Peter Barakan

Peter Barakan is old. At least that’s what he says about himself. But in the five years since I last sat down with him to talk, it seems as if he hasn’t aged at all. And while he reaches millions through his radio programs, I also have to wonder, does he ever grow tired? Probably not talking about music. And so I get straight to the point.

Five years ago, you were saying Derek Trucks is simply the best out there, that nobody was making music like him and his band. Do you still believe that?

Absolutely. And now he has a new band with his wife, the Tedeshci Trucks Band. You hear a little bit less of his guitar playing because her vocals are there front and center, but even so, it’s a wonderful band. They played Fuji Rock about a year and a half ago, which was right around the time they were coming together as that band—they hadn’t even given themselves an official name yet—and they were wonderful there. They had really only done a handful of gigs by that time. Then I was lucky enough to see them play when I was back in London in June, and they were really hitting their stride by then.

What do you think is the secret to their chemistry as a band?

Well it’s a large band—eleven people—three horns, two backing vocals, two drummers… Derek grew up listening to the music of the Allman Brothers and that whole period of music. It’s like the man is going back to people like Delaney, Bonnie & Friends who were really of that period as well. 1969, 1970 was when they were really making good music. And then Joe Crocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen band—again, it’s all that period of music from before Derek was born, of course, a prime period of the Allman Brothers. He and Susan are going back to that period and really kind of reinventing that organic, gospel-based rock and R&B and you name it—it’s all mixed into a very… almost hippy kind of ethos. And it just really works. Nobody has done for the last forty years. It’s amazing. Of course, Derek’s guitar has a lot more modern influences in it as well.

Do you see any other artists going back to older styles, like Delta blues for example, and giving it a fresh breath of life?

I think there are a lot of musicians who are not reinventing, perhaps, but certainly going back and looking at music from the past. And the music industry is broken down so much now that there is such a disparity between the people who are selling records and the people who aren’t. I think people who aren’t selling a lot of records are taking a grassroots approach—either releasing albums on very small labels or else doing it on their own, basically, through a website or having their own label, selling CDs at gigs, basically. And you have these people making a very organic music. There’s a group I haven’t been able to see live yet, a black trio called Carolina Chocolate Drops who, interestingly don’t play exclusively black music; they play exclusively in a pre-war style which is not necessarily Carolina, but it links into this Memphis-style of jug bands and that sort of music. It’s folk and blues with hints of gospel, all blended into a unique style. Fiddle, guitar, banjo and vocals of course—one woman, two men—occasionally they’ll throw in a new song, but the way they arrange them is uniformly prewar style. There was a Tom Waits song on one of their albums, and one from a hip-hop artist I wasn’t familiar with. A very interesting group.

In Japan there’s a group called Lonesome Strings. Last year they put out a record with vocals for the first time. They had always been a completely instrumental band. Then there’s a woman called Nakamura Mari who is very, very good. She plays acoustic guitar herself—finger picks—but she has this voice. For a start, she sings English with pronunciation good enough that you occasionally might not know she was Japanese. She lived in the U.S. a little while when she was a child, but only a couple of years. I don’t know if she speaks English, but she sings it fine. She writes her own songs for her album, though she does cover other people’s songs live. With Lonesome Strings they went back and did a whole bunch of old songs from the folk repertoire—things like John Henry and “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad.” But they also did a version of the Beatles’ “Rocky Racoon” and a blue-grass version of the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider.” The album was pretty good and they did some gigs as well. When Amos Garrett comes to Japan, he always gets asked to play “Midnight at the Oasis” because he played the guitar solo on the original and of course Maria Muldaur is never with him. Nakamura Mari sings that song close enough to Maria’s style that it just feels like the original.

Do you listen to any of the old Japanese underground folk and acid folk from the 70s, people like Tomokawa Kazuki?

Nope. I missed out on all of that. I was probably too busy working on my primary thing, which is non-Japanese music.

What do you think is the main hurdle for more Japanese bands gaining worldwide recognition?

