Throwaway Style is a monthly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in the Northwest region, the first Thursday of every new month on KEXP.org.
In my humble opinion, the key to longevity is reinvention. I mean, how else could I explain how Tomo Nakayama has been one of Seattle music's most enduring and vital songwriters for nearly two decades? From cult favorite slowcore band Asahi to sprawling folk-rock/chamber-pop collective Grand Hallway and to the name he was given at birth; from Baltimore to Seward Park and around to Nakayama's childhood home of Japan.
Not to get meta, but there is no possible way I can summarize Nakayama's songwriting heights for a comprehensive intro to this interview. There's just too much to consider. In Nakayama's solo career alone, he's jumped from piano ballads to folksy ambient music to Robyn-inspired dance floor fillers; and that's only over the past six years. His lyrics are sometimes very clever, sometimes heartwarmingly sweet, sometimes annihilatingly sad, and often bursting with vivid, unexpected imagery. (When he told me Grand Hallway was named in tribute to a David Berman poem, that was the moment I realized why he's a good lyricist.)
There is a saying among artists that I apply to all of my work as a writer: "You're only as good as your next thing." As a forward-thinking person, it's a simultaneously exciting and terrifying prospect, to think your legacy will always be judged on what you do tomorrow instead of what you did yesterday, at least from a self-examining perspective. Nakayama speaks a few times in our interview about always moving forward as an artist. Even as this interview is being published, Nakayama continues his dynamic continued evolution with a brand new single "On the Way." His newest single is a grandiose power ballad with skyward vocals drenched in vocal processing, like an arena rock band performing live from the heavens (and I'm not talking livestreaming, either).
Nakayama tells me, "I wrote 'On the Way' in response to the shootings in Atlanta and the rise in violence against Asians. I think culturally Asian Americans aren't used to having to center ourselves in the conversation and to stick up for ourselves. But we have a right to express our anger and our grief and our fear and sadness, and we have a right to be heard. We have a right to feel safe in our own homes and own places of business and on the streets of our own neighborhoods. We have a right to be treated with dignity and respect as human beings, and we belong here."
Nakayama and I sat down in front of our computer screens for the better part of two hours for a discussion touching every point of his tremendous career, from overdubbing on a karaoke machine somewhere in Bellevue to the project he's currently working on (another first for someone always in search of a new challenge). And Asahi coming full circle from their beginnings in 2001 to their Upstream Music Festival reunion in 2018. And Grand Hallway ballooning to enough members to field a baseball team, then scaling back down. And Nakayama himself having a part written for him in a Lynn Shelton film and sleeping in the pews of Town Hall while recording 2014's Fog on the Lens. For its sheer staying power, Tomo Nakayama has had a fascinating career; the fact that he has reinvented his sound several times over is just dizzying.
This is the complete story of a local Seattle legend up to this point, and there seem to be many more chapters to follow.
KEXP: Let's start before you were in bands. Tell me about being trained on viola as a kid.
Tomo Nakayama: I started taking viola in elementary school, fifth grade. In orchestra, I never took private lessons. I picked the viola because I wanted to play the violin, but that costs money to rent. The school had a viola for free, so I was like, "Oh, just I'll just do that." It was cool.
You were a band kid, then.
Yeah, I did orchestra through middle school and then I joined the choir in middle school as well. And in the choir room, they had a bunch of classical guitars on the wall, mostly for decoration, I think. They used to use them in the 70s or something, I think. But by the time I was in school, they didn't have guitar classes. It was right around then that Nirvana Unplugged came out and I got really obsessed with them. I picked up one of the guitars and figured out how to play "Come As You Are" and "All Apologies" by ear. And I was really proud of that.
You moved from Japan to Bellevue, right? When you were really young?
Yeah, I was eight years old. I moved to Bellevue, took ESL classes for six months, and then I was just in regular school after that. My dad's Vietnamese. He moved after the Vietnam War to Japan and he met my mom, so they both speak Japanese. We always spoke Japanese at home.
So when did you start getting into recording music and being a part of the music scene?
After I picked up the guitar in the choir room, I asked my parents if I could get a guitar. I got a little acoustic guitar and as soon as I learned chords, I started writing, making up my own songs. We had a little karaoke machine at home. It's one of those [machines] with two cassette players, so you could overdub from one tape to the other while you were recording. It's a real primitive method of overdubbing. But I just got really into making up my own songs and then adding [musical elements]. I got a drum kit from a garage sale, and so I taught myself drums. At first, I didn't know how to play the kit, so I would just record the kick drum by itself and then snare by itself. [laughs] I graduated to four-track and in high school and just started making up my own songs.
It was a long time before I actually started playing them for other people. You know, it was mostly just stuff I did in my bedroom for fun. Yeah, I think around high school, I started playing at this open mic at a Crossroads Mall in Bellevue. That was the first time I started playing my songs in front of people. And [I] went from that and then I went to UW. And I met some folks and I also started playing at an open mic at a place called Coffee Messiah. It used to be on Olive. What was it? Olive and Pike or something. No, Stewart & Olive. [Writer's Note: The old Coffee Messiah location was near the corner of Olive and Denny in Capitol Hill.]
