The path of the lone warrior

Goth-Trad, or how dubstep built its way to be big in Japan

You’ve got to respect Goth-Trad: Japan’s dubstep Godfather, a hard working DJ and producer that only does what his heart tells him. Recently landed on Mala’s Deep Medi imprint, “New Epoch” is one of the standout ‘bass’ releases of the year. We talked to him to find out more about his back story.

The first time I interviewed Goth-Trad we were sitting in a small side street café in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. Four years later we find ourselves in a similar setting, this time on the other side of the globe - in London’s Dalston. Much has changed in that time yet behind the unconventional haircut and leather jacket that I’ve never seen him without, Goth-Trad has retained the same seriousness and drive that has been key to his success since he first entered the world of music over ten years ago.

Named after Gothic Tradition – shortened to Goth-Trad thanks to Japan’s unique linguistic style – Takeaki Maruyama is by far one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met in the music business. This hard working ethic and mentality is part of the reason why he has today become Japan’s most famous non-commercial dance music export, with a history and growing reputation that will no doubt put him on par with the likes of DJ Krush in years to come (for further detail on this bold claim, feel free to check my 2007 interview with the man, which delves into the first ten or so years of his career).

Devouring music from an early age, Goth-Trad first made his name within Japan’s noise music scene. From those experiences came two solo albums and the first of many self-financed European tours in the early to mid 00s - including a live appearance at Paris’ famous Zenith venue. It was his third solo album however, 2005’s “Mad Raver’s Dancefloor”, that would prove the turning point in his career. Reflecting his love and passion for the UK’s rave mutations, the album was an incredibly dense yet captivating attempt to cover nearly 20 years of rave evolution into one album. In the following year it led, among other things, to Kode 9 coining him as “a one man army mutating the hardcore continuum in Japan.” No mean feat for an artist few had heard of – at that point - outside specialist circles.

Despite the breadth of creativity displayed on the album, one track would stick out more than any, leading Takeaki down a new path. The track in question, “Back To Chill”, was Goth-Trad’s attempt at emulating the grime sound he’d discovered in London during previous visits. The track would not only land him his first international release – on the Skud Beats label – but it would also lead to a deal with Mala’s then newly minted Deep Medi imprint. It also became the namesake of the club night Goth-Trad set up in 2006, which would quite literally birth the dubstep scene in Japan - building on existing smaller efforts by local DJs who’d become fans of the dark garage sounds emanating from London’s southern boroughs.

In the four years that followed his introduction into the worldwide dubstep fraternity, Goth-Trad built a reputation as one of the genre’s more diverse characters - capable of performing live shows like few do, as easily as delivering killer DJ sets filled with the hardest dance floor material. A series of 12”son Deep Medi kept fans happy leading up to the release of the “Babylon Fall EP” late last year, the title track for which was born from one of Goth-Trad’s lesser known side projects – Rebel Familia. It was four years in the releasing, by which time it had become a bona fide dubstep anthem – something few have managed since the genre’s ascension into the mainstream of pop culture.

“Babylon Fall” was merely the teaser for “New Epoch”, Goth-Trad’s fourth solo album and his first dedicated entirely to the dubstep “template” - though even that description falls short of what the music achieves both sonically and conceptually. Patience and hard work being no strangers to Takeaki, he carefully meditated upon the release of the album before having his hand forced by fate – to a degree – following the March 11 disaster that struck Northern Japan.

Having known and worked with Goth-Trad for more than five years and experienced first-hand his incredible work fostering the dubstep scene in his home country, I was keen to explore the roots of the new album’s inception, as well as how things have changed for this one-man army in the last few years. What follows is a discussion that touches not just on the new album but also his evolution as an artist and Godfather to the Japanese dubstep scene.

Deep Medi have also kindly allowed us to offer three tracks from the new album for streaming. As you can hear below, these three tracks show the breadth of style and composition that makes “New Epoch” the stand out dubstep album of 2012 as far as I’m concerned – a bold prediction I’ll stand by until the end of year reviews creep up.

Last time we spoke was four years ago. Since then many things have changed for you. We were talking about your history, background and why you had made “Mad Raver’s Dancefloor”.

I didn’t know what I’d be doing four years later back then. It’s the same now. Maybe next year I’ll be playing hip hop.

