SATOSHI TOMIIE – EXCLUSIVE FEATURE INTERVIEWFebruary 19, 2019
Japanese born, New York-based Satoshi Tomiie came up in the embryonic 1980’s Hip-Hop scene learning the art of scratching and getting interested in the hardware 808 sound as Hip-Hop became more electronic. This then led him to the earliest house sounds on tape.
He’s probably best known these days for co-writing the now classic ‘Tears’ alongside Frankie Knuckles, and his innovator slammer mix on the massive Global Underground CD series. He’s a student of jazz and classical piano, that’s influenced his hybrid live-DJ sets—with genuine musicality and melody today… we were delighted to get do a live interview with the man.
Mike Mannix: Nice one Satoshi Tomiie massive thanks for sitting down with us at iconic underground. You’ve had quite an extensive and durable career since the early days of dance music and working alongside Frankie Knuckles amongst many other greats. So, what laid the foundations growing up in Japan and then New York from family and the wider community giving you the inspiration to pursue jazz, classical piano then dance music?
Satoshi Tomiie: When I was younger I wasn’t exactly what you call a patient kid, I didn’t really have an interest in learning music or practicing music until I was like 13 or 14 when one of my friends from school bought one of the old Yamaha monophonic synthesizers. But even then I wasn’t really into it at the time because it could only play one sound and then you’d have to do overdubs etc. I think at the time I was probably more interested in wanting to play drums, so my parents brought me a piano instead haha.
I started to learn the classical piano from my neighbour and again I didn’t have the patience to read music I just wanted to play other things and was definitely more interested in listening to the radio. But that’s how I discovered Jazz was through the radio and learned that Jazz had more of a basic freedom to play and to improvise as it had a basic chord progression and Melody. So my first big passion for music was Jazz and I actually didn’t mind practicing up to 6 hours a day!
MM: So what was the first electronic track that you listened to that make you sit up and want to learn how to play?
ST: So just before I touch on that I have to explain a little bit more about Jazz and how I was so into Harvey Hancock and other great virtuosos and realised that this scene had happened in the 50s and 60s, it had had its time and it was a small scene and I did wonder if I’d have a place in this scene. Later on, I started looking for something more current I could get into.
I found out that one of my rich friends haha had all the hardware gear and the DJ setup, and when I saw it first I was like ‘wow what is this’ I had no idea, but through them, I discovered hip-hop culture around 1983. I remember I was really interested in the fact that you could create an instrument out of scratching records. I followed the scene up until the mid-80s and watched the transition from just rap to the introduction of the 808 and the drum machines as hip-hop became more electronic and I got really interested in wanting to create hip-hop tracks myself. I started hunting down the 808 machines and back then they weren’t that easy to get, eventually, I found a TR 909 in the end which I still have to this day and have it on my desk in front of me.
So then when I was getting into the machine side of things one of my friends invited me over to his work place. He worked in a clothing shop at the time, and when I went in he had a cassette playing this new kind of music, it was a house mix you know the 4/4 rhythm which at the time I wasn’t really into because that was more associated with commercial music, remember hip-hop wasn’t structured like that and I didn’t find 4/4 interesting. But
when I heard this stripped down 4/4 drum sound with just a bass and weird interesting sounds, I was thinking wow this is something I could get involved with.
MM: So it grabbed you straight away?
ST: It wasn’t until I got in the clubs that I really got it, hearing it on a big system up really loud, I was like ‘wow this is amazing’, and I really into the DJ side of things and slowly but surely I taught myself how to mix (blend) properly as I was already used to 2 decks and a mixer from my years of scratching in the hip-hop scene.
MM: Which eventually led you to Frankie Knuckles, and working on that huge track ‘Tears’?
ST: Yes it did eventually. One of my friends at the time was working for a company in Tokyo and that company invited Frankie knuckles over and this is where I met this amazing man, I was in my early 20s then. I was still playing hip hop and house in the same sets and had started producing radio jingles and was asked to do one for this event, that’s how Frankie heard my music for the first time.
Frankie had to mix his set after my jingle and he played at 5 events so he heard that jingle 5 times and afterward he asked if we could make a track together and cutting a long story short that’s how I produced the track ‘Tears’ with Frankie
I made a demo tape with one track Detroit techno and the other was the instrumental for tears, Frankie was only interested in the 2nd one, then I was invited over to New York, at that time I couldn’t speak English at all and I was new to the culture and business culture so everything was new I was in at the deep end. I asked Frankie would it be possible if Robert Owens would do the vocal on the track and it turned out that he was actually Frankie’s roommate at the time which was great and when he said yes I knew it was a great opportunity.
