Laid back rock n' roller Okuda Tamio is one of the few Japanese artists around I'd regard as a living legend. One who for the past 16 years has continually marched to his own beat and yet remained one of the most prolific and respected musicians in the world of Japanese popular music. In an industry where artists must constantly be mindful of current trends to keep their audience, Tamio has always remained fresh while doing his own thing. That 'thing' is writing and performing fun-filled and carefree classic rock tunes with an intimate feeling.
His beginnings with the ultra popular rock group Unicorn in the late 80's and early 90's gained him reputation as one of Japan's most clever and versatile songwriters as well as being an all around loveable guy with a wild but everyman charm. (He reminds me of my older brother when he was a kid). Unicorn in itself was one of the most brilliant Japanese bands to come out of the 80's (but for more information on them, visit my Unicorn page). Once the band was starting to break up, he released one single, but continued with Unicorn for a bit. When the band broke up in 1993, he started his solo career proper, although he spent more of his time on simple pleasures like his new found passion for fishing, rather than working full force on his recording career. But soon it became apparent that he wasn't just resting on his laurels, but resting up for something big.
In 1995 after two previous singles he released his first solo album simply named "29" in homage to the end of his youth and his thirties being right around the corner. His second album came later in the year, after he turned 30 years old aptly titled "30". The two albums "29" and "30" (which are almost considered one double album) were widely acclaimed by all who heard them and went to show that Tamio had truly evolved, yet the flavor of his music was distictly recognizeable as his own. As always his trademark cheekiness and sense of humor were there. All of his music still stayed steeped in the roots of 60's and 70's rock, blues and soul music he so loves. However while Unicorn had more of a punk or pop-rock take on it, Tamio's style as a solo artist had a strong folk rock sound. Full of easy-going songs with energy, humor and soul, these two albums which introduced me to Okuda Tamio made me a fan for life.
During this time, Tamio had started collaborating often with American musician Andy Sturmer from the group Jellyfish. The two of them co-produced some songs on the album "30" and continue their informal partnership today. Around the same time Tamio discovered two young women at his agency, Ami Ohnuki and Yumi Yoshimura who he took under his wing to form the folk-pop duo Puffy (which Sturmer came up with the name for). Thus Okuda Tamio was not only a great writer and performer, but now had become a producer. As a producer he along with some assistance from fellow friends in the music business established their style, wrote all of their music, coached the girls and even played backup for them. Through the two vibrant women who make up Puffy, Tamio was able to explore his musical interests in totally new and unexpected directions.
During 1996 and 1997 when the charts were dominated by techno and dance music, Tamio and Puffy's sound took the Japanese music world by total surprise. The 60's and 70's folk-pop inspired sound was unlike anything around. A testiment to how Tamio always goes against the flow. Soon Puffy were everywhere you looked. All the while Tamio's protogées Puffy were starting to take over the spotlight and taking up much of his personal attention, Tamio still managed to release brilliant music of his own and do tours.
In 1997 he teamed up with fellow folk-rock icon Inoue Yohsui (with whom he often collaborates on projects such as Puffy) to do an album titled "Shopping". Later in the year came his mini-album "Failbox", another solid effort from Tamio. With Tamio putting so much of his energy into Puffy though, one might expect his solo career to be put on the backburner, however in 1998 he released one of his strongest albums to date, "Matatabi". With rather unassuming photographs of an uninteresting patch of Japanese countryside as the cover, the album is a tour de force, which could very well be the soundtrack to the great American road movie. Full of explorations of southern rock, jam sessions, spaghetti western music, neo-skiffle-pop, and so much more. It shares a place along with "29" and "30" as some of my most frequently spun CDs. His 1999 single "Tsuki wo Koero" is also noteable for being one of his best songs and a favorite at concerts which always gets live audiences pumped.
Even now the good tunes just keep on coming. In the year 2000 his album Goldblend with its hilarious single "Marshmallow" turned quite a few heads. 2000 was a year where Japanese music was recovering from a bit of a creative slump, yet Goldblend showed Tamio's quality for creating fine music was unwavering. Just recently he released another album which is sort of a concept-compilation album. created as the perfect album of car driving music titled "Car Songs of the Years". It features many of his past hits along with an equal number of totally new songs and some re-recorded songs, all of them having a driving theme of some sort. The new songs themselves aren't filler either, but measure up to some of his best stuff. Far more interesting than the usual compilation album, and well worth having, even if one owns all of his past releases.
