The laid back soft rocker invites the legendary Japanese musician into the backyard of his Los Angeles house
Since he moved to Los Angeles, Mac DeMarco has had plenty of musicians over to visit the home studio in his backyard. Today’s guest, however, is a special one. Haruomi Hosono has arrived, trailed by a Japanese film crew, who are shooting a documentary about the legendary musician’s hugely influential career and recent cultural resurgence. DeMarco is an avowed Hosono superfan, so while he’s usually as laid back as they come, today even he betrays a few nerves as he plays Hosono some of his recent recordings. He mentions that he was even more nervous last night, when DeMarco joined Hosono onstage at The Mayan Theater to perform the Japanese artist’s 1975 track “Honey Moon” together.
Haruomi Hosono’s music is impossible to pigeon-hole. The 71-year-old experimentalist started out playing with Tokyo psychedelic rockers Apryl Fool before he became the bassist for California Sound-indebted four-piece Happy End, but it’s his work with Yellow Magic Orchestra, the pioneering electronic group that he formed in 1978 with Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi, that he’s most known for. To a certain type of musician, however, Hosono will be equally recognised for his mind-bogglingly eclectic solo career, which has experienced something of a revival in the west as of late. A number of his albums were recently reissued by Light in the Attic, and Vampire Weekend sampled his ambient track “Talking” on their single “2021”. DeMarco has been covering his songs, too, and in a recent interview with CBC Radio, he said that since hearing Hosono’s music ten years ago, “I’ve just been trying to rip him off. He’s been my favourite thing to dive in to or listen to or try and emulate for a long time... There’s a wealth in terms of what I’d like to achieve.”
So today, beneath the shade of a pomelo tree, the pair are sitting down to discuss Hosono’s work, his studio clothing etiquette, and all the times he’s been as starstruck as DeMarco is right now.
Mac, when did you first discover Hosono-san’s music?
Mac DeMarco: I would have been maybe 18 or 19, so about ten or 11 years ago now. It was really hard to find any of your music in Canada, but there was a YouTube video that just said: ‘Rare Japanese Groove’. That was “Rose & Beast”. Me and my friends found it and were like: “Wow, okay!” From that, I found out about Hosono House, and then from there YMO and all the other things you’ve done.
Haruomi Hosono: You’re from Canada?
Mac DeMarco: Yeah, from Alberta. It’s really cold. We had a good ice hockey team in the 80s, but they’ve been really bad since then. It’s really flat. Lot of sky. Really boring. Did you grow up in Tokyo?
Haruomi Hosono: Yes, that’s right. (My first exposure to American music was when) I started listening to boogie woogie music on 78s. I was only four years old, but I was already dancing along to it.
“For me to meet you is insanely crazy. I’m terrified right now” – Mac DeMarco
There’s a story about you coming over to LA to meet Van Dyke Parks in the early 70s. What do you remember about that meeting?
Haruomi Hosono: It was 1972 when I came over and went to Sunset Sound Recorders. I didn’t know that Van Dyke Parks was even going to be there. I was talking to him and he started criticising the Japanese emperor and the whole royal system, basically. I didn’t really understand what he was saying. I think he was just being high. Is it okay to write in the article that he was high?
Don’t worry, I think Van Dyke Parks being high in 1972 is already a matter of public record.
Haruomi Hosono: He ended up producing one of the tracks I was working on. The way he layered the sounds and built up the rhythm track, one layer at a time, that was a very new thing for me. I learned a lot from that whole experience.
Mac DeMarco: That was at Sunset Sound, or in Japan?
Haruomi Hosono: Sunset Sound.
Mac DeMarco: Okay, cool. Someone told me that Van Dyke came and recorded all of Hosono House, but that’s not true, is it?
Haruomi Hosono: Not true.
Mac DeMarco: That’s what I said!
Haruomi Hosono: Even before I came to the US, I was a big fan of American music. One of the biggest influences for me was Buffalo Springfield...
Mac DeMarco: ...‘Uncle Neil’, as we call him in Canada.
Haruomi Hosono: Also, Moby Grape, from San Francisco. That whole psychedelic scene.
Mac DeMarco: You’ve just finished doing Hochono House (a re-arranged re-recording of Hosono House). How did it feel going back to those old songs and doing them in a new way? Was it weird or cool?
Haruomi Hosono: It was very difficult at first. I couldn’t really figure out what I was doing back when I was younger, but once I started, it became kind of fun to re-do those songs. At first it felt like I was looking at myself in the mirror right after I had woken up, which was not a good feeling.
Mac DeMarco: For the original Hosono House, is it true you did it in your own house and recorded everything yourself?