Worldwide recognition? For a start, there’s a big hurdle for getting any nationwide recognition and that’s a lack of exposure in the media. Probably in some cases, it’s even easier to get known worldwide. With the power of the internet now, if someone picks up on a band or a singer, it’s easy enough to get the word out through YouTube or other social media, and although the audience may not be that big, the possibility of getting people to listen to your music and have an attitude of openness towards it is bigger outside Japan.

Do you ever have artists coming to you asking you for help and promotion?

Occasionally, yes, and when they send me something I generally try to listen to a couple of songs and if I like it I may try to do something to help them out, but most of the time I find that very few of the things I’m given actually grab my imagination for one reason or another.

Can you explain why?

I probably have an excessively severe response to bad pronunciation. If people are singing in English and the pronunciation is bad, I will tune out because it distracts me from the music. I think that’s a big hurdle. On the other hand, I think there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Japanese people singing in Japanese. In fact, this reminds of the record 1969 by Yuki Saori. She’s been around for ages and her debut album came out, in fact, in 1969. This new album is titled 1969, I think, because all of the songs on it come from 1969 or that period. She’s made the album with a group called Pink Martini, with whom you may or may not be familiar—I wasn’t. They’re a group from Portland, Oregon. Their premise was that they would go around the world, figuratively, to find interesting music from all these different countries and then perform that. The leader is always trawling record stores to find interesting records. Incidentally, one of the records he happens to pick up is Yuki Saori’s first record from 1969, which had a song with scat vocals that was very popular. I guess back in those days in Japan, it was quite a rarity. He was extremely interested and eventually they got in touch. They made a record together and then did a concert together at the Royal Albert Hall in London towards the end of last year. So she comes up to do a Brazilian song and starts off singing it in Portuguese, but then halfway through she switches to Japanese. And when she starts singing in Japanese, for whatever reason, I have no idea, but the whole audience at the opera hall gets up on their feet and gives her a standing ovation. I spoke to the guy who produced the record and he didn’t know why either. The fact remains that a Japanese singer who is quite advanced in age now has a new album, 1969, that has apparently been one of the best selling albums on the i-Tunes’ jazz chart for the last couple of months. You’ve got people outside Japan buying a record featuring a Japanese singer singing in Japanese. This is basically the first time this has happened since Sakamoto Kyu’s “Sukiyaki,” which is 50 years ago. Nobody’s really quite sure why. To go back to your question, now, I think the possibilities are there; you don’t necessarily have to sing in English.

I think a lot of Japanese music out there is just crap. And the overseas bands that tend to be popular in Japan are crap, too. Is it a problem of sophistication of taste in Japan, where there is less diversity of musical styles than in Europe or the Americas?

Well the sophistication is there. There are people who have a great appreciation of just about any kind of music. In fact, the breadth of music covered in this country may even be broader than in any other that I’m aware of, with perhaps the exception of Holland or perhaps France, too. But the numbers are just tiny—that’s the problem. The numbers of people who listen to foreign music in general—the percentage of the entire listening public—has never really varied that much. I think when I first came here in the 1970s the sales of foreign music was about 25%, but that was including classical as well. It’s a little bit less now. I guess what has changed is that in the 1970s, all the FM radio stations—there weren’t very many of them admittedly—played pretty much exclusively Western music and the result of that was a larger variety of records that people were familiar with. Since the advent of J-pop, which I suppose has been about 20 years ago, the number of FM started to increase, especially in the late 80s with deregulation. But almost all of them are playing exclusively Japanese music, which means that younger people, who have actually stopped listening to radio anyway, can’t get the exposure to foreign music that they used to. It used to be that, in the 70s, even if you weren’t actively interested, the exposure would be there. You would be familiar with melodies. But the current generation of Japanese doesn’t even know the names of even the really good acts because all they listen to is J-pop, if not K-pop.

If there is a positive trend, you see a lot more musical festivals popping up across the country—beyond Fuji Rock, you’ve got Asagiri Jam, Itadaki, Sunset Live… do you think this trend will continue, where music festivals take the place of FM radio in providing exposure?

