Playing Favourites: Chee Shimizu

One of Tokyo’s most revered diggers plays Aaron Coultate a selection of ambient, pop, boogie and rock from Japan.


Most of Chee Shimizu’s records are for sale. There are roughly 5,000 of them in his house in Shimoigusa, a sleepy district on the outskirts of Tokyo, where Shimizu lives with his wife, Kanako. The house, cosy and wood-floored, has music at its heart—a turntable, two CDJs, a Bozak mixer and speakers hog most of the kitchen bench. From a small balcony you can see the top of the Tokyo Skytree blinking on the horizon, while the tallest buildings in Shinjuku, a bit further to the south, hide behind a nearby tree.

Shimizu, a sincere, warm-hearted 45-year-old, has been running Organic Music since 2008. Though he says it’s his dream to one day run a physical record shop, his online store is respected in Japan and beyond as a source of music you simply won’t find elsewhere. He started Organic Music a few years ago, when his work as a graphic designer dried up. “The Japanese economy was slowing down,” he recalls. “Kanako and I were married, and she told me I should start a record shop. She gave me the money to start digging and open the shop.” This act of generosity was pivotal for Shimizu. “She saved my life,” he says.

When it comes to music, Shimizu knows what’s gold and what merely glitters. His 2013 book, Obscure Sound, is a kind of Michelin Guide for record nerds. It’s broken down into genre sections, though not the usual ones. Shimizu uses names like meditative, floating, mellow, pensive and, of course, organic. The book’s prescience can be seen in how many of the records it lists have been reissued since it was published—its pages are filled with names like Gigi Masin, Savant, Finis Africae, Lena Platonos and Suso Sáiz.

Shimizu admits he was surprised by the interest in ’80s Japanese music that began a couple of years back. But in 2016 he was involved with several projects that capitalised on this interest. In partnership with HMV Japan, he started Japanism, a label dedicated to shining light on obscure music from his home country. Japanism launched with a Colored Music 7-inch, and that was followed by a reissue of Aragon, a highly sought-after LP from 1985. He also oversaw More Better Days, a wonderful two-disc collection that mined the rich archive of the Colombia Japan subsidiary Better Days. To cap a fine year, he released new remixes of Dip In The Pool singer Miyako Koda.

Shimizu has long-standing ties to Amsterdam’s Red Light Records. He’s been on regular digging trips through Europe with the people behind the Oudekerksplein vinyl emporium, including Tako Reyenga. Music From Memory, the record label closely affiliated to the shop, has tasked him with overseeing a compilation of music from its back catalogue. For this Playing Favourites, Shimizu selected the music he’s currently enjoying most, a collection of sparkling, impeccably produced 1980s pop, rock and ambient music from Japan.

This is one of my favourite records at the moment. The images I have of the tracks on this album all come from nature—the sun, sea, wind, land and air, plus Earth, Mercury and Venus. I have a very animistic feeling when I listen to it. He actually made this music as a dedication to the Tenkawa-Benzaiten shrine. It’s very spiritual. And it sounds lovely on the soundsystem at SHeLTeR.

SHeLTeR is an important place for you, right?

It’s a very special place. The music scene in Tokyo is very mature—maybe the most mature in the world. Japanese people are very serious about whatever they are doing. When they start liking something they go deep, whether it’s a musical genre, or food, or whatever. When people go overboard with their obsession, that’s when it gets interesting, and SHeLTeR is an example of that.

Haruomi Hosono seems like a huge influence on Japanese music, is he right up there with Sakamoto for you?

Yes, definitely. Hosono san is the most important musician in Japan. He brought techno music here, for example. I was seven or eight years old when I listened to Yellow Magic Orchestra for the first time. The song “Rydeen” was a super big hit in Japan. Everybody knew it. It was my first experience of techno. I still love their music.

Is this particular Hosono record in Obscure Sound?

No. But there are a few others by him in there, like Paraiso, Philharmony, Paradise View and Cochin Moon with Tadanori Yokoo, and some other titles he produced.

When did you decide you wanted to compile a book?

Someone else came up with the idea. A publisher contacted me and asked if I wanted to do one. I spent about six months putting it together, picking the records and writing the blurbs.

Was it your idea to have a masterpiece for each genre?

No! The publisher, when he saw the book, said, “OK we have all this crazy music that no one will be able to find, can you pick out one album from each category that’s easy to buy on CD and call it the masterpiece?” So I picked albums that were comparatively easy to find, like Chick Corea’s Return To Forever.

Why did you call your shop Organic Music?

I really love Don Cherry. He’s a big hero of mine, and I take a lot of inspiration from his music and the style of his life. I share the same vision as him. I noticed he was writing “organic music” on some of his records. Maybe three different LPs. One title is just Organic Music Society. The music, the message—it’s all very peaceful. His wife, Moki, she drew the artwork on Organic Music Society. It’s a very hippy style, but I love it. I really focus on the world of Buddhism. It’s a part of me. But I wasn’t totally sold on the name at first, as there’s this association with the word “organic.” You know, organic food, vegetarianism. I’m not vegetarian, I like alcohol and meat, so I’m not very organic in that sense. But Organic Music, that works, I think.