Yeah, that was really a cool time to grow up in Seattle. It was right around the time we had the Teen Dance Ordinance. So a lot of touring bands have come through the all-ages venues on the Eastside, like the Old Fire House in Redmond and Ground Zero in Bellevue. I spent a lot of time going to shows there. And yeah, I formed Asahi with a few friends. And started playing at those all-ages venues, that was right around college.
Were you all Eastside kids in Asahi?
Pretty much, yeah. Suthap Manivong played bass and guitar. He went to my sister's high school. And then Chris Dorsett was the drummer, he also lived in Bellevue. And then Kelly McDougall is the other singer. But I met her at UW and we worked together at the Varsity Theater on the Ave.
I feel like now that we're in the 2020s, people [in the Seattle music community] kind of take all-ages music for granted. And, you know, back in the day with the Teen Dance Ordinance, the Eastside was so important for all-ages music. I feel like that area was carrying the flag because there's so many talented bands that came out of that Eastside all-ages scene.
Yeah, it [was] just a bunch of bored suburban kids.
But yeah, a lot of pretty amazing bands came out of that scene. And there's a lot of them are still playing, like my buddy Yuuki Matthews, who I've collaborated with. He had a really great band called Seldom that I really loved. And he went on to play with Pedro the Lion, and he's in the Shins now. And then Casey Foubert from that band, he plays with Sufjan Stevens. And the Fleet Foxes guys all came out of that scene and the Blood Brothers, you know, [the sounds were] kind of all over the place. There was just a real DIY spirit. I think in that time, people are having a lot of basement shows. It was when people could still afford to live in houses in Seattle, so, yeah, there were a lot of house shows. Were a really big part of my youth.
So tell me about the early days of the band and recording those first two EPs that you all did.
Our first EP we recorded at the Kirkland Teen Center. They had just opened in 2000 or something like that, and they had a recording studio inside and Jeramy Koepping, he played in a band called Voyager One. But he was the house engineer, you know, he was teaching kids how to record and stuff. So they would let kids record for ... I think it was one hundred bucks for a whole demo.
Yeah, it was something crazy like that. So we booked some time and we were super nervous about going into a studio recording. And our session was supposed to start on September 12th, 2001.
Yeah, and then 9/11 happened, and we started on September 16th. We waited a week. But it was a pretty heavy time to be making music, you know. But even back then, I felt really transported, like it was something we were supposed to be doing with our lives. It was a four-song EP and then our drummer's mom told us there was a new battle of the bands kind of thing at the EMP called Sound Off!. And so we ended up applying and we got in. And that was the very first Sound Off in 2002.
Oh wow. I had no clue y'all were in Sound Off!.
At the time, it was like there was kind of a snooty— because there was so much emphasis on DIY and punk aesthetics, people kind of looked down on stuff like being in the battle of the bands kind of competitions. And so we almost kind of like, we felt really out of place, but all the other bands were like ... I remember, there were bands from Kennewick and Spokane and kind of all over, you know, and a lot of them were pop-punk and there's a band that sounded kind of like Creed.
We actually didn't make it past the first round, but John Richards was one of the judges; he came up to us and he really complimented our set. So I gave him our CD and then he invited us to play on Audioasis. That's kind of how we started getting shows right after that. So that was a really huge moment for us, even though we didn't win. It's pretty amazing how much that the Sound Off! has grown over the years. The quality of the music is pretty incredible compared to like where we started.
Yeah, exactly. I feel as though Asahi may have set the tone for the prototypical Sound Off! band that doesn't win but kind of blows up anyway. I feel like that's kind of a thing now; even to be in [any round of] Sound Off!, you gain a following.
Yeah, I think it's it's definitely developed that reputation over the years. I'm really proud to be involved in the very beginning. It was kind of like the tipping point between indie-rock becoming more mainstream, maybe, or that distinction being so pronounced like it didn't matter anymore what was pop music, and indie. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and so with that, Asahi, you all make your debut record Head Above Water, which is kind of right in that era of indie-rock becoming quasi-mainstream. [This was] the era [you're speaking of], where it doesn't matter about adopting the DIY code [for credibility].
Yeah. I mean, we were still pretty firmly entrenched in that, and we were just trying to figure out who we were and trying to fit in. Especially back then, the music scene was like pretty white. We were one of the only, I think, Asian-fronted bands around.
I guess I chose the name Asahi because it means "rising sun" in Japanese. It's kind of the symbol of the country. But it wasn't really trying to make a statement about ourselves so much as just trying to figure out who I was. I mean, looking back on it now, I hear a lot of influences of indie-rock that was going on at the time. We were really into Low and Death Cab. And Jeff Buckley I really loved. Softer, slowcore bands of the time. We were just like figuring it all out on the fly. We would press our own CDs. I mean, we were still doing CDRs at the time, just making our own covers at Kinko's and booking shows and booking tours, house show tours. It was a really good training ground.
And you also figure out how to collaborate with people, how to interact with other human beings. And there's definitely.... what do you call it, growing pains? You know, hard lessons that I had to learn about how to be in a band. And how to communicate musical ideas. It was a really important time in my life, but it also coincided with my college years. It lasted four or five years. And then I had to move on.
How important was it back then for you, for your vision as a songwriter to be implemented exactly how you envisioned it?
Yeah, I think I was pretty adamant on controlling every element and having it sound exactly the way I wanted it to sound. Which wasn't as fun for other people playing with me, I think. And those are the kinds of things you learn over the years. But being young, and learning songwriting the way I had, just recording on my own and recording all the instruments on my own. I was used to being able to play every single part and think of a song as a whole. So it took a while to just figure that out and appreciate each player for who they are and what they bring, and to celebrate that and let the song grow organically rather than trying to force an idea onto something.