So what would you say has been the most important change in all this time?

Back when we last spoke I’d just started DJing and I was planning the first 12” release on Deep Medi, “Cut End”. At the time I was still doing live sets, so a big change for me was to start thinking about 12”s from a DJ point of view. And then for the last two years I’ve been preparing the album and again I’ve had to think about the 12” releases but also those listeners who don’t DJ. I think that’s one of the most important things for me today, to have my music be not just a DJ tool, but something in between that can appeal to both DJs and listeners. This is something I think about a lot when I DJ myself, I want to make sure that when I play my music during my sets it works both for the people listening but also for DJs.

For those that don’t know you were always a live performer until 2006, why did you start DJing?

When I started Back To Chill, one of the important things from the dubstep scene I wanted to show to the Japanese people was this idea of producers who DJ, and specifically who DJ their own productions. And also the things that come with this “idea” like cutting dubplates, and the importance of it all. I wanted people to understand this idea that cutting a dubplate is an expensive thing so you have to choose the tracks carefully. All these things - DJing, making music, cutting dubplates to play out - that was fresh for me at the time, back in 2005-2006. The scene was fresh, and I’d never seen that sort of thing in Japan. So I wanted to bring dubplate culture to Japan in a way, to the audience and the young producers. It was different in Japan at the time.

What was different about it?

Back then [Ed note: 2005 and before] I was doing only live sets, playing only my music. In Japan at the time some DJs were playing their own tunes but only just a few, not many. So most DJs were playing other people’s music and for me that idea was boring. Some DJs would do “live mixing” if you will, using two turntables and additional gear like effects, but it was still boring for me and not as fresh as someone playing his own music. In Japan this idea of DJs/producers playing their own tunes really wasn’t common at the time. Also the audience was used to thinking that a DJ plays someone else’s music and they still do to a degree. In Japan you could become big as a DJ like that, playing other people’s music, but not in Europe. So back then I didn’t pay attention to DJing and only played live sets.

And then you discovered the dubstep and grime scenes.

Yeah and I met many good producers who also DJ. They would take me to the cutting house and show me the whole process. To me, in a sense, it was almost like a live set. Half the set would be all their tunes and then also stuff from their label or their friends. And they would also focus on individual tracks, especially for cutting dubs. But in Japan at the time DJs were primarily good at mixing, as I said, so it looked good and could be interesting if they used additional equipment - but they never really focused on any one track like what I discovered over here. People would focus on one tune, DJs would also focus on one tune, a big tune, something that everyone knew and recognised.

There was definitely a golden period when you would go out to see certain producers or DJs because they had one tune that no one else had, people like Mala or Kode 9. I remember going to see them, specifically to hear music that no one else had.

It was a very exciting thing, seeing someone playing dubs like that. I thought was really interesting. The Japanese approach isn’t bad, in fact it has its good points and it’s also a broader musical perspective for listeners. The other month I met DJ Yas, who’s one of the older Japanese DJs. He’d heard that my DJ sets had become popular and after seeing my set we talked and he thought that I was playing primarily other people’s music – as many DJs do in Japan – so I explained to him that 90% of my set is all my own tunes – even if I DJ it’s mainly my music. He was surprised! [Laughs] And he’s an established DJ in Japan. It’s strange, but at the same time maybe it’s also normal. Here I don’t think most DJs are always playing their own stuff of course, some big names do - but then you have Kode 9, who never really plays his own stuff; however people know he’s a producer, that he makes his own music. He used to play more of his own stuff, but now he’s changed.

Mala as well, he used to play a lot more of his own dubs or DMZ dubs and now his sets include music from his label and people he looks after. And there are people who now play live sets with other people’s music too (laughs).

Ha ha, yeah that’s true. I don’t mind but it doesn’t interest me at all.

So then which do you prefer, live or DJ?

