HAPPEN #15: Nick Luscombe, MSCTY.SPACE, Tokyo
Nick Luscombe, FRSA, is a DJ, broadcaster and regular collaborator with Venture Café Tokyo. He has an extraordinary ear for sound and musical innovation. Nick has dedicated his career to sharing his passion for music with the world around him. Some of the ways he has delivered goodness to our ears are as host of numerous BBC radio shows, Chief Music Editor for iTunes Europe, and now as the architect of CIC Japan’s own radio show, “Inspiration / Innovation Japan”. Nick has also founded MSCTY, a company that creates innovative music projects by capturing sounds from different environments and using them to craft tracks that enrich our experiences of those places. Most recently Nick worked on an exciting collaboration with the city of Utsunomiya that came about through Venture Café. We sat down to interview him about the Utsunomiya Project, his fascinating career and much, much more. Read on as Nick Luscombe unravels for us the unseen architecture of audio!
— Hello Nick, please can you introduce yourself to the Venture Café community?
Nick: Hello Venture Café Tokyo! I’m Nick Luscombe, originally from the UK. I’m a professional DJ and broadcaster. I’ve worked for the BBC producing and hosting radio shows for over 20 years, including Late Junction which delivers experimental music for adventurous listeners. I’ve also been Europe’s Chief Music Editor for iTunes, and I founded MSCTY, a project that fuses music and architecture. Music has always been my passion, and following it has led me on the diverse journey that is my career in the music industry.
— We’re honoured to be talking to such an innovative musical soul. Please tell us more about how you got into music and the journey it has taken you on.
Nick: Absolutely. Well, I grew up in a fairly ordinary, (but very happy!) working-class family in Plymouth in the South West of England. My dad was really into music. He always took me to the record shop and we’d pick up some records and listen to them together. This is where I got into music I think.
I also used to love listening to the radio as a kid. I still do. I remember I got a small transistor radio one year and I would spend hours listening to BBC Radio 2’s classic covers of pop songs, playing with the knobs and dials, trying to get the best sound quality!
One morning, before school, I heard “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer on the radio and was mind-blown by how creative and futuristic — almost sci-fi-like — the sound of that song was! I remember feeling desperate to share the experience with other people. I went to school and asked all my friends if they heard the song too. But no one seemed to care about it. I was stunned. But looking back, I think that was a defining moment when I realized that I was way more into sound than most people around me!
As I went through education I gradually met people like me — music geeks I guess you’d call us — and built a community of people with whom I could share my passion for music. This led me to form a band with my mates in school. At 21, we all left and moved to London to try take our music to new audiences.
While gigging and working on recordings with my band, I got a job at the BBC to pay the bills. They trained me as a sound engineer and I crafted that crisp BBC sound you’re so used to hearing (laughs).
Eventually, I moved into the production and hosting of music radio shows for the BBC. Then I started getting requests to do DJ gigs from people who heard my radio sets. I loved creating these sets so I started taking on more DJing work, and the band sort of took a back seat.
Fast forward a few years and I got a job at XFM, a big UK alternative music station, doing a radio show for innovative electronic music. This was the late 90s and early 2000s, which was an incredible time for left field electronic music. I loved discovering new sounds from all over the world, including Japan, and sharing it with my audience.
In fact, I actually got the chance to visit Japan in the late 90s. I convinced Swiss Air to send me to Japan to make a compilation CD of Japanese electronic music to be sold on the flight. It was a brilliant experience and my first time to surround myself in Japan’s amazing soundscape!
So the late 90s, early 2000s for me were a time to really immerse myself in travel and musical innovation. Ever since really, discovering and sharing new, creative music has been one of the driving forces of my career. It’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last 20 plus years. Be it hosting BBC radio shows introducing all kinds of innovative music, or as Chief Music Editor for iTunes. I feel a bit weird calling it a “career” though… A career feels like something someone would plan, but from day one I’ve just been following my fascination and interest.
— It seems musical “innovation” and progressive music have been keywords for your work and life. How do you think music is important to innovation?
Nick: Music is so creative and so quick! I think it’s the most immediate art form and form of expression that there is. I mean, someone can just whistle a tune that has never been written before, and that can be musical innovation.
Music is innovating all the time too; it never really stands still. You know, music riffs off other forms of music and constantly progresses. Listen to popular music, you always hear similarities in songs. Like one of Ed Sheeran’s tracks might be inspired by Justin Bieber for example as he tries to take that blueprint and move it to the next level. The formula keeps on changing, little-by-little, all the time. The same is true with something like a startup I suppose, that kind of constant incremental change.
— You have been involved in a lot of musical innovation projects yourself. Please tell us about MSCTY the company you founded to carry out such projects.
Nick: Sure! MSCTY was born out of my long term fascination with architecture and cities. From my home town of Plymouth, to my time in London and of course Tokyo too, I’ve been fortunate to live in cities like this which are home to extraordinary architecture. Architecture is public art and each building, each place, has a story to tell. So I always felt there was a space to create a dialogue between architecture and music. Just like when a great soundtrack can tell part of the story in a movie, I believe sound can help to enhance our experience of spaces in real life.