What was your experience in being a Seattle area band in the early 2000s? We talked a little bit about it a few minutes ago, but like, I feel as though people have this misconception that in the early 2000s, the Seattle music scene was in a post-grunge transitional period. But when I look back, there were a lot of interesting bands playing around at that time.
Yeah, I don't think there are any bands that were really influenced by grunge at that point. It almost kind of had to circle back around to become more of a thing we embraced again. But yeah, there were definitely a lot of interesting bands coming up, and labels and venues. A lot of things are just kind of coming together at the same time and growing at the same pace, you know, like KCMU becoming KEXP. And that was a really big turning point. And for a minute, there was a really healthy balance of tech money and strong cultural identity feeding into the creative community in Seattle. But it was weird coming from the suburbs; I always felt a little out of place in the scene. It was a tight scene, but it was hard to get your foot in initially and it's not as welcoming, I think, as it is now. A lot of times you just had to book your own shows and create your own scene. yeah. But, it was a pretty special time.
So moving on to Grand Hallway. The cool thing about Grand Hallway, in my opinion, was that musically, it definitely felt like very much a collaborative effort, even though the songs were in your voice and your songs were the driving force of the band. So how did that come about? How did your experience in Asahi inform the collaborative nature of Grand Hallway?
Well, even towards the end of Asahi, I had started experimenting with kind of more like chamber pop sounds, adding strings and stuff. We had started [recording] a second album that had all these kind of orchestral elements, and then we never finished it. But I also started playing in a couple other bands as a backup member, playing piano and guitar and stuff. So that kind of gave me a different perspective of what it means to be in a band and how to be a musician.
And then I went on tour to Japan with one of the bands. I ended up opening one of the shows, just solo, and met the guy from a label called And Records in Tokyo. He really liked the songs and ended up signing us, and they released the Asahi record in Japan. Which is really cool; we had a label in Japan before we had one in the U.S. We were growing, but I just kind of got tired of guitar rock, indie-rock. I got really into jazz, and I kind of wanted to just break out of the concept of genres. And so as I was playing piano a lot more as a sideman. I'd never taken lessons or anything, it was just something. Like I got asked to play, and so I learned how to play it. You know what I mean?
I wanted to start a band that was centered on the piano, that's what I call the Grand Hallway, and I was thinking of the grand piano. There is a poem by David Berman called "If There Was a Book About This Hallway." It's just this concept of how the hallway just connects one room to the next, and even though it's indoors, it's somehow outdoors. It's like this temporary space. It reminded me of just how it feels being Asian-American, sometimes. Just like, you never fully belong in one room.
I totally get that.
So you become comfortable just floating in between worlds and so I kind of saw the world as a Grand Hallway. Everything's kind of temporary and you have these fleeting connections. Anyway, so I started this band as an experiment almost to write exclusively on piano. I was really into Rufus Wainwright and Tom Waits and this guy, Joe Hisaishi, who composes all the Ghibli movies, like My Neighbor Totoro.
I really love that super melodic, simple sound of the piano. I also really love Jeremy Enigk's Return of the Frog Queen, that chamber, orchestral sound. So I took a quarter of music theory [in college] just to learn how to notate sounds, and I did all the string arrangements on our first record, Yes is the Answer. So, it just kind of grew out of a desire to learn something new and to learn by doing, which kind of seems to be a recurring theme in my life. That was Yes is the Answer.
Is it true that you tracked basically all of the core tracks in like three days for Yes is the Answer?
Yeah, we had a grant through the Jack Straw Studios, and so they gave us three days in the studio. We had Bob Roberts on drums, who was a really great jazz drummer, and Erik Neumann playing mostly upright bass. And I was really obsessed with The Beatles' White Album at the time. And Neil Young's Harvest too. That kind of like old school style of not sparse, but natural-sounding recordings. Where people are just playing in the same room at the same time. So, yeah, a lot of the vocals even are live. And then we overdub the strings after that. But the bulk of it was done in three days, yeah.
So when you went to record Promenade, was there anything that you thought could be improved upon after Yes is the Answer or was it more learning by doing?
Yeah, we did a lot of touring, we toured in Japan. That was really fun, you know, bringing six of us on tour. Then we started playing a lot of shows around town and we were playing it like The Tractor a lot, you know, and so we're playing with bands like the Maldives and Widower the more the country and folk—
Yeah, that whole folk scene [in late-2000s Seattle] kind of exploded around the time of Promenade.
Yeah, I guess that was an influence, but mostly it was just like hanging out with those people and living in a house with a lot of my bandmates. And so this community just formed really organically: the Maldives had a house in Ballard, that we'd always just hang out in the backyard and someone would be playing in the basement. And you're like, "Oh, that sounds cool," and [you] go see what's happening, and then you just sit down and start playing and then like you have a new band. Grand Hallway just kept growing. At one point we had like nine people and it was just this weird mishmash of folk elements but [also] command of orchestral violins and cellos. We had Chris Zasche playing pedal steel and banjo and then we got a new drummer, Joel Harmon; he also played in Sleepy Eyes of Death, which is like a really synth-heavy, electronic band.
