I'm riding in an elevator up to the highest floors of Chicago's Ritz Carlton with publicist Heidi Ellen Robinson-Fitzgerald. For a sweet lady, she represents some hard-hitting acts including Slayer, Anthrax, and even the legendary producer Rick Rubin. Today I will not be meeting any of them. No, instead she will introduce me to her latest client: Yoshiki, the heart of X Japan.
She tries to prep me for my interview by explaining that Yoshiki is terribly reluctant to talk too favorably about himself and I have a hard time believing her. I know what the man has achieved! We're talking 21 million albums sold with X Japan. He was asked by the Japanese emperor to compose a song celebrating the ten year anniversary of his reign. He has composed Japan's best-selling classical album and he did it with George Martin; the same producer who worked with this little band from Liverpool you might have heard of on albums like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road.
Now he and the rest of X Japan are mounting the strongest attempt by a Japanese band to capture the American audience ever; starting with a main stage performance at Lollapalooza tomorrow afternoon and followed up by a new album almost entirely in English and a North American tour.
So humble? Yeah, I wasn't buying it when she told me nor when we walked into his palatial suite complete with a baby grand piano.
Then Yoshiki descended a spiral stair case from the master bedroom and started speaking to me with his disarmingly timid nature about his motivations for taking on the world with X Japan, where it all began, where it fell apart, and where he hopes it might end up.
New Times: How does it feel to know you're about to play the largest show a Japanese and has ever played in this country?
Yoshiki: Exciting. Very, very exciting. Yeah.
NT: Just about every time I've seen a Japanese band play in the U.S. they've done so at tiny venues; never something like this. I imagine other Japanese bands are very envious.
Y: That's right. Also we are performing on the main stage.
NT: Will you have the normal amount of pyrotechnics or will they be scaled back?
Y: We're not the headliner, so we don't have that much things going on, but we do have some pyrotechnics and some lighting. We had to fight for it though.
NT: How did X Japan manage to get on the Lollapalooza bill this year?
Y: I know Mark Geiger. Actually, he is my agent. Our agent. He is one of the Lollapalooza founders. Also I've been talking to a few people in my entertainment life. Attorneys...all those people and asking "How should we debut in America? Should we start doing clubs or some small venues with a couple thousand people?" Then someone said, "If you can get into a festival, that might be the most interesting and shocking way to introduce X Japan." We started talking about Coachella and then Lollapalooza, the two biggest ones. By the time we started talking about it, Coachella was already happening, so...then let's do Lollapalooza. Mark and I started talking about it and he said he's in. We're in.
NT: How have the American fans reacted to news of the Lollapalooza show, the new X Japan album, and the tour?
Y: Well, I think they are very excited. And then...to me our fans are not normal. The relationship between our band and our fans is a little more than normal artists' fans. They're so passionate. I don't know...they just really care about us. I do too. It's vice-versa. Same feeling. It's like, I don't feel like I'm just doing Lollapalooza or this big show...festival by ourselves as a band. I feel almost like we're doing it with everybody together. Let's rock the place with us. You're part of our X Japan family. It's like a festival or a show. No matter what you do on the stage, a great performance or technically whatever...we're going to create the show together. That's X Japan's concept from the get go. Our thing. So we create the show together. Tomorrow's show is going to be the same thing. Let's rock the place together.
NT: Were you surprised to find out that you have as many fans in the U.S. as you do?
Y: A few years ago, yes. I couldn't believe...like that's another reason we got reunited. I mean, Toshi, the vocalist and I...we didn't talk for seven or eight years after the broke up. But then we started talking about...the beginning was just fixing our friendship first. Then we talked about...even Toshi found out, "You know we have fans all over the world now." Yeah, I said, it's very strange in a good way. Our music spread. While we were not doing anything. So then let's do that again!
The hardest part was doing it again without Hide, the deceased member. We found out our fans are here, outside of Japan, in America as well and at the same time, they are really supportive.
NT: How so?
