This interview featuring TRF’s leader, DJ KOO, is one in a special series of talks to celebrate Avex’s 35th anniversary with a variety of different artists and entertainers who have defined a generation. Our guest for this fourth interview in the series is Ichiro Ito, an artist who has produced several hits around the world both as guitarist of the musical unit Every Little Thing (hereafter ELT) and in his solo career. The theme of this talk will be how did the “hit movement” come about, with Ichiro Ito and DJ KOO reflecting on their careers up until the present day as well as touching on what constitutes the past, present, and future of music and entertainment from the perspective of artists and creators.
The road to a debut at 28
Ichiro Ito, the late-bloomer guitarist
ELT, with Ichiro Ito as guitarist, has had many hit songs, especially from the band's debut in 1996 through the late 1990s. They became one of the most famous music units representing Avex and Japanese J-POP in general, with many million-seller songs such as "Dear My Friend," "For the Moment," "Deatta Koro no Yo ni," "Time goes by," and many more. We begin with a look back at ELT on the eve of their breakthrough with guitarist Ichiro Ito.
Ichiro Ito (hereafter Ito) "I started a band after graduating from high school, and after that was active as a semi-professional, so ELT was the first major label to sign me. This year marks 27 years since my debut, but I was already 28 at the time, so I think I made my debut relatively late."
DJ KOO (hereafter KOO) "It's been 27 years since your debut? TRF is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, but there are still many artists who have been around longer than us. I've come to respect them more and more as my career progresses, and I'm amazed at their staying power in music. What kind of music did you play before your debut?"
Ito "I'd started a band and was playing with them. When I started, it was a goal for many musicians to get a contract with a major label and release a record. Young rock 'n' rollers were getting deals like that, and people would tell me that if you didn't get a contract in your early 20s, it was too late. I gave up on that route early on and started working a regular job while continuing to pursue music."
A fateful intervention from a future ally
The musical unit ELT makes
their coveted major debut
Ito, who had been balancing music and work, was inspired to change his professional path again by a former member of ELT, Mitsuru Igarashi, who was the leader and sound producer of the group.
Ito "Igarashi was living and working in a recording studio at the time. He was working on a demo tape in the studio late at night after his shift had ended to give to Kaori Mochida, but he felt that just adding vocals to the mix would be too bland. He asked me, a fellow band member and acquaintance, to add a little guitar. That request led to the formation of ELT."
KOO "I remember those days; it was before you formed ELT, when you were playing in a metal or hard rock band, I think. What were you doing for work back then?"
Ito "The longest job I held down was as a studio booker. I also worked part-time, doing whatever I could."
KOO "During the time you were working, did you still hold on to the hope of becoming a musician?"
Ito "Yes, my first goal was to sign with a major label by my early 20s. However, when I gave up and relaxed a little bit after not quite achieving my goal, it was that request from Igarashi that gave me another chance, that being in the form of debuting with ELT. It was then that I realized anything can happen in life."
For most of his twenties, Ito says that there were times when he wondered whether he would be able to compete with other bands, all the while not having even achieved the goal he'd set out for himself. However, an opportunity suddenly presented itself, and in 1996, ELT, a three-piece unit consisting of Kaori Mochida (Vocals), Ichiro Ito (Guitar), and Mitsuru Igarashi (Keyboard), made its debut.
“I just wanted it to be something commemorative”
A string of million-sellers in the ‘90s
The momentum was tremendous after they made their long-sought major label debut as ELT, debuting with their first single "Feel My Heart" on avex trax. The song flew out the gate and sold around 100,000 copies. Their third single "Dear My Friend," released in 1997, became their first Top 10 hit (with 490,000 copies sold), and their first album everlasting that same year debuted at No. 1 and sold a record-breaking 1.92 million copies.
Ito "Back then, many of my friends were also in bands, but most of them signed with major labels only to have their contracts end after three years or so. I didn't think I would be able to continue with ELT for very long, and when we released our first album, the only thought I had was that it would be a nice kind of commemoration of what I'd accomplished up to that point, nothing more."
KOO "I know exactly how you feel. Even if you were genuinely happy to be successful in your 20s, you gradually come to think that you shouldn't get carried away. Before I joined TRF, I was DJing and working as part of a unit, but things didn't go as smoothly as I'd hoped. At the time, my belief was that there was no such thing as a good deal, so I understand what you mean about your album being kind of like a commemorative event."
ELT achieved their first single with their 4th single "For the moment," and the following year in 1998, their 8th single "Time goes by" became the first single to reach the million-seller mark. In April of the same year, their second album, Time to Destination, sold 3.52 million copies, making it ELT's biggest hit to date. The following year, their first best-of album, Every Best Single +3, sold 2.25 million copies and took the Japanese music world by storm. ELT's worldview, which blended Igarashi's songs with Ito's guitar and Mochida's vocals, gained tremendous support from young people in their teens and twenties.