So [we had] all these different influences, just kind of like coming together organically. I also think it's interesting how Asahi really coincided with, like the George W. Bush years, which was like a really heavy time. And then there's this newfound optimism after, like Obama became president and like there's just this sense of hope. The whole "Yes, We Can" slogan extended to like every aspect of life and it felt natural to form this big collective. We saw a lot of bands like Arcade Fire and Broken Social Scene and, you know, those kinds of collective bands coming together and yes, Promenade really was just the celebration of that; just trying to bring in as many different influences as we can.
It wasn't the most practical band to tour [laughter], like nine people crammed into a van. And I mean, we did it. We went it went to South By [Southwest]. But it was hard to get everyone's schedules together. And it only worked because we were all in our 20s at the time, you know, had no responsibilities. And then because as people started getting older and getting married, having kids and real jobs and stuff, it became harder to keep that going.
So what was it about Ballard and Fremont that attracted all of these like-minded musicians? Because I remember at the time, like the late-2000s, of [the local scene] being like all about folk and country music. And it was it seemed to be all based out of like Ballard and Fremont. Or was it just a convenient place for everybody to live?
It was affordable at the time, you know. That's really all it was, is that people could live together and hang out together in the same bars and normal practice spaces were more readily available around there. I think community is really something you can't force. It just has to happen on its own. And a lot of times you only realize it after the fact. I feel mixed about it because I think we were part of the reason that area has been so, so gentrified. We were the ones who made it cool for other people that want to come [to that area]. It's just seems to be like the cycle of art and commerce. You can see that happening now in Tacoma. I think a lot of a lot of my friends have moved down there in recent years because they can't afford to live in Seattle anymore. Wherever interesting, creative people live, that's where the arts are going to come out [of].
Yeah, for sure. I feel as though I don't want to say gentrification comes from the artistic class, but there is a trail where like wherever the artists go, then that's where people settle down to have families, and that's where the organic groceries and artisanal shops start popping up. So, yeah, I think that's really interesting.
And I think musicians now are more aware of that dynamic and you see people making more of an effort to bring the energy and the benefits of art back into the community. I don't think we were as intentional about it back then, you know what I mean? Like it wasn't in the popular conversation. I mean, I still like hanging out in Ballard once in a while. It's harder these days living out in Seattle.
So moving on to Winter Creatures; a little more stripped down than Promenade. Was that intentional? Was it feeling like the band swelling up to nine members, did it feel that the music was getting a little busy or did you just feel like trying something different?
The band was kind of falling apart at that point. I feel we had kind of peaked commercially and creatively. We had a lot of momentum coming out of Yes is the Answer; we played Sasquatch and we did CMJ and, you know, South By and all the music business stuff that you're supposed to do. Just going really hard, constantly playing shows, and then you sort of start to forget why you're doing it [in the] first place, you know, and it just becomes not as fun.
And then people got married, had kids, and it was kind of naturally starting to go in different directions. Just through life circumstances, you know, and I just I was just really exhausted and I just wanted to find that love of music again. Both my grandparents passed away around that time, and so there's a lot of just kind of grief on many levels kind of going on, you know, and so I went down to Portland with Shenandoah Davis, who is our pianist, and Kevin Large is our bass player and the three of us kind of did the basic tracks. Kind of going back to Yes is the Answer, we did everything in like a week. A lot of the songs I ended up writing in the studio. It was just to kind of go back to the "first thought, best thought" sort of approach.
We recorded with my friend Corey Gray, who's a really great producer. I was still feeling like Grand Hallway was my thing. I had to keep it going. I felt an obligation to our fans and to my band, you know, even though it was kind of falling apart. And so it has this kind of weird tension between "Father's Clothes" and "Little Sister," they're kind of like bigger productions. They have like orchestral elements, kind of the older Grand Hallway sound. My favorite songs on that album are like "Winter Creatures" and "Roscoe (What a Gift)" and the quieter folky moments.
I was really getting into, like fingerpicking acoustic guitar kind of style and like Simon and Garfunkel and, you know, just sort of like. 60s folk. Everything about it was a little off, the timing of it [especially]. Like we finished the record and then we released it in June, you know, an album called Winter Creatures in the middle of summer. And we played it at [Capitol Hill] Block Party and Bumbershoot because that's where you're supposed to do. You're supposed to play these festivals, you know, but it's "Oh, you're playing these like quiet folk songs." It just didn't make any sense. But I'm really proud of how that album turned out. In a lot of ways, it's my most personal record. "Roscoe" especially, that's a song that I still play live to this day. It's just a song about appreciating music. Just the ability to play with other people and the joy that comes from that.
So when you were recording Horses, do you feel as though you were starting to transition into a solo career and you were still holding on to the Grand Hallway name or was it more of a concentrated effort to continue Grand Hallway?
At the time, we had been on like our fourth iteration or something, [our fourth] different lineup, just to keep the name going. But then my friend Lynn Shelton sent me this script one day for [her 2013 film] Touchy Feely and she said, "I wrote this part for you." And it was of the musician who is a barista, [which] is totally my life at the time: I was making coffee and just kind of trying to figure out why I want to do with my life. And it was really interesting.
