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'Be different' was always my belief, not only for music but for my life

Ametsub interview by Hoçâ Cové-Mbede. Originally published at

Akihiko Saitoh, best known as Ametsub, is a downtempo electronic musician based in Tokyo. His compositions have a very personal style, characterized by the use of prepared piano melodies, layers of field recordings and ethereal backgrounds. He has toured and appeared with artists such as Plaid, Cornelius, Fennesz, AtomTM, Floating Points, Vladislav Delay, Moritz Von Oswald, Alva Noto or Tujiko Noriko. He has even played with world famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Your career as a musician started almost twelve years ago, your work is a combination of meticulous mix of electronics, piano decomposed structures and intricate micro atmospheres. After all this years, what are your thoughts about the evolution of your career and the development of your projects?

I often liked digging music when I was a high-school student. It was around that time I began making music. From that time, be different was always my belief (not only for music but for my life). At that time, the electronic music chop&glitch piano aesthetic did not exist much in Japan. Then I decided to do something that nobody did. Especially in The Nothings of The North, the record was able to have a good response. Thanks to Ryuichi Sakamoto's best. My belief be different is still unchanged at all, even now. There is so much music that uses glitchy piano as the main resource. So I am away from that. Three years ago, I found the musical- instrument called Giant Mbira in US. I've been getting into
it lately. Perhaps I'm going to release the EP featuring Giant Mbira in early summer.

Ametsub playing the Mbira. Photo by Azusa Takada.

When did you decided to become a musician and a visual artist? Can you describe the early live performances as Ametsub in Tokyo?

I'm not doing it so much as visual artist. Ametsub videos are almost made by me. But it is just an Icelandic driving video. Is almost a hobby. I hardly remember my early stages in Japan, what I especially remember is the Sense Of Wonder Festival in 2007, because though I was not known at all even in Japan, so many audience members clapped and
showed me support, very good memories.

Even when you’ve used many digital resources and tools like the distortion of recorded voices (for example in 'Mosfell' and 'Solitude' from The Nothings from the North), captured sounds from natural landscapes ('Over 3366' from All Is Silence), you still prefer the use of piano as your main template to build and sculpt music. Can you explain your relationship with the use of analog instruments and how this affects your processes to make complex pieces of music?

I hardly use analog distortion and digital distortion, often I use a recorder and a reel-to-reel recorder Nagra, what makes my sound warmer, I think. Moreover, I’m not only letting the sound material pass through the tape recorder once, but I let it pass many, many times. So the sound material breaks into an original form. It's very fun and warmer.

You make all the artwork design for your albums, all of them have a special relationship with nature's icy aesthetics and landscapes, especially in All Is Silence (2012), for this album you traveled to the Arctic Circle and Iceland to capture the atmosphere of the spaces, sonically and visually. Why did you felt attracted to these landscapes? How did these places influence you sonically and aesthetically in comparison of Tokyo?

The artwork design of my two albums is almost made with my photos in Iceland and photos in the Arctic Circle. My first trip in Iceland was in 2008. At that time, Iceland was not popular at all. That closed atmosphere was wonderful for me. The reason why I was interested in Iceland is of course Jóhann Jóhannsson and Björk's music, but also Ozy, Yagya, Exos, Ruxpin, Icelandic underground music was most influence for me. I did not select listening to Icelandic music purposely. The music I was listening a lot was from Iceland by coincidence. I felt this coincidence has a meaning. I was born in Tokyo's city noise. An information noise too. I may have wanted an extremely opposite environment.

What are the elements that you enjoyed the most while recording the songs and designing the artwork for your last album All is Silence?

Imagining the landscape. Listening to voice of the wind and being conscious of the differences from others.

You’ve played on international festivals like Sónar Reykjavik, L.E.V. or Taicoclub Festival. What are the reactions from the audience that you witness during the live performances?

The reactions are various at each festival. L.E.V. was always hot! Sonar Reykjavik was also very nice! I really love their style. Japanese audience is always cool especially in live performances. My live performances may have so many ambient / chill, deep elements.

In 2013 you collaborated with multimedia artist and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto in an improvisation at Noda Shrine in Japan. What did you learn from Ryuichi in this experience?

That improvisation project was hold without any rehearsal and previous arrangement. It was the absolute improvisation. I was very excited and I prepared various kinds of sounds including beats close to the beginning of 'Solitude' and the groove close to 'Over 6633' for example. However, during the soundcheck before the performance, Ryuichi ordered me not to use any beats or grooves. He wanted absolute ambient music: "I want make the one thing with me, Ametsub, audience, nature of Noda-shrine here". To be honest, I wanted to play the minimal and the groove beats even just a little. But, the result was super. Many audience members seemed satisfied with our performance. After the performance was finished, he said to me "Good performance, let's play again in near future". I still believe that we could play together again.

What is the title of your upcoming EP? And what is the concept and sound behind it?

Perhaps... It will be "Mbira Lights EP". It's featuring sounds of Giant Mbira. Ametsub does not have definite concept until now. But this EP has the first concept as Ametsub. Is not just a recording of the Mbira, is also a mix with bass, beats, electronic effects and voices.

Can you talk about the inspiration and the ideas that triggered this new project?

As I said before, I always think that I wanted to make "different" music even for just a bit, and this Mbira's overtone was very exciting when I listened to it at first.

Can you talk about your collaborations with photographer Nuno Moreira? Do you have a new project with him?

Nuno Moreira is making the artwork of my "Mbira Lights EP", but the artwork is still a draft mostly, it will be finished at end of this month. The reason I choose him for the artwork is beacuse, he gave me a very nice video with his own works on my music three years ago.

For the release of your new EP you also designed a new music instrument called Giant Mbira. The instrument is a re-design of the Mbira, the traditional Zimbabwean instrument? What is the structure and aim of this instrument?

No, it is not the traditional instrument. This Mbira's original model is by Array Mbira in United States. I had the Mbira custom-made for my performance and personality.

When did you started to research for the development on Giant Mbira?

I found it on the internet four years ago. After the meticulous preparation with the Array Mbira teams, I customized it. It was not inexpensive, but I am really happy.

What can we expect for Giant Mbira in your future live performances?

I'm already using it on my recent live performances for real-time-sampling. This is not like piano's line, so difficult to play. I need time if I play it freely, but it sounds really great.