Alex Prat and Isao Kumano’s new album is inspired by Tokyo, New York, Berlin and everywhere in between – not to mention several places that exist only in their imaginations. So climb aboard Black Ships and join Tokyo Black Star on one of the memorable musical journeys in recent years…

You know there’s something special about Tokyo Black Star when you realise that their debut EP, Psyche Dance, was also the release that kickstarted Dixon and Ame’s label Innervisions. The Berlin-based label couldn’t have had a better start – that three-tracker marked out Alex Prat (aka Alex from Tokyo) and Tokyo-based producer and engineer Isao Kumano as a duo of some considerable talent. Now, almost four years later, the pair are finally ready to release their debut album, Black Ships. This is no ordinary dance music album though – there are big ideas behind this, from the stories each track tells, to the stunning book of artwork which comes with it. And that’s not to mention the music, a sleek, slinky, sexy mix of house and techno sounds that goes way beyond being simple dancefloor fodder. The duo say they set out to create a journey, and they’ve done just that. And in this case the old adage holds true – travelling is better that arriving. EQ hooked up with Alex to find out more about the grand designs behind this ambitious album…

It seems like you got something to say with this album rather than just putting out a lot of club tunes like a lot of producers do.
This album is our first album as ‘artists’, and it was made with our hearts. We spent a lot of energy and time on it because we didn’t want to do just a compilation of all of our tracks. Eight years of producing music together, Isao moving to the suburbs of Tokyo in a great relaxing countryside environment with his family, me relocating to NYC for new challenges and inspirations in my personal life and my career – all our experiences and feelings are expressed in this album. It’s the soundtrack of our story for the past four years. The idea grew progressively from our first EP.

During those four years, being in the studio together every two months, we both experienced, felt and shared a lot of things – the world, the music scene, art – that we tried to transpose in our music. And as Tokyo Black Star, it became clear that we are not making music just for clubs, but making music is much broader sense, as true artists with something to say. Our production approach comes more from an artistic point of view than a strictly club point of view. This is one of the ideas of our collaboration – to become free with music and art, and to share our imaginations with people.

There are a lot of different musical elements in there, which makes it really hard to describe. If you had to sum up the sound of Black Ships, what would you say?
I don’t think we can categorise our music. Our album is not a dance music album. All the tracks are new tracks and new versions of tracks we’ve already released, edited specially for the album. It is a real ‘listening’, timeless album with a real unique universe of strong messages. If we really had to describe the sound of the album, it would be something like electronic ‘funk’ music. It is all about the funk! The soul and the funk are part of Tokyo where we both grew up. Our music is very representative of ourselves, so you can totally feel the Japanese influences in our sound too – in the melodies, for example. There’s also this deep spiritual feel in our music which is linked to our Japanese cultural backgrounds.

Another very important point is that our sound is unique and comes from our original studio set-up and our way of working. Isao is a very talented sound engineer, and sound quality is a very important part in our work. We use a lot of analogue synthesisers and drum machines, and we mix our music through an analogue mixer and analogue compressors and equalisers. We also try to keep a spontaneity and a loose feeling in our music to make it alive.

How easily did all these elements come together?
Everything came together very naturally. My relationship with Isao is very special. We balance each other. After releasing three EPs on Innervisions, we started to talk to the label about the idea of an album and they were very into it. It totally made sense for us and Innervisions. The timing seemed right too. We started to work on the album last spring.

How did you hook up with Innervisions?
Dixon and Ame have been supporting us from the very beginning, and we’re really happy working with them. I met Dixon through the Jazzanova/Sonar Kollektiv crew through the Bossa Tres Jazz project I worked on with Yellow Productions in 1999/2000. We’ve been close since then. Five years ago, when Dixon came to NYC with Georg Levin to play, I gave him our track Blade Dancer. He got back to Berlin and said to me that he really liked it and he wanted to release it through Sonar Kollektiv. And a year later, he decided to release it on his new label Innervisions as its first release.

The album seems perfectly suited to Innervisions. How much has working with Dixon and co shaped Black Ships?
It was so great working with them. We have been all in sync from the very start, in terms of the vibe, the style, the artwork of the album, everything. Dixon and Ame gave us some very good recommendations and guidelines, but it went really smoothly over all. They gave us a great opportunity and we were really able to express ourselves freely. The first version we gave them was more of a non-stop mix which was a bit too much, so we had to rethink it, but then everything came out very naturally – the story and the colors of the tracks got together really well and we came up with this final version.

