Haruomi Hosono

If it didn’t happen in real life, it could be a scene right out of an early 1970s Robert Altman film. Four hirsute long-haired Japanese rockers arrive in sunny, smoggy Los Angeles and their manager whisks them away to a recording studio similarly hazy with pot smoke. The band is called Happy End and they insist – via translator – on getting that “Burbank Sound.” Behind the boards is famed producer and one-time Beach Boys songwriter Van Dyke Parks and Little Feat guitarist Lowell George and neither one of them is quite sure what to make of the band before them. To hear Parks describe it, “they looked something like The Beatles, and I expected maybe they were just a little more cosmopolitan than me.” With Parks and George still baffled due to the language barrier, the band resorted to more common ground: a pearl as an offering as well as a suitcase stuffed full of $20 bills. Suitcase in hand, Van Dyke Parks produced what would become the group’s final studio album, Happy End. Having met one of his idols in Parks, Happy End bassist Haruomi Hosono embarked on an idiosyncratic solo career now entering into its sixth decade.

Happy End were not quite the Japanese version of the Beatles, but Hosono’s next band project came close to attaining a similar level of fanatical teenage fandom. In 1978, Hosono had a brainstorm, inviting two other Japanese session players, keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto and drummer Yukihiro Takahashi, over for dinner where he aired out his grand plan: “We will arrange Martin Denny’s ‘Firecracker’ as an electric chunky disco using synthesizers and sell four million copies of the single worldwide.” Which is pretty much exactly what happened when their new group, Yellow Magic Orchestra, became huge. 

As Sakamoto explained, their mission was taking “that fake image of Asian culture, exotic, typical stereotype image—which Americans created in Hollywood!” and tweaking it to show how ridiculous the stereotype was. Taking their cue from these caricatures of Japanese culture, YMO inverted West’s fetishization of the East, holding up a warped funhouse mirror. But slot the group as “the Japanese Kraftwerk” at your own peril, as the group was just as trailblazing, with cutting-edge Japanese technology at their disposal. They were one of the first groups to deploy new gear such as the Yamaha DX7 and the TR-808 drum machine, the foundation for much of modern music, from hip-hop to electro to techno.

They even attained a curious level of success in the West. They once graced the Soul Train stage, befuddling Don Cornelius while getting the crowd to pop and jerk to them. Afrika Bambaataa added YMO to his crates for the infamous early hip-hop codex, Death Mix. Their music was played at the Paradise Garage and by The Electrifying Mojo on Detroit radio. Young producers like Kurtis Mantronik and Derrick May thrilled to every new YMO release. Michael Jackson recorded a cover of YMO’s “Behind the Mask” for Thriller, only to have YMO management scrap the idea. 

But by 1983, intergroup tensions had scattered Hosono, Sakamoto, and Takahashi, and they began to follow their own solo paths. Hosono, for one, felt a great sense of relief. In the waning days of that stardom, Hosono would often retreat back to his hotel room to escape. “Whenever I was back in my room I’d cover the TV with a semi-transparent sheet and use it as a light source, and listen to minimal music like Brian Eno and the Obscure label,” he once told me. “Not long after that time, I DJ’d an event where I played a Gregorian chant simultaneously with a drum machine—that’s when I started to express those feelings I had towards that kind of music.” 

In the 1980s, Hosono went deeper into the machines. “What changed the way I create music was a micro-computer named Roland MC-4 and MIDI, which happened concurrently,” he said. “I tried out each new product that came out. The most unique of all, but the most difficult to operate, was the Yamaha DX7, but I eventually was able to figure it out.” Establishing his own label, he released a string of stunning solo albums that engaged with this nascent technology and the a-historical, brave new sounds possible with them. 

