Raygun (May 98)
By Neva Chonin
Japanese superstar Cornelius reworks a kaleidoscopic vision
of three decades of pop music on his latest album, Fantasma.
Ray Gun took him on a rock'n roll tour through the streets
of LA with rock historian Art Fein.
have met a ghost before." The artist currently known as Cornelius
is standing in the deco lobby of LA's gorgeously frayed Roosevelt
Hotel, sharing his haunted thoughts through his translator,
Jim. "It was in Japan about two years ago, at the time of
my grandmother's funeral. I was in bed and an old woman came
into my room and started floating around." He waves his arms
around his head like a lasso. "I couldn't really see her,
but I could feel her. I couldn't move or get out of bed, and
she kept saying, '87, 87.' I wondered what 87 could mean,
and I thought maybe that's when I was supposed to die. But
then I figured, well, if it's 87, that's not too bad."
she meant 1987, in which case you're already dead," offers
His response is delighted laughter. Cornelius--real name Keigo
Oyamada--has in fact made a career out of playing with time.
for years a superstar in Japan, he signed to Matador in 1997
and has just released his US debut, Fantasma (which
has already gone platinum in Japan). With its kaleidoscopic
retooling of three decades of popular music--from the Beach
Boys to heavy metal to soundtrack samples to cheesy easy listening--the
album has generated a buzz the size of Texas and left critics
grappling for new adjectives to describe what might turn out
to be this decade's most accomplished work of musical collage.
But at the moment, waiting for a rental van to take him on
a magical mystery tour of LA's rock'n'roll sights, Oyamada
is more concerned with exploring musical history than discussing
his own. Video camera in tow, he is decked out in appropriate
safari gear: a camouflage jacket designed by A Bathing Ape
(upon close inspection, apes can be discerned lurking in its
pattern), new blue jeans and blue wallabies.
Diminutive and fine-boned, Oyamada wears his hair in a neat
facsimile of Brian Wilson's mop circa Pet Sounds, with
dark bangs flopping into his eyes as soft and warm as brown
velvet buttons. When he smiles or laughs, he looks 10 years
old. In fact, Oyamada is 27. His perfectly ageless appearance
suits a musician whose metier is blurring boundaries between
Right now, the little time traveler is fidgety. Trying to
make small talk, I ask how he likes the hotel.
He glances around nervously. "There are many stairs."
I dig a little deeper: "Tell me what kind of music you listened
to as a kid."
Oyamada perks up. "When I was very young, music from animated
cartoons. Then in elementary school and junior high, I started
listening to Japanese popular music. In high school I listened
to American and Western pop and got into punk."
As best as he can remember, Oyamada experienced his first
concert when an employee of his family took him to see a Japanese
pop star perform on top of a Tokyo department store. Then,
when he was in the seventh grade, he attended his first bonafide
stadium rock show: Queen. "This was before large video screens,
he says. "They seemed very tiny down on the stage."
Determined that he should not appear tiny before his fans,
last year Oyamada went to extraordinary lengths to ensure
that his sold-out show in Tokyo's Budokan Stadium would be
a larger-than-life experience. an elaborate display of lights
and videos accompanied the antics of gorilla-suited martial
artists; the souvenir tour program included 3-D glasses and
musical samples accessed by pushing buttons. A local radio
station broadcast an extra rhythm track for concertgoers with
His sense of showmanship wasn't always so dizzyingly futuristic.
As a teenager, he taught himself to play guitar listening
to Kiss and Black Sabbath. he painted his room black and bought
a human skeleton for company. he parents, he says, "Thought
I was crazy because I would have the skeleton sitting in a
chair watching TV. My mom would always come in and mistake
the skeleton for me. She would say, 'Stop it!' but even though
she didn't like what I was doing, she didn't try to force
me to stop. They didn't force anything on me. They said, 'As
long as you don't become a bum, do what you want.'"
I observe as we pile into the tour van, "You're certainly
not a bum now."
"Not so far," sighs Oyamada, snuggling into a seat by the
As an art student in his twenties, Oyamada was the only kid
in his school who knew how to play guitar. This made him very
popular, and he wound up playing in numerous cover bands whose
repertoires ranged from ska to punk to new wave ("I was a
hired gun," he says proudly), an experience he credits for
his current fascination with diverse genres. His most serious
project was a band Flipper's Guitar, with whom he released
three albums before realizing he would rather be recording
his own music.
So he bought a sampler.
when I started thinking about collaging," he recalls. "but
if I look back, I realize that I've always been inclined to
collage. As a child I used to draw a lot. There were these
two Japanese characters called Kinkaida and Komenaida, and
I would always morph them together into a different character
Oyamada chose the stage name Cornelius when he began his solo
career in the early '90s. "I thought it would be good to have
a separate name associated with my music as opposed to my
own, " he explains. "That way, if my band grew, I could always
just keep the same name." Japanese television happened to
be running a "Planet of the Apes" marathon at the time, and
Oyamada found himself smitten with Roddy McDowell's character,
a benevolent chimpanzee scientist named Cornelius. "Even in
the monkey world, Cornelius was very smart," he says. "He
understood and empathized with the humans. I wasn't really
a 'Planet of the Apes' fan until then, but after the name
stuck, I felt a responsibility toward the films."
