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By Dan Grunebaum

Fantastic Plastic Machine

Tomoyuki Tanaka explores the thematic possibilities of a DJ mix compilation in his Sound Concierge series

Courtesy of Air

Ever since the rise of the DJ as superstar a decade or so ago, record companies have been shoveling an endless stream of mix compilation albums at consumers. Mix comps not only allow labels to capitalize quickly on a DJ’s fame without funding time-consuming new productions, they’re an easy way for labels to squeeze a bit of extra revenue out of back catalogs. Most of them, sadly, are forgettable.

Tomoyuki Tanaka, the burly, bearded artist behind the Fantastic Plastic Machine moniker, leans forward in a retro-modern chair at his studio in trendy Daikanyama to explain how he went about doing something that would stand out among the stream of DJ mix comps.
“I wanted to put together a different kind of mix, and just so happened to arrive at the Sound Concierge concept,” he explains about his new series’ germination last year. “As you know, a concierge is someone who assists patrons at a hotel.” Tanaka says he approaches DJing as a service industry: Listeners are customers, and the customer is king.

“I wanted to do something that would conjure a certain situation,” he continues. “Rather than compiling my own favorites, I wanted to do something thematic. It may seem like a natural idea, but I don’t think anyone had done it yet in Japan. Themes create their own logic. For example, a mix based on the theme of sex immediately creates various possibilities.”

Launched last year with Sound Concierge #401 “Do Not Disturb” and followed by three more releases in 2004, the series picks up where it left off with Sound Concierge #501 “Blanket,” and the associated Sound Concierge Annex “Contemporary Love Songs,” both out this week on major Japanese label Avex.

As its name implies, “Blanket” establishes a cozy, comfortable atmosphere. The selection is indicative of Tanaka’s vast record collection, which lines the walls of his studio lounge. Artists included among the 20 tracks range from obscure ’60s soft-rock act Bunky and Jake to French heartthrob Benjamin Biolay to Brazilian guitarist Sebastiao Tapajos to mellower tracks by more familiar names like Todd Rundgren and Ryuichi Sakamoto. “Just about any guy will at some point in his life have put together a tape of his favorite songs for a favorite girl,” Tanaka explains. “I put together “Blanket” with this sort of idea in mind.”

“Contemporary Love Songs,” meanwhile, is a bit of a vanity project. Consisting exclusively of FPM remix work, the album adopts more of a dance music approach, including remixes of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and Chic’s “Le Freak.” “When you remix something you make it your own,” says Tanaka. “When I remix tracks I tend to give them a romantic vibe, and I put ‘Contemporary Love Songs’ together with this in mind. They’re almost all love songs. I tend to be a romantic myself and I think it shows in the album.”

Sales figures in the 2,000-3,000 range constitute a respectable showing for a Japanese DJ mix compilation. Each of FPM’s Sound Concierge discs has sold over 20,000, making them bona-fide hits and testifying to the appeal of his thematic approach.
While many DJs here eagerly await the latest vinyl pressings from New York or London, Tanaka approaches his craft more like a historian of pop music’s near-history. He first got into DJing in the early ’90s in his hometown of Kyoto by launching a club event, Sound Impossible, devoted to kitschy soundtrack music from the ’60s.

“At that time, rare groove was happening in London, and there were DJs playing exclusively old stuff, but there wasn’t anyone doing soundtracks,” Tanaka recalls. “From there one thing led to another. I got to know artists from Tokyo, and they encouraged me to record. That’s why I started Fantastic Plastic Machine. I wanted to do something that couldn’t be heard in clubs or wasn’t available in mainstream record stores at the time.”

As it turns out, the taste of Tanaka’s mixes and recordings coincided with the burgeoning Shibuya kei scene’s stylistic collage of acid jazz, lounge, bossa nova, French pop and soft rock, and soon found a ready audience. “Now there’s a whole section devoted to lounge music,” he notes. “At that time there wasn’t anything, but I hoped there would at least be a few people who shared my tastes.”

Tanaka’s vision, however, wasn’t rooted exclusively in the past. “I wanted to create something that would pull together not only soundtracks, but also bossa nova, and contemporary styles like house and hip-hop. Since no one was doing it, I decided to do it myself, and luckily it turned out there were people around the world who felt the same.”
As FPM began to take off, Tanaka issued a steady stream of both original artist production albums and DJ compilations. Initially signed to the like-minded Pizzicato Five’s Readymade Records label, Tanaka has been with Avex since 2000. His music has also found overseas distribution via independent Emperor Norton records.

In addition to holding down a regular residency for five years at Tokyo’s legendary Yellow that regularly draws over 1,000, the DJ has been venturing further abroad to Europe, America, and increasingly, Asia. On New Year’s Eve he played for a crowd of 4,000 in South Korea. “Recently I’ve been getting a lot of invitations from Asia,” he says. “China is still into techno, but like South Korea, which began with techno and moved on to different styles, I think it will evolve. In Japan, European and American DJs are tops, but in Korea, Japanese DJs are most in demand. They treat us really nicely.”

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