Y: I dunno, the message I got through Myspace before or...I just did a Twitter thing. I just tweeted and I got tons of messages. Of course I can not read everything, but some of them are just so amazingly touching. It's like almost we are doing the music because of people supporting us. We are basically nothing without our fans anyway, so...
NT: How does it feel to be reunited after ten years?
Y: I feel like I'm still dreaming. When we broke up, I thought everything was over. Then especially right after we broke up, Hide died (the band's former lead guitarist passed away in May of 1998). So, I never even thought about...didn't even think twice that we can reunite. So, I still feel like when I wake up tomorrow morning, it will be a dream. It's so unreal. And now we're performing Lollapalooza, it's just...I feel like I'm dreaming. NT: Do the other band members feel the same way?
Y: I think so, I mean it's...I almost have to say it's like a miracle. I mean after we had so much drama...Toshi (X Japan's vocalist) had some lifestyle drama. Also, myself, I had to do neck surgery last year even after the reunion. Everything's drama, but we still keep going and doing this. It's a miracle.
NT: What is the new album called?
Y: Why have not named that yet. But we know the first single will be "Jade."
NT: I heard there is also a song called "Born to Be Free."
Y: Yes, that will most likely be the second single.
NT: What can you tell me about those new songs?
Y: It's X Japan's sound but evolved a little bit I think.
NT: Does that have anything to do with Sugizo? (Sugizo became the band's new guitarist and sixth member after the reunion)
Y: Yes. I asked him to play some dramatic guitar solos. Yeah, he's really become part of X Japan now. He was almost co-producing the sound. Because he likes to be in the studio.
Believe it or not, a lot of musicians, when they finish their part, they just leave and get drunk (laughs) but for some reason Sugizo, he is staying like...I was usually staying until 2 or 3 a.m. and just working he was just staying and then supporting me. It was great.
He did an amazing guitar solo for the song called "Jade." Of course Pata, Heath and Toshi did an amazing performance as well.
NT: I know some previously unused guitar tracks from Hide were used in the song "I .V." Are you going to make use of anymore of Hide's unused material on the new album?
Y: There are possibilities. "I.V." was the song we recorded when we were still in the reunion process. So, I said I'm not going to reunite this band without Hide. When I was talking to the management people, they were like "How?" I said, "there's gotta be a way. I won't even think about a reunion." The reunion concert, we used Hide's hologram image and then in the song, "I.V." the first song after we reunited, I said "Hide needs to be a part of our song" so, then Hide's management brought tons of unused guitar charts then I re-pitched it, tried some expansion or shortened it and tried to fit it into the song. Right now, "Jade"...we just finished it. Hide's not in it, but his spirit is in it. Sugizo and I talked: "Hide would have played this kind of style. Or this. How about that?" And we kind of put that kind of image into it. So, without his sound...like also tomorrow, one of the other interviewers asked about how there are five of us performing and I said, "Well actually, six."
NT: How was Sugizo selected as the sixth member?
Y: Well, I've known him for a long time, like before even Luna Sea debuted...actually they debuted their first album through my label come to think of it. (Laughs) I never thought about...well, you know we are friends, but I didn't know how good he was until we worked together. We first worked on a band called S.K.I.N. Sugizo and then Gackt and Miyavi...they are all like super stars in Japan...and myself just made a band and performed together. Then I didn't realize. "Oh my god, he's a really great guitar player on top of being a really great friend." So, then also Hide knew Sugizo very well. It's a very natural process that he joined the band. He was a supporting member for our reunion...first couple of shows. Then I said, "Sugizo, why don't you join us?" He said "How about Hide?" and I said, "You are the sixth member, not the fifth member."
NT: How far do you want to take the North American tour?
Y: As far as we can. When we perform, we perform from...seriously, we use our entire energy. It's like our show is so exhausting and like physically, maybe mentally too. So we just throw everything we have. We don't think about next moment or tomorrow. I don't know how many shows we can do, but we are ready to do as many shows as possible 'til we basically die. We are that serious.
NT: What is your end goal?
