[Interview] rockin’on.com – What Gives Saito Soma’s Music Its Immersion? From His Roots to “in bloom”!

Published: 2020/12/28
Original URL: https://rockinon.com/interview/detail/197172

Alternate version of this interview: ROCKIN’ON JAPAN 2021/2 – Saito Soma – in bloom

“It began with us expressing our middle school feelings of impatience and gloom through pink music.”

—I heard that a MiniDisc you received from a friend in middle school was what fully awakened you to music. It was an incredibly varied mix with U2, The Rolling Stones, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Marilyn Manson, and the last half was all Kinniku Shojo-tai songs.

Right. In elementary school I wanted to stay a model student, but when I heard that MD, I thought, “There’s a world like this out there?!” The world of rock came as a shock to me. Through music, books, and films, that friend taught me about a deep world that wasn’t just clean and upbeat. Book-wise, that was when I came to like Tsutsui Yasutaka-san and Nakajima Ramo-san, who I still like now. That was my formative experience. Middle school was my most cynical time, so I picked up a lot of different things, wanting to know about things that no one else did.

—That’s why your songs show influences from such a wide variety of music and literature, right?

I’m from Yamanashi Prefecture, and I went to a CD store in Kofu called Birdland all the time *laughs*. I made do with my allowance, buying CDs by their jackets, not knowing whether they’d be a hit or a miss until I listened to them. I think I liked learning and absorbing the unknown, not just with music. Also, I liked Thamesbeat and I loved Mystery Jets, so I biked with my friend to a 100-yen shop and we bought five small frying pans, thinking we could use them as drums. It wasn’t much, but we did try to make our own DIY music. That’s what my youth was like.

—Did you have a band when you were in school?

Yes. I had a band in middle school, and I was on guitar and vocals. My friend who taught me about music in my first year of middle school—his parents showed me THE STALIN and Totsuzen Danbooru, so at first we wanted to do punk. It began with us expressing our middle school feelings of impatience and gloom through pink music. Since we didn’t have a drummer, we wrote songs using step recording. From the beginning, rather than wanting to jam out at concerts, we wanted to make a really good album. At the time, I wanted to have an orchestra-style band like Arcade Fire. A band that wasn’t restricted to live sound. With that as my gateway, I also came to like postpunk and krautrock. So in middle school, I didn’t listen to any songs that had normal choruses. I think I was in denial *laughs* but now, after all that’s happened, it really feels like those things have become a part of myself.

“I was saved by works that gave me a sense of ‘a place that isn’t here’ and ‘someone who isn’t me,’ which influences my own works.”

—After that, you became a voice actor and then pursued musical activities as well. But starting from your third single, Date, you began composing and writing your own songs.

What I still find really interesting is that, for example, the song “Date” isn’t something I would’ve been able to write when I was a teenager. “Date” has background chatter throughout—it’s quite a ridiculous song, but in a way, it makes use of my skill as a voice actor. When I was a teenager, before I worked as a voice actor, the music I made had really straightforward, serious expressions. It was a period of “straightforward cynicism” for me. I had a lot of personal rules, like how the first and second verse weren’t allowed to be the same character length, and how I didn’t want to use the same kanji twice in one song. *laughs*

—Though you were aiming for free expression, you were putting your own restrictions on it.

Yes. But as I worked as a voice actor, my capacity increased—or rather, I came to find a wider variety of things interesting. I wanted to take what I’d accumulated inside myself and feed it into my music. When I tried to write a song, I was surprised by how freely I could write. In the case of “Date,” something like the beginning lyric “At Takadanobaba, right before the last train” wouldn’t have been possible when I was a teenager.

—Why not?

Like I was saying before, a lot of the music I made as a teenager was orchestral or fantastical in nature. I wanted my music to be detached from reality. But now my perception has become rougher and I think that can be on a case-by-case basis. So even though I spent about ten years on a different route, I think this was the best time to be given the chance to write and sing my own songs. I only gained this opportunity because of my work as a voice actor.

—It was an inevitable path, right?

That makes it sound too cool. *laughs*

—While you were releasing works as a singer-songwriter, did you reconsider what kind of musical career you wanted?

Yes, but that said, since it started because I was a voice actor, back then I thought that pop and easy-listening were important factors, and I was conscious of the idea of music as entertainment. So instead of delving deep within myself, I started off with catchy melodies, turning my expressions into things that were fun to listen to. I remember doing quite a lot of research for “Date.” I always liked city pop and funk, but at the time, there wasn’t anyone in the voice acting industry who was singing city pop. It’s become quite mainstream in the music scene now, but I remember wanting to get in on it early. Fortunately, subscription services are prospering now, so I got to re-listen to all of the things I used to like and create something interesting and entertaining.

Also, one thing that hasn’t changed ever since I started writing my own songs is that none of my songs have anything resembling “Saito Soma’s message.” I’m sure some of my own perspective seeps in, but ultimately, each song is its own story and mental picture. It’s embarrassing to say this myself, but my motto is to not write message songs or love songs.

—Where did that mindset come from?

