Interview: Ryuichi Sakamoto and Skyler Skjelset

Photo by Johnny Le

Ryuichi Sakamoto is a legend. He’s been a friend of Ace since 2000 when we brought him to Ace Hotel Seattle, and his music has been the soundtrack to much of our 20 years on this universe. Sensitive, disparate and uniquely tied to its emotional environment, his soundscapes move freely from Nokia ringtones, to museum installations, to collaborations with other visionaries like Alejandro González Iñárritu and David Bowie, to being a founding member of the greatest Yellow Magic Orchestra. Transcendent of genre and spanning decades, Sakamoto-san’s timbre and passion for exploration, discovery and experimentation has led to diverse work at home in a plethora of spaces. We created a Ryuichi playlist from 1999–2019, one song for every year we opened a hotel, which you can listen to here

On the occasion of our 20th anniversary celebration, Ryuichi Sakamoto played a rare piano solo on The Theatre’s majestic stage. At one point, he stood up and said “I’m doing this for friendship.” We feel honored to call him our friend. And we were lucky enough to have Skyler Skjelset — musician, Fleet Foxes founding member, friend of Ace and self-professed Sakamoto fan — sit down with him before his performance to chat about the democratization of music, the responsibility of making sounds for communities and petting chickens in New York City.

Photo by Johnny Le

Skyler Skjelset:
Are you excited for the show tonight?

Ryuichi Sakamoto:
I’m a bit nervous because I stopped touring my solo concerts, so it’s been a while since the last time I played.

SS:
Especially solo piano, right?

RS:
Yes, the last was in May, in Singapore.

SS:
I saw videos of that, and you were playing guitar?

RS:
Yes, sometimes. Tonight is strictly playing the piano solo, but usually I have some installations around. In Singapore, I even had water on the stage, and I put the piano and the guitar and other devices in the water. I walked around the water. I put the mics in the water and modulated the sound. So, actually walking in the water was one of the instruments. 

I’m doing this for friendship.

SS:
You live in New York, did you go to one of the Björk shows at The Shed?

RS:
No, I didn’t. I’ve never been there.

SS:
I went to those shows — it was my first time there — because I really wanted to see her, and she had a percussionist who was using these tanks of water, hitting them with mallets.

RS:
It’s a nice idea. She’s full of ideas. She’s a creative person.

SS:
I was told this morning that you’ve known the Ace Hotel a long time, from Seattle.

RS:
Yes, I was invited to play at the Ace Hotel in Seattle.

SS:
I was wondering if that’s the reason you were interested in playing here at The Theatre [at Ace Hotel Downtown Los Angeles], because it does seem like you’re pretty selective about the places you have a tendency to play.

RS:
There’s a strong connection. I’m doing this for friendship.

Photo by Johnny Le

SS:
Since we’re in a hotel and you’re traveling, do you feel like travel affects your creative process?

RS:
It’s strange. Yes, I travel a lot, I need to. I feel very lucky that I get invitations all over the world. But I always feel a little bit nervous before I travel. I don’t want to leave my home. But I also feel relief and positivity when I look around at unknown things, new things. New people, new food, new landscapes — everything new. It’s a good feeling.

SS:
Sometimes the act of traveling and putting yourself in unfamiliar surroundings is good because it teaches you so many new things. I’m the same way. When I’m finding myself devoid of creativity I go to Japan a lot — I try to go to Tokyo as many times as I can — I mainly try to absorb the sounds; they’re so different from New York which can get a little stale sometimes.

RS:
I always feel there’s a very particular sound of each city. Barcelona has its own atmosphere. Sound and smell, too! Each country, each city, has its own smell and sound. To me, the sound of New York is the sound of ACs. Zzzzzz. Imagine that, how many ACs in the city…millions. I even went to Times Square at 3 o’clock in the morning to record the sound of the ACs. Imagine the accumulation of millions of ACs.

SS:
Did you end up using that for anything in a record?

RS:
Yes, I did use that sound after Smoochy in 1995… What was it? I don’t remember!

SS:
How long have you lived in New York?

RS:
Almost 30 years.

SS:
I’ve lived there for 10 years and it’s one of those places —

RS:
Are you from there?

SS:
I’m from Seattle, but I moved there about 10 years ago.

RS:
Were you bored?

SS:
Kind of. In Seattle, I was playing with a lot of my friends and they all went to Jazz school and we were doing a lot of improvisational music and long from stuff, but at a certain point, Seattle is such a small city it ended up being the same people, every time that I would play with. I thought by moving to New York, I would find a new scene of people to play with, but I’ve actually found that playing with people in New York is much more difficult than finding inspiration in the city itself. It’s so competitive there.