[Laughs] I should say both. I like to DJ a lot more, especially because carrying the equipment for live sets is a pain. It depends on the crowd too, sometimes it’s easier to control my set when I’m DJing, whereas when I play live set it’s more like “my show”- so I don’t change the vibe so easily, as the live show is ultimately composed of music I want people to hear and experience live. Even if people don’t like the live show they’re stuck with it, you know? [Laughs] To be honest, sometimes when I play a DJ set I’m also like that, I won’t change easily if the crowd doesn’t react well because I treat it as the same thing now. Ultimately it goes back to what I was saying - which is that I’m always trying to make my DJ sets like a live set. I’m always playing my own tunes, and sometimes music from my label, Mala or friends. I still enjoy doing live sets but I’m thinking about how to evolve it maybe.

When we played at BTC in April, I was reminiscing with 100 Mado [Ed note: one of the original BTC residents] about your style of DJing and how it has progressed. And I really think that now you’ve become a lot more precise with your mixing, so much so- in fact - that it is like a live set.

Maybe it’s like maths, you know? If I don’t know a tune I don’t want to play it because I won’t know what happens with it. Before I play anything I listen to it a few times, what the intro is like, when the beat drops, when the bass drops, where the breakdown is and how many bars it is, etc. All this stuff I’m always thinking about and I try to remember for each tune, same with the BPM.

So you memorise all this stuff?

Yeah. So that’s also why I prefer to play my tunes. It’s like a puzzle you know? It’s all about structuring it.

Like Tetris.

Totally. You build it up, get rid of it and build it up again. To go back to the original question, I used to do a lot more live sets in Japan back in 2006-2007, but in the last two years I’ve been doing mainly DJ sets, even in Japan.

I think one thing people don’t really know about you is that you really did a lot to kick start dubstep in Japan as a scene. Before you started BTC – at the same time that you met Mala – there was very little happening in Japan to do with dubstep.

Yeah, 100 Mado was doing a few things, but he was not really known at the time.

He brought Blackdown over in early 2006.

I also heard that Quarta330 used to do some dark garage stuff, playing at some parties.

BTC was the first proper event to cement the idea of a scene though. So four years later how do you feel about the evolution of dubstep in Japan?

Well, a similar thing happened in Japan as it did in Europe over the last few years, where the sound has diverged into different things. Like the UK Funky stuff, or the louder end of dubstep, stuff that to me sounds closer to electro [Ed note: he’s referencing what’s often termed as ‘brostep’ here] - and people mix it all up. In Japan for example a lot of electro DJs play the louder dubstep stuff. In the beginning, a lot more DJs were interested in dubstep in Japan - and a couple years later, as the sounds changed and new things started, these DJs would also change the music they played. There are still people left who are dedicated to a more traditional sound - if you will - and to BTC itself. Same with fans, we’ve got a dedicated base of people who come to our parties and it’s grown over the years, it’s bigger now compared to 2006. And the DJs who are staying with us at BTC are also getting better. People like 100 Mado who is releasing on American labels, ENA who’s releasing on 7even Recordings and the newer guys are also getting more bookings and some releases on smaller labels. That last point is definitely something that I always wanted to do with BTC.

I remember your early desires to have BTC act as a platform rather than just a club night.

It’s of course an underground party for people who want to listen to the sound, who want to experience dubstep on a loud sound system, as it was meant to be. Yet it’s also a way to build up Japan’s producer base, to teach young producers about the scene and what it takes to become a producer. I don’t think it’s enough yet, I’m not fully satisfied with what it can achieve - but it’s a great start I think and we’ve improved a lot since we started. For example, there is a new resident called Endless. I booked him for the second time last year, he played a late set around 3 or 4 am, and he was very excited because he wasn’t happy with his first appearance the previous year. I decided to book him again after he’d sent me some of his productions and this time he did really well. So I started to book him more often, giving him better slots and after all this he started getting bookings on his own, something that never happened to him before. So I want to continue doing this kind of thing for young Japanese producers, I want to hear more music from Japanese producers and help them in the way that I can. They also help me; it’s not just a one way thing. They help me to understand how younger people think about music; they tell me how the scene is being seen and what other music people their age are listening to. It’s good for me to know their situation. And I understand that it’s tough for them at the moment, especially compared to how it was for me when I was their age. Today that’s what I can do for them, book them and introduce them to people. I also do more for them, give them a space and a chance, but I’m still very strict.

I know you are! Like all good Sensei.

