– An interview with Exitpost –
by george cloke
Great electronic music is often underscored by an unlikely dualism. That is, tracks created through digital manipulation and processing can result in an extremely personal and organic sound. The music of Exitpost perfectly encapsulates this concept. Born in Tokyo and raised in America, Ken Herman’s 2014 release Sweet Fade combined Japanese samples taken from his mother’s record collection with lush production akin to Four Tet or Mount Kimbie. On his new EP Nami, Exitpost retains the warmth and wistfulness of his debut release whilst developing a more nuanced sound. Vibrant splashes of electronica are enriched by the woozy, meditative vocals of Japanese producer Unmo and New York singer Bay Kee. The blend of field recordings, playful samples and sublime production is strengthened by Nick Zammuto, who mastered the EP.
Nami is a personal and enchanting work which captures the fragility and magic of a lost dream. Before the release, we were lucky enough to speak with Ken, with a full stream on the EP provided below.
First up, could you tell us a little about how Nami came together?
Nami came together when I was in Tokyo last summer. I was traveling with friends and began working on early versions of the tracks whenever I could find downtime. A lot of the demos were kicking around once I returned to NYC and over the following months I finally finished up the music in early November. Hmm, I think there was a band called Early November…
The trip meant a lot to me, as I was born in Tokyo and had not been back for some time. The EP is inspired by feelings of love and loss returning to my birthplace. My mother’s nickname growing up was Nami, so in a way it’s celebrating my heritage.
You’ve used vocals in the past but they are given real prominence on Nami. How did the collaborations with Unmo and Bay Kee come together?
After I released Sweet Fade I had a ton of writer’s block and wanted to work around vocals that weren’t samples. Bay Kee and I went to college together actually (with Zeno, the head of Newlywed as well!). One day at my house, she recorded a ton of scratch vocals and loose idea that I ended up using for the song Birthmark almost a year later.
Birthmark was finished in Japan (I played it at a show in Komae a few hours after the rough draft was done) but the rest of the demos were missing something. I knew I wanted to work with a vocalist but specifically a Japanese singer.
Somehow I found Unmo’s music while downloading batches of music off blogs before I took a train to Kyoto. I initially went in to find things to sample but eventually just listened to only her music for a lot of the trip. She switches between singing in Japanese and English and makes twinkly electronica kinda like Sigur Ros. I knew she was exactly what I was looking for and eventually mustered the courage to ask her to sing for me. She’s a graceful and giving collaborator and working together was the best. Hopefully we’ll be working again in the future.
And how was working with Nick Zammuto?
He’s awesome! I grew up such a big fan of The Books and they’re definitely why I got into sampling. That band was proof that chopped beats and acoustic sounds were not exclusive to hip-hop or electronic music, and could be done in way that’s super emotive. Zeno from Newlywed had worked with Nick Zammuto in the past so it was his idea to reach out about mastering. I ended up writing Nick a really long letter about what The Books meant to me and he loved the EP so he was down.
Nick’s touch was mastering, but he’s given a lot of advice/feedback in terms of releasing music and doing sample clearance. He’s a really genuine, down-to-earth guy. Knows his stuff so well.
Both the production and vocal lines help give Nami this real sense of tonal and thematic unity. Particularly in comparison with Sweet Fade, for which there was a surprising variety of sounds on offer. Was there a conscious decision for cohesion, or was it simply a result of a ‘maturing’ sound?
Sweet Fade (which I self-released in 2014) was made over the span of two years so it really was more of a mixtape than an album. I like some albums that jump around from style to style and that’s something I tried to go for, but the lack of cohesion mostly ended up sounding like a lack of direction. This time around, I wanted to go for more of a consistent album sound and make every song feel cut from the same cloth. Additionally, these songs were produced and written all around the same time. I think future releases will flail around in sounds a bit more.
This time I wanted to put out something a lot more personal, both in execution and theme. All of the samples are from strictly Japanese sources, pooled from field recordings, records I bought while crate-digging there, and old TV shows and movies. I would send Unmo themes or describe people or nights in Tokyo and she would take it from there, sending back vocals and harmonies.
The songs are more upbeat than anything else I’ve put out. Playing my last record live never truly translated, so this time I wanted to write tunes I could throw in a DJ mix and not have the room clear out!
Growing up you travelled a fair bit between America and Japan. Has your perceptions of the country changed since your childhood?
That’s a good question – it’s something I struggle with quite a bit. As a child, I felt pretty isolated from since I never felt truly white or Asian. I got bullied a lot for being Japanese. It grew into a sort of resentment towards my Japanese side and I shied away from learning the language or wanting to do anything Japanese. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to embrace it. Doing Exitpost stuff has proven to be a really rewarding way of channeling it. That and electronic music culture loves Japan quite a bit (for better and worse).
The biggest thing I’ve learned is how my perception of Japan really differs from others’ perceptions of Japan. This is something I hoped would come across in the book, as it forgoes any of the glitz and glamour of the shiny, pink anime thing everyone associates Japan with. Electronic music culture really love to fetishize the country. I really wish artists did their research a bit more, or at least bothered to learn the language before throwing Japanese lettering all over everything.
