“Music is Often Better with People,” Says Hiroko Yamamura, a Chicago Techno DJ

Interview with Hiroko Yamamura
Author : Daisy Magana
August 25, 2021

“Music is Often Better with People,” Says Hiroko Yamamura, a Chicago Techno DJ

From the gritty roots of the underground Chicago scene to showcasing the freshest memes to her many Instagram followers, Hiroko Yamamura is clearly all about duality. Her extensive touring schedule over the past few years put Hiroko on the global stage, amassing an impressive audience of new fans thanks to her homage to spinning the House, Acid and techno sounds that shaped her rave youth. Even with her newfound fame, Hiroko never forgets her roots, as evidenced by her upcoming performance at the exciting new house and techno festival ARC on September 4 – 5, 2021, highlighting the incredible talent of the Windy City. 6Am caught up with Hiroko ahead of her performance at ARC to discuss everything from her hometown, being named one of Chicago’s top DJs, and on being the honorary dance scene meme queen.

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Hi Hiroko, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions! Chicago summers can get quite hot and humid, you staying cool out there? How’s it treating you?

They say that there [are] really two seasons in Chicago: winter, and summer. Usually, they are in the extremes. Luckily this year has been relatively mild. I’m not much of an outdoors person, so I guess it doesn’t [affect] me so much, but I’m hoping for some mild weather ahead. All in all, I’m inspired by seeing the city begin to open back up, nightlife and clubbing culture approaching things safely. [I’m] finally getting to see the wonderful people that make this place great again. After all this, I can say Chicagoans are a resilient bunch.

XLR8R has named you as one of Chicago’s 10 Best DJs. What’s one or two of the most notable changes you’ve noticed take place in Chicago’s nightlife scene since you first started?

Well, as nice as that was for XLR8R to say, it’s a total lie. Chicago is home to some of the best DJs and producers in the world with many of the genre’s innovators and creators still at the top of the game. I dare not ever compare myself to them and want to make sure folks know who the real deal people are. That being said, it’s a cool quote to throw into my bio, and I admit that it kind of makes me feel good to hear. If you’re asking, I’ll rank myself around 500.

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The transition from raves to clubs was jarring, and I pulled away from being an artist for quite a period of time, as the music and crowd shifted into things that just didn’t resonate with me. My friends and I call that the “shiny shirt era.” I do, however, recognize that did keep electronic music viable. Many of those folks left that detritus to real forms of music. There is a constant ebb and flow, and the city unfortunately still has massive gaps in opportunities and exposure based on social constructs and the neighborhood you represent.

In some ways though, those separations and lack of a singular goal post created frustration in some artists that forced themselves and their crews to go off and do their own thing. This then gave us a multitude of different sounds and ethos from across the city, and seeing the recognition of those outsiders finally happen has been a big part of the ever-changing “Chicago Sound.” I do hope as some of my fellow outsiders do become artists with larger platforms, that they do help and expose more folks who were involved in those historic moments to the new event attendees.

“Most artists I follow post stuff about the other stuff they do, the lovely food they are eating, the cute shoes they are excited about. Things everyday people enjoy, not a constant recap of how everyone loved their set last night and the ‘big things coming’ posts. I guess when you’re friends with other DJs, that content grows tiresome quickly.”

Hiroko wants you to know social media followers value authenticity

You also just recently released an EP with Justin Cudmore. You’ve cited it as a “deeply personal” project–how so? What makes it a little more special than other music you’ve released?

Justin and I have performed together and have been friends for quite some time. Generally [we’ve] had similar trials and tribulations in the rave / club / gay scene. We’d often have drunken conversations about all these amazing projects we were going to do together but just could never find the time. During lockdown we finally had uninterrupted time to conceive an EP that paid homage to our influences with our own strange queer twist.

We had traumas and expected setbacks in life that I can say had an influence in the tone of this, but they are addressed in the weird dark humorous way we deal with things in real life. The process of making the EP, the sleepless nights, the arguments, and the celebrations all come flooding back to me when I hear the tunes. I hope some of that misery, joy and humor come across. HE.SHE.THEY is a label and brand I had admired for some time. Their ethos and goals just aligned completely with everything I hold dear. So as you can imagine I was overjoyed when Steven Braines & Sophia Kearney approached me about a release. The label has been involved and encouraged in a way I’ve never experienced before. The feeling of belonging they’ve conveyed to Justin and me is so damn appreciated.

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Do you produce often with artists or what prompts you to take on collaborative projects? 

Especially during the lockdown, making music with friends and colleagues was a way to stay connected and feel like we had a way to express the myriad of emotions we were processing. Making and playing music is just as much entertainment and fun for me as it is about ending up with a song. Whether it’s playing My Chemical Romance songs with a guitar or making a blistering techno tune, music is often better with people. I do work on music alone quite a bit still, but I find that when I have creative roadblocks having someone involved to help make a decision, tell you something sounds like crap, or just move on can make a world of difference. Aren’t most experiences just better with a homie? Also if things go wrong, it’s fun to blame each other!

Hiroko Yamamura

courtesy of Georgia Modi

You’re closing out summer with quite the bang playing at what could be considered Chicago’s first full-blown house-driven festival (at least first in a long time): ARC. The line-up also features some techno-heavyweights like Adam Beyer, Nicole Moudaber and Deborah DeLuca. Given that Chicago is the birthplace of house music, do you think this is an overdue musical event?

