Interview and tour snaps with Zoom Lens' Meishi Smile
In Adam Harper's recent System Focus column about net labels, Zoom Lens co-founder Garrett Yim said, “The first release was packaged in a clear DVD case limited to about 20 copies, which contained a letter soaked in my own blood." None of those vibes here, though! This is a story of smiles, a well-deserved victory lap. Over the past few years, Zoom Lens has emerged as probably America's best-curated home for music from and inspired by Japan, and Yim's own production work as Meishi Smile has only gotten better, too—his recent debut album, LUST, is a slept-on gem of ecstatic yet shoegazey J-pop. On the strength of all he's got going on, he finally made the hop over to Japan for a tour last month, linking up with likeminded stars-of-the-scene Maltine Records and 2.5D. Seeing that I'm immensely jealous, I did the next best thing to flying over myself: I hooked Yim up with a few disposable cameras and chatted with him on Skype about what it was like.
Was this your first time over there? This was my first trip to Japan. It's something that I've been meaning to do for quite some time, as I've always had a fascination for its music scene and pop culture. Being so, I felt that the moment had to be right and my first time would have to coincide with me doing something of artistic merit out there.
Do you speak Japanese? I only have a little comprehension of the language. I come from both Japanese and Chinese descent, but culturally there was never a huge presence of either within my household, and neither of my parents spoke their respective languages, either. It was definitely something I came to Japan with having a little bit of shame [about], as I realize some of the older generation there may frown down upon such a notion. However, the particular crowd I was with during my trip was very warm and eager to become friends despite the language barrier. It really enlightened me of the acceptance that people had there. It was definitely a unique situation of "fitting the part," yet not knowing how to speak.
How did the trip come about? What made you decide you were ready? Tomad from Maltine Records spoke earlier in the year of inviting me out to Japan for an event he was planning, which eventually took form as their event, "東京" [Tokyo]. It was definitely something I would never dream of refusing, and to me it seemed like the ideal first time to visit Japan. It was just last year that I had released my EP, mYSTERIOUS sUMMER vACATION, on Maltine Records, and since then the label has grown a lot and has seen more of a cult following in the United States. It seemed like the right time for everyone to form together and be a part of an event of that caliber to show what Maltine stood for and what it can continue to do in terms of the net label scene and beyond that.
What do you remember about the show? Did it live up to your expectations? Although I was in Japan with the aforementioned language barrier, it was perhaps the most accepted I had ever felt going to a concert. The sense of culture and friendship there was something I had never experienced within a live venue, even back home in the States. To me, Maltine Records has always just been this net label with an appealing aesthetic and amazing music. I could always sense that there were people who believed in what they did and from that formed a community, but being there was just so much different.
The one moment that really stuck out to me was when I came across this area within the venue right outside the doors of the main stage. Across the floor laid a gigantic blue tarp, and on top sat a field of electronics and computers. People were focused on their laptops, watching a stream of the live show as it went on in the door next to them. It was beyond surreal, yet endearing at the same time. It very much encapsulated the bridge between reality and the digital divide. It could be argued that these sort of people are not connected to reality, but here they were at the actual show, making a presence in real life yet on their laptops, chatting away online about the event itself.
To say how it felt in alignment to any sort of expectations is difficult. It was beyond an expectation and couldn't be put into words. I just remember feeling oddly at ease even as I was on stage. Playing to a Japanese audience for the first time was a unique experience. I feel like people are much more subdued there, yet much more attentive. You could tell there was so much joy within everyone. There were no bouncers to tell you what not to do. No rules. It felt very free.
"The sense of culture and friendship there was something I had never experienced within a live venue, even back home in the States."
And you did a showcase with 2.5D too, right? I’m less familiar with them than Maltine. 2.5D is a sort of social music network located in Shibuya, in a mall called Parco. It hosts a wide variety of concerts showcasing both independent and major artists, as well as live VJs. What's interesting about 2.5D as a venue is that its main focus is on its online stream, something which I've caught many times in the wee hours of the morning at home.
The aesthetic of 2.5D is something I've long admired. Much like Maltine Records, it represents something progressive in net culture and is readily available to those seeking a taste of the cutting edge of Japanese music. I felt it would be the perfect place to showcase Zoom Lens. The showcase was entitled "PARADICE," in reference to an album we're releasing by Tokyo group LLLL, who played their first show ever there. Aside from them, Zoom Lens artists Yoshino Yoshikawa, mus.hiba and Space Boyfriend joined, as well as tomad and bo en of Maltine Records. As 2.5D filled up with people and numbers steadily increased online, it was sort of a reaffirming moment for me for what Zoom Lens was doing, both online and off. I was a hit with a strong sense of joy and melancholy as I saw some of my favorite artists take the stage in representation of my label.
I saw you took a picture with Yasutaka Nakata. He's such a legendary producer to me—Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, capsule, Perfume… How did you meet? Before my trip, my pal Patrick St. Michel—who runs the Japanese music blog Make Believe Melodies, as well as writing for various publications—had come into contact with capsule's manager as a result of having written a review for their latest album, CAPS LOCK, on Pitchfork. He expressed my interest in Nakata and that I was coming to Japan soon, so he invited us out to a set Nakata was doing at Club ageHA.
To give a bit of context to what Nakata's music means to me, he is essentially the reason why I produce electronic music, and my interpretation of his work is what has sort of given me the basis of what Meishi Smile represents. To me, Nakata's music has represented the conflicting essence of pop music. A producer who entirely works alone within his own confinements who also creates hits that touch the tip of popular culture. Yet his creations have this overwhelming sense of beauty to them—that even though it is in essence "dance" music, it creates a world in which you can listen to it alone. I had grown up with this notion that pop music was dirty, yet when I discovered Nakata, it helped me find the beauty possible behind such creations.
Literally the moment I had arrived in Tokyo, I went with Patrick and a few friends to catch his event. I don't believe much in worshipping any particular artist, but being given the opportunity to meet him and express my appreciation for him was definitely an experience to be grateful for. It was like having words bottled up inside of me that I could finally let go of. Nakata gave off a very warm and friendly presence. I gave him my CD and a letter a friend had helped translate and he asked to take a shot of Jager with myself and everyone in the room. It felt like sort of an accomplishment after that, haha.
What was your favorite non-musical thing that happened on the trip? During my last night in Kyoto, I was with my friends Takuji (Kosmo Kat) and Jami (Space Boyfriend) and we had decided to cross this supposedly haunted bridge that stood right next to a cemetery. Takuji and Jami both saw flashes of light that were shaped in human form. I proclaimed I didn't want to see anything, so even though I stood directly behind them, I felt the sense of spiderwebs crawling all around my body the entire walk despite the area not being shaped in a way where I would encounter such a thing. We ended up at a shrine where we paid our respects, and as we left, we were greeted by two bright white puppies.
Any tips for people who want to go to Japan for the first time? I felt like going to Japan, as far as things come mentally—there was no expectation of what would happen. Perhaps the same can apply to traveling anywhere new for the first time. There were a lot of things I assumed would happen, and things I didn't, and being within that moment is like a breath of fresh air. What I felt like I missed out on the most was just having a chance to explore and be free from things. I had the sense that I should've planned to be there longer. Once I felt adjusted, it was already time to leave, and I think a lot of the comfort I gained could've pushed me further to do even more things there. I think the little conveniences and normalities there are what I miss most, because there is no way I can experience them back in the United States. Finding beauty in the mundanity of things is what will make you enjoy things a lot more.