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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

X Japan's Yoshiki on Touring the U.S., the Loss of Hide, and the Future of the Band

Posted By on Tue, Oct 5, 2010 at 8:00 AM

Yoshiki behind the piano. - KIRSTY EVANS
  • Kirsty Evans
  • Yoshiki behind the piano.
Shortly after X Japan's historic show at the Fox Theater last Tuesday, we got the chance to sit down with drummer, pianist, and band leader Yoshiki as he relaxed in his dressing room. A genuinely charming man, Yoshiki was friendly and remarkably frank about how he feels about finally bringing X Japan to America.

Read on for a brief overview of the history of the band, an update on how Yoshiki's health is holding up, how he feels about the idea of trying to break into the American market, and what it's like moving on from the loss of a much loved band member.

Judging by what you were saying during the show it seems like you guys have wanted to do this for a long time. When did you first start thinking about doing an American tour?

A long time ago. I'd say about 15 years ago or so. Around that time we were talking to Atlantic Records

When was that?

I don't know, when was that? It was a long time ago, too long! I'd say more like 12 years.

Before X broke up, though.

Yes. So then we were making our first worldwide album, but the problem was that we didn't speak English at all. So we had to learn English, especially Toshi and I. By the time I was comfortable speaking English we were having internal problems. The members didn't get along, and then we broke up. Then a few months later one of the guitarists, Hide, died, so I didn't even think about reuniting this band. Toshi and I went separate ways.

You two knew each other when you were children, right?

Kindergarten! (laughs) So then he called me up and we started talking again and fixed our friendship, and then did a reunion concert, but at that time we didn't know if it was going to be a one time thing or the beginning of something new. Then we started seeing it like, this may work out. Then last year I started talking to a few of my friends in Hollywood and they said "why don't you do Lollapalooza?" If that's great then this is not enough, right? So they said "you should tour America". Can we? So that's kind of how things happened.

So far you've done just the show in L.A.?

Yes, and tonight's show.

How did things go in L.A.? That's kind of your home base now.

I think it went well. It was the first show, there were issues with lighting or whatever, but the audience was great, so passionate. Actually it made me cry.

And you have how many shows on this tour?

Five more, for this time. We're probably going to do more next year.

I guess it depends how things go on this tour, but are you planning to make it a more extensive tour next time?

Yes, I think so. We're kind of experimenting because we don't know where we should perform or anything like that. The more we perform, the more we'll gain confidence.

Obviously, in order to tour, you had to replace Hide. How did you end up recruiting Sugizo and how has that been? His guitar sound is very different. How do you integrate the different styles?

Actually I signed his band a long time ago, Luna Sea. So I've known him, it's almost twenty years we've been friends. We're not really replacing Hide, Sugizo is like a sixth member of the band. Hide is still there. I couldn't think of anyone else. He was actually supporting for our reunion concert. Also, Sugizo and I had a project together before, so we talked and I asked him "why don't you join X Japan?" It's a good match because we both have a classical music background, when I play piano he can play violin.

Actually I was going to ask you about that. For the old songs your piano parts were there, but the violin parts weren't in there, were they?

More like a string section, not solo violin. But it fits perfectly.

How old were you when you started playing the piano?

Four years old. I started playing drums when I was 10.

At what point did you start thinking about making the transition from classical music to something else?

At ten years old, when I lost my father.

Going back to the beginnings of X, over here it's completely different to how it is in Japan; nobody really knows who you are. Can you give a brief background for people who don't know the history of X Japan, like how you formed and how you became such a dominant band in the Japanese market?

Toshi and I met in kindergarten. We formed X in elementary school.

Why the name "X"?

We couldn't come up with a name (laughs). So we said, let's temporarily name it X for now, and then we found out that X has a lot of possibility in terms of meaning. So when we were 15 or 16 years old, in high school, we were playing as X.

Where were you playing at that point?

High school, how do you say it, festivals?

(Manager) Prom?

