Ryuichi Sakamoto has the finest hair you’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly thin, but there’s so much of it, like the hair version of a high thread count. It comes up from the center of his head and out in two U arches. He is constantly flipping it over his face while he talks, just like he is constantly laughing. Actually, he’s giggling. And mostly at himself. While he is an incredibly serious composer, he’s got undeniable goofball vibes, as though as an adult he decided to stop taking this music shit so seriously and just jam the piano until he was entertained and that that might be good enough. Turns out, it is. In his West Village studio, surrounded by keyboards of different types, a big cardboard box of various percussion, years worth of scrapbook photos pinned to the wall and a rug that looks like it may have once lined a playpen, we talked with Sakamoto about his new album, the simply, aptly named Playing the Piano. Sakamoto has had a long career dabbling in many varieties of music—from his ’70s electronic group Yellow Magic Orchestra (kinda like the Japanese Kraftwerk) to his film scores (including the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor)—but on Piano, he’s winnowed away the extras, reworking many of his complex compositions to their marrow and playing them solo. It’s a beautiful, moving record, and, curious about the propulsion behind its origins, we sat with Sakamoto to find out. He plays New York City this Monday. It’s sold out, but worth scalping for. Playing the Piano is out now.
When did you first play the piano?
In kindergarten, all the kids had to at least touch keys, and that’s probably the first encounter for me. Also, one of my uncles was a music lover and he had a big collection of vinyl, and sometimes I went to his room and picked up some vinyl and played it by myself. Mostly classical. After kindergarten, my friends took a piano lesson with an old Japanese lady piano teacher, so I just followed my friends. It was not my intention to fall in love with piano. When I realized no one was there, like fifth or sixth grade, everyone had stopped piano lessons except me. So it was not my intention, it’s just like a routine I went there every Saturday and Sunday. It’s always like that.
How did you decide to do a solo piano album?
I call it self-cover, because the pieces I played were written before for certain reasons, for my own solo albums, so I don’t think there’s a new piece for that CD, they’re all covers. I just wanted to play, that’s what I do onstage for a tour. More recently I played the piano of those pieces—some film music, some from my solo albums—but just on the piano. So that’s what I do. I just wanted to put out what I do recently.
Why is it just you?
It’s probably the easiest way to express my musicality, because I started playing the piano when I was three or four. I was forced by the school to play in kindergarten, but it was good. I was probably lucky to touch the piano. Since then, the piano is the closest instrument to me, almost some extension of my body. When I imagine some music in my mind, almost automatically I imagine the piano keys. Sometimes some kind of music is not able to be played on the piano. As far as the timbre, of course the piano is very limited, like compared to the guitar you can express many, many different timbres, very pure acoustic or very electric. With the piano, it’s so limited, and also you cannot play the intervals between keys, that’s also a limitation. But there are many benefits also. Probably more than half of the cases I imagine music in my mind on the piano keys. It’s easy to go to the scores to write in that case. It’s the easiest way for me to play music. Cost-wise, it’s cheaper.
I would have expected you to have a very emotional response to it, but this seems very logical. Do logistics dictate that much of how you think about music?
Probably the biggest reason [I play piano] is I cannot play the other kinds of instruments. I’m a terrible drummer, I almost cannot play the guitar, nor sax, nor trumpet. A little bit of tuba, because when I was in junior high I played the tuba in marching band, but that’s it. The piano is the instrument I can play the most.
But if you said, I want to make this record and tour with a drummer, you could. You have before.
The simplicity to have a piano on stage and just myself… It could be really wonderful to have Christian Fennesz, actually we have toured just the two of us in Europe sometimes, like last year or the year before, just my piano and Fennesz in summertime in Italy. It was so beautiful. So it’s still possible in the future, but this time I like simplicity.