Ito "If I had made my major label debut as ELT when I was a teenager with all that power and momentum and had a hit song, I might have been in higher spirits. I think that because I was a late bloomer, with all the hardships I had to go through, I was able to look at myself more calmly and objectively."
What Avex has taught us about
the unchanging value and
strength of Avex
KOO again asked Ito about his impression of Avex, the label that gave him his long sought after major-label debut.
Ito "To be a part of Avex has been a dream for all sorts of Japanese musicians ever since they began mixing domestic musical sensibilities with dance music, including TRF. I was genuinely excited to be able to sign a contract with Avex and release the album. I heard that Mochida also admired YU-KI from TRF and went to the director of Avex to pitch herself to him."
Still, ELT's music itself is not dance music, which was the Avex's wheelhouse, but pop rock, which is now firmly established as its own genre: J-Pop.
Ito "I was once asked by Avex to find common elements in prior J-Pop hit songs and incorporate them into our production. I had been listening only to Western music, so I learned a great deal about the music scene in Japan through Avex. It's truly amazing that Avex managed to dominate the scene despite being surrounded by so many record companies that have been around for decades. I get the impression that Avex is always full of fresh and powerful people."
KOO "When TRF and ELT started to really hit with the public, Avex was still a relatively young company. We had a sense of speed, and we were able to immediately realize the ideas of our employees and artists, and we were willing to do anything! I think that is one of Avex's great strengths, and I also think that fact hasn't changed."
“Unit” over “band”
looking back on the gig where Mochida lost her voice
ELT is a unit born from a combination of its artists' musical creativity and Avex's strategic marketing. The singer Kaori Mochida fits into Avex's "diva" paradigm, which was a major factor in the success of the group.
KOO "I think that the 'unit' format for groups is really distinctive for Avex, starting with the dancing and singing we did in TRF, then moving on to other groups like yours, ELT, and others like globe."
Ito "Yes, you're right. As a unit, we could explore various genres of music, and we were able to create a lot of songs that included elements you couldn't achieve with just a band. We were able to create music that was not limited by genre, so I think ELT really benefited from being able to work in that kind of unique format that Avex championed."
Thanks to the concept of a "unit," a symbol of J-Pop created by Avex, ELT were able to devote themselves to a style of songwriting that is uniquely their own, without being bound by genre. KOO then went on to ask Ito about a particularly memorable ELT show, and he mentioned an episode when the band found themselves in a bind as opposed to an anecdote where everything was going swimmingly.
Ito "There was a time when Mochida was unable to sing during the show due to having been stretched too thin across her schedule. It was at a show after the release of the song "fragile." During the performance of that song during the show, Mochida's voice suddenly cut out. But the audience somehow divined what was going on, and they all proceeded to sing the song together. I'll never forget that."
This episode proved that a live show is something created together with an audience. Ito recalled the experience, "We were the ones performing the songs, but I also realized that the songs themselves had power, and could really reach people in the audience."
Hoping to pass on music
that will live on with the future
looking back on a career
spanning 30 years
Later, when Igarashi left ELT and the band became a two-man unit, it was another pinch point for the group. However, the fact that ELT remained true to its roots proved to be a turning point, and as a result, ELT has continued to produce songs and hold regular shows while keeping up with the times. Today, the members of ELT continue to perform both as a unit and also in their own solo projects.
Ito "To be honest, when Igarashi left the group, I was worried at first. But I never thought of bringing in someone else to take his place. When we restarted with an outside producer, we thought about releasing new music while keeping our identity as ELT. Nowadays, you can search for a song and listen to it instantly, and I think there are many people who come into contact with music in such an environment as a matter of course. When I think that even if I am no longer around, if the data remains, someone will listen to it, it makes me feel proud that I've contributed something to that “sea of art.”
KOO "Yes, that's right. More to the point, in this age when it is so easy to listen to music by searching the Internet, it's nice to know that people are listening to songs other than just the hits. If you have been active for a long time, it's inevitable that the songs that will come to mind or come to define your legacy are the hits. Also, when I DJ at TikTok shows, I get a lot of requests for ELT songs from the younger generation, so I think that your group is loved by a wide range of people."
Following in the footsteps of TRF, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, Ito will soon also celebrate his 30th anniversary in ELT in three years."
Ito "I’ve had a long career, but I am still a musician, so I'd like to keep on interacting with my fans without losing that drive as a musician. Mochida and myself didn't approach this endeavor greedily, and I think that's what allows us to be a special kind of unit even to the present day."
Ito’s words are those that can only be said because he is an artist who has taken the world by storm, and he will continue to walk at his own pace as a symbol of Japanese pop music. ELT's music will take you to unfamiliar landscapes, even for the younger generations who are hearing it for the first time. And for the familiar generation, they will always remain as ELT.