They Will Rock You … To Sleep
There’s an unmistakable allure and mystery to the duo dynamic in music. Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner, Alan Vega and Martin Rev. Shawn Joseph Seymour and Yoshimi Seymour don’t exude any of the dark and damaged glamor of these acts; they’re a remarkably cheery, charming and well-adjusted young Japanese/American couple who don’t need angst or damage to inform the simple, joyous music they create as Lullatone. They provided the soundtrack to a Hello Kitty exhibition in Tokyo, for fuck’s sake! And yet, even this miserable scribe would stack up the music of Lullatone against any of the aforementioned. They’ve built up an incredible body of work so far, using simple synth loops, toy keyboards, exotic and heavily treated found sound and Yoshimi’s quiet but buoyant
vocals. The songs are direct and innocent statements of intent, evoking wide- (and sleepy-) eyed wonder without annoying cutesiness, inciting alien dance parties all along the way. I’ve been trying to think up parallels to their sound over the last couple days and I just keep stalling out … Suicide’s second album, Velvet Underground’s “If You Close The Door,” Kraftwerk’s clockwork pulse, bossa nova, Eno’s pings, and a gilt music box.
Lullatone’s music started out as primitive lullabies that Louisville, Ky.-transplant Seymour composed on his Casio to help soothe partner Yoshimi to sleep. Their music has now come full circle after a handful of albums, with new release Songs That Spin In Circles comprising pieces of music that new parents Shawn and Yoshimi made to entice their newborn son Niko into the land of nod. The Seymours use the Lullatone moniker for a whole range of projects, from art
installations to video games (the Raindrop Generator will thwart any efforts to be efficient at work forever) to music for commercials. Shawn Joseph Seymour virtually sat down with Ink 19 to talk about the serious business
behind toy instruments.
Tell me about the new album — Songs That Spin In Circles — the underlying concept was music for your child to sleep to?
Yeah, this CD grew out of a series of lullabies we made for our (then) newborn son Niko to sleep to. But, we wanted to make tracks that could last for hours at a time so he could listen to the same melody peacefully all night. So, we decided to shape up each of the four to five minutes tracks with beginnings and endings that could sync up perfectly so you can use the repeat one function on a CD player of iTunes to loop the track for as long as you like. We have left a few going for over eight hours at our house!
Is it true that much of this album was recorded in the hospital? What instruments and found sound sources were used in the making of this album?
In Japan, moms usually stay in the hospital for quite a few days after their babies are born. I stayed in Yoshimi’s room with her every night to keep her company. And I took my computer, keyboard, and headphones there to compose new melodies in the night when everyone else was asleep. I made the spine of each track during that stay. And, I could always let Niko test them out the next day. He is a good judge!
After we came back home I started “analog-ing up” the recordings with real instruments and a lot of sounds that are supposed to soothe babies. There are heartbeats, underwater recordings, tape hiss as ambient white noise, rubbing plastic bags, bowed metal that sounds like tuned snoring and so much more!
I was interested to read that you recorded many of the songs for the album in one take, was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, we always want to record anything we can in just one take. Just like Jay-Z!
I assume you’ve tested this on your child and probably heard from other parents who’ve done the same? Does it knock them right out?
We have been getting pretty great (and sleepy) reviews from other parents, and our own baby too! But, we try not to just play Lullatone to Niko all of the time. I want him to hear all kinds of music. Some of his other favorites (judging by amount of baby dancing he does) are the Beatles, Belle & Sebastian, and Busta Rhymes. I don’t know why they all start with B?
Did you compile the tracks for the Lullatone compilation We Will Rock You … To Sleep? Is doing something like that like looking through old journals or photo albums?
What a nice analogy! I guess it was a bit like that. It is always fun to look back at something you made a while ago and remember what was going on around you when you were creating it … remembering lots of little influences just like they are family memories.
Your music is very charming. It’s something that I’ve listened to at work and when it’s playing I’ve been approached by a broad cross section of ages asking me what I’m listening to, more so than any other album I’ve played. I think it’s the sense of exuberant joy that pervades the songs, without overt cuteness …
Thanks! I think our “demographic” is something like great grandmas to newborns, and occasionally pets.
How has becoming a parent affected your and Yoshimi’s work in Lullatone? How are you integrating making music into your family life?
Lately we are spending a lot less time on composing and more time on just playing. Usually I play drums and Yoshimi and Niko play shakers and melody bells. Or, sometimes we rock out some waterproof xylophone duets in the tub.
What were the beginnings of Lullatone? Did you begin making music in earnest in Japan? At what point did Yoshimi start contributing to the music?
Lullatone started as a project of me making lullabies for Yoshimi when we were dating as university students here in Japan. But, slowly we realized that it would be much more fun to have her as a member instead of just an inspiration. Plus then she could also get free tickets when we got invited to play concerts in other countries!
We usually record her vocals at the very end of making a song. Normally I’ll write the lyrics and decide the timing and melody and then record a version of me singing the track (terribly out of tune) and put it on her iPod. Then she can walk around listening to it for a few days so by the time we go to record it, it is already stuck in her head. We can hopefully get it down perfect on the first take!
Lullatone seems to me a very focused group, both conceptually and sonically — do you keep the tools you use to make the music and the manner of recording restricted by design?
Thank you! We like it when things are simple as possible. And we are pretty serious about it in all parts of our life — from our songs to our house and even our fashion.
Are there any couples in music that you both look to for inspiration?
In music … maybe Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin? In other art, Charles and Ray Eames! They are our hero couple!
What is it like taking your music on the road? What sort of venues do you play? How do you present the music live?
We play a lot in art museums and galleries. We love trying make some really fun and inviting in that kind of space. We always take along a ton of extra instruments to so the audience can join in. That type of space usually has a very passive, no touching vibe, but we try to make something more (inter)active and playful.
Do you see yourself staying in Japan for the immediate future? Do you think living in Japan has an influence on Lullatone’s sound?
Living in Japan in amazing. I don’t think either of us could imagine being anywhere else. We love it because it is so clean here! That is really important for us!
Tell me about the other art you do outside of Lullatone. I really enjoyed the Raindrop Melody Maker.
We have a lot of exhibitions and workshops about building instruments from things around the house that are geared towards children. And we work on visuals a lot too. We make all of the stop motion animations that are projected behind us during our concerts. And recently we made an online game that lets people make their own Lullatone song really easily. Right now we are in the final stages of development of a new Lullatone mobile we are doing in collaboration with Japanese designers Manu Mobiles.
What music or films inspire you presently?
Have you heard the soundtrack to an iPhone app called The Moron Test? I think it is genius! Oh, and the Curb Your Enthusiasm soundtrack!
You’re a children’s television personality in Japan?
Yeah, I am on TV every Saturday morning teaching kids how to make thumb pianos out of popsicle sticks and castanets out of cardboard and buttons. It is so much fun, and gets me a lot of bonus points with the neighborhood kids when I take Niko to the park!
What sort of music are you working on now? What’s in the future for Lullatone?
Right now we are focusing on some commercial music projects for our Melody Design Unit, which are great because you have to fit a whole track into 30 seconds. It is challenging and exciting. Other than that we are just having lots of little home concerts with Niko while he is little and loves playing with all of our instruments.
Good lord that’s impossibly cute.