S/milage’s “Suki-chan,” Berryz Koubou’s “Maji Bomber!!“, and so on and so forth. When the song calls for a band sound with loud guitars, Itagaki Yusuke is the man you want. A guitarist himself, what has he learned about individuality through working on so many different types of songs?
— Please tell us how you first got started in music.
Itagaki: Back in junior high school we were learning how to play the guitar in music class. It was just the classical guitar, but nevertheless, that was the first time in my life that I got to touch a guitar. Some of my classmates at the time happened to be playing the guitar as well, and I guess I was influenced by them because once I’d touched it, I just got completely hooked. Then I’d try forming bands with my friends… we were really into playing stuff like Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Mr. Big, bands like that.
— Were there any other bands you liked just as a listener, aside from the hard rock stuff?
Itagaki: I listened to lots of the so-called “Being-era” ZARD and Oguro Maki. There was something very catchy about Oda Tetsuro’s melodies — something with his music just clicked with me. Whenever I’m working on idol songs, those sorts of melody lines just pop into my mind naturally.
— You didn’t grow up in a musical household or anything like that?
Itagaki: Not at all. (laughs) My mom’s a product of the whole folk era though, so there was a beat-up classical guitar laying around in the house. But I got my parents to buy me my first electric guitar and I practiced on that — my big thing at that time was to see just how fast I could possibly play on it. (laughs) When I entered university, that’s the first time I started going to something like a music school. That’s when I got hooked on jazz and fusion, and that’s also when I realized that, rather than making my professional debut as a band member, I was more interested in working in the shadows as a supporting studio musician. My teacher was like that, too, and I realized that was a perfectly viable route to take as well.
Itagaki: Right, that was more my thing. And more than anything, I felt that I really just wanted to make a living from playing the guitar. I didn’t do any kind of job-hunting whatsoever, managed to just barely graduate from university, and then I did some random part-time jobs as I played in things resembling bands and working as a supporting musician. It was right around that time that computers were starting to become pretty useful, so I got a system on which I could use a DAW to work on my own music. I learned how to actually do it by watching others. I was starting to feel like making a living from just playing the guitar was rather unrealistic at the time. Sure, there were still great guitar players around, but now even if you weren’t great you could still edit yourself to make it seem like you were… It was just starting to seem difficult to actually make it in an environment like that. (laughs) Anyway, as I was doing all of that, I started working for my current company (SUPA LOVE at the time of this interview; Five Eighth now). Someone from my high school days happened to be working on their staff, and he approached me when he learned that I was working in music. I didn’t even know something like “songwriting companies” existed then and I’d barely written any songs before, but he asked me if I’d give a shot at writing songs for his company. So I made a demo, presented some songs to him, and one of those songs ended up making it through a songwriting competition. That led to them hiring me.
— What song was that, by the way?
Itagaki: It was an anime song for a Korean artist called Younha. That song making it through the competition marked the true beginning of my career. Once I joined the company is when I gradually started receiving more work.
— So you started writing songs after you’d graduated from university, once you could start working in a DTM environment?
Itagaki: Right. That was about four or five years ago. I’m not sure how I wrote some of those first songs of mine… Well, I’m still not sure how I write songs even today. (laughs) I mean, it’s an arena where no right or wrong answers exist, right? So in a way it’s kind of simple… You just make whatever you like. Now, whether people will like what you’ve made is a different subject altogether, but I just feel great about it when they do.
— In other words, songwriting isn’t that difficult to you?
Itagaki: Basically, yes. It can be hard meeting deadlines though. (laughs) Not to say that there are no labor pains at all — that wouldn’t be accurate — but I try not to think about it too much. Or, rather, I just tend to think that whatever I come up with first is the right answer.
— Was °C-ute the first Hello! Project group you worked on?
Itagaki: Yes it was. I believe it was the song “Zansho Omimai Moushiagemasu” (coupling track of “Shochuu Omimai Moushiagemasu“). That was the first time I worked with Hello! Project, but I’d actually missed several chances to work with them before. They had this sort of a competition for young creators which I took part in, but didn’t win. But then they had another test type thing and that’s when this song managed to get through.
— And that’s what marked your first involvement with them, through °C-ute.
Itagaki: Yes. “Zansho Omimai Moushiagemasu” was released, and that’s how I got my foot in the door.
— Could that be because you were taking part in other songwriting competitions and doing other kinds of musical work as well, which led them to kind of getting to know your style?
Itagaki: Maybe so. I think they mostly appreciate my guitar talents — pretty much all the arranging orders I get are heavy on the guitars. I believe they have a clear idea of what to expect when they ask me for an arrangement and that’s why they keep asking me.
— One of the common traits in your arrangements are the guitar solos in the intros and interludes, played in octaves. Whenever I hear them, I just instantly think, “ah, that’s an Itagaki arrangement right there!”
