Interview: Yoshiki of X JAPANby Michael Toole,
In 1992, X Japan had conquered their homeland, and stood on the cusp of global domination. But the time for their wildly glammed-out image and their music, a whiplash-inducing combination of intricate rock ballads and muscular speed metal, had passed. Getting any traction in the American music market was harder then, as well—a daunting prospect, kind of like scaling Mount Everest. X Japan never had the chance to take two steps out of base camp.
A decade passed, the band broke up, and their mercurial lead guitarist, hide, died in 1997. A reunion didn't appear to be in the cards. But even as bandleader and chief songwriter Yoshiki struggled with depression, little things started to happen for the dormant band. Anime fans around the globe got their first taste of X Japan in the movie X/1999, Rintaro's gorgeous, barely-coherent take on CLAMP's popular apocalyptic manga; the band provided the ending theme, “Forever Love.” Rising interest in J-rock and its visual kei subset got the group some cachet at anime conventions, as a new generation of fans looked for new music beyond the boundaries of the pop charts. But X Japan was dead; could fan panels and message board postings from a small group of new fans amount to anything?
That question was answered by Yoshiki himself, as he appeared at Otakon 2006. Fans in the west were finally reaching out to him; he reached back. A whirlwind of odd projects came next—a J-rock supergroup that only played one show, a collaboration with Stan Lee, and production duties on the film REPO: The Genetic Opera. Somewhere in all this, Toshi, the band's lead singer, called Yoshiki up to talk about the reunion-- because after all, the reunion was going to happen. It had to.
Now, some 22 years after their big trip west, X Japan are standing at a crossroads. They've played at venues across North America, but typically midsized theaters and music halls, not quite grand enough for the theatrical approach that's netted them dozens of sold out shows at Tokyo Dome. In October they played at Madison Square Garden, a venue more suited to their talents. Yoshiki is back in the driver's seat, hard at work on a new studio album, the first since the band's 1990s glory days. We sat down with the man himself to talk about his career, Yoshiki Classical, and what's in store for X Japan.
Q: How did you get started training as a musician—how old were you when you started playing the piano?
Yoshiki: My parents bought me a piano when I was four years old. They arranged for teachers, and I started learning classical piano.
That's a very early age. You've said you listened almost exclusively to classical music as a kid. When did you start listening to rock music?
When I was ten years old, my father died—actually, he committed suicide. He bought me a classical music album every month until he died, from when I was four years old until age ten. Every month, I had to buy and listen to some new classical music—Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert, et cetera. After he passed away, I went to the record shop by myself. I was going to buy another classical album—maybe some Bach—but I passed the rock section, and saw a KISS album cover—actually it was the cover for their single, “Love Gun.” I thought, “What is this?!” So I asked the record shop clerk to play it, and was like, “Whoa, this is very interesting.” So that was the first time I listened to rock music.
As you developed as a musician, were you influenced by American culture and American music, or were you trying to look past that, for something else?
Yes and no… I started with KISS albums, and then asked my mother to take me to the KISS show. I was ten or eleven. From there, I started listening to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols… punk rock. Then Iron Maiden, and David Bowie. We were influenced by a lot of American bands as well as British bands and British artists.
Was there a moment, playing music as a kid, when you realized you wanted to be a musician, or is that something that came to you gradually?
When I was six or seven years old and playing piano, I'd make the room dark intentionally, like the stage. I always thought I was gonna be a pianist. But I picked up the drums when I was ten. My father also used to buy me a new musical instrument for my birthday each year—he was a jazz pianist himself. When he passed away, my mother bought me a drum set. Then, I started a band with a vocalist named Toshi—he was actually my neighbor. We performed at the school festival, and I thought “Hmmm… we're gonna be rock stars!” We were maybe fourteen years old at the time.
So you and Toshi went for it and started the band. What was the rock and metal scene in Japan like in the 1980s? Metal was firmly established over here by then, but did you guys have to make your own scene as you went along?
We come from Chiba prefecture in a city called Tateyama, which is kind of out in the countryside. Toshi and I were part of only a few people listening to bands like KISS and Iron Maiden at the time. We didn't really have a rock scene, so we'd have to go to Tokyo once in a while to find new music. But it was hard to find people who listened to heavy rock. I don't think there was a big metal scene in Japan at the time, but there were hardcore fans of some foreign artists. Even now in Japan, the scene is very focused on domestic artists.
Do you remember the first gig you guys performed under the name X? How many people were in the audience?
