to be coveted by collectors worldwide. The whole genre was going to be rediscovered, Hiroshi and his friends and colleagues: Tatsuro Yamashita, Haruomi Hosono, Yuji Toriyama were all going to be recognized as City Pop royalty.
I just found this interview on an old laptop. It’s probably one of the few direct recounts of his life and a good insider view into the late 70s, early 80s scene in Japan. Here is the full transcription.
P-Thugg: When was your first musical “awakening”?
Hiroshi Sato: [Laughs] In 1960, I was about 12-13 years old in junior high school. I was very much enchanted by pop music on the radio and I started singing, inspired by Helen Shapiro, Elvis Presley, Paul Anka, Pat Boone, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte. A little bit later after that, in 1963 when I reached the age of 16, the Beatles started releasing music and that was when I told myself I will spend the rest of my life making music. Shortly after that year, I began to make serious one-man multi-recordings, inspired by the Beatles.
P-Thugg: Ah yes! I can hear a lot of Magical Mystery Tour’s influence on Orient, especially on “Tsuki No Ko”, and of course, on Awakening you’re also covering “From Me To You”.
Hiroshi Sato: Yes, yes, [laughs], good hearing. I was very much into Sgt. Pepper’s [Lonely Hearts Club Band] and Magical Mystery Tour in my twenties and it stayed with me for my whole career.
P-Thugg: So how did you go from just singing in junior high to being a multi-instrumentalist? What instrument did you start with?
Hiroshi Sato: The most important and shocking thing for me was when I first got to play a guitar. As I mentioned earlier, it all started when I was 13 years old, when a girl I liked was learning classical guitar and I wanted to get close to her, so I started playing too. Before I had the guitar, I was a child who had no hope for the future and thought about dying every day because of my extreme distrust of society and people. It was as if I was in a mental black hole that even light was trapped inside. When I picked up a guitar for the first time, tuned it and plucked an open string, it was a shock, a sensation I had never experienced before. It was as if I had been embraced by an incredibly large being, a god, and, for the first time, a light shone into my heart, which had been in total darkness. I felt as if I could be involved with music from now on, I could live on.
P-Thugg: That’s a very real and deep statement. It’s similar to how I also felt when I discovered that I could play an instrument and create sounds! Is that what pushed you to not only learn to play instruments but also write songs?
Hiroshi Sato: Yes. It pushed me to teach myself all the instruments and the complete process of writing a song, and my best teachers are the records. The Beatles taught me everything about songwriting and sounds. Elvis taught me vocal style. Ray Charles taught me how to play the piano, not to mention his vocal side too. All of this was learned from listening attentively to records.
Apart from the guitar, I was inspired by the Beatles when I was 16 years old, so I started playing as I saw fit. I really wanted to form a band like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, but in my generation and in those days, there was hardly anyone around who could play electric guitar or drums. So I started playing those instruments out of necessity and I also learned bass, drums, percussion and a few other things like harmonica. Then, just after the age of 20 years old, I started to play the piano, which somehow became my main instrument. Then, my father opened the warehouse of my parents' house [a temple] in Kyoto as a studio space, and I started to make multiple recordings on my own.
First, I recorded my singing and guitar playing on a mono tape recorder, then I used a stereo deck and a three-channel mixer that a friend had made for me to overdub the drums and bass, and so on. I repeated this process to create a band's sound as if I had 4 people playing with me. It all started with very humble means. In the beginning, when we didn't have drums, we would hang a microphone from a chair in the kitchen and hit it with a stick where it sat, or we would put a microphone wrapped in cloth in a guitar case and hit it with a stick on top of it to replace the drum sound.
And then a couple of years later Sony came out with a four-channel tape recorder [open reel], and I got it straight away, and I was so happy because I felt like I'd made it to heaven. Because it had the same four channels as the early Beatles recordings. I also used it as a tape delay machine and I got into the fun of multi-recording, playing backwards, experimenting as much as I could push the machine. So I think the period between the ages of 16 and 20, when I was recording multiples on my own, was the most fulfilling and important period of my musical life.