RS:
And expensive. Very expensive.

Almost every person has some kind of musicality. They have a right to it express through music.

SS:
Tonight, the show is Zola Jesus, serpentwithfeet and you. I know the Ace put the bill together themselves, but are these artists you appreciate yourself?

RS:
Yes. I was asked by Ace, and I listened to them. They’re interesting.

SS:
I know you have a tendency to collaborate with a lot of people — people like Fennesz or Alva Noto. What does that mean to you in terms of creating your own work? The collaboration part? 

RS:
The collaboration work means, to me, that I can observe the talent they have.

SS:
Do you feel like it pushes you to be better? Do you find yourself mutually observing their appreciation of your work as you’re appreciating their work simultaneously while working together? I personally feel that to become a better musician, I have to play with people who are better than me.

RS:
Well, not only being better, but different. Difference is very important for me. If I know the talent the other person has, I don’t need to work with them because I already know what it is. I need to know something unknown. A guy like Alva Noto is very different from other musicians I’ve known. His way of thinking, his concepts for music, is very different. Almost mathematical. He’s a visual artist, and he’s not musically trained. That’s great. And still, he can make good music with a very different way of thinking. 

SS:
Do you think that after you worked together, you’ve brought his approach to your own music?

RS:
It’s inspiring for me, how he thinks. How he makes and constructs things.

Photo by Johnny Le

SS:
That was one of the reasons why I wanted to move to New York, that I wanted to play with people I didn’t know. In Seattle, I was playing with the same people every time, I got to expect what they were doing. I haven’t quite found it yet, in New York.

RS:
For instance, Bill Evans is my favorite Jazz pianist, next to Herbie Hancock. But Bill is very special and I heard he played 4-5, 4-5, 4-5 [miming with ring and pinky fingers]. It’s his style. He plays perfectly. It’s not easy.

SS:
I guess it’s something you need to know to challenge yourself if you appreciate someone else’s music. You’re left handed, so you have a tendency to state the voice of the chord strongly in your left hand, and your right…

RS:
My balance is my musicality since I was very little. I was not so into the melodies. I always was fascinated by sound and harmony. So the left hand is very important.

SS:
Your chord voicing is very colorful on this hand.

RS:
My right hand is so poor! [Laughter.]

SS:
Oh no, I didn’t mean that![Laughter.]

Do you know Sam Owens? He produced Kazu Makino’s record, and you did a lot of stuff on that. She’s actually playing tonight in Los Angeles. They played just the other night in New York and Sam and I were talking after the show about how it seems like lately you’ve been doing that a lot, contributing to other people’s records. Is that something you find fulfilling to do for other people? Did she ask you and were you happy to do it?

RS:
I was very happy to.

SS:
Did you have to find a place for yourself in that? Or did you have sounds that felt appropriate for it?

RS:
It was just the same flow of my everyday life. I was just creating some sounds for her, and she sent me more tracks and I got some ideas immediately. It was very natural.

SS:
Is that something you like to do for other musicians?

RS:
Depends. [Laughter] If I like.

SS:
Speaking of Björk and other contemporary musicians, I know some of the music in your past has been very sympathetic to the environment surrounding it, especially where it’s performed, specific to where you’re playing or where the music comes from. These days, Björk for example, released music in VR. In the past, you composed for Sega Dreamcast and the Nokia 8800. Those were experiential things in people’s everyday lives. Is that something you’re interested in continuing with, in terms of immersive experiences where people can listen to music in different forms?

RS:
My interest in that area has been a bit reduced, but I always have the interest in sounds and music in people’s everyday lives. Since the 70s, I made a lot of commercial music for commercials in Japan. That’s the same reason I had interest in how the sound and music would work, or would help, people.

SS:
I know with your last record, a lot of it was bringing natural sound into your music to give it an organic, human quality to it, how humans interact with nature. Sometimes writing music for products, you’re doing the opposite where you’re affecting other people’s situations. Does that interest you? Coloring people’s everyday realities? Or does that seem too invasive to you?

RS:
I think, after all, it’s the same thing. It has the same functions — commercial or regular music. Music has a lot of impact on people’s minds and lives. Even generational, the sounds from TV or the internet has a lot of impact. I think it works the same way, so it makes me learn that I should be very careful on what I make.

SS:
If you made a song that was all minor chords, you could bum somebody out the whole day.

RS:
Theoretically, sound and music could heal people’s diseases. But also, it could influence in a bad way. We musicians should be very careful of what we’re making.

