Ken Ishii is one of techno’s most unassuming and talented influencers. He’s an innovator whose contribution to the genre as a DJ and producer is far-reaching.
A student of the musical curriculum taught by Detroit’s techno godfathers in the ‘80s, Ishii is an artist in flux. He’s a gifted creator with a singular sound. In a world of fleeting trends and fads, the secret of his longevity is his creative focus and diligence.
Throughout his catalog of enduring singles, EPs and full-length albums (fun fact: Ishii composed the music for the opening ceremonies to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan) issued since 1993, he’s fluidly explored a wide swath of styles — everything from funky, breakbeat-infused tracks to auspicious, ambient-bathed explorations.
Ishii closed out 2020 with “Bionic Jellyfish,” a crushing, no-nonsense single for Electropical Records. It’s tailor-made for whenever we can have raucous warehouse parties again. The enthralling release includes bristling remixes by Drunken Kong and Luca Morris & Mozzy Rekorder.
We spoke with the Tokyo-based techno titan shortly after the single’s release to discuss “Bionic Jellyfish” and his passion for brewing craft beer.
Big Shot: The last time we connected, you had just brewed your first craft beer. How do you look back on the experience brewing KIKK IPA?
Ken Ishii: Lots of interesting stuff! My second beer has just been released. This one, KIKK IPA 2020, is [a] NEIPA [New England IPA], while the 2019 one is a West Coast IPA. We launched the KIKK IPA website so check it out when you have time.
Looking back on how it worked out, I met the owner and his crew of the brewery, Rise & Win Brewing Co. based in Tokushima prefecture of Japan, at an outdoor festival in Tokyo earlier in 2019. I was there as one of the DJs and they were selling their beers at a stand. They knew my name and I told them [about] my love, knowledge and dream [of making] for beer, especially IPA. We instantly clicked and started discussing what we could do together.
I initially made a recipe for West Coast IPA, which is my most favorite kind of beer, with some help from my beer brewing DJ friends, like Lucas Freire based in Barcelona and Ynux in Gent, Belgium, and then refined it together with their brewmaster. Although the test brew didn’t work out 100 percent, the second and main brew became what I really had wanted. It was like a moment my dream came true! Even better, the beer was sold out so quickly. The brewery said it was at double the speed compared to their usual limited editions.
(Above) Ishii in the mix and mashing hops at the brewery.
You were involved with many steps in the beermaking process, including overseeing package design by Yasunobu Yamashita, who has designed many of your records. How does releasing beer compare to putting out music?
I can tell that beer-making as a whole is like making and releasing your music. First, it’s big fun to do, even though both making music and brewing beer make you sweat. Secondly, being based on some formulas, you can add your own ideas to get something you really want. Package designing is another fun part too — it’s like doing artwork for your album. Lastly, since beer is a fermented drink, the result is a little unpredictable. You never know how it exactly tastes or smells until it’s done. This is like music collaboration with other artists. It always becomes something different in the end from what is originally expected, which is an exciting part of collaboration though.
(Above) Ishii’s KIKK IPA 2020 quickly sold out.
I believe craft beer shops are the new record stores — they’re places where fans gather to seek out rare gems, socialize, etc. What’s the craft beer and record store scene where you live?
I totally agree. Also, I [think] the friendship between breweries/brewers is like one between us DJs/artists. Good collaborations come out of friendly relationships. For the last decade, craft beer places have drastically increased here in Tokyo. They give you a welcoming and friendly atmosphere and people chat easily with strangers.
Although I don’t often go to record stores anymore myself, there are a couple of strong and long-established record stores here. More and more young DJs are buying vinyl to play these days, and I guess you can see the same scene as what I used to see there — DJs exchanging music and party information and having an industry talk.
“During the pandemic, life has become simple for me. Now I realize things I truly like, and I do only those. Making and learning music, taking care of my family, and drinking (and sometimes brewing) beer.”
While your new single “Bionic Jellyfish” has no hops, it’s indeed just what the doctor ordered — a hard-hitting, no-frills smasher. How did the track come together?
That’s my typical style when I produce a DJ track — groove with energy and a twist. I had done a few remixes for the label, Electropical, before and they finally asked me for my original track. Then I sent them a track [that’s] 100 percent Ken Ishii.
There’s a nice selection of remixes, too. In general, how do you choose remixers and the ones who remixes “Bionic Jellyfish”? Is it ever odd hearing others interpret your selections?
Drunken Kong is one of the hardest-working techno duos as well as one of the best exports from Japan in the industry. I love their distinctive style. So does the label boss, Cyril. [We’re] friends too and we often go for dinner together, so it was a natural step for me to ask them first to remix the track. Luca Morris & Mozzy Rekorder are the label’s regular artists. They release quality music and have a different style from Drunken Kong, so we were sure it would have been a well-rounded package with three different styles in one EP.
Regarding others remixing my music, I’m always curious how and how much they’d use my original parts. Some people use lots of them and some do only one hit sound. Sometimes remixers do a much better job than I do. Maybe it’s again like brewing beer — you never know what the yeast is cooking in the end!
2020 was a terrible year for humanity. As we look ahead to a post-COVID-19 world, what are your plans for 2021? What have you learned most about yourself during the pandemic, a time that has tested all of us?
Like everybody else, I reckon I won’t be able to go on tour internationally for a while, so I will produce more music in 2021, mainly for a film soundtrack of a sci-fi cartoon, games and VR projects, and EPs and remixes on various labels as usual. During the pandemic, life has become simple for me. Now I realize things I truly like, and I do only those. Making and learning music, taking care of my family, and drinking (and sometimes brewing) beer. Cooking was added to my hobby as well.
Anything else to add?
Thank you [to my] fans for [their] continuous support [of] my music!
Thanks for your time, Ken. Stay safe and be well. Kanpai!
Thanks a lot, too. Enjoy your beers! Kanpai!