P-Thugg: Very interesting. I’m starting to understand you were interested in experimenting with new sounds and technology, also. This all becomes obvious between Orient and Awakening where you’re gradually using more and more synthesizers, even switching completely to drum machines on Awakening.
Hiroshi Sato: Yes. I really love new technology. I only had a Minimoog Model D on previous recordings, which I used to synthesize sounds as close as possible to the original instruments. If I wanted a trumpet sound, I would synthesize a trumpet sound as close as possible. But then in the mid 1970’s, when so many synthesizers became available, I started using synthesizers to defy the traditional instruments and make new types of sounds that the world has never heard before.
By the time I started working on Orient, I had a Minimoog Model D, a Moog Polymoog, a Yamaha CS-30 and a Yamaha CS-80. These synthesizers allowed me to play classical instruments like trombone and clavacin, but furthermore allowed me to create new instruments. So I really enjoyed the explosion of synthesizer technology. After I finished Orient I was still very inspired and continued to use more synthesizers. I added Sequential Circuits Prophet 5, Pro-One, Roland Jupiter-8 and Roland VP-330 Vocoder to my collection and started thinking about the next album.
P-Thugg: This was right around the time Yellow Magic Orchestra was also forming. Did you guys ever cross paths or work together?
Hiroshi Sato: Yes surely, [Haruomi Hosono] and I had previously worked together on each other's solo albums and in many other recording sessions right up to the time he created YMO between 1975-1978.
Haruomi played bass on Orient. We had the same love for experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines, studio technology and special effects so I was happy when he invited me to join YMO, but I had already decided to leave Japan in 1979, so I didn't join, but he did help me work on the next album, Awakening, when I came back to Tokyo in 1982.
After Orient, a very important event happened. I moved to California between 1979-1982, and one of the main reasons for making Awakening was my encounter with the Linn LM-1. I was living in California and I happened to be near Linn's company. I went to visit the offices and when I saw a demonstration of the LM-1 Drum Computer there for the first time.I thought, "This is it!”. This was the most exciting machine I had ever seen. I had been using Roland rhythm machines (TR-808, etc.) and was getting a bit bored with them. But this one changed my music forever. That's when I decided that I wanted to make my next album in a one-man multi-recording style, like I used to do at [my father’s] the warehouse, rather than the style of recording I had done before, surrounded by studio musicians. But this time I didn’t have to use chairs and muted microphones to make a bass drum sound! [Laughs] I came back to Tokyo with a goal in mind, to convince my record label, Alfa Records, to buy me a Linn Drum LM-1 as a condition for the new record. They accepted and I started working on the record the day I got the LM-1.
I had just met Wendy Matthews in Los Angeles, and worked with Randy Crawford, who I learned the sounds and songwriting of soul music from. My songwriting changed after this trip. Up until around 1976, I loved mainly American R&B, Gospel and Blues, and I think I was strongly influenced by them. But after that, I stopped feeling fresh and became obsessed with Brazilian and African folk music, especially percussion-based music (Cumbia, Batucada, etc.), and that's all I listened to. It was around the same time when I made Awakening, so I had all the new influences from my Los Angeles trip that also got fused into my style, and the LM-1 was keeping the rhythm.
Basically, since Awakening, all the albums I've made are in the same style, mainly synths and drum machines, in a one-man multi-recording style.
P-Thugg: And the music on Awakening became much more focused on synthesizers. The only live instruments are guitar.
Hiroshi Sato: Yes, even the basses are all mostly played on the SCI Pro-One and a little bit on the Moog Source. The Roland Jupiter 8 was my favorite one for chords. I stopped using the CS-80 and I focused on the combinations of Prophet 5 and Jupiter 8 for a nice smooth sound. And although not a synth, the Fender Rhodes Suitcase type was one of my favorite instruments.
I also wanted to keep the live guitars because they have a very nice rhythmic and percussive sound. I called Tatsuro Yamashita who was also working on his album For You and Yuji Toriyama who had just finished Take a Break. We had a very similar taste and loved the California soft-rock sound so it was a very fun collaboration.