Haruomi Hosono: At the time, my generation were all obsessed with American culture. Not just the music, but the whole hippie culture and everything surrounding it. About an hour from Tokyo, there was this area called Amerikamura, which means ‘American Village’. They had these American-style houses that I think were former military housing. I got a house there and a lot of my friends were living there too. It became almost like a fantasy land.
Mac DeMarco: Like Big Pink?
Haruomi Hosono: Exactly. I was really into The Band at the time.
Mac DeMarco: A lot of The Band is Canadian, so they’re kind of local heroes for me. Except for Robbie Robertson. When I heard Hosono House for the first time, I thought it sounded a lot like The Band, so that makes sense.
Haruomi Hosono: I’m happy to hear that!
Mac DeMarco: I know you’ve had a lot of different home studios, and I saw that you now have your own studio in Tokyo. Do you prefer having your own space rather than going into a studio? I know The Band did that in LA, and they did it in Woodstock. I do it at home, and whenever I’ve gone into studios, it hasn’t felt quite the same.
Haruomi Hosono: I was working a lot as a session musician, as a bass player, so I worked at a lot of professional studios, but those are really expensive. Most of the time the label would pay for it, but if I wanted to do it on my own, I’d never have been able to afford it. That’s why I started getting my own equipment and recording at home, just because I don’t like to spend too much money.
Mac DeMarco: Do you find that, say if you do something in a studio and then you do it at home, is there any difference in what comes out of you, musically? For me, for example, if I’m at my house, I can do it in my underwear and nobody’s getting mad at me. Maybe I’m more comfortable. Does it change anything for you?
Haruomi Hosono: I feel the same way. When I’m working at my own studio I start taking my clothes off – but I don’t get naked.
Mac DeMarco: No, no. Just comfortable.
Haruomi Hosono: It does make a difference. My current home studio is in the basement, so I can’t tell if it’s night or if it’s light out. Sometimes I’ll just stay there working for 24 hours.
Mac DeMarco: At this point in your life, how much are you still writing and recording?
Haruomi Hosono: Recording and writing songs is still what I want to do the most. As soon as I get back from touring, that’s what I hope I’ll be able to do.
Mac DeMarco: Do you ever find yourself hitting a wall, or is it always flowing out?
Haruomi Hosono: Usually something comes out of me, especially when I go into the studio. That’s when I want to work, so it just keeps coming out. Sometimes outside of the studio I’ll be working on a song and then I’ll take that into the studio. That music keeps changing, but that’s what makes it interesting. I like going into the studio with something and coming out with something else.
What was it that drew you to make your own version of “exotica” music?
Haruomi Hosono: When I was at elementary school I saw the movie Around the World in 80 Days. There’s a part where it depicts Japan, but it was a Japan that I didn’t recognise. It was kind of twisted, and not the real Japan. I found that really interesting. I kept thinking about how that was how Japan was seen by the outside world.
Mac DeMarco: You see, that’s almost the same as how I feel when I listen to some of your music. I’m hearing stuff that reminds me of things I know from when I was younger, like The Band or James Taylor, but then you’re looking at it in a different way and putting different kinds of melodies in there. I see something that I understand, but there’s all this stuff around it that’s your own flavour. It’s cool!
How did you like the show last night?
Haruomi Hosono: I had really bad jet lag last night. I had some energy drinks so I had enough energy to go through the set for an hour-and-a-half. I felt really good about the set, but right afterwards the effect of the energy drinks just wore off.
Mac DeMarco: I was terrified to play with you!
Haruomi Hosono: You didn’t seem that way.
Mac DeMarco: I was! But it was a great honour for me, so thank you for having me.
“My generation were all obsessed with American culture. Not just the music, but the whole hippie culture and everything surrounding it” – Haruomi Hosono
How does it feel to hear someone like Mac covering your music? As someone who’s been influenced by American and Canadian music, is it nice to see your own influence flowing back the other way?
Haruomi Hosono: It’s really interesting to me that decades after that music was recorded, someone like you would discover it and cover it. If I knew your music like you know my music, I would have covered your music!
Mac DeMarco: It’s fine, don’t worry about it! I think a lot of people around my age are discovering your stuff. Do you find they go more towards your folk-y or psych-y stuff, or do they go more towards the later electronic, ambient stuff?
Haruomi Hosono: Before the internet, each country was more isolated. Information didn’t flow freely back then. Even then I was making music that was influenced by music from all over the world, so within Japan I wasn’t easy to categorise. I was seen as this weird musician that no one really understood. A lot of people didn’t really get my music at the time. Years later, to see that now a lot of fans are digging every facet of my career and every type of music that I’ve made is really fascinating.