This is tropical Japanese music. It sounds and tastes like Hosono san—he paved the way for this kind of summery music he was doing back in the late 1970s. This record came out in ’84. This guy, Gota Yashiki, he’s a really good drummer. He’s maybe living in London now, I think, but he’s a famous drummer in Japan. He was part of Simply Red’s band.

It feels like there’s a nice amount of Japanese music like this. This has a Seaside Lovers feel, perhaps.

Yes, but that record is more styled, like jazz-fusion. Toshio Nakanishi, who is the head of this group, added his own style to the exotic music being made by Martin Denny or Les Baxter, and ambient music, so it became totally original.

The Our Connection LP is one of my favourite records created by Haruomi Hosono. Ayumi Ishida is a very famous actress in Japan. Hosono worked with many Japanese pop stars. He produced this one with his band, which was called Tin Pan Alley. The production is so amazing, even if this was just a job for them to earn their keep. Do you know Hiroshi Sato?

The keyboardist?

Yeah. He plays keys on this one. This record has a lot of famous Japanese musicians on it, like Tatsuro Yamashita, Minako Yoshida, Akiko Yano. The production levels are so amazing in Japanese pop.

Did you listen to Japanese pop growing up?

When I was a kid, to listen to new music I would go to a record rental store called U And I. It was a curiosity of Japan in the ’80s—you could hire records in the same way others took out movies from Blockbuster. I would take out rock, jazz and ’80s dance music, and I developed an interest in UK new wave. But my first experience of music was David Bowie. Of course, I listened to Japanese pop, but by the time I could buy my own records seriously I bought Let’s Dance.

My brother is three years older than me. He was listening to Culture Club, stuff like that. And my father had jazz—John Coltrane, Miles Davis. So this is what I grew up with, very naturally. And I looked at TV commercials, too. One cosmetics company was using Bowie’s “Blue Jean” and “Without You I’m Nothing” on their adverts. I was watching and thinking, what is this? My image of music was suddenly changing. I was just a kid, 12 years old, but I had this explosion over music. And my first cousin had a lot of records: Sex Pistols, Sparks, Roxy Music, Style Council. She gave me all her records. I was so excited when I listened to them.
This is a very nice boogie disco tune. My friend Zecky, who was part of Discossession, a party I did with Dr. Nishimura and Jonny Nash, he introduced this to me. He had a car accident and died a few years ago. He left me this record. Zecky loved this song.

So this would be early ’80s?

1976. I like cheesy records like this. I played this at a venue in Tokyo called Hatchi, which means “bee’s nest.” My friend invited me to play at his party, on a weekday. I played all this sweet Japanese music all night. I wasn’t sure how people would respond, but everyone really loved it.

This sounds beautiful on your speakers.

I love high frequencies. I have a handmade super tweeter. I built it myself many years ago. A super tweeter is very important for a speaker system to cover low and mid frequencies, even if you cannot hear the sound from it. It is the world of overtone. Humans cannot hear the sound from the super tweeter—but having it on, it changes the sound of the speaker below. It creates a fuller sound, a wider lens. SHeLTeR has a super tweeter, one that’s much better than mine!

On this album, Kimiko Kasai, who’s a jazz singer, tried rock music. Her other album, Butterflies, is maybe a bit more famous, it has a Herbie Hancock cover, and it’s a bit expensive now.

When did you get this record?

I owned this record many years ago, then sold it. And then I bought it again.

Does that happen often?

I am always selling my records, so yes it does happen. I found it at my country house, where I have 800 or so records. I first had it when I was 20 years old, maybe. So I bought it more than 25 years ago.

Of all the records you have in this house, how many are on Organic Music?

Everything I have is for sale, except for a very small handful. Even if I have an amazing, super rare record that nobody knows, I will keep it for maybe six months or a year.

So you don’t consider yourself a collector?

I don’t collect records, I just listen to them. A long time ago, when I was 28 or 29, my record collection was more than 10,000. I lived in a very small place, and it was too much, I was becoming a slave to the records. So I decided to sell those records. Since then I’ve always kept under 5,000.

That sounds sensible.

I don’t feel the need to own stuff. I don’t get joy from owning records. I’m just happy to listen to them, not to own them. A huge collection just sitting there on shelves, and nothing happens—that’s a waste of space and time. I still own some records that aren’t on my store: 12-inches of trance, techno, ’90s house music, which I was using for DJing in my 20s, and some LPs that I don’t listen to now. I can’t throw them away yet, even if they’re garbage. I need to think how to sell them. There must be someone out there that wants to listen to that music. I’m happy when people get to listen to records.

