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New Year, New Genre

With 2020 barely behind us but hopefully left to eternal oblivion, the time has finally arrived for brand new beginnings. Nobody can know for sure what this next decade will bring us, but all we can hope for is anything resemblant of roaring. This brings us to the genre choice we have chosen to bless your Spotify with this 2021 – the nostalgic veil that is City Pop music. Conceived in the booming Japan of the 1980s, City Pop was born from the neon-filled Tokyo night-time landscape. This music takes you back to a time you never experienced, but nevertheless feel an unexplainably intense longing for. Its death came just as quick as its birth – during the 1990s, Japan’s global prowess fell into a deep recession known as the Lost Decade, which also culminated in less dreamy, optimistic music. Decades later, it has slowly made a comeback, loosely and intangibly inserted into some Vaporwave and Future Funk tracks, albeit like a faint memory. Luckily, one man was able to rescue it from limbo – Van Paugam, also known as “The Lost City Pop DJ”. When he discovered the genre by recycling these vague City Pop tracks, he became the first person to actually put many of these songs out to the public, amassing a following of millions along the way. Not only this, but his presence has been noted in Japan, with fellow City Pop icons such as female singer Anri giving him her blessing.

This month we were lucky enough to interview him. Here’s what he had to say.

Q: A little backstory: where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Miami Beach and was raised there for the greater part of my life. My parents and grandparents were all from different places so I grew up not really having a set culture for me to be indoctrinated into. I was kind of free to choose my own path unchained by a traditional cultural heritage. Being from Miami, I was adapted to meeting people from all over the world and learning about their cultures and music. I worked at a record store on the beach for many years and that also kind of shaped my musical taste in the years to come. Eventually I left Miami for Chicago and I’ve been here ever since.

Q: What music did you listen to growing up?

A: I recall becoming familiar with a range of music early on from RnB to funk, disco, pop, new wave, alternative and everything in between. I loved anything with good use of synthesizers and drum machines, but also stuff from the 70s and 80s that were less processed. If it had a good beat I was usually tuned in regardless of genre. I was very discerning in my music selections because everyone I grew up around listened to different styles of music so I had a constant flux of shifting genres and sounds in my formative music sphere. I quickly developed a sense of what just felt like good music compared to what didn’t because I lived life with stereos blasting or headphones on all the time.

Q: What does City Pop mean to you? 

A: The funny thing about City Pop is that throughout the years it has evolved to take on new meanings for me as it continues to become more and more integrated into my life and personal history. It’s a strange thing to describe a style of music that has been nearly dead for over 30 years as an evolving phenomenon but the nature of City Pop’s attributes such as nostalgia and other esoteric qualities are something I’m still studying at the same time as being constantly influenced by as well. The genre has a symbiotic nature in that it grows with you and attaches itself to moments in your life that become inseparable entanglements of sound and experience. It’s hard to describe what City Pop means to me because how much it’s changed my life in totally unexpected ways and continues to do so. If I had to crystallize City Pop into a concentrated meaning I would say it means timelessness.

Record of Junko Ohashi’s 1984 album, Magical. Now an extremely expensive collector’s item, it features a rare picture of the Twin Towers. Image provided by Van at http://www.vanpaugam.com.

Q: What is the story behind you becoming a City Pop DJ? What were you doing before that?

A: Before City Pop I was DJing Future Funk and Vaporwave, which are internet-based genres on the more experimental side of the electronica spectrum. I had a DJ moniker, Any Linux, which was a play on Annie Lennox that I thought was so clever, but clearly not clever enough as it garnered little attention at the time. The turning point for me was when I started digging for the samples that Future Funk and Vaporwave producers were ripping from City Pop. After many restless nights of searching for these obscure records I finally started to piece together the semblance of a genre that was not yet even being called City Pop. Once I had enough of this older J-pop music gathered together I noticed certain sonic characteristics and production styles that tied everything together in a way that *felt* right even though no one had ever really officially said they should be played together in a mix. That was the moment the concept of a City Pop DJ was born.