When I wrote the album Awakening, including "Say Goodbye", I had just divorced and I was depressed because I was thinking about my daughter Chirudo every day. So I think I healed myself by writing love songs to her, and I spent my days writing lullabies to myself to calm myself down. So this was my personal mood when working on the record. “Say Goodbye” was my way to say I was sorry about the situation our family was now in.
P-Thugg: “Say Goodbye” was the first of your songs I discovered, do you remember which synths you used on that?
Hiroshi Sato: Yes I remember very well. I used the SCI Pro-One for the bass sound, the Jupiter 8 for the main arpeggio sound. I think I still have the patch sheets, I should try and find them. I will send them to you if I do.
The chords were a combination of Fender Rhodes, Prophet 5 and Jupiter 8. Of course the drums are the LM-1. And the vocoder lead vocal was the Roland VP-330. Tatsuro Yamashita played the guitar on this one.
All of this album is done with the same combination of synthesizers. Some of the songs, especially the song “Awakening”, I experimented with the Solina, E-mu Emulator and Synclavier II. The use of the vocoder at that time was revolutionary for me. I liked to sing and I started with singing at the age of 13 so this was a new sound for me. It was very special.
P-Thugg: Were there a lot of Japanese musicians using the Vocoder and vocal effects back then?
Hiroshi Sato: I remember at that time, if there was anyone else who used a Vocoder besides me and YMO, it might have been Isao Tomita, who is the grandfather of electronic and synthesizer music in Japan. Maybe I just didn't know, but I don't think there were that many other ones. I was not interested in the Japanese music scene at all and didn't really listen to it. [Laughs]
I remember that I had a little treasure in the style of the Vocoder. It was a talking box made by guitarist Jay Graydon, who I met as a synth operator for my first album Super Market. I used it for one song on my 2nd album Timer in 1977. I haven't used it for almost 30 years since then, so I forgot about it. Maybe I'll use it on my next album. But first I have to find where I put it! [Laughs]
P-Thugg: Do you still use vintage synthesizers and which ones do you still use?
Hiroshi Sato: Yes, some of them like the Minimoog, Jupiter 8 and Prophet 5, because they have an unmistakable sound. My Fender Rhodes is very important, but I prefer not taking it out of my studio. I don't know if you can call this “vintage”, but I still use a lot of Kurzweil K-2000R. I also like the Midi-Moog.
P-Thugg: What more recent stuff do you listen to?
Hiroshi Sato: I always listen to a lot of ongoing stuff. Right now, I'm listening to a rough mix of a new rap artist "SoulJa" who will debut next year. I've just finished a mix of the single. Also, Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi from YMO are on this album.
P-Thugg: If you were left alone on a desert island, which 10 records would you bring with you?
Hiroshi Sato: If I were allowed, I would bring some kind of instrument with me, not records. Because I like writing and playing songs more than listening to them.
P-Thugg: That’s the best answer to this classic question! I will use this in the future. [laughs] [I actually did use this multiple times in interviews, thanks Hiroshi] Ok, but what if you’re not allowed musical instruments?
Hiroshi Sato: If I had to only have records, half of them would be my albums. Then I would choose one each from Elvis, Beatles and Ray Charles, and the rest would be from the percussion-oriented folk music genre.
P-Thugg: Which musicians still inspire you the most?
Hiroshi Sato: Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Ray Charles.
P-Thugg: Thank you very much Hiroshi, this was very inspiring and a great pleasure!
Hiroshi Sato: Oh thank you! It is so wonderful to know that there is someone like you who knows my music! My manager was surprised that you knew Awakening because we don’t even sell it on CD Baby.
P-Thugg: Oh I know it, I collect old records, I will try to find all your other records now.
Hiroshi Sato: Oh fantastic, thank you very much!
Hiroshi Sato passed away in 2012 at 65 years old from a heart aneurysm. He was sitting in his studio chair, cross-legged with his hands joined together.
Synth History Exclusive via P-Thugg.