I think the first time we performed as X, we were in high school, at a school-sponsored event. We performed in front of probably… I dunno, almost 500 people? We'd started at such a young age, we were already pretty good when we were high schoolers. We'd already started playing our own original music.
You're the drummer for X Japan, but you're also the frontman and face of the group. That's not very common—the best comparison I can think of is Alex Van Halen. When the band was formed, were you in charge, or did you take leadership gradually?
That came naturally. Toshi and I founded X together, but I kind of led the band right away. When we went to Tokyo and started recruiting members to have them in our band, I'd be the one doing the talking. By the time X was formed, I was just the de facto leader. It happened organically. I'm also kind of the main songwriter and producer.
That was something I'd noticed from X Japan's catalog – in the west, metal bands are often helped by an experienced producer. When Metallica recorded the Black album, for example, they had Bob Rock. But you've always produced X Japan's recordings yourself. Was this because you started small, or were you just confident that you knew what the band ought to sound like?
That's a good question. Actually, we were having a hard time looking for producers! Some of X Japan's music features sequences that are like, strings, strings, piano, ballad… but then super heavy, fast music, too. We just couldn't find the right producer to work with, so we had no choice but to produce our music ourselves.
Was there a point when you thought, “Wow, this band's getting bigger than I ever thought we would?”
It's so strange, but even when I was very young—age seven—and when we started the band as kids, we had a kind of confidence. I don't know where this confidence came from, but we always had it. I never once thought we were going to fail.
You've lived in LA for several years, and you share the band name “X” with a famous LA punk band. Did you ever see them perform, or meet them?
I've heard of them, but I've never actually seen their shows. I'd love to check them out and meet them too—we're X Japan now, to avoid confusion. I've heard amazing things about X, though!
In 1992, you were primed to hit the international scene. There was a deal with Atlantic Records and a press conference in NYC, but nothing came together afterwards. What happened?
I can explain what happened. Most of all, the timing just wasn't right—as artists, we noticed this instinctively. But back then, the main reason was that we didn't speak English at all. We had a press conference in New York at Rockefeller Center. We were bombarded by media people asking questions like, “Why did you even come here? You guys don't even speak English…” I realized they were right, and we'd have to learn English. We jumped straight into recording, but we had a hard time doing the vocals in English. I told Toshi, “I'm gonna learn English together with you—even though you're the singer and I'm the drummer and pianist, that'll make it easier for you.” Also, 1992 was really the end of 80s music—there were a lot of changes happening, and the rock scene in Seattle was coming in. In a way, I think we were lucky that the US release didn't happen back then – it just wasn't the right time for us. It's been a long time since then, but during that time Japanese music finally started spreading throughout the world little by little.
If X Japan had gotten to work breaking into the west earlier, maybe in 1990, do you think you would have been the band to crack the US market?
Good question... I don't know! At that time, I was very confident about things—we'd just sold a million records before even signing with a major label, and I told everyone we were going to play at Tokyo Dome. People were like, “What is this guy talking about?” but within 18 months of me saying that, it happened. When I came to America, the first thing I said was, “I'll learn English!” and I was totally confident about that too. Looking back I feel like we could've done it, but at the time, despite my confidence in other things, I really wasn't sure. Maybe that's the reason we didn't release the album.
Also in 1992, you ended up buying a recording studio. The story I've heard is, you became interested in the studio where Metallica recorded their “Black” album there, and bought it outright to skip the line of artists waiting to record there. Is this true?
Kinda… I was looking for the room with the best drumming sound in Los Angeles. My engineer told me that the studio, One on One Recording Studios, had the sound I was looking for. So I was like, “Great, let's record the drums there!” But at that time, Metallica had been recording there for something like ten months or longer, so we couldn't even book the place. So as soon as Metallica was done I tried again, but other artists were lined up to record there. I had no choice! To do my recording there, I had to buy the place—so I bought it.
Do you look back on any of X Japan's studio albums and wish they'd turned out better, or differently?
Recording your music professionally is an exercise in compromise. I compose my songs on sheet music before anything else—guitar, drums, everything, I'll start with a score. At that time, I'll have a perfect image of how the song sounds in my head. Sometimes I'll hear the instruments and think, “This sounds even cooler than I thought!” but usually I have a specific image of the song, and when we start recording, I'll just be like, “Guys, it's not good enough, it's not good enough...” Eventually, the record company will need the music from us, and I'll have to compromise. That's actually a good thing, though, because otherwise I'd be recording the same song over and over for the rest of my life. That actually happened when I first took over production—I kept recording parts, and re-recording them, and re-recording them. I don't look at that period with regrets—but if I regret anything, I wish I'd been a little bit easier on myself. I'm the worst producer with that kind of stuff—too much of a perfectionist. I'll go through vocal tracking, drum tracking… I even edit the breaths between lyrics. If I could go back, I'd focus on capturing the right moment in the studio instead of refining the songs over and over. I still struggle with that.