Q: When did you discover City Pop? What did you feel when listening to it?

A: I originally discovered what would become known as City Pop through certain Vaporwave and Future Funk remixes that borrowed heavily from songs like Plastic Love by Mariya Takeuchi and Bay City by Junko Yagami. I would say this was at some point in 2013. It wasn’t until 2016 that I started collecting vinyl records from these artists that I started to realize it all had a specific kind of mood, vibe, and sort of sonic aesthetic that begged to be mixed together. When I first heard records like ‘For You’ by Tatsuro Yamashita, it was like remembering a distant memory that I had forgotten. It was funk, disco, pop, and distinctly Japanese but with English thrown in to give it that very cosmopolitan feeling. I felt like I was hearing Michael Jackson for the first time, or at least how people in the 80s must have felt listening to him for the first time. I was discovering a piece of history that seemed to have been forgotten in time and no one else really knew about it. It felt special, like I found lost gospels of music.

Q: Many people describe City Pop as nostalgic; the sound of a happy but distant bygone era. For me personally, it makes me yearn for a time I have never lived in – it’s strangely melancholic and depressive, but in a deeply beautiful and haunting way. Can you relate to this? What does City Pop make you feel emotionally?

A: I think you described it pretty well. The music has an element of sounding familiar yet foreign, like a silhouette that you can only ever grasp at but never really grip in a tangible way. As westerners we lived in an almost parallel musical universe to City Pop where nearly every popular song from our 70s and 80s music catalogue has been drained of all nostalgia via endless remixes and remakes, but these Japanese songs are like fresh untainted memories free from the corporate tentacles of western media conglomerates seeking to push whatever new products to targeted demographics. City Pop is currently safe from the profit-seeking studios and marketing agencies in the West looking to beat the dead music nostalgia horse again to generate sales, and that’s why it feels so blitheful for many people.

It’s music free from the association to our parents’ upbringing so it becomes more a part of our own history than theirs. You are free to make new memories with this genre and no one tells you what to associate it with. City Pop mirrors what was being produced in the West’s music scene in a surprisingly immaculate and enchanting new interpretation that we never even knew we needed in our lives. In a way, City Pop provides an escape into another time, another place, where we get a taste of a different era of overwhelming optimism and glittering opportunity that we never had the chance to experience ourselves. It’s like a phantasm of what could have been, but would never come to be; an invitation to tour another timeline. In every sense, it’s like magic.

Q: Can you tell us more about the era that City Pop was born in, and how it came to its demise?

A: It’s a very interesting and in-depth topic but I’ll try to be as succinct as possible haha. Early City Pop was pioneered by a man named Eiichi Ohtaki in the 70s who was greatly inspired by Western music. He pioneered a band called Happy End which is considered the proto-City Pop band for its unique blending of Japanese and Western production style, instrumentation, and arrangement. This was a rather new phenomenon in Japan and rapidly accelerated as the exchange of culture, music, and taste for cutting edge was growing as quickly as the Japanese economy. City Pop was then further expanded going into the 80s by on by a colleague of Ohtaki by the name of Tatsuro Yamashita, whose band Sugar Babe would develop this Western-sounding style even more, eventually influencing dozens of other Japanese artists who took this new sound and dipped it into a myriad of different sonic flavors.

By the end of the 80s, City Pop had become a commercialized package of decadence and metropolitan euphoria that had been riding high on the golden age of economic success Japan had attained thanks to the Plaza accord in 1985. The Plaza Accord was an agreement between the G-5 nations at the time to manipulate exchange rates by depreciating the U.S. dollar relative to the Japanese yen. This explosion in the yen’s value led Japanese banks to over-extend credit recklessly allowing companies to buy up unimaginably expensive foreign assets, stocks, and gamble on huge investments. Unfortunately, this all led to what was called the Japanese Asset Bubble that crashed their economy going into the 90s and creating what the Japanese call ‘The Lost Decade’ which is still felt even today. City Pop all but died after their economy crashed as its themes of carefree summer days and unlimited optimism were jaded reminders of a short lived commercial utopia that the next generations would never get to experience.

