Last Japan: Ascend to the sky

Coyote Records continue their impressive rise.

The instrumental grime label masterminded by Tomas Fraser has built up quite a wave of momentum on the back of releases from the likes of T_A_M, Letta and Tom E. Vercetti. Their latest offering is ‘Ascend’, a stunning collaboration between two artists who are definitely locked in their own form of ascent.

West London MC AJ Tracey has captivated the grime scene with a never-ending series of guest verses and radio sets. ‘Ascend’ is the perfect showcase for his dense flows and willingness to tackle adventurous beats.

While icy cold bass producer Marco Giuliani (aka Last Japan) has experienced more of a slow burn, his star is shining just as bright, the result of a conscious decision to embrace his development rather than seek to capitalise on any early hype. His key release was the self-released Ride With Us mixtape in 2014, and he’s also worked with the likes of Zomby, Trim, Mr. Mitch and D Double E. With another Coyote EP in the works, along with the first proper release on his own Circadian Rhythms label, he’s all set for a banner year.

We met up to discuss the benefits of collaboration, working with AJ Tracey, and making music that captures the vastness of outer space.

Well, I guess we start with the new single! How did you link up with Coyote in the first place?

I’d got to the point in my career where I wanted to do more by myself – manage my own releases instead of having someone else do that for me. This was around the time I finished Ride With Us. I’d known Tomas, so I threw it his way to ask for some advice on putting it out there and getting some press around it. He really helped me out, and then after that was when we really started working together. My first thing on Coyote was a remix for Chemist. After that we released Harca, and I did a remix for Letta’s album as well.

Was there ever the possibility of doing Ride With Us with a label?

I was pretty sure that I wanted to self-release it. I’d just done a single with Sony, and I was waiting to get another single out with them that didn’t go to plan in the end because of various reasons on their end. So then I wanted a new project that was strictly mine and that I could just manage from start to finish. Tomas said he would have put it out, but I suppose it became a confidence thing for me. I just wanted to get it out there and see what the reaction would be. When you’re doing a release with a label sometimes it can be a year before that comes out, but when you do it yourself you can speak to the distributors and get it out pretty much instantly.

So how long has ‘Ascend’ been wrapped for?

I finished that with AJ in July last year.

It must be weird sitting on something for that amount of time.

Yeah, and you go through these stages… I’ve gone through hating it and not wanting to listen at all, but now it’s out there in the public domain it’s a lot easier to listen to because people are actually feeling it.

The first time I heard it was when you and AJ did it at Boiler Room.

Oh yeah, that was a bit funny because AJ didn’t know the lyrics! I had to restart the track. I should have just played the vocal version first time and he’d have spat over the top. Yeah, that was the first time getting it out there… and it could have gone a bit better!

Who chose the remixes for the release?

This was so long ago, back in October… I chose Impey and Tomas chose Silk Road Assassins. Actually, the original plan for ‘Ascend’ was just to have it out as a quick white label single before Christmas, but the longer we sat on it the more we thought, “We should actually turn this into a full release.”

On Twitter last month you wrote, “Ain’t written an instrumental in years. Every tune I write has a vocalist in mind, even if the link up never comes about.” Did you mean you have a specific vocalist in mind, or just you’re writing a tune to have bars over?

It’s mainly just to have bars over, yeah. I naturally make music now that has a lot of space in it for vocals to sit on. At one stage, though, it was more of a conscious effort. When you’re making an instrumental you have to fill that space, and that was easy for me in the beginning. Making a vocal track that’s not bogged down with instruments is a completely different art, so I try to steer to that side of things.

Is that something you felt you had to teach yourself?

Definitely, because I love tracks with vocals on, and I was sort of getting sick of making instrumentals all the time. If you want stuff to be on radio, or something for people to listen to at home… sometimes you just want to appeal to a different demographic. You’ve got to have both sides of the scale.

Did you have AJ in mind when you made this beat?

Tomas is always badgering me for new music, so I just made a Dropbox folder and uploaded demos that I’d been working on. The beat wasn’t even finished when I sent it to him, and he was just like, “Yeah, this one, I’ve got the perfect person.” Until that point I hadn’t heard of AJ, not even a mention. He’s a super professional guy. We recorded ‘Ascend’ in my house and it only took an hour. He was writing bars on the spot for it as well. The three of us were sitting in my bedroom like, “Let’s do a verse here, a chorus here, adlibs… OK I think we’re done!” It was literally as simple as that. I mixed it down a few days later and played it on Balamii [Radio].

It’s crazy the way he’s blown up over the last couple of months.

It’s fully deserved as well. The main thing for him is to keep doing what he’s doing and to keep grounded, because it can drop off so quickly as well. But I think he’s got a solid base and sound for what he’s doing which works well on a lot of different styles of grime.

Do you ever have a wish list for producers or MCs you’d like to work with?

No, I’m a very ‘as it happens’ sort of person. I might hear an MC and think, “that guy is really good, I’ll try and write something that he could spit on.” I’ve been asked that question before in the past, and it’s funny because I’ve worked with quite a few people – like Zomby – that I could probably say were on my wish list if I had one.