Y: I just believe from the get go like the music has no boundary. So then, I think our fans proved it. I just wanna break that boundary through music. I don't know if we're going to be like famous or anything, we just believe in the power of music. Music doesn't have to come from one country or two countries. It could come from all over the world.
NT: Are you concerned about a language barrier?
Y: Let's say our new album. So ninety percent is English. We re-recorded. Like tomorrow, we're going to perform "Rusty Nail" in English for the first time. The English version. But there's a song called "Kurenai" that we also changed to English as well, but the chorus we intentionally left it in Japanese. So we are not very concerned about the barrier, because we also have a lot of songs in English as well.
NT: If the band had not broken up in 1998 would America have happened sooner? Was it part of the plan?
Y: We were going to debut in America before the broke up, but I dunno if we were ready at that time. Good question.
NT: Do you think the band is ready now?
Y: Yeah, I feel like it for some reason. We just needed those ten years. To even appreciate what we have. The vocalist and I grew up together. We went to the same kindergarten. I met him when we were four years old. So, then we've been together for a long time, so we both...Toshi and I talked about how great he is and he was. But we lost that kind of thing. Now, we also have fans I don't think we had ten years ago. NT: Do you think your music has spread so much because of the internet?
Y: That could be part of it, but it doesn't have to be the internet. When I went to Thailand almost ten years ago, I went to the airport. There are 3000 fans singing my song. I think it was "Tears." I thought it was some kind of candid camera or something. People trying to trick me. This was the first time I went to Thailand...for vacation. Then somebody said that somebody bought X Japan's single then brought it to Thailand then played it on the radio and it just spread from there. One person. It's like an infection or a pandemic. I thought that was very interesting and then cool.
So because of the internet, it has more chance to spread. But the internet is just a tool. I think the music itself is more important than anything else.
NT: You and Toshi started the band in high school?
Y: Actually earlier. Toshi and I started a band at about ten or eleven years old.
NT: Was it always called X?
Y: No. We use to call it Noise or something. Actually Toshi was not even a vocalist, he was a guitar player. I was playing the drums, the piano as well. We had a vocalist, but we went to different jr. high schools. Then the vocalist had to leave. So who's going to sing? Everyone sang and Toshi was the best one, so he became the vocalist.
NT: What made you want to start a rock band?
Y: I was only listening to classical music up to when I was ten years old. One day I went to buy another Beethoven or classical album. Then I saw KISS...Gene Simmon's bleeding face. I said, "What's that?" and the record shop played it for me. It was quite shocking. I bought that. Then at that time also, I lost my father when I was 10. I was going through more rebel state. Everything fit perfectly. So...
NT: This is a personal observation here, but it seems to me that X Japan songs either rock extremely hard or are emotionally charged ballads. Do you think that has anything to do with your dual nature as both the drummer and pianist?
Y: Interesting. I think so. People have...like sometimes people are angry. Sometimes people are sad. So why can't we have different dimension in the music. More then ten years ago we were talking about debuting in America and the label people said you have to have one dimension. You are either hard or pop. Why can we have ballad and super fast song at the same time? It won't work in America. Well, we'll see. Because I play the piano and drums, they're different instruments, but it's the same music. I mean, those instruments are just tools to express our feeling. Some people think it's kind of strange that we do heavy and...also I do rock and classical music which is the same music. For us it's not that different. Our show in Japan is usually three hours long. If we are playing three hours of heavy stuff, people will get really tired and then...we have a combination of those and that makes X Japan interesting.
NT: What was it like recording Eternal Melody with George Martin.
Y: It was a really great moment and then I learned a lot from him. I started doing orchestration after I worked for him, so he was a very big influence for me. I tried not to think he was the producer of the Beatles, because I can not concentrate on what we were working on. It was such an honor. It's great.
NT: Why did the band break up when it did?
Y: I think there are a lot of element that caused that broke up. We were pretty popular in Japan. I wanted to go outside of Japan. I wanted to come here, but for some of the members were so comfortable to be in Japan where they are super stars. Why do we have to do the things all over again. Five of us are not really thinking to break through and go out of Japan. Some members were like I don't want to go back and forth between America a couple times a month. Something like that. The main reason, I have to say is that Toshi and I started not talking. So then we decided to go separate way. That's the main reason.