I could never get into subgenres like vaporwave for this reason.
The country has a lot more of a reserved and modest culture than people realize. Japan is not without its problems either, as it has a few years to go in terms of social progress. Don’t get me wrong – I really do love it there. I recommend going to get a better sense of what I’m talking about though. If you do, go to Ra.a.g.f Rabbit Café. It’s a cafe where you’re surrounded by bunnies!
My girlfriend is also half Japanese, and whilst fluent in the language and fiercely proud of her heritage, when she returns to Tokyo she is somewhat considered an outsider. Coupled with the country’s poor sexism record, it means she probably wouldn’t consider moving there for work, despite her affinity with the country.
I get treated like an outsider there too, despite being half and speaking the language for the most part. I think my fondness for Tokyo is a lot of nostalgia, since going back this year opened my eyes quite a bit. For instance, I was hanging out with a Japanese friend there and men would come up and start harassing her like “who’s your buddy here?” The layers of misogyny and xenophobia in that are astounding. Your girlfriend is totally right, it’s still really patriarchal and men can be really sexist. Very bad to women and very bad to the LGBT community too. Read about the population decline, or what happened to that TV star ベッキ (Becky). Otaku culture is such a great example of how damaging the way woman portrayed in anime is. That’s what the culture is like. My mom left because of the lack of opportunity. My parents moved there again in the 80s and then my dad wanted to leave because as an American he didn’t like working there.
Do I want to live there? Maybe eventually. Despite all of this, it feels like the life not lived in many ways. I’m curious to explore that side of me. Going back brings back a lot of childhood memories, as I spent every summer at my grandmother’s house. Often times, while my mom and sister would do errands I would explore the city alone. This year, I visited my uncle (who still lives in that neighborhood) and I stopped by where my grandmother’s house used to be. She died a few years ago, and the house was recently demolished. Seeing it gone was a heavy moment. I was standing there staring at the empty lot when a group of teenagers started eyeing me like “what the fuck is he doing staring at cars?” so it was a heavy but very brief moment. I felt a little lost coming back to the states having graduated college after getting a taste of childhood again.
You mentioned your fondness towards Tokyo as nostalgic. For me, the samples wonderfully evoke this feeling whilst indicating your heritage. They sound traditionally Japanese but also sentimental, as though you’re expressing personal feelings towards Japan, rather than reflecting the country itself.
I’m glad you hear nostalgia. Before I got into sampling or electronic music, I was really into post-rock bands and ambient music. Those sorts of textures and kinds of feelings you get from those genres is something I still strive for. I use a lot of samples of Japanese instruments (like the shamisen or koto), but a lot of the mid-frequency synth-sorta sounds are the same instruments just slowed down with PaulStretch or sent through tons of delay and reverb. I hope to write songs that feel uplifting but kinda melancholic too. The songs on Nami are love songs and I never felt the urge to channel that before. A lot of the lyrics were inspired by somebody I met in Japan, but they’re not about anything or anyone in particular. This one of the many reasons I loved working with Unmo, or perhaps felt such a connection to her voice. There is something very innocent in her delivery, equal parts childlike but somber and wistful. I wanted to capture my feelings of being back there – dreamy, nostalgic, optimistic.
The physical EP is packaged with a photobook of your travels around the country- do you have favourite picture from your time there?
My favorite picture in the book is one I took in Kamakura in 2012. I love street photography but it always feel like you’re disrupting people. You’re playing tourist. I never wanted to make anybody feel like I’m making a spectacle of them while they try to go about their day. We visited a Shinto Shrine in Kamakura and I don’t think you’re allowed to take pictures (if you’re from Kamakura and reading this, I am really sorry). However, this one miko saw me photographing and she gave me this curious smirk I captured. It was a cool little moment. Also, there are some fun pictures of macaques who are much bigger and scarier than you think.
Any recent Japanese artists you’d recommend? We’re huge fans of Flau’s output on GFP…
I love Flau too! I was listening to lots of Cuushe, Cokiyu, and Submerse when making Nami. Aus from Flau is a really nice guy, I met him and Cuushe at a show a few months back and fanboyed out a little. A few awesome Japanese producers I’ve been turned onto recently include Unmo (of course), Towa, Hiroto Kudo, Qrion, Kai Takahashi, and YEVRS. Additionally, I was listening to a lot of Haruka Nakamura, Susumu Hirawasa, and Yoko Ueno while making this EP.
Any plans for live shows once Nami is released?
Right before finishing up Nami I went on my first tour, so the live shows have taken a backseat a bit in preparation for the release. I have a few NYC and Boston dates on the horizon. Hopefully I will do a summer tour of sorts! I’m hoping to go back to Tokyo in August, maybe doing a few DJ sets and maybe another Exitpost show.
Nami is accompanied by a limited edition 5×5″ photo book, which chronicles Exitpost’s time spent in Japan from 2012 to 2015 – and is out now via Newlywed Records