Do you think collaboration is important to the way you work? Because I would say you definitely seem to like working with other people more than most producers do.

I suppose it is important to the way I work. Collaboration makes things interesting and I like that extra side someone else can bring. Whether it’s producing with someone else or having a vocal on a track, it’s just two different minds coming together.


When you’re working on your own, are you one of those people who can knock a track out in 20 minutes?

No, I always wish I was that person who could just sit down, write a tune, bounce it out, write another tune. I go in waves where sometimes I can do a few tunes on the trot, but then I’ll go a few months where I haven’t written anything that I like. I suppose that’s called writer’s block! I get it quite frequently, which is annoying.

Are you usually working on a bunch of tracks at the same time?

When I’m in a good period I’ll work on an idea and get it to a certain point, and then start the next idea. So when your creativity might be slightly dipping you can always go back to those tunes and finish them. Sometimes you can get an EP out of that!

How did you start out producing?

I’ve always been into music. I used to play guitar and drums, and that led into recording my band. That took me onto music college, and then doing music production at uni. It was there that I started DJing, and also making electronic music out of the box using Logic and Ableton. It’s been quite a natural progression for me.

When were you first getting into electronic music?

Probably 2009 or 2010. I was into Justice and stuff like that, so I started off making music that was quite similar. Then I met my manager towards the end of uni and he was getting me work remixing Diplo and Foamo and people like that. So since 2010 I’ve been doing music as a profession rather than a bedroom hobby.

Is there a pattern in the way you make stuff or is it different for each track that you do?

When I first started I’d do the rhythmic parts for the whole track, then switch to making the bass and the samples, then add the melodies on top of that. But I’ve tried to change it up every so often and keep it interesting, otherwise you get in a routine and start making the same kind of track over and over. Now I start with the melodies and build everything else around that.

I wanted to ask about your own label, Circadian Rhythms. Have you got plans for any more releases?

Yeah, yeah.

…Is it something you can chat about?

It’s not, no! So we did the white label [Kru] with Plata, and now we’re sorting our first proper release. I’d love to be able to say more about it.

Might someone be able to guess if they’ve been listening to your NTS show?

Yeah… last year we were playing quite a lot of the tracks… Right now we’re looking for it to come out just after summer.

What was your experience like with the Plata release?

We learnt quite a few lessons doing that. Like severely under-pricing the postage and then getting to the post office and realising it’s double what people had paid us… And when they first turned up, having to live with all these boxes in my house! Luke [Blackwax] and I sort of jumped in, and we’d never released a vinyl before. We thought, “Let’s do some stickers!” so we printed 500 of them, but then you’ve got to put 500 stickers on the sleeves…

It must all be worth it when you see the reception it gets.

Yeah, and that’s what we’re really looking forward to on the next one. We were a bit apprehensive about the first one, what with the sample and it being a white label. Everything’s cleared with this next one, and we’ve got the masters. There’s a website launching relatively soon, and we’re doing clothing with the release as well. I’m really eager to get it out.

Have you got anything in the pipeline from yourself?

I’m just finishing an EP for Coyote, so hopefully that should be out sometime this year. I’ve got two finished tracks for that which are completely done apart from possibly getting vocals on one of them, and then I’ve got ideas for a couple more. And there’s another track called ‘Teflon’ which I’m planning to release on a single-sided 7”. But when you plan releases for the year it never pans out in the same way, there’s always delays!

What kind of direction is the Coyote EP headed, is it similar to ‘Ascend’?

It’s relatively similar. I’ve looked at the label’s aesthetics and you can almost see a connection between each release – with the sounds, and even the way they make you feel. So it’s a matter of mixing that with my own aesthetics. I’m into space and things like that, so with ‘Ascend’ I wanted to mix the darkness of space with its colour and vastness and beauty. There’s this Vine account where they post stuff happening in space and it’s quite ethereal, so sometimes I write music as a soundtrack to that.

You’ve spoken before about composers like Hans Zimmer, and ‘Ascend’ definitely has something of that aesthetic.

Hans Zimmer is a big influence on the music that I make. Depending on what soundtrack he’s doing, he captures that vastness really well. So that’s what I try and bring into grime – that other side that’s not so brash and in your face. It’s got that feeling of suspense and tension.

I feel like there are a lot of producers coming through who are working with similar ideas. Lots of the stuff you play on your NTS show, like Silk Road Assassins and Sami Baha. Coyote’s been really important in channelling that, and now Planet Mu as well.

Everyone’s coming with different views on this style. Those guys are approaching it from the American trap route, whereas I’m probably a bit more UK-focused. People are bringing it from different angles but I think it’s all heading back to grime, and it all works really well.

Finally, you’ve got a fabric showcase coming up with Coyote – is it nice feeling part of a broader group?

It’s my first time playing fabric, I’m looking forward to that. Yeah it’s great, even just bringing Coyote to other cities, we always have fun and everyone on the label gets on really well. There’s a good family vibe to it and I think that’s what you want, really – for everyone to feel like they’re part of something.

Ascend is out 3rd June on Coyote Records (pre-order here), when the label hosts Room 2 at fabric.

Featured image: Eva

Words: Cosmo Godfree

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