This Sunday September 23, Le Bain is honored to welcome the legendary House DJ and producer: Satoshi Tomiie. A lifelong student of jazz and classical piano, Satoshi discovered House in the mid-80’s Tokyo club scene and became quickly one of the most sought-after DJ, producer and remixer worldwide, staying on the forefront of the dance music scene for the last two decades. After taking some time to build up his own studio in his New York home, Satoshi is making a return with a deeper sound, which sounds perfect for Le Bain! We sat down between Tokyo and New York with the House Master for a Standard Q&A.
The Standard : As a house music producer, your career started in the very late 80s. Famous DJ Frankie Knuckles happened to hear a track you produced for a promotion work and understood your potential. You produced together one of the greatest early House song, “Tears” released in 1989. Were you into House before you met Frankie?
Satoshi Tomiie: At the very end of the 80s, I met Frankie yes, but I started listening to House music before. It was difficult to get any information in Tokyo about House. Back then, obviously, there was no Internet. Information was coming from talks with friends, from very few press articles. I remember there was a three pages article about it in a magazine and I would read it over and over. I did not want to miss any detail, any word. It was a totally different time. I was already exposed to it, because I was into the different styles of club music. Back then, the DJs would play Hip Hop, some jazz some different stuff as well as some House… I would go to the record shop of a friend and he would play some radio mix tapes from Chicago. That was how I discovered House.
While working on ‘Tears’, did you realize the song you would make music history?
That collaboration was not an easy one. I think Frankie just moved back to New York from Chicago and I was a university student, I lived in Tokyo. Between the two of us, there was no Internet, not even a computer, nothing! We never were really in the studio together, until we recorded the vocal of Robert Owens for ‘Tears’. The instrumental part I did everything in Tokyo. I was sitting in my bedroom at my parent’s house. I wrote all the track there. There was no hard drive so I had to record it on tape, on a two-inches tape. Then I had to fly to New York to bring this demo to Frankie, because I wanted to play it for him. Back then, my English skills were horrible, so it was not the easiest collaboration ever (laughs). Then as Frankie liked it, I asked if we could cut the vocal of Robert Owens into it, because I was a big fan of his style and his voice on Larry Heard’s production. Nothing was easy, but it was not a bad start for sure! And obviously I was just making track to make music, not to make history.
Frankie Knuckles presents Satoshi Tomiie ‘Tears’(featuring Robert Owens)
You have been a dedicated musician, a piano player since the age of 14 and you toured as a keyboard player with legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto in the early 1990s. Probably another key collaboration in your career. Do you consider working with Knuckles or Sakamoto were completely two different things?
I have to say is all about the music. Of course, it’s totally two different types of things: Frankie Knuckles was first a DJ and a producer. Sakamoto is a musician and a composer. But yes basically it’s just about music. Me, as a musician, DJ, producer, I do all of those things and it was very interesting to work with those two legends.
How did you fall in love with DJing?
I was fascinated by the turntables turning into instruments. I am a piano player and I consider the piano or the keyboard as traditional instrument, so it was a shock when I realized that equipment used to listen to music was becoming an instrument. I wanted to be a part of this new thing. I started spinning Hip Hop, not House. When I started, in the mid-80’s, House was not really introduced to the scene in Tokyo. There were records released in Chicago or New York, but the wave had not arrived yet in Tokyo, or it was totally underground. I discovered House music around 1987 and as a musician and producer, I thought House was more interesting than Hip Hop and I could relate more to it. I had already started to produce some Hip Hop, buying drum machines and slowly my DJ style and my work as a producer became more House.
Satoshi Tomiie performing Tong Poo with Ryuichi Sakamoto in 1992.
Most of the European or American DJ who have played in Japan say that it is the best place to perform. First because the crowd come for the music, then because everything in the club (the booth, the sound system) is treated as it should be: with a great attention to details. As one of the most famous Japanese DJ, do you agree with that?
I have to agree: I am Japanese! We treat things with attention to details. Even me being a Japanese, every time I go back to Japan I have a great time playing there and it is true all the DJ friends I know love to play in Tokyo. As a DJ I have to agree with them, it’s a very special place to play. And it’s true when people come to see a particular DJ, they do some homework before going to club! They are enthusiastic about the music. Nothing is perfect though, Japan has this cabaret license that says all the club with a dance floor have to close at 1am. The dance culture does not get any support from the government or authorities. For sure, that gives some limitation to the Japanese club scene.
In the last few year, I understood you have been taking time to build up the your studio in your New York apartment. How would you define the perfect studio in a few lines?
For me, of course, acoustic is important but the most important thing is the vibe. I never liked the commercial studio environment. I first try to make my studio as comfortable as possible, it’s not a bedroom, but I want to be able to chill. That’s why I decided to build one where I live. At the same time, I do not want to disturb my neighbors, so I have to do heavy duty sound proofing!
Satoshi Tomiie’s latest release Backside Wave EP on his own label Saw Recordings.
After more than 20 years producing and touring as a DJ, what makes you still excited about the dance music scene?
The music itself and the crowd. To me, it’s really important that people stay enthusiastic about the music and the fact that generations change is refreshing.
Some people believe there are constant cycles coming back and forth, minimal, disco, house, electro, deep… and that is a bit boring, because nothing really revolutionary is coming out of it while others say that every scene is now stronger than ever thanks to the digital age. What is your analysis of today’s dance music scene?
I think any musical style is a recreation of all the other styles. For example, House was a recreation of Disco, Philly Soul, all the elements were recreated with the technology available at a certain time. I also think the limitation make the music interesting and revolutionary. With House, if you could not play an instrument or could not afford a big studio, you still were able to produce House music, because of the new technology. Now I think it’s really hard to invent something new, because in a way all the technology is available. There is no limitation. That’s my opinion: I think limitation creates creativity.
Satoshi Tomiie live mix recorded at Footwork (Toronto, CA) Sep’12