If there was one universal trend that stood out in electronic and indie rock music of the ’90s, it was the emergence of the singular artist: the one-man band or bedroom-dwelling, knob-twiddling electronic musician who shape-shifted personas and performed and produced every element of his or her own records. Cornelius, the brainchild of Tokyo-born Keigo Oyamada, is one such artist.
Born on January 27, 1969, Oyamada was raised primarily by his mother in the Setagaya-ku region of Tokyo. Although his parents divorced when he was just eight years old, the influence of his Hawaiian father, a traveling singer and ukulele player, had an impact on his early interest in music. The young Oyamada’s first exposure to rock ‘n’ roll, he told Ken Kawashima of Time, occurred when an older cousin played him Kiss’s Love Gun record in the fifth grade. “They all looked like manga monsters to me,” Oyamada said of the album’s cover.
Not long after, Oyamada taught himself to play guitar by listening to Black Sabbath and other early metal records, and in junior high he got involved with a number of cover bands. In an interview with Tokion, Oyamada laughingly claimed to have been in “about 10 bands at the same time,” covering everyone from the Misfits, to the Smiths, to the Specials.
One of those bands was a rather short-lived New Wave, English-punk project called Lollipop Sonic. Little came of his youthful musical endeavors until he and friend Kenji Ozawa split off from Lollipop Sonic to form Flipper’s Guitar in 1989. Flipper’s Guitar performed American-influenced guitar pop, and within their three-year existence they signed to Polystar Records and produced three well-received albums: Three Cheers for Our Side, Camera Talk, and Doctor Head’s World Tower. The band broke up in 1991, but Oyamada stayed close with Polystar, and the following year he accepted an offer from the company to start a label of his own, Trattoria Records.
Oyamada’s obsession with international pop music was obvious in the early days of Trattoria Records. Along with what would grow to be Japanese pop classics, he also released all types of obscurities, from a Planet of the Apes soundtrack, to Bill Wyman solo records, to a record by British sprinter Linford Christie singing a rather off-key rendition of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Keep On Running.”
One evening, while watching the 1968 film Planet of the Apes, Oyamada decided to crib one of the lead character’s names, Cornelius, for his own musical productions. As the film’s Cornelius was an intermediary between the apes and the humans, Oyamada found the name a fitting metaphor for the type of rarefied, avant-garde pastiche music that he was making.
“Later on I found out that Pierre Boulle, the writer of the story, was actually writing about his own experiences as a prisoner of war in World War II in Japan and he made that story into the Planet of the Apes. He was the prisoner of war, where he was like the human and the Japanese were the apes and Cornelius is like the middleperson who understands the Japanese people, or the apes, and the humans,” Oyamada said in an interview with Dutch radio station Kink FM’s Peter Zoon.
Oyamada’s tremendous fascination with pop culture not only provided the name and inspiration for his music but also the basis for his look. His trademark bowl haircut and horizontally striped shirts, occasionally accompanied by large sunglasses, were a direct appropriation of the style of the Velvet Underground, another one of his favorite bands from the 1960s.
Cornelius is what music critic Simon Reynolds and fellow postmodern artist Momus have casually referred to as an archist (or arkist)—an artist that expresses himself through archiving, distilling, and collaging numerous cultural artifacts. In Cornelius’s case, he took the swirling, psychedelic sounds of 1960s rock, mashed them with bits of avant-jazz and musique concrete, filtered them through modern sampling technology, and added a dash of movie culture (his Planet of the Apes persona) to create his own theme park-like atmospheric symphonies.
By 1993 Oyamada had refocused his efforts by producing records for Shibuya-kei (Shibuya-style) artists
Born Keigo Oyamada on January 27, 1969, in Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan; married Takako Minekawa, 2000; one son, Mairo.
Formed Flipper’s Guitar with Kenji Ozawa in Tokyo, c. 1989-91; released Flipper’s Guitar debut Three Cheers for Our Side on Polystar, 1989; founded Trattoria Records, 1992; began recording as Cornelius, 1993; released 69/96 on Trattoria, 1995; released Fantasma on Trattoria, 1997; released Point, 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Matador Records, 625 Broadway, 12th FI, New York, NY 10012, website: http://www.matadorrecords.com. Management—Taboo Management, 1022-1/2 South Orange Grove, Los Angeles, CA 90019, phone: (323) 525-0804, fax: (323) 525-0110. Website—Cornelius Official Website: http://www.cornelius-sound.com.
