Cicada_sss, interview with a Vocaloïd Producer
While working on an article about the Hatsune Miku figure, I found the album Ex Pop Music by Ex-Happyender Girl. Something was hitting my curiosity and I wanted to know a bit more. I had the opportunity to lead an interview with the composer of the band, Cicada_sss. He explains the roots of his music journey, his inspirations, his relation to Hatsune Miku, explain and talk about his views on the Vocaloïd Producers community and ethics surrounding Hatsune Miku.
Thanks again to Cicada_sss for taking the time to answer my questions.
Here is the full interview :
Rrrrrose : In your whole discography, there is a lot of things to listen to, noisy things, rock things, electro things, what motivate you to do that variety of music ? Where do you find those ideas ?
Cicada_sss : I listen to music that interests me at the time. And sometimes I want to make music that is similar to them. My motivation for making music is usually something like that. For example, from 2011 to 2013, my works are mostly like Japanoise or scum music influenced by 想い出波止場 (led by Seiichi Yamamoto), パラダイス・ガラージ (led by Michinori Toyota), 暴力温泉芸者, and Merzbow. In 2017, I released "Night Train Window" that is an album in a vaporwave style (although it missed the movement).
More recently, "ガールフレンド・アーミー" was inspired by Hyperpop, and "ま (I am still thinking about the time I can not get back)" is an eclectic mix of 60s soft rock and 00s post-rock.
However, my musical roots lie in Japanese rock bands such as ASIAN KUNG-FU GENERATION, NUMBER GIRL, くるり, Syrup16g, and People In The Box. They are especially influenced by 80's post-punk, 90's US alternative rock, and 00's post-rock.
These are the basis of my music, along with Vocaloid music and Doujin music, which are also my musical roots. Therefore, my music is basically rock music or its deconstruction. To be frank, I do not have the background to create music with originality. I twist ideas by reconstructing elements of music that I like.
Rrrrrose : You work a lot with vocaloïd and mostly Hatsune Miku ? What is your relationship to her as a composer and as a listener ?
Cicada_sss : Most of my music is with Hatsune Miku. You might say that I am obsessed with the idea of making music with Hatsune Miku. This is because I am captivated by her.
I am irresistibly drawn to her innocent voice, the timelessness of her existence and voice, and her presence as a pop icon. There is quite a bit of the nostalgia effect there as well.
She and the movement that surrounds her are at the core of not only my career but also my life.
I met her in 2007 when she had just been born and I was 9 years old at the time. The rise of the "Vocaloid" music genre that emerged on the Nico Nico Douga platform is a memory that I would call my original musical experience. As I will explain later, ex. pop music is an album that pays strong respect to the early days of Vocaloid culture.
At the time, many of the songs on the album were focused on her character and the existence of Vocaloid itself, as represented by "初音ミクの消失". Perhaps because of my strong memories of those days, I have come to see her not as a voice synthesizer but as a partner in music production.
Many of the songs I make are about personal matters, and I always feel guilty or embarrassed when I ask Hatsune Miku to sing them. I even think that she would not appreciate my music very much.
As a listener, I am not following the Vocaloid culture in depth right now, but I have many favorite Vocaloid producers, songs, and albums, not just those using Hatsune Miku. But Hatsune Miku is still my favorite of them all. There are too many producers that have influenced me to write about.
For example, our name "happyender girl" is taken from the song "Weekender Girl" by livetune. Also, the influence of 全自動ムー大陸 has been a big part of the reason why we have been active mainly on Bandcamp until now.
Recently, I like the music that いよわ and ツミキ make. I was also impressed with Tek lintowe's "Unlenting".
I was recalling the lyrics of a song that influenced my view of Hatsune Miku.
The song "恋スルVOC@LOID" by OSTER project depicts a tomboyish and selfish Hatsune Miku who trusts her producer. In the song, Miku sings, "I want to shine more properly, is that the extent of your competence?".
In the song "ファインダー" by livetune, Hatsune Miku compares herself to the viewfinder of a camera. I totally agree. There are things that can only be seen through her.
The separation between Hatsune Miku and her producer in OSTER project's "片思イVOC@LOID" and cosMo's "初音ミクの消失" is tragic. I admired the trusting relationship depicted in those songs, and I wished we could be like them. I wish we could already be.
The song that most influenced my view of Hatsune Miku is malo's "ハジメテノオト". In the song, she said, "If you change, but you don't want to lose it, leave it with me". I think that has always been my motivation to stay with her.
