Sen Morimoto on Sooper Records, Chicago, the Music Press, and Sonic Synthesis

Sen Morimoto on Sooper Records, Chicago, the Music Press, and Sonic Synthesis

This is a free post from Larry Fitzmaurice's Last Donut of the Night newsletter. Paid subscribers also get a Baker's Dozen playlist every Friday with music I've been listening to, as well as thoughts around that music.

I quite enjoy Sen Morimoto's music, which got its hooks into me around 2020's self-titled album; he's got a new one out now, Diagnosis, and if you're a regular reader of this newsletter and have given it even a cursory listen, you know that Sen's addressing some stuff on there that I talk about a lot with musicians on this newsletter. So, why wouldn't we have a chat?

Whenever I'm hearing interesting music, there's a strong chance it's coming from the Midwest, and Chicago specifically. As a Chicago artist, I'm curious to hear you talk about what the city brings out of people creatively.
Chicago, and a lot of cities in the Midwest, have a unique situation where it's a big city with lots of artists and a huge, thriving arts community, but there's not the same type of music industry infrastructure there as there is in New York and L.A. It's especially noticeable that we don't have those music industry superpowers present in Chicago, so even the folks that build momentum and get projects off the ground are heavily relying on being good at running their own thing in a very DIY way. You look at any of the big hip-hop or rock acts coming out of Chicago, they're all DIY-run organizations. That breeds a different kind of work ethic and commitment to what you're doing. Maybe I'm just speculating here, but a little less industry B.S. seeps into the art as well.

You mentioned the structure of the industry, which this new record is very much a reaction to. But it's also a reaction to a lot of things! There's a lot of ideas you're putting out there. Tell me what those are in your own words.
A lot of the songs are a reaction to my experience in the music industry, which creates a funny setup when I have conversations with folks in the industry itself about what the record is about. What I'm trying to condense the message to is an examination of the ways in which capitalism, individualism, and American culture seeps into every aspect of our lives—which is why the record ends up being broad and diverse in topic. It's not just about how it affects your business—it affects your psyche, your love life, your participation in capitalism and the crumbling infrastructure and climate of the world. It's a central topic that affects every part of our lives.

One thing that stood out to me in the press materials is this notion of artists having to mine from the well of trauma and lived experience for the sake of standing out in the music press. It's a dead-on observation. People on both sides of the aisle who aren't explicitly corporate stooges are really fucking sick of it, for lack of a better way of putting it. Tell me about your experience with the press, and how you've seen peers and colleagues experience engaging with the press too.
My experience promoting and marketing albums was realizing that it wasn't enough to market my music—I had to market myself, my identity, personal details about my family, just for publications or whatever gatekeepers to really pay attention to the art. It was a big part of what got me started writing these songs, which ended up being a gateway to examining everything else. I was like, "Why is it so?" which led me to examining systems of capitalism, which led to larger questions.

The last five years there was a boom of representation for pretty much everyone. It started as a very positive movement, which was the tricky part. Of course you want all these communities to have representation in everything, and for me personally it was Asian representation. Shows with all-Asian bills, 88Rising, Crazy Rich Asians, all this media celebrating Asian culture—which was really cool at first. I felt othered for so long for this specific thing, and now it can be celebrated in this space. But then there was an icky feeling where you realized that was the only reason something you were working on was being paid attention to, or that it had to be about that to be worth discussing with some media outlet.

At first, it felt really isolating, because you don't want to be the person who's disagreeing with representation. It is a positive thing, in theory. But then, within my community of peers and friends in Chicago, a lot of us come from a similar background that's not typical from the straight white dude rock world. Everyone was feeling similarly beacuse it wasn't just happening to Asian culture, it was happening to everything—Latinx communities, a highlight on Black artists because of the protests going on. That well started drying up once people got the gist of it, which was bleak to witness.

What got me out of feeling purely cynical about that was having a community to relate to. A lot of Chicago artists and the Sooper family were dealing with the same things. The funny example we were always talking about was, if we did an interview—and they're rare, it's not like the big Pitchfork profiles are coming to our doors, you have to pitch yourself to these folks—the questions we would get were basically, "What traumatic event did you or your family go through for me to care about listening to this album?" As opposed to what some white contemporary artist from the same genre might be asked. You'd see the interviews of your peers pop up where it's like, "Wow, the writing and guitar work on this album are amazing," and you're like, "Why isn't anyone thinking about that for my music?" That can spark a lot of negative feelings about it, which is not ultimately where I wanted to land. But it's still good to recognize.

