It is with extremely sad hearts that we announce the passing of stupendous keyboardist and all-around glitter bomb, Ken Morioka. He died on June 3rd, of heart failure, and was laid to rest over the weekend at a private family funeral. He was only 49 years old. Though he had been having health problems recently, and was forced to postpone the birthday show he had scheduled in March due to poor health, I don't think anyone realized the situation was life threatening. Ken's newest project, minus (-), had been gearing up for the release of a new album and a national summer tour. These are not the plans of a dying man, my friends. We're all shocked.
All of Ken's upcoming shows, both solo and with minus (-), have been cancelled...all except for the minus (-) concert at Akasaka Blitz scheduled for August 13th, which I think we can assume will take the form of a tribute concert. Ken made his mark on the music scene many times over and the number of musicians hoping to pay tribute would fill Akasaka Blitz easily.
For those of you who don't know, Mr. Morioka's first band experience was as the keyboardist of Issay and Suicides, the band that Issay fronted before starting Der Zibet. From there, Ken went on to Soft Ballet, who were signed to Taiyo Records, the same indie label on which Buck-Tick got their start. Soon after Buck-Tick, Soft Ballet made their major debut with Victor. Soft Ballet were closely associated with Buck-Tick and even toured with them in the early 90's, as part of the tri-band LSB Tour - L for Luna Sea, S for Soft Ballet, and B for Buck-Tick.
Though Soft Ballet eventually broke up, Ken remained actively involved in music through a variety of solo projects and collaborations, experimenting with a wide array of genres, including tribal, world, ambient, and electro-pop. His most recent solo lineup for live shows consisted of his younger brother Kei Morioka on guitar, Kozi (of ZIZ and Dalle, formerly of Malice Mizer) on guitar, Morrie's sax player Yukarie on saxophone, Satoru Ikeda on computers, and Chargee (of ZIZ and Omega Dripp) on drums. With this band, he played a very enthusiastic, up-tempo kind of techno dancepop that perfectly reflected his personality - he had boyish enthusiasm for music he was passionate about, and while he remained modest about his musical accomplishments, he was always happy to tell people at parties about the time that he followed JAPAN's entire Japanese tour, or how sad he was when he heard the rumor that Depeche Mode had taken an irrational dislike to Soft Ballet, or how he painstakingly learned all the keyboard parts to Tsuchiya Masami's Rice Music by ear.
How lucky for him, then, that he had a chance to become a member of Tsuchiya Masami's new band Ka.F.Ka, along with his old buddy Issay. At Ka.F.Ka's first live show, which I had the privilege of attending (though I never wrote a live report), Mr. Tsuchiya detailed with some glee how cleverly Ken had figured out how to play all the keyboard parts for the Rice Music track "KA.F.KA," despite the fact that the original recording consisted not just of one keyboard part, but of many parts multi-tracked over each other. "I have nothing but awe for him! Only such a devoted fan could pull that off!" said Mr. Masami, and it looked like Ken was holding back tears.
Ken was fond of making guest appearances in unlikely places. In October of 2012, he and a number of his regular collaborators, including Kozi and Issay, gave a one-night only performance as a JAPAN cover band to celebrate the birthday of Auto-Mod's guitarist Yukino. After Kozi snarled out a wonderful version of "Don't Rain on My Parade," Issay took the stage to recreate with Ken for only the second time the cover of "Fall in Love With Me" that the two of them had recorded under the name Suicides for the JAPAN tribute album Life in Tokyo. Next up came the song "Life in Tokyo" itself, sung by Auto-Mod's vocalist Genet, who hadn't bothered to learn the lyrics and followed along gamely on his iphone while trying hard not to laugh. Ken grinned through the entire set. As a professional musician of his stature, one doesn't get very many chances to be a fanboy.