We don't have prom. More like a festival in front of students. We were already playing original songs and people loved us so it was like, hey, we may be good. We didn't know. We came from Chiba prefecture way outside of Tokyo.

How far away is that?

A few hours drive away. It depends on where it is, it's a big prefecture. Part of it is adjacent to Tokyo, but our town is kind of out in the countryside. These days maybe an hour's drive from Tokyo. So we went to Tokyo to test how good we were. We participated in some kind of contest.

Like a battle of the bands type thing?

Yeah. Then we played a couple of those contests and at some of them Toshi got the "best vocalist" and I got the "best drummer", and it gave us more confidence, like whoa, we might be good! And then Toshi and I went to Tokyo and started looking for members. So then I found all the other members and they were actually the leaders of bands, like Hide was the leader of his own band, Pata was the leader of his own band. I recruited them. Then, a few years later, we started performing at certain clubs and the labels started coming to us asking to release our albums. Everyone was telling us what to do. We hated it.

These were major labels?

We ended up signing to Sony Records, but before that we released our own albums. There are tons of rules in rock - people say that if you're doing speed metal you shouldn't put the makeup on; if you're playing hard rock you shouldn't have Mohawks. I was like, fuck that. So I basically said, fuck everything, we should do whatever we want. So we just started putting make-up on, doing crazy hair and crazy clothes.

How long did it take you guys to get ready, back when you were doing the hair and everything?

Hours! (laughs)

And how do you get out of it at the end of the night?

(laughs) Yeah, it's like, couple of bottles of shampoo. One time I was halfway done and I had to go on stage, so I was like whoa, what should I do? So I just left it half up and that made my style for a while, people liked it. (laughs) We were making our own scene even though we were the black sheep of the music scene. People hated us.

Was it like, you're disrespectful? Or they just didn't know how to classify you?

It was because we didn't belong anywhere, so we had to make our own genre. Because usually if you play dark stuff, you don't play piano ballads, it's just not part of the same world. So we played with Slayer-type bands, and then the next minute we'd play piano. (laughs) We also played with punk bands, not hard rock bands, so they'd be doing stage diving, and...I don't know. We didn't really fit. But then at the same time our number of fans was increasing and so all the labels came around.

How long did it take between when you guys got to Tokyo and when you got signed?

It didn't take that long. A few years or so? Around that time rock music was not that popular. There was a band called Loudness, they sold fifty thousand records or so. That was huge at that time. But in interviews I was saying, oh, I'm going to sell a million copies, I'm going to play Tokyo Dome. (laughs) And they were like, you're crazy. Even the people at Sony didn't think we could do it. But then in two years we ended up selling a million copies and playing Tokyo Dome. Around that time also we started to be known outside Japan, actually there were a few people who came from America, people from Epic Records. There was a guy called Michael [Goldstone]. I think he was the one who did Pearl Jam.

Did you say no?

No, we didn't communicate because we didn't speak English. Then a few years later Atlantic came and I said, OK, right now. But again, we didn't speak English, we weren't ready.

How long a gap was it between when you originally broke up and when you got back together?

About ten years.

During the time that the band was broken up you were doing a bunch of different projects. What was everyone else doing?

I think they were doing a bunch of different projects too.

So, now that you guys are back together, where do you go from here? You were saying that you didn't really fit in Japan - where do you fit in America?

(Starts laughing, nods)

Because it's the same thing - there aren't many bands here that do both classical music and metal.

I think we have to reinvent, do the same thing again. Just because you don't fit anywhere doesn't mean you can't make it, right? We kind of proved it in the Japanese scene, could be even harder doing it here. It's a challenge, but it's worth doing it.

What was it like at Lollapalooza? Did you get to talk to anyone who wasn't there specifically to see you and get a sense of how they were reacting?

Yes, I talked to some people who didn't know about X, and some people who came from New York and LA to see us, and everything in between, as it were. Towards the end of our set the crowd quadrupled, and people started singing. It wasn't a small crowd, just a few thousand in the beginning but more at the end, and there were people doing the "X". It was like, whoa, that's cool. I don't know, they seemed supportive. It was our first show in America too so we were kind of nervous. We were thinking, are they going to throw bottles at us?

