words & main photograph by george cloke
translation by sarah bunting
Last month, the magnificent flau records celebrated its tenth anniversary with a special exhibition at Daikanyama Tsutaya Books in Tokyo, and a label sampler featuring the likes of CRYSTAL, IKEBANA and Sparrows. Over the past decade, listeners around the world have delighted in the imprint’s independent spirit, delicate craft and continual warmth. To honour ten years of inimitable magic, we spoke to founder Yasuhiko Fukuzono about flau’s inception and look back at some of the sublime records which have shaped its enchanting narrative.
flau launched somewhat unassumingly back in 2007. Fukuzono recalls: “Myself and a friend wanted to put on an afternoon gig series, so we thought we could present a compilation to attendees as a special amenity. We asked friends and musicians via myspace (yes, it was back in the days of myspace!) to provide tracks for a CD. We were overwhelmed with responses, so we produced a 2 disc compilation for the gig, and that was the beginning of flau.”
Contemporaneously, bedroom pop artist Coikyu was looking for a label to release her debut album. Fukuzono expressed interest, and the rest is history.
The record became flau’s first full length release, and remains a lauded work of ethereal beauty. On Mirror Flake, Coikyu’s whispered vocal lines act like measured brushstrokes; instilling honey coloured hues onto a subdued sonic canvas. At times, her sheltered soundscapes open up, with sparkling electronics and twinkling, aqueous chimes shimmering like soft light diffusions across a pool of water. Mirror Flake’s accompanying press statement commands its listeners to “open your ears to a new era of Japanese contemporary pop music.” Looking back, this assertive declaration bears true both for artist and label; a triumphant clarion call for Cokiyu and flau’s quiet, daydream revolution.
flau began with pioneering musicians, regular concerts and a diligent label manager. In the intervening years, not much has changed; with the label’s sense of self developing naturally over time. “When we started FLAU, we didn’t have a concept or overall label aesthetic” explains Fukuzono. “Our only purpose was to make a comfortable home for artists we love. Today, that hasn’t really changed. Whilst we are always growing through discovering new artists, hearing new music and making new friends; we don’t forget humour and above all, we think the music on the label should be more significant than the visuals/design.”
An ostensibly straightforward approach to running a label, yet flau’s success is a direct result of Fukuzono’s enduring passion, sincerity and creativity. Unsurprinsglh, he is held in high regard by the musicians he works with. Cicada praise him as a person of “impeccable taste, independent spirit and elegant design choices”, whilst Noah quips that he has a smile “like an amulet warding off evil”. He has fostered a community of likeminded artists, and even encourages inter label collaborations to maintain a family feel. This year alone has seen Noah and kidkanevil team up on the charming Nemui PJ EP Pumpkin, whilst violinist Christoph Berg and pianist Henning Schmiedt delight on bei; a stunning neo-classical LP which sits snugly alongside preeminent examples of the genre.
Fukuzono possesses something of a Midas Touch when it comes to seeking and signing innovative artists, with each new release expertly expanding the sound and scope of the label. Emma Gatrill is a recent case in point. The Brighton based multi instrumentalist was contacted by Fukuzono less through serendipity than a sense of predetermination. “He wrote to me saying how much he liked my debut album and how he’d like to work together on the exact day that I coincidently had gone into the studio to begin making my second record. It felt like we were destined for collaboration.”
The resulting album, Cocoon, is one of the years most rewarding listens. Shuffling, tap dance percussion propels feathered harp arpeggios, as nuanced string arrangements swell like a humid coastal breeze. Tracks such as ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Skin’ provide moments of bucolic buoyancy, yet here’s a sense of mournfulness that haunts the edges of Gatrill’s world.
Weighty themes such as the fragility of nature are delicately explored through earthy, organic instrumentation and pensive lyrics. On ‘Robin’, Gatrill ruminates on the impact of urbanisation for local wildlife, lamenting: “Too long spent, in such a loud environment” as a rising orchestral tide drowns out the monophonic song of the titular bird. Cocoon is layered with such moments of sonic symbiosis; when instrumentation, texture and voice converge to showcase Gatrill’s uncompromising creative vision.
