Sen Morimoto —
is Just Communicating
October 15, 2019
The feeling that connects you to that culture a lot of times is when you feel like, not embarrassed but like, you’re sticking out like a sore thumb. The different-ness is what makes you feel that way.
There’s a quality in Sen’s music you only understand as This is some high-level shit and can’t quite put into words. The vague discomfort in listening to many of the songs doesn’t come from being perplexed by something obscure or experimental, but rather from trying to process its complexity and sophistication. I found myself wanting to listen to the album over and over again, and ended up familiarizing myself with the grounded, well-informed songwriting, getting more out of it each time. The jazz melodies, weird time signatures and lush layering gives his music a textural stickiness that isn’t the same kind of stickiness in pop music, but is more rewarding. For weeks I was solely listening to Sen’s Cannonball! and the preceeding record, It’s Late, thinking This guy is so cool, he is so good at what he does but also doesn’t give a fuck.
On October 5th, on part of his tour in New York with the artists of 88Rising, Sen met us at Collect Pond Park, an airy and wide, Zen-esque slab of space surrounded by government buildings in lower Manhattan. He hadn’t seen what either of us looked like, so when he materialized thirty feet away I shouted “Sen!” To this he un-alarmingly turned around and quietly walked over. He was neither disengaged nor overtly excited, but kept a calm and polite demeanor. As we sat down at the park table to chat we tried to be cognisant about not framing Sen or and his music through the lens of cultural identity– plus we weren’t sure if he’d ever answered so many questions about his Asianness in one sitting– but as he thoughtfully spoke about aspects of his identity and artistry, we became more and more interested in how these two forces resonated. In answer to some of our more personal questions, Sen spoke about his parents and siblings with love and respect. I interpreted that family, upbringing and background was a deep part of him, something that less so informs what he creates as direct references but serves more as backstory to how he got here.
Walking with Sen through Chinatown.
Your parents have seen you play now, right?
That was the first time my mom saw me, yeah. She was here the day before the show and um, well she's seen me play other stuff, but like this is the first time it's my music. My dad, I flew him out for the shows in Japan and that was the first time he’d seen that.
So your Dad's Japanese. And your mom was born in Japan?
Yeah, she was born in Kobe.
How much of that taps into your work, if at all?
Yeah, it definitely does. I think um, it's hard to tell. Like there are moments where it feels very deliberate and it can feel really good if you know exactly what you're doing with it and can communicate properly the idea of Asian-ness or like something that is uniquely Asian for Asian people to relate to on purpose. Instrumentally, it's not a ton. I grew up listening to mostly American music. But just in terms of like content of lyrics, there are times when I realize just the manner in which I'm talking about a certain situation is like very Japanese. It's funny to me like, that’s how a Japanese person awkwardly handles love or something. You know what I mean?
And it's not just my Asian-ness. My American-ness affects it too. So I think it's easier to count the times that it's very deliberate, and those times also are a little harder to put out into the world because you feel like you're not speaking for people but hoping to connect with people and you hope that it translates.
You're also in a unique position in that your cultural background is mixed. Growing up, did you identify with one more than the other?
It’s funny, I was the only Asian kid around ever. I grew up in like a really small town in Massachusetts and you know, you’re like someone's ‘Asians friend.’ That was a term I’d thought about a lot as a kid. But starting from when I was six, I would go back to Japan once a year or once every two years and every time I was there I was like, Oh my God, I'm so embarrassingly American, this is so brutal.
So, it's a little bit of both, it just depends on where you are. I guess what's funny about it is the feeling that connects you to that culture a lot of times is when you feel like, not embarrassed but like, you’re sticking out like a sore thumb. The different-ness is what makes you feel that way. I went to a Japanese language school on Saturdays growing up, and like there I was very American too, you know, they were like, This kid cannot speak Japanese.
...The times that it's very deliberate... are a little harder to put out into the world because you feel like you're not speaking for people but hoping to connect with people and you hope that it translates.
You rap a little bit in Japanese.
It takes me a very long time to write those.
Do you ever have to run it by your parents to get it evaluated?
I’m way too ashamed of my Japanese to do that. I have been asking my brother for help translating interview stuff recently, which has been fun. There's just little things that make me feel like I'm back in Japanese school, like doing homework, or my dad would help me read Kanji and stuff like that. But writing-wise, I feel like it would be bad to write things in Japanese that I didn't understand myself naturally. It would just be fake and weird. So even if it's wrong, I think it's kind of better. And I know there are parts that are wrong. There are also parts that I write and I realized they’re wrong and I'll keep it wrong because that's how it happened and it's got to stay that way.
It's like how Higher Brothers rap in English, but it's broken English.
It feels real. Yeah, exactly. Sometimes we're just communicating. It's okay.
So you feel more like an outsider when you go to Asia versus like your experience growing up Asian in a white community?
It’s different because in Japan it feels like I'm letting someone down, not because anyone like wants you to feel that way, but maybe that's something to do their culture. It's like you know, you should have it in you to do better. Whereas in America it's more just like, Weird! His family like doesn't eat burgers. I went to their house and we had rice.
