Yuri Kuriyama on the Vocaloid Songs That Shaped Him & The Appeal of the Vocaloid Scene

The VOCALOID Collection, also known as VocaColle, is a biannual event featuring Vocaloid submissions, held every spring and autumn. Entrants compete to claim top rankings in five different categories: “TOP100,” “Rookies,” “REMIX,” “Enso Shitemita,” and “MMD&3DCG.” The number one songs in the TOP100 and the Rookies categories are included in the “Project SEKAI Colorful Stage! feat. Hatsune Miku” smartphone game. There is also a Chokaigi 2023 Theme Song contest, a VocaColle & UtaColle & OdoColle collaborative project, and many other ways to enjoy Vocaloid culture.

We interviewed Yuri Kuriyama, a Vocaloid producer and a member of Van de Shop, in the days leading up to this year’s VocaColle. He talked about the Vocaloid songs and producers that influenced him, the future of the Vocaloid scene, and more.

We asked you to pick out which of the countless Vocaloid songs have made a big impression on you and influenced your own work. One song you mentioned was “Melt” (2007). This was the song that led to the formation of supercell, a group of creators led by Vocaloid producer ryo.

Yuri Kuriyama: A lot of the first Vocaloid songs had really fast vocals or had vocal melodies that hit notes human singers couldn’t reach. In other words, there were aspects of them that leveraged the unique capabilities of the software. “Melt” was different. It was a somewhat laid back song. It’s a wonderful song that would be great even if sung by a human singer, and I think it really shows what makes ryo such a talented producer. Hatsune Miku’s pitch in the song is also wonderful. In the early days of the scene, there were a lot of songs where the pitch was a little bit off, and that always felt awkward to me. There’s none of that in “Melt.” It feels very natural. Among supercell’s songs, I particularly like “Juuzoku Ningen” and “Kimi no Shiranai Monogatari.” ryo was one of the first artists to break out from the Vocaloid scene to the major music scene.

“last Night good Night” (2008) is a song from livetune, kz’s solo unit. “Matryoshka” (2010) is one of Hachi’s most famous songs. Hachi later began releasing songs as Kenshi Yonezu, becoming one of Japan’s top artists.

Kuriyama: With “last Night good Night,” kz applied Auto-Tune to Hatsune Miku. When I met him in person and asked him why he used Auto-Tune, he told me “because the pitch was bothering me,” which made a lot of sense. This song is what made me like Hatsune Miku’s voice, and what got me really into the Vocaloid scene. It influenced me a lot, to the point that I think it would be fair to say that if this song hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t have listened to Vocaloid music.

Hachi’s “Matoryoshka” is, for me, the platonic ideal of the kind of Vocaloid song I like. It uses the “MaruSa chord progression” (a chord progression frequently used in J-pop songs like Shiina Ringo’s “Marunouchi Sadistic”), but it’s doing something really new with it.

I think the drum line of “THE WORLD END UMBRELLA” is really interesting. 

 You’d need four arms to actually play it live (laughs). The arrangement is one that’s only possible because it was made on a computer. I like how the emotions of the song come across so directly. “Wonderland to Histujinouta” is another example of how much of an impact Hachi has had on the Vocaloid scene.

There’s also “Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku” (2012) by Shizen no Teki-P (Jin) and “Kimi no Taion” by Kuwagata-P.

Kuriyama: Jin’s Kagerou Project was just amazing. (The Kagerou Project is a mixed-media project with novels, comics, and anime all based on Jin’s music.) Plus, none of the songs sound alike. The chord progressions are different, the sounds are different, and they’re all great songs. “Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku” was a wonderful fusion of a song and an anime music video. The music videos for the Vocaloid songs that came out before that were generally single static illustrations or very handmade-feeling animations, and I mean that in a good way. When I saw the “Nihonbashi Koukashita R Keikaku” music video, I thought “Wow, that’s professional!” (laughs)

“Kimi no Taion” featured both piano and guitar. I think it also used the MaruSa chord progression, but it put the piano part out in front, and that showed me a new approach. I think that it affected my own arrangements.

You also listed Sasanomaly and sasakure.UK as artists from the Vocaloid producer scene that you liked.

Kuriyama: Sasanomaly used to be a Vocaloid producer going by the name Neko Boro. His songs are great, but so is his sound production and mixing. Mixing involves several stages, and when you do it you’re thinking about different ways the music will be heard — from earphones, headphones, speakers, etc. Sasanomaly sounds good no matter how you’re listening. I like a lot of his songs, but last summer I had “game of life feat. Boku no Lyric no Boyomi” on repeat. He was also in a band called Dios, and I’ve been impressed by the breadth of his musical activities.

I also love sasakure.UK! Everybody in our band (Van de Shop) really likes UK Rampage (the band headed by sasakure.UK). He’s both a Vocaloid producer and a band member, and his technique in both is great. I’ve always wanted do the kinds of things Sasakure.UK is doing, and I had so many questions for him when I actually met him. (laughs)

You also said that syudou, Yoh Kamiyama, nulut, and Harumaki Gohan resonate with you.

Kuriyama: They’re active Vocaloid producers, active as soloists using the same name, creating new units with different names, and the like. They’ve all got their own different approaches, but what they all share in common is that they write and sing their own songs.