The fiction and entertainment I consumed as a teenager would have to be a major influence. My first impressions of them were, “a place that isn’t here” and “someone who isn’t me,” and I strongly felt that I was saved by those feelings. So I do like listening to songs that nestle up to you saying “You’re not alone,” but they aren’t what I would write myself. What “saved” me as a teenager were songs that said “It’s okay to be alone,” giving attention to the loneliness. So my first thought for my music was that, rather than giving my own words, I want to deliver songs that come across as stories.

—That’s why your albums also feel like works of literature.

I’m always wanting to create music where each listener can extract different things from each song.

“I think I was the least concerned with following the rules for this album. It was more about writing songs from different angles.”

—Even with your new album in bloom, each time I listen to it, I discover something new. It has a lot of songs that can be interpreted in multiple ways. And compared to your previous works, the musical styles are more varied. It’s developed into very diverse pop music.

Before, a lot of my songs kept entertainment as the central focus while also reflecting my own world view with decadent motifs like “the end of the world.” But after two years of that, I did feel that I’d made the world end too much *laughs*. So then I wondered what it’d be like after the end of the world. Does something continue afterwards, or does it become nothing? I decided that for my next work, I’d sing about the story that comes after the world’s end. So this album is more like a collection of short stories, rather than one big theme. I think it’s more introspective than my first album. When I’m writing my own lyrics, it feels like sometimes the pop-ness can also turn into madness. So for each song, some people think it’s easy to listen to as pop music, while others think it’s a bit scary.

—It’s true. The lead track “carpool” sounds like a refreshing pop song, but when you thoroughly examine the lyrics, it feels unsettling too. Even “Summerholic!” is supposed to be an extremely happy summer tune, but once you fully understand the situation, it becomes scary like dark fantasy.

That’s exactly it *laughs*. The protagonist of “Summerholic!” seems to be happy and having a lot of fun, but from an outsider’s point of view, it’s like you can’t see it objectively. That was my aim when writing this song. There are other songs where the developments don’t make much sense, but it’s like, that’s how the protagonist is, so there’s nothing you can do about it. Rather than writing the songs in a calculated way, even I don’t know how they ended up the way they are. It’s like, if that’s what the song says, then so be it. So I think I was the least concerned with entertainment value and following the rules for this album. It was more about writing songs from different angles.

—You didn’t even follow your personal rules?

Well *laughs*… I consider myself overly theoretical, but I think this is going to be an era where senses are more important, so I started production with the intent of not sticking to the rules anymore. However, the thought of “not sticking to the rules” was a rule in itself *laughs*. But generally, I consider writing songs as entertainment in itself, so I had fun doing it. Before this album was released, three of the songs were released digitally. Because of that, there was a period of production time between the single and the album, so for this whole year, I’ve been able to enjoy thinking about music on a separate axis from my voice acting work. But compared to last time, this album is really dark. *laughs*

“I wanted to make music that wasn’t the so-called J-pop formula; to not hesitate to open the valve in my brain.”

—Dark, you say. It is a rather introspective album, though. Even “Petrichor” with its constant rain effects could be perceived as insanity.

This time, one of my distinct goals was to make songs that were a little deeper. I originally played the sax riff in “Petrichor” on guitar, and I asked the arranger, Saku-san, to turn it into a sax riff. Tone-wise it becomes dissonant, but that’s because I used more of a jazz-like perspective rather than rock. In the latter half it becomes hard to tell whether it’s a major or minor key. I wanted to make music that wasn’t the so-called J-pop formula; to not hesitate to open the valve in my brain. “Petrichor” isn’t a flashy song; it grows on you over time. But in the end, I think I made a good song.

—”Kitchen” is another song where calmness and eeriness exist in tandem. It starts with an everyday scene but then suddenly leaps to world-scale thoughts. It feels dangerous, as if there’s no going back.

It’s a crazy song, right? *laughs* “Kitchen” came about because since I was spending more time self-isolating at home, I wanted to try using motifs that I purposely hadn’t for my first album. It’s a song that could only exist because of this year.

—Among those crazy songs is “BOOKMARK,” which had an unexpected feeling of adolescence. It features rapping by someone credited as “J.”

Yes, Mysterious Friend J *laughs*. I wrote the lyrics while recalling my student days, which is rare. Staying up until 4 a.m. when the sun rises; those uneventful, lazy days as a student are part of adolescence, but they’re also bittersweet. The song itself has an 80’s feel to it, but I hope that whoever listens to it will recall their past youth—or envision their future adolescence. The lyrics are quite honest, so it’s frankly a bit embarrassing, but that’s what adolescence is all about, so. *laughs*

—The shoegazing aspect of “Isana,” which was created with The Florist’s band sound, is also wonderful. In an introspective sense, it seems like it could even be called a second lead track that defines the feeling of the album.

Thank you. The arrangement for “Isana” is truly splendid. It became a concluding song for this album. This album was a continuation from my previous “end of the world” theme, depicting what comes afterwards, and this song is deeply connected to that previous work. It’s essentially the last track of the album. To think that it’s over eight minutes long *laughs*. If I get to perform it live, I really want to make full use of space-type effects.

—It seems like it’d be the highlight of a concert. You’ll be having a live tour next April and May, right?

Yes. As I said before, I originally wasn’t that interested in performing live. But after having my first concert with a band, I really enjoyed it and thought, “I could get addicted to this.” *laughs* Those feelings were also reflected in my later songwriting. We’re currently in the midst of planning, so please wait a little longer.