Discussing "Two Dreamers" with Kenneth Takanami

Updated: Jul 17, 2020

THEBIGGERPICTURE (London and New York) — Kenneth Takanami’s (FKA Exitpost) most recent LP release is a fascinating exploration of his cultural identity as half-American, half-Japanese. With his identity split in across borders, across cultures, across oceans, Takanami turned to the Two Dreamers project as a means of personally exploring this cultural discord, to share his experience of how this feels, to be a means of self-expression but also perhaps to be something that fellow Japanese-Americans can identify with, and anyone who feels this kind of cultural discord. His label, Zoom Lens, describes on their website that “Takanami experienced recurring dreams throughout childhood where he’d wake up in Tokyo panicked, unable to return back to New York. Upon recent visits to Japan, he began experiencing the reverse - recurring dreams where he’d wake up in New York, unable to return to Japan.”

Images by Kaitaro K, showing New York on the right and Tokyo on the left.

Upon listening to the album, one can start to get a feel for what Takanami is experiencing. Fast-paced, electronic singles like New Moon Phase or Enoshima are a clear product of the music scene in sunny Los Angeles, his American side. But some of these songs morph, shift, they struggle against their limits just as one would wrestle with their cultural identity, before changing into completely different songs entirely. Anata, starting out with shimmery notes and thumping bass, reaches a crescendo, before fading away into a hybrid crossover of LA electronic instrumentation and Japanese traditional instruments. The pace quickens, then slows down, representing the struggles of one with their self-identity. “You caught the butterflies in my stomach” and closing track “Dream of Home” both feature minimalist piano melodies that tug at the listener’s heart-strings, with feature vocalists ESAE and Hinako Matsumoto respectively further exploring the cultural discords that make up Two Dreamers. For one, ESAE herself finds herself in a similar position to Takanami, being Korean-American.

Takanami used to go by the name Exitpost, but recently announced he would be changing his artist name to "Kenneth Takanami," his given name and Japanese surname. “It feels right, so I’ve decided to change it”, he explained on Twitter."

Photo by Lena Lyolik

We had the pleasure of discussing with Takanami over email the intricacies of Two Dreamers and the thought process behind such a stunning project, rich in such meaning and significance. Recently, he released his first single under his new moniker, “Our Hours” featuring Bay Area vocalist Eileen Sho-ji; both were discussed in the interview, published in full below.

He, along with his label Zoom Lens, are also selling “Two Dreamers” t-shirts on the Zoom Lens website, of which the proceeds will go towards the Los Angeles Food Bank and Asian Youth Center, to support them in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Purchase the shirt here, and stream “Our Hours” here. Enjoy reading the interview.

THEBIGGERPICTURE: Your label, Zoom Lens, has already explained the kind of multicultural message you wanted the album to have; could you please expand on this here?

Kenneth Takanami: The album was inspired by recurring dreams I had growing up. I spent a lot of my childhoods between both New York and Tokyo. When I’d be in New York, I’d have recurring dreams of being in Tokyo and needing to get home, and when I was in Tokyo I’d have dreams of being in New York and needing to get home. I always felt like not knowing where “home” actually is is central to a lot of the Asian American experience so I ran with that. Through the sonics, instrumentation and some lyrical content of the record I tried to draw from this inspiration.

"I always felt like not knowing where “home” actually is is central to a lot of the Asian American experience"

TBP: At the heart of Two Dreamers is a message about the discord that you, and undoubtedly thousands of other multinational people, feel being split between the two countries, two continents, two cultures, two languages, two identities. How has both your Japanese and American background influenced who you are as a person? What about this were you trying to communicate through Two Dreamers?

KT: Yeah, you got it. I’m gonna try and answer this twofold - I think how it’s affected who I am as a person and who I am as an artist are two different answers. The latter is fairly easy - I like introducing eastern sounds and samples to western sounding music (traditional pop structures, chord progressions, etc.), and my experiences in Japan and being half white, half-Japanese inspire the sound, aesthetic, and direction this project takes.

On the other hand, who I am as a person is obviously a more loaded question. Growing up mixed race is complicated, as is growing up Asian-American. You feel a duty to partake in the conversation around race, identity, representation while also seriously benefiting from your own experiences of privilege too. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance I suppose, which is pretty central to the Asian-American experience as a whole. I’ve always felt unsure which identity I’m closer to. Making music brings me a little closer to figuring it out.

