[Interview] Rolling Stone Japan vol.12 – Saito Soma Invites You to the Rabbit Hole

Released: 2020/9/25
Online Version: https://rollingstonejapan.com/articles/detail/35037/1/1/1

“What made me happy was that a lot of people said it felt natural to listen to, and music fans said things like “You’re doing something novel” and “The sax riff in the intro is dissonant, right?” I think that’s one of the interesting things about music. When I write songs, I want them to be easy to listen to when you don’t focus on the details, but once you start to really think about them, it feels like you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole.”

The thoughts behind the themes of “in bloom”

—In June, it was the third anniversary of your singer debut. I assume 2020 has been a critical year for you as an artist, but is your current situation completely different from how you imagined 2020 at the start of the year, due to COVID-19?

It actually might not be that different. My activities were always centered around releasing music, rather than performing live. The three songs I’m releasing this time had to become digital releases due to various circumstances, but if it wasn’t for COVID-19, I was going to release them as a single for my third anniversary. Since I’ve been spending more time at home, I actually have a ton of demo songs in stock now. I don’t know what form I’ll be able to present them in, but while we’re making steady preparations to release interesting music, I was able to release these three singles, which I’m thankful for.

—Rather than being affected by external events, you’re progressing on the path you’ve decided for yourself.

As someone who’s been writing songs as a hobby for a long time now, I’m just grateful to be able to release my songs to the world. So as an artist, I don’t feel frustrated about this situation. Instead, my current focus is on how I can use the ideas I’ve come up with.

—During the interview for your last EP, you said, “If I were to make a Season 2, then this would be Season 1.5” and “With this, I finished my investigation of ‘what would happen if I followed my previous work to its conclusion?'” Is it safe to say that these three singles are your Season 2?

I gave this series the name “in bloom,” but the themes are “the changing of seasons” and “what comes after the end of the world.” Instead of singing about different perspectives of the end of the world, I wanted to depict what comes afterwards. Out of the three songs, “Petrichor” was finished first, and I absolutely wanted to release it in June. From there, if I was going to release singles as a series, I’d be able to time them for the rainy season, midsummer, and the transition from summer to fall. I’ve always liked ambiguous seasons, so this gave me a creative spark—I felt like I could do something with this. I was reading Dazai Osamu at that time too, and he has a short story called Roman Tourou. A group of siblings are writing a relay story, and one of them says something like, “Stories always say the princess and the prince got married and they all lived happily ever after, but what we really want to know is what happened after that, right?” and I thought, this is it.

In that sense, I think these three songs are very personal. Not in the sense that they’re about me, but that they feel like introspective songs within a narrow scope. In the past, I used the broad “end of the world” motif quite a lot, most noticeably in “memento.” This time, “Petrichor,” “Summerholic!” and “Palette” are all subjective songs that don’t relate to how the whole world is.

—So “Petrichor” was a big factor.

I wanted to do a song that you wouldn’t really see from other voice actors with singing careers, and tried adding jazz nuances to a hiphop-style track, paying a fair amount of attention to trends. There’s dissonance in it too, but when you listen to it as a song, it sounds kind of like Japanese pop. What made me happy was that a lot of people said it felt natural to listen to, and music fans said things like “You’re doing something novel” and “The sax riff in the intro is dissonant, right?” I think that’s one of the interesting things about music. When I write songs, including these three, I want them to be easy to listen to when you don’t focus on the details, but once you start to really think about them, it feels like you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole. “Petrichor” does this particularly well.

“Petrichor” paves the way for a new frontier

—I know what you mean by “falling into the rabbit hole.” These three songs are so elaborate that it made me think, there must be an incredible number of scrapped songs behind them. “Petrichor” uses quite a modern jazz approach, with CRCK/LCKS’ Ochi Shunsuke-san on bass and TRI4TH’s Fujita Junnosuke on saxophone, right?


—I don’t think you had this kind of style before, but you definitely made it yours.

When I made the demo for this song, it felt like Elliott Smith with the lingering feeling of the harmony in the chorus, but a bit more withered. I’d say it was a bit dark. The “hai-iro no amemachi” (gray rainy street) lyric was originally “uso wo tsuite shimatta yo” (I told a lie). But Fujita-san’s sax gave it quite a bright impression. He played exquisite tones in the second half of the song that made me think, “Yeah, I really like this kind of alluringness” *laughs*. In “Petrichor,” you can hear each player’s sentiments. Ochi-san played bass at my first concert too; his bass-playing has a really good groove to it, so I was happy that we could work together again.

