What Matters: Satoru Wakeshima on the Marvels of Music

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Debbie Millman has started a new project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an ongoing effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer 10 identical questions, and submit a decidedly nonprofessional photograph.

Up next: Satoru Wakeshima, managing director and chief engagement officer for CBX, the New York–based brand design firm with offices in Minneapolis. He has led strategy, innovation and creative for brands including Gillette, Del Monte, PepsiCo, Mars, Kraft, Colgate, Pepperidge Farm, Black & Decker and Coca-Cola.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

Guitars. I’m a player, collector and repairman, and I’m totally obsessed with it. My collection of more than 20 guitars is completely out of hand, and that’s down from when it was really out of hand. My favorite guitar is a 1959 Martin 00018 acoustic. It was horribly abused and remained unused for a very long time. I brought it back to life and I continued to play it for years at bar gigs. It looks like absolute hell. But some guitars just have lots of songs inside of them; they still have stories to tell. You just have to pull them out. This is one of them. Especially now with COVID, I can’t seem to stop building new guitars and starting a new project. Now that my son and daughter both play instruments, it’s taken on a whole new meaning for me because we can connect through music and creativity. Just like design, music is about taking an idea, creating something new, and bringing people together. It really never gets old for me.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

My parents are fine artists, and growing up, so many of their friends were artists. So I was surrounded by creativity since I was a baby. Art galleries, parties at art studios, museums … it’s just how I was raised in New York. I remember my parents sitting my sister, brother and me down with markers and paper, giving us concepts like “bright,” and asking us to draw what came to mind. It was a pretty cool thing, now that I look back on it. I must have been 6 or 7 years old. I drew a big moon in a dark sky because, to me, the moon seemed illuminated; like it was all lit up. Because of the contrast with night, it was focused brightness, even more than the sun. I remember I couldn’t quite capture what was in my head. But I tried.

What is your biggest regret?

No regrets. I just want to make sure I learn from my experiences and, hopefully, pass on what I learn to my kids and anyone else who will listen.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

Ha! Who hasn’t? But the key phrase is “gotten over.” People are more emotionally resilient than we think.

What makes you cry?

Sad dog movies. Yep. I’m a total sucker for a sad dog movie. And it gets me … every. Fucking. Time. (Sniff.) My wife won’t watch them with me. There’s a movie about the remarkable story of Hachiko, a dog in Japan that came to the train station every day for nine years waiting for his owner, who had died at work, to come home. The fact that it’s based on a true story makes it even sadder. There’s even a statue of Hachiko at the train station in Tokyo.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Not long enough! I look at accomplishments as “fixing” things, and I am genuinely pissed off if I can’t fix something. Doesn’t matter what it is: a work thing, a relationship, an appliance, a toy or a guitar. So I’m constantly fixing things, having the brief pride and joy of accomplishment (look what I did!), and then onto fixing the next thing. There’s a lot that’s broken out there. Maybe I need to set my sights on fixing bigger things? Hmmmm …

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

I really hope there’s more … I miss the family and friends I’ve lost and every dog and cat I’ve ever owned. To me, it looks a lot like a tropical island in the South Pacific (without the mosquitoes); I’m surrounded by my wife, kids, friends and family, who look exactly how I remember them, and there’s really good live music being played all the time on cool vintage gear. But I’d be totally cool if it was just re-experiencing all the really good bits of my life, on a constant loop. I’ve had a pretty blessed existence, all things considered, and some crazy fun times that I wish I could experience again and again.

What do you hate most about yourself?

I’m intense. I wish I was chill. No one ever says, “Oh, I know Satoru, he’s so chill.” When my son Trey was born, he was really intense—really happy, or screaming his head off. It was maddening. I remember talking about this with some work friends and clients who knew me really well and asking, “where does he get this intensity from?” Everyone burst out laughing. And I realized it was me.

What do you love most about yourself?

I’m intense. No, seriously, I’m brutally honest with people. That’s something that’s really important to me. If you can’t be honest about how you feel or what you’re thinking, you’re not really communicating. You’re holding back. You don’t have to be an asshole about it. But you should say what you mean.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

There’s this tiny island on the Great Barrier Reef called Lizard Island. It’s freaking paradise. They’ll make you a seven-course private dinner on the beach with cold melon soup, emperor prawns, Moreton Bay bugs, New Zealand salmon, soursop sorbet, and a chocolate tarte for dessert. Oh yeah. Or … anything my mom makes. She’s the best cook in the world. Love you, Mom.