Pizzicato Five and for his then-girlfriend, pop chanteuse Kahimi Karie, as well as concentrating on his own artistic endeavors. As popularity for the Shibuya-kei sound grew, so did Cornelius’s recording repertoire. His Holidays in the Sun EP, 1994’s First Question Award, and 1995’s 69/96 were resounding successes in Japan, selling far more units than most independent American artists would ever dream of. The following year, he released a remix project of 69/96 entitled 96/69, to which his father’s band, the Mahina Stars, contributed a track.
But 1997 turned out to be Cornelius’s most successful year, as his Fantasma record not only sold over 500,000 copies in Japan but also introduced him to New York’s Matador Records and the ever-elusive U.S. market. Attracting critical praise, Fantasma drew comparisons to the collage-rock/hip-hop/folk/funk style of Beck, and the press made constant reference to Fantasma being Cornelius’s “Disneyland” album.
After a short absence from recording, time spent touring, producing Pizzicato Five and numerous other Shibuya-kei artists, marrying musician Takako Minekawa, and rearing their first child, a son named Mairo, Cornelius returned in 2001 with Point. As the name indicates, the record was a precise whittling-down of pop elements to their barest essentials.
Oyamada told Zoon that, “Basically Fantasma involved lots of information, lots of cut-up images. [On Point] I selected the necessary sounds that I felt I needed in there and let the music breathe more. Basically I wanted to make it more simple this time.”
Kawashima comments: “Much of Point is still a microcosmic view of Oyamada’s kaleidoscopic tastes in sound—on the track ‘I Hate Hate,’ for example, he leaps across genres spanning thrash metal, techno, and jazz. Point, as the words of the album’s subtitle ‘From Nakameguro to Everywhere’suggests, is Oyamada’s more grown-up, global take on life. The album’s introspective mood (with ambient sound effects of birds chirping and of rushing water) reflects recent developments in the artist’s own private life .”
As is typically the case with many artists that are so adept in the studio, Oyamada, at first, was at odds with how his recorded work would translate to the live concert forum. Rather than begrudgingly responding, though, Cornelius took on the new challenge with a sense of optimism, approaching the live venue as if it were a whole new paradigm for expression.
On a tour with the Flaming Lips, Sebadoh, and Robyn Hitchcock supporting the Music Against Brain Degeneration cause, “The first 500 audience members who showed up at Tramp’s [a concert theater] were given Walkmans tuned to a simulcast of percussion tracks and sound effects for ‘superior stereo separation, clarity, and depth of sound’ (according to tour literature),” explained Rolling Stone reviewer Rodd McLeod.
A similar presentation occurred at Japan’s famed Budokan Theater in front of 20,000 fans, where headsets playing extra rhythm tracks transmitted from a local radio station, and 3-D glasses were used to enhance the audiovisual experience.
Oyamada is constantly in demand as a remixer, sound designer, and composer. He has remixed artists such as Sting and k.d. lang and was offered by Honda to produce music for their television ads. Outside of music production, though, he has lent his designs to Vacuum Records for a record player that accompanied a special Cornelius single. As well, Oyamada has continues to be closely involved in his simian-obsessed friend Nigo’s line of clothing, A Bathing Ape.
Holidays in the Sun (EP), Trattoria, 1994.
First Question Award (EP), Trattoria, 1994.
69/96, Trattoria, 1995.
96/69, Trattoria, 1996.
Fantasma, Trattoria, 1997; reissued, Matador, 1998.
Point, Trattoria, 2001; reissued, Matador, 2002.
With Flipper’s Guitar
Three Cheers for Our Side, Polystar, 1989.
Camera Talk, Polystar, 1990.
Doctor Head’s World Tower, Polystar, 1991.
(For Pizzicato Five) Bossa Nova 2001, Sony, 2000.
Rolling Stone, August 19, 1999.
San Francisco Bay Guardian, March 11, 1998.
Time International, February 25, 2002, p. 44.
Tokion, April 1998.
“Cornelius,” All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com (June 12, 2003).
“Cornelius,” KindaMuzik, http://www.kindamuzik.net/q_and_a/article.shtml?id=872 (June 13, 2003).
“Cornelius,” Salon,http://archive.salon.com/music/sharps/1998/04/03sharps.html (September 8, 2003).
“Cornelius Interview” Peter Zoon Zenlog, http://www.zenlog.com/cornelius/cornelius.php (June 3, 2003).
“Shibuya-kei Is Dead,” Momus Official Website, http://www.imomus.com/jpop.html (June 13, 2003).
Additional information was provided by Matador publicity materials, 2003.