- Zilka Grogan
A chat with Sapphire Slows
Sapphire Slows is an artist we’ve had our eyes on for a while. A producer, DJ and vocalist, she has made her mark with an impressive body of work that began with indie synth-pop and has since veered towards underground electronica, on labels ranging from Not Not Fun and 100% Silk to Kalahari Oyster Cult and AD 93. Her sound is multifaceted with one main undercurrent: everything she does is underpinned by a deep commitment to storytelling.
Released earlier this week, her contribution to our mix series has a particularly special story: she created it in honour of her grandmother, who passed away aged 91 last month. It is a deeply personal tribute that is characteristic of the Tokyo-based DJ’s approach to music, one that she describes as consistently built on “emotions, stories and memories”.
With this year marking 10 years of her work as Sapphire Slows, she fills us in on the diverse influences and inspirations that have driven her career in music to date.
First up: How are you going these days? How has this year started for you?
Not too bad actually. I’m not like “better than last year” or “everything will be okay this year”, of course, but I’m getting used to this situation and finding my own way to deal with it. I have a job outside music now, I have lots of time to spend with my family and close friends, also for myself. That is not a bad thing.
You’ve said that the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan drew you to pursue a career in music. Why is that?
Well, financially I’ve only been able to work as a full-time musician the last couple of years or so (and of course it’s not possible now under COVID). But still, I made up my mind to pursue a music life and career when I started making music in 2011 when I was still a student who was looking for a full-time job. The earthquake was really shocking and changed my whole point of view. It was almost like a revelation or decision in perceptual depth, I simply noticed what I wanted to live for in this life. So it was not a difficult decision but the difficulty of reality, things to learn and my lifestyle shifting of course followed after. Every couple of years I feel I’m lost with a lack of confidence, and I find it hard to take balance with the other parts of life, but I’m still doing okay right now thanks to my music friends and supporters.
This year is your 10 year anniversary as Sapphire Slows: a decade as a producer/live performer and five as an active DJ. How has your sound, especially as a producer, changed over this time?
Yes! The last decade felt both long and short. Lots of things shifted naturally since I was like a baby at the beginning - and now I’m probably still like a teenager? Or a bit more mature? I don’t know haha… I think the first couple of years when I was releasing my records from US underground record labels like Not Not Fun and 100% Silk, my sound was more like experimental synth-pop or dreamy house music. I was making music in my 20 square metre bedroom with crappy gear. Actually, I didn’t have a techno background at all at the beginning, I was an indie girl who was especially influenced by the US underground music scene. Then in Japan I started working with underground techno people like Chris SSG, Rural (a music festival) and Future Terror (an event and collective by DJ Nobu and Haruka), and my interests slightly started to be inspired by the world of physical sound, synthesisers and the science of emotional action through dancing and psychedelics. In 10 years I also gradually improved my studio environment and skills too, which also gave me a musical change. My last few releases focused on synthesis, ambience and beats more than vocals and keyboards. Also in the last couple of years, I focused on my DJ career and skills, more than playing a live set. But this year my focus came back to producing music and performing again actually.
Life is long, so my interest and aims go in different directions over time, but it seems I always come back to find my originality and new inspiration in music.
Was it a difficult shift from the indie scene to techno?
I think from the outside it might seem I made a big shift between different music scenes, but for me it was a natural shift in terms of internal philosophy and I actually think those few people I trust in any music scene are not so different in terms of passion for music, even if they have different expressions, venues, fashions, etc. I’m not interested in something superficial and commercial, and in that sense the Japanese underground music scene has quite a variety and depth. It’s hard to make money though – I think it’s the same for all the musicians. Breaking into the techno world was difficult in terms of skill-based recognition and my lack of experience, but it was not difficult in terms of passion and philosophy. It was really exciting and now I can’t live without raves and parties!
Would you say your musical influences have changed over the years?
I would say so. Though I think what I look for in music has something in common: stories, emotions and memories. My early musical influences were my dad’s imported record collection from the ‘60s, ‘70s and a bit of the ‘80s – mostly progressive or psychedelic rock music, and some synth music like Tangerine Dream. In high school I played guitar and vocals in a band, I was mostly hanging out with music and gear geeks. One of my friends from high school who shared my interest in Aphex Twin still fixes my synthesiser even now, which I think is quite impressive! Then after I moved to Tokyo I started digging more electronic music and indie music. In university, I was buying lots of records every week that were limited to like 100-300 copies by completely independent labels.
What inspires you the most these days?