—The balance between the words and the sound at “kuruizaku you na rokugatsu no flavour / itsumademo kagerou no naka” is interesting.

“Petrichor’s” lyrics are such that you can’t understand what’s going on at first glance. The listener can only guess, so it’s hard to tell if the scenery is real or not. I think the development from the second verse onwards is interesting. The atmosphere of the song suddenly changes at “kuruizaku you na,” and image-wise it resembles Inoue Yosui-san, in how I use a thicker voice for just that part. It’s humour; there are people who suddenly sing in a different tone of voice when they’re in a good mood, right? In that sense, I think “Petrichor” is quite a scary song.

Since these three songs are subjective, the characters in the lyrics are happy and having fun, but how does it look to the people around them? Maybe I wanted to keep the “unreliable narrator” aspect. It’s similar to how Spitz’s songs are really refreshing to listen to, but they also have hidden interpretations. Even though it sounds like a pop song, the lyrics aren’t. Like Spitz’s themes of sex and death. I hope you can sense that appeal.

Madness in “Summerholic!”

—It’s the same with “Summerholic!”, right? When you first listen to it, you think “Summer!”, but once you read the lyrics, you realize that it’s not that simple.

This might be the one where I was the most careful with the “seasoning” on the lyrics. Having a strong message and delivering it directly can feel good, of course, and it can be moving too. But that’s not how my music is—I don’t make it too obvious or too deep; it’s just about halfway. Some people enjoy it for what it is on the surface, while others like to theorize. I want to make it clear that both sides are allowed, so I’m careful with the lyrics in order to not clash with either approach.

A single word can change a lot. It’s like, do I say “this water” or “this forest”? It’s a trial-and-error process for every song, and I often change lyrics all over the place on recording day. Since I assume they’re going to change, lately I haven’t been printing out the lyrics beforehand. I asked if we could do the final checks at the recording instead, and that’s when they get printed for the first time. But there are still times when I go, “Oh, actually, can I make a small change?” anyway *laughs*. I’m grateful to my team for letting me make small adjustments until the very last minute.

—Is it the same for the arrangement?

The instrumental performances can’t be changed if they were recorded in advance, but they let me do whatever I want with the vocals. It’s fun when when we all make the harmony together because it feels like we’re a band. Recently we’ve been bringing our guitars and playing them while communicating our ideas, or tapping keys on the keyboard like, “Doesn’t it sound more urban and stylish if this one note is in a minor key?” “I’ll try singing that, then.” It really feels like we’re creating the songs as a team. The “hohoemi” part of “Petrichor” was also the result of us experimenting with things on the recording day. Both the engineer, Hayashi-san, and I thought that would fit the best, and in the end that’s what we went with.

Season 2 is for the things he didn’t do before

—The lyrics and vocal direction adapt on the spot. That does seem like a band, in a way.

It does. It’s kind of an old-school band style. Even when we’re doing the mixdown, we experiment with the fine balancing of effects; like for “Petrichor,” how long the rain sounds should stick around for, whether they should only be audible in the intro and the outro. For “Palette,” I asked them to make the bass really loud. My requests are quite detailed, and I’m glad that the professionals turn them into something good. Also, starting from my previous release, I started using equipment on my own, so it’s easier to convey what I’m thinking from the demo stage. There’s no more discrepancies within the team when sharing ideas.

—In the end, it feels like a band and you can also pursue your personal tastes to the fullest. It sounds like the ideal environment for an artist.

I’m extremely thankful to be in a place that allows this.

—Do you ever change your song titles?

All the time. “Palette’s” working title was “US Emo” for the longest time *laughs*, and “Petrichor’s” working titles were “Amadare” (raindrops) and “Uso wo Tsuite Shimatta yo” (I Told a Lie). At first I was going to write “Petrichor’s” lyrics without any katakana words, but I got stuck partway through, and realized that the whole point of Season 2 was to stop putting restrictions on myself. That’s when I came up with the “rokugatsu no flavour” phrase. The working title for “Summerholic!” was… “Libertine,” but even though I called it that, everyone kept saying “Libertines,” which obviously isn’t okay. *laughs*

“Summerholic!” was inspired by the Libertines, the Cribs, and Ojamajo Doremi. Parts like “ashita no junbi to sessei rinri to” are a good mix of those ideas. As for the arrangement, it’s definitely Western-style rather than Japanese. We used a lot of detailed techniques to achieve this, like how all of the vocals are double-tracked. I often decide titles quickly on the spot—which was the case for the “in bloom” series name too. I also have demos named “UK” and “Marilyn Manson” which I didn’t use this time. So when I look at my files some time later, I have no idea what’s what. *laughs*

“To me, music isn’t about using specific phrases directly, but about converting ideas—borrowing the concept’s direction to create my own expression. This includes things I saw as a child, like Ojamajo Doremi which was an important part of my upbringing. A song that’s just cool and upbeat feels a bit lacking, so I reflected that notion in ‘Summerholic!'”

