Every month, Memories of Shibuya will be taking a look at a different artist or group, with featured songs – one per week – highlighting the peaks (and, occasionally, troughs) of their musical career.
In this installment of Memories of Shibuya‘s special look at the ’90s highlights of Kahimi Karie’s musical career, her former songwriting partner Nick “Momus” Currie discusses the biggest hit that he and Karie ever had – and, as writer Ian F. Martin memorably noted, the only time that a reference to The Fall got on the Oricon top 10.
A three-storey concrete building in Nakameguro, Tokyo, was the 1990s home of 3D Corporation, the jimusho which handled Kahimi Karie, Cornelius, Chocolat, Neil and Iraiza and a few others. Mr Oka, a tall, chubby, easygoing man, was the boss. Kahimi was handled by the indefatigable Fumiko Masaki, who often seemed like Kahimi’s slightly older, pushier best friend, or perhaps her chaperone.
The ground floor at 3D was a garage housing a bright yellow sports car. Upstairs there was a meeting area with a table and backlit CD shelf, an office area crowded with Apple computers, and a trendy orange vinyl sofa where the Shibuya-kei stars would sit when journalists came to interview them in reverent, hushed voices.
The top floor contained a tiny but funky recording studio crammed with Cornelius’s gadgets and trinkets: Moog synths, Maestro drum machines, guitars, a Mac, airbells, a miniscule padded live room. On one side there were views down to the cherry-lined Meguro River, on the other loomed the skyscrapers and flyovers of Shibuya. When Cornelius advertised his Point album with the slogan “From Nakameguro to everywhere”, this room was the “point” in question, the place where, day by day, the three-dimensional music got made.
Although Kahimi Karie’s career was masterminded from 3D headquarters, the only thing I ever recorded with her in the Cornelius studio was a late curiosity — the last thing we ever did together, in fact — the 2001 song “Frilly Military,” a freebie packaged with a lyrics book. That’s because in 1995 Kahimi and Cornelius (as Keigo Oyamada was now calling himself) were no longer a couple, or even living in the same city. Kahimi had decided to come and live in Paris, where I was too. A slightly glum Keigo came over to see whether he could salvage the situation (he was present at the video shoot for “I Am A Kitten”), but decided that he was a “Tokyo boy” after all; Paris didn’t have enough “information” for him. The city didn’t go fast enough. The last bridge was burnt when Keigo, back in Tokyo, started dating Kahimi’s old bandmate from Fancy Face, Groovy Name: Takako Minekawa.
So Kahimi and I recorded in Paris studios, rather grand old-fashioned ones, with the 3D people flying in from Tokyo to coordinate things each time we made a record. It worked out cheaper that way, apparently, than taking time in pricey Japanese studios, and it kept the bruised Kahimi and Keigo out of each other’s hair. Our favourite studio was on the Rue de Seine, not far from Serge Gainsbourg’s house. It was here that we recorded “Good Morning World.”
The song was put together for a cosmetics commercial. The brand was called Menard, and they’d taken a series of 15-second slots on Japanese TV. 3D presented the job to me as a done deal: make a song suitable for a TV spot. Hence lines like: “Put some make-up on your face, make this world a better place!” In the end, Menard picked the little rap in the middle of the song for their spots, which I thought was quite adventurous of them: “Yum, yum, bubble-gum, stick it up your brother’s gun…” That bit was based half on children’s playground chants, half on Fall lyrics. I got a kick out of hearing Kahimi sing “How I wrote ‘Elastic Girl’”, a line which made an unlikely connection between Mark E. Smith’s “How I Wrote Elastic Man” and Kahimi’s previous record “Elastic Girl.”
The backing for “Good Morning World” was put together in my Montmartre flat (a mysterious chandeliered duplex designed for a rich man’s mistress) using samples from Soft Machine and Jacques Dutronc (the Soft Machine samples were eventually cleared, contributing something to Robert Wyatt’s pension). In the studio we added real drums and trumpet played by musicians I’d found busking at the fleamarket at St-Ouen.
I didn’t use any of the French musicians I’d employed for the I am a kitten EP because they’d since shafted me, deciding during the recording that they were producers and writers, and pitching a new record to Kahimi behind my back. I wasn’t invited to the sessions, or even told about them. Despite the commercial success of My First Karie — the resulting mini-album — Kahimi never worked with the team again. Apparently the recording had been a stressful one, with producer Bertrand Burgalat (a great talent, but “difficult”) slamming doors and piano lids, and Kahimi in tears.
I remember having a bit of an argument with 3D about the TV commercial. 3D insisted that I give them the publishing rights. I said that that was impossible: my publishing was with Rhythm King Music in London, and everything I wrote had to be controlled by them. In the end 3D worked something out with Rhythm King. But it was a useful illustration of the differences between the British and Japanese music industries: in Japan your jimusho looks after you like a family, for life. You give them everything, and in return they give you what you need. It’s both kind and totalitarian.
Kahimi lived, at 3D’s expense, on the Boulevard Pigalle, in a tiny flat with a view over a courtyard with an elegant curved staircase. Philippe Katerine, her other main songwriter at the time — a great talent and a droll, charming guy — always seemed to be visiting. We often met up with Ariel Wizman, who, with the actor Edouard Baer, had an influential Radio Nova show called La Grosse Bulle, a place where ironic elevator music met pataphysical humour.
Living this agreeable life in Paris, it was difficult to keep up with the impact our records were having in Japan. I didn’t visit the country between 1993 and 1997, so I never witnessed the coming-to-power of Shibuya-kei at first hand. There was a structural confusion, too: Kahimi’s records came out on a plethora of different labels, some indie, some major (Crue-l, Trattoria, Polydor). She was always signed to the international division of the major labels she worked with, which seemed a bit odd (I suppose because her studio bills were in Paris). She also worked with lots of different producers and writers.
Whenever you asked about Kahimi’s sales figures, you’d get a familiar Japanese mistake in English: “Ten million, no, wait, one… one hundred thousand!” Whatever the actual figures were, they were vastly greater than any I’d seen in my indie-schmindie career. “Good Morning World,” powered by the Menard spots and a stylish video by fashion photographer Tajimax, was apparently shifting 56,000 copies a week on its release. Most of those were going through one record store, the HMV shop in Shibuya. And this was all on an indie boutique label, Keigo Oyamada’s Trattoria Records, distributed by the medium-sized major Polystar.
“Good Morning World” is undoubtedly the most commercially successful song I’ve written, but I can’t say I particularly care for it now. It’s not a bad pastiche of 1960s pop, with enough quirks and hooks to keep you listening. It’s interesting on a psychological level that a man could write “it’s so nice to be a beautiful girl” (or — the uncharitable might add — that an ugly man could write about the joys of being beautiful). That was a fantastic thing for me, being able to extend myself into another person and correct all my perceived weaknesses. Kahimi seemed to feel the same way; in interviews she would often talk me up as someone who complemented her, understood who she really was without even being told.
Did I really understand her? Later, when I met Arto Lindsay in New York, he told me he’d fallen in love with Kahimi based on the songs I’d written for her. It was a beautiful compliment to… both of us, I suppose, or neither.