Did anyone do anything mean?

No. I mean, our musical style is very different, so we were trying to accept anything. Anything could happen. So we were like, whatever happens let's keep playing. But towards the end it was just cheering and screaming, in a good way. I was like, cool, that's great. It gave us tons of confidence.

That sort of leads into another question. Moving forward, what kind of bands are you thinking about touring with, what kind of bands are you going to be able to play with? Again...

(Laughs) Exactly. I know. At the same time, we have a wide range of styles, so we can even go towards something heavier. Usually we play ballads all the time, but maybe we won't play ballads for them. (laughs)

Kind of tailoring the set list in a certain direction.

Yeah, we can go either way. We have even faster, heavier songs, so we can go super heavy, or we can go super mellow. Like In July, Toshi and I went to and performed in front of five thousand people, and I just played the piano. So we can do unplugged, or super heavy as well.

From your personal point of view, what style do you really like?

I just really like playing music. It doesn't have to be just one dimension. I want to take people on a journey. When you're watching a movie there are hardcore action scenes and then mellow parts.

It definitely seemed like you tailored the set list that way tonight, with more hardcore songs and then gentler moments.

Yeah, I like that. I mean I love heavy, heavy music as well; I go to those kinds of shows once in a while. But if you're going to go to a festival and listen for five hours straight you don't want it to be all the same kind of music, right?

Moving forward, you guys have an album coming out, right?

Yes, early next year.

Is it finished already?

I'd say almost ninety percent done.

I know that you re-recorded some old songs, are you also writing new songs?

Actually at today's concert we performed some new songs. And we're translating the old songs into English.

How is Toshi doing as far as being comfortable singing in English? I mean for you, you've been here for so long it's no big deal, but how is it for him?

Well, actually, Toshi has better pronunciation than me, I think. (laughs) He's doing great. Of course it's not easy. It may take a while.

You guys were adults already when you started learning English, right? How old were you?

I started learning when I was twenty-eight, almost thirty years old. It wasn't easy. But I think we can communicate. We're trying hard, but we're still learning.

I was just wondering because it seems like you're handling all of the publicity right now, so I was wondering if he wasn't comfortable talking to reporters in English.

Maybe Toshi can join in, with a translator.

What about the other guys?

I think they all understand if people talk to them, but they're very quiet. Even in Japan, when we do interviews, Toshi and I are the only people talking. But Sugizo's English is very good.

The other question, and I guess this tour will answer it to a certain extent, is how you're doing physically. When you were playing the reunion shows you had a lot more time between shows to rest.

I know. I had neck surgery last year.

I've never understood exactly what happened with that.

Well, I've been head banging for a long time, so my vertebrae got really screwed up. Also these two fingers are numb (on left hand).

How can you play piano with that issue?

Motor nerves and sensory nerves are separate nerve systems, so I still have motor nerves, they're OK. It's like ice though, with those fingers - everything I touch is like touching ice, it's very uncomfortable. I may have to do another surgery if I keep going, they'll cut the neck and then make the space between the bones bigger. Next time they'll put metal into it. I'm trying to be cheerful, but...

What is the neck brace actually for? Is it to support you, or is it to stop you from excessive motion?

Both - to support me and to stop me from moving all the way. The doctor will only allow me to play drums with the neck brace.

How are you doing so far? By the end of the show are you feeling OK?

I feel rough, but (shrugs). Hopefully I have another few years left.

If you had to have the other surgery how much recovery time would you need before you could play again?

For the next one probably six months to a year or so, if I do the surgery. Hopefully I can keep going without it. You never know..

After this tour is over what's the next step?

I'm going to finish recording the album. Then we may tour Europe. And then we come back here for round two.

You were sort of talking about this during the show - so far there really hasn't been a Japanese band that's crossed over to the US. The closest is Dir en grey, and even they're having issues.

What kind of issues, do you think?

