X Japan drummer Yoshiki is one of the biggest rock stars from one of the biggest bands that you don’t know.
While X Japan have sold over 30 million records, predominately in their native Japan, the group’s thrashy, symphonic metal has earned them a strong cult following in America and Europe. In fact, they sold out Madison Square Garden in October 2014 with little fanfare.
While the visual kei quintet split up following their New Year’s Eve concert in 1997 due to the departure of frontman Toshi (who was brainwashed into a cult for years)—a rift cemented when guitarist hide (pronounced he-day) died months later—the group spent a decade in limbo until reuniting for the track “I.V.” used in the movie Saw IV in 2007. Since then, they have performed intermittently and are now at work on their first studio album since 1996’s Dahlia.
The band’s star and central songwriter, Yoshiki has kept active working on solo classical releases (he also plays piano and keyboards) and composed music for the 10th anniversary of Japanese Emperor Akihito’s enthronement and the theme for the 2012 Golden Globes award show. Over the years he has worked with Beatles producer George Martin, Queen drummer Roger Taylor, and comics icon Stan Lee, and has become friends with his childhood rock idol Gene Simmons.
On Thursday and Friday of this week, Yoshiki performs at Carnegie Hall with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, playing his own music as well as symphonic renditions of X Japan tunes.
The soft-spoken rocker with the loud presence recently spoke to the Observer about his music, his band’s tumultuous history, and the emotional rock documentary We Are X. Stephen Kijak’s film chronicles both his personal and the group’s collective hardships, from Yoshiki’s father’s suicide to their rise to the top to the suicides of guitarist hide and bassist Taiji Sawada (from their classic line-up) to the group’s unlikely resurrection.
It’s funny, people in America usually pronounce your name Yo-shee-kee, but I thought the proper pronunciation was Yosh-kee.
Japanese people call me Yosh-kee, but people outside of Japan call me Yoshiki because it feels like three syllables, so people in English emphasize the second one.
It irks me that people can’t pronounce your name properly. How do you feel about it?
I’m O.K. either way. I’m very used to that.
You’re so popular in Japan that they have to close down restaurants for you like Jon Bon Jovi. Is it nice to come to countries like America and England where you’re not as well known? Where you can perhaps walk around more easily and not have to worry about that stardom?
I enjoy both. It doesn’t really bother me being famous or not famous. I’ve been living in America and going back and forth between the U.S. and Japan, so either way I’m pretty comfortable. My main place is in Los Angeles, but this year I’ve been traveling a lot. I still spend a majority of my time in Los Angeles.
There are certain X Japan songs that could work well with orchestration, like “Voiceless Screaming,” “Love Replica,” and “Xclamation.” Do you think those songs will ever get the symphonic treatment?
As long as there is melody, any song can be translated to classical music. That’s how I think.
Are there any X Japan songs that you would like to do that with?
I’ll be playing the songs “Forever Love,” “Endless Rain,” and “Tears.” Several X Japan songs will be played. We’re playing “Art of Life,” too.
Major Baroque, Classical, and Romantic composers have influenced heavy metal bands for decades. As we have spoken about previously, Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky certainly influenced you. How much do you hear their music in your own music now?
Some of them. When I composed “Art of Life,” I intentionally put some Schubert phrases into the song. A long time ago I composed a song called “Alive,” and I put in a part of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” I’m playing “Moonlight Sonata” at Carnegie Hall.
Are there any lesser known classical or symphonic composers that have influenced you that people might not know about?
Górecki. I love Górecki. There is depth to it and a darkness in the songs. I like that.
I’m surprised that Mahler hasn’t been a bigger influence on heavy metal bands. His stuff can get pretty intense.
Yeah, I agree completely.
Before X Japan became big in Japan, there were heavy bands like Loudness, Earthshaker, Ezo, Anthem, Dead End, and Bow Wow making a lot of noise back in the early to mid-’80s. How much were you influenced by what they were doing?
They made us realize there were Japanese rock bands. Before them, I didn’t know if rock existed in Japan. They influenced me to do rock. Before that, I was listening to KISS, Iron Maiden, and Zeppelin, all Western bands. So when I heard those bands in Japan I thought that was very cool.
And they were very rebellious for your country at the time.
Yes. When we started playing rock in high school, the teachers were not happy, especially when I dyed my hair red or blue.
Japan was a more conservative culture.
At that time, yes.
X Japan came along and helped to evolve the visual kei movement, a genre defined by flamboyant stage attire and musical eclecticism. Your band was unusual because you had this glam look with a thrashing sound, which is interesting because those two genres were at odds with each other in America back in the ’80s.
Exactly. I was listening to bands like KISS, Led Zeppelin, and Iron Maiden, but at the same time heavily influenced by David Bowie, Sex Pistols and all those punk rock bands, and New Wave. We were listening [to them] equally. We didn’t know the rules so we just mixed everything.
At the beginning, when we started playing in clubs, the critics in Japan were like, “What are you doing? You need to decide a direction. You can’t just mix everything.” We were playing thrash metal, and the next song could be a ballad. We were attacked by the critics a lot. But our fans liked our style, and our fanbase started growing and growing.
The movie We Are X came out last fall and will be coming on home video. The movie chronicles not only the travails of X Japan but your own personal struggles as well, dealing with the death of your father and rising above that heartache to immerse yourself in your art. Music has been your salvation. Do you think it would have been the same if X Japan had not been as popular? Is this about the music and the success? Or is it just about the music for you?
I’d like to think so, but at the same time because of those tragic events, including my father committing suicide and also having band members pass away, I composed music to it. Because of the pain I composed some kind of a melody, and then that melody became popular. I think that kind of incident made me create the music. I think it’s both. It made X Japan ironically successful, I guess.