There is such little space now for traditional coverage—but as I'm saying this, I do find myself asking, "Who gives a fuck about what traditional coverage even means at this point?" Sometimes it's where the least interesting stuff is happening.
And it's falling apart, which is really sad. With the layoffs and everything in those spaces, it's not where people are finding music now, or even really having the discourse around what good or exciting new art is. I think about that a lot too, with different press things that come up. You're working on the album, everyone in management and PR and booking is excited for certain names in media to come up—"You got the good interview." But I'm like, "I wouldn't read this if I'm not me." [Laughs] That's why I'm glad we're talking, because I would read a newsletter from someone who I respect. But I wouldn't click on something where it just said, "Sen Morimoto! An album!"

I find your sonic approach fascinating—even with the last record, I found it hard to pin down, and I would extend that to the Sooper stable as a whole. Tell me about the evolution of your sound—what you prioritize when it comes to expressing yourself musically.
It is hard to pin down, because I don't have rules for myself, and maybe that's what is most freeing about my process. A lot of it came together from my life experience. What might come across as a song that's intentionally mixing punk, jazz, and pop might just be because I learned drums in a punk band, I learned saxophone when I was studying jazz, and I learned guitar when I was trying to write indie-pop songs. A lot of it is just what I know how to do on each instrument, and then they collide and make something new. I'm not intentionally trying to blur genre lines, it's just the effect of people who have the internet. Music's turned into one super genre.

In terms of this record specifically, I wrote most of the songs on guitar, which was new. I'd been joking about making a rock record because I'd been making this hard-to-pin-down music and was having all these difficulties in getting people to take it seriously. I'd joke, "Wait until I make my rock record, because then they'll know what to call it." And of course, I make a rock record and no one knows what to call it. [Laughs] I put the first song out and people were like, "Is it jazz? Is it fusion? Is it rap?" Everyone said everything but rock. I was like, "I think it's rock, I swear!" But you don't get to choose, really. And that's part of the beauty of it, too. You learn so much about it when it's in other peoples' hands to interpret.

You mentioned the experience of playing in bands when you were younger. Tell me about formative lessons learned when it came to cutting your teeth working with others.
When I was learning saxophone, I was young, and I was studying with Charles Neville, who was living in Massachussetts. He was a Neville brother, and he ended up in the middle of nowhere in Mass doing master classes, so I went to one and he ended up inviting me over to take lessons on the weekends. The greatest thing he taught me is to play instruments and instrumental music in a way that respects and accurately translates the intended message of the lyrics. That might sound obvious, but as a kid, studying jazz, everything is chops, scales, and a lot of technical prowess. That's what is valued. He was the first person to really speak to me and be like, "Drop all that shit. What is this song about? Do you even know what it's about?" We'd be playing the blues, and he would be like, "You just don't sound sad when you play the saxophone that way."

Playing in punk bands and basements in DIY scenes as a teenager also taught me to be down for whatever—maybe to my detriment. It taught me to hustle. Play every show you're offered, it doesn't matter if you're sleeping on floors. Now I'm older and can't do that anymore.

I've talked to a few people recently who have had to upgrade to motel options for their back's sake.
The back pain will always get you. It turns the DIY band into a professional operation.

Sooper is an exciting label, to me. I never really know what I'm going to get from what it releases, and from afar the label's stable really does seem like a community. Tell me about how that's evolved over the years.
Sooper started as a small tape label, and the idea was to create a platform for all this amazing DIY music happening in Chicago. There's not a lot of labels in the city, or infrastructure for people to release their music beyond posting it online and hoping somebody finds it. We did little tape compilations, and eventually we were able to get organized and concentrate our efforts on a few records a year, giving it all we got. We're still such a small label, and everything we make we put back into the music. It's been really fulfilling.

We filled this gap of independent artists in this in-between zone—a lot of debut records for artists who we just wanted to see win, and that's still very much the ethos of the label. Our goal with artists is not to lock in a partnership for life. It's just about doing one record with someone and hoping that it gets big enough for somebody who has the infrastructure to give them a bigger break and scoop them up—which, you know, is probably not the best business model. [Laughs] At some point, we're gonna have to do something else. But it's been really fulfilling to be a springboard to catapult Chicago artists. We're working with other people in other spots now too, but as a springboard for this music that we think is underserved.

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Jamie Larson