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We Talked to ‘Ape Escape’ Composer Soichi Terada About His Return to House Music

It’s as if the background noise of the universe has finally shifted to the right frequency to amplify his signal.

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Feb 16 2016, 6:02pm

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Soichi Terada is playing with his food.

The 50-year-old Japanese artist and musician has reached the limits of his grasp on English in explaining why he explores traditional music through the lens of modern technology, and so he pushes a bit of potato and a shred of jerk chicken together with his fork. "I can put those the same way, traditional music and technology," Terada says, as he brings the food to his mouth. "Mmm," he says, mouth full. "Taste!"

This is Terada's first trip to Toronto, and his first taste of jerk chicken. The night before, Valentine's Day, he performed vintage deep house cuts to a room full of kids on the first of two Canadian stops on his first-ever North American tour.

The whole thing is a bit of a twist in his career. In the late 80s, Terada was studying computer science in university when he became infatuated with electronic music. In the early 1990s, he was releasing house music on his own label. But for the next few decades, Terada has been best known for his video game soundtracks, particularly the Ape Escape series, and work in the chiptune scene (music that takes its cues from 8-bit video games) under the moniker Omodaka. Basically, Terada has always been a technological innovator, moving on to the next project, medium, or tool.

Still, being asked by popular demand to bring back music you made 25 years ago isn't something anybody can plan for.

The interest in Soichi's work is largely thanks to a compilation released last year by Rush Hour and compiled by Berlin-based DJ Hunee. In Canada, interest in 90s deep house can be traced to a burgeoning scene that artfully plays to the nostalgic and the avant garde, led by 1080p and Mood Hut. The seed for this flowering cultural moment was perhaps planted by the influence of vaporwave, the internet-born genre of music and visual aesthetic that trades in nostalgia, digital ephemera, and at times Japanese cultural products.

At the center of all of this is Terada, who, decades into his career, is finding his voice in this environment. It's as if the background noise of the universe has finally completed some glacial shift to the exact right frequency to amplify his signal to the world.

To find out more about what it's like go from being a house music superstar, to a video game music composer for a beloved series, and back again, I took Terada to lunch the day after his performance in Toronto.

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MOTHERBOARD: How do you feel last night went?
Terada: It was more than I expected, so it was my pleasure to play.

I've read that you're surprised about the renewed interest in your house music. Have you given any thought to the reasons why?
I have no idea why young people are interested in my ancient tunes. I am just wondering about that even now.

Are you excited by it?
Yes, it's very exciting to me. Exciting, but I'm wondering about the other side. But it's OK for me.

You've been doing other things in the intermediary years, in the world of video game music and chip tune. What drew you to making music for games?
I was fascinated by house music in the early 90s, and then drum and bass came in the mid 90s. I was addicted to drum and bass sounds also, and I made my own track named "Sumo Jungle." My thing making drum and bass was combining sumo material and drum and bass sounds, so I made "Sumo Jungle" in 1995 to 1996. The director of Ape Escape listened to "Sumo Jungle" and he offered me to make the soundtrack to Ape Escape.

Do you have a different philosophy for when you make music for a video game versus making music for the dance floor?
Not a different particular philosophy—I make my music as I just want. I might have a philosophy, but I cannot be conscious of that philosophy.

Why not?
Because I try to be music itself, not producing music or playing music. I just want to be music itself whenever I compose music or perform music. Maybe I have no philosophy.

"I was impressed by the theory of computers. I learned how it works, and the theory from Alan Turing. But I was such a bad student in university"

Do you think about how the listener will receive your music, in terms of the environment they're going to be in?
When I make soundtracks for video games, I am forced to be conscious of how they will hear it, because the director reminds me to be conscious of atmosphere, or the stage, or the image of the game, so I have to be conscious. In this meaning, I was not completely free to make video game music. But when I made house tracks 25 years ago, I was completely free to express my music. I just wanted to make my music with the happiness and joy-ness when I had been on the dance floor with house music. I was completely free to make my house music.

You talk a lot about how you're inspired by traditional Japanese music, but you're also interested in new technologies and tools. Why do you think it's important to meld the two?
Because I am interested in both the traditional and new technology. I'm not clear on why. It's just like eating what I like to eat together. For example, they like to eat potato and chicken, and so they created this dish eating potato with chicken. I can put those the same way, traditional music and technology, [puts chicken and potato on fork], and mmm, taste!

You studied computer science at university—have computers and technologies always appealed to you?
I was impressed by the theory of computers. I learned how it works, and the theory from Alan Turing. But I was such a bad student in university. I was lucky to have a friend who was very creative with computer technology and music in the university. I could borrow a handmade sampler from the university. So I was a bad student, but I was so lucky to try a very primitive MIDI sampler made by my university friend.

Soichi explains the difference between mixing with software versus records or CDs. Image: Author

Today, some people prefer to DJ using records or CDs, and others prefer to just use a laptop. What do you think about the differences between these tools?
When DJs started using records in the 50s and 60s, vinyl was the highest technology to produce music in those days. To play with vinyl, not instruments, must have looked like using new technology. It looked cool at the time, but now it looks "authentic" 30 or 40 years later. DJing with vinyl became traditional, and now using a PC is new technology. People can prefer their own thing to use, or combine them.

The good thing is that we can separate music not into two mixes, but into kick, bass line, maybe vocals. We can carry, individually, the music. We can control the volume or even cut the part according to the place we play at. The vinyl or CD just carries "L" and "R," but a laptop can carry all these layers.

It's more freedom, basically.
Yes, more freedom.

Are you optimistic about any trends in technology and music production now?
The younger generation can create the next generation's dance music with new gear that we have never expected, like PCs in contact lenses.

Or even virtual reality?
No, not virtual reality. I like virtual reality, but people must begin with new technology to play music that the older generation could have never expected. Just like when the DJ playing vinyl like instruments, the older generation thinks that it's not playing music. But the younger generation in those days, like me, were fascinated. It was revolutionary. This is an instrument to play music.

Has anything popped up that's surprised you in the last few years?
Using the internet and the social media explosion. But I cannot use social media.

Why not?
Maybe I'm getting old.

I don't know about that. How would things have been different for you if you were making music while the internet was around?
Maybe, with the internet, people can get references. It's so easy. With the internet, people are able to access all kinds of music from many years ago.

Now that you've had this turn in your career and you're back to performing house music, a lot of people are probably wondering what you'll do next. Do you have any plans?
No. My house music performances began so suddenly last March. I had no idea. To be able to have a tour in North America, and even to have an interview in Toronto in Jerk Spot… Thank you so much, Jordan. I can't expect what will happen next. I hope more opportunity for exciting things. I might have less opportunity. I am not sure, but right now I am feeling happy to have an interview with some spicy good food in Toronto in a serious winter.

Thank you, Soichi.

This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.

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CORRRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Terada as returning to DJing. After an in-depth discussion with the artist about the performance described in this article, Motherboard has determined that "performance" is a better descriptor than "DJ set," as Terada's performance involved an Akai digital sampler, a MIDI keyboard, and a small mixer. Per Terada, via email: "I can say that I am performing how my songs was made." This article has been updated for reader clarity.