That responsibility includes wearing a large silver ring embossed
with a likeness of McDowell's Cornelius. It also includes
re-releasing the "Planet of the Apes" soundtrack on his own
label, Trattoria, which he founded in 1993. Also on the Trattoria
roster are Apples in Stereo, the Japanese bands Hanatarash
and Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, and Bill Wyman's
Trattoria's diversity reflects Oyamada's revolving musical
praxis, which, after two Japanese-released albums, --the breezy
pop of First Question Award and the funky, Beastie-Boy-ish
69/96 (as well as the remix companion 96/69)
--has produced the genre-bending Fantasma. Here, rather
than follow a single stylistic line, Oyamada (who played all
the instruments on the album) mixes and matches musical eras,
media, and languages in a creatively spectacular homage to
pop. Some tracks blend lounge muzak with metal guitars; others
pair surf-rock harmonies with tinny Casio keyboards. One memorable
number appears to use a housefly, three vacuum cleaners, and
a gospel choir as instrumentation. Oyamada delivers all this
via a puckish persona somewhere between Beck, DJ Shadow, and
When I liken his musical bricolage to the work of a postmodern
Dadaist, Oyamada giggles. "Dada," he sing-songs, as we disembark
at the notorious Rainbow club looking for a photo op and a
restroom. "Maybe. But it's not a conscious thing. I think
it's based on something numerical or chronological. , like
approaching the new millennium. A lot of people have started
gathering various aspects of the 20th century, taking elements
from the old and putting them into a new vessel, so that when
you listen to it, something comes at you which feels intimately
personal or familiar. You don't know what it is, but it strikes
an emotional chord."
The tour van continues its winding journey through the streets
of Los Angeles as our guide, Art Fein, author of The LA
Musical History Tour, (now in its second printing on
Henry Rollins' 2.13.61 publishing) and local cable TV personality,
supplies running commentary:
Joplin died in room 105 of that hotel" (Oyamada gasps and
directs his video camera at the seedy motorcourt); "There's
where they found the body of Bobby Fuller (another gasp as
the camera whirs); "Charlie Chaplin's studios, built in 1910;
Michael Jackson did USA For Africa there" (neck-swiveling
and silent awe)' "And right here is where Buffalo Springfield's
house used to stand" (blank incomprehension).
When the van reaches LA's legendary Guitar Center, Oyamada
climbs out to peruse the palm prints and signatures in its
Rockwalk. he reverently places his hands in Brian Wilson's
large prints while a photographer snaps a picture. Later,
outside the Denny's Restaurant on Sunset (the Rock'n'Roll
Denny's), Oyamada has his picture taken with another California
legend: DJ and bon vivant Rodney Bingenheimer, who graciously
interrupts his lunch for the honor--though neither he nor
Oyamada appears to have the slightest idea of who the other
At the Gold Star Recording Studios, where the Beach Boys recorded
"Good Vibrations," Oyamada again mulls the magic of influence.
"I think I'm lucky to have been born at a time when, with
the advent of CDs, old music and new are equally accessible,
" he says, sweeping his video camera across the building's
rundown facade. "Technologically, it's all fair game. We are
at a time where we're digesting and looking back to see how
far we've come. How that's going to evolve is difficult to
say. I don't know if something will come around and clear
the table off to start things anew. Tough it would be great
if that came about, because it would get really boring to
just rehash the past forever."
Even in Japan, where he is a full-blown superstar, little
is known about Oyamada's personal life, except that he lives
alone in Tokyo with his two cats, whom he boards with his
mother while on tour. If he is in a relationship, he has kept
it out of the public eye--though he does cite Michael Jackson
as a celebrity crush. Not surprisingly, when he spots a Jacko
impersonator on Hollywood Boulevard, he happily pays cash
to have his picture taken with his idol's doppelganger. The
two compare dance moves.
But the best is yet to come. Back at the Roosevelt, his brain
brimming with rock history, Oyamada is on his way to the pool
when he suddenly finds himself face to face with James Brown.
The Godfather of Soul has just arrived, with a police escort,
to hear a singer audition in the hotel ballroom (in keeping
with the day's historical theme, she happens to be performing
Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart.")
Looking formidably royal in a sleek dark suit and hairspray-cemented
hair, Brown allows himself to be coaxed into a photo with
the bashful Oyamada, who seems about to swoon.
After a round or mimosas to calm the nerves, we set out for
the wax museum down the block, which we understand boasts
a formidable "Planet of the Apes" display. But the results
disappoint: the simians behind the glass case are wizened
and dusty, and do little justice to the livelier cinematic
counterparts. After a moment of sad contemplation, Oyamada
spots a Whoopi Goldberg figure in full Sister Act drag.
Quick as a bunny, he scampers across the room and clambers
into the open display. there he gleefully poses for a final
souvenir snapshot with Goldberg's musty simulacrum. For a
moment, under the museum's garish lights, the juxtaposition
seems perfect: Cornelius has once again stepped out of time
and into pop history.