Rrrrrose : Have you performed live your music with Hatsune Miku ? And if yes, how did you managed to do it ?
Cicada_sss : I have never done an actual live performance, but I have created a "virtual live" soundtrack that resembles the sound of a gig by a rock band, and streamed it with performance filmed on VRChat.
This is an imitation live performance, but I think that is why it is so interesting.
Hatsune Miku is of course a singer who do not exist in this world, and I can't play an instrument. So it is really weird and interesting that we can do a live performance.
Well, it's not a real live performance, so the work was really steady. It's a daunting task of creating a live-ish sound and shifting the pitch of vocals. I can't thank my collaborators enough for their help.
Rrrrrose : Do you collaborate with other people playing music with Hatsune Miku ?
Cicada_sss : Sadly, I have no friends who are Vocaloid producers lol. I would say it myself, but I am a very reclusive person. So I have no experience collaborating with such people until now. However, I would like to try it if I have the chance. Especially since I am not finding my own arrangements interesting these days, I dream of having them reconstruct my arrangements and gain a new perspective.
Rrrrrose : Can you talk a bit about what was happyender girl and why it had to end ?
Cicada_sss : There are many factors, but in a nutshell, "happyender girl" is a symbol of my teenage years, and I ended it because that were over.
Since I launched happyender girl at the age of 16, I had left behind my feelings and thoughts at that time in the form of my work. Then, when my teenage years ended, I realized that my motivation for creating music had clearly diminished. Looking back, I think I was too caught up in the concept of "symbolizing my teenage years".
Or maybe I wanted to keep happyender girl as an inviolable part of myself. I collaborated with others on artwork, mixing, and mastering after becoming ex., but during the happyender girl period, I did everything by myself. I think I wanted to keep it as a sanctuary, a kind of memory, that I had done completely on my own.
Therefore, I thought that this would be the next phase, so I ended happyender girl and started ex. happyender girl.
There are many other reasons. One is "I just wanted to try to break-up", One is "I just wanted to make a fresh start", and others but generally they are like that.
Rrrrrose : And what is ex. happyender girl ?
Cicada_sss : ex. happyender girl is a little more rough around the edges. We make and present music as we like.
It is also an experimental form where we try out various challenges. We are planning compilation albums, doing "virtual live" shows, releasing music through streaming services such as Spotify, and many other endeavors.
Rrrrrose : How can you describe your style of composition and what are your influences ? What is your process of composition ?
Cicada_sss : My style of composing is completely self-taught. I only know that music needs melody, chords, bass, and rhythm lol. Everything else is just a feeling. Well, actually, I am making it with reference to the components of music that I like.
The production method is too different between ex. pop music and the rest, so I will start by explaining my usual method of making music.
Basically, the lyrics always come first. I have a stock of lyrics, but it doesn't take that long to write from scratch. I usually have a theme that I want to write about first, and then I write the lyrics in the image of writing a poem that goes along with the theme. I think this style came about because I originally wrote novels as a hobby.
Once the lyrics are finished, I write a song in my brain to go along with the lyrics. I often hum the tune to write it. Generally, the melody, chords, and rhythm come out at the same time.
I use a Japanese MIDI music editing software called Domino from 2013 to now to output the ideas in my brain and compose music. This is a popular software for beginner DTM producers in Japan. After composing in Domino, I import the MIDI files into PreSonus' Studio One for arranging. I used to use Steinberg's Cubase.
I always get lost in the arrangement. It would be nice if I had a destination, but I usually don't lol. I'm always twisting my head, wondering what kind of makeup would suit this song. Do I increase or decrease the amount of information, distort or clean up the sound? It's all a bit confusing.
I will go into more detail later, but for ex. pop music, I eliminated the process of writing lyrics and arranging from the above method in order to save labor. Therefore, what you hear on the album are, so to speak, demo recordings.
Rrrrrose : What are the thematics of the lyrics you wrote for Hatsune Miku to sing on the Ex. Pop Music album ?
Cicada_sss : The lyrical theme of "ex. pop music" can be summed up in one word: "anti excessive meaning".
Most of the lyrics on the album are written in the style of fitting words into rhymes by feeling. This was done to eliminate the excessive meaning that existed in my music.
The "meaning" is what tormented Hatsune Miku and ended the happyender girl.
Hatsune Miku in happyender girl (and maybe even ex.) was enslaved by the excessive meaning of my lyrics and sounds. One of the concepts of that album was to free Hatsune Miku from such a situation.