SS:
Considering all that stuff, coincidentally, since we’re at Ace Hotel, Julianna Barwick recently composed a score for a space that plays in the Lobby in the hotel Sister City in New York City. It’s controlled by some Microsoft AI technology, where they have a camera pointed at the sky and when the camera  sees the clouds moving or weather changing, etc., and it composes in real time utilizing recordings she wrote. 

RS:
Is it new?

SS:
It’s brand new.

RS:
I have to check it out. Since early 2000s, I’ve been making some sound installations, too. My first installation was similar to that in 2000. I was asked to make music for a scientific museum in Tokyo, and they wanted me to make just a 5 min piece for inside the building. I Imagined the people in the reception having to hear the same 5 min piece for 8 hours. That’s not great. Instead of making a piece of music, there was a light sensor on the top of the museum, so I wanted to use the rays of light, of the day and time, to modify the music. I prepared a lot of sound files, maybe 200 sound files, and categorized them. Like a very dark day would use these sound files, a very bright day or stormy day would use these others, and so on. That was my first installation.

Photo by Johnny Le

SS:
Do you think if you went to the museum on a dark day, your experience in the museum would be kind of dark?

RS:
It depends on people, how they feel. I purposefully categorized these songs into dark day, bright day, mid-day.

Photo by Johnny Le

SS:
Some people like the darkness.

RS:
My tendency is to like dark sounds.

SS:
I was wondering if you’re a Keiji Haino or Merzbow fan? Do you know them?

RS:
I know them. I think I played with them.

SS:
Does that level of harshness appeal to you?

RS:
I had a lot of sessions with those free jazz musicians in the 70s when I was young. I had to play so hard. And I was fed up with that [laughter]. In the beginning it was fun, but the same thing happened again and again, so I was tired of that.

SS:
You know Arca, did you hear about the new installation at the MoMA? Arca wrote the music for the lobby for two years. It’s an improvisational, responsive thing.

RS:
Damn. I don’t know anything about what’s happening in New York. I’m always inside my home.

SS:
If you have a house in New York, why would you ever leave?

RS:
Recently, I have my lover pet, which is a chicken in my house. I’m lucky I have a little small yard. I was playing with my chicken a lot — protecting against cats — so I’m busy.

I was always seeking to find a way for musicians or creators to have a direct path to their listeners.

Sakamoto’s chicken Utako

SS:
What’s your chicken’s name?

RS:
Utako, meaning “singing girl” in Japanese, because she sings a lot.

SS:
It doesn’t bother you? It doesn’t wake you up in the morning? What about your neighbors?

RS:
I don’t care.

SS:
I live in an apt, so if I tried to get a chicken it would be no good. [Laughter.]

I do have a big question for you because this has been something that has been troubling me lately… I know that in the past, in the late 2000s, you’ve spoken out about copyright law and how it was both irrelevant and antiquated and was actually stealing things from people and their experience of music. I could make a record today and just go on Bandcamp and put it out and it’d be there. Do you think that’s good?

RS:
I think it’s good. The way we can express and present our music has been a lot more democratized.

SS:
But considering how much people only listen to music through streaming and are subsequently able to curate their own experiences with it to their lives rather than the music affecting their lives? I love the idea of it — the idea of the immediacy of it and of being a kid in the Midwest somewhere and have nothing at your disposal to create and being able to do that, but…

RS:
I think it’s still better for the same reason. There are a lot of corners in the world where people cannot get a chance to be exposed to this music. The internet is working great and the way the method you make music is easier. We have to thank Steve Jobs. Almost every person has some kind of musicality. They have a right to it express through music. Now they can do it. It’s great. Before, only a few people were chosen by big companies to make a lot of copies to put out to the world. It was not democratic at all. I was always frustrated and against that. I was always seeking to find a way for musicians or creators to have a direct path to their listeners. Although the situation for the environment for people to make music has been democratized, which is great, but it makes it difficult for professional musicians to make money. Music has no value economically. It’s free. Free is great, but we cannot earn money.

SS:
The frustrating thing with that, is that the kids who are making music have to think about so many other aspects like visuals or social media, which dilutes the intentionality of the creation to begin with. It’s difficult. I have a hard time navigating it in my head, a clear observation of It, but I was curious about your take on it. Record companies holding music hostage from the fans.

RS:
That problem is over, so that’s great.

SS:
A new problem, now.


Skyler Skjelset is a musician and hobbyist photographer. In addition to his own records and performances, he is a founding member of the band Fleet Foxes and has toured extensively with bands such as Beach House and the Walkmen. He is currently working on his fourth record and performs with New York based band Yeah Baby.