Itagaki: I see. (laughs) But you know, often with songs like that, the order as I first get it is for an arrangement in an “90’s rock style” or something that sounds “very J-pop.” Well, maybe I’m oversimplifying it a bit — it’s never quite that cut and dry. But anyway, at the end of the day, J-pop to me means catchy guitar phrases, and that’s something I try to be especially mindful of. First I just try to make a guitar riff that’s so catchy, I can hum it.
— In my opinion, one of the masterpieces of all your work so far is S/mileage’s “Suki-chan.“
Itagaki: I really quite like “Suki-chan” myself as well. I like the intro, but I think I like the interlude the best. It was Tsunku♂ who put in the “suki-chan suki-chan” bits, but even if he didn’t, that would’ve still been my favorite part of the song. Anyway, it was released and it was only then when I heard the “suki-chan suki-chan” in there. I knew stuff can get added when it comes to Hello! Project so I expected I’d probably find something there, but even so, I thought that was just great.
— You thought that part was already great once the song was done, but it got even better with those added voices?
Itagaki: Oh, for sure. I got goosebumps when I first heard it. Like, “oooohh!” It just made me think again about how great Tsunku♂ is at coming up with stuff like that.
— What was the request as you first got it for the arrangement of that song?
Itagaki: Well, basically I was just told to make it as cheerful as possible, and to have a certain tone on the drums. But that was pretty much it. I had no idea it was going to be a S/mileage song of course.
— Takahashi Ai’s final song as a member of Morning Musume, “Jishin Motte Yume wo Motte Tobitatsu Kara” (coupling song of “Kono Chikyuu no Heiwa wo Honki de Negatterun da yo!“) is another great song with a rock taste. You didn’t know whose song that was going to be at first either?
Itagaki: No, I didn’t. They did tell me, though, that the keyword for the song was “moving.” I was to make the chord progression of the chorus sound touching.
— Right, I assumed that with it being a memorial song and all, they wouldn’t choose who to give it to only after it was done. But aside from the rock sound songs like “Jishin Motte Yume wo Motte Tobitatsu Kara” and Berryz Koubou’s “Maji Bomber!!“, you’ve also arranged more European-sounding programmed tunes like “Ai no Dangan” (Berryz Koubou).
Itagaki: I’ve gotten a little bit better at that kind of thing now, but I’m still no match to someone like Hirata Shoichiro when it comes to that type of heavily programmed music. He’s incredible. No matter how much I try to imitate his sound, it’s just impossible. I’m still learning about programming and synthesizers and all that stuff, so I try to listen to all the J-pop that’s on the charts at the moment. Aside from that, I’m also messing about with synth software in my free time, trying to find good tones and then trying them out in my own songs.
— Is it just me or are you doing more programmed songs with faster tempos lately?
Itagaki: Yeah. The synthesizers I can somehow figure out — I just follow a pattern and there’s not a lot I have to be able to play in real time. It’s the piano stuff that’s hard to do. I’m kind of a coward when it comes to that. If I find myself getting careful about it, I can easily waste a whole day doing nothing but that.
— Could it be, though, that it’s because you say you aren’t a master at everything that it leads to your arrangements featuring more of the guitarist in you?
Itagaki: I do believe being able to play guitar is one of my strengths. Even if you know your guitars, it’s still very different telling someone what to play for you rather than being able to play the parts yourself. That’s where I get to shine as a guitarist. Also, if you can do both the arrangement and play the parts yourself, it gives you more possibilities. Sometimes people tell me they enjoy the guitar playing on my arrangements, so I think I’d like to keep making the best of that skill in the future, too.
— Even “Ai no Dangan” features a lot of your guitar playing.
— Is there any song you’ve been involved with that made you feel you did an especially good job with it?
Itagaki: I’m quite fond of S/mileage’s “Otona ni Narutte Muzukashii!!!“, even though it’s not a rock song or anything. I quite like the intro — it features this interplay between the guitar and organ, and I really dig that organ sound. That was like my interpretation of a Swedish pop organ sound. (laughs) I feel that it sounds rather different to my other work. I think it’s a fun arrangement. I wish people would listen to that one.
— What are your thoughts on doing so much idol and anime music work?
Itagaki: When you’re in my line of work, you have to be able to do all kinds of different genres of music. In the past if someone gave me free hands to do whatever I liked on a song, I didn’t know where to even begin. But just in the past two years or so, it feels like I’ve found the keywords “band sound,” “rocking” and “catchy melodies,” and I realized maybe that’s my style. Maybe that’s me. And now, doing this kind of work in anime and idol music and such, I’ve noticed how that kind of style does tend to be appreciated, so I’m privileged to be able to keep doing my thing. I want to keep doing what I’m doing: trying to improve, and trying to write catchier and catchier melodies and arrangements. But I’m always thinking about how there’s still so much I need to learn. I’m worried that if I stop even for a second and take a breather, my rivals will leave me behind in the dust. So I’m going to treasure my originality while continuing to work towards a day when I can say that there’s nothing I can’t do.