“Separate Lives for Different People”: An Interview with Yamaneko

Son Raw chats with Yamaneko about making music for friends, ambient versus new age, and his new project, 'Spa Commissions.'
By    January 9, 2018

Photo by Repeat Pattern.

Local Action artist Yamaneko has quietly been one of London’s most driven artists, putting out an album a year since 2013 and carving out a unique space at the intersection of grime, club music, videogame soundtracks, and ambient/new age sounds. For his latest release, Spa Commissions, he dove head first into the latter, providing a soundtrack for relaxation and rest for a London spa. I spoke to him in late December to learn about the project’s genesis, his hopes for it, and the resurgent interest in ambient music. — Son Raw

So before we actually get into the album’s background, how did spas as a concept come to interest you? From the beginning of the Yamaneko project with Pixel Healing Spa, that’s been an upfront idea in your work.

Yamaneko: I guess it’s always been something that’s surrounded me. My mum was always heavy into new age music. She’d listen to it after work to chill out—she was a secondary school teacher so she pretty much wanted to chill out every day after dealing with that. Also, my sister has long suffered from chronic illness so she’s really into those sort of retreats if she can get them. So while I’ve never gone to very many spas since they’re expensive, that element of self care and escapism from reality has been a constant in my family. It’s only recently however that I’ve really grown attached to the music that’s played in those environments and developed an interest in making some myself.

The one thing that I find interesting about spas is that they’re so self serious. They never “break character”—so to speak—and need to really believe their own marketing. Meanwhile, your previous music has always subverted and played with tropes, whether we’re talking about grime or video game sounds. In terms of what you did on Spa Commissions, what was your approach?

Yamaneko: It’s always subverting. Music isn’t my full time job, I still kind of treat it like a game and a fun hobby. So for me, I’ll get a small kick out of reinterpreting sounds from very un-spa environments. The idea that they’re played while people are doing a yoga class or whatever is really funny.

But I still wanted it to serve its purpose—to be calming. I wanted the spa to take my tracks and buy them at the time since the project started with that in mind. I just also wanted to have my fun with it and put my own stamp on it, using sounds from survival horror videogames or whatever, but in a relaxing context.

I didn’t ID those sounds at all. I just listened to it as is.

Yamaneko: It’s supposed to be removed enough to not be recognizable!

But with everything going on in the world today, given we don’t have many places to rest, life is almost like a survival horror game.

Yamaneko: I’ve always found a lot of solace in those sort of games, particularly the save areas in games like Resident Evil. In a world that’s completely falling apart, in these built in environments, there’s this one safe haven. I used to just take a break in those areas and let the music play on loop. That’s what I’m drawn to, the things that make you feel safe in turmoil. So it fits in the same idea: A spa is a small space where everything is going to be nice to you.

Let’s go back a bit since not everyone will know of the album’s origins. The project was originally commissioned for a spa…how did it eventually morph into a Yamaneko album?

Yamaneko: It was never intended to be. The tracks had so many lives. Some were really old from the first ambient Boiler Room we did with Deadboy. At the time ambient wasn’t a big thing. It wasn’t discussed as much as it is now. We were treating it like a small little spa day for ourselves, playing chill music at Boiler Room. A couple of tunes were made for my friend’s newborn son as a lullaby. When my sister had a back operation this year, I made her a collection of tunes to help her chill out as well.

So I had a collection of tunes, and then I got approached with the spa’s actual commission itself. When that happened, I already had music designed for this purpose, and I reinterpreted it a bit, made the tracks more loopy so they could play on repeat. Then I just sent them to Tom so he could check them out saying, “Hey, some spa wants to play my tunes, how wicked is that?” And he replied, “Did you just send me the new album?” It was only then that I reworked them to become a really cohesive album, since he was really onboard with it. So it stands alone as an album while also carrying the same purpose it did for the spa.

You mentioned ambient getting a bit of a spotlight right now. While a lot of your earlier work had an ambient side to it, you really engaged with it fully on here. The fact that it was originally a commercial commission aside, why now? Was there any hesitation or was this just the time for it?

Yamaneko: It did feel like now would be a good time for this sort of stuff to be appreciated. I’ve always felt comfortable making ambient music. It was the first music I started making. But it timed perfectly with this year because in the wake of my mum’s passing, I found it quite hard working on club music. It carried a certain sort of weight.