Hosono was one of the first artists to understand how electronics can be freeing: from virtuosity, from education, from nationality and culture, from ego. It offered its human counterparts a plasticity that allowed them to escape from established barriers. In turn, such electronics allowed Hosono to be seen in a new light. Hosono has at times resembled Neil Young, at other times Kraftwerk or Eno, while his electronic work in the late ’80s and ’90s made him kindred to The Orb, Bill Laswell, 808 State, Mixmaster Morris, and Atom Heart. His influence on modern music is wide-ranging, from underground techno producers to Harry Styles, fourth world ambient explorers to Mac DeMarco. And his most recent run of albums in the 21st century finds him coming full circle, to where he even totally re-imagined and reworked the songs on his 1973 debut some 46 years later to winsome effect.

Hosono House cover

As Happy End – and their quest for “Burbank Sound” – came to an end in 1973, Hosono decamped to a house about an hour or so outside of Tokyo with a loose assemblage of musicians that he saw as his own version of LA’s legendary “Wrecking Crew.” Together they embarked on another sonic voyage for Hosono which he dubbed “virtual American country.” It’s a dead-on emulation of Californian sound of that time, in the pocket even as it’s about to fall off its barstool. Hosono’s arrangements are exacting in their looseness – no cymbal hit, accordion drone, or pedal steel swell is out of place here. Its low-key gravitational pull could be felt well into the 21st century, when Harry Styles paid overt homage to the album.

Tropical Dandy cover

They might not have been able to overcome a language barrier, but Hosono no doubt took a few cues via osmosis from producer Van Dyke Parks and applied them to his own solo work. Tropical Dandy might even be his version of Parks’ Discover America. It similarly draws on “island sounds” and New Orleans funk, while Hosono croons with a voice so smooth and AOR friendly that it might make you imagine a parallel world where Hosono is the next James Taylor or Boz Scaggs.

Bon Voyage Co. cover

Similarly to the cruise ship vibes of Tropical Dandy, Bon Voyage Co. is even more suave and assured. Hosono makes allusions to an exhaustive list of famous songs: “Salt Peanuts,” “Sea Cruise,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and many more, always weaving them into his sensibilities, which even including breezy takes on Japanese traditional music. It’s as if Hosono tries on the entire 1970s western rock canon on for size before deciding to forge his own way forward.

N . D . E cover

Three decades into his storied career, when most artists would be entering middle age and easing off the gas, Haruomi Hosono kept up his intrepid explorations. His groundbreaking ’80s ambient work led to the kaleidoscopic pinnacle of Omni Sight-Seeing. Soon after, Hosono forged further ahead into club sounds in the ’90s. Barely six years along, N . D . E represents another highwater mark in Hosono’s astonishing discography. Working with the likes of Bill Laswell, Yasuaki Shimizu, and François Kevorkian, it’s a psychedelic mix of pulsations, squiggles, bells, bird calls, flickers, thrums, passing clouds, all of it ever so gently cohering into identifiable genres like downtempo or minimal techno. There’s the whimsy of “Heliotherapy,” the tabla-driven hallucinations of “Spinning Spirits,” all of it capped by gorgeous abstraction of “Aero.” It’s yet another gem in Hosono’s crown.

omni Sight Seeing cover

Of all the wince-inducing Japanese stereotypes, hyper-tourism and snapshot-taking still stands out. So Hosono couldn’t help but skewer another Japanese stereotype once more with his creation of the term “Sightseeing Music.” Deployed often in pop culture as punchline, Hosono takes such sight-seeing and transforms it into a metaphor for sample-heavy electronic music, drawing from various cultures and weaving them together into a new holistic vision. Omni Sight Seeing is the clearest iteration of this concept, as he alights on Algerian raï, Martin Denny exotica, and acid house, too. It’s one part Jon Hassell-esque Fourth World, one part Duke Ellington “jungle music,” with Hosono’s singular outlook running through it all.