If they produce good tunes I will book them, if they’re good DJs I will also consider booking them. If not, I can’t. And I don’t even mind giving away the main slots at my party to someone else if they’re good. It’s not only the music either; I also have to teach them about how to promote themselves. That’s especially important in Japan. For example a lot of young DJs when they finish playing they’ll just pack up and that’s it. But when I was young I would finish and then go around the club talking to the venue owner, artists, promoters and other people and give them my music. And I think it’s sometimes important to do that and build relationships with people.

It was interesting coming back this year and seeing how the party and scene had evolved. Somebody needs to do what you are doing.

I’m the most nervous person at BTC every time, because I believe that people coming to BTC are very serious about the music and know about the music. I always think about my sets and the timetable. It’s difficult every time, but in a good way because I feel I have to show something new. I have to change the line up every month as well, which is not easy because there aren’t that many DJs I want to book. The last birthday party we had Rebel Familia, Berserker and I did a DJ set too - but it was a great party and it was all Japanese producers too [Ed note: Rebel Familia and Berserker are two live side projects of Goth-Trad].

Throughout all this time that you’re doing BTC and building the scene in Japan, you’re also working with Mala and Deep Medi. Since signing with them in 2007, what’s been the biggest lesson?

There have been a lot of lessons. There have been lessons about promotion and also about music, especially because I always listen to stuff from other Medi artists. I think the biggest lesson is maybe the differences in management between European and Japanese labels. In Japan, label managers look after the artists too much, I think. With Deep Medi I get more freedom to choose my own direction and make my own choices. They never tell me what to do - I can make my own decisions - and for me that’s what the best thing about this whole relationship is. To have more freedom in that respect is better, I think, for artists like me today.

So tell me about “New Epoch”. What is the album about?

It’s a representation of how things have changed and are changing ultimately. Especially in regards to what has happened in Japan over the last year. It reflects the aftermath of the earthquake, even though the title was chosen before the earthquake. To me the album, and title to a degree, signifies a need for people to change their mindset, for people to know what is wrong and to learn from past mistakes as well.

What was your thought process when making the album?

I wanted the album to tell part of my history, the recent part of it. This is the last three or four years of my history, which is tied to dubstep. The inspiration for the music came from many places, from my everyday life, daily inspiration of things I like and my imagination. So the album is a mix of all these things I felt over the last few years - and the experiences of becoming part of the dubstep community and its worldwide expansion.

What about touring? Since signing to Medi, you’ve toured abroad a lot more often and more intensively than before. Did it have an effect?

Yeah it’s had an influence, but more than anything it’s allowed me to compare my music with what else it out there - and also see what the differences are between music scenes in the West and in Japan and learn from that.

What’s your favourite track on the album?

Well, I like all of them but “Man In The Maze” and “New Epoch” are my favourites.

The thing that struck me most when I first listened to the album is how you managed to incorporate different sounds and styles – around the dubstep template – in a way that I’d never heard in your music before. There are tracks on there I was genuinely surprised you’d made, in a good way.

I always try to make something new with my music, to change the synths I use or the drum sounds, so that I’m always pushing myself in new directions. Sometimes the stuff I experiment with will just be for my DJing, and some of it I made and kept for the album. “Man In The Maze”, for example, I made purposefully for the album and I knew when I made it that it would be the opener. It was written after the earthquake and I was in a maze myself at that time. Other people were like that too, we were all struggling to understand what had happened and what the future held. I was in the UK when the earthquake happened so it was strange, because I was removed from it at first and so had to watch everything online, while at the same time hearing things on TV here. I must have spent about 20 hours a day for a week trying to understand what was happening. My family was in Tokyo so it was a big shock and I was thinking about everything, how it was impacting people and how in a way people were lost in a maze trying to understand what had happened and what was happening - because news and official details were coming out and conflicting with other things you could also find on the internet that wasn’t “official” news. So that was the inspiration for that track. I didn’t want it to be negative though, I wanted the track to reflect this idea of progressing through the maze and seeing the light at the end and you stand up strong and go through to the other side. And that’s why the second track is called “Departure”. The album has a lot of those ideas running through it in a sense.

I felt that the tracklist was incredibly well chosen for the album. You mention this idea of progression in the tracks, but was it a difficult decision to finalise the tracklist or did it come naturally?