Like the whole movie is about just like people who are lost their way in trying to find themselves and is really fortuitous. A little bit like magic, you know, just the fact that she captured that moment in my life, and so I read the script and at the same time I had a commission from the Hugo House for their literary series, where they give you like a theme and you're supposed to write a song about it. And the theme was "End of the Line." So whatever comes to mind from the phrase "end of the line" and yes, I started riding horses. And it became clear while I was writing it that it was time to say goodbye to the old and kind of start fresh.
I did this movie and it just naturally kind of led to, "Yeah, I'm just starting to play under my own name." I mean, it was still all the same songs, but it was clear that Grand Hallway, or what people thought it was, didn't exist anymore, so I just needed to be honest with myself and take more ownership of my own music, you know? I'm really grateful to Lynn and to the movie for giving me that push, to really own my own identity, my own work.
I feel like just as much as any musician or label or journalist, Lynn Shelton was a champion of the Seattle music scene.
Yeah, she was amazing. You know, she was just so enthusiastic and genuinely supportive of everyone that she admired and liked, and so people kind of naturally gravitated towards her because she had this energy about her. I would say she had as much to do with the sense of community in in Ballard, like we were talking about, that whole era. She did the series $5 Cover for MTV, which documented the scene at the time. But she had her tastes [and they] were so diverse that she connected a lot of musicians to each other from different genres and different scenes that really hadn't interacted before.
That's the thing I loved about that that $5 Cover was the diversity.
Yeah. And that was really a thing that no one had talked about at the time.
Yeah, going back to the idea of misconceptions about the Seattle music scene, another misconception is that the music scene is not as diverse as it is. I feel as though we have one of the more diverse music scenes in America.
Absolutely. Yeah, yeah. But, you know, it wasn't always celebrated as such. Like now, bookers will put all different kinds of bands together on one bill, but back then it was for some reason really segregated into genres and what people thought would sell. I think Lynn had a huge part in kind of breaking that down.
It was kind of a weird time before this moment, which spotlighted the diversity. Like you could go to a Damien Jurado and Sera Cahoone and then and then go see the Spits the next night and then go see Don't Talk to the Cops or Mad Rad. There were so many different scenes and the interaction wasn't as prominent as it is today. Like nowadays, you could see kids going to a country/folk show and then going to a punk show and then going to a hip-hop show and you'll see a few of the same people. But back then, it didn't seem like that was the case.
I think our listening habits changed, too. With streaming, you know. I think when the people used to really just stick to their comfort zones. Because we had to pay for music, you know, via records. Just having access to everything in the world [through streaming and being able to sample music on Bandcamp], that one's kind of opened up people's ears and minds.
I definitely think that's part of it. I mean. I also feel as though there are a lot of people whose tastes are naturally diverse and it's like going back to the idea of being an outsider; you didn't see too many people really embracing the diversity of their tastes, because I think people wanted to be a part of a scene back in those days. And then once streaming and social media hit, then I think that was the point where everyone started embracing their diversity and realizing that they liked a lot of different things. It wasn't necessarily weird to be like, "Oh, yeah, I like this thing and this thing and that thing and they're completely different, but so what?"
Yeah. Like the more people you meet and collaborate with, you realize that it all comes from the same place, the same desire to create. It's really a beautiful thing. Once you realize you have that commonality with anyone you know.
I mean, it's pretty amazing how much more diverse the city has gotten over the years. You know, I think when I first started playing music, I just wanted to be accepted for my work, my music, you know? And I didn't want to be bothered by highlighting my ethnicity, you know what I mean? So I kind of shied away from talking about it. But as a result, I think I was kind of just denying myself my own identity.
Over the years, I've kind of grown to appreciate my background more as an immigrant and as someone who's grown up between Japan and the U.S. Having both cultures and acknowledging that that's really been a huge influence in my music, you know?
I totally understand. And I think for us people of color, the idea of Seattle being a white city, it – I mean, it definitely is the case when you're participating in the indie-rock scene but I think the real diversity of the city is really wrapped up around this time.
Yeah. I mean, it' still is very white on the institutional level. Although a lot of venues are— I don't know how many venues are owned by people of color, but not very many, I can tell you that. And the labels are often super white and they're the gatekeepers, [they] are the ones who decide who gets to play where. I think that's where it needs to start changing. I feel like as an artist, I've always had more respect from my peers, trom other musicians, than from the business. I've always had to work harder to earn respect in the industry. I think that's starting to change more. The artists have more power now; we can create our own work, we can distribute our own work and we dictate the way the music should be represented.
I mean, we could have an entire conversation about being a person of color in Seattle's music industry. Let's talk about where you are when you're recording Fog on the Lens; talk to me about your growth as a musician and a songwriter at this point in your career.
After Touchy Feely came out, I was invited by Town Hall to be their artist in residence. It was an open-ended invitation; they just gave me the keys to the building, like literally, and they were like, "You can just come in whenever you want." And they didn't even tell me what I should do with my time, so I kind of just used it as like an office that I would go to every day like a job and just hang out in the green room and write or watch movies. I'd go walk down to the library or walk up to Frye Museum, you know, and just kind of work, experience living downtown, and then I started playing the piano every day on their Steinway, this beautiful piano. And then I slowly started writing songs.
I recorded most of Fog on the Lens at Town Hall, just using the building as a recording studio. A lot of the reverb is just like natural reverb from the building. I used the hallway downstairs where the bathrooms are; it's got this really long echo and I'd use that for vocals. And then there's a stairway in the back, you know, I used for handclaps. The whole sound of the record was informed by the building, you know, the soul of the building.
