Midway through recording Savage Imagination, her second album of glittery electropop with guitarist Dustin Wong, singer and keyboardist Takako Minekawa bought a big wooden board from an arts and crafts store. She took it back to Wong’s apartment, where they were working, and the couple applied clay, paint, aluminum foil and other material to the board over the course of their remaining recording sessions. The resulting diorama — a colorful, wormy and whimsical collection of brightly painted fetish objects — became Savage Imagination‘s cover art. The image is appropriate: The album’s candy-colored songs likewise sound as though they were assembled playfully from electronic scraps.
Even through a computer screen, which is where I encounter them, Skyping from Wong’s aforementioned abode, Minekawa and Wong lend the appearance of two people comfortably at home in a slightly askew world of their own making. Minekawa’s replies to my questions tend toward the metaphysical. Are they a romantic couple? I don’t know. But as we speak, they make constant eye contact and whisper private jokes to each other in Japanese. They obviously delight in each other’s company, a quality also evident in their music.
“We have a similar sense of humor when it comes to sounds,” Wong says. “Certain sounds, melodies and clichés — such as flatulent slapstick noises — make us burst out laughing.”
Minekawa — speaking in Japanese that Wong interprets — says she finds the whole album to be fairly hilarious, but adds, “We’re pretty serious about particular sounds,” she says. Wong mentions a large plastic water bottle that provided percussion, as well as the sounds of ripping Velcro and duct tape. Common household items were captured and cut up to create microsamples — extremely small sound clips pioneered by composer Paul Lansky on his 1994 album More Than Idle Chatter and later popularized by house producer Akufen.
“‘Luminescent’ is the most sample-based track,” Minekawa continues. “There’s a sax note in there, not even a second long, that we sampled from Mad Max: Road Warrior. It ends up as something witty, or whimsical.”
“There’s a joke in every song,” Wong adds.
Minekawa, 45, and Wong, 31, first met in 2011, when the former pop star attended one of Wong’s shows in Tokyo after seeing him on YouTube. Wong is the loop-loving co-founder of Baltimore prog-rock experimentalists Ecstatic Sunshine and noise-poppers Ponytail. When the latter group broke up in 2012, he dove deeply into solo-guitar nirvana. The following year, he relocated from Brooklyn to Japan to be closer to his family. It was a return home for the guitarist, who was born in Hawaii to a Chinese-American father and Japanese-American mother who raised him in Tokyo.
Around the same time, Minekawa divorced Keigo Oyamada, who performs as Cornelius. She is considered to be one of the first icons of Shibuya-kei, a Japanese pop style that originated in Tokyo’s style-conscious Shibuya neighborhood. The Shibuya-kei sound combines Anglo-American rock, French yé-yé, and Brazilian bossa nova with J-pop. A wonderful example of cover-version curation, her 1995 breakthrough Chat Chat includes songs by the Beatles, Eddie Cochran and Victoria Williams alongside music by Yellow Magic Orchestra co-founder Haruomi Hosono and French-Japanese J-Pop sensation Susan (the gorgeous “My Love”).
Although Minekawa was once a poster girl for the culturally cannibalistic Shibuya-kei esthetic, she never felt part of the scene herself. “She was there among the Shibuya artists,” Wong explains. “But even now a question mark hangs over her head. Like, ‘Why am I associated with this?’ But she accepts it.”
In 1997, Minekawa wrote, arranged, produced and performed Cloudy Cloud Calculator almost completely by herself, and it made a big impression on Wong. “I’ve been a fan of Takako’s since I was a teenager,” he says. “I remember hearing ‘Milk Rock’ on the radio when I was drawing or doing homework or something. That album was a staple of mine throughout college and afterward.”
In 2013, Wong and Minekawa released Toropical Circle, her first new music in 13 years. “We were tiptoeing when we began Toropical,” Wong says. “We didn’t want to force ourselves on each other. I wanted to give her space, and she wanted to give me space. We started to get more comfortable as we were wrapping it up. We weren’t afraid to challenge each other. Nothing sinister, just little games to enrich it.”
Toropical Circle‘s impishness and relative delicacy is reflected in its title. “She was really into circles when we were writing that album,” says Wong, attempting to translate Minekawa’s explanation for the extra “o.” It’s confusing yet evocative, even geometric: something about a triangle morphing into a circle. “We decided to add the ‘o’ to make ‘tropical’ softer and rounder,” concludes Wong, who appears only slightly less confused than I am.
“Not to make this incredibly awkward,” I blurt, “but are you two an item?” They look at each other, whisper, giggle and reply in unison: “Yes.” OK, glad that’s out of the way.
Recorded immediately after Toropical Circles, Savage Imagination reflects “the birth of a new energy,” according to Minekawa. “There are weirder time signatures,” Wong adds, “and more aggression — faster tempos and sharper tones.” Circles was recorded in the dance studio where Wong’s mother gives hula lessons; Imagination, however, gestated in the more intimate confines of Wong’s pad. Like Circles, it was completely improvised. “We didn’t have any preconceived ideas or melodies,” says Wong. “We just sit down with all our instruments and gear and play around. If we find something we like, we hit the record button.” Wong’s style is now so entwined with Minekawa’s that it’s difficult to discern who’s playing what. Wong’s guitar often sounds like a synth, while Minekawa’s keyboards spiral and loop the loop with minimalist panache.
In the notes to his 2012 solo album Dreams Say, View, Create, Shadow Leads, Wong compared using his guitar pedals to “a kind of textile factory.” Unlike 2010′s Infinite Love, which was a layered cake of looping tracks, Dreams Say was mostly extemporized. In interviews, Wong confessed ignorance of such musical orthodoxies as time signatures and chord names; his approach was visual and tactile.
A similar multisensory approach informs Savage Imagination. Minekawa has an almost synesthetic sense of sound. She hears colors and blends them to her will. Touch is equally important. The video for “Aether Curtain” focuses on a bowl of water set on a turntable. Over the course of the song, Dustin and Takako drip oils, pigments, soap, chili pepper and other pantry items into it as Minekawa’s wordlessly crooning visage, mbira-like guitar, and luminous synthesizer oscillations create what Wong characterizes as yet another “miniature universe.”
Minekawa’s scientific and metaphysical obsessions inform much of the Savage Imagination‘s content. “She’s really interested in quantum physics,” says Wong. In “She He See Feel,” a microsampled spectacular reminiscent of composer Carl Stone, Takako punningly repeats the Japanese word kan — which can mean either “feeling,” “completion” “space,” or “heaven” — while fantasizing about teleportation.
In “Pale Tone Wifi,” which kicks off Savage Imagination with a slow-building guitar bang and Morse code doo-doo-doots from Minekawa, the duo say they were thinking about how every different wave form, such as radio or Wi-Fi signals, constitutes a unique universe invisible to us. At the same time, the couple’s imaginary sonic world is buttoned to our own through tones that bring them both back to earth.
“Everybody’s dispersed, but we’re still connected,” Minekawa says. “We can get in touch with anybody through the Internet. You don’t need to be present in a particular space.” She also believes that one day we’ll all communicate telepathically. And why not? We’re most of the way there already.
“We’ve been playing Zelda a lot,” Minekawa says. “We record in real time, so the sound the jewels make, or the sound of extra lives, become signifiers that remind me of things I felt the day we recorded.” Savage Imagination is the couple’s latest scrapbook, a snapshot of art and life, documented in real time.