Another memorable guest appearance on the sly came later, in February of 2015, when Ken appeared as a guest of Buck-Tick's unofficial sixth member, Yokoyama "Yoko-chan" Kazutoshi. Once again, the occasion was a birthday - Mr. Yokoyama's, this time. After going on for some minutes about how excited he was to first meet Mr. Morioka through Buck-Tick, back when Soft Ballet had just made their major debut, and how much he continued to respect Mr. Morioka, Yoko-chan went ahead and invited Ken to take his place out on the stage, behind his beloved Virus TI synthesizer and red synth piano. Together, the two of them struck up a slow, contemplative, melancholy tune that sounded vaguely familiar...and then when they reached the chorus, we realized with a start that this was none other than a rearranged instrumental version of Buck-Tick's "Sekai wa Yami de Michiteiru," more commonly known in Buck-Tickistan as "The Moon is Made of Green Cheese." While it amused my and warmed my hearts that this pair of keyboard geeks had chosen to perform this particular stupid song together, amusement was not the predominant crowd response. By the time the song had ended, I turned and looked around at the crowd of fangirls who packed the tiny basement venue, and saw that their faces were all wet with tears. In fact, they were audibly squealing and sniffling.
Fondly, I recalled how Ken had confessed some months earlier to being extremely nervous about the prospect of recording a song with Imai. "It's nerve wracking!" he said. "I keep second-guessing my arrangement." Relax, Ken. Your keyboard arrangement was not what was wrong with that song. Blame it on Imai.
Ken's piano playing could be lyrically lovely when he wanted it to be. One of his most beloved releases among fans was a three-track album of nothing but solo piano, which he sold together with a small packet of his favorite incense. In a world of rough-hewn, grizzled rockers with snaggly teeth, Ken was always immaculate, both onstage and off. Slim and graceful as a young woman, he favored shades of black, white, and lavender, his blond hair always pulled back from his face and sculpted into a slick, elegant coiff - which naturally earned him a great many fans among the queer set.
Most notable of these was the drag queen singer Kaya (formerly of Schwartz Stein), with whom he collaborated on several songs, notably "Taboo" (and if there wasn't some Buck-Tick fanboyism in that choice of title, I'll eat my hat collection - I'm not supposed to tell you this, but Kaya's a huge Buck-Tick fanboy.) Through some strange happenstance of fate, we ourselves bore witness to Ken and Kaya's meeting. "Music should feel as good as an orgasm!" Ken declared that night, in a rush of drunken elation. "It should always feel that good!"
Kaya nodded, starry-eyed.
Something you probably don't know about Ken Morioka: he taught performance classes at an art school in central Tokyo. Onstage at one of his solo lives, he described with glee and laughter how he taught his students not only to stand up straight and project their voices, but also to gyrate and shake their little tushes like models on the catwalk.
Another thing you probably don't know about Ken Morioka: a few years ago, he whispered to us at a private party that he was trying to swing a reunion of the LSB tour. "I want to make it happen again," he said. "Please, make it happen," I told him. "I will if I can," he promised us. I'm disappointed, Ken, but I'm not disappointed in you. I'm disappointed in Fate.
Yet another thing you probably don't know about Ken Morioka: he laughed at the idea of slash fanfiction. "Are they writing about me and Endo?" he exclaimed, guffawing, when the topic came up among a bunch of drunk musicians at a party one night. "I wonder what Endo would say to that?" The partygoers exchanged dark looks. Endo is known for being dark and serious, so unlike the sparkly Ken.
That was the Ken people knew: full of life, full of energy, full of sexual innuendo that somehow managed to be demure at the same time that it was raunchy. Though he toned down his famously flamboyant stage costumes in his later years, with the formation of minus (-), he began to recover some of that high-camp style, and it suited him as well as it ever had. He never managed to resurrect Soft Ballet, and perhaps Endo was the reason for that, though surely there were other reasons as well. But having resurrected two-thirds of the band through minus (-), he seemed to recapture a youthful spirit he'd long packed away. He had indeed mellowed and calmed with age, but with minus, he pulled it all out of the box again, and it was a delight to behold.