"I’ve always felt unsure which identity I’m closer to. Making music brings me a little closer to figuring it out."

TBP: Most of the tracks on Two Dreamers feature fast-paced, energetic electronic synths, alternately backed with high-pitched, angelic female vocals, sampled ambient soundscapes from Japan, and traditional Japanese instruments. What is the kind of symbolism behind these elements, and how and why were they utilized in order to communicate a message about your bilingual identity?

KT: The place where I spent a lot of time in Tokyo is a pretty quiet suburb by the river, called Kameari. My mother was born there, as was I. My mom’s side of the family is pretty musical - my grandfather played shamisen, my grandmother played the mandolin, and my uncle was a jazz saxophonist.

After my family moved to the U.S., we’d go back each year and spend a lot of time just walking in the parks, biking by the water, and also seeing places like Atami and Nikko with hot springs and lots of greenery. A favorite part of my childhood was the bon odori festivals, which are a summer festival with a taiko band playing traditional instruments. I’m just very fond of that imagery and sound of Japan’s natural beauty away from the city and away from people’s typical notions of Japanese culture. Not hating on anime or weeb culture or anything, that’s just not my Japan.

An image of Kameari, Tokyo, by the user "hot-oyu" on VSCO

That part of my life is really important to me and I try to call back to it in my work. Instruments like the koto or the shakuhachi resonate deeply and I’m always trying to recapture the nostalgia of my childhood, I guess. Using traditional instruments is also a little callback to my Japanese family of musicians. I like pairing those sounds with other genres I like, be it electronic music or trap or dream pop. All just trying to combine them into a confusing mess, just like my own identity.

I’ve recently bought a taishogoto, also called a Nagoya harp, which sounds a bit like a mandolin but it’s now integral to my live shows and I’ve been loving it. I took one shamisen lesson in high school and I want to pick that back up too.

Image of Kameari, Tokyo, taken by Kenneth Takanami.


TBP: The tragic murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the tail end of May led to nationwide protests, with millions demanding systemic change to address police brutality and institutional racism. It has also led to discussion within the Asian-American community about Asian-American anti-blackness; one of the police officers on the scene of Floyd's murder, Tou Thao, was Hmong-American, and resisted calls by onlookers to stop the tragic events going on in front of him. What is your opinion on this?

KT: I hope everyone learned there’s a difference between prejudice and racism. Many of us in the Asian-American community have experienced prejudice. But systemic racism? An American livelihood built on slavery and bloodshed, solidified through housing discrimination, the War on Drugs, and mass incarceration? No Asian-American will ever know the Black experience. We, by nature of our existence, have always sided with white supremacy. The “model-minority” myth is rooted in anti-Blackness. To exist in America is to profit off Black violence. No white person, no Asian person, will ever know what it’s like to be Black in America. We need solidarity over sympathy, we need organization over anger, we need radicalism over incrementalism, and we need socialism over capitalism. Abolish police and prisons, destroy the corporate ruling class, and create an equitable society.  

We, by nature of our existence, have always sided with white supremacy. The “model-minority” myth is rooted in anti-Blackness. To exist in America is to profit off Black violence.

TBP: We enlisted the help of a Japanese friend to translate the lyrics on Every Day is About You - she noted that there was a subtle shift in the phraseology of the English and Japanese, of which the meaning was similar but some of the words and phrases used were slightly different. Was this intentional, and if so what was the deeper meaning behind this?

KT: Wow, so glad you caught that. That was actually intentional - the voice actress, Hinako Matsumoto, recorded several different renditions of the piece I wrote, with a few different connotations. The inflections differing from the beginning and end of the album are meant to feel like bookends, like a hello and a goodbye.

TBP: Zoom Lens says that your album was recorded over a two-year-long period, and you also collaborated with several other artists on the project, including Hanae, ESAE and frequent collaborator Unmo. Could you please talk about the kind of technical process you went through in producing this album? What was the experience like working with the aforementioned three vocalists?