NT: Was it hard to reunite the band?
Y: Yes. In general I think it's hard to reunite the band. But for us, because Hide's dead...well, I won't say he's dead because to me he's still with us. Also, I don't know a lot of emotional things we went through, but because of those fans...we didn't questions us once we decided to do a reunion. That was it.
NT: Tell me how you went about writing Art of Life.
Y: The way I started writing the song was kind of funny. I was with Sony record. Then they said...we were talking about some MTV promotion or some radio promotion or something like that. And I asked them, why does every song have to be three and a half or even four or under five minutes. Then Sony people said, it's easy to play of course, but you can do whatever you want. Okay, let's say I made a thirty minute song, what would you guys do? Then they say, of course we're going to promote and I said, "hmm. Interesting." Then I went home and started writing a thirty minute tune...well, not thirty minutes. I tried to make it ten minutes and something but my idea kept coming to my head. Then I started thinking about what should I write about? I started thinking about my life so that's how everything started.
NT: Is there some sort of idea you were ultimately trying to express with Art of Life?
Y: Yes, I think I tried to convince even myself not to die. Try to keep going. It's a very positive message I think. Because I was very...at a certain point I was very suicidal like...I don't know, I just hated life a lot of times. That's also the message for people, also myself as well. I had to convince myself to keep going. Then I wrote the song.
NT: How did you learn English?
Y: When we came here, we did some kind of press conference and nobody spoke English. They said, how're you going to do this without speaking English. I said, I will learn...I said that in Japanese probably (laughs). So I just learned.
NT: How long did it take?
Y: I would say three years. Before I went to the recording studio I did like three hours lesson six days a week.
NT: What drives you to do things like play to the point of exhaustion and take up challenges others have said are impossible?
Y: I have some...including my father, my dearest friend Hide. They died, but we are living right now. Why don't I maximize what we've got. We have life. That's my motivation I guess. Or maybe I'm just afraid to stop. I have a fear probably, I don't know.
NT: Do you take breaks?
Y: Eventually (laughs) I'm not planning to take a break until I...I dunno, get to a certain place in America for X Japan. I'll just keep going.
NT: When will we hear more from S.K.I.N.?
Y: Good question. When the time is right. Because X Japan is doing something. Gackt is doing something. Miyavi is doing something. I mean that project is not dead. We're still talking about it, quite often actually.
NT: It just so happens I discovered a recording of you and Toshi playing a set in high school in which you played Deep Purple, Frank Marino's "World Anthem," and something by Loudness. Are these your early influences?
Y: Loudness was the pretty much only rock band in Japan at that time. The only major rock band.
NT: Everything else was pop?
Y: Yes. Rock was not mainstream so Toshi and I went to see Loudness and were like whoa! Actually, I went to see a Kiss concert when I was like ten years old. Then I went to see Iron Maiden, Rainbow so then we never thought there is a Japanese rock band. Then we found out about Loudness...later though. Then, huh there's a rock band in Japan. Then we went to see them. We may have copied Loudness too.
NT: How has Japanese rock changed since those days?
Y: It's pretty diverse right now. Yeah, but it's not really super heavy band. It's so hard for super heavy band to become popular. Like Metallica is amazing, they are doing that heavy stuff and they became popular. In Japan it's even harder. So...there are tons of rock bands, but to become super big, you may have to have some kind of melody or some kind of hook or something. I don't know, it's very diverse right now. So a rock band can become popular nowadays.
NT: Are there any up-and-coming bands that you're excited about?
Y: I don't know, I've been thinking so much about X Japan lately. For sure there are a lot of great bands. I like Dir en Grey too, by the way. I also produced their debut album. I did five or six songs. They recorded in my studio.
NT: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Y: I feel very lucky to have all those fans in America already to support us. We would like to move forward. Please support us.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.