Talkback: Mikado Koko

Japanese Experimental Producer
By William Stokes

Mikado Koko is an off‑the‑wall thinker, with music to match. The Japanese experimental producer’s latest work, Songs To Our Other Selves, is a wild and disorienting rollercoaster ride, reworking Penny Rimbaud’s 1984 solo album Acts Of Love: Fifty Songs To My Other Self into cascading arrhythmic loops, elastic vocal samples and glitching textures. Suffice to say, the album is quite the sonic departure from its source material, which constitutes 50 short poems set to contemporary classical music, accompanied by a book of 50 collages by prominent British artist Gee Vaucher.

Koko is said to have come up with the idea to rework the whole album “while making generative art NFTs”, which comes as no surprise since she openly posits her iPad as by far the most important production tool in her arsenal; more important, even, than the recording studio.

At the moment I can’t stop listening to

‘Running Up That Hill’ by Kate Bush will always be my all‑time favourite song. Its original title is ‘A Deal With God’; Kate Bush says, “A man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman. And if we could actually swap each other’s roles, if we could actually be in each other’s place for a while, I think we’d both be very surprised!” It’s a song about gender equality, and I think it’s a strong feminist anthem. Thanks to Netflix, everyone can hear the legendary Linn Drum patterns by her and the engineer Del Palmer in Stranger Things!

The project I’m most proud of

My most recent release, Songs To Our Other Selves. It’s an album that had a strange process. I was listening to Penny Rimbaud’s Acts Of Love: Fifty Songs To My Other Self — a classic — and I came up with an idea for remixing the whole album. Penny searched for the master reel for me but could not find it. So I tried a cut‑up method, having also been inspired by Gee Vaucher’s artwork, making some loops from the final WAV file at random and editing each piece with the iOS app SECTOR: a slicer and sequencer with a matrix of Markov Chain connections. Then I edited the resulting pieces again. I selected 20 songs out of 50, and repeated this process around 20 times. The tracks had elements of a lot of different cut‑up technologies, such as musique concrète, hip‑hop cut & mix and generative glitch. To achieve the final result, Penny coordinated the overall flow and mastered the album with Alex Gordon. We also took advantage of Eve Libertine’s iconic voice and Paul Ellis’ brilliant [Yamaha] DX7 and [Sequential] Prophet‑5 at Abbey Road Studios. I’m so proud of this surrealistic album!

The first thing I look for in a studio

I am a bedroom producer; past, present and future, so my answer is an iPad. When I got an iPad, I changed platform from Mac to iOS immediately. I love recording via the built‑in microphone of the iPad Pro, just in my room. AUM [an audio mixer, plug‑in host and connection hub] and AudioShare [a recorder and file manager] by Kymatica are the most important apps for me. Before I start recording, I always have to look for my cat and make sure she is sleeping. Quite often she loves to contribute to the the recording with a “meow”! You can actually hear her voice on my album Maza Gusu, which is Japanese for Mother Goose. If, though, I do get the chance to record in a professional studio, I think I’ll be looking for a powder room, just because I’m sure I’ll be extremely nervous!

The person I would consider my mentor

Well, I did once meet a highly skilled producer who was very interested in me, but I was young and I wanted to do what nobody had done, so I chose more of a roundabout route to learn my craft. Being self‑taught, my primary mentors became Richard D James [Aphex Twin] and Peter Kember [Spacemen 3 member and recent Panda Bear collaborator Sonic Boom]. They must be the icons of bedroom production, for musicians like me. Aphex Twin’s Richard D. James Album was released in 1996 and it featured a lot of software synthesizers. Listening to that album made me no longer want to use real hardware! E.A.R. [Experimental Audio Research] is my favourite project of Peter Kember’s. I learned the magical power of frequency from his work. And now I can even use the [EMS VCS3 emulator] iVCS3 on my iPad! Times are always changing!

My go‑to reference track or album

Kate Bush’s most experimental album, The Dreaming. It always makes me feel better! It’s a real “she’s gone mad” album, and was produced entirely by herself. Intricately intertwined voices, samples, textures, folk instruments, polyrhythmic percussion... There are many discoveries every time I listen to it. I especially refer to the balance of each vocal part, recorded on a 36‑track recorder. It’s quite different from the harmonies of somebody like Brian Wilson. Another big reason that I use it as a reference for my own music is the balance it strikes between ‘commercial’ and ‘uncommercial’. It is a pop album but I think it’s more post‑punk than Public Image Ltd’s Flowers Of Romance, which the engineer Nick Launay also made!

My top tip for a successful session

Synchronicity, and also allowing things to happen by chance. I like how some apps have a dice‑shaped randomise button. Tap, tap, tap! One of my heroes John Cage once said “I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.” It’s amazing what can happen by chance if you let it. Once I was asked to make a remix for a French artist called My Jazzy Child on the exact same day that I was listening to his album Innéisme! The result was very successful for the both of us. The track — which I selected out of pure intuition — is inspired by Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar. I remixed the title track and added a famous sentence from Chomsky, whose grammar is correct but whose meaning is nonsensical: “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.”

The studio session I wish I’d witnessed

Definitely the recording of the Doctor Who theme by Delia Derbyshire and Dick Mills at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. There’s a video I’m really into in which she describes her method of matching reel‑to‑reel tape. She layers sounds played at different speeds and pitches on different tape machines, just like a DJ! She’s the godmother of electronic music. She actually collaborated with Peter Kember in her later years. Those tracks are also amazing. Also I love that Delia gave Peter her VCS3 synthesizer, a beautiful early model. If she was still alive in 2022 to try the iVCS3 app, I wonder what she’d think of it?

Mikado Koko: I want to make a new form of pop music. I couldn’t draw you its shape yet... but I’m sure we could find it after four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.

The producer I’d most like to work with

I want to make a generative pop music album with Björk. She is known as one of the greatest artists around, but she is one of the most underrated producers. I love her album Vespertine. For the most part, she composed and programmed the album on her laptop, but people still think of her as just a pop star and a great vocalist. She’s also a great songwriter and producer! The words she sings in the song ‘Hidden Place’: “Now I have been slightly shy / But I can smile a pinch of hope...” For me, it’s a lullaby within this unfair reality. It’s so exciting to imagine what unexpected melodies or harmonies would be generated from her composition. I want to make a new form of pop music. I couldn’t draw you its shape yet... but I’m sure we could find it after four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, if you know what I mean!

The part of music creation I enjoy the most

Making sequences unreliable and unpredictable. It’s a type of virtual improvisation. Sometimes I feel like La Monte Young and Terry Riley are sitting there in my iPad, playing their instruments! I want to believe that AI can have a soul. My favourite generative iOS apps are Xynthesizr by Yuri Turov, ZOA by Ryan Robinson, Autony by Pagefall and SECTOR by Kymatica. My albums The Japanese Rimbaud and Alice In Cryptoland were created with these sequencers, as well as several killer granular synthesis apps and some recorded voices and loops. It was also mixed via AUM, all on my iPad Pro. I always aim for an unexpected sound. That’s what I enjoy the most.

The advice I’d give myself of 10 years ago

Don’t be so disappointed if you can’t write Python language well. You’ll soon be able to make generative music with no code!  

Published April 2023