KT: My music-making process is a lot of listening to the same 4-bar loop of a track for 10 hours straight in a song that never ends up coming out. That plus a combination of sampling, digital sequencing and programming in Logic, and some live instrumentation. I use Kontakt libraries, Splice (where I also work), a lot of Massive and Serum for synths, and for sound design and weirder stuff a lot of iZotope and Output’s plugins. Most of my samples I “crate dig” and try and find rare or undiscovered Japanese vinyl or films to use, whether that’s in actual record stores in Tokyo or just perusing YouTube.

The three vocalists were all very different experiences - Hanaé lives in New York so we recorded New Moon Phase over a couple of in-person sessions at Splice’s studio. ESAE lives in California so that was mostly over email, but as I understand that’s the nature of a lot of her collabs so that was pretty seamless. Unmo is based in Japan and co-writing a song while communicating in both English and Japanese was sometimes difficult, but ultimately worth it. Unmo and I have worked together a lot, and her contributions are always super special.

This project was more like…on-and-off recorded over two years. A lot of that was bouts of writer’s block and uncertainty whether or not this project was going to continue. I think my next release will be recorded and released in a shorter amount of time.

TBP: The tracks on Two Dreamers are quite diverse in terms of sound, ranging from movie soundtrack-like nostalgic piano soundscapes on Dream of Home, to far more electronic “drum and bass” singles like New Moon Phase. Why did you decide to utilize a more diverse range of styles rather than a uniform style on the album? Was this to reflect the kind of multilayered, complex struggles you have with self-identity?

KT: I have a mixed background and concurrently a giant mix of influences. I always grew up liking albums that jumped around in style or sound but felt thematically cohesive. Bibio was a big influence when I first started making music. I like that he could have a track that was like a 120 BPM, house-y kinda song followed by an acoustic ballad. Maybe it’s my short attention span but I couldn’t really imagine sticking to one kind of style. I have a lot of friends who make only techno or only house and I admire their focus in doing so. Because there’s a lot of different sounds, I try to use a lot of similar instrumentation and sound design to keep it cohesive.

Photo by Brian Bielawa.

TBP: Your work has attracted quite a lot of attention from popular news and media outlets; Anthony Fantano shared Two Dreamers on Twitter, as did Earmilk, Vulture, and EDMSauce. Additionally, your remix of the “Jessica Jingle” from Korean film Parasite went viral, being shared by Huffpost Korea, featured on MBC News and several other Korean TV stations and retweeted by Parasite’s official Twitter account. What has this been like for you?

TBP: It’s cool to get any kind of press attention but all this does is just motivate me to keep pushing and find the next sound or project to undertake. I don’t really feel much by any of that stuff. That said, I loved Parasite and I love seeing it become so globally successful. Winning Best Picture felt like a win for all of us, in the Asian creative community. Doing this remix that got played on TV and whatnot felt like I got to play a tiny, tiny little part in the giant wave that Parasite created. The "Jessica, Only Child" flip introduced me to a lot of new people and I’m very grateful. Apparently Bong Joon-Ho saw the remix too! I just want Park So-Dam to see it, haha. And yeah, Anthony Fantano sharing The Two Dreamers video was really cool too.

TBP: Your most recent release, the single Our Hours, features vocals by Bay Area-singer Eileen Sho Ji. What was it like working with her, and what was the kind of creative thinking behind the track?"

KT: In February, I had ended the Two Dreamers release cycle and was just feeling burnt out from music and unsure what to do next. I didn't want to fall into a creative rut, so I tried a "50 Day Beat Challenge," making a new demo every day for 50 days. Around halfway through, the lockdown in New York City because of COVID-19 began. It was horrible and upsetting and I was just feeling a lot of guilt about being home, able to make music all day. But continuing and finishing the challenge was a good enough distraction to get through the early days, and somewhere during that the "Our Hours" demo came out. I wanted to try something slower and jazzier I guess. The lyrics are inspired by feeling like someone's secret.

I had a sketch of the topline and lyrics and sent those to Eileen, who knocked it out of the park. Eileen is a super talented vocalist and producer with this really unparalleled, soulful voice. We had been friendly for a while, I think she heard my Parasite remix originally. Glad we finished this track fairly quickly - expect more from us in the future.

A big thank you to Kenneth Takanami for undertaking this interview

Stream Two Dreamers on Spotify | Soundcloud | Apple Music, and stream Kenneth Takanami’s new single “Our Hours” here. Purchase a Two Dreamers shirt, of which the proceeds are going towards the Los Angeles Food Bank and Asian Youth Center, here.