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FEBRUARY 25, 2002 VOL.159 NO.7

Supreme Ape Leader
Cornelius mixes aural cocktails for the (big, phat) beat generation 

Keigo Oyamada remembers well his first encounter with rock 'n' roll. He was in the fifth grade and an older cousin played him some Love Gun-era Kiss. "I liked them right off," says Oyamada, 33. "They all looked like manga monsters to me." That initiation into the concept of rock 'n' roll as fantasy would be the germination of Oyamada's own career. (He acquired his musical pseudonym, Cornelius, from the name of a friendly simian in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes.) But instead of platform leather boots, pancake makeup and pyrotechnic stage shows, Oyamada would go on to vent his wild side through his uninhibited, almost childlike sonic stylings. This obsessive fascination with music as an aural portal to his (and our) more Dionysian alter egos made his 1998 album Fantasma an international breakthrough. The charged orgy of crunchy metal riffs, mutated Disney-like anthems and psychedelic vocals propelled the album to the top of America's college charts and prompted an 80-city tour of the U.S. and Europe as well as appearances at England's Reading and Glastonbury festivals. Now, with the release last month of his new album, Point, Oyamada is returning from a four-year hiatus to reaffirm his status as an international groover and shaker; artists ranging from Sting to k.d. lang to Beck are after him to do remixes.

Despite all the hype—and bankable successes—there's still a naive, slightly dreamy look about Oyamada as he sits in his private recording studio in Nakameguro, Tokyo, flipping through pages of a worn-out manga magazine. It's only when he speaks that one detects the full weight of his 10 years in the Japanese indie-rock scene. "I'm not really into that whole rock and roll lifestyle," he says. "Even traveling in Europe, everything's kind of new and fresh and fun at first, but when you're doing the same thing 80 times in a row, it can get pretty tiring."

He's bored with touring, perhaps, but never fatigued of expressing himself in the studio. Much of Point is still a microcosmic view of Oyamada's kaleidoscopic tastes in sound—on the track I Hate Hate, for example, he leaps across genres spanning thrash metal, techno and jazz. Point, as the words of the album's subtitle from Nakameguro to Everywhere suggests, is Oyamada's more grown-up, global take on life. The album's introspective mood (with ambiant sound effects of birds chirping and of rushing water) reflects recent developments in the artist's own private life: namely his marriage to the singer Takako Minekawa two years ago, and the birth last year of his first son, Mairo. But, Oyamada adds, his travels overseas have also helped him to reconsider life in Japan and his own surroundings. "I'd be playing the most obscure villages in, say, Germany, and it would always knock me out that people there knew my music even though I'd be singing in Japanese," he says. "But if you look at it the other way, I listen to music from Norway and I don't have a clue about what they're singing, either. What I felt was: everywhere is the same."

Oyamada was born in Tokyo and reared primarily by his mother after his parents divorced when he was eight. His father was a singer and ukulele player for the Mahina Stars, a group that plays Hawaiian pop and is well known in Japan. It was while studying in art school that he started a kitsch pop band called Flipper's Guitar with former junior-high buddy Kenji Ozawa (nephew of conductor Seiji Ozawa). A demo tape of theirs found its way to Polystar Records (where Oyamada is still based) and the duo were immediately signed.

"What's impressive about Oyamada is for the amount of creative risks he takes, his records still end up selling," says Kazuo Suzuki, a professor at the Tokyo School of Music, who directed Flipper's Guitar's radio shows in the late 1980s. "Like those free headphones he included in the initial pressing of Fantasma. He's certainly no businessman—more like a record company's worst nightmare." Actually, he could become a music mogul's dream: the guy has moved 300,000 units worldwide and looks ready to break out.

Oyamada's whole career, somehow, seems like a whim that has grown into a full-time job. Even the inspiration for his pseudonym was arrived at by happenstance. For several nights following Flipper's Guitar's breakup in 1991, Oyamada would come home late and zone out in front of the TV, watching old Planet of the Apes series reruns.

"I found out later that the French author Pierre Boulle got his story idea while he was a POW under the Japanese. He saw himself as the human and the Japanese as apes," says Oyamada with a laugh. "But since Cornelius' character is a sort of intermediary between the apes and humans, it kind of makes sense for me to have that name."

That seems a pleasing thought for this artist who thrives between East and West, parlaying his hip-in-the-U.K. cachet into ever-broader appeal back in Japan as he prepares to embark on another tour of Europe, Mexico and the U.S. Or maybe after all the musical mileage he's got from playing out his childhood rock 'n' roll fantasies, he's ready for a more serious persona: dad.

When he's asked about what sort of wisdom he might impart to his young son, Oyamada stumbles for an answer. Then, after a long pause, he says, "I'd really like to learn something from him."

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