This always gets people dancing in the morning. It’s Japanese new soul that sounds like Curtis Mayfield. I really like the opening track, “Koi No Arashi.” There’s definitely a feeling of Curtis—it sounds like “Tripping Out.”

This is great. There’s obviously a huge amount of interest in Japanese music coming from outside the country these days. How long can it last?

I think it’s just a trend. It will be over in two years. I’m not counting on it continuing. People are putting out reissues of Japanese music all the time, not just in Japan but in Europe, America and elsewhere. There will be no good material left in two years. It’s something that happens with all kinds of music, there’s a boom, everyone gets involved, then the trend fades away. But the music is great of course. I just hope they put out reissues of a good quality.

How so?

The guy behind this album, Tadashi, was a very odd scientist. Apparently he was the leader of some weird cult. This is what it says on the record’s inner sleeve: “I was looking for signals from space for three days straight… and on those three days I managed to get 15 minutes of messages from outer space, and I used those messages to make music.” Very cool.

Tell me about this one.
Three composers created tracks for this album: Toshifumi Hinata, Akira Nishihira and Makoto Yano. Hinata had released some amazing new age albums in ’80s. The sound of the last track on this LP is similar to his amazing albums Sarah’s Crime and Chat d’Ete. But the highlight here, for me, is “Okie Gengo To Chisana Ganboh.” The music was created by Makoto Yano. He was part of Hosono’s Tin Pan Alley project, and he released one nice disco album in 1979, which is called Injection, as Makoto Highland Band.

How would you describe the overall feel of this record?

There’s a certain ennui, a sort of photogenic boredom, to this record, which I like. Yukako Hayase is a pop artist who sounds like new wave. It’s similar to Dip In The Pool. There’s that classic ’80s sound to it, those digital synths.

Dip In The Pool are on the radar now thanks to that Music From Memory reissue. Are they well known in Japan?

I have no idea. But Miyako Koda is famous as a fashion model. Recently I went to her acoustic live show, and it was very nice.

When it comes to hunting down things to reissue, or even unearthing records to sell on Organic Music, is it a task that’s getting increasingly difficult?

The past two years it’s been difficult. I don’t know why. I introduce a lot of unknown good music to people, but they can go and buy that anywhere once they know about it. It’s the same for my good musical friends Jamie [Tiller], Tako [Reyenga] and Basso, I think. Our work is to introduce good music to people. But if I discover a record, I sell it to my customer, and then someone puts it on Discogs for crazy money. But I don’t care.

So the secret gets out.

It’s the usual thing. I have to find new stuff. I always need new discoveries for my customers. This is my work. I’m looking at different ways to release new and old music. Not straight reissues, hopefully, but, say, a cassette tape and CD, finding it and releasing it on vinyl for the first time. I’m trying to get into this kind of work—just doing a record store is not enough now to bring good music to people.

This is my top track of the moment. The guy from Colored Music made this. Really simple but great rock music. The lyrics in this song are about the Tokyo bay area. From the end of ’60s, the bay area was developed as an international trade port, so lots of plants, factories and warehouses were built. It’s a cold-hearted area. Kyoko identified a sense of nothingness with the sight of Harumi Wharf. Very pensive lyrics.

This is on your More Better Days compilation.

Yes. And the artwork for this record actually inspired the artwork for the compilation. This is a proper Tokyo sound. Really minimal. I’m planning to release this track as a 7-inch single on Japanism.

Ryo Kawaksaki is a famous guitarist, but this is one of his lesser-known records. Lots of people don’t understand the appeal, I imagine, but for me it’s very special.
So is this quite different to the more famous album he did?

His famous record is a club jazz classic, Mirror Of Mind. It’s an amazing album. But for me, this is still his best record. He’s joined by a lot of Brazilian musicians on this record—I think the singer is Brazilian, too. This kind of music sounds so much better at SHeLTeR, the sound is wider and offers more perspective.

I’m assuming you bought most of these selections in Japan?

Yes, that’s right.

How do you rate the record shop scene in Tokyo?

Tokyo is really good for digging. But they are mostly records someone else has already bought in the United States and Europe, and decided they didn’t want, so there’s this feeling that someone has already been through them. If I go to Europe I can find unknown records—even if it’s famous in Europe, it’s a first catch for me. In Tokyo there are a lot of people who are specialists in one genre, and they will take the best records for themselves before selling the rest to secondhand shops.

Have you got a favoured method of digging?

A lot of times I don’t listen to the music. I check the sleeve, the artwork, read through the instruments. I like this kind of thing. I don’t have a want list. I go to a record store or a record dealer’s place and look and listen and buy. That’s it. Of course I’m a record seller, and I have to buy good records for my customers. And if they’re looking for something, I’ll try to find it. This is business. But when I go to a store to look at records and listen to them, it’s a very pure process. I just feel something from the records and the music.

Written by: Aaron Coultate

Source: Resident Advisor



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s