After transforming Michael Jackson and Jean Michel Jarre into lounge performers and putting some hip-swinging cha-cha-cha into rigid old pioneers Kraftwerk, Sr. Coconut returns with more musical mischief. His new album, ‘Yellow Fever’, takes on the oeuvre of Japanese pop stars Yellow Magic Orchestra…with some quite startling results.
Senor Coconut - an amusing nom-de-disque for a red-haired, mustachioed maverick that grew up in Frankfurt and ordinarily goes by the (somewhat more prosaic) name of Uwe Schmidt. But then Schmidt has a history of mirth making. Under a slew of entertaining monikers - Atom Heart, Lisa Carbon Trio, Dots, Lassigue Bendthaus, Flanger, Geeez ‘N’ Gosh, Masters of Psychedelic Ambiance – he has insisted on resisting electronica’s more insipid tendencies in favour of more playful experiments.
A decade or so ago the indefatigably prolific Schmidt, presumably wearing some kind of comedy disguise, and certainly sporting at least a Hawaiian shirt and Panama hat, slipped out of Germany and made a dash for the equator – Santiago de Chile to be precise – whose fertile climes encouraged him to give birth to the Senor Coconut project.
The first release under that name was ‘El Gran Baile’, a collection of lounge-influenced, Latin-peppered electronica. Then came his breakthrough, 2001’s ‘El Baile Aleman’ (The German Dance), for which he teamed up with musician pals from Denmark and a singer from Venezuela to audaciously re-work Kraftwerk’s greatest songs into a series of merengue and mambo covers. Maybe no one noticed the first album, but this one was a worldwide success.
Teutonic tongue still placed firmly in pseudo-Chilean cheek, Schmidt then released ‘Fiesta Songs’, which performed the same cheeky cosmetic makeover on a host of unlikely pop classics such as Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’, Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’, The Doors’ ‘Riders On The Storm’ and Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’. And now? Now the Senor brings us ‘Yellow Fever’ – another Latinised tribute of sorts, this time to Japan’s musical mischief-makers: Yellow Magic Orchestra.
“I discovered YMO around 1985 or so,” says Schmidt. “I made some new friends when I changed to high school and we exchanged tapes. I got lots of cassettes but since most of the music was taken from Japanese imports, there was almost no information about the music coming with the cassettes. In fact, I didn’t exactly know what I was listening to. Some songs I was able to track down only many years later and could then classify, or relate them to certain artists.”
Back in the 70s and 80s YMO were the toast of Japan’s pop charts. Comprised of Haruomi Hosono , Yukihiro Takahasi and Ryuichi Sakamoto they kick-started their career with a cover version of Martin Denny’s ‘Firecracker’, and became famous for their use of synths and samplers and digital and computer recording technology at a time when such things were considered new and pioneering. Not for nothing have they been described as the Japanese Kraftwerk.
Taking in disco, jazz, funk, ballads, cabaret and exotica, the trio released several albums and a string of hits including the wild and loveable ‘Firecracker, ‘Yellow Magic’, with its Afro-Cuban piano motif, tradition, ‘Pure Jam’, where B-boyism meets the Beatles. The band stopped working together in ’84, though the three members all pursued solo careers – most notably Sakamoto, who is known for his avant-garde electronic experiments and erudite movie soundtracks – but came together again in 1993 for a lukewarm reunion album called ‘Technodon’.
I don’t see myself much as a priest or colonizer
‘Yellow Fever’ collects together many of the band’s hits and a few of their lesser know productions and, with the help of the usual orchestra (Venezuelan singer Argenis Brito and the Danish musicians), plus arranger Norberg Kramer and a bewildering number of electronic personnel ranging from Burnt Friedman (Schmidt’s partner in Flanger), Schneider TM, Towa Tei, Akufen, Mouse On Mars and Nouvelle Vague’s Marina, transforms them into a series of pseudo-exotic statements in typical Coconut style.
“I wanted to experiment a different musical approach this time,” avers Schmidt. “I was not interested in creating a homogenous recreation, a simulation of a musical period or a musical- or cultural “style”, but wanted to be as hyper-eclectic as possible…within the realm of Latin music that is. I found that the eclecticism which is inherent to the YMO songs and the YMO history needed to be reflected on the album. Sampling-wise for example I decided to use material from all sources and periods as well as switch from acoustic to digital, and from natural to artificial in order to make it even more varied and to increase the amount of layers and cross-references. Further I took the decision to use the “interlude’ concept that YMO used and to bring in other guests. The contributions sometimes turned out relatively small, often just on these interludes, but it was a challenge for me. I had to handle quite a lot of very different information and input from artists all coming from different areas and make it all fit in one coherent ‘flow’…”
And flow it does. From the opening line, delivered in an amusing Spanish accent – “My name is Coco / I come from far away / I want you to dance with me” – the album sashays its way through tracks like ‘Yellow Fever’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Pure Jam’, ‘Rydeen’ and ‘Firecracker’, walking a series of tightropes between audacious exotica, imaginative electronica and Latino fromage, with plenty of amusing vocal skits to keep us entertained. The complex production procedure reveals itself in a tighter, much more multi-dimensional experience than previous Coconut albums. Putting the cherry on the already generously-layered cake are the members of YMO themselves, who contribute to a variety of tracks and skits on the album.
“I had a couple of suggestions/ideas concerning their participation and simply asked them if they'd feel comfortable with them,” says Schmidt. “Mr. Sakamoto felt best playing a Rhodes solo on his composition ‘Yellow Magic’ and both Mr. Takahashi and Mr. Hosono decided to sing backing vocals on their compositions ‘Limbo’ and ‘The Madmen’. I then prepared rough mixes, which I sent them by email. Once they agreed simple Pro Tools session were sent, also via email, on which they recorded their parts. Those parts were then sent back and I incorporated them into the final mix.”
Commenting that the intention of the album was not necessarily to bring the work of YMO to a wider/new audience - “I don’t see myself much as a priest or colonizer” – Schmidt also confesses another little known fact: “I like drinking coconuts,” he admits. “But what I don't like about eating them is their texture.” To borrow the name of his record label, the good Senor genuinely seems a Rather Interesting dude indeed.