The Ja­panese drum­ming su­per­star on his dra­matic ca­reer with metal band X Japan

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: david west pho­tos: press

“I had a death wish. If I’m go­ing to die, I’m go­ing to die on stage, that’s how I was think­ing, so that’s why I would jump into my drum­set. I cut my­self so many times on my cym­bals…”

To de­scribe Yoshiki, founder of X Japan, as a rock star some­how seems woe­fully in­ad­e­quate. In ad­di­tion to be­ing the drum­mer, song­writer and pi­anist in the band, he’s per­formed clas­si­cal pi­ano con­certs around the world, com­posed mu­sic for the Em­peror of Japan, and in­spired his own Hello Kitty fig­urine, Yoshi-Kitty. At the very ex­pen­sive Lon­don ho­tel where

Rhythm meets Yoshiki, a grand pi­ano has been in­stalled in his suite – he says he’s prac­tis­ing some Rach­mani­nov – and sev­eral strik­ingly beau­ti­ful young women re­cline lan­guidly around the room. The rise, spec­tac­u­lar fall and rise again of X Japan has been chron­i­cled in Stephen Ki­jak’s doc­u­men­tary

We Are X and it’s a tale that al­most sounds too out­landish to be true. The band split up in 1997 when vo­cal­ist Toshi was brain­washed into join­ing a re­li­gious cult, lead gui­tarist Hide died in 1998 hav­ing ap­par­ently killed him­self, then for­mer bassist Taiji hung him­self in 2011. Tragedy has de­fined Yoshiki’s life – his fa­ther took his own life when Yoshiki was just a child and he turned to mu­sic as an out­let and es­cape.

X Japan’s early style was a pum­melling blend of thrash metal and glam rock im­agery known as Vis­ual Kei, al­though they’ve since moved to­wards sym­phonic, pro­gres­sive rock. Their leg­endary live per­for­mances have seen Yoshiki push­ing him­self to ex­haus­tion and the years of head­bang­ing and hard play­ing have taken their toll. He’s un­der­gone

surgery in 2009 and 2017 to re­pair the dam­age to his back and neck. But he’s not fin­ished yet.

How far along is the new X Japan al­bum? The band’s last stu­dio re­lease, Dahlia, was in 1996!

“It’s a mat­ter of time, could be sev­eral weeks, to be done. Ac­tu­ally, I’m work­ing while in Eng­land too. One song I started mix­ing in LA a week ago, I just came from Tokyo yes­ter­day. I was mix­ing in Tokyo over the in­ter­net to Los An­ge­les, and I couldn’t fin­ish it be­cause I had re­hearsals and a TV show and film pre­miere, then I came here so I want to fin­ish that par­tic­u­lar song. I’m on the road but I’m still work­ing. It’s very close. Peo­ple won’t be­lieve me but it’s very close.”

In the 1990s when you first tried to break into the US, was the out­ra­geous Vis­ual Kei im­age a hin­drance?

“I don’t think we were ready. Also, the world was not ready. First of all, we didn’t speak Eng­lish. When I watch that film, oh, my Eng­lish is ter­ri­ble! My Eng­lish is not per­fect yet but that was ter­ri­ble. It’s great we didn’t give up. Af­ter that X Japan broke up and then re­united and ev­ery­thing.”

Now you’re play­ing shows in Madi­son Square Gar­den and Wem­b­ley Arena. What’s changed?

“At that time, there was no in­ter­net, so our mu­sic, our cul­ture didn’t spread through­out the world. It was just there in Japan. Af­ter sev­eral years our mu­sic started spread­ing through­out the world be­cause of the in­ter­net, so that’s the big­gest change I guess. Be­fore, we had to just tour, we still do, all the bands from any­where had to tour around the world to get recog­nised but these days there are dif­fer­ent ways of do­ing that. I’m not say­ing that do­ing a world tour is a bad idea, we still have to do it, but we can do some­thing dif­fer­ent these days.”

Is the live show vi­tal now al­bum sales have shrunk in the stream­ing age?

“Yes. I think more peo­ple are lis­ten­ing to the mu­sic than be­fore be­cause it’s eas­ier to ac­cess but at the same time, al­bum sales have kept de­clin­ing. Also, we’re los­ing the def­i­ni­tion of what an al­bum is.Why do we need to re­lease an al­bum? I was fight­ing with the la­bel, ‘Why are we do­ing an al­bum? These days peo­ple just lis­ten to hit songs, sin­gles.’ I still don’t have an an­swer. More peo­ple lis­ten to us, so more peo­ple come to the con­certs as well. Twenty years ago, it was al­most im­pos­si­ble for X Japan to play Wem­b­ley Arena but be­cause of the in­ter­net I think we can play that kind of place now.”

Your phys­i­cal drum­ming style seems to have been very hard on your body?