Medicine Compilation from the Quiet Lodge cover

Two musical figures who thankfully received reconsideration in the new century, Hosono and new age icon Laraaji, finally team up on the new age closer. This might be the closest Hosono gets to out and out new age music, cut with some heavier rhythms, like afrobeat and acid house. But some of the ambient pieces have a submerged sway that bring to mind Tropical Dandy-era Hosono.

The Endless Talking cover

Composed for an Italian art exhibit entitled “Japan, Avant Garde of the Future,” Hosono is in full abstract mode here. The 13 pieces were improvised by him while he gazed at photographs of sculptures from the show, conjuring disorienting and mesmerizing miniatures. Satie-esque miniatures abut more eerie terrain, gurgling loops and quivering high frequency bagatelles entwine with brittle crystalline explorations.

Mental Sports Mixes cover

Hosono navigated the ambient electronic boom with aplomb, even landing on a major label, the Sony-owned TriStar Music, for this album of heady remixes. Enlisting the likes of The Orb, Bomb the Bass, and 808 State’s Graham Massey, familiar Hosono tracks (and even his take on Ellington’s “Caravan”) get imaginative, head-swimming remixes. Rather than a hodge podge of remixes, it’s an album length listen that’s as giddy and loopy as a balloon of nitrous oxide.

Paraiso cover

The seeds for Yellow Magic Orchestra are planted here, though the assembled band (including Sakamoto and Takahashi) still carries the laidback groove of Tropical Dandy and Bon Voyage Co. here. Like a yacht captain hollering at Jimmy Buffet across the bay, Hosono is in a mellow yet playful mood here, drawing on all manner of exotica tropes: bird calls, plinking marimbas, wafting Rhodes chords, swaying drums, skewering them in his own sly manner. Cocktails with wedges of pineapple, hammock naps, a tiki bar house band that might be mocking you, Hosono balances Okinawan folk songs with visionary drum machine-gamelan instrumentals, pointing towards his next re-invention.

Paradise View cover

A soundtrack for Goh Takamine’s magic realist film of the same name, Paradise View would anticipate the Hosono world music-collaging skills that came to full fruition on omni Sight Seeing. Rooted in Okinawan folk song, it also takes in Balinese gamelan and vocal chants, with Hosono and his gear taking shards of sound and rearranging them into fascinating mosaics. He imagines ancient ritualistic music for a not-yet-determined future time.

Mercuric Dance cover

Hosono’s longtime love for ambient music reaches its finest iteration in Mercuric Dance. Loops and cycling motifs slow to the pace of a resting heartbeat, as if Hosono’s machines are engaged in deep breathing. As Hosono once put it: “In making ambient music, I came to the realization that it is definitely not an external environment, but rather the internal ambience.” It strikes a profound balance between being icy and oceanic and warm and lullaby-like. An unheralded electronic album from the era.

S-F-X cover

YMO had only recently disbanded, but Hosono forged ahead with another techno-pop vision, this time with the newly assembled Friends of Earth, for the whizzbang robotic blur of S-F-X. Twitchy electro-funk and “Rockit!”-style scratching abound on the faster tracks, while other tunes resemble roller boogie as made by bots. After the whirring mechanized assault of the album, Hosono tucks away a gorgeous piano ballad “Dark Side Of The Star” at the end.

Super Xevious cover

It takes a certain kind of nostalgic masochist to make it through all of Hosono’s 1984 album Video Game Music, which maniacally recreates arcade soundtracks in all their chiptune, brain-trepanning glory. More succinct and imaginative is this three-track EP, which goes beyond mere recreation of game themes to instead imagine more behind the music. The programmed drums hit harder, anticipating the sound of techno to come, while the synthesized strings and melodic developments added by Hosono make everything feel more epic.

