A Few Words With...Keiko Kumagai

Interview by John A. Wilcox

I first met Keiko Kumagai when I saw Ars Nova share a bill with Mastermind in NYC. I was impressed by her keyboard prowess as well as her gentle nature. Albums like Transi, Goddess Of Darkness, The Book Of The Dead, and Android Domina have shown Japan's Ars Nova to be true prog innovators. The mind behind it all is Keiko Kumagai. Progsheet is pleased to reach across the ocean and give you a peek at this wonderful musician...

PS: What was the first keyboard you ever owned?

KK : My first keyboard was a Korg Poly Six. It had various amazing sounds for me at that time, some simple effects and an auto arpeggiator. It was good. This keyboard was my favorite one and I always used it for writing songs and playing live gigs. Now I don't have it because I had sold that to get an other one instead of the Poly Six.

PS: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a professional musician?

KK : When I had heard that Ars Nova could have a chance to participate in Progfest '95. I thought Ars Nova had to have something appealing to prog fans of the world who never knew us. Because it would be our big step. Before that, we thought we were an amateur band that only released our 2 CDs in the underground music scene here in Japan. We thought we had caught such a big chance to go and play live outside of Japan. An audience would listen to, and see, our performance first time. And we knew we were sharing the stage with some big name bands. So we had to have a professional musician's mind and try to perform with all our best.

PS: What was your first paying gig as a musician?

KK : Progfest '95 in LA. That was our first performance outside of Japan and we had never played such a big place. To tell the truth, I got nervous for that til I got on the stage. But just before going on the stage, some of the staff members cheered us up with their hearts, and then as soon as I stood on the stage, the audience gave us a good response we had never had in Japanese gigs. They gave us good feelings. So I was so excited on the stage and the other members were as well, and we did all our best during our time on stage.

After Progfest '95, we had a good reputation thanks to American and European prog fans. I never forget those people who supported us kindly at that festival. I am sure they sent us to the world!

PS: Who is your greatest inspiration as a composer?

KK : Mostly classical music. I like Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven, Vivaldi and more and more. Because my parents liked their music very well, and since I was a child, that music was always in our house. So I grew up with that music and it was natural for me. They influenced me a lot in my writing of Ars Nova's songs.

And from some Italian prog bands, I had learned how I can write prog songs, and they were some influence in writing music. Banco, Il Balletto Di Bronzo, Goblin, Biglietto Per L'Inferno, Le Orme and more...

PS: Which album do you feel best represents Ars Nova's sound, and why?

KK : The Book of the Dead. When we had started to record some new songs for the album, Kyoko (bassist) had left the band. It was really a pinch for Ars Nova, but Akiko and I had to continue recording new songs. Then Shingo (Ars Nova's producer) introduced me to a male bassist as a guest on the album. His name is Ken Ishita, an ex-member of Deja Vu. So we could continue to record.

I chose the theme what I wanted to put on the new album and the new songs were my best, I thought. I still like all the songs on the album and especially think Ankh and The 42 Gods are my best of the best. Some people think the album is not good enough as a keyboard trio, but i don't care about their opinions. I wanted to have ancient Egypt as the theme of the album, because I have a great interest in that. Before I started to write music for that album, I gathered and read books, watched TV programs, looked at pictures - to have a lot of ideas and inspirations. I had wanted to try to put that theme on an Ars Nova album for long time, but I didn't know much how could I represent the theme as prog rock. I have never been to Egypt, but I thought it would be necessary to use the instruments from Egypt to represent that atmosphere. I didn't have samples of those instruments, so I got some Roland samples of them. Then I did my best to write each song.

It is not easy to explain why I am fascinated by ancient Egypt. I like their glorious cultural and historical heritage. I also have great interest their thinking about life and death. It is so unique, and I chose their Book of the Dead as the album title. I think I could came through all I wanted to on that album. I also tried to use various sounds much more than on our previous albums. I like musical instruments from the Middle East, so I also put some of them on the album. Sadly some reviewers thought those strange instrumental sounds must be from Asia. I don't know why. But some professional musicians gave me a good response to that album.

But our fans mostly like Transi and The Goddess of Darkness. I suppose that they prefer us as a female trio. After we released the Biogenesis album, I know some of our fans left us. I know they didn't agree with me trying to incorporate guitars and male vocals into my music. That made me sad...

PS: Let's discuss the background of a few songs. We'll start with Horla Rising.

KK : The album theme didn't matter, I wanted to try to write one new song as kinda "prog + hard rock" that included a cool guitar riff and rhythm guitar on the song. After The Book of the Dead album was released, I 'met' Ayreon's music (the Into the Electric Castle album) for the first time and I was fascinated by that album. Ayreon set a good example, and inspired my writing for that song.

