From his early days as a Shibuya-kei pioneer to the impressionistic sonics of his later work, experimental pop auteur Cornelius always pushes musical boundaries. The striking juxtaposition of sampling and hip-hop-influenced beats, rock, and vintage pop on albums such as 1995′s 69/96 laid the groundwork for Shibuya-kei’s playfully omnivorous approach. It also paved the way for Cornelius’ 1997 breakthrough Fantasma, a dizzying blend of Motorik rhythms, yé-yé melodies, and Beach Boys harmonies that introduced his music to listeners outside of Japan (where his albums regularly appeared in the Top Ten). His music shifted dramatically with 2001′s Point, a dazzling exploration of shifting tones, forms, and spaces that set the tone for his subsequent albums. Following 2007′s hypnotic Sensuous, Cornelius established himself as a respected veteran of the Japanese music scene, touring and recording with Yellow Magic Orchestra and Yoko Ono, and composing music for film, television, and video games. In the 2010s and 2020s, he balanced his high-profile projects with albums such as 2017′s Mellow Waves and 2023′s Dream in Dream, which combined intimate moods with innovative layers of electronic and acoustic sounds.
Born in 1969 in Setagaya, Tokyo, Keigo Oyamada taught himself to play guitar and counted Kiss and Black Sabbath among his early influences. While still in junior high school, he was a member of the group Lollipop Sonic, which ultimately became Flipper's Guitar. The band’s blend of sampling and influences spanning lounge music, jazz, and British acts such as the Happy Mondays and Pastels shaped what would become the Shibuya-kei movement.
When Flipper's Guitar disbanded after the release of their third album, 1991′s Doctor Head’s World Tower, Oyamada launched a solo career. Taking the name Cornelius as an homage to the Planet of the Apes film series, his combination of punk, pop, shoegaze, Brazilian and electronic music with wide-ranging samples epitomized Shibuya-kei’s playful postmodernism. His debut EP, September 1993′s Holidays in the Sun, was the first release from his own Trattoria label and reached number 12 on the Japanese chart. He followed it with February 1994′s debut album The First Question Award, which added orchestral elements to his freewheeling sound. Reaching number four in Japan, the album spawned four Top 40 singles, including the Top 20 hit “The Sun Is My Enemy.” November 1995′s 69/96, which incorporated kazoo, sitar, turntablism, pedal steel, and harmonica in its sprawl, was an even bigger success: It peaked at number three on the Japanese charts and spun off 1996′s remix album 96/69.
Cornelius further expanded his creativity and acclaim with his next album, August 1997′s Fantasma. Designed as a start-to-finish journey for the listener, its kaleidoscopic, genre-hopping joy ride through music history alluded to Bach and the Beach Boys as well as the Clash and Microdisney. The latter group’s Sean O'Hagan (also of the High Llamas), Apples in Stereo’s Robert Schneider and Hilarie Sidney, and Buffalo Daughter’s Moog Yamamoto appeared on the album, which reached number six in Japan. Fantasma was Cornelius’ first album released outside of his homeland, and it hit number 37 on the U.K. Independent Albums chart in 1998. The album was accompanied by a pair of 1998 remix albums: FM, which collected reworkings of Fantasma songs by artists such as Money Mark, the Pastels, Unkle, and Coldcut, reached 39 on the Japanese chart. CM, which found Cornelius remixing many of the artists that appeared on FM, peaked at number 40.
Cornelius returned in October 2001 with Point, a streamlined set of songs that emphasized the textural interplay of electronics and guitar, as well as the Brazilian influences, within his music. Peaking at number four on the Japanese charts, the album reached number 18 on the U.K. Independent Albums chart and became Cornelius’ first release to chart in the U.S., landing at number 47 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart and number 17 on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. The arresting visuals Cornelius created for the album were captured on 2003′s Five Point One; that year also saw the release of CM2, which featured Oyamada’s distinctive remixes of songs by Blur, k.d. lang, and the Avalanches. Also in 2003, he worked with Sketch Show, the project of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi, on their album Loophole and remixed songs on their EP Tronika. The following year, he worked with YMO’s Ryuichi Sakamoto on his album Chasm. In 2006, Cornelius created the whimsical, spacey soundtrack for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance game Coloris, and released his fifth full-length, the fittingly named Sensuous, that October. Taking Point’s experiments in mesmerizingly lush directions, the album featured contributions from Kings of Convenience and reached number eight in Japan; in the U.S., it hit number 18 on the Top Dance/Electronic Albums chart. The Gum EP appeared in 2007, collecting remixes by the Books and Prefuse 73 and collaborations with Petra Haden and Ryuichi Sakamoto; Sensurround, which featured Sensuous’ videos and B-sides, arrived in 2008 and was nominated for the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Surround Sound Album. That year, Oyamada began playing shows with the reunited Yellow Magic Orchestra and with Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band live and in the studio, first appearing on 2009′s Between My Head and the Sky.
As the 2000s became the 2010s, Cornelius’ projects spanned remixes, production, and soundtrack work. May 2009′s CM3 gathered reworkings of songs by Sakamoto and Kings of Convenience as well as Sting and James Brown. The following year, Cornelius contributed a song to the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World soundtrack, composing the music played by Katayanagi Twins during one of the film’s battle scenes. In 2011, he produced Salyu’s S(o)un(d)beams and played the Hollywood Bowl with Yellow Magic Orchestra. Cornelius delivered another volume of remixes with September 2012′s CM4, which featured reworkings of songs by the Beastie Boys, Ono, and Arto Lindsay among others. In 2013, he appeared on Ono’s Take Me to the Land of Hell and collaborated with Taku Satoh and Yugo Nakamura on Design Ah!, a TV series celebrating the design of everyday objects for Japan’s national public broadcasting organization, NHK. That year also saw the release of his scores for The Cat That Lived a Million Times and Ghost in the Shell Arise, the latter of which peaked at 33 on the Japanese charts. On 2015′s Constellations of Music, Cornelius remixed the likes of the Bird and the Bee, Korallreven, and Gotye. His music was featured in 2015′s Ghost in the Shell Arise Alternative Architecture, which brought the anime to television, while his soundtrack for Ghost in the Shell: The New Movie featured contributions from Sean Lennon and METAFIVE, the supergroup founded by Takahashi of which Cornelius was also a member. In 2016, Cornelius released a deluxe reissue of Fantasma in the U.S. and embarked on his first tour of the States in eight years.
The first Cornelius album in over a decade, Mellow Waves, appeared in June 2017. Five years in the making, the meditative set of songs explored the concept of tremolo in its undulating sounds and featured collaborations with Lush’s Miki Berenyi and Shintaro Sakamoto. Another Top Ten hit in Japan, Mellow Waves reached number seven on the Dance/Electronic Album and World Albums charts in the U.S. September 2018′s Ripple Waves gathered remixes and live versions of Mellow Waves songs as well as previously unreleased material. That year also saw the release of Design Ah 2 and Design Ah 3. Following 2019′s remastered reissue of Point, Cornelius played another string of dates in the U.S. In November 2022, he contributed a version of “Thatness and Thereness” to A Tribute to Ryuichi Sakamoto: To the Moon and Back and played on METAFIVE’s second and final album, Metaatem. Cornelius returned in June 2023 with his seventh full-length Dream in Dream. Continuing the hazy, spacious feel of Mellow Waves, the album included another song with lyrics written by Shintaro Sakamoto, a solo version of a song originally performed with METAFIVE, and a tribute to the late Takahashi. ~ Heather Phares & Jason Ankeny