A few years back, striking jazz and soul album covers started to pop up here and there with mesmerizing details embedded in psychedelic landscapes and portraits. Works from many of the artists were also featured on KMHD’s daytime new release program, “New Jazz for Lunch.”
Stylistically, these new works were similar to the late ‘60s, early ‘70s artwork that appeared on albums such as Miles Davis’ 1970 classic, “Bitches Brew.” But this wasn’t the ‘70s. These artworks were happening now, with even greater detail than seen before.
It took a late-night conversation with Mark De Clive-Lowe (whose artwork for his most recent albums, “Heritage I and II,” were done by the same artist) in a Portland speakeasy to finally get a name: Tokio Aoyama.
KMHD located Tokio and had a conversation about his artistic inspiration, the process of creating his original artworks, what music he listens to while painting and much more.
Q&A with Tokio Aoyama
KMHD Director Matt Fleeger: Where are you from, and where do you live now?
Tokio Aoyama: I’m Japanese and I’m living in Japan right now. Funny thing, when I was younger, I lived in Portland (and Seattle). I love (and miss) Portland very much.
Fleeger: Your artwork evokes the 1970s aesthetic of great record-cover artists like Abdul Mati Klarwein [the famous artist behind many of Davis’ electric albums]. Where does your inspiration come from beyond those works?
Tokio: Well, I’m a big fan of jazz from the 1950s through the ‘70s. I love Miles Davis, Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, etc. Their music, for me, is a huge inspiration. I’ve definitely been inspired by the LP art of the 1970s — artists like Mati Klarwein, Tadanori Yokoo and Shusei Nagaoka.
The work of these artists tend to have a harmony of opposites, sort of like Western philosophy/Eastern philosophy, the ancient/the future, beauty/ugliness, life/death, et cetera. I want my paintings to exude similar concepts and vibrations. I grew up listening to American music and watching American movies, but my behavior and my customs are very Japanese. That helps me to create a new perspective, which is not just related to cover art or the music.
Fleeger: Is there a spiritual/cosmic component or practice in your life that informs your work?
Tokio: Many Japanese people are either Buddhist, Shintoist or Animist in terms of religion. We pray for our ancestors and go to visit their graves once every couple of months. So you could say I have a sort of essence of spiritualism even though I’m not doing, say, yoga or meditation. I’d say painting is meditation for me. Oh, and I do believe that extraterrestrials exist.
Fleeger: How long have you been painting and what sparked your interest in art?
Tokio: I started painting and drawing when I was little. I painted and drew everywhere in my home or at school. I’m not sure what first made me interested in art, but I’ve always loved movies and anime, and I drew a lot of characters from anime and scenes from movies. I remember when I was 9 or 10, I saw a record cover of Santana’s “Abraxas” that my dad owned. I was infatuated by it.
Fleeger: How do you choose an artist to work with? Do they contact you or vice versa?
Tokio: Typically, the artists or labels reach out to me.
Fleeger: Your paintings contain incredible detail, which makes them perfect for large-format music like LPs. How big are these paintings in real life?
Tokio: Most of these pieces are about 2 feet by 2 feet. I typically paint on canvas, using acrylic paints.
Fleeger: How long does it take to complete a painting typically?
Tokio: Well, I begin by sketching the design of the painting. After that, it’s about four to seven days until the painting is finished.
Fleeger: Do you get to hear the music of the artist for whom you’re painting ahead of time? In other words, does the concept of the music influence the painting?
Tokio: Most of the time, artists send me some songs from the album, and sometimes they’ll give me a list of what they want in the painting. For example, someone might request space, flowers, a car, a person, et cetera. But sometimes artists give me a very specific idea. But most often, the music of the artist (not just the music from the album — I listen to their past works) all help me developing the vision.
Fleeger: What are you typically listening to while you paint?
Tokio: I usually listen to instrumental music, including library music from the ‘60s, ‘70s and movie soundtracks. Of course, I also listen to jazz that makes me feel relaxed and focused. I often listen to the radio too, as I kinda like listening to somebody having a conversation.
Fleeger: Who are you painting next? Who are some of your favorite contemporary jazz artists that you haven’t worked with yet?
Tokio: I’ve just finished the new cover for trumpeter Josef Leimberg’s second album, which will be released soon. Unfortunately, I can’t say any more, but I am working with some very talented artists right now. As far as who I’d like to work with? Chris “Daddy” Dave, Robert Glasper, Christian Scott, Yussef Dayes — there are so many great artists working in jazz right now!