In December I was actually diagnosed with PTSD so a combination of that and joining a mindfulness course made it so that this was where my life was at. I was only listening to music that helped me get through the day. And I was really happy for it to be put out that way because I know there are so many people craving the same thing. And that’s really what it’s for: for people to find some peace. If it works for them, that’s fucking brilliant. That’s what it’s for.

Before we continue, I’m really sorry for your mum’s passing.

Yamaneko: Thank you. To be fair there were other things to it—my laptop at the time was on its last legs and would blue screen if I made anything with more than five layers, so that really helps to make minimal music. The reception is nice though because when I put out the first Talbot Fade project, that was fully ambient and it was listened to by about five people because ambient wasn’t really discussed, so it makes sense to have this out there now.

It’s interesting that you said some tracks were made as gifts for friends and family members.

Yamaneko: That’s usually my main motivation for music: making gifts for friends. I’d make a dub for someone that I know they’d like. Then I’ll have these tunes stocked up and think of where a particular tune could fit. I like that they have separate lives for different people.

It’s interesting that you made them for people. I was going to say that making music for a spa isn’t unlike making music for the club in that they are centered around spaces. But once you release an album, it’s out in the world. Is there a “perfect space” for this record?

Yamaneko: One of the reasons I’m really happy with this album—it’s my favorite body of work that I’ve put out—is because it applies to so many situations. I’ve sent it to a lot of friends for after hours parties in the early morning, or commuting to work, or going to sleep at night. And there seems to be an appeal for all of that. Honestly, hearing it in a spa would be great. There’s only been one in London that plays it, mostly during yoga classes, and I’ve never tried that. But I’ve put it on during my mindfulness meditation to clear my head and it works for that. So it’s for all sorts of situations. Whatever works best for the listener.

Since we spoke last year for Yaroze Dream Suite, the New Atlantis events and label which you’re a part of have received quite a bit of attention. Did that project and community play a role when you were making this record?

Yamaneko: It’s the most regular sort of gig for me. It’s every month without fail and it’s a really nice environment to test out new tunes. That’s usually what a lot of us do—we make a few things to play specifically at New Atlantis. It’s Sunday afternoon, people are sitting down, it’s a great time to get feedback. It’s a good catalyst for making a lot of ambient music.

It drives you to constantly make a lot since there’s a drive to play something new that no one’s heard and fits that general vibe. Everyone there’s been a massive influence and now with the label…India Jordan has completely done so much work on that this year. She needs so much praise for running New Atlantis while Deadboy’s been away, putting the label together, putting together these mixes, and promoting it how she has.

What about the listenership? I’ve never been since I don’t live in London. Who turns up?

Yamaneko: Rye Wax is the perfect home for it since it attracts such a diverse collection of people, ‘specially on Sunday afternoon. It’s a record shop, a bar, a café…it’s just a good place to go and chill out. It’s a little hangout spot more than anything. The people who run Rye Wax are wicked people—very open, anyone’s welcome. You’ll get a good collection of music lovers, former squatters, artists who live nearby, drinkers, people going for a bite to eat…Actually you get loads of people on Tinder dates! You can tell that they’re awkwardly meeting for the first time and it’s funny we’re soundtracking that experience. There’s a little hippy-ish thing there, since we’re all optimistic peace lovers, but it’s not as worthy of derision as it would have been before. It’s quite a good crowd.

One last one: I’ve noticed people throw around the words “ambient” and “new age” a bit indiscriminately when it comes to the stuff in this style currently being made. Is there an important distinction there for you?

Yamaneko: Definitely. The new age stuff I associate that with private issue cassettes and CDs you’d get in healing and crystal shops. It’s very much that aesthetic and I’m a big sucker for it—there’s no irony there, I love it all. It’s a great distraction from how shit the world is and it’s just a pleasant vibe to be around. Ambient for me, is anything that’s a background enhancer, rather than something to fully devote your attention to—whether traveling, working, etc. Anything that enhances that experience is ambient.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yamaneko: I would, actually, because I mentioned this in an interview and it got cut out. A big reason this project happened was the playlist company that got in touch with me for it, Open Air. I’d like to give a big shout out to Neil and Auntie Flo. They pitched it to the spa, got them to take my music and really brought the project together. I’m thankful to them because it led to a really fun album to make. So big up them.

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