Hironobu Hirata (Super Sonico producer)
Interview by David Cirone
March 29, 2013
Bassist, songwriter, and producer Hironobu Hirata hit the ground running when his band Swinging Popsicle released their debut single “Joy of Living” in 1997 through major label Sony Music. Teamed with bandmates Mineko Fujishima and Osamu Shimata, Swinging Popsicle has maintained a quality standard in pop-rock songwriting for over 15 years, with 4 tours of North America including visits to Fanime MusicFest and New York Anime Festival.
In recent years, Hirata’s producing talents have been in high demand. He’s served as producer for the NITROPLUS games “SUMAGA,” “SUMAGA Special,” “AXANAEL,” and “Sonicomi,” and provided musical arrangements for artists such as 7!!, Kanako Ito, Kazuhiro Watanabe, Taru (Korea), Yozoh (Korea), and Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo, the virtual band fronted by NITROPLUS mascot Super Sonico.
How has your relationship with Sonico changed since you first started composing for her? When you started, did it feel strange to write for a imaginary character?
Hirata: My relationship with Sonico hasn’t changed particularly. Her growth inside the band (Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo) is an element I want to keep focused on. So I try to present music that shows a her natural progress as a vocalist and a band member, so the listeners can feel that the band actually exists. Basically, Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo is a 3-girl rock band, so when I create, I think to myself, “It would be cool if there was a girls’ band with this type of sound,” and “This is a type of guitar phrase that people might want to play.” It’s like I have one more band, so that makes it a fun job.
Are there specific personality traits that you try to focus on when you create new songs? Do you think, “I want to make her seem stronger,” or “I want to make her seem more emotional?”
Hirata: It needs to be music that fits a girl like Super Sonico. The lyrics and music reveal the way I see her personality, so yes, sometimes I think, “This is how Sonico sounds when she’s feeling cute, or when she’s feeling strong.” At the same time, since I’m the music producer, I’m always hoping there will be more copy bands of Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo. So I try not to make the songs too complicated, and make sure they always have a friendly sound.
Have you ever created a song for Sonico and thought that maybe you wanted to save it for Swinging Popsicle instead?
Hirata: Right! Sometimes when I’m creating Sonico’s mucic, I get a feeling for a moment like, “What would it be like if Swinging Popsicle did this song?” When I get this feeling, I always think it means that the song came out good. Swinging Popsicle is my home, after all. Honestly, when creating music, there’s a big difference between Mineko Fujishima’s voice and style and Super Sonico’s voice and style.
How do you divide your creativity fairly?
Hirata: Swinging Popsicle needs to express music that all 3 of us want to create, and Super Sonico needs to express music that makes everyone like her. There are times when music with both elements is naturally born. The power-pop sound from my favorite band Cheap Trick shows up often within both Swinging Popsicle and Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo. Sometimes the NITROPLUS staff have said to me, “This is a song for Swinging Popsicle, not Sonico,” about the song I wrote for Sonico, and Mineko has told me that she wanted Swinging Popsicle to do “Susume! BLUESTAR” when she heard Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo’s music. So when I hear that from both sides, I hope it means I’m keeping it fair.
You’ve performed in America and Mexico many times with Swinging Popsicle, and you’ve had the chance to see otaku music fans in many countries outside of Japan. How does your experience with otaku culture help you write for Sonico?
Hirata: We’re always encouraged by the smiles and warm messages of otaku music fans from different countries. We’ve been lucky to interact with people called otaku from different countries many times, so otaku to us are close friends, not something unusual. We want to deliver music to the world so we can see everyone’s smile. I love all the otaku people who are pure and full of love.
Sonico’s CD Love & II+ Peace Plus reached the top 50 on Oricon last year. Was this the first time one of your works had reached that level? How did you feel about the achievement?
Hirata: It was the first time one of my works made the top 50. It’s a good record for an indies single, so I was really happy. Even though the Japanese chart is full of anime and idols, it was meaningful to make that attempt with an indie-like band sound.
Sonico’s latest release was special lottery CD from Banpresto, with covers of some very famous artists like Lindbergh, Princess Princess, and The Blue Hearts. Did you feel nervous putting Sonico’s voice into these famous songs?
Hirata: Once the concept was decided, I started to get really excited about the idea of hearing these songs with Super Sonico’s voice, so I enjoyed recording all of them. I didn’t feel nervous at all, I think I felt freedom. Since each original song is powerful and has a wonderful vocalist, I arranged the Sonico versions so that her pure and cute feeling would come out. This CD was Super Sonico’s solo project, not Daiichi Uchuu Sokudo. I’m especially happy about “Yume” by THE BLUE HEARTS. I removed the original version’s band-like feeling and approached the arrangement with a techno sound that made it quite different.
You’ve been very busy lately with many projects — Swinging Popsicle, Sonico, Nitroplus soundtracks, Korean pop artist Taru, and Japanese R&B artist Kusuo. How does it feel to be so popular?
Hirata: It’s not that I am popular. I’m just lucky. My friends create music by putting their heart to each song, so I’m part of that community. And I’m lucky enough that they call me.
Let’s talk about Swinging Popsicle. Last year, Swinging Popsicle release a digital-only single “You’ve Got A Friend” (James Taylor cover). We haven’t heard any new Swinging Popsicle songs since 2007’s “Go on.” Why are you making Popsi fans wait so long?
Hirata: Our pace is really relaxed, I know. I’m sorry for the trouble for the fans. But part of the way we create good quality music is for us to write songs at our own speed. We plan to release one song before summer this year.
Swinging Popsicle has been active in Tokyo’s music scene for a long time. Do you still feel connected to the Tokyo music community? Do young indie bands call you “senpai?”
Hirata: There may be times when we’re treated as “senpai.” (*laughs) Although it’s little by little, new musicians are coming out who were influenced by Swinging Popsicle. It makes me happy. At the same time, we’re connected to many veteran musician friends of the same generation, so it’s encouraging for me.
The music business has changed a lot since you started, and we’ve seen quite a few bands break up or stop activities in recent years. But Swinging Popsicle is still performing regularly, and you have a large group of loyal fans. What keep things exciting for Swinging Popsicle after 15 years together?
Hirata: I think it’s natural to keep going as there’s a sound we want to make with our fellow band members. We’ve been creating a new album little by little as we work with the rhythm of each member. I believe that even better music will be born from Swinging Popsicle in the future. So keep watching us.
Swinging Popsicle – “Perfect Loop” (SUMAGA Special OP)
Communication with Sonico