The DJ artist as composer of melody

May 13, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Tomoyuki Tanaka is a musical illusionist.

At first glance, he appears to be just another modern DJ, working with turntables and samplers to create sonic collages. But under the guise of Fantastic Plastic Machine -- his nom du disque -- Tanaka seems more composer than collage-maker, for the tracks he has created for the Machine's two albums are rich and melodically detailed enough to seem minor pop masterpieces.

Take the track "There Must Be an Angel (Playing With My Heart)," one of the selections from Fantastic Plastic Machine's current album, "Luxury." Not only does the song have a distinct verse/chorus construction, but it's full of dramatic, decisive shifts in mood, moving from the lush, percussive refrain to a gently percolating Brazilian-style bridge. Hearing it, you'd swear Tanaka had spent hours scribbling notes before taking a full orchestra into the studio.

But you'd be wrong about everything -- except the hours spent on the track.

Speaking through a translator from his home in Tokyo, the Japanese DJ explains that he builds his tracks piece by piece. "When I pick up a record and play it, and there is some time a moment, a really beautiful moment, when I'll think, 'This is something that I'd like to have at the core of a track.' Then, when I have that core, I'll add other flavors, other sounds, from other records."

Along the way, he shapes those pieces of sound into a melody, works out a structure for the song, and eventually brings in a singer to record the vocal. Frequently, he'll add live musicians to the sample-based sound.

"Saying it like this makes it seem so easy," he says. "But when it comes down to really doing it, it's very complicated, and requires such a long time-process."

Part of the difficulty lies with Tanaka's fondness for drama and contrast in his music. Whether he's working with a singer in the recording studio or simply spinning records (as he will be on his American tour), Tanaka pays close attention to the shape and structure of the sound. "I want to put a story or a drama in each track," he says. "Or even in a DJ session. Just like life itself, there should be hills and mountains, and flatness. I want to have all these dimensions in the sequences of melodies and chord changes."

Although Tanaka's production approach is typical of DJ music from Europe and America, his fondness for pop content isn't. In fact, the only other DJ-oriented producers making similarly tuneful music are also Japanese: Yasuhara Konishi from Pizzicato Five, and Cornelius.

Tanaka, though, thinks that has more to do with personal taste than anything specific to the Japanese character. "We've been very much influenced by pop, by melody-driven music," he says, referring to Konishi and Cornelius. "Artists like Antonio Carlos Jobim, or Burt Bacharach. So those influences and fascination and obsession about pop music make us want to create our own pop music.

"It's a personal fascination with pop and beautiful-melody music," he says. "It just happens to get a lot of attention in America."

Fantastic Plastic Machine

When: Sunday, May 16, doors open at 9 p.m.

Where: The Spot, 2314 Boston St.

Tickets: $2

Call: 410-276-9556

Pub Date: 05/13/99

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