Yeah. Growing up, there's like so many of these normalities that you don't realize is a solely Asian thing until you go to college and have roommates. Like one thing that I frequently get surprised at is like my mom's always used the dishwasher as a drying rack and I'm like, wait, you can use the dishwasher for its intended purpose.
How much time have you spent in Japan? Have you ever lived there?
Not a ton. I only lived there briefly as a baby and then just intervals, like a month at a time there like once a year or something.
In ‘People Watching’ you mention watching anime with someone. What are some of your favorites?
I'm trying to catch up with Attack on Titan right now. It's pretty sweet. I think that is a nice modern anime. It's very much for the modern attention span. It's not like Dragon Ball where it’s all dragged out screaming.
A lot of how I learned how to read Japanese was actually Dragon Ball. I was hooked on Dragon Ball comics. We’d ask my aunt in Japan over the phone to send us manga. So actually my parents' house, there's a shelf, it's like a whole wall with manga. Hunter Hunter is one of my favorites. I like some of the funny ones too, like Pyu to Fuku! Jaguar. It’s about this guy, Jaguar, who plays a recorder. That’s the whole premise. Like literally nothing happens. They just do battle of the bands.
You have a song called Music for Physical Therapy on your Soundcloud. How’d that come about?
Two summers ago, I was working at a bar and I cut a tendon in my finger. Like a beer glass exploded in my hand and I snapped a tendon. So I got surgery and I was going to physical therapy. My dad does shiatsu. I had never even thought about physical therapy before. There’s such an unexpected way of thinking about the body there. Like I thought I could just work through it.
Shiatsu – Japanese physical therapy based on the same principles as acupuncture, in which pressure is applied to certain points on the body using the hands.
(Sees microphone) I think imma take this shit away. Hehehehe. (Says Something incomprehensible. Leaves.)
Have a good day! So I was thinking about physical therapy and I was asking my friend Megan who had like a back injury.
What the hell is that bro?
It's a microphone. We're just recording an interview.
It records anybody?
Well only if you're close by. It's just us four right now.
Record the Wall. Hehehehe.
We're trying to. That's the next step.
We'll go we'll go. He's got 'em by the balls.
...So she would take videos of herself dancing as a form of physical therapy for her back surgery. We had this idea to make a series of videos where she would send me a video of her dancing to a song but with the audio taken out and then I would score it from the video. I just watched a silent video of her dancing and attributed different instruments to different parts of her body that move when they move into the video. And we didn't end up doing a series. It took me so long to do one video.
Seen outside Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.
It's different because in Japan it feels like I'm letting someone down, not because anyone like wants you to feel that way, but maybe that's something to do with their culture. It's like you know, you should have it in you to do better. Whereas in America it's more just like, Weird! His family like doesn't eat burgers. I went to their house and we had rice.
You play all the instruments in your music. How many instruments do you play?
Yeah, I do. Um, I like to think of it in terms of what would I play for someone hiring me, like I would do a saxophone, I’d do piano and bass and guitar sometimes.
Meaning those are the ones you’re most competent at.
Yeah. But for my own music I like to just do whatever I can get my hands on. So drums and guitar and violin. It’s the worst to be around me when I'm trying to record violin.
It's so frustrating. I played violin for like 10 years. If there’s a hair of difference the whole thing’s just wrong. Was it like kind of gradual through your whole life? Or did you start with sax then randomly you were like I'm gonna try to play a bunch of stuff?
It was gradual. I don't think I ever got to a point where I mastered any of them. I just got part of the way there and I was like, all right, next one. I think a lot of it was different musical opportunities that I had growing up. So I would be in a band playing drums. Just different types of music would make me play different kinds of instruments.
Yeah, like you’ve rapped, you played in a rock band. Were you just playing all the time, nothing else?
Yeah, I didn't really do other things. I wasn't into sports or video games or other activities. I liked playing music.
And it wasn’t your parents, like you know, forcing you to play the saxophone, for example.
I picked the saxophone. When I was a kid my mom was just kinda like, You don't do anything you just come home and you don't do shit. You have to like something. And I was like, Okay, I'll play saxophone. I kinda randomly picked it, but I ended up liking it a lot. I started going to jazz camp in the summer and kind of taking it seriously.
Were you a very regimented kid, like would you sit down and play for two hours a day for practice? Like for me personally, I feel like violin was what I was forced to play but I just naturally started picking up instruments, but I definitely needed my mom to discipline me. Like she would make me record my practicing on tape just to make sure I would practice for an hour.
That's some real shit.
Any experiences like that? Or you just naturally fell in love with it?
I mean, I loved it, but that's not to say that I was good at being consistent with practicing. There were definitely periods of time where I tell myself I’m going to practice for this amount of time, everyday, I’m going to do this, this, this and this, and I would always end up playing whatever I wanted for like an hour. And that will be the most time I spent practicing – when I was doing whatever I wanted to do.
