Toko Yasuda is perhaps best known for her work with enthusiastic indie rockers Enon. However, if you’ve been to a St. Vincent show in the last few years, you may have also recognized her face peeking out from behind a Moog synthesizer. With a resume that spans from Enon to St. Vincent to Blonde Redhead, Yasuda clearly doesn’t have trouble getting work. However, her recent solo debut as PLVS VLTRA seizes the opportunity to present an uncompromising display of Yasuda’s electronic pop leanings. And while there are unabashedly sugary electro hooks galore, there are just as many dense synth swells, beatscapes, and dissonant crescendos for lovers of dance music with teeth.
Yasuda talked with Tiny Mix Tapes about her debut album, Parthenon, which is out now on the excellent Spectrum Spools imprint.
Parthenon is your first solo album. What are you able to accomplish as a solo artist that is different from your work as part of a band?
It’s just me, so I can concentrate more on the music as a singular vision when I make an album. It’s more focused.
I understand you had some guest musicians on the record, such as Scott Allen and Thomas Keville. What did they add to the record?
First of all, I have been a big fan of the Sun Ra Arkestra for many years. When [Enon] lived in Philly, we got to meet Danny Ray Thompson and Marshall Allen, who have been core members of the band since the early days of the group. I’m very honored to have been able to work with Danny Ray, who played baritone sax, flute, and percussion on several of the songs. He added such amazing textures, timing, and emotions to these electronic tunes with his performances.
Scott has also been a friend for many years. The opening song “Flowers to Bees” was originally a track he started, and I adapted it and made it into a song.
You were a member of Enon for many years, and it sounds like from what John Schmersal has said in interview, the band is “pretty much over.” However, I’m not aware of an official breakup announcement from Enon. Is it safe to say Enon is over?
Yes, it is over.
John Schmersal [from Enon] produced Parthenon. Do the two of you have a special bond after working together for so many years?
Yes, for sure. There are only a few people whom I can show my work for the first time without feeling funny about it. He knows me well.
When we are mixing, for instance, he understands what I mean when I say something like “…I want it to be more like worms moving under the sands…” etc.
So much of Parthenon has a catchy, hooky feel. What kinds of music inspired it? It sounds to me like there could have been some 80s pop influences, but there are also some modern electronic influences in there.
I have always enjoyed and been attracted to catchy melodies in many different genre of music since I was little. I grew up in Japan in the 80s and my mom was a huge fan of The Beatles, Prince, Bowie, and ABBA. We had a record player and piano in our living room, and bunch of cassette tapes in a car she drove. I grew up listening to music with hooks, pop music.
As far as modern electronic music goes, I’m not sure if they are the direct influence for Parthenon, but I like listening all kinds of electronic-based things. Art of Noise, King Tubby, Oval, Raymond Scott, Suzanne Ciani, J Dilla…..
I really loved the synthesizer sounds on the album, like the ringing bell sounds on “Flower to Bees” and the beeps and squeals on “Birthday Party.” I’ve seen you with hardware synths like Minimoog Voyager and Nord Lead 2. Did you use hardware to create and process the synths, beats, and samples, or is everything in a computer environment these days?
I recorded with Minimoog, Nord , Casio SK-1 to sample and play melody with, going through some effects like Kaoss Pad and reverb pedal. Most beats were made with [the Akai] MPC4000 and Ableton Live. Then John and I also ran lots of the signals through various hardware components as we were mixing. Old mic pres/mixers, compressors, and effects boxes.
There are only a few people whom I can show my work for the first time without feeling funny about it. [John Schmersal] knows me well.
On “Like Spice,” there are some dissonant synth parts and your heavily processed and manipulated vocal tracks accompanying the beat. What led to this sound?
It came from experimenting. “Like Spice” for example, took like three takes to wrap it up. The most quick and spontaneous track I had ever done. I think “experimental” music like this song came from not being a songwriter when I recorded it. I edited a few things here and there with Pro Tools, of course but there are only three tracks for this song and mostly spontaneously performed on the MPC.
I really loved the spoken word sample from the song “Parthenon.” It reminded me of a read-along storybook vinyl album I had when I was a child.
It is from a storybook vinyl album that was purchased at thrift store many years ago. It doesn’t mean that much more than it is part of the flow to this song. I wanted to end the A side of the album with some epic feels to it after very noisy songs, to give a little peace of mind.
Are you still playing synth with St. Vincent? If so, do you plan on making PLVS VLTRA a full-time, touring project?
Yes. I am actually in Belgium, playing Dour Fest tomorrow with St.Vincent. I am planning on playing some shows when the tour is finished as PLVS VLTRA , but not sure if it will be a full-time touring thing yet. I just wanted to make an album without any compromise or regard for how it would be performed. More something to listen to.