I have a real problem with anyone who is “anti-pop.” Sure, I remember a time when I felt it was “cool” to hate on Lady Gaga or whoever the leading pop artist of the time was, but the truth is that crafting a perfect, all-consumingly catchy pop song is hard. There’s a reason there are more one-hit wonders than career pop artists. So, when I heard Tomo Nakayama, master of cinematic indie-folk, was delving into synth-pop for his third solo record, I was intrigued.
If you think you’ve never listened to Tomo Nakayama before, you’re probably wrong. Frequently cited as a “fixture” in the Seattle scene, his prior bands Asahi and Grand Hallway were “it” bands in their respective times and scenes. The former an early aughts slowcore project and the latter a late 2000s chamber pop band that boasts now-members of bands like Widower and the Head and the Heart.
Since Grand Hallways disintegration in 2013, Nakayama has been releasing gorgeously refined records under his own name to critical acclaim. After the release of his 2017 sophomore record, Pieces of Sky, Nakayama found himself in a frustrating creative dry spell. To shake things up, he enlisted the help of his longtime collaborator, friend, and member of The Shins, Yuuki Matthews.
With a fresh pair of hands and ears joining him, Nakayama flipped the script on how he’d ever made music prior. He and Matthews made beats, layered samples, and wrote outward character-driven lyrics. The result is Melonday, the first dancefloor-ready pop record he’s ever released.
“Get To Know You,” the lead single off the album, proves that this progression to pop is a brilliant move. Driven by a propulsive beat, the song simmers and shakes while Nakayama’s recognizably pristine vocals deliver the captivatingly catchy lyrics. In place of his typically heartbreaking lines lies a chorus that bellows with triumph, “Tell me stories, tell me rhymes, tell me anything you like / Tell me all about the good things that could make you feel alive.” This is what pop is for: to make you feel alive.
Below, listen to “Get To Know You” and read an interview with Nakayama that delves into the process of making Melonday, his relationship with Yuuki Matthews, and how playing “Harvest Moon” in the airport reminds him of humanity.
KEXP: You're releasing your third solo record, Melonday, next month. Word on the street is that it's going to be a synth-pop record, which is a very new direction for you. What inspired the change?
Tomo Nakayama: Well, I was collaborating with Yuuki Matthews from the Shins on this record. We've been talking about doing an all-electronic dance project for years. He actually helped me mix my first record, Fog On The Lens. And we went to Japan on tour and I think we talked about it back then, but that was like 2014 or something. So it took a lot of years to come around to actually doing it. I always loved pop music, like the kinds of songs that I would sing at karaoke. I'd sing and go, "Why don't I write songs like this?" I got curious about what it would sound like if I tried to do something overtly pop and I liked the idea of creating a brand new genre, something that I'd never done before. I really enjoyed the process and that really helped me out of a funk that I was in songwriting-wise, I had been working on the same thing for so many years.
Speaking of Yuuki Matthews, I'm always curious about these long term creative partnerships because you two have been collaborating closely for a long time now. I'd love to know what that relationship looks like, both working and personal.
We actually went to middle school together in Bellevue. He was a grade ahead of me. I kind of looked up to him like an older brother growing up. We both came out of the Eastside all-ages scene. He was in an amazing band called Seldom and those members went on to play in Fleet Foxes. Casey Foubert plays in The Shins with Yuuki. A lot of really amazing all-ages bands came out of the Eastside in the early 2000s. I really admired Yuuki's music and he gave me a lot of really great advice over the years, but we hadn't really collaborated until Fog On The Lens.
I just took all these tracks that I had recorded over to his studio and just in the process of mixing - he added a lot of layers - kind of took the music to a whole different level. It was just coming from a similar background. I think when you've known someone for a long time, there's a lot of kind of unspoken understandings or just like common references. So Melonday was a lot more involved. We actually sat down and kind of worked through our changes and he rearranged a lot of the songs and in the production process he brought a lot of new sounds and textures to the table. It was exciting to just try new things. He had been working on a project called Teardrops with Richard Swift that just came out on vinyl actually. That was an all-instrumental kind of synth project too so I think just by being around that, a lot of techniques and stuff, I just kind of learned from watching them. Like how to build a drumbeat or how to chop things up in an interesting way and recombine them. It was just a really interesting time.
That sounds awesome and I can totally see, when you've been doing kind of the same vein of music for so long, wanting to spread your wings and try something different. Are the themes that you explore on the lyrical side of the record different as well?
Yeah, I think when I started writing the record, I was kind of writing in character. The first few songs that I wrote, I was approaching as just like a producer or songwriter and I was gonna maybe give them to someone else to sing or something. But having that kind of distance from my own ego, I guess it sort of opened things up in really unexpected ways. Like a lot of emotions that I had been kind of suppressing or not really exploring because it felt like it didn't match the music or the persona that I had created up to this point. And then once I assumed this other identity, it became more fully myself, you know what I mean?
Absolutely. I can see that happening for sure.
I was really inspired by the Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs project. He goes about it kind of systematically, just as a craftsman. But even in the songs that he thinks are impersonal and just like by the numbers, those ones end up revealing a lot about the songwriter.
