Cornelius: Sing something simian

The ape-mad Cornelius makes music in the fine tradition of Japanese eclecticism. But his interview technique needs a little polishing, as Fiona Sturges finds out
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The Independent Culture

Conversation with Cornelius, the 32-year-old Japanese pop genius, isn't easy. There is the inevitable language barrier, although fortunately he comes with an interpreter, a flared-trousered, shaggy-haired individual called Riki. More difficult to overcome is the fact that his eyes are permanently trained on the television. It's mid-afternoon at the Kensington Hilton, in London, and Cornelius, aka Keigo Oyamada, appears to have fallen under the spell of The Tweenies.

I find him on the floor in his room, wedged between the coffee table and the sofa, his moon-face tilted up toward the TV like a child's. My questions are to be directed at Riki, who, after relaying them to his friend, scribbles down the answers in a notebook and slowly reads them back. It's a laborious business, one that Cornelius can apparently get through only with the help of a bunch of people dressed in brightly coloured fuzzy felt.

We're here to talk about his new album, Point. It is the long-awaited follow-up to Fantasma, his unfeasibly eclectic album that bridged the unlikely gap between the Aphex Twin's seismic noodling and the Beach Boys' warm psychedelia, and prompted excitable critics to proclaim a renaissance in Japanese pop. Though Point is still wilfully experimental, it's a more polished affair than its predecessor. Cornelius has honed his cut-and-paste sensibilities into something more coherent and utterly beautiful.

The first, 38-second track, entitled "Bug", begins with a single piano note. A series of guitar chords morph into discordant crackles until we hear a sharp snap of feedback. It's the sound of an insect hitting an electric fly-trap at full speed. Indeed, animal sounds appear frequently in Point. Birdsong and flapping wings are incorporated into "Bird Watching at Inner Forest", while "Brazil" begins with the sound of a howling dog. Cornelius's trademark eclecticism is ever-present. "Smoke", a track about the inhalation and exhalation of tobacco fumes, moves from soul to funk to raw punk in the blink of an eye and ends with some Orb-like lapping of waves; "Drop", perhaps the greatest song on the album, is littered with watery plopping sounds set against soothing acoustic guitars and vocal harmonies. There is a mischief and sparkle to all the tracks that is, as far as I can tell, entirely absent from Cornelius's conversation.

"I got my inspiration from a different environment this time," he says blankly when I ask how he altered his approach for Point. "It's all about daily life, things happening around me, different moods and feelings. I wanted to keep a relaxed atmosphere, so I never really had a schedule while I was recording. I went out when I felt like it and played when I felt like it. But there was a lot of work to do. There were a lot of samples on the last album, but this time I looped sounds that I played myself in the studio. I guess that's why it took a long time to make."

Four years, to be precise, although Cornelius spent a portion of that time working on remixes for, among others, Damon Albarn and the Avalanches. Other collaborators have included Beck, REM and Money Mark of the Beastie Boys, a starry roster by anyone's standards.

"They come to me," he says firmly, switching his gaze to the floor. Then he adds: "I would like to work with Primal Scream, though." Musicianship apparently runs in the family – Cornelius's father played in a Hawaiian folk band (they were the backing-band on one of his early solo records), while his mother busked with a pedal steel guitar in Tokyo shopping-malls.

Cornelius took his name from Roddy McDowell's benevolent chimp in Planet of the Apes (that's the Sixties version, not the recent Tim Burton débâcle). He remembers it always being on television on New Year's Eve when he was a child. He says he was captivated by Cornelius's role as mediator between the warring apes and humans.

Cornelius the musician may still languish in relative obscurity over here, but at home in Japan he's a big star. He first found fame as a teenager, with Flipper's Guitar, an indie-pop band who emerged from the Tokyo scene along with Pizzicato Five in the early Nineties. Fantasma (1998), his third solo album (though the first to be released in Europe), shifted a million copies. In Tokyo he has a line of clothing, inevitably called Ape; the simian theme continues with his band of helpers, who have been anointed the Orang-utan Clan. He also runs a record label, Trattoria, through which he has brought out records by Japanese underground bands and, more bizarrely, a series of obscure recordings by Bill Wyman.

Live performance has always been a crucial part of the Cornelius experience. In one particularly elaborate show at the 20,000-seater Budokan stadium in Tokyo, he performed with an orchestra of Cornelius clones and a gaggle of karate-kicking apemen. Members of the audience were issued with 3D glasses and headphones through which they could hear an extra rhythm track transmitted by a local radio station. Alas, things didn't go entirely to plan, and the rhythm track fell out of sync with the live music.

"It was fun but it was too much," Cornelius reflects. "I think it goes back to when I was an art student. I got interested in all this multimedia stuff. I can't tell you what the live show will be like this time around but I know that I'll keep it simple."

With that, he gets up, pulls out a tiny digital camera and points it in my direction. For the first time, Cornelius fixes me with his gaze, smiles and takes a photograph. Then, with a swift bow, he disappears into the next room.

'Point' is out on Monday on Matador records. Cornelius plays the Royal Festival Hall on 6 May as part of the Ether festival