You’ve said that the album is a travel diary. How does that manifest itself in the tracks?
It’s our non-fiction travel diary, and at the same time it is a work of fiction about traveling through the world of our imaginations. I don’t think there is a specific journey for a specific track. It is the combination of everything from my travels and experiences between NYC, Tokyo, Europe and the rest of the world, as well as our deep inner travels in our minds and imaginations.

How much does Tokyo influence your music? There seems to be a unique feel to that city – does your music reflect that?
Our music is definitely influenced by mega-cities like Tokyo and New York. This is where we live. They both are so similar and so different culturally speaking. You have the funk and the soul in both cities. As I said before, our studio in the suburbs of Tokyo plays an important role in shaping our sounds too. Our music is a total melting pot. It represents our identity.

The track Black Star stands out because of the almost old-school vocal. Is that track intended as a tribute to early house records, as it certainly has that feel to it?
Black Star is our anthem track. It’s the only vocal track on the album and features the beautiful poetry and deep voice of the very talented Rich Medina. The track was definitely inspired by some of the early Rheji Burrell stuff on Nu Groove, and by the Larry Heard stuff which I love so much. When we made the track, we thought Rich would be the perfect voice to go with to express one of our messages. which is: “Let’s use imagination in this (non-equal) world we live in.” It is a very special track for us.

Tell us a bit about the artwork side of the album. It seems like you’ve put a lot more effort into this that a lot of artists.
This album is our universe, so it goes without saying that the visual identity is very important. So we collaborated with a friend of mine, the NYC-based Japanese artist/painter Tomokazu Matsuyama, for the artwork. As a contemporary artist, Matzu exhibits his work internationally, showing in prestigious galleries in Tokyo, Osaka, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Vancouver. He’s one of my favourite painters and we share the same identity. Matzu listened to our album and made a painting for each song, a total of 15 paintings including the jacket. The final CD packaging will be a beautiful art book CD with Matzu’s original paintings. This is something all of us at Innervisions wanted to do. Pierre who is the Innervisions in-house designer did a very good job designing the whole artwork and Innervisions came up with the idea of this great art book CD packaging. I can’t wait to see the final product.

Has it been difficult balancing the visual and sonic elements of Black Ships?
Not at all. We were really surprised when we received the paintings from Matzu – they fitted the music exactly. It was unbelievable. The music and the paintings definitely fit together to represent our universe.

How’s the DJing going at the moment?
I’m about to start a new after-hours party in NYC where the club Shelter used to be in Manhattan. I’ve been enjoying playing NYC – it’s very funky and I have a Friday residency at this little club called 105 Rivington which has been fun. I go back to Tokyo every two months for two or three weeks, and I have two residencies there. One is at Timewarp at Mado Lounge on the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Hills building – it has the best view overlook the city. The other is at Gallery at Cay, which is a Sunday afternoon party I’ve been doing with some friends for more than 10 years. That takes place in this beautiful Southeast Asian restaurant part of this art building in Aoyama in the centre of Tokyo. It’s a very open, eclectic and relaxed party with a great ‘at home’ feeling different to any other club. The four of us play all kinds of music. Both parties are very special to me. They are close to the ideal parties. I have also a radio show in Tokyo on Shibuya FM every Wednesday from 10pm to 11pm called Tokyo Club Mix Showcase.

How close is your club sound to your production sound?
I love all kinds of music, I love DJing, I love to dance, I love to party, I play all kinds of different styles of music according to the party, and I think you can feel my personality in my DJ style. DJing is about communicating, sharing and entertaining people as well as educating them. So my club sound is linked to my eclectic production sound, but at the same time DJing and music production are very different. The artistic approach is always there though. Mixing in different styles of music, from deep house, cosmic disco and techno, to disco and nu jazz is my style.

Any other bits and pieces going on we should know about?
We want to come up with a live/DJ Tokyo Black Star show. If everything goes well, we hope we’ll get to perform all over the world to meet all of you! This is just the beginning of our journey…

Black Ships is out on Innervisions on March 30. Visit and



“Our music is very represent-
ative of ourselves – there’s this deep spiritual feel in our music which is linked to our Japanese cultural back-