I’m sure they have varied reasons for that, but for me there were definitely sounds I could learn while working with Vocaloid and sounds I could learn from changing my approach and environment, which made me realize that I can enjoy music at an even deeper level.

I think the broader your music horizons are, the better. I want to create Vocaloid songs that reflect what I’ve learned, not just following some template.

For units made up of a Vocaloid producer and a female singer, like YOASOBI or DUSTCELL, if you simply look at their structure, it’s the same as a music producer and the Vocaloid software, but it feels like they’re creating new sounds that you can’t hear in typical Vocaloid songs. If people gain an appreciation for Vocaloid by learning of it through them, that would be wonderful.

Who knows, one day Yonezu might be like, “I’m back!” and release another Vocaloid song. The Vocaloid scene is a really free, fun scene right now.

The number of Vocaloid producers who are making music for idols and bands is on the rise, and we’re seeing a lot of genre crossovers.

Kuriyama: Right. When I’m writing music for my band, I’m often thinking “I want to make a Vocaloid song,” and vice versa. It’s fun bouncing back and forth between the expressive styles of people and the expressive styles of software. It’s like switching back and forth between eating potato chips and chocolate. (laughs)

Let’s talk a bit about your own music. First, there’s “Limelight” (2017). You posted this under the artist name “Hachiya Nanashi,” and it was your first song to reach one million plays. It’s an electroswing song, a genre you’re particularly fond of.

Kuriyama: Electroswing was originally made by taking swing jazz samples or new songs based in swing jazz and then reworking them with an electro feel. Recently, there’s been a lot of pop with a swing feel that’s created entirely on the computer, but I’m more interested in the former approach. I like actually performing the music, using an old mic to record it, and then intentionally degrading the sound quality. I made “Limelight” that way, on my own. Of course, I got help from some musician colleagues, but I wanted to take on the challenges of songwriting and arrangement on my own, working off only my own ideas. There are elements of glitch hop and dubstep, and I think it came out as an interesting song.

When you uploaded “Neurosis” (2019), you commented that it was your “first love song.” “Jitterbug” (2019) was a fun song, a new evolution in electroswing.

Kuriyama: I wrote “Neurosis” when I was suffering from a broken heart. As far as genres go, it’s 200 BPM rock. I didn’t really think too deeply about it, I just did what I felt like when I made the song. I used a Les Paul guitar, and it had a bit of a strange tone.

With “Jitterbug,” I decided to back to electroswing again, based on what I’d done with “Limelight.” The rhythm was really difficult, and when the song was included in the game “Project DIVA MEGA39’s,” there were people complaining on Twitter that “Jitterbug” was too hard. I’m not very good at rhythm games, so I was thinking “I know how you feel!” (laughs)

In March 2022,  you uploaded “Pheles,” which had elements of both jazz and rock. The mysterious lyrics and feeling also really stand out.

Kuriyama: I wrote the song for “GABULI,” a masked battle manga project, and I think I really conveyed the feeling of GABULI’s world. I put distorted guitars front and center, and gave the song a swing feel. It’s got a “rock-swing” groove, so I think I was able to achieve something new with it. I don’t want to repeat myself if at all possible. I want to try new approaches, and if there’s something I was unable to do in the past, I want to overcome that hurdle.

You have a lot of songs with a live instrumental feel to them, which must take a lot of time and cost a bit of money.

Kuriyama: I might be a bit of an outlier in the Vocaloid world. My friends will tell me, “Instead of going into the studio for hours and paying all that money to record live parts, wouldn’t it be better to just go online and look for samples?” Or they’ll say, “You’re really focusing and working on that part, but do you really think listeners will even notice?” I end up thinking, “Yeah, maybe,” and I sometimes feel a bit dumb for focusing so much on some details (laughs), but I’m confident that there are people out there who will understand what I’m doing.

What future do you see for the Vocaloid scene?

Kuriyama: I feel like Vocaloid fads and “meta” templates change in two year cycles. Of course, there are some wonderful chords and styles that never change. Over the last few years, I’ve been feeling like there’s been a lot of programmed melodies and EDM-like songs, and not much live instrumentation. But lately there’s been a rise in the number of songs that are trying new things, and I’m discovering songs that fit my current tastes. I like the feeling right now that everyone’s doing what they do because they truly want to. They’re all bringing their passion and putting out what they really like. I feel like we’re going to be seeing a lot more new things coming out soon.

In closing, could you share your own expectations for VocaColle?

Kuriyama: I’ve always felt that Nico Nico Douga is the true home of Vocaloid. I’m happy that this event that sprang from Niconico Chokaigi is still being held. However, it’s also come to feel like a gateway to success for people who want to make a living through music, and getting all uptight and focusing on views and likes takes away from the fun magic of the event. It takes the thrill away. People can enjoy it however they want to, of course, but I’d like it to be more of a carnival, more of an uninhibited party.

I like carnivals myself, and when people who like Vocaloid come together because they think something’s fun or interesting, it really makes the atmosphere electric.

This interview by Tomoyuki Mori first appeared on Billboard Japan

Katie Atkinson