I feel like it would be bad to write things in Japanese that I didn't understand myself naturally. It would just be fake and weird. So even if it's wrong, I think it's kind of better.
Your music is really, really dynamic and a lot of the times it challenges the listener, but it’s always grounded in something. I feel like it's like an active listening experience. Would you say that’s something you have in mind in your writing process?
I think it used to be. I spent a lot of time making instrumentals and music that I was like trying to put difficult parts into. But for this album a lot of times I didn't realize things were out of standard time signature until when I was teaching it to people. This one's mostly just I wrote it how it is and didn’t really think about it. Then I had to teach it to a band and they were like, This makes no fucking sense!
I’d say there are some really poppy parts in it and then there are some uncomfortable parts. There’s sort of a reward system that way. Would you ever write like a full-on pop song?
That’s a cool way to think of it. Yeah, totally. I guess I don't really have that urge anymore to make a song weird on purpose. I just have spent so much time doing that. It's very difficult for me to have the focus to make sure it stays within a certain boundary. Like if I have an idea that I think is fun, I'll do it and because I'm doing it alone, there's not someone who's like, Yo that sounds so ridiculous. I'm not against making a nice poppy song. It’s just not naturally what happens when I sit down to make music.
Sen's debut LP titled Cannonball!
You’re now co-owner of Sooper records. Congrats. Are you collaborating a lot now with people on the label?
Yeah. I mean me and Nnamdi have been making music together forever before Sooper and all that. But yeah, we're excited to do a lot of like inter-label stuff. We're mostly focusing on other acts to put out next year and that's been really exciting. It's kind of new to me, which is sweet.
What role are you playing? Are you going to have a role in the production process for some of these artists?
I would be down to. I think eventually. With the way Sooper functions right now is basically that the artists are in control of all of their production. Whatever the artistic direction, everything they wanted to be, we don't take a part in that really. If certain artists ask for help or something, we'd be totally down to do that and that would be something I'd be really excited about doing, like helping with video production or whatever.
Have you run into any assholes in the music industry?
No, I mean there are just assholes everywhere. Like I really don't think that there's a bunch of famous assholes. It's just like there's a bunch of assholes and some fraction of them are famous. It's been a really good experience so far.
Have you experienced any kind of discrimination, whether it's the industry or even just like growing up?
I think Asian-ness in America is really interesting because you do stick out in a white crowd, black crowd. Walking through Chinatown blows my mind. Sometimes it feels so weird to walk down the street and everybody is Asian. I grew up like in the woods.
You recently played in Japan. So was that a weird experience for you?
That felt more normal to me because I had been there as a kid and like in Japan that makes sense. But like if you're in Chicago and you're in Chinatown, you're like, this is so crazy, everyone here is Asian. The Walgreens is Asian. It's hard to pick apart because there's levels to it, you know. So I feel like I can't even begin to pick that apart.
Sometimes we're just communicating. It's okay.
Your brother makes film. What does your sister do? Do you all influence each other creatively?
My sister does massage and she lives in Maui. Me and my brother do a lot of stuff together. He's been making short films since we were little. He'll have an idea for a little story and have me in it, or have me and my friend Isaac in it. He’s been doing that forever. I can't say that I necessarily like affected his craft or what he does, but he definitely has affected mine. I mean just as my older brother he's showed me all the things I like and introduced me to what was cool.
I have a little brother like that.
I bet he idolizes you.
I don’t know about that, but he definitely takes up things that I do.
He definitely steals your shit. It's easy when you have an older sibling. You see what works for them.
Generally speaking, a lot of Asian parents are very strict and traditional. A lot of people, including myself, have felt resistance to it. Has that affected you in any way?
My Dad is like a black sheep in Japan. He’s the weird one in his family as far as I can tell. He moved to America and was into American music and drugs and rock 'n' roll. They're definitely very supportive of me and my siblings. They're the best, and I love them very much.
Sen's YouTube likes playlist.
Do you have any spot recommendations in Chicago, specifically Asian ones?
There's a ramen spot called High Five. It's not like– no it’s good, it doesn't even matter that it's not like super Japanese. It's underneath a butcher shop / barbecue place and so they have this really nice pork belly that they give to the ramen shop downstairs. And it's really, really good. High Five Ramen. Check that out for sure.
Favorite Asian, if any?
Favorite Asian person?
Or Asian anything.
It just has to be like, some sort of Asian matter.
There’s so many. Uh–not counting family, uh– not counting food…
You can consider digital Asians too.
This is really hard. I don't know. There's just too many options. I was thinking about Jeremy Lin. There was just something that was very much about him being Asian that made like obsess over something that I normally wouldn't like. I don't really watch basketball that much or anything, but there was just this moment where he was doing so well and everyone was like, LINSANITY! And I was like Yeah I’m gonna go buy a shirt! Fuck yeah I like basketball now! This Asian guy’s killing it! I I’ve definitely simmered down, but I like Jeremy Lin. Nice Asian icon. Brief Asian icon.
Sen released Cannonball! back in May.