Sex, Energy and Star cover

Hosono formed a “new band” with Friends of Earth, meaning his sequencers and samplers with a rotating cast of guest stars. So that means the likes of James Brown and Maceo Parker turn up amid the haywired funk madness of Sex, Energy and Star. Hosono was fascinated by American music, especially as captured by immigrants, like Turkish immigrant Ahmet Ertegun making soul into a force at Atlantic Records and the Polish brothers behind blues label Chess. “One can say that American music was created by music-loving immigrants who were able to put their music to tape,” he observed. And his love of New Orleans soul bubbles to the surface with a delectably robotic version of “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

 Interpieces Organization cover

In the mid-’90s, Hosono entered into a fruitful collaboration with another wide-eared bassist and groundbreaking producer adept at exploring all manners of electronic and world music: Bill Laswell. Together, the two became important international cogs in the ambient electronic underworld, connecting San Francisco, New York, and Frankfurt. They also feature the talents of two other up-and-comer producers, Terre Thaemlitz and Tetsu Inoue.

Audio Sponge cover

“Audio sponge” is as apt a descriptor for Hosono’s musical sensibilities as “omni-sightseeing music” or “mental sports” and it serves as an accurate title for this early ‘00s album from Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi. The two concoct an effervescent vision of electronic glitchy pop that files nicely alongside Mouse on Mars, Stereolab, and laptop-era Jim O’Rourke. Small whirrs, blips, and Beach Boys harmonies all mingle and you don’t have to squint to hear how a few songs featuring Ryuichi Sakamoto constitute a full YMO reunion.

Philharmony cover

Yellow Magic Orchestra took up most of Hosono’s time, so it was only when the band hit pause in 1982 that he could think as a solo artist again. He established Yen Records, producing and playing on nearly every release on the imprint. He also made his first solo album in five years, Philharmony. He leaned heavily on the wonders of the Roland MC-4 MicroComposer and the E-mu Emulator, utilizing an early form of sampling to structure the bewildering songs, chopping up vocals, breath, and gong tones to achieve a heady effect. “Samplers allowed musicians to explore beyond simply creating music, and develop more of an editing sensibility,” he said. Philharmony stands as one of the most fascinating early electronic documents as a result of Hosono’s ever-curious sensibilities.

Cochin Moon cover

Those electronics that blip up on Paraiso have now become the primary focus of Hosono’s attention and his bank of synthesizers yields one of the wooliest prog albums of the era. The apocryphal origin story behind Cochin Moon is that while in India conceiving of a project that would touch on Bollywood soundtracks and Indian classical music, Hosono contracted a stomach bug so serious he felt near death. The delirium of the swirling electronics – conjuring everything from sweat drips and aural hallucinations to mosquito buzzes and feverish vortices – feels apt indeed.

Love, Peace & Trance cover

Hosono’s Non-Standard imprint helped nurture the rise of hip Japanese exports Pizzicato Five and in the ‘90s, Hosono acted as impresario (and maybe even swinging love guru) for Love, Peace & Trance, a vocal group featuring Mimori Yusa, Chakra’s Mishio Ogawa, and dip in the pool’s Miyako Koda. The album is firmly in the post-Orb world of woozy electronics, and Hosono offers up a serene, angelic take on ambient house. Trance-inducing 808 patterns (sometimes swapped out with tabla), body-melting chords, and Koda’s airy vocals make tracks like “Mammal Mama” and “Hasu Kriya” are some of Hosono’s dreamiest productions of the era.

Watering a Flower cover

Muji opened their first store in Tokyo in 1983, commissioning Hosono to create background music for in-store use. Hosono was not unfamiliar with the format, as YMO had already named their 1981 album BGM (i.e. “background music”) after it. “The lightweight, narrow emotionality of the music diffuses the potential threat of being in close proximity to so many strangers,” Paul Roquet writes in his 2016 book, Ambient Media/Japanese Atmospheres Of Self. “The music in these impersonal situations contours the relations between people.” Only released on cassette (though it can be found online), Hosono’s take on BGM cagily inverts the ideas of lightweightness and a soundtrack for shopping. It can feel woozy and childlike, atonal and warm, dreamy and queasy.