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Mellow Waves: Enter the World of Shibuya-kei Legend Cornelius

Written By: 
Phil Cho
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Cornelius at In Sheep’s Clothing hi-fi (2019)

Shibuya-kei. Beck. Yellow Magic Orchestra. Three decades of Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius.

One of Japan’s foremost musical ambassadors, Keigo Oyamada aka Cornelius has played a leading role in the development of Japanese music culture and art for more than three decades. Whether his early days in the pioneering ‘90’s Shibuya-kei group Flipper’s Guitar, his 2000’s era remixes of Blur, Beck, and the Avalanches, or his recent collaborations with members of Yellow Magic Orchestra, Oyamada has constantly pushed his music forward.

One testament to his magic? Casual fans of Cornelius are hard to come by. Those who happen upon his work typically fall deeply into it and become fans for life. If his group is ever in town, don’t miss it; their stereophonic A/V live show is a must-see spectacle. 

来年はコーネリアス結成25周年 - Real Sound|リアルサウンド

One reason Cornelius’ music has endured could be that Oyamada is just as much a music fan as he is a musician. His deep love and respect for recorded music is immediately apparent through his eclectic compositional style and referential song titles. The @corneliusofficial Instagram feed is even filled with all his recent listening selections (he’s been playing Suzanne Kraft’s Talk from Home lately). 

“I love all kinds of music and am influenced by all kinds of music as well. I think most of those sounds just naturally come out,” he says. “It’s not as if I like rock or only listen to classical — I have a great love for all kinds of music. My father is a musician, and I used to look through his record collection. It’s all because my father’s got some great records.”

Below, we take you through a crash course into the world of Keigo Oyamada with nine selections from his deep discography.

Flipper’s Guitar – Doctor Head’s World Tower, 1991

While still in junior high school, Oyamada and Kenji Ozawa formed the five-piece indie-pop group Lollipop Sonic that later morphed into the duo Flipper’s Guitar. Drawing on influences ranging from 60’s Brit-pop and acid jazz to alternative dance and shoegaze, Oyamada and Ozawa developed an eclectic, crate-digger style that came to be known as Shibuya-kei. Other groups like Pizzicato Five, Buffalo Daughter and Fishmans would take their lead and create their own J-pop infused genre pastiches. One of our favorites, “Aquamarine,” from Flipper’s Guitar’s final album Doctor Head’s World Tower, sounds a bit like My Bloody Valentine filtered through the dreamy, cosmopolitan streets of Shibuya.

Cornelius – Fantasma, 1997

After Flipper’s Guitar disbanded in 1991, Oyamada shifted to producing other Shibuya-kei groups before emerging as a solo act in 1993 with the mini-album Holidays in the Sun. The next two full-lengths were well-received in Japan, but it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Fantasma that Oyamada would reach international fame. Expanding on the copy-paste style of Flipper’s Guitar, Fantasma is a landmark Shibuya-kei album that paid tribute to Oyamada’s heroes (one of the tracks is even titled “Thank You for the Music”) while creating an entirely new sound world composed of unconventional samples, field recordings and obscure sounds from the past. Oyamada envisioned Fantasma as “a one-on-one experience between the music and the listener… It starts with you entering into the journey and ends with you returning back to reality.”

Takako Minekawa – Fun 9, 1999

Produced and partially written by Cornelius, Takako Minekawa’s fourth album, Fun 9 (pronounced “fun-kyu” or just “funk”), is a delightful slice of dreamy electro-pop that bears many sonic similarities to Fantasma. Instead of referencing music though, Minekawa draws inspiration from the natural world with lyrics and track titles mentioning water, plants, tigers, and spiders. Minekawa and Oyamada married in 2000 and divorced in 2012.

Cornelius – Point, 2001

The much-anticipated followup to Fantasma, Point saw Cornelius focus on calmer sounds including acoustic guitar, running water and chirping crickets. The same attention to detail and complex production is applied here, but to a quieter, more ambient result (though “Hate Hate” and “Fly” are both classic, spastic fuzzy guitar Cornelius). Also notable is the album’s striking  stereophonic sound. If you can, we highly recommend experiencing it through a pair of quality headphones or a hi-fi speaker setup. In Sheep’s Clothing hosted a private listening of Point in 2019 to celebrate the new remaster, and it was absolutely wonderful hearing all the intricacies of Cornelius’ production through the Klipschorns.

The Avalanches – Since I Left You (Cornelius Remix), 2001

Following the international success of Fantasma, Oyamada was dubbed the “Japanese Beck” and the remix requests soon came flooding in. There are quite a few classics to mention including his mellowed out version of Beck’s “Mixed Bizness” and the acoustic breakbeat reconfiguration of Blur’s “Tender,” but one of our personal favorites is this sparkling four-to-the-floor house take on the Avalanches “Since I Left You.” It’s five-and-a-half minutes of pure bliss.

Cornelius – Sensuous, 2006

Continuing the stereophonic experiments of Point, Cornelius’ third album opens with heavily panned, plucked acoustic guitar that sounds almost like a modern, more experimental William Ackerman or Michael Hedges. It’s one of his most meditative tracks to date and sets the stage wonderfully for the sophisticated and dynamic harmonic soundscapes featured on the rest of Sensuous. Oyamada was heavily influenced by the ‘50s and ‘60s stereophonic audiophile records during this 2000’s period, so it’s no surprise that this record has become a favorite among hi-fi aficionados.

Ghost in the Shell Arise, 2013

A landmark of Japanese anime, Ghost in the Shell was released in 1989, just as Shibuya-kei was rising. It makes sense then that Oyamada, one of the foremost figures of that time, would contribute the soundtrack to the latest iteration of the anime series. The classic, bleepy Cornelius machine rhythms are here — but with an added layer of futurism to fit the themes of Ghost in the Shell’s cyberpunk dystopia. 

Penguin Cafe – Solaris (Cornelius Remix), 2015

This unlikely collaboration between two ISC heroes, Arthur Jeffes and Keigo Oyamada, was formed out of a mutual admiration for each others’ music. The pair met during a Penguin Cafe tour in Tokyo. Recalls Oyamada: “I was listening to Penguin Cafe since high school so I was excited to be able to collaborate with them. When I went to see their show in Tokyo I was surprised that they performed Bird Watching at Inner Forest. It was an honor for me. If there is a chance to collaborate again, I look forward to that day.” Luckily that day came: Penguin Cafe’s Umbrella EP was released in 2015 with remixes from both artists.

Cornelius – Mellow Waves, 2017

Though he’s remained busy, Oyamada’s solo output as Cornelius (not counting soundtracks and remixes) has slowed quite a bit since Sensuous. In 2017, Oyamada finally released Mellow Waves, a quiet, sentimental work that feels a bit more loose than his previous sample-heavy productions. Opener “If You’re Here,” with lyrics written by Shintaro Sakamoto (another artist we highly recommend), reflects on lost love and memories. Wonders Oyamada, “Why is it that just looking at you seems to have gotten painful?” “Reworks” from Ryuichi Sakamoto and Haruomi Hosono of Yellow Magic Orchestra were later released on the 2018 compilation album Ripple Waves.

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