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The man who wasn't there: Cornelius

The man who wasn't there: Cornelius

Cornelius's entire career boils down to a decision his gym teacher forced him to make when he was small: Either dance with the girls to the beat of a monotonous drum, or become the drummer. He chose the latter. And his parents, who were both musicians, were proud.

That's the creation story the Japanese noise-pop artist is sticking to. Or so it seems. During a recent phone interview, it was hard to be exactly sure of anything he said.

Nothing strikes greater terror in a journalist's heart than the phrase Japanese translator. Unless, of course, it's accompanied by the phrase overseas call. And, in talking with Cornelius (a.k.a. Keigo Oyamada), both of these phrases came into play. A conversation with the Japanese megastar was punctuated by cross-line disturbance and strange voices rattling on in Japanese--apparently oblivious to this American writer repeating, "Hello? Hello?" every few minutes. The interview itself was just as surreal, like something from a comedy sketch: Cornelius's manager, Riki Domen, translated the questions, and then a flood of conversation ensued--all punctuated by hearty laughter and more conversation. Finally, Domen would translate a response, which sometimes included only one word as the "answer." The question "Why were real violins used on this album instead of just samples?" led to a 3-minute, 42-second conversation in Japanese that was ultimately interpreted as, "Real violins sound better."

Thankfully, Cornelius doesn't need an interpreter all the time: Most of his projects speak for themselves. His 1998 U.S. debut, Fantasma, was a self-described cut-and-paste project that took the listener through just about every facet of pop music--like the Residents' Third Reich & Roll set to a danceable beat. His newest release, Point (Matador) continues in that same tradition but smoothes out the rough edges that jarred Fantasma, creating pieces that amount to more than just bits of experimentation. The songs dance somewhere between borderline disco tracks and organic fairy tales and are punctuated by noisy bubbles, tinkling water, cricket drones, bird songs, violins, and Cornelius's own soft, understated voice. At times, they crash into pure Boredomsesque disorder with noisy guitars, synth blips, and punk-rock drums. But the sound of the record overall is oddly comforting: Hearing Point is like listening to a mix-tape where U.S. Maple follow Patsy Cline and thinking, Yes! This works! without grasping exactly why.

But try to convey any appreciation for the album's dissonant quality to Cornelius, and he'll remain unimpressed. "I'm not very happy with the sound," says Cornelius via Domen. "It would have sounded better if I could have recorded it in the United States, since you use a higher-voltage power there."

You'd wonder if he even has the time to quibble about something like voltage and studio time: In Japan, being a pop star is a full-time job, perhaps even more so than in the States. High-profile musicians like Cornelius aren't allowed to merely play in clubs and conduct short interviews with press people. Judging by the amount of merchandise that accompanies fellow Japanese performers Puffy AmiYumi and Kahimi Karie, musicians are also expected to contribute to the country's flagging economy by releasing piles and piles of paraphernalia for their fans to purchase in bulk. On top of running his own record label, Trattoria, Cornelius is responsible for his own line of designer clothing (under the label Bathing Ape), a series of wristwatches, and other kitschy oddities (a turntable made almost entirely out of cardboard, for instance, or the brightly colored headphones that only come with albums released on Trattoria). This is just standard fan-club stuff for your average Japanese star: Puffy AmiYumi, who passed through here just weeks ago, have everything from their own action-figure line to a Saturday-morning cartoon series, which depicts them as Powerpuff Girl-type heroes who sing and dance.

An immense amount of hype accompanies your average Japanese performer, and Cornelius is no exception. When he performs in Tokyo, huge placards sporting gigantic, stylized pictures of his head litter the streets. Conversely, in preparation for Cornelius's visit here, flyers have been sent out proclaiming Cornelius to be "the future of rock and roll" and his new album to be "a work of staggering genius." They're accompanied by spiffy matchbooks sporting pictures of the new album. (Hey! We want our cardboard record players!) Following form, hype-conscious magazines across the country are already claiming that Cornelius is "the man who saved pop music" (Interview), and that his albums are "the future of music" (Rolling Stone).

Sound familiar? Even if these magazines are espousing the same old rhetoric--and it is rhetoric, if only because such things are said about everyone nowadays--perhaps their readers should heed the praise in this case. Point is a fascinating and complex look at what could actually be the future of music. Or the future of limited-edition, unisex hygiene products, at least.