Mac DeMarco: It’s also special because most bands nowadays last for about three years. Everybody gets really excited about them at first, and then starts hating them for some reason. I think it’s great for younger people now to find somebody like you that’s been doing it for a long time and it’s not just the same thing over and over. There’ll be this kind of album, and then a whole different album, and then a completely different album again. It’s a treasure trove, that’s what I like to call it. A never-ending bounty of tunes.
Haruomi Hosono: For me, 20th century music is a treasure trove. It’s my job to excavate that treasure trove and pull out the music that deserves to be heard.
Mac DeMarco: I heard a story about the tape you did for Muji. (In 1983, Hosono was commissioned to make background music for use in Muji stores.) The way people tell it over here is that they asked you to do it, so you did it and gave it to them, and they were like: “This is way too weird, this is going to drive people crazy.” But did they use it in the end?
Haruomi Hosono: I’ve never heard that story. They never told me it was too weird, but maybe they wouldn’t have said that to me. I believe they did play it in their stores.
Mac DeMarco: We used to play that music when we had our club shows. Instead of having a DJ before the show, we would just play your Muji tape on repeat. The doors would open and kids would come in really excited. I love that tape, but I think for my fans, it made them feel kind of calm and confused. It really set the tone so I could come out and do the show and everyone would relax. I can’t do that anymore, though, because of Vampire Weekend. (Vampire Weekend sampled “Talking”, from the Muji tape, for “2021”.) Do you still make that kind of music?
Haruomi Hosono: I found the way Vampire Weekend used that song really interesting. I would use it in that kind of a way, as part of the arrangement, but not just on its own, because I think it’s kind of muzak. If someone asked me to make music like that again, I would, but no one’s asked me to recently.
Mac DeMarco: I’m asking now. I’ll pay whatever you want!
“Most bands nowadays last for about three years... I think it’s great for younger people now to find somebody like you that’s been doing it for a long time and it’s not just the same thing over and over” – Mac DeMarco
Yellow Magic Orchestra were one of the first groups to ever use the influential Roland TR-808 drum machine. What do you remember about starting to experiment with this new technology that was just coming out, like synths and drum machines?
Haruomi Hosono: The first time I worked with synthesisers was in the late 70s, when someone brought in a Moog. It was a mono synth so you could only play one note at a time, and I didn’t think you could really do much with that. But even before the TR-808 and those types of drum machines came out, I was a big fan of rhythm boxes, especially the way Sly Stone used them, so as soon as the 808 arrived, I started experimenting with it.
Mac DeMarco: You’re pretty funky bass player. You have the funk inside you. Did that come from Sly Stone and that kind of crew?
Haruomi Hosono: Sly Stone was definitely one of my biggest influences. Whenever I hold a bass, I start playing funk riffs. When I was younger I was listening to a lot of Motown, so that all comes out. It shows on my face when I’m playing.
Mac DeMarco: Okay, here’s one. For me to meet you is insanely crazy. I’m terrified right now. Do you have any stories about meeting anyone that you really looked up to?
Haruomi Hosono: When I was touring with Yoko Ono in the US, Paul Simon was the special guest at one of the shows. Backstage, Paul Simon’s son introduced me to him. That was very exciting for me.
Mac DeMarco: Favourite Paul Simon song?
Haruomi Hosono: “America”.
Mac DeMarco: “Still Crazy After All These Years”. That’s my jam.
Haruomi Hosono: Another time, Bill Wyman came to visit me in my studio. It was after I’d made Bon Voyage co. That album had gone through the hands of Levon Helm and Maria Muldaur, so that’s probably how it came to Bill Wyman. He was a big fan of that album, so he wanted to pay me a visit. Years later, the Stones were touring Japan, and Bill Wyman invited me backstage. At the time, I’d just completed Omni Sight Seeing. I handed it to Bill Wyman, and Bill Wyman handed it to Mick Jagger. Mick Jagger listened to the album and said, “This is serious music!”, and then just tossed it aside.
Mac DeMarco: Damn, that’s insane!
Haruomi Hosono: I have one more. I was playing percussion for Yoko Ono, and Ringo was watching. Later, Ringo came up to me and said, “You should be playing drums!” To be honest, though, I think Ringo says that to everyone.
Mac DeMarco plays the Other Stage, Glastonbury Festival on June 28, followed by the all-day event Mac DeMarco ...Will See You Now at Dreamland, Margate on June 29. He tours the UK in November, with a show at Alexandra Palace, London on November 21.