Photo by Nancy Hoang

Since making his American debut in 2004 with Night Piece, Japanese singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Shugo Tokumaru’s American fan base has grown immensely. While Tokumaru sings primarily in Japanese, the language barrier doesn’t deter fans from discovering and falling head over heels with his music. This is exactly what I saw at his first New York City show in nearly five years at Bowery Ballroom.
Onstage, Tokumaru is surrounded by instruments: guitars, keyboards, a six-person band manning colorful knick knacks and puppets. How all these conflicting instruments would go together is unimaginable for an outsider looking in. But for Tokumaru, it all makes sense in a mad scientist sort of way.
During the recording process, the multi-instrumentalist locks himself away for months on end, performing and recording each sound and instrument himself. In a live setting, these sounds truly come to life with a different dynamic than on record, creating a whirlwind of sound and emotion. How he makes kazoos and (literally) bells and whistles work together is something really amazing. I had the opportunity to speak with Tokumaru and his translator, Koki, and delve into how his creative process works and what he’s up to now.

How do you put so many instruments into a song to make it a cohesive effort rather than just adding instruments for the sake of adding instruments?
When I was a teenager, I intended to do a band in more of a simpler setting—just guitar, bass, drums, stuff like that—but gradually, I found out what I actually wanted to do was to incorporate more instruments. Around the same time, I started collecting a lot of instruments so I just wanted to try different instruments and see how they sounded in my recordings. When I started performing live, I brought so many different instruments in two large suitcases, laid them out onstage and played them all by myself. Eventually it became too much for me by myself so I started to play with other musicians.

You tend to lock yourself away for days on end when making music. By not allowing anyone else into the recording process, you block outside influences. How do you keep from repeating yourself?
It’s not necessarily that I never want to work with outside producers or other musicians, but
actually part of the reason why I started recording all by myself was I used to try to work with other people but it didn’t really go well so I just started to do things by himself. And it went well for me. [But] I’m also thinking about working with other people again in the future.

Do you have anyone in mind?
At the moment, I doesn’t have anyone in mind but I’m hoping to work with someone who has more instruments than I do. [laughs]

Your lyrics are primarily sung in Japanese and because music is universal, you’ve gained worldwide attention. How do you communicate with English speaking fans?
The Internet. [laughs] Actually I started my career as a recording artist when a small indie label in New York [Music Related] released my first album, Night Piece, so it started very naturally. I was already singing in Japanese and someone in New York liked it and decided to release it. So I never really felt that disconnect or maybe it was disconnected from the beginning but it’s grown. I doesn’t necessarily think that there’s a disconnect with my listeners in terms of understanding be it lyrics or whatever, but that’s the same in Japanese. It feels the most natural to sing in Japanese.

2012 was a busy year for you with the album release and a Japanese nationwide tour. 2013 included your first appearance at SXSW. How was that?
For a long time, I’d always been interested in SXSW because I had heard a lot of good things about it so I just decided that I wanted to do it this year. I went to Austin this year and played a lot of shows and thought it was a good experience. I had a fun time there. In a sense, there are no similar circumstances to play shows in Japan and festival settings like that.

What acts did you like at SXSW?
Richard Thompson and WHY?.

This is going to be your first show in NYC in almost 5 years and with a full 6-person band. While you’ll have your full band with you, your songs usually have upwards of 20 instruments. How does this change the live dynamic of the songs?
My recordings and live performances are quite different from each other. I doesn’t necessarily try to represent what is on the record as it is. Instead I always tries to remake or rearrange the recordings into something else that could be effectively represented in live settings.

Are you working on anything currently?
Currently I’m pretty busy with touring, playing festivals both inside Japan and outside Japan. In Japan, I’ve been working on composing music for a kids TV program for an educational channel. I’m also brainstorming on some different projects, which is different from my solo stuff. I’m not quite sure about what I want to pursue for the project yet but what I can say now is that my solo stuff, I started where there was nothing and it just came out. But when I continue to do solo stuff, somehow the path tends to narrow itself. It used to be more diverse. I want to get back to that starting point again with something else. Getting back to where there were more possibilities to explore.

I think you need a vacation. Another island, not Japan.
[laughs] And find new instruments.

What kind of music are you composing for the children’s programs?
It’s not radically different from what I’m doing on my solo albums but obviously it’s directed for kids programs. It tends to be more like cutesy, pretty. More playful, maybe?

What’s the show about?
The main character is a cat who’s disguised as a mouse or a mouse disguised as a cat.

So it’s a sadistic Tom & Jerry.
[laughs] Yes. It’s a very distinctive character with a distinctive voice.

And you’re also in a rock five-piece Gellers, how is that going?
We released a new single a couple months ago. We’ve been working on an album for… forever. [laughs] Seven years since the last one? Gellers is a band I’ve been doing with my friends for such a long time. My solo stuff tends to be perfectionist. As opposed to that, Gellers is very full of happenings, nothing very planned, in recordings or on stage. It’s a good balance between my solo stuff and Gellers. Without Gellers, I don’t think my his solo stuff could be the way it is.