Did you find that happening to you, too, when you went back and listened to the songs that you thought were impersonal you found some nuggets of truth that you hadn't seen about yourself?
Yeah. You know, I went through lot of personal changes this winter that I had a chance to go back and revisit. And it actually was really shocking how much...like I didn't realize how much of the songs were really revealing about my own psyche and state of mind. It's kind of interesting how the songwriters are usually the last people to really understand what a song is about. [laughs]
Right, I've heard that before. I'm not a songwriter myself, so I don't know for sure, but I've heard that being said.
Yeah, like you think you're writing about one thing, but then go back months or years later and the answer is so obvious. It's surprising and it's so fun.
Do you ever get frustrated when people, such as myself, want you to put meaning on a song before you have gone back and really discovered what the song is about?
I mean, I always like hearing other people's interpretations of what the songs are about. I learn a lot about myself through that. But yeah, I do get stuck sometimes when people try to ask me to explain what a song is about because I don't want to take that process away from them, you know what I mean? Like their own interpretation. So I try it not to overexplain a song because I'm usually wrong. [laughs]
That's so fascinating. So the title of the record, Melonday, does it refer to the Turkmenistanian holiday?
No [laughs]. It just was a combination of words that just kind of came to me one day while we were just thinking up this record. I was thinking specifically of this custom in Japan of gift-giving. Like whenever you visit a friend or something, you have to bring a gift. So at train stations or gift shops, they sell these melons. If you Google "Japanese melons" it's pretty crazy. They have them in these really fancy boxes and sell them for like two hundred dollars or something. And supposedly they're like the best melons in the world.
For that price, I would hope so!
Yeah, like all organic and grown by hand with a lot of care. I kind of like the idea of taking this organic product out of nature and then repackaging it in this fancy box and then charging a bunch of money for it. [laughs] Which I think that's kind of what pop music is, in a way.
You know, it kind of is. How do you feel after being touted for the past decade as a "fixture" in the Seattle music scene? Do you get bored of playing the same venues? Do you have any fanciful dreams of jetting off to L.A., leaving Seattle in the dust?
I mean, this is my home and I love living in Seattle. And there's always new people coming in and out so I feel like I'm still getting to know the city every day. I just moved from the North end to South Seattle and that's been a whole new experience, learning a different side of the city. And, you know, music is all I really have wanted to do or know how to do with my life. I feel like I've been called a survivor just out of circumstance I guess. I've just been doing this for a really long time and it's nice to build relationships with people, the community, people like at KEXP and different musicians, different venues. It's really been incremental growth for me like I've never been signed to a major label, I haven't had a huge break. But each little step feels like I've earned each step so it's really satisfying to just kind of be able to go on that journey and to be able to share that with my friends. So yeah, I feel really lucky to be able to continue living and creating here. So I'll keep doing that as long as I can.
I'm happy to hear that because it is kind of a crappy thing when artists reach a certain level in Seattle and just leave to go to L.A. or New York or whatever. It feels like for a while that's what was happening and I think it's good for the local scene for the talent to stay here.
Yeah. You know, I'm a believer in that no matter where you go, there you are. Like you can't just move to a big city and expect to become a different person or to have different results. If the music is good and you keep working hard at it, it shouldn't really matter where you are.
Absolutely. What local artists on the scene right now are you currently loving?
Well, ings I really love. Whitney Ballen. Christopher Icasiano, that's my drummer. He put out a solo record that's really experimental, kind of like drum-centric jazz ambient sort of stuff. He's incredible. He's another Eastside kid that came out of that scene. There's a lot of really exciting music coming out of Seattle and there's always new faces and new bands to learn about. I'm constantly inspired.
Are you still busking at Sea-Tac Airport?
Yeah, I do it once in a while. It's been a really nice, steady source of income and it's really fun. I see it as a public service. The airport is such a stressful place, especially right now. It's such a sterile, stressful environment that I think it's nice to hear my music. So I try to pick songs that people would enjoy and that are kind of more fitting for that environment. And it's a really emotional place, too. You know, people travel for all sorts of reasons. Yesterday I was at the airport and someone told me they were going to a funeral and I was playing Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" because she told me it was her father's favorite song. It was sad but it was also nice that they could have that connection, you know? In that sort of environment, I think we all need that kind of reminder of each other's just humanity. Those sorts of environments, when it's so dehumanized. You have to go through this line and go through security, it's kind of mind-numbing. So yeah, it's a really fun job.
Is Grand Hallway forever completely definitely over? Or is that something you'd want to revisit someday?
Well, we're all really good friends and we try to do reunion shows whenever we can but we're all kind of scattered across the country now. Like Kevin Large from Widower, he lives in New York, and Shenandoah Davis has her own solo project. She has a job that takes her all over the world. Chris Zasche plays in the Head and the Heart now so he's busy. So it's like a fun family that gets together once in a while to play but, yeah, we've all got families and kids now too. It's a thing that we like to revisit whenever we can but life happens.
Since KEXP is the station where the music matters, why does music matter to you?
I think music is one of the few kind of universal languages. It's something that transcends cultures and languages and backgrounds. And I think it brings people together in a way that is really important, especially in today's climate. I believe in the power of music to do those things, and it's always been there for me when I needed it so I'm just trying to do the same for other people.
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