Q: Earlier this year, your Youtube account got taken down due to copyright reasons, which must have been very rough. What was your initial reaction, and how did you recover from this?

A: Well, I completely respect the decision to take my channel down due to copyright reasons. However, I don’t regret what I did, because thanks to my channel many Japanese artists experienced a second life for their music and have reached new young audiences that will carry their music for generations to come, essentially immortalizing them. That kind of promotion, well, it doesn’t come more than once in a lifetime. I felt very hopeless and sad at the time the channel was taken down, and honestly I still do feel it from time to time because of what a wasted opportunity that was for both Japan and myself. The only reason I am still going forward is because I truly have a passion for City Pop and believe that it has a unique power that needs to continue to grow and be heard. I have many amazing and supportive people who believe in me and have motivated me to continue, and I have a great deal of appreciation and love for them.

Miki Matsubara’s 1979 breakthrough hit, ‘Mayonaka no Door/Stay With Me’.

Q: Who are your favorite City Pop artists?

A: Oh wow, there are so many and each have their own wonderful attributes and styles. Each one makes you feel a different way and carry their own unique charms that make an impression that lingers in your heart and mind. Some of these are a given because they essentially define the genre, others are personal favorites because of how they changed my life. Not a complete list but a few that come to mind are Hideki Saijo, Tatsuro Yamashita, Mariya Takeuchi, Toshiki Kadomatsu, Miki Matsubara, Junko Ohashi, Junko Yagami, Momoko Kikuchi, Anri, Mika Bridgebook, Tomoko Aran, Mioko Yamaguchi, Meiko Nakahara, Miho Fujiwara, and of course Takako Mamiya.

Q: What are your favorite animes and why?

A: Akira is one of my all time favorites because of its aesthetics and writing. Katsuhiro Otomo did such an incredible job and everything is just perfect. I’m a huge cyberpunk fan and this is like the golden standard for the genre. I’m also drawn to Ghost in the Shell mostly because the writing is fantastic and borders on philosophy, morality, technology, and the blurring between artificial intelligence and humanity. These are topics that I feel are hardly ever executed well together but Masamune Shirow really put together something memorable with the characters and plot. Finally, I have to mention Cowboy Bebop because of how poignant it is in a sentimental and relatable way. The characters are all sort of lost souls drifting through their lives going from one lesson to the next while embracing their flaws and trying to find some meaning in it all. I feel like it’s true to life in a sense that contemporary animes fail to deliver.

Q: What are your all-time favorite records?

A: There are some absolutely iconic records that really shine through for me like audio diamonds. Among those are Tatsuro Yamashita’s For You, Mariya Takeuchi’s Miss M, Takako Mamiya’s Love Trip, Toshiki Kadomatsu’s After 5 Clash, Taeko Ohnuki’s Sunshower, Hideki Saijo’s In Search of Love, Tomoko Aran’s Fuyu Kukan, and Momoko Kikuchi’s Adventure. Many of these have been recently re-released so I really encourage any fans of the genre to invest in getting some vinyl because I suspect value will increase substantially in the near future. I bought records 5 years ago that have sky-rocketed in value thanks to the surge in interest that will only continue to grow. Japanese record shops have also taken note and adjusted prices shrewdly since I first started collecting 5 years ago.

Q: What is the inspiration behind your aesthetic? What aesthetic elements scream City Pop?

A: My main inspiration for aesthetics is an overwhelming obsession with nostalgia, or for a better descriptor, the Japanese word ‘Natsukashii’ which translates to more of an idealized version of the past not how it actually was, but more how we’d like to remember it. My aesthetic borrows a lot from vintage Japanese style, elements of distortion from early computers, washed out colors and vague references to obscure ephemera. For me, the thing that most screams City Pop superficially are pastel colors, city skylines, tape players, vinyl records, the wistful carefree Americana of Hiroshi Nagai… Anything that makes you feel like it belongs to another time or life where things were simpler and sweet. It’s a peculiar kind of thing retroactively assigning aesthetic elements to a genre from the past when these things maybe weren’t even how people back then would have really associated with the music, but this is 2020 so yeah haha.

