Big Yuki, real name Masayuki Hirano, recently had me biting my lip and flicking my wrist at his live show at Gretchen Club in Berlin, 3rd April.
I first heard the name in the Montreal Moog music store, where, while we were playing around with synths, a guy showed me a bit of Yuki’s Boiler Room set (with Charles Haynes on drums) on his phone, saying: “This guy is insane, he’s got all these pianos, synths, keyboards set up around him and is just jamming out across all of them. Sometimes he’s playing two parts at the same time!” It’s true – check out the set here for some sweet sweet shiiieeettt:
So there’s a grand piano, on top of which is a bass synthesizer and a sampler, and next to that are two keyboards, effect dials dotted about… and there’s two monster musicians with him on stage.
The Big Yuki lineup with Randy Runyon on guitar and Lenny ‘The Ox’ Reece (insta: @theoxgram) on drums recently finished touring Europe, with a stop in Berlin, where I saw them live.
I turned up thinking Yuki was a jazz musician – but what I heard was well varied, and totally dance-y in parts. Big Yuki was slapping the synth like a bass guitar, giving us a real beat to move to. A stomping kick drum blasts out over the crowd, a sampler busts out some cut up vocals, long drawn synthesizer chords overlay a tapping drum beat, tense waits like in jazz, cruisy guitar riffs massage our ears, pull at the cheeks for a cheeky grin, sick! A few minutes later we’re listening to Yuki’s fingers flying over the piano, his head tilted back, chill calm where there was crunchy chaos – music for chin strokers, arm wavers and foot movers alike. Tough gentle meets crunchy smooth with some mad experimentation: ever heard a drummer drum his bicep?
Best of all, the trio looks like they’re having a mad time on stage. Flashing an ear-to-ear grin to his bandmates and audience, head nodding hard, Big Yuki warms the room with his big big self and his big big tunes.
I asked Yuki a few questions about what he was grinning about and where his music came from after the show, and then we had a follow-up chat online:
AS IF: After the show, I said I was reminded of live techno shows in the opener of your set and we talked about your influences a bit – you said:
“Techno is definitely an influence on the sound – but I want to take the sound back from the machine, recapture the music, and bring the soul and human back into it with playing an instrument.”
I think it’s a great thought – is there anything you’d like to add to that comment? Do you think loop-based or sequenced music is lacking something?
BIG YUKI: I don’t necessarily think sequenced music is lacking something. Techno can be mad soulful. I just love to feel the process of creating the music at the moment. Like touching the warm blood lol.
AS IF: You seem to put a lot of value on the live aspect of playing music and the moments created between audience and act. Regarding the energy of the room you said:
“I feel responsible for what we put out on stage – I just want to put out positive energy, connect with the people. It was hard to read the room and connect with everyone so far away and sitting down. In the last song [when everyone had moved up to the stage] I finally got it all out there – music can be tough sometimes!”
And before the end you asked the audience to “come to the front else it’ll feel like a jazz show”. Can you explain that a bit? What kind of energy are you after in a live show?
[Gretchen Club wasn’t full for the show and the crowd was seated on couches and bar stools, a good way from the stage.]
BIG YUKI: Me saying “feel like a jazz show” might be taken wrongly. What I meant was that I felt like the music was being taken in in more of an academic way. I want my music to be felt in a very physical way and it was hard for me to see people doing so.
AS IF: You also said that you loved being able to play bass-heavy with Gretchen’s sound system, that you were going to “push out a lot of sound to fill the room, to reach the audience even if they’re far back”.
Pushing sound toward the audience – is that what you’re going for anyway in a live show or was that something you felt like you had to do for that particular show?
BIG YUKI: One of the challenges I had on this tour was that some shows were held in a room with sub-woofer and some were held in more of a traditional jazz venue, no sub and volume limit due to a conservative neighbours. I had to keep reminding myself that we had to play for the room. The most important thing for me is to create dramatic dynamics. Pushing the sound might not always be the answer. Maybe we could be more sensitive and invest in the lower volume territory to create the dynamics. Now I think that could have worked better that particular night.
AS IF: I actually think there’s quite a difference between the sound of your record and your live show. Do you come into the two with very different plans for what to achieve?
BIG YUKI: I continuously try to do the coolest shit I like the most in each moment. The album was the honest reflection of myself at that time. I am not interested in recreating what I did in the past.
AS IF: I haven’t been able to find the opening track of your set online or recorded anywhere. Are there plans to put out the live tracks we haven’t heard recorded?
BIG YUKI: That is the current version of ‘Greek Fire‘ from the album. I know it sounds nothing like it anymore lolol. I am not planning to record this version anytime soon. I just love to perform it for now.
AS IF: I remember you said, regarding the sound of the guitar and playing with a guitar:
“The guitar is like the human voice. It can play every sound and it fills the space between them, it’s continuous. So Randy fills the space between my keys.”
I also noticed that you and your band-mates share a lot of grins and little looks during the show. It seems like you’re having a killer time on stage and it was a total pleasure to watch.
It seems like there’s a lot of collaboration on the album too – is collaboration something you particularly strive for in music?
BIG YUKI: I just love to share the music with people I feel I share the same musical picture with. Music is a universal language to me and I happen to speak it well enough to connect with other people.
AS IF: Finally, what are your thoughts on genre for your music – and on being considered a ‘jazz’ musician? In what you said during the show it seemed you might want to distance yourself from that title, although you’re often associated with the genre by labels and writers. Would you place yourself in a category?
BIG YUKI: I understand the word “jazz music” comes with certain expectations. To some people it means academia. I just wanna keep creating the music which I think is cool as shit lol! To me jazz music is the music that challenges the new possibilities of self expression. It’s beyond the musical genre, more like a mindset. I don’t care how my music is categorised. Maybe I should come up with a new genre name. I don’t want the genre name to box my music.
Certainly not! Big Yuki’s varied and full sound defies classification. His debut album, Greek Fire, has been out since 2015 and is up on Bandcamp.
Before that, Yuki was already known as a keyboardist in various projects, where he has some lethal solos, like this one for Matisyahu:
AS IF: Any upcoming tours or releases?
BIG YUKI: Def! The biggest thing would be that I’m working on a new record now and is most likely gonna be released in Europe in September. The next “BIG YUKI” Europe tour will be in November including London Jazz Festival and Super-Sonic Jazz Festival. I’m also coming back to Berlin and Munich in September with the artist Matisyahu, and his new album Undercurrent, the production of which I am a part of, will be released in May.
Looking forward to it! Thanks Yuki, and thanks stranger in a Montreal music shop!
Featured photo credit: Deneka Peniston