For example, the lyrics of "からいなさい" are completely meaningless. It is not even a sentence in Japanese. Not only that song, but most of the other lyrics are meaningless. Barely meaningful (or seemingly meaningful) phrases in that album are almost drowned in meaningless phrases.
Only the lyrics "移民の歌", "たのしい現代教育," and "こんなのはただの言葉遊びに過ぎないのよ" are meaningful." The song "移民の歌" announces that ex. happyender girl has entered a new phase, "たのしい現代教育" (lyrics written in 2015) is a song to accompany those who don't fit in with the world, and "こんなのはただの言葉遊びに過ぎないのよ" is a song to introduce the concept of the album and to thank the listeners.
But ultimately, the album's lyrics (and all of my lyrics) are exactly what the title "こんなのはただの言葉遊びに過ぎないのよ (This is just a play on words)" suggests.
Rrrrrose : On ex. Pop Music, you use soundfonts from videogames. Can you tell where does it come from and why did you choose to use those soundfonts instead of analogic instruments ?
Cicada_sss : Actually, that album was not so much a tribute to video games. Anything that sounded "lo-fi" was fine with me. There are two reasons for this sound.
The first is the antithesis of the late happyender girl. As mentioned above, this album was made by skipping the arrangement process altogether.
Because at the end of happyender girl, I spent a lot of time arranging and mixing, and I was still struggling with it.
I was fed up with the lyrics I was writing, but so was I with the sound. It simply wasn't fun. I was no longer enjoying making music. So for this album, I oriented myself to compose in a very instant way. My first priority was to write pop songs filled with various ideas, so that I could forget about everything else that I didn't like.
The second is a longing for lo-fi sound.
There are many kinds of lo-fi sounds. Of course, there are simple sounds like video games. Or, sounds that has deteriorated over time, such as a cassette tape. Sounds like lo-fi indie rock, which have been crushed or altered as a result of sound layering. And then sounds worse as a result of compressed information, such as 64 kbps mp3s. I like all of them. I feel sympathy for the lo-fi sound.
The combination of the two resulted in an album that sounded like that.
Let me talk about the source of the ex. pop music influence here.
ex. pop music is heavily influenced by the following 5 music (as per bandcamp page description section). Of course, this is not all of them :
- Golem Who Goes Fish's "No Conscious Apparitions" influences the overall composition of the album in terms of its lo-fi sound, recorded on a 4-track MTR, and its large collection of short songs.
- 進行方向別通行区分 is a Japanese rock band, famous for being the predecessor of 相対性理論. The band's lyrics have no meaning whatsoever. It is nonsense. And the musicality is simple but very addictive.
- kinkyuuyuruport is a vocaloid producer and a noise-jazz-pop band. The lyrics this artist writes also make little sense. However, they musicality is also very fun, pop and catchy. I was very much influenced to the above two artists in writing the lyrics for this album.
- haruna808 "Haruna" is a great song from the early days of Hatsune Miku. The melancholy guitar riffs soothe my heart and immerse me in nostalgia. Together with the next song, "encore" by 骨盤P, it symbolizes the early days of Hatsune Miku (and my boyhood) for me.
- 骨盤P "encore" is another classic from the early days of Hatsune Miku, a lovely indie pop song from the 00s. For me, this song represents the dawn of Hatsune Miku. This album is dedicated first and foremost to this song.
As you can tell from the first listen, the sound quality of this song is not good. The original uploaded to Nico Nico Douga was the same, although it is not there now. However, this sound quality evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for me.
When Hatsune Miku first appeared on the Internet, there was an abundance of music with "terrible" sound quality. Some songs were degraded by some process, some music files were reduced in size so as not to strain the Internet connection, and some music files were illegally uploaded. This song reminds me of my boyhood, when I used to get into the Internet every day and be moved by it. Also, this song is really pure and innocent in its melody, singing voice, and lyrics. This song is very important to me because it brought me back to basics.
ex. pop music is an album that goes back to the roots, so to speak. It is a work in which I reexamined "(pop) music" and "the Internet culture including Vocaloid in which I spent my boyhood" from the happyender girl, whose sounds and lyrics have become excessive.
Rrrrrose : Hatsune Miku seems a bit perplexed on the artwork of ex. Pop Music, what is she thinking about ?