How much did making this documentary help you come to terms with the death of your father and the loss of two bandmates? Was it cathartic for you?
We put everything into one film, 90 or 100 minutes—so many things happened, almost like it was too crazy to be true, too dramatic to be true.
When I watched the film, I couldn’t believe it. It was almost like fiction. Everything really happened, almost like walking [through] a dream. I didn’t really realize how much drama happened until I watched the film.
Also, when I was doing the interviews it was kind of a therapeutic process to recall and talk about…there are some doors that I really do not open but because of the documentary film process it was open all the way.
X Japan is working on their first album in two decades. In the film, you say that a swan sings one time before it dies, but I feel like X Japan is more like a phoenix.
Yeah. [Chuckles] Well, people ask me to sing sometimes, but I’m not a very good singer. Especially compared to Toshi, X Japan’s vocalist. He is an amazing vocalist. You know, I’ll sing one time before I die.
With a lot of these famous band reunions happening, it seems to come down the cliché of time healing all wounds. In the case of X Japan, you’ve risen above terrible events that transpired. Do you think everyone just needed time to cope with what happened?
Yeah, we needed that 10 years. I didn’t think our band was going to get back together because we lost the main member, hide. After he passed away, I never thought X Japan would come back together. Also, Toshi was brainwashed, and I never thought—I was hoping—that he would come back to this world. It’s not like coming back to the band, but back to the real world. It was almost a miracle that X Japan reunited.
When do you think those wounds started to heal for everybody to allow the reunion to happen?
I don’t think the wounds are going to heal. They’re going to stay forever, but I think we realized and learned how to deal with those wounds. Things that we were not looking at we can look at [now] and can cope with that pain. It took 10 years to learn before we reunited back in 2007. Our fans also contributed a lot of things to our reunion because they kept supporting us all those years when we were not even doing the band. I think our fans kind of got us back.
How do you think the chemistry of X Japan works today as opposed to 20 years ago? Is there a difference now in how you interact?
I love to be challenged. When we were doing X Japan before we were famous we were always challenged by the Japanese industry. We were like the black sheep of the family. It’s rock but we combined everything for visual kei, and now that we’re trying for the world outside of Japan it’s [still] challenging. Because of that we have the same kind of chemistry. We’re trying to achieve something. A reunion can just be going back to a good time. We’re a little different. We get back together and keep on challenging ourselves with something we haven’t done.
I know that X Japan was a big influence on the whole visual kei scene, which has included bands like L’Arc-en-Ciel, Dir En Grey, Malice Mizer, MUCC, and Nightmare. How are those bands doing in Japan today? What is the scene like now?
The scene is doing very good. I produced half of Dir En Grey’s first album. I also know MUCC very well. They are amazing bands. We might have influenced them, but I have learned a lot from them as well.
Are there any younger bands now that you like?
I just organized the visual rock festival [Visual Japan Summit] in Japan [last October], and there were 54 bands who performed. Pretty much every single band has something [to offer]. It’s great how passionate they are towards the music they do. It’s really cool. They made us realize how much we love music as well.
You’re a big KISS fan, and it seems like you’ve become friends with Gene Simmons. How has he influenced your life?
When I lost my father, I found out about rock because of KISS. My father bought me classical vinyl pretty much every month, so after he passed away I started going to record shops to buy classical music once a month. One day I just saw a KISS cover—”What is that?” The record store people played the music for me, and I had never heard that kind of music before. So I bought that [album] and started listening. Because of KISS I found out about rock, so it is really cool to get to know him.
Have you guys shared stories about your experiences in the industry?
Yeah. Because he has been supporting X Japan a lot, which is amazing, I’ve spent a lot of time with Gene. He said, “We might have influenced you, but now you are influencing new bands.” He said some very cool things.
I know you’re still wearing a neck brace because you bang your head very intensely in concert. You said to me in the past that at some point you don’t know how long it’s going to last because your body can only endure so much pain. Is doing classical music a way for you transition into other things when you decide you don’t want to do rock music anymore?
Writing compositions could be. When I might not be able to move my hands or my neck, I could still compose. I could probably write compositions for the rest of my life. Playing drums and piano are both pretty hard. Four or five days ago I had a TV show performance in Japan. There were only two songs, so I thought it was O.K. not to wear the neck brace. It’s kind of a whiplash effect right now—I can’t really turn my neck around at this moment. I shouldn’t have played the drums without the neck brace.
What would you say are the biggest life lessons that you’ve learned so far?
I don’t take anything for granted. When I was playing with hide and Taiji, when we were doing the arena tour or the Tokyo Dome, we thought that was normal and took it for granted. After we lost hide and lost Taiji, and also Toshi went into a different world [before] coming back, when we were reunited I started thinking it’s a miracle what we have, including friends and family.
Everything we have is pretty much a miracle. I don’t take anything for granted. At the same time, I would say nothing is impossible. If X Japan can reunite, anything is possible.
What advice would you give to younger people who may be in the same position you were in, struggling with certain issues and want to go into music? Even if it’s not going to be at the level of X Japan, what kind of encouragement would you give them?
I would just enjoy while you can. You have to realize why you started playing music. Sometimes you forget the first time you were attracted by any music. As long as you have that feeling, you can just keep on going.
It’s been surreal seeing a lot of rock bands get older since rock started as a youth-oriented movement.
I would say rock ‘n’ roll is immortal. Even though our body may disappear, I believe that feeling is immortal.
And you’re going to do it as long as you can.
Yes, till I become ashes.