Tamio is one of most revered rock musicians in the business is well loved among Japanese people. When I was in Japan, pretty much everyone I mentioned him to knew who he was, even though he's not always in the public eye. Yet outside Japan, he seems almost a complete unknown amongst J-pop fans. I've found very few fellow fans of Tamio on the internet who weren't Japanese. Admittedly most non-Japanese J-pop followers only notice the young, flashy and glamourous music acts, partly because the barriers of language, culture and physical borders limit what one gets exposed to. Tamio however, with his casual style and easy-going attitude goes against the idol type which has been the staple of Japanese pop since the seventies. He's the everyman with a subdued style who looks more like a blue collar, working class Joe, than the rock icon he really is.
One of the reasons people like Tamio is just because of that. He doesn't feel like an untouchable rock star, but rather a guy who could feasibly become your drinking buddy or you could invite over to watch the baseball game after a hard day's work. He feels like a regular guy and has a intimacy in his performance that makes all of his fans feel like they're his closest pal.
He's also the consummate Japanese patriot, and the Japanese public responds to that. While he is heavily influenced by classic American rock music, and has a lot of creative ties to the United States, everything about who Tamio is exudes Japaneseness. The subject matter of his songs for example speak of everyday things that Japanese people generally identify with. He also often displays a very Japanese style of singing, especially in songs such as "674" and "Tsukubasan" which are a wonderful fusion of modern Japanese folk and American rock styles.
Personally, Tamio is my favorite Japanese entertainer. I've thrown around the word "favorite" all the time in regards to different artists (on this site as well you'll notice) so much that someone who's a favorite one day, I'll lose interest in later on (as is the case with a few of the artists on this site). But while interests have waxed and waned over the years, I'm even more of a fan of Tamio now than when I first got into him years ago. I just find the more I listen to him, the more I enjoy his music. I only regret having waited so long to give him his own page on tomobiki.com.
All in all Okuda Tamio has remained one of the most respectable entertainers in Japan. The impressive number of quality songs and musical performances he has made from his days with Unicorn, Puffy and his own solo work have definately left their mark on the music scene. And yet he's far from slowing down. The man can do no wrong. His music transcends age as young and older generations of Japan alike seem to respond to his music equally. This is because he doesn't pander to trends. Instead he just does what a good musician is supposed to do...simply make good music.
I get the impression that, like me, Tamio is a fan of the classic anime series Lupin the 3rd. I've heard him do riffs of the Lupin theme song during Unicorn live shows. He also did a recorded cover of the 2nd Lupin theme song as the B-side to his 1996 Ii-juu*Rider single.
Although Tamio totally distanced himself from his Unicorn days and doesn't seem to associate with his former bandmates much anymore, he did however continue to use Unicorn keyboard player and backing vocal, Yoshiharu Abe as well as drummer Nishikawa from time to time. They had a few small projects together and Abe plays on Tamio's "30" album while Nishikawa's band Vanilla has been involved in several Puffy related projects. Tamio's collaboration with Abe seems pretty natural to me. He joined Unicorn a bit later than the rest and was more like-minded with Tamio than the others in the group. Both Tamio and Abe's silly stage antics, sense of comedy and fun-filled playing styles were a prominent feature of the band. Ebi and Tessy seemed a bit too straight-laced to fit in with the direction Tamio was taking the band during the early 90's (which may have lead to creative differences and thus the breakup I assume). But Abe seemed to be the only one on the same wavelength. Ultimately because of that Abe became the co-star of the band whereas before he was mostly a 5th leg. As for Nishikawa, I feel he was more in the middle in terms of band direction. Seemed to be inclined towards the comedic and playful aspects of the band, but not as zany and outgoing as Tamio or Abe.
I've often wondered why Tamio constantly uses the imagery of box-like wallpapered rooms in much of his releases. Apart from using it prominently in his album "30", you'll see the same motif in much of Puffy's singles and albums as well as on the cover art for the single he did with Hamada Masanori from the comedy duo DownTown. Usually it shows the artist alone in the room covered completely in tiled pictures, shot in a distorted perspective. It's become one of his trademarks.