Fantastic Plastic Machine
Behind a Man and His Music
Fantastic Plastic Machine is the pink elephant of music ñ recognizably strong and confident, but with an unfamiliar essence. Moreover, its intention ñ mockery? art? innocent commotion? ñ is masked by its obscure nature, which can’t help but add to the endearing confusion. It is an enigma with infinite potential, for it is free of the chains of genre. It is unbridled creativity, the kind that begins unexpectedly but whose free spirit is infinitely more refreshing than foreign. It is bossa nova. It is lounge. It is dance music and Philadelphia soul, martinis and tuxedos with worn-out sneakers. It is a pink elephant.
“Whatever I do, I consider the most important part is to make it POP!” says Tomoyuki Tanaka, the man behind the music, through a translator. Tanaka is like a modern-day Renaissance man, the kind who doesn’t simply manufacture genius, but instead, embraces and compiles his surroundings into something with the perfect balance of comforting nostalgia and daring innovation. It isn’t hard to see how his music is a reflection of himself, despite what little personal information he ever divulges. For every style that he expertly crams into Fantastic Plastic Machine, he has held a different position in the communications world. DJ, radio personality, fashion magazine editor, musician ñ Tanaka has been around the communications block, a man with a resume as diverse as his music.
The appeal of Fantastic Plastic Machine is so wide and convoluted that it comes off as simultaneously wonderful and inoffensive to everyone involved. With unwavering poise, Tanaka can inspire the swinger with a love of house beats and can strike a chord in the raver’s heart for Marvin Gaye. It is all done with such care and conscious skill that every worthwhile feature of his borrowed genres are layered into the songs, leaving the listener with a choice levels in which to approach the music. For every familiar aspect, there is something new to discover, and the two are invariably linked like perfect pieces from different puzzles. It is probably impossible to appreciate Fantastic Plastic Machine from afar, because by virtue of its components, every listener is already, in some way, connected to it. It’s a wonder what level Tanaka enters his own music ñ although, of course, he would never tell you.
Yet what’s most impressive is not that he can reproduce and maintain the dignity of each style, but that he can do it with multiple genres at the exact same time. If it wasn’t so intriguing, it would be considered unforgiving. “I believe that the sense of mixture always relate[s] to producing and creating part of art,” he says. “I don’t think ‘genre.’ I just aim to express FPM style. The sense of mixture is much more important than mixing something together.”
Tanaka is equally as secretive about what exactly goes into each song. While he’ll admit that he pieces together a collage of live instruments and samples from his behemoth record collection, he refuses to dissect a song and divulge its secrets. A master in the studio, Tanaka makes sure even the old samples sound as crisp as the studio musicians, and he manipulates pre-recorded ditties to such a degree that they are virtually unrecognizable next to their original format. He does this for two reasons: it drastically extends his creative license, and it keeps him from being sued for copyright infringement. So far, after three full-length albums, nobody’s ever caught him stealing a sample. He’s just that good.
For a Japanese man who speaks little English, the international appeal of Fantastic Plastic Machine is an amazing accomplishment. His albums are carried on separate labels in Japan, Germany, and America, and both the project’s name and all the lyrics in his latest album, Beautiful, are in English. Most recently, though, his music is appearing in American movie soundtracks ñ most notably in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me ñ as well as in car commercials and video games.
Undaunted, he says the distance between him and the worldly Fantastic Plastic Machine is “getting shorter and shorter.” Unlike his previous albums, he was the primary writer of Beautiful’s lyrics. While they may not be the deepest or most emotionally staggering words, their wit and charm are remarkable, and reflect an intellect that most single-genre bands today severely lack. Yet, this is the kind of product that must be expected from a man who sums up his main influences in three Bs ñ Bacharach, Bach, and The Beatles. Maybe with a little more traveling, he’ll be able to finally speak face-to-face with the sell-out crowds that come to see him DJ when he tours internationally. For now, though, the music will have to speak for itself.
Photographs of Tanaka are generally outrageous, always featuring some lavish background and endearingly confident stare. He wears cowboy hats and smokes cigars, poses with space-age gadgets and in bubbly chairs. For a man with such eclectic music, we can’t help but wonder if this is all a joke or if, in fact, his eccentric publicity shots hold the most revealing clues about who he really is. Tanaka has the potential to be one of music’s more charismatic personalities, but he keeps it to himself, offering up more enthusiasm in interviews for his record collection or remixes than his feelings or personal life. If he planned on doing this to increase the intrigue surrounding him, it’s working. He may never say a word about himself, but he’ll be captivating nonetheless.
Like Fantastic Plastic Machine’s charm, Tanaka seems to enjoy being the industry’s obscure potpourri. The man and his music are comprised of too many things to truly digest, and focusing on one is only a disservice to the whole. Perhaps it’s just better that we know Fantastic Plastic Machine on our own terms, for receiving a creator’s guide through the music could never compare to our personalized experiences. As a man of mass-communication, Tanaka must know this. There isn’t a single misplaced note in his music, and he probably expects the same of himself ñ even if he never reveals himself entirely. Because really, a pink elephant isn’t fun if we see an empty paint can nearby. Some things are just better left unsaid. ◼