Well, they don't speak much English; I think that's part of the problem.

I produced them, you know.

Yep, I know.

They still don't speak English?

Well, I don't know if they can, but they don't.

Why not?

I don't know. Maybe you should ask them!

OK, I will! (laughs)

But anyway, they're probably the closest to crossing over, but still not really there yet. And Miyavi, his tour went well, but he's not really there yet either. How do you feel about that issue? Are you really planning to make a concerted effort to invest the time and the money necessary to really try to break through to the American market?

Well, I would say there's no right time for anything in life, you just have to do it. So I don't know. If you wait for the right time probably you'll never try. I just feel like, I know there are a million reasons why we may not be able to make it, but we just have to try.

In terms of America, what would make you feel happy, like you've accomplished what you wanted to do ten years ago or twenty years ago when you first though about wanting to tour the US?

In terms of the big picture, as you said, I'd like to break down the wall between West and East, the culture and the music scene.

Is that what's at the back of your mind, that you want to be the one to do it?

If someone could do it that would be cool, so I'm going to try. It's not easy.

I guess what I'm getting at is, for you personally, what would be the point at which you feel like, yes, I've accomplished what I set out to do?

(Laughs) I don't know, it's like, the sky's the limit, right?

In Japan, where else is there for you to go? You've pretty much accomplished everything you possibly could have.

Yes. So perhaps playing a stadium show. It's not album sales these days with downloading and whatever, so probably playing Madison Square Garden. I don't know, I don't really set goals, my goal is just trying.

Are you a glass half empty or glass half full kind of person? Like, whatever happens it's good and you're happy you've reached that point, or are you the kind of person who if you don't hit the point you had in your head then you're going to be disappointed?

I think a bit of both. Also I've been living here for a long time, it's not like I just came over from Japan, so obviously I've been thinking about this. Actually that might be kind of an advantage, that I know the music scene and what's the right way to do things.

Why did you move to LA anyway?

A few reasons. I ended up buying a recording studio there. Also at that time it was hard for us to be in Japan, we couldn't go anywhere.

Just too recognizable?

Yeah, so I decided to move. I mean I still love to be in Tokyo, I still go back and forth, but that's why I moved here.

Do you feel comfortable here now? Does it feel like home?

Yeah. But at the same time I just feel like I'm living in the world, because I'm traveling, and the world is getting smaller and smaller.

When you and Toshi started the band in high school would you ever have imagined that you'd be sitting here in America having this conversation?

I know! (laughs) Actually I was thinking that when we were playing today.

I don't know when the last time was that I saw a band look so happy.

I know, exactly! Everyone was like, can you imagine? Even when we were back in elementary school we were dreaming of America.

After all the years that you guys were apart, obviously it has to be sad that you don't have Hide with you while you're doing this. Is it sweet or is it bittersweet? I mean at least you still have your friend from school, but at the same time it's not the same band that it was.

Yeah, but you have to move on. I mean, his spirit lives in our hearts. I try to be positive, I try not to cry.

I saw some pictures where for a while you had a mic stand set up for him.

Yeah. Today people started chanting 'Hide, Hide" for him, and actually I cried a little bit. But, you know, we are playing together and I still feel him on the stage, so... Last month, in Tokyo, I went to the cemetery and brought champagne. I was drinking with him. Of course I ended up drinking by myself and got drunk in the cemetery, crazy guy drinking and talking to a gravestone. I told him, OK; let's go do this American tour together. 

Your fans have been waiting for this almost as long as you've been waiting. How does it make you feel to walk out onto the stage knowing that you have this huge group of fans in America just waiting for you? 

We feel so lucky. We weren't expecting that. We were actually thinking about doing a club tour and then my agent said "that may be too small for you guys". I think we're doing the right size tour.

Finally, what do you want to say to your fans?

Well, we might be doing something very challenging, being a Japanese band trying to pursue an American dream, but let's rock America and the world together.

Follow us on Twitter @SFAllShookDown

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Kirsty Evans


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