Evidently, Coccon stands stylistically apart from flau’s other releases. For Gatrill, this encouragement of genre-fluidity is one of the imprint’s great strengths. “flau is a multi-cultural label releasing musicians from all over the world”, she observes. “I like the way a lot of the artists sound really different to one another, but they all have a definite ‘flau-ness’ about them which can’t be specifically explained.” Irrefutably, the musical variety offered on the label is unparalleled.
For example, young Kyoto beatsmith Madegg skilfully alternates between techno, deep-house, ambient and drone influences with an assuredness well beyond his years. On his third full length NEW; psychedelic synth melodies weave through sharp, pirouetting drum loops, as low bass tones growl mischievously in the shadows. Occupying a divergent musical topography is Fábio Caramuru, who drifts langoruous piano melodies over ethereal field recordings captured in his native Brazil. On EcoMúsica, a dense rainforest of chirping birds and rustling fauna dissipates into slight tendrils, lifting soft keys to the fore and fabricating acoustic harmonies between environment and instrument. It’s a poetic and pure record; a love letter to the natural world and an apt soundtrack for any ornithological study.
Of course, no dissection of flau’s sonic styles would be complete without referencing the glowing, half-light soundscapes of Cuushe. Building on Cokiyu’s dream-pop aesthetics, the producer and vocalist engenders kaleidoscopic fantasies of light, dust and whispered dreams. Each release balances a lucid equilibrium between wake and sleep; with Cuushe’s signature vocals murmuring furtively over blanketed, diaphanous atmospherics. On ‘Do You Know the Way to Sleep’, dreamy synths and spectral guitars languidly rise above the static, like a mist-strewn morning gently warmed in the soft light of autumn. ‘I Love You’ commences in a state of slumber, until feathered vocals and firecracker beats fizz into an ebullient, heartfelt crescendo. On ‘Daze’, oscillating arpeggios and illuminate chimes twinkle over percussive rhythms; engendering a sense of poignant reflection at the close of an evening. As the crimson glow of dawn bleeds into the skyline, the memories of the night endure, the hiss of analog crepitating the corners of Cuushe’s still world.
Rather than a similitude of style or sound, the roster’s intangible flau-ness stems from a shared heritage of mood, magic and virtuosity. Noah aptly describes the label like “a toy box: where all your favourite toys are in one place”. Every release is a delicately crafted trinket; yearning to be discovered, savoured and cherished by an appreciative listener. For this author, the Nagoya artist’s debut, sivutie, represents the dearest, most treasured toy of the set.
Noah negotiates the listener through resonant halls and faded dreams over an hour of melancholic and subdued ambient electronica. The tracks operate as a series of soft focused vignettes, gradually unravelling through extended plays. Layers of warm pads and cloaked vocal loops descend and resurface like half forgotten memories, playful chimes illuminate dark pathways and downtempo drums flicker and fade into the cool night air. Only when the warped harmonies of ‘sivutie reprise’ grow faint are we lifted from Noah’s fragile and meticulously crafted aural landscape. In no uncertain terms, sivutie is an intimate, precious and understated masterpiece.
Upon speaking to friends, musicians and admirers of flau, it becomes evident that how I feel about Noah’s record can and is felt about any number of the label’s other releases.
And why wouldn’t that be the case? El Fog’s Rebuilding Vibes draws listeners into a watercolour world of muted metallophones and cavernous dub textures; Submerse’s Stay Home endears through expansive textural layers, washed out production and lush rhodes keys; Port St. Willow’s Syncope is peerless in its meditative ambience and tonal cohesion. Patently, flau’s extensive and diverse discography provides innumerable opportunities for such exploration and adoration; eschewing individual highlights in favour of a cohesive, evocative whole.
In some ways then, there’s an incongruousness to writing a retrospective on flau. It’s a label less about the words on the page than the spaces in between them. Less about the overt meaning of the records than the deeply personal narratives we instil upon them. Less about commemorating ten year anniversaries than celebrating the small moments of light, laughter and love which punctuate the milestones. flau understands the joys of discovery, tranquility, intimacy and spontaneity. It’s why, when pressed on the future of the label, Fukuzono’s response is extemporaneous: “I can’t know our future, because ten years ago I couldn’t have imaged where we are now! After university, I was learning speech therapy, and I never thought that I would still be doing flau. We just want to continue producing what we love.” And in the end, that’s all we could ask for. Here’s to magic, to dreams and the ever enchanting flau.
Explore flau’s back-catalogue via their Bandcamp page here