A lot of the songs are just about the process of songwriting. I feel closest to that record, even though I think it's not as autobiographical, it's more just really observational. But yeah, I mean, working there, I'd go to a lot of the programs there, the conversations and interviews and stuff like that, and like I saw Sonia Sotomayor there, just really interesting cultural ideas that ended up in the songs. It felt almost like going back to school, and yeah, I'm super grateful for that time. It really gave me kind of a really good starting point for a solo career, just really owning my identity and the fact that I recorded every element myself. It's really empowering, even though it's just like GarageBand. The whole album was tracked on GarageBand with a single USB. And then I took it to Yuuki Matthews and he added a bunch of elements to tie it all together. But the whole album was made just with the two of us, just a cobbled together setup, and that's not something you could have done without computers.
In an interview you said you approached this like a bedroom record; do you think you were successful in that approach? It sounds like you do.
Yeah. I mean, I was literally sleeping there. You know, I'd go there during the day and, like, would sleep a little bit. I'd lay down on the pews and just sleep. It really felt like my home away from home, except it was a really huge bedroom, the different rooms. I think it has that intimacy; there's no drums on the record. It's all just like the sound of stomping on the stage or like hitting tables. And it's a really organic album, I think. And because it wasn't recorded in a studio, it just has this kind of loose lo-fi feel about it, I think.
Tell me about recording Pieces of Sky. How was that experience?
Yeah, after Fog on the Lens, I started doing these weekly gigs at SeaTac Airport, busking there, and it became like a really great gig. The sets would be like three hours long, you just stand there and just play. I mean, I wouldn't take any breaks, I just played three hours straight, just whatever song came to mind, some of mine, and I'd play a lot of Beatles songs and, you know, Ted Stevens and Simon and Garfunkel [songs]. I just started noticing how a well-written song can just be super-simple, you know, but it can stand on its own just with one guitar. And so that started influencing my songwriting.
I just wanted to get real concise with the writing and be able to have them stand up next to a Bob Dylan song and have it make sense. So, yes, Pieces of Sky just kind of came out and there was a lot of people watching, too, at the airport. It's a really emotional place, you know, because people travel for all different kinds of reasons. You know, there's people going on vacation and people going home for a funeral or a wedding, and there's a really sterile, enclosed environment. I think people feel more emotionally vulnerable, open, you know what I mean?
And so when you can have these really intense connections, like really brief connections with people, just they'll just stop and listen to one song. And because it's like a busking situation, they'll just come up. Come right up to you and start talking [laughs]. I would meet people from all over the world and it was an interesting time in my life, and so I wanted to kind of document that with the album.
Parts of it are like really sparse, just guitar and voice, and then I was also getting into, like, more kind of synthesizer and drum machines sort of tones too, you know, kind of like I was listening to a lot of like Brian Eno and like in Music for Airports. So it's kind of like combining folk and ambient music, I guess. And during that album, Yuuki was on tour with the Shins, so he wasn't available to mix the record. So Pieces of Sky was the first one that I ended up doing everything on, producing and mixing, and so it is a really good learning experience.
Oh, yeah, and that album was also the first one that a crowdfunded from Kickstarter.
And that was a really interesting experience too, taking on more of that responsibility of every step of releasing an album. Stuff that I had left to other people before, I had to learn how to do it on my own and it was really empowering to figure it out.
Another inspiration for the album was the 2016 election. So it's funny how these eras kind of bleed into the work, like with Asahi it was like George W. Bush and that heavy period, going into Grand Hallway and Obama's terms and the optimism that was in the air. And we [were] heading into chaos at this point. We [were] heading into chaos and this deep, dark cloud hanging over the country for four years.
That's true. Yeah, it was a heavy time, even in everyday discourse, I felt like people were kind of forgetting each other's humanity, and that's something that I really wanted to emphasize in the songs. Bringing it back to appreciating each other's humanity, things that we didn't really need to say out loud before. All our core values, it felt like we [were] under attack or the things that we took for granted were no longer a given. Now that I'm thinking about it, like a lot of the songs are from a really dark place, but every time I get real low that's when music comes in and really saves me. I was writing those songs for myself as much as for other people, to really remember who I am and what I believe in, and to not lose my mind.
Yeah, I totally get that. It definitely speaks to the healing properties of music and creativity that you could reach into yourself and give yourself the method of expression to where it helps.
Yeah, you know, I'm not religious, but I do believe in a higher consciousness, something bigger than myself. And when I'm playing music, I feel like that's when I really get to access that commune with... I mean, I don't want to get to like... But it really feels that way sometimes, that the songs are really just— I become just like a vessel.
Speaking of spirituality and the cosmos kind of interplaying with our everyday life, 2018 was when Asahi got back together for a reunion show. Tell me about that experience and playing that incredible stage. I went to Upstream and one of the places that I consistently couldn't get into because it was so packed was the stage Kate Becker curated.
Yeah. So Kate Becker started the Old Fire House and the Vera Project. So she was huge in the all-ages scene. She asked if Asahi could play the stage with Murder City Devils. Like what? What is happening, you know? Now that I think about it, we got our start playing at the EMP [Experience Music Project, now known as MoPOP], playing Sound Off. And then Paul Allen brought us back together with Upstream. I mean, it was a really cool idea, Upstream Festival, I'm sad that it didn't keep going.
