Darkwave Artist Nao Katafuchi Travels the World to Find Home with His Synth-Based Songs

Janice Headley
photo by Polar Noire

KEXP is celebrating World Goth Day on Monday, May 22nd. We’re also currently celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month with our Pushing Boundaries programming. KEXP’s Janice Headley had the chance to speak with Japanese darkwave artist Nao Katafuchi about how moving to New York City helped him connect with music from his homeland, and led him to a mysterious obscure ‘80s synth artist named Tomo Akikawabaya.

Audio production by Janice Headley
Mixed & mastered by Emily Fox

Over the past twenty years, Nao Katafuchi has crafted his own distinctive style of romantic darkwave. It’s a sound that came to him from a very young age.

When I was little, I started [to get] interested in music because my parents had a classical music collection. We lived in this little house, very old wooden house, which has a steep, narrow wooden staircase to upstairs... I don't know if you know this anime My Neighbor Totoro. That's, like, really similar. Everything is creaky, very old. That was our bedroom and somehow they had a big set of a stereo. It works with a vacuum tube.

So I listened to that, the symphony, over and over. But with a light of, a miniature light of the vacuum tubes. I think that's a start of getting into moody, symphonic, dramatic music, with a little light of the tubes.

Growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo in the ‘80s, Nao developed a love for synth music.

First, you were into Japanese pop music. Then, I get into a more... so-called in Japan, so-called "Western music," which was American Top 40. And then there was a radio station at the time called FEN, the Far East Network, which was for American military. At that same time, it's a second British invasion in the music scene. So, it was American Top 40, but the music was that, you know, Human League. Or. Who else? Howard Jones. It's all synthpop.

I didn't know the existence of the underground scene, of course. I was too young in the suburbs, but that was enough for me to open my eyes. 

Nao left Japan for New York City in the early ‘90s, where he began to discover art and culture in way he never experienced back home.

After I graduated from college, I wanted to challenge myself. So I just went to New York City. I don't know what to expect. I didn't know anything. 

Nao’s first job in the U.S. was working on the 1991 cult TV show Fishing with John, which originally aired on the IFC channel.

Luckily, I had a my first job with a Japanese TV production company. My very first project — I was involved there as an assistant, of course, just making copies of videotapes — but I was involved with Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, and Tom Waits documentaries. It's kind of a funny program.

I was totally exposed into that world of art. Before that, I was totally ignorant. It was in '91. There, actually, I saw the art piece of Basquiat or Haring. It's still there, Keith Haring, the piece was still there in the club of the Palladium. Palladium was a dance club. I was like, okay, people just go and there's a party and I just went to Palladium and it's like a big gay party going on. And basically I was just, Wow. 

It was through the New York club scene that Nao began to dig deeper into his love for synth music. In the early 2000s, he discovered the Wierd Records scene, with its weekly dance parties. The label was inspired by minimal electronica and coldwave. It was there that he met Brooklyn duo Xeno & Oaklander, whose band members, Sean McBride and Liz Wendelbo, helped Nao find his own voice.

I read an article — I don't know, Village Voice or something — that there's a party called Wierd. It was in my neighborhood. So I just decided to go, and I was so lucky. I immediately became friends with Xeno & Oaklander. And they helped me. I mean, it took me probably a year to perform there, but they helped me to perform at Wierd and also to connect with organizers in Europe too. 

It was held every Wednesday night, start from midnight. They featured obscure synth electronica artists from around the world, every week. And it gave me lots of inspiration. I grew up in '80s when the instrument was there, but now, it gave me an idea of the usage of the instrument. It was really, really great. 

At the same time, I should mention that on Thursday night in Brooklyn, they had a party run by W.T. Records, which is a cult techno label in Brooklyn. Eventually, they released my first EP.

Also, Sunday nights, there was a program, Minimal Wave on the East Village radio, which was my neighbor. I stopped by a couple of times in the studio when Veronica was deejaying.

Funnily enough, for Nao, it was being all the way across the ocean in New York City that connected him to music from Japan.

I was hanging out in the Wierd Records party, and all the friends were a lot younger than me. They were the YouTube generation, so that they always finding some eighties Japanese music, which I didn't know. Do you know this one? Wow. No, but it's great! It is great that it existed. I was there, but I had no idea.  

One of those artists was Tomo Akikawabaya, a mysterious minimal synth musician from Japan. 

There are no photos of Tomo, he never performed live, and he never gave interviews. Tomo released several singles in the 1980s, and then disappeared without a trace… well, maybe a little bit of a trace that Nao was able to follow.

I learned about his music through, again, Xeno & Oaklander, and Sean had a mixtape. He got it from some record collector in Germany, I believe, and he played it for me. And he was like, Do you know this guy? Of course, no idea. And he said, he is called Tomo Akikayabaya, and that's a made-up name. So this isn't even a Japanese name? No idea. When I visited Japan, I looked for their record. There's no chance. No chance. It doesn't exist. No information.

Then, one day in New York, I had a dinner with Veronica of Minimal Wave and Will Burnett of W.T. Records. And Veronica was saying, "okay, I still want to find this Tomo." My initial answer was always, "I don't know, that's impossible." But then I was like, "...Maybe." I was curious to find out who he is! [laughs]

I tracked down the recording studio that he recorded at. And it was still active. And the most remarkable thing was, he was still active, but then more in ambient music. But he's still active musician, and also he was aware of the current scene. He knew the existence of Minimal Wave. Almost he was waiting, waiting for that opportunity. That went pretty smooth afterwards. 

Nao even invited Tomo to contribute guest vocals to the track “Awakening” off his 2015 album Émergence… 

I asked him to do vocals. And we became friends. Eventually I met him in Japan. I went to his house. It was a bit far. But yeah, he was a true artist.

As for Nao, a new album is on its way later this year or in early 2024, as well as an upcoming show with another obscure eighties coldwave duo he discovered during his time in New York.

Next month, I'm going to play in southern Germany with this band, Parade Ground from Belgium. Eighties legends. That's another band I was listening to the while in Wierd Parties, I didn't even imagine I'm going to meet and play together. So, I'm very looking forward to it. 

Nao Katafuchi's most recent album, 2019's Stahlgrau, is available now via Bandcamp. He'll be playing Saturday, June 3rd at Slow Club in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, with Parade Ground. 

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