Where do your songs begin, musically? Do you plot out melodies on piano or guitar?
Like I said, I just go straight to the score. I don't pick up an instrument first. I complete eighty… sometimes even a hundred percent of the song just on the score. Then maybe I'll start using piano, guitar, or synthesizer to program the song and start handing out the parts to my bandmates. A long time ago, I'd hand the members sheet music, and they'd go, “What is that?” And I'd explain, “This is your guitar part, and here's the vocal part…” Toshi could read sheet music, and the other guys in X Japan started doing it, too. But I always, always start with the score.
Has that always been the case, even when you started?
Do you ever seek out collaborators, or are you most comfortable creating songs yourself?
I tend to write songs myself, but I actually collaborated with Roger Taylor, the drummer from Queen. When I worked with George Martin, the producer for the Beatles, on my first classical album, I gave him complete control in turning my songs into classical music. That was very interesting—he was a good producer to work with.
Lyrically, your music seems to be about the abstract, emotions, conflict. Is there a lot of conflict in your life?
I think so. The lyrics I write always have a double meaning—to some, one of my songs might be about death, but to another listener maybe it's about love. I've dealt with a lot of pain—when I lost my father, I didn't know what to do. I turned all of my anger and sadness into music, and pushed some of that into the lyrics, as well as my melodies. But at the same time I didn't want to bring our audience down, so I started putting a positive message into some of my songs, along with the darker imagery. I want my music to work well on the surface, as well as in the abstract.
You've spent some time producing other artists, like Dir en Grey. Are you going to go back to producing other artists anytime soon?
If I have time and the chance is right, I'd love to. But producing isn't very easy—some producers can handle four or five artists at the same time, but I'm not very good at juggling a lot of big projects at the same time. When I'm creating music, I put all of my energy into it, and right this moment, I have to finish X Japan's next album-- that's my focus. I'm also actually writing some theme music for an interesting character—I'm hoping to announce details about it in the next month or so. When it comes to producing, I'd love to do it in the future, but right at this moment, I'm booked.
I've done some reading about a side project of yours—S.K.I.N. – and it seems like other interviews always ask when S.K.I.N. is returning. But my question is: what happened with that band? People still talk about that show that you did at Anime Expo, man!
S.K.I.N. was something that happened before X Japan was reunited. Gackt, the vocalist, had asked me if we could collaborate, and I thought that was a very interesting idea. At that point, X Japan wasn't in my vision, so starting another band made sense to me. The thing is, when X Japan broke up and hide passed away, I wasn't thinking of starting another band. I was very depressed. But eventually, I started feeling better and better, and thought I could create a new band, the same way we'd formed X Japan all those years ago—by getting the best players we could. I told Gackt, “If we do this, I wanna create the band!” So I gathered the band-- I got the guitarist, Miyavi, plus Sugizo, one of the best guitar players ever, and we all played Anime Expo. It was a great show! Afterwards, we were talking about the next phase for S.K.I.N.. But all four of us were very busy—the other members had their own projects going on, too. At the same time, Toshi from X Japan called me out of the blue—we hadn't really talked in almost ten years. We started talking about the band. I felt very confused, and wasn't quite sure what to do next. But everyone told me, “You should reunite X Japan, at least one time.” So we did that, and played Tokyo Dome for three nights. The reaction was amazing, so I started thinking more and more about X Japan. Then, Sugizo joined X Japan, and things fell into place. But just because we're too busy for S.K.I.N. right now doesn't mean we won't get back together in the future. We'll just do it when the timing is right.
You've also been working on a project called Yoshiki Classical. What were your goals in creating Yoshiki Classical?
Well, I'd been asked to compose the theme song for the Golden Globe Awards in 2012, and prior to that I wrote and performed a piece for the 10th anniversary of the Emperor of Japan. These songs have both classical and rock vibes to them, and I ended up releasing the Golden Globes song as a single in January of 2013. After that happened, a friend approached me and asked, “Why don't you release your classical work outside of Japan?” I thought this was interesting. So in August of 2013, I released kind of a compilation of older classical works, called Yoshiki Classical. I also happen to have a lot of friends in the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences—the Grammy Awards people, I'm actually a member myself. They asked me, “Do you want to do a showcase at the Grammy Museum?” I thought this was a good idea and we did it, and I thought that would be the end of Yoshiki Classical's promotion—I was ready to go back to X Japan at that point. But after the Grammy Museum show, my agency William Morris, plus some other entertainment industry folks, convinced me to launch a three-month Yoshiki Classical world tour. It's something that just happened accidentally.