When it comes to working titles

—So your working titles have Saito-san-style homages. I can understand the Libertines and the Cribs, but I’m surprised that Ojamajo Doremi would be in there.

In the past I wouldn’t have chosen Ojamajo Doremi, but for Season 2, I decided I would choose that kind of thing too. To me, music isn’t about using specific phrases directly, but about converting ideas—borrowing the concept’s direction to create my own expression. A song that’s just cool and upbeat feels a bit lacking, so I wanted to play around with it. This rapid-talking style is surprisingly common in the anime songs I listened to as a kid, like Cyborg Kuro-chan and Jungle wa Itsumo Hare nochi Guu.

—Western music might be surprisingly compatible with the exciting, upbeat feeling of anime songs.

Punk bands often do that rapid-talking style of singing too, right? It was the case for the Libertines as well. Pete Doherty and Carl Barât’s fast-talking have a worn-out sort of feeling to them. I wanted to use that drunken style in “Summerholic!” too. I think that impatient feeling, where you can’t quite tell if there’s a melody there, is a very good fit for this song. If “Petrichor’s” vocal melody sounds like Showa era pop—that is, Japanese—then I wanted “Palette” and “Summerholic!” to take their nuances from US and UK rock respectively.

I have a personal fixation on sticking to Japanese, but the “Summerholic!” lyrics are hard to say quickly. There are a lot of words that’ll trip you up, like “madamada.” Honestly I thought, “I hate this lyricist.” Even though it was me *laughs*. And since it had to be double-tracked, I needed at least two good takes. Looking back, I’m impressed that I was able to sing it at all. The “daijoubu datteba madamada ohiru de shouki mo sokosoko tamotteiru kara” part is really hard. In that sense, I’d say those were my best takes!

—The song made me grin, thinking that you must like surf garage rock and bands like the Libertines, but when I read the lyrics, I thought, “This isn’t refreshing at all! It’s just a song about staying cooped up at home!” I thought that twistedness was very like you.

When you think of UK bands, that twistedness is definitely a thing. Like XTC, although I didn’t reference them at all this time. “Summerholic!” is a song that’s twisted in an honest way. There’s a “kanpai~!” lyric in the middle, which I think will be fun to do with everyone when concerts are back to normal.

—This song is led by the guitar.

I really didn’t expect tapping to be added. Ono Takemasa-san’s excellent technique is on fire. It has a big party atmosphere, which I love.

Still many creation techniques to try

—About “Palette” which had the working title “US Emo,” one of your roots is in US emo rock, and I thought this was a solid song with that genre’s dramatism and sense of scale. It must’ve been satisfying for the participating musicians.

For “Palette,” I asked them to play it with an explosive, roaring sound. I think this is a straightforward song, strange in that it’s not twisted. For this kind of song, rather than playing the phrases, it feels more like extending a mass of sound. When everyone played the intro for me like that, I thought, “Ah, this is good…” For a song like “Palette,” there’s a lot of meaning in playing it loudly as a band. The recorded audio was amazing, and the mixing emphasized the bass even more.

—All of the participating musicians were incredibly skilled. In addition to Takemasa-san, there was Takahashi Hirotaka-san (ELLEGARDEN, PAM) and Suda Yuki-san (ex.Suck a Stew Dry, ex.THURSDAY’S YOUTH).

I couldn’t be there for the instrument recording this time, so I could only listen to the recording afterwards. For every song, I let the musicians do what they want, with the exception of key phrases that shouldn’t be changed. I only give them things like the “Summerholic!” riff and the “Petrichor” sax line in advance. It’s fun this way, because what I get are interesting expressions that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. It’s also fun to have different people participating for each song.

—They tweeted about being at your recording too. Even though you couldn’t work together in person, it still feels like you’d make a good band.

Right now I’m making the prototypes by myself, but I’d like to try having a studio session sometime. Even if we aren’t a band, I want to try creating a so-called band song. My repertoire is actually missing a song that’s centered around rock-style riffs. For a song like that, I’d want to make it in a studio. It’s not possible in the current state of the world, but I’d like to do it someday. There are still many creation techniques I want to try, so I hope I’ll be able to release more new things after the “in bloom” series.