Journeys Underground with Ryo Kuramoto of DREAMPV$HER

Since embarking on this journey into Tokyo’s underground, the experimental electronic duo DREAMPV$HER kept appearing in my orbit. To recap, DREAMPV$HER is Ryo Kuramoto on synthesizer, and Michael Suwa on an 80’s-era beat maker. I first saw them perform back in September and briefly wrote about them in a previous post as a group whose sound challenges notions of a generically bound underground. At that point in my fieldwork, though, having only been in Japan for about a month, I was still trying to figure out where — and what — the heart of Tokyo’s underground music was. I was essentially a total newbie, going to any show that seemed promising on fliers I gathered at venues around town. There were many nights where I struck out, having paid upwards of 3000 yen to enter the club only to immediately realize that it was absolutely not the kind of music I was hoping to hear (I’m talking trite EDM remixes of top-forty from the States). When I heard DREAMPV$HER for the first time, though, I was literally stunned: their sound jolted me out of my consciousness into an uncharted, alternate sonic universe that was so fresh, yet somehow familiar. It also marked a turning point because I instinctively understood at that moment that this was the music I had been looking for.

After bumping into each other at subsequent shows and connecting on social media (which, despite my vehement suspicion of its influence on human relationships, has proven to be an immensely helpful tool to connect with musicians), we’ve gotten to know each other quite a bit. Since November, they’ve graciously invited me to their performances and I’ve been sure to catch all of them. Going to DREAMPV$HER’s shows, in turn, has taken me deep underground, where I’ve been hearing tons of amazing, cutting-edge experimental and electronic music from other artists as well (whom I’ll be sure to introduce in subsequent posts). Thus far, following DREAMPV$HER has not only bestowed a portal into the labyrinth of Tokyo’s vast underground, but the experience has also revealed that the group is a predominant node in this scene: they are making some of the sickest, most exciting music I’ve heard in years and, to me, are on another level of music-making.

DREAMPV$HER performing for the NTS Radio “Live from Tokyo” broadcast at KOARA in Shibuya, November 17th, 2014.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been chatting with Ryo, effectively the group’s lead man. A self-described “drifter,” Ryo has spent significant time in the United States and Europe to perform, infiltrate the underground, and gain inspiration for endeavors musical and otherwise: he is also an accomplished screen printer and illustrator, and told me that he strongly believes that musical inspiration can (and perhaps should) be derived from non-musical media as well. Having played in numerous punk and hardcore bands as a bassist for years, Ryo eventually grew tired of the scene – he’s told me that “punk is too sentimental” – and traded in the bass for a synthesizer, which he feels offers more creative freedom. DREAMPV$HER was thus started as a solo project in 2012 while he was living and performing in Los Angeles. Michael joined the group sometime last year, and was a natural choice for Ryo because they’d been friends and bandmates for years, with Michael on drums.


One of Ryo’s mind-bending designs.


The set-up.

DREAMPV$HER’s sound is very unique, and showcases the distinct, well-developed musical sensibilities of Ryo and Michael. Ryo manipulates a hybrid analog/digital synthesizer – meaning that the synthesizer utilizes analog voicing but through a digital sound processor — in which each module is capable of producing a different sound. Watching Ryo plug and unplug dozens of color-coded patch cables during their performances is like peeking into the lab of a trance-induced scientist in the midst of some dark and secret experiment. Simultaneously, Michael uses a Roland TR-707 drum machine with a multi-track cassette recorder for a sampler. That said, they sometimes work with pre-recorded samples in real-time during their performances. The end result is hypnotizing: although Ryo’s synthesizer also keeps rhythm, his creative sensibilities lead him to cast out a dizzying array of sounds, stripped and obscured melodies, and polyrhythms that Michael then roots with the drum machine. They strike a brilliant balance somewhere between explosive, interstellar sonic time-warp and funky, postindustrial grit.


DREAMPV$HER at Forestlimit near Shinjuku, November 28th, 2014.

Given his palpable artistic aura and bold creativity, I wanted to know more about what inspires Ryo as a musician. The first band that wholly captivated him was Black Sabbath sometime as an early teenager, which ultimately piqued a curiosity in punk that lasted for several years. But in addition to finding punk problematically sentimental, Ryo has expressed anxieties about how he didn’t feel authentic playing that kind of music. “I float somewhere between intellectualism and scum,” he explained recently, “and after a while I couldn’t personally connect with punk or the lifestyle.” He also found the genre confining, something that “emphasizes technicality too much” and just “feels old, like playing to the past.” The unrestricted modes of musical expression afforded by synthesizers, combined with a revelatory experience hearing what he described as the “minimal but sophisticated” sounds of Emptyset in Switzerland a few summers back, inspired him; since transitioning into the world of experimental electronic music, he hasn’t looked back. Ryo says that, except for some dabbling in music concrète (a musical style developed in the mid-20th century that arranges recordings of non-musical sounds in a musical context), he hardly listens to new music these days except when writing album reviews for an underground music magazine. Instead, he’s channeling his musical energies into DREAMPV$HER, which he plans to keep going as long as possible, and his self-run underground cassette tape label, Crooked Tapes.

I find it interesting that Ryo’s artistic journey landed in electronica but began in punk; his personal story complicates notions of how electronic music is valued and experienced. Where do we even begin to draw the lines between genres? The scene surrounding DREAMPV$HER is mainly comprised of electronic musicians, but their styles range anywhere from noise to DJ-ing to VJ-ing to tongue-in-cheek reenactments of 1980’s exercise videos (yes, that actually happened at a show back in November, and it was awesome). So my question this time is: does thinking about music in terms of genre really help us to understand it more? To me, the answer is a resounding no: the only thing binding the musicians of this scene together is the fact that they are underground – not that they’re electronic, per se – and that they’re doing something different. My own experience digging further into the underground reinforces this conclusion; the only reason I was in the same spot at the same time as DREAMPV$HER back in September was because I, too, was looking for something different, something I couldn’t pinpoint but knew I would recognize upon hearing it. That was DREAMPV$HER, and I absolutely can’t get enough of them. Definitely check them out and prepare to have your mind blown into dimensions you didn’t know were possible to experience.

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