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Cornelius
By Dan Grunebaum

Published November 30, 2007

There aren’t many pop musicians who can make a record company wait over half a decade for a proper new album. But for iconoclastic Japanese artist Keigo Oyamada, who calls himself Cornelius after the lovable scientist in the Planet Of The Apes films, it’s standard practice. The gap between Sensuous, out in April on indie imprint Everloving, and 2001’s Point was preceded by a four-year wait between that disc and his worldwide breakout, Fantasma. Cornelius can afford to hole up in his studio in Tokyo’s hip Naka-Meguro neighborhood for years at a time, because he has an auteur-like status matched by only a few Japanese pop stars, including occasional collaborator Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Cornelius’s guitar work for Sakamoto, the Oscar-winning writer of the film score for The Last Emperor and former member of seminal ’70s Japanese electro-pop group Yellow Magic Orchestra, was one of the fi rst topics that came up when I sat down with Cornelius last year at the Chanel building during a photo session he was doing for Interview magazine’s Japan issue. Featuring a parade of Japanese celebrities, the issue was overseen by fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld himself, a commanding presence who set up the shots while minions flitted to and fro.

Cornelius recalled being asked on a Japanese news program to join Sakamoto and the other two former YMO members in concert, and finding himself put on the spot. “They made a point of asking me to play with them in the middle of a program, so I couldn’t refuse,” he says, in a typically matter-of-fact manner. “But it’s fun, so why not?”

For the unassuming Cornelius, 37 and now a father (his son Milo is named after his own Planet of the Apes namesake’s son), YMO provided the soundtrack to his youth in Tokyo. Yet he claims to feel more in common with them musically than some might imagine. “I wouldn’t say there’s no generation gap at all, but at the same time I’ve been familiar with their work for years. I feel close to them musically, and they’ve also progressed since their YMO days.”

Unlike the prolific, Grammy-winning Sakamoto, whose output in any given year ranges wildly from film scores to bossa nova to laptop ambient, Cornelius is known for a trademark indie-electro-rock sound that he refines with an archetypally Japanese attention to detail. “I work just like a regular salaryman,” he says about his time in the studio. “I get up in the morning and go the studio, come home in the evening and go to sleep. I take the weekend off and then get back to work on Monday. It’s not exactly a nine to five, but the pace is about the same.”

The workmanlike approach shows. Sensuous sounds like an album that’s been fussed over by a perfectionist. It opens with the title track, a sweetly mellow acoustic number with jazzy chord work that highlights Oyamada’s devotion to the guitar, a constant since he disbanded his seminal, style-plundering group Flipper’s Guitar, which helped launch Japan’s frothy 1990s Shibuya-kei movement, over 15 years ago. “Flipper’s Guitar was terrible live,” he laughs. “We were famous for not being able to play our instruments properly.”

But in contrast to the contemplative title track, much of Sensuous induces an off-balance sense of vertigo. “You feel like you’re going to tip over, but you don’t,” explained Cornelius about the songs. “They barely hang together.” The aptly titled “Fit Song,” for example, explodes with stuttering funk rhythms, while the album’s middle stretch offers experiments in techno-jazz-rock fusion that position Cornelius somewhere between Jeff Beck’s manic guitar explorations and the found-sound electronica of Matthew Herbert.

The catchy “Music” is the likeliest candidate for a hit single [at least in Japan –Ed.], but it’s “Gum” that’s the best rock song Cornelius has crafted in years. Over a foundation of driving, near-punk bass and drum

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