PS: Fury.

KK : For The Goddess of Darkness album theme, I read some books about each goddess. Fury is a goddess of frenzy that lives in desert. She can handle sand storms and if humans invade her sanctuary she gets angry and they are buried alive in the sand. I wrote the song with that story in mind.

PS: Ankh

KK : Ankh is the symbol of peace. But to me, my representation is not a kind of 'calm, quiet, and gentle' song. I wanted my image of Ankh with my style. It has a strong energy for peace.

PS: And finally, Mother Earth.

KK : As you know, There is the story on the Biogenesis album. The story of Mother Earth is sad story. Mika (Maria) is the last woman who survived and she yearns for beautiful and peaceful Earth. So I wanted to make the song beautiful and sad. I thought I could represent those atmospheres. Basically she sang to the piano accompaniment of me. Masuhiro (our ex-drummer) played a short solo on acoustic guitar to good effect on the song.

PS: Of all the venues you've played, which have you enjoyed the most?

KK : With the exception of Progfest '95, I think it was Progday. We played in the open air for the first time. There were many bands there and we were the 1st band. If I remember it well, we started to play at 9:30 am or so. There was not much of an audience at that earlier time because we were the first band, but while playing on the stage we felt quite refreshed by the morning air and breeze. So we could play comfortably and I had never played on a stage with such a good feelings in the open air.

One more is the Orpheus, in Rome in 2001. To my big surprise, Gianni Leone came to our hotel before the gig, and we first met 'real Gianni' with pleasure. The next day we played together on one song on stage. He only sang a short part, but it was a great experience. After the show we also met Claudio Simonetti for the first time and we were happy. Gianni brought him to the gig at that night. So our surprise and pleasure were double!

PS: With all the line up changes in Ars Nova, has it ever been difficult to keep the band going?

KK : To reproduce the project for live gigs was difficult because we had to invite all guests on the Biogenesis album. Trust to the Future especially is a long song and we needed the guests for our live show. Shingo (Ars Nova's producer) planned a Halloween night gig, and Gianni Leone (as a vocalist and keyboard player), Claudio Simonetti (as a keyboard player), and Alex Brunori (as a vocalist) came to Tokyo to join that special gig and they also had their own gigs (except Alex) in Tokyo. After the gig, we thought about that how we could play the songs from the Biogenesis album on the stage without those guests. But we found a way, as since then Satoshi Handa (guitarist) and Masuhiro Gotoh (drummer) had joined the band. That matter was starting that we were no longer a keyboard trio. After all the Biogenesis Project live gig was only one time.

PS: How difficult was it for you to deal with Akiko leaving the band, as she was there with you longest?

KK : Yes, she had been great and the longest member of Ars Nova. Before she had left the band, she had not been in a good situation in her private life. I am sorry I cannot say much about why she left the band. It was a serious private matter. Of course, I wanted to play with her and I wanted her to stay in the band. But after all she left Ars Nova, she has been playing with Danball Bat only. I'm sorry she doesn't want to come back to Ars Nova. She has been busy with her band and her job now.

PS: Are you still in touch with all the past members? What are they up to, if you know?

KK : Akiko has been regular member of Danball Bat, as I said. We are each busy in our own bands, so we have not seen each other for long time since she left Ars Nova. But she always send me 'the New Year Greeting post card' every year and I do the same for her. Since she left Ars Nova, she left her parents' home and has moved 4 times!

Mika is one of the guest singers on our new album,. She sang and recorded her beautiful voice and laughing on 2 songs for our new album already. She may play with us on some songs at our gig in October or November after we release the next album. She had retired her band Triton a long time ago, and now she is only an office worker, she has not been musician any longer.

Kyoko has retired all her musical activities since she had left Ars Nova, a long time ago. Now she lives for her office work. She won't play bass any longer. I don't know much about her.

PS: When can we expect the new Ars Nova CD?

KK : We have recorded most of the songs for new album. But we have to wait for the guests' recording on some songs. And after that, we will finally be able to mix all the songs. So at present we guess the album will be released this autumn in Japan, from Made In Japan Records as usual.

To make my own time for my music as much as I can, I sometimes have a lack of sleep. I am not only a musician, but also an office worker to live. I cannot live without my job. I have to make money to live. So my day is spent at my job every day. It cannot be helped. And my sleeping hours are not enough time for me to do my things and music after work. So sometimes I am sleepy at the office...ahaha...

PS: Please tell me 6 CDs you never get tired of listening to.

KK :

Within Temptation - The Silent Force
Ayreon - Electric Castle, The Dream Sequencer
, and Flight Of The Migrator
Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso - Darwin
Age Of Nemesis - Terra Incognita
Shostakovich - Song of the Forest
Carl Orff - Carmina Burana


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