EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH X JAPAN’S YOSHIKI HAYASHI
Next to the Soundgarden reunion, the most highly-anticipated show at Lollapalooza 2010 may have been the American debut of X Japan. Mega-stars in Asia (moving 30 million records and selling out the 50,000 seat Toyko Dome 18 times), the band remains largely an unknown quantity in the United States. With their debut U.S. release scheduled for early 2011, and on the eve of their first American tour, the band’s incredibly humble founding member and drummer, Yoshiki Hayashi, was good enough to take five and shoot the shit with MetalSucks.
X Japan. Almost twenty years under your belt and one of the biggest bands in Japanese music history. You’ve got money, and millions in record and ticket sales. Why America now?
Coming to America was always our dream. Being famous in Japan is great, but we’ve always thought of America.
I know I don’t have to tell you that Asian bands haven’t been overly successful breaking through here. Sure, there’ve been smaller or cult acts like The Boredoms, or Boris or Wormrot, and kitschier acts like Cibo Matto or Shonen Knife. And then there’s Loudness. What do you think are the barriers to Japanese acts finding an audience in the U.S?
Interesting. I want to point out that I’ve been living in Los Angeles for more than ten years, well, splitting time between Tokyo and Los Angeles. I almost think of America as my hometown now, as well. So, I now look at performing here like performing in my hometown. Regarding the barriers… Loudness was great; by the way, their best lineup just reunited for a performance in Japan about a month ago. The fact that Loudness was hard rock made it easier for Loudness to find an audience here at that time. Boredoms and Shonen Knife and Pizzicato Five, they all have a very interesting approach, very different, but they are designed to be very popular. To find success, I think you need songs with strong melody, Strong songs. I’m not saying those bands can’t do it, but I feel like I kinda know what’s going on in the American music scene. We’re also not going to approach it like we’re big in Japan. We are going to approach it like new artists here. I’ve carefully evaluated this, but ultimately I guess the music has to speak for itself.
Most descriptions of X Japan are as a speed metal band, but you stress melody. You also incorporate a lot of instruments, with arrangements that verge on prog rock. How do you describe the music you are working on today?
It’s pretty much the same thing, maybe a little edgier. Before this reunion, X Japan played faster, but now we’re edgier. I love the sound of piano and strings against heavy drums and guitars. I have a classical background, so to me, it’s not really strange to add strings and pianos. Also, I love heavy songs and screaming, but not for three hours straight. I want something to break that up.
You were commissioned to compose and perform a piano concerto for the Emperor of Japan. How do I get a gig like that?
That was really memorable; I mean my band had broken up a few years prior to that, after Hide [guitarist Matsumoto Hideto] died. So I was very depressed, I wanted to quit being an artist. I made a few appearances, but when the government approached me about composing a piece for the Emperor, I actually asked my mother, and she said, of course, it’s a great honor. So I did it. Honestly, I don’t know why they asked me to do it.
So, you are the de facto leader of X Japan — songwriter, lyricist, etc. Do you find it difficult to lead from the drum stool?
I don’t know. Look at Metallica. Lars is kinda like the main guy. I think it may be easier. I also do conducting, I conducted the orchestra for the 2005 World Expo that was held in Japan. I love conducting, and drumming might be the closest thing to that.
I’m going to name some records. I want you to give me your first reaction. Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
Classic. I mean that’s the blueprint for heavy metal.
Led Zeppelin IV.
We wouldn’t be talking now if not for that record.
Queen – Night At The Opera.
A lot of people compare us to Queen because of our use of harmony and choruses. It’s a real honor. I’ve worked with Roger [Taylor, Queen’s drummer]. They’re great.
KISS – Dressed to Kill.
My first concert was KISS. I was eleven, and I had to ask my mother to take me.
Cheap Trick – Live at Budokan.
I like Cheap Trick, but I wasn’t at that show. I was more in KISS and AC/DC and bands like that.
Slayer – Reign In Blood.
[laughs] Slayer. They are maybe the main reason we started to play fast. I love them, and I love that they’re still doing it, which is very inspirational.
Guns N’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction.
Hmmm. They made hard rock mainstream. Very important record.
Tools – Aenema.
Wow. Tool is one of my favorite bands at this time. Great record. I love Maynard’s voice and how they use different time signatures. I love that.
Any newer bands you like?
I like Muse. I love Tool. Tool is just amazing. I also like The Deftones a lot.
So X Japan is credited with inventing the visual kei style, and now you’ve abandoned it completely. We’ve seen this before. KISS got unmasked. Freddy Mercury cut his hair and stopped wearing nail polish. How did your fans react to this change?
I still consider us visual kei. We’ve moved away from the flashier side, but I think it’s part of our evolution. We just keep changing. We still use makeup. Sometimes heavy, sometimes less.
Do you think you would approach the U.S. differently if you were still heavily visual kei?
I don’t know. The visual kei is not really a style, it’s more of a freedom in describing yourself. You can be anything. That’s my definition of visual kei.
You’re working on your U.S. debut for early next year. Half of the record is new, the other half is older X Japan hits remixed with English vocals. Is there a title?
When translating Japanese lyrics into English, do you ever get to lines where you say, “You know, this just doesn’t work. This doesn’t translate correctly?”
You are so right. When translating Japanese to English, you typically end up with 50% more lyrics. So, in order to get the same message, we are almost forced to re-write the entire song.
If someone wants a good X Japan introduction, what record should they buy?
The new one.
Gotta move those American units, huh?
It’s going to be even heavier than before. Some of it will still be quite fast, but very heavy. We just performed a month ago in Japan, and it was the best show we ever played. So I feel like we are still growing. It’s not like we’re living in the old days, we’re still in the process of growing.
Your U.S. tour is seven theater dates over the span of a couple weeks. You know some people are going to say, “That’s not a real tour.” How do you react to that?
I know. We would love to play fifty shows in fifty nights, but the way we perform, that would be suicidal. We put everything into it, every night. It would kill us. We want to do a longer tour next year, but I think audiences will see the reason we can’t play seven nights a week.