It wasn’t really difficult, no. The first tracklist that was suggested I liked and it didn’t really change much. I find it similar to building DJ sets, it’s like a puzzle. In fact it was only changed once.

With everything that’s been happening worldwide recently - the sort of revolutionary movements around the Occupy protests - I felt like “Babylon Fall” had a message to it that is not only more relevant today than when I first heard it, but also quite subtle and deep when put within this current context of people rising up and wanting change.

I always feel it’s important to have a message in the music if you can. What Max sings about on this song is relevant to today’s problems for sure, both in Japan and outside of it. Despite the song being already out on the EP before the album, I felt it was important to have the message on the album as well rather than me talking about it.

We were talking earlier on about how you stopped actively swapping tracks with people and sort of closed yourself off in a way in the last few years. Can you explain a bit more?

Between 2006 and 2009 I was really deep into this idea of swapping dubs with the other producers that I discovered when I entered the dubstep world. It was really exciting for me, but I also got way too much into it. So I stopped, especially because I noticed it started having an effect on the music I was making. I put some distance between myself and other producers and I went back to building tunes for my sets primarily. I think it’s important to hear new music and be up to date but not to imitate. I still listen to new music but try to keep my distance. Sometimes I’ll hear something I like, so I will imitate what I think the technique is - but really work on flipping it and making it my own. I want to understand what is happening but not be influenced by it. When I was in the noise scene and I moved away from it, a lot of people didn’t understand the change in style. And I feel it’s similar with this new release, but ultimately it’s all me and I have to keep pushing the music I want to make. It’s like jeans! [Laughs] The first time you wear them they’re not always comfortable, but it becomes better with time. I feel that the dubstep template sounds good most of the time, but I can’t wear the same jeans every day! You need change, or it’s just boring. I think it’s important to keep some elements throughout the work you do as an artist, but you have to evolve. That’s why I have been wearing the same leather jacket for years now [laughs]. So I had to make a decision to move to the next step. It was good to learn and swap tunes with people, but I needed to move on.

So what’s the next step for Goth-Trad then?

I still have some ideas for dubstep; I have ideas for the BPM you know? The scene has changed, there is a lot of loud stuff, pop stuff, that people like - so they may not think I make dubstep, but I don’t let that bother me too much. I want to make my own direction with sound; I think it should keep evolving while staying true to its roots. The pop-dubstep stuff has some good points but it doesn’t excite me, and I only want to make music that excites me. I want to spend more time working on melodies, tracks like “Strangers” and slower 4x4 stuff like “ Man In The Maze”. Also “Anti-Grid”, it’s that kind of hard techno, techy sound. Even hip hop! I have beats at many different BPM. I might start making more of the stuff people haven’t really heard yet because this album marked a period of my life - like I said - and so now I can start a new one. That’s also how I went on to make “Mad Raver’s” after working in the noise scene for years. I was done with noise so I moved on. Having concentrated on the 140 thing for a while, now I feel like I need a release of some sort and maybe do different things, like I did with “Mad Raver’s”. I don’t think this is an obvious 140 album, anyway. “ Strangers” is more abstract already, so I’m excited about the possibilities that lie beyond. It’s the same with these ideas I have for what Back To Chill can become too. At the same I’m still excited about 140, so who knows! [Smiles]

“New Epoch” is released via Deep Medi Records on February 7th. The album is available on vinyl only in the West and on CD in Japan. For more on Goth-Trad follow him on Twitter , or visit the Back To Chill website. BTC is held every month in Tokyo, at Club Asia, in Shibuya.

You can buy the album here.

Upcoming gigs

February 18th. Tokyo (Clubasia)

February 19th. Osaka (Triange)

February 24th. Tokyo (Daikanyama Unit)

March 2nd. Madrid (Siroco Club)

March 3rd. Arnheim, Netherlands (Ransom)

March 7th. Dublin (The Lost Society)

March 10th. Hasselt, Belgium (Muziekodroom)

March 11th. Amsterdam (venue TBA)

March 16th. Lyon (Ninkasi Kao)

March 17th. Bath (Moles Club)

March 24th. Athens (BIOS)

March 31st. Cambridge (The Junction)

April 5th. Geneva (Le Zoo)

April 7th. Gothenburg (TBA)

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