After I started being active as a musician and DJ, I started being inspired more by contemporary producers and DJs who I saw on tour and at gigs because they shared my own memories and moments. Also, the listening/dancing experience with a sound system is more important now for me, which always feels like a once in a lifetime opportunity. My favourite DJ set last year was by Toshio “BING” Kajiwara, he is totally a legend! The party also had an amazing sound system with Taguchi speakers, which was fully operated by a solar power supply. I really respected the organiser and sound team there. I mean, not just them but I always respect the whole team when I have an inspiring musical experience. It’s not just about lineup or venues.
What made you want to take up DJing five years ago? Do you have a particular style as a DJ?
I was sometimes playing records in bars with friends around the time I started making music, but it was not paid, and I was not really a DJ. How do I say, it was more like a hobby or side project. I said five years because 2016 was the first year I played in the main room of a big club (it was a mnml ssgs party at Contact Tokyo) and started getting paid OK. I started getting more serious after that, same as producing.
I think my style and expression changes in different platforms and environments, so I can’t simply say I’m a techno DJ (and I’m clearly not a techno DJ). Maybe I’m a non-techno DJ in a techno scene?
I have some words to express my DJ style though: atmospheric, left-field, hypnotic, ambient, melodic, acid, and BPM is mostly between 90-125. Does it explain anything? In my DJ career, the experience of being a resident at RinseFM in 2018 helped me I think, and in 2019 I played a lot of DJ gigs including parties I admire, which made me happy but at the same time, I think I can still be a lot better in terms of skills and experience.
Tell us a bit about your mix for Patterns of Perception: What is the concept or inspiration behind this mix?
First I dedicated this mix to my grandma, who passed away at 91 years old last month. I loved her so much. So I wanted to make something personal with memories and stories. I even tied some of the song titles to the concept. I also tried to put my various musical influences and tied them together in this mix: ambient, experimental, minimalism, techno, post-punk, acid folk. I think it worked well. The mixes and music that inspired me to make this mix are for example Music For Screen Tests by Leif and From Bagshot To Silbury Hill - A Mix by Andrew Weatherall. I listened to them really a lot last year. They were and will be my all-time favourites. This kind of music taught me how important it is to tell a story in music and in a set.
As a producer, you’ve told us you’re particularly fascinated by the Buchla synthesiser, which has been a great inspiration for your music. What is it about this instrument that you like the most?
What I like the most about the Buchla synthesiser is its sound, it can’t be substituted by any other modulars or Eurolack clones. Also, I love it because everything is relative and nothing is absolute. I make and play music quite instinctively most of the time, so I like its relativity and randomness a lot. I also like the Buchla’s cosmic and psychedelic West Coast background and style, which gives the instrument and music a character!
What are some of your favourite tracks made on the Buchla?
This is quite a nice album that was made with Buchla in 2018: Jonathan Fitoussi / Clemens Hourrière - Espaces Timbrés.
Also Maria Teriaeva is my favourite contemporary musician and friend, I started playing Buchla because of her influence. Her second album was out last year and I helped her mix down one of those tracks and made a remix. Maria Teriaeva - Conservatory Of Flowers
This is amazingly beautiful too: Donnacha Costello - Stay Perfectly Still
Worth seeing: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - Existence In The Unfurling (Live)
Suzanne Ciani’s live set I saw 2 years ago in Tokyo was mind-blowing, this video makes me cry to remember that.
How are things going for the scene in Japan at the moment? Were you able to play some gigs there in the last months? Have things shifted online as they have in other places?
Japan was actually the only country where parties were still going on every weekend, until we got the second state of emergency that was declared in the beginning of this year. Now all the bars, restaurants, clubs have to close by 8pm so most of the parties are cancelled, some bars doing day parties on weekends but it’s not going well. As for myself, I stopped playing any club gigs since March last year, but I played at five outdoor festivals in the countryside of Japan last year during spring to autumn, played for two online international festivals, which I think I’m quite lucky to be involved in. Online things could be okay when they have particular concepts with visuals or focus on a type of music that fits well in a personal environment. But personally, I think it can’t be a substitute for the actual club/concert experience when there’s no heat, no shaking and no sharing of body, emotions and the sound in the air.
Lastly, do you have any plans or upcoming projects for 2021 that you’d like to share with us?
I have a very good feeling for 2021 when it comes to my musical activities. Through last year I tied my love and motivation to music stronger, and now I’m working on my own music again. I go to my friend’s studio every week and record or learn something new, which is simply fun! And I hope something will be ready to share this year, for the 10 year anniversary of my project.
Another thing I’d like to share is that I will start a regular DJ party in Tokyo at the end of March, when spring comes! The concept of the party is simple: it’s not a replacement of a night club – it’s a small, casual, half-outdoor afternoon party with family-friendly hospitality, with good sound and good regular DJs who play only long sets. This is something I've wanted to do for the last few years but now it has started rolling finally with the venue’s help. Hope I can make some good vibes and grooves in people’s lives.