I was really glad to have that opportunity because the band ended on really bad terms, mostly because we were all young and I just didn't know how to communicate at the time. And so I think I ended up hurting people personally. Most of us didn't talk for many years, and it was a shame because we were all really good friends at one point. But twenty years have passed almost and we'd all done a lot of growing. I wasn't sure if they would even agree to do it. But we had this invitation, so I reached out and they said yes. We all got together at our drummer Chris' house, like in his bedroom. I mean, that's where we started in Bellevue.
[When we] rehearsed, it was just like old times. It was really cool to be able to reconnect. That was like the only real regret I had in my musical life; the way that band ended. And so to be able to wrap it up neatly was a real gift. I'm super grateful to Kate for that opportunity. You spend so much time just focusing on the future and trying to grow and do more. Once in a while, when you look back and see where you came from, it's pretty amazing seeing how much changed and also seeing what hasn't changed. I feel like my songs haven't really grown that much. It's only through the people that have played with it. It has gone in different directions, but the essence of all of the songs are still coming from the same place.
How was the experience of playing that show? Did you notice anyone in the crowd getting emotional?
I mean, we were getting emotional playing; [we were] an emo band. [laughter] I saw a lot of faces from the back then, from the all-ages days where we were having vegan potlucks and playing in people's basements. And to see everyone kind of grown-up, it felt like— I've never been to a high school reunion, but that's kind of what it felt like. I felt really happy and really proud to be with them.
So Melonday is quite obviously a departure from your previous efforts. I mean, [it seems like there was] a gradual transition from Pieces of Sky. But as a whole, it was very different. And you did an interview with us last year saying that you had wanted to do a synth-pop record for years.
Yeah, that was the biggest change from like over the years, really embracing my love of pop music. [It was] something that hid or only indulged in karaoke. But yeah, I'd always been kind of fascinated with disco and I got really into Arthur Russell. He was a huge influence on right around like Winter Creatures and Fog on the Lens, the way he just would jump genre to genre. But his dance music especially; I always loved Bjork and [other] electronic musicians, but I just never knew how to make that kind of music. I think that was the biggest barrier to me.
When Yuuki and I were touring in Japan for Fog on the Lens, we kind of talked about making a synth-pop record. After Pieces of Sky, I was doing a lot of commercial work — licensing, writing for TV and commercials and stuff — so you end up doing a lot of formulaic genre exercises, and it was kind of soul-crushing. [I thought,] "What if I used all this, all these tricks I'm learning, but apply it to my own music?" With Melonday, I really wanted to make a tight record; really tightly composed and intentionally hooky. To make like the most melodic record I can make.
At first, it was just kind of a joke. I wrote "Get to Know You" as a loop. And then I was playing this really cheesy synth line that reminded me of Miley Cyrus or something. I was like, "This is fun!" I didn't even know it was going to be an album, but the way I brought it to Yuuki and we started working on it, it just kept growing. I had thought briefly about releasing it under a new name. 'Melonday' was going to be the name of the band. I was like, "You know what, this is still my songs, my music." And I really love artists who just do whatever they want and take their fans along for the ride, so I was like, "Okay, yeah, let's just go for it and see what happens.".
I was really blown away by the reaction, [by] how many people like got it. Having the drumbeat and the chord progressions really dictating the— we wrote all the music before I wrote the lyrics, so it accessed this different part of my brain because I was also thinking, "Well, what would a pop singer sing about?" You know what I mean. I was trying to think of it as writing in character or something. I think by doing that, I got rid of the filter of who I thought I was and what I needed to be [as a songwriter]. So it ended up going into some really deeper, darker places that I hadn't really realized. It was a lot of like stream-of-consciousness writing [where] I didn't even realize what the songs are about until way after the fact.
Looking back on that experience of writing in a different style and writing your songs in character, how important was it for you to access this different side of yourself?
It was something I wasn't consciously doing because at the time I was in a really deep funk. I had run out of things to write about, and the old way of sitting down with a guitar and trying to write a song, it just wasn't happening. [Writing Melonday] freed me up from that writer's block and I was just having fun making music again. It really reminds me of Winter Creatures in that way; just breaking everything down and getting away from who I thought I needed to be.
Just releasing that album during a global pandemic has been, like a real mindfuck. It's an album that's meant to be played on a stage with a lot of people dancing. I mean, it's a dance record and to not be able to [perform in front of people] was a trip. But it actually was the thing that I needed, I think, to keep me connected to the outside world during lockdown. I did a livestream album release show where I just turned my little apartment into a stage. I got a cheap disco light and figured it out. [I got] some cool lighting things and just played all the backing tracks off an iPod and was just dancing, just singing karaoke in my room. It was so much fun. And people actually watched. It's weird how things come together if you just follow your instincts and what the moment dictates.
Yeah, like you were saying, with like the different eras of politics. Melonday was the one record— it really felt like the world was going to end, and it still might. But I was like, "This is the album I want to make before I die." A really fun, big-sounding pop record. I didn't want to be just a Tomo Nakayama record with beats on it; I wanted it to be [full of] solid pop songs. I got really obsessed with Robyn and ABBA, like just very Swedish. But also played with Cornelius, he was a huge influence. I started listening to him in high school, but I never knew how to make that kind of music. My friend Alina To and I got to open for him at The Showbox. I wish I had played some of those Melonday tracks, but we were still working on the record and wasn't quite ready. But yeah, just the way he incorporated visuals into his stage show, it was super inspiring and made me think about shows and the presentation of music differently.