Despite those connections, when I searched, there wasn’t much work out there to build this kind of dialogue. So I founded MSCTY back in 2010. Today we’re a team of artists, researchers and producers who work on collaborative projects to explore new ways to experience the world through sound and space. We create a lot of original compositions, often using sounds captured by field recording in different spaces. So far we have over 400 collaborations with artists, partner institutions, developers, brands and regional governments from all over the world.
The project we worked on with the Utsunomiya government is one such recent project.
— What is the Utsunomiya Project and how did it come about?
Nick: The project came about through talks with the Utsunomiya Government, who were looking for ways to spice up and promote their cities unique character. I was introduced to Kurosaki-san from the government of Utsunomiya through Ryusuke at Venture Café actually. We had an interesting conversation about expressing the city by capturing and re defining its sounds. We continued a back and forth about this for a while, exchanging all kinds of ideas. For example, Utsunomiya is famous for its gyoza, and also its jazz scene. So we initially considered capturing the sounds of gyoza frying, then getting a local saxophonist to play over it, for example! (I still love this idea!)
Eventually, we landed on capturing the soundscape of an Ōya stone mine and producing a musical collage of those sounds. Ōya stone is one of Ustunomiya’s most famous products, used in construction. It’s very soft and we found it produced some extraordinarily rich sounds through its extraction from the earth.
My MSCTY co-producer James Greer and I went to Utsunomiya and went down into a 56-meter deep mine, capturing field recordings. The final piece that we produced is called “Oya”, and it takes the listener on a journey down into and back out of the mine. The vast rock surface of the mine was very sonically responsive to the miners who picked at its surface, so we could capture a rich palette of overwhelming textures and rhythms. We created a collage from these sounds that evoke the atmosphere of the mine; all of its aberrations and subterranean sensations.
The piece is being used for a special tourist installation in Utsunomiya.
— Congratulations on the project Nick, really loved “Oya”!! It’s great to hear that Venture Café played a small part in your latest project. Can you tell us a little bit about how you get involved with the community?
I currently host a radio show called New Ratio from CIC Tokyo where Venture Café is based and where the Thursday Gatherings are held. Through the show I introduce innovative new music and artists and labels who are pushing the boundaries of genres and forms. Hosting the show in CIC means I get to spend a lot of time around all the innovative people there. It’s a fascinating place to connect with people from really diverse backgrounds, and this has led to collaborations of course.
I’ve also done a couple of pitches at Thursday Gatherings before. I actually did a session where we hosted a pilot radio show with the Japanese radio DJ, and my good friend, Ken Nishikawa. The show was called 8020, and it was about the similarities in music from the 1980s and the 2020s. It was brilliant to pitch in front of an audience at Thursday Gathering! We got a lot of interest in the show as well. Though we’re still waiting for a sponsor so we can make it an actual thing!
— In addition to hosting radio shows, you do a lot of really innovative work with field recording. Can you tell us a little more about field recording?
Absolutely! To me, field recording is about capturing and appreciating the small, ambient sounds that we have in our lives. Everyone has a sound that they love in their daily lives, sounds that are charming, like the sound of a creaky floorboard. Through field-recording I want to frame these sounds and share them with other people so they can appreciate them too. I also curate a compilation series of field recording work to allow others to share their favourite sounds.
It’s a very democratic art form. You don’t need a deep understanding of sound. It’s about spending a bit of time being mindful of the world around you, and sharing what you appreciate from the soundscape. And everyone can do it these days with the powerful recording devices they carry around in their pockets, their phones! I’d really encourage more people to get into it and we are now hosting workshops for people who want to learn more. Japan is the most sonically rich place on earth. Take Tokyo for example, it’s a paradise of sound. There are so many rules and regulations played out as sonic indicators here. The sound of an approaching train on the subway for example. Or the robotic announcement when vehicles reverse out of parking garages here: go-chui-kuda-sai. They all have their own unique rhythms that don’t get enough appreciation.
— How did you get into field recording?
Nick: I’m fascinated by the gaps in between things, like the gaps in my record collection for example, or the spaces during conversations. Thinking back to when I used to record our band practicing, the bits I enjoyed most listening back, were the incidental sounds from in between the songs. You’d hear someone tapping their foot, or flipping through the pages of a newspaper, or having irrelevant conversations about what they’d be doing later on.
So for the BBC, I started making collages of these underappreciated kinds of sounds. The things people would normally cut or block out. It’s the essence of “found-sounds”, and I’d just go around with a tape recorder, capturing them. Then I cut them together into tracks.
When I first came to Japan for the Swiss Air project, I actually bought a mini disc player and went around recording the sounds in Tokyo. Now that I live here I’m always consciously recording sounds from my daily life, like my commute.
— So what would you say is the quintessential sound of Utsunomiya?
Nick: It would have to be the sound of Utsunomiya famous gyoza dumplings frying! I think people normally focus on the smell and the appearance of gyoza and forget about the extraordinary sounds they make as they cook. It reminds me of visiting fish and chip shops as a kid and the sound of fish being dipped into the batter with a “slop”, then crackling as it drops into the fryer.
— Finally, what would you say is the quintessential sounds from Venture Café’s soundscape.
Nick: It’s got to the sound of someone’s finger hovering over the keys of a laptop, hasn’t it? That’s the moment where innovation happens, the spark of an idea before it’s hammered out in keystrokes. There’s something delightfully Ma* about it.
‘* A Japanese concept denoting the artistic interpretation of empty space.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity
Author: Toby Manley
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