It wasn’t until the second studio session that I actually got to sit down with Robert in the studio cos’ I’ve been back and forth from Japan and everything then was done through FAX so it could be a slow process. At that time Frankie was taking the actual takes from the studio on reel-to-reel and playing them in the clubs.
We had sent a demo to Pete Tong, and when he heard the first take he declined the track and said it was ‘too underground’
We worked on the vocal a bit more to make it a bit more song orientated. Eventually in the early 90’s all the back-and-forth from Tokyo to New York took its toll I decided to move to continue making my music, I was 24 and I’m still here.
MM: So it was a good time for you to move anyway because the New York DJ’s were getting into the UK scene which had exploded?
ST: Yes, and what
I realised was the DJs in New York we’re going after the exports from the UK because they were looking for something different than what they produced. When I started listening to the UK imports we could hear the Detroit and Chicago influencers but it was a whole new musical language.
MM: So you were making a name for yourself and you got asked to work with one of the biggest brands in dance music at the time Global Underground can you tell us about how that came to happen?
ST: So my foundation was Chicago, Detroit and the sound in New York that influenced the groove that I was working on. I was especially influenced by watching David Morales because he played Chicago and Detroit sounds mixed with hip-hop and was exploring different sounds in electronic. So my style of sound and playing was picked up on in the UK and I was asked to come over did a huge bus tour where I played at Cream and numerous other venues and Newcastle. I actually played a lot of gigs in Newcastle and became good friends with the promoters who are cool people, and found out that they are really great producers as well so we started to exchange music and this is how I was asked to be part of the Global Underground CD.
MM: Grab the opportunities when they arise?
ST: Yes of course and I did.
MM: So when you get the inspiration and you hit the studio what happens next?
ST: I actually got really bored of working with music in the box just working on a computer and I decided to work back with instruments and the machines again as I find it more creative. I just turn on the machines and I just mess around until I come up with the groove and take it from there, I’m always looking for the happy accident.
MM: So can you just tell us then what platforms and hardware you use?
ST: My usual workflow process is I create all the sounds I want on the hardware and record to Ableton because it’s good as a tape machine it’s a better creative process for me.
MM: What are your thoughts on the impact of social media on the scene today?
ST: It’s different these days of course as everything changes, and today’s artists have to self-promote and I personally like all the instant communication and interaction. But, what I don’t like is the part where people become slaves to social media, I hate it as it’s more about branding and logos and whether there’s money behind your marketing team,
it’s marketing over music today
MM: So do you have any tips for the aspiring producer artist today?
If you have a real talent and if you have the passion then eventually you will get noticed, stick to what you really love!
Here’s a tip for people that make music all the time in a computer and they find they’re getting stuck and the inspiration is gone, that it’s not the same as having a jam with someone or a band because inside the box your building the track in layers, putting down the kick drum then the hi-hats, bass, and synth all one by one, it’s not as inspiring as having a jam on hardware or the close interaction with people.
MM: Well you certainly have been inspired this year and been really busy in the studio?
ST: Yea man I’ve made over 50 tracks this year alone, just had a good workflow,
the inspiration has been there and I really think because I’ve gone back to programming with hardware it has reopened the door for all this new creativity.
I’m in the studio now in New York and I’m just surrounded by all my favourite keyboards and drum machines with my favourite still being the TR 909, I don’t have enough time to use them all, unfortunately. My challenge at the moment is making grooves with the least amount of elements and trying to make it more interesting.
MM: So what releases have you had this year and what’s coming up next?
ST: OK the Resonant EP on No.19 Music was released in April earlier this and is a high impact and atmospheric EP that is designed to make dance floors take note, with a great remix from Dana Ruh
The ‘Jam EP’ on My Favorite Robot Records is the most recent which dropped in September which features two tracks recorded live, with no computer, with a superb remix from Mateo Murphy. And I’ve been working on my own label imprint “A_A a project inspired by Electric Jazz, Experimental Noise / Avant-garde and the stripped down elements from the music I’ve been loving and creating from the beginning – Electronic and House Music. Current project members are me and Nao Gunji and the name stands for ABSTRACT_ARCHITECTURE, this represents its craft, sound, and texture.”
MM: Thank you for a great interview Satoshi!
ST: It all good