Melonday is a joyous-sounding record and your livestream was a very joyous experience. And I feel as though in 2020, people needed that joy.
I mean, I know I needed it. I wasn't sure if anyone was going to watch, really. This was April 2020; the concept of livestreaming was still new. And like I was saying earlier, I just learned through doing. I learned how to set up a camera, the best way to make the audio work. It was actually kind of fun to be locked up. It really forced me to think outside the box. To see people interacting with each other in the chat, that was surprising, how good that felt to actually see that sense of community coming together really organically. Livestreaming is becoming more organized and professional and the quality has gone up, but it's been harder to capture that initial feeling. We're all just hitting the wall with the pandemic. And it's a lot to ask for people to just sit down at a screen and watch shows now. It's interesting how quickly that's evolved. But yeah, that's just the nature of any sort of innovation. I think there's a huge rush at first and then all the people come in wanting to make money off it, it becomes not as fun.
Yeah, for sure. I feel like also in the beginning stages of live streaming during the pandemic, people were hungry for interaction and so I think that helped a lot. That helped people want to learn, "How do I do this to connect with people?"
Yeah. And it really brings out like the DIY spirit. It felt like going back to like Asahi days: photocopying CD covers and doing everything just for the sake of creating something. It's a good feeling and I think we're hitting the point where people are needing live shows [in person] and that feeling of connection.
Last question, as someone who is always looking forward, always looking to grow, what's next?
Well, I'm scoring my first feature film. I can't really give any details, but that's really an exciting challenge, to write music for film. I've done some shorts, but I haven't done a full feature yet. So that's kind of my focus at the moment.
I'm also writing songs here and there when inspiration strikes, and I'm kind of into the idea of just releasing a bunch of singles; that's kind of all I have the attention span for right now as a listener. Other than that, I've been laying low and just trying to stay healthy. I think there's there's a lot of pressure right now to get back out there and to resume life the way it was, but there's a lot of things wrong with the way things were. So I want to identify those things and to [approach them] intentionally and responsibly. I'm kind of in another transition, I think. I'm not quite sure how that's going to manifest yet, but it's exciting to kind of have that urge again to grow.
In the above interview with Tomo Nakayama, we briefly discussed the importance of Sound Off! and how even making the competition lineup changes the trajectory of some bands' careers. Well, Sound Off! has officially announced its 2021 competition is on. Sound Off! returns in livestreaming form, hosted by KEXP's own Troy Nelson, and will feature bands from Seattle, Tacoma, Federal Way, Issaquah, Everett and Puyallup. The livestream will be held May 15th with sessions from MoPOP's Sky Church — you know, the home of Sound Off! for the entirety of its 19-year history. Learn more about this year's Sound Off! and buy tickets here.
Can we stop saddling Payge Turner with the tag "Former contestant of The Voice?" Her career will not be defined by a standing round of applause by Blake Shelton. Turner is an uber-talented songwriter (and singer) with a growing catalog of stirring tunes. Last year's Sleep Walker was one of the most slept-on releases in Northwest music. She opened for the Black Tones at a special show in the pavilion of the Museum of Flight for the first official live show Seattle has seen since the pandemic started! And now she's back with the heartwarming single "Goodbye," a breezy and uplifting letter to one's inner child. I reached out to Turner and here's what she had to say about the song:
"'Goodbye' really comes from a place of self acceptance, but not like what you think. For majority of song, I'm going back and forth talking to different versions of myself. For the verses, I'm mainly speaking from my inner child's perspective, but then it switches to my adult perspective. This song really to me is about all the parts of me healing and finding a safe haven throughout each phase. 'If it kills me I'd do it all for you, I'd be the one you hold on to,' this particular line hits me the most, simply because as powerful as it sounds, it's really coming from a place of defeat but victory all at the same time. It's definitely been a journey watching it come together."
Ever since I was a teenager, I've been paying close attention to the production credits for rap albums. That hasn't changed in adulthood; I'm still checking for the most interesting producers in the rap game and checking out whose beats my favorite rappers are rhyming over. Camoflauge Monk has been on my radar for a few years now, producing bangers for grimy, fashion and pro-wrestling obsessed Buffalo rapper Westside Gunn, so when AJ Suede announced the New York State beatmaker would be commanding the boards on his newest project, I naturally flipped. If "Have it All" is any indication, with its elegant piano lines and thumping drums as a background for Suede dwelling this city, where he says, "The coke is more popular than pizza / The dope is more popular than Weezer" and brags about his Air Maxes, A Dream Within a Dream (which will be available tomorrow on Suede's Bandcamp) may be the release where people far from the tree-lined boundaries of the Pacific Northwest (and certain concrete circles of his native East Coast) are going to start checking for him.
The Seattle songwriter returns with a new synth-pop single celebrating finding community on the radio.
KEXP premieres the lead single from Tomo Nakayama's forthcoming third solo record Melonday
Throwaway Style is a weekly column dedicated to examining all aspects of the Northwest music scene. Whether it’s a new artist making waves, headlines affecting local talent, or reflecting on some of the music that’s been a foundation in our region; this space celebrates everything happening in th...