Cicada_sss : There is a yokai in China called 僵尸(Jiangshi). They have been familiar in Chinese and Japanese pop culture. They are the dead who have had a talisman "勅令陏身保命 (Keep alive after death by imperial edict)" written on their foreheads, and are made to move according to the words even after death.
The artwork of "ex. pop music" symbolizes the aforementioned "Hatsune Miku at the mercy of the 'meaning'". She is a being who is made to sing the words as she is told. The "「」" on the face veil-like talisman is a symbol used in Japan for dialogue or emphasis. And just as nothing is written in the "「」", Hatsune Miku is also at the mercy of the "meaninglessness". Meaningless or not, as long as there are words, Hatsune Miku must continue to sing.
(After all, there is no escaping semantics when the theme is "anti excessive meaning". So, one might not say that this album's attempt was a success.)
Hatsune Miku's expressionlessness is a quiet protest against that. Therefore, I have tried to remain sincere and express my gratitude to Hatsune Miku as much as I can from the beginning of happyender girl till now.
Rrrrrose : You say you always feel guilty or embarassed asking Hatsune Miku to sing your songs. What do you think Hatsune Miku would rather sing or do instead ?
Cicada_sss : There are so many different Hatsune Miku, so I say this only for Hatsune Miku as a member of the ex. happyender girl, I think she wanted to act as an idol like other Hatsune Miku. My songs are not the kind of songs that she can sing and dance like an idol in front of a large audience and go on a world tour. So Miku may be thinking, "That's not what I heard!". When I originally started working with her, I wanted to write innocent, cute, pop songs like the ones I had admired as a child and have her sing them. But I ended up taking a different path than that. So she may not be convinced.
This is just my imagination. Maybe she doesn't actually want to sing (that's okay. She is beautiful just by standing), or she may want to sing quietly for one person.
As a matter of fact, I don't know what she wants to sing or do. It is just a convenient imagination for me.
Rrrrrose : Do you think Hatsune Miku is enslaved in some way by her vocaloïd status and by vocaloïd producer ?
Cicada_sss : I think so.
There are many different relationships between Vocaloids and producers. Some use it simply as a voice synthesizer, while others think of her as their girlfriend. Neither is better or worse than the other. However, no matter what kind of relationship we have with her, it is possible to find the structure of the master-slave relationship from that.
The way Hatsune Miku refers to the producer as "master" in the culture of Vocaloid fan art is emblematic of this. (Incidentally, this topic is often discussed among Vocaloid enthusiasts in Japan, but no conclusion has been reached on the pros and cons.)
As long as Hatsune Miku is software, it can't be helped. I think that has to be looked at dispassionately. It is then important to know how to interpret it.
There are people, like myself, who would not have been able to create their own music without Hatsune Miku. In such cases, it could be called interdependence.
But in the end, it is up to interpretation. If someone says that I am treating Hatsune Miku like a slave, I can't say "No, it's not." Even I am putting my desires first and making her sing the words I want her to sing.
Rrrrrose : Do you think there is a way to be fair with her and to work with her in a more ethical way ?
Cicada_sss : This is a difficult question. I have let her sing some offensive words and I am aware that I have treated her as a tool to get my point across. But I think it's better than letting her sleep in the back of my hard drive. ... I don't know if that's truly better or not.
In ex. happyender girl, she is thoroughly treated as a member of the group. This is because I respect her as an essential collaborator in my music, and I think it is the fairest way I can do. (Even that is ultimately one of interpretation.)
Other than that, I think the only thing I can do is to continue to be grateful for her singing my songs, and to make songs and lyrics that she will not be embarrassed by.
Rrrrrose : What are the next projects with ex. Happyender girl ? Other things you want to share or shout out ?
Cicada_sss : We are working on an album based on the concept of "ghost" and another based on the concept of "Hatsune Miku" at the same time. We do not know when the announcement will be made, but we will do our best to give good news next year.
We are also working to release ex. pop music on cassette tape. It will be available outside of Japan.
All we want to say to you is, Thank you for finding us.
To be honest, we never thought that ex. pop music would be so well received.
The truth is that we have been quietly flying low for the past seven years since we started our activities. Like many other creators, I have had many setbacks, and I have recovered from them.
However, the recognition of ex. pop music has made me feel that what I am doing is more or less right.
Of course I would like to thank all the people I have met before ex. pop music and all the people I will meet in the future.
In the last song of ex. pop music, there is a lyric that goes like this:
「ここにいるって気づいてくれて嬉しかった (I'm glad you realized we were here)」
That's all we want to say.