Q: How is City Pop different from J Pop?

A: I think City Pop is a tiny sub-genre of J-Pop. J-Pop has many offshoots like Idol, Visual-Kei, Shibuya-kei, Kayo-Kyoku, and more than I can mention. City Pop differs from generic J-Pop in that it is stylistically more reminiscent of western pop, disco, funk, jazz, AOR, and others. Sometimes a City Pop album can contain elements from all these western genres to really give it that East/West fusion kind of sound. The term City Pop itself is very loosely based, but one thing that ties it all together is a feeling. You *feel* the nostalgia and it transports you even though you might not even be old enough to remember the era in which it reminds you of. It’s very much a style of music rooted in our subconscious where it can create a false sense of familiarity because you do feel like you’ve heard it a long time ago but that definitely couldn’t be true. Or could it?

Q: How is it different to Vaporwave, Future Funk and Lofi Hip-hop?

A: The newer internet based genres like Vaporwave and Future Funk rely heavily on distortion and synthetic sounding production for emphasis of their consumer technology-based origins. I feel like those genres had a lot of success because they so heavily relied on City Pop samples in their early years of their development. If you hear a Future Funk remix of a City Pop song, then hear the original song it was sampled from you almost never want to go back to the remix because the original is just that much better. City Pop music has a soul, and genuine feelings because the people that made this music were true artists with hopes, dreams, and passion. You can feel that through their music. Vaporwave, Future Funk, and Lofi, well, sometimes they sound as if made by an algorithm and not a real human being, but sometimes I feel as if that is the sound they are going for.

Junko Yagami’s smash 1983 hit, ‘Bay City’.


Q: What has your experience been when approaching City Pop artists to collab with them?

A: Hesitation! I’m just some gaijin (outsider) overseas resurrecting music that had laid dormant for quite some time so I really felt like I might be stepping on some toes. I wasn’t sure if they would understand my intention, or dedication to the music and the culture behind it. It took a lot of work, and was not easy conveying my commitment to promoting their music and not just parading it around in a mocking way. I had to show that I respected them, their music, and allow for organic connections to grow. Thankfully I’ve met many amazing Japanese artists, singers, and producers who have accepted me, and I hope that acceptance continues to grow so that I can continue to collaborate and add my own perspective on Japanese music.

Q: When you met a few City Pop artists in Japan such as Anri, what was their reaction towards you?

A: I think Anri was kind of curious about what this was all about. Many City Pop artists weren’t expecting their music to suddenly explode in the way it did. She was incredibly sweet to me and I think being that close to someone of her stature in Japan really changed me as a person forever. I think the more involved I become with City Pop artists the more they will come to welcome overseas fans and collaborators. It’s important to set a good example that we in the West have good manners and can be respectful because stereotypes exist and many Japanese have preconceived notions regarding how foreigners behave. When they meet someone like me who has a deep respect for their cultural practices and etiquette it can be a good step forward for cross-relations and advancement of understanding.

Van with City Pop Star legend Anri, whose tracks include ‘Last Summer Whisper’ and ‘Remember Summer Days’.

Q: Do you think that lockdown has affected your approach to creativity, and has there been any shift in the music you gravitate towards?

A: Reclusivity has always been second nature to me. I’m a born introvert and energize from being home and working on projects alone in my room. As a digital native it didn’t affect me very much to be in quarantine, and even now I’ve adapted pretty well to it. I think it makes us appreciate life outside much more because we took the simple things like going out dancing for granted. It’s a much needed wake-up call for everyone to live in the moment and love every little thing that you miss that much more. I continue to listen to mostly City Pop, and dig for unheard records even now as there is so much of it that remains hidden away in a crate somewhere in Japan. You can fill up a few years of your life just searching for these records. It’s a lifelong pursuit for me and the lockdown has just given me more time to do it.