There's a sweeping, cinematic quality to some of your classical arrangements, plus you've created some songs for films. Are you influenced by films?
I think so. When I compose music, I always envision something in my head—maybe it's as simple as scenery, or maybe it's more like a movie going on in my head. I also enjoy listening to film soundtracks-- I don't really have a favorite, but I'd kinda like to try scoring a film someday. But when I create scores, I'll sometimes think of film—like, when I'm creating the ending of a piece, maybe I'll think of Titanic.
You said that when you were a kid, you had a trumpet. Did you play that a lot?
I played trumpet for almost five years! I was actually in a brass band. First of all, I wasn't a very good trumpet player. Another problem is, when I was eleven years old, I played the trumpet at some sort of contest. My mother came to take pictures, but when I looked at them afterwards, I thought “Hmm, that doesn't look good…” I just didn't like the way I played trumpet, so I stopped.
I've noticed in many of your classical compositions, they tend to be heavy on strings and light on brass. Maybe this is why?
Exactly! I'm actually planning a session with an orchestra two weeks from now, and I'm looking at brass arrangements. It's funny, I enjoy using French horns in my arrangements, but for some reason, I've never been a big fan of the trumpet.
Yoshiki Classical is an interesting new direction. Do you feel a need to re-invent yourself every few years, or does this come naturally?
It came naturally. My agent, Marc Geiger, said to me, “Yoshiki, listen to me. You need to do Yoshiki Classical as a tour. it'll be good for you.” I was like, “Come on, I'm never doing this…” After a few months of arguing, he finally convinced me. I have to thank him! After touring and playing in ten countries, I feel like I've found another career. I play the piano and I've been composing classical music for a long time, but it had always felt like more of a hobby. But now… it's not quite as important as X Japan, but it's an important part of my life.
One of the songs that you showcase is at Yoshiki Classical is “Hero” from the new Saint Seiya film. How did creating a song for that film come about?
I already had the structure of that song laid out for another project called Violet UK, working with a singer named Katie Fitzgerald. Some of the key players at Toei Animation are friends of mine—I've known them for a long time. We were out at dinner, and I learned that the Saint Seiya film had a problem going on with the music production. For some reason, at the last minute, Toei decided not to use the song they'd been working with. So they called me and said, “Can you do this theme song?” I asked them how long I had, and they said, “Two weeks.” Whoa! I was busy preparing for the Yoshiki Classical world tour. I told them about it, and they said “That's perfect! It's just the sound that we're looking for.” Really? So I got them the song at the last minute, and they went with it—they trusted me. I'd also done the song for their Buddha animation, so I wanted to give them the best of what I had. When I finished the classical version of Hero, I thought it was a pretty good match.
Convention appearances have helped drive attention to X Japan since you started showing up at Otakon and SDCC. What do you think about the fan conventions that you've visited?
I love attending conventions. They're very interesting—so many intriguing people, and the cosplayers. Also, I feel a real sense of connection when I go to conventions. I do some panels, I meet my fans at autograph sessions… they've become one of my inspirations.
In the 80s and 90s, being a foreign act trying to break into the US was tough, but anime conventions have become a gateway for Japanese musical acts. If you were gonna give advice to a young Japanese band, would you tell them to go on tour in the US, or just get a single attached to an anime series and appear at a convention?
I think that depends on the direction the musical act is taking, but for me a combination of both is the best approach. The convention scene is great and you can learn a lot there, but there's just as much happening outside of the conventions. The thing is, X Japan are actually in the process of trying to make it in the US, so I really can't say, “Well, you should do this, and this, and that…” because we're still one of the artists trying to achieve our dreams. We have not made it yet. I think conventions are great, but you should also tour.
X Japan haven't released a new studio album since the 1997 breakup, just Jade and IV. The lack of a new record is something fans worry about. But you're writing new X Japan songs now?
Yes, yes, yes. We already have several new songs. I'm pretty sure we'll be able to release an album in several months!
How do you feel about your life at this point, Yoshiki?
I have to say… it hasn't been easy. But I feel so lucky, because I have amazing fans throughout the world. I almost feel like I'm not living my life only for myself, but for my fans. Losing members of the band over the years hasn't been easy, but because of you, our fans, we keep going. I just want to say: Thanks so much for being supportive. As long as you're there, I'll keep breaking through any walls.
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