Honestly when the concept of the event was described to me, and I was like, are there enough people in this city that even like this music? EDM-style festivals have always done well, but it’s always seemed like such a completely different audience. Over time, I’ve seen folks’ tastes mature and move on from the more youth-focused events, and have been impressed with everyone’s music knowledge and taste. The kids that were listening to Skrillex have grown up, and are ready to listen to the next thing. This really is kind of a dream event at a very important time.

It’s very exciting to be on a line-up with such superstars like you listed, and to get such a diverse mixture in one event is really a treat. I also can’t say enough good things about the hard-working people putting on the event, and how well they’ve organized things for artists. The level of communication and professionalism is beyond many other US-based festivals. I cannot wait!

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What are you most looking forward to on that weekend?

I gotta say, there’s a lot of friends I haven’t seen in almost two years that I can’t wait to see face to face. It’s gonna be hard to decide which stages to go to and choose what after parties I’m attending. This is the weekend I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time, and I’m promising myself to be on my best behavior. (we’ll see)

Aside from techno, you’re also known for your memes. Even your Instagram profile reads: “Meme Queen.” Looks like you don’t take yourself too seriously on social media. Do you see it as an essential part of your artist presence or how do you approach it? Especially in 2021, where it’s become such an integral tool for (music) marketing. 

It’s funny, my Instagram is 100% a meme page at this point. Every time I make a post about a gig or a new track, I’m basically making an ad. As a social media viewer, do I just want to see ads from my friends about where to give them money and how to support them? It’s Instagram! An image platform. It’s a cathartic and therapeutic place for me to share things that actually resonate with me, and find funny, and yeah..I sneak in a few ads here and there of shows and releases, but I tend to not follow accounts that are like “buy this buy this, give me money, subscribe!” Social media is saturated with that. People are smart and are going to spend their money in ways they want to, whether you make 100 ads for your record or not.

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Most artists I follow post stuff about the other stuff they do, the lovely food they are eating, the cute shoes they are excited about. Things everyday people enjoy not a constant recap of how everyone loved their set last night and the “big things coming” posts. I guess when you’re friends with other DJs, that content grows tiresome quickly. Most folks can spot genuine communication from someone and can tell the difference between a post from a person and one coming from a social media person on their staff. Obviously, on an image-based platform, folks might enjoy looking at artists that are easy on the eyes, just like movies and ads tend to do better with those with genetic gifts and different attention to detail. More power to them! If I were a tall modelesque human with great hair, you better believe I’d be all about it, and there’s nothing wrong with appreciating that. However, that shouldn’t really add or detract from their music. A great DJ that was a model, and a great DJ that isn’t might not get the same amount of likes on Instagram, but ideally, the music itself stands on its own.

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People are handed a deck of cards at birth. Maybe you’re beautiful, maybe you’re intelligent, maybe you’re funny, maybe you know a lot about Lord of the Rings. You can’t control how other people will process and perceive you. There are also plenty of advantages/disadvantages these people have that you never know about. It’s your social media. Do what you want with it. I never really expected my Instagram to grow the way that it has, but after a few Hollywood and celebrity friends began reposting stuff, it just grew quite quickly. My favorite moment from the last year was when I got “#same” from Gwenyth Paltrow. When I make a post about an upcoming show or release, there’s like a couple of homies hitting like and giving a slow clap.

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When not in the club or your home enjoying anime, what are some of your favorite places to hang out in Chicago (let’s pretend for a second Rona is a thing of the past…)?I’m really a studio rat, most of my freetime is spent there, although I won’t turn down a bbq At a friend’s house. I enjoy hitting up Gramaphone Records in my free time and attending events as well, especially at Spybar and Smartbar who have both been really putting on great shows since reopening. However, on most evenings I’m staring at my smartphone, reading comic books, playing some Japanese role-playing games, or watching anime.

Are there any artists who’ve caught your attention that might not be on people’s radars but should be?

There’s so much talent here in Chicago that it’s hard to list folks, as I’m scared to miss anyone. So I’ll list the folks that I’m currently collaborating on projects with including; Steve Gerard, Heartthrob, Submerge, Dani Ramos, Ari Frank, M.Sylvia, Andre Salmon, Hyperactive, and BPMF. [They] all inspire me daily with their incredible talent and I give them props for having to deal with me. I also share a studio with this guy Eric Elvambuena, while being a troubling human, makes some great rock music. I’m sure I missed someone really important and I’m sorry.

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Anything else you’d like to share?
During lockdown there was all this talk about how everyone was going to really focus back on their hometown heroes, actually support events and pay cover, and help get the scene back on track. These ideals seem to be fading quickly as bigger acts begin touring our cities. It’s an extremely fragile time for artists and the nightlife industry. If people want these great events and artists to continue, we have to put our money where our mouth is and keep the scene alive.

Lastly, this time has really affected many people on a variety of levels, including losing loved ones and friends. I’m hoping we can come back together with a different level of empathy for one another and continue to honor those folks that just aren’t here with us anymore.

Connect with Hiroko Yamamura: SoundCloud | Facebook | Instagram | Beatport