Why not? You know, I don’t really keep up with much contemporary rock because I’m just getting old, but Smash (a major music promoter) always sends me emails about any bands that they are bringing over and I’m amazed that they’re able to put on so many gigs so regularly—not only the festivals, but also the smaller gigs in Tokyo all the time. Evidently the fact that they keep doing that means that people are coming out to see the gigs. So I actually wonder how people are getting information about these acts. They have to be able to hear the music somewhere. When I go to Fuji Rock, probably more than half the bands I’m not even familiar with and most of it’s a little hard for my taste anyway, but obviously people do know who these bands are.

The last few years there has been the confluence of DJ culture and live music, so you see a lot of bands also with a DJ on stage, or you’ll see DJs inspired by the live-band music scene, remixing music that, back in the day, you wouldn’t have thought of using as material. What are your observations of that?

Hip-hop has been around for so long now that I think it’s ingrained into the DNA of anyone who is under the age of 30. Definitely my own kids, in their mid 20s, identify most on a physical level with the beats of Hip-Hop without a doubt. It’s not that they don’t listen to other music but for anyone of that age, mixing different media together, mixing different genres is natural. My kids, for example, have less attitude to genre than people of my own generation. They don’t think about that stuff probably because they don’t really read music magazines like I do (laughter), but that may well be a healthy thing. As you say, there is a greater confluence of all these things and I see no reason why it wouldn’t continue. It’s very natural for the people who are hearing it. When young people these days want to get into music, some actually go for playing an instrument, but more want to go into DJ-ing because it gives you an opportunity to use all these different sources to try to create something new. I still have a slightly ambivalent feeling toward that because I grew up in a time when that didn’t exist. The idea of taking somebody else’s work and then copying bits of it to add into again somebody’s else’s work and then creating something that is arguably your own still doesn’t quite ring true to me, but as I say, for anyone under the age of 30, they don’t see it that way. You have a whole new bag of tricks available.

Well you have Creative Commons licenses now, which allow people to use copyrighted material for artists purposes. How do you feel about that?

The whole idea of copyright is breaking down and like it or not, I think it’s a fact that people are just going to have to try to deal with. And if you want to listen to a song, you can find just about anything for ‘free’ now, and in a minute. Record companies might not like it, but there’s really nothing you can do about it anymore. Interestingly, though, then there are people like Adele who are selling bucket-loads of CDs and being very successful on the virtue of being a good singer and writing good songs. Adele even beat out Lady Gaga, and its music that is, in a way, very old fashioned. It’s just well-written songs, sung well.








日本に「ロンサム・ストリングス」というグループがありますね。従来インストバンドだった彼らが昨年初めてボーカルもののアルバムを出しました。そのアルバムでは中村まりというボーカリストをフィーチャーしていて、彼女が実にいいのです。彼女はフィンガーピッキングでアコースティックギターもプレイするのですが、声が実にいい。アルバムは英語の歌で始まりますが発音もいいので、ちょっと聴いたくらいでは日本人と気付かないくらいです。彼女は子供の頃に数年間だけですがアメリカに住んでいた経験があり、今も英語をしゃべれるのかどうかは知りませんが、歌で聞く限り発音は良いです。ライブではカバー曲を歌っていますが、自身のアルバムではオリジナル曲も披露しており、ロンサム・ストリングスとのユニットでは古いフォークソングなどをたくさんやっていて、“John Henry”とか“Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”などのトラッドに取り組んでいます。その一方でビートルズの”Rocky Raccoon”や、オールマン・ブラザース・バンドの“Midnight Rider”をブルーグラス調にアレンジして演奏したりしています。アルバムの出来は素晴らしく、そのメンバーでライブ活動も行なっています。マリア・マルダーのアルバムの中で”Midnight at the Oasis”の素晴らしいギターソロを聞かせていたエイモス・ギャレットが日本に来ると毎回その曲をやるようにリクエストされるそうですが、中村まりはこの曲をマルダーのオリジナルの雰囲気そのままに聞かせてくれます。

















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