The last time I ever saw him on the stage was at the minus (-) year-end oneman live, held at Shinjuku ReNY on December 28th, 2015, the night before The Day in Question. Strutting onto the stage in fishnet tights, tiny leather hotpants, a mock-tee and a black leather corset, he looked sexier and fiercer than I'd ever seen him. Flanked by two banks of keyboards, he played one then the other one-handed, while singing, dancing, gyrating, and making sure that the audience was dancing along, too. Particularly memorable was the live arrangement of "The Victim," which brought Ken's piano riff sharply into the foreground, where it reverberated eerily through the hall. The live version was so different from the studio recording, it might have been a different song - and it's so sad to think that now, the band sans Ken never be able to make another recording that does it justice.
That night, minus (-) played through their entire discography, including the mellow instrumental numbers, and Ken's piano playing lit up the hall like the sonic mirror of the laser lights that fractaled through the crystal chandeliers hanging from the rounded ceiling. The venue was packed straight up to the back wall, and none of the fans wanted to let the band get away without an encore.
But since they'd already played through all their songs, what could they play for an encore? Something by Soft Ballet would have been one answer, but apparently they hadn't rehearsed for that. Instead, they retook the stage with a cover of Depeche Mode's "Never Let Me Down." Whether or not it was true that Depeche Mode disliked Soft Ballet didn't matter. Ken's enjoyment was palpable - so palpable, in fact, that the audience still wanted more.
"But we don't have any more songs for you," said Maki.
The fans screamed anyway.
"Our only choice will be to play one of the songs we already played for a second time."
The fans kept screaming.
"If you want it, you have to beg for it," said Maki. "You have to beg for it, and tell me how good it feels!"
This is usually the sort of thing Ken would say, but a gentlemanly embarrassment seemed to have taken hold of him, and he let Maki take charge of the fan teasing. After the crowd had finally screamed themselves hoarse to a satisfactory degree, the band did as they promised - they played one of the songs they had already played over again, a second time.
The song was "Maze," my favorite track off the new album, G, and I was happy to hear it once more. But they weren't finished yet - after "Maze," they continued with "Dawn Words Falling," Ken raising one hand, then the other, slowly in time with the rising cadence of the synthesizer noise. Somewhere between disco dancing and a Nazi salute, but then - that's Ken Morioka's world for you.
I'm sure I've passed over a zillion things I should have said. He had many older, greater, closer, more famous friends than little old Cayce - though he was always friendly, encouraging, and even admiring toward me, and I'll always cherish his kind words. As the tributes begin to pour out, I will do my best to translate the ones that I find the most touching and sincere - death tends to inspire platitudes but at this moment I can't believe the man is gone, and my head is full of memories of his life, such that it intersected with mine, and I find that what comes out are amusing vignettes. I keep thinking I'll see him at the next party or live house, with that silly, artless smile on his face, nodding up and down at someone's funny stories, exclaiming "No, really?" in his glossy baritone voice - he had a radio voice, though aside from interviews, he was never on the radio.
Another thing you probably don't know about Ken Morioka: he moonlighted as a DJ. One night, Cayce and another Not Greatest Site associate went to enjoy his set at a small but historied bar tucked away in plain sight in the heart of Tokyo. He spun a massively fat, bass-heavy playlist of hardcore dubstep and EDM, but while a bevy of Shimokitazawa hipster girls dripping in crocheted lace had come to see him, they remained immobile in their chairs, looking up at the booth shyly, taking little sips of their beers, blushing as they watched us dance.
Because, when Ken Morioka spins dubstep, you dance, my friends. Even if you're the only two people dancing in a room of awkward silences, you dance. EDM stands for Electronic Dance Music, which means you get up off your butt and DANCE! For a few seconds, I caught the eye of one of the girls, and I'm sure I saw her feet twitch. Come on, try it, I know you want to, I wanted to say, but she remained glued to her chair. And now she'll never get the chance again.
Ashes, ashes, we all fall down, goes the old song. But until then, remember Ken Morioka, and dance, god dammit. Shake your little booty like a model on the catwalk. Laugh at stupid jokes. Be a shameless fanboy and copy your favorite songs. Never stop making music. Take care of your health. And say a prayer a day for all we wretched souls who still draw breath, because I just don't think my poor heart can stand to lose another great musician for another three decades, at least.
Ken Morioka, thanks so much.
Rest in peace.
[Photo: Higuchi Yutaka kisses Ken Morioka backstage at a minus (-) show late last year]