Q: What artists have been dominating your speakers during lockdown?

A: Oddly enough I’ve been sort of obsessed with Korean City Pop. The music trend made it over to South Korea and many K-Pop artists are really taking the aesthetic elements of the genre and running with it. A singer named Yubin even modeled her hit City Pop song video after the animated gifs I used on my original channel. I’ve been jamming to Yukika, 레인보우노트, 서교동의 밤, MUZIE, and other indie Korean bands making City Pop flavored music but with a more modern production quality. It’s a bit of a departure from the classic style but refreshing in its own way. I don’t think I’ll ever call myself a K-Pop stan though.

Q: Since your ‘disappearance’ from the net, your dedicated fans have been demanding that you make a grand comeback. What can you tell us about what you’re planning next?

A: Haha I’m not really sure. I’ve always just kind of floated from project to project and leave many things unfinished often. I’m a bit of a scatterbrain and love the excitement of starting something new, then following my passions into something else. I doubt I’ll ever have a grand comeback unless maybe a super big artist picks me up to work on something. Hopefully that happens! Otherwise I’m just livestreaming my DJ sets, writing some City Pop-inspired fiction, and focusing on promoting the music to hopefully inspire more people. Ultimately I like making people experience life in memorables ways. If I can do something that makes you appreciate the small things in life, then I’m happy.

Q: What artist is your most recent discovery?

A: Lately I’ve been looking into an artist by the name of Hideki Saijo, who I’ve known for a while but only recently have been able to hear his full discography and wow… He’s like the Japanese Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Freddie Mercury all rolled into one. Only recently thanks to his dedicated fanbase on Twitter have I been able to understand how deeply complex and genius Hideki was, and now I am also a dedicated fan of his! I highly recommend his music, and also his live performance videos to anyone interested. I believe his story is just starting to be told overseas and his legacy will continue to reach new shores far into the future. He’s a mega superstar and deserves more global recognition for his talent.

Q: What kind of gigs do you usually do in Chicago? What are they like? Have you done gigs anywhere else?

A: I’ve DJ’d City Pop in Brooklyn, Paris, Barcelona, Toronto, Miami, Milwaukee, and did 5 shows in Tokyo. I was lucky enough to DJ at some of the coolest bars in Chicago too, like the Whistler in Logan Square. I had 3 monthly nights around Chicago dedicated to Japanese City Pop that would still be going on now if not for COVID. I would only play vinyl and was blessed to find a supportive crowd that regularly attended my shows and became just as obsessed with the music as I was. When I first proposed my City Pop nights I was worried people wouldn’t *get it* but Chicago is a music city and the people here fully embraced what I do. City Pop found a new home in Chicago and it’s definitely here to stay. Once the pandemic is over I’m sure there will be a new golden age for music bars and DJ nights. I’m looking forward to it!

Q: If you could collaborate with any musician, live or dead, who would it be and  why?

A: For me it would be Tatsuro Yamashita simply because he created what we have come to know as City Pop. He defined a style of music and few people every get to do such a thing. It would be an incredible honor and lifetime achievement to be able to work on something with him. I would want to do it to unify the overseas fans with the Japanese and usher in a new age of musical collaboration that isn’t restricted by distance or language. I believe music is a universal language and I hope to one day meet with him to share the gratitude we in the West have for his music.

Q: Finally, how would you sum up City Pop in three words?

A: RIDE ON TIME.

Tatsu Yamashita’s album, Ride on Time, which Van is alluding to. Indeed,
listening to City Pop feels like a ride through time. Nostalgia at its purest.

Don’t forget to check out Van’s page and socials to keep up with his latest releases!

Instagram: @vanpaugam
Twitter: @vanpaugam
Soundcloud: @vanpaugam
Website: http://www.vanpaugam.com

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