“It’s quite a con­tra­dic­tion be­cause I try to care about my health but at the same time I try to de­stroy my body. It’s so strange. I had a death wish.If I’m go­ing to die, I’m go­ing to die on stage, that’s how I was think­ing, so that’s why I would jump into my drum­set. I cut my­self so many times on my cym­bals, but when I’m in

the right state of mind, I try to stretch, look af­ter my body, go to the doc­tor. But when I’m on stage I’m very sui­ci­dal. It’s very weird. Our show is so in­tense, we play like there is no to­mor­row, so we can’t do so many shows in a month. We have to take a break oth­er­wise we’re go­ing to be dead, it’s not easy for us to play show af­ter show. We have to hit cer­tain cities, ma­jor cities, of course you want to go to as many places as pos­si­ble, but phys­i­cally it’s not pos­si­ble.”

Are there songs where you take a deep breath and think, okay, this is go­ing to be tough?

“‘Art Of Life’, which is orig­i­nally a 30-minute song. These days we’re play­ing the third move­ment which is pretty tough. Also, there are some songs where I’m go­ing back and forth be­tween pi­ano and drums. Drum­ming is like run­ning, play­ing pi­ano is like stop­ping and drink­ing Ja­panese tea.”

In the doc­u­men­tary you talk about dream­ing of cheese­cake be­cause you’ve not eaten any carbs. Do you have a strict diet and ex­er­cise rou­tine?

“I try to. When I came here from Tokyo to Lon­don yes­ter­day, I was try­ing not to eat car­bo­hy­drates and the guy next to me was eat­ing noo­dles. I wanted to punch him, but I didn’t of course! Af­ter the show I’m go­ing to drink a lot of al­co­hol and eat what­ever I want. I can’t wait. One week from now I’m go­ing to eat ev­ery­thing! Cheese­cake too! That video was shot be­fore we played Madi­son Square Gar­den. New York cheese­cake is very fa­mous through­out the world, so I was dy­ing to eat some.”

When you do your Yoshiki Clas­si­cal per­for­mances, who comes to the shows? X Japan fans?

“That’s a good ques­tion. I just per­formed at Carnegie Hall in New York about a month ago, I did two nights. Some of the au­di­ence is the clas­si­cal au­di­ence, some of them are heavy metal, punk rock kids. I love that. It’s won­der­ful. My clas­si­cal con­certs are a lit­tle un­con­ven­tional. I use video, project some im­ages, I play a bit of Tchaikovsky, I play some X Japan songs but as clas­si­cal ver­sions, I play the pi­ano con­certo I com­posed for the Em­peror of Japan. Sev­eral years ago, I com­posed the theme song for the awards show for the Golden Globes in Amer­ica. At that time, peo­ple around me said, ‘Yoshiki, why don’t you re­lease a com­pi­la­tion of what you’ve been com­pos­ing?’ In ad­di­tion to the piece I com­posed for the Em­peror of Japan, I also did a clas­si­cal com­po­si­tion for the World Expo, so we re­leased that. I did a show­case at the Grammy Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les and my agent came to see that show, my agency is Wil­liam Mor­ris. They said, ‘Yoshiki, you’re go­ing to go on a world tour do­ing clas­si­cal mu­sic.’ ‘No, I don’t want to.’ Any­way, they con­vinced me, I was re­ally ner­vous, but I did 10 coun­tries or so and that was suc­cess­ful. I jumped into that sit­u­a­tion with­out re­ally think­ing about it.”

Is it a very dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence do­ing a clas­si­cal con­cert ver­sus a rock show?

“Emo­tion­ally it’s the same but tech­ni­cally it’s dif­fer­ent be­cause you can’t miss one note. At a rock con­cert, who cares if I miss one tom hit? Come to think of it, my first big clas­si­cal ex­pe­ri­ence was here in Lon­don. I worked with Ge­orge Martin, he pro­duced my clas­si­cal al­bum at Air Stu­dios in Lon­don. The Lon­don Phil­har­monic played my com­po­si­tions.”

Work­ing with Ge­orge Martin, did you ever pinch your­self to make sure it’s real?

“I’m like, I must be dream­ing. I watched our film We Are X, that’s so un­real. There was a very sad side to that, al­most like a night­mare. I lost my fa­ther, I lost my band mem­bers, did it re­ally hap­pen? I played Carnegie Hall, did it re­ally hap­pen?”

We think of Japan as be­ing so­cially con­ser­va­tive. When X Japan started, did you shock peo­ple?

“Yes. Japan was even more con­ser­va­tive 20 or 30 years ago. At that time, you didn’t see blond-haired guys in Japan – we had long hair and spikes and ev­ery­thing. Mu­si­cally there were not many thrash metal bands in Japan’s mu­sic scene. There were some who were un­der­ground but no­body very big who be­came main­stream. We wanted to shock peo­ple. For some rea­son my mother was okay with it. When I dyed my hair red, peo­ple around me freaked out. I dyed my hair red and went to school. At that time, I can’t be­lieve this, my teacher grabbed me and shaved my head. It was that con­ser­va­tive in Japan.”

“There are some songs where I’m go­ing back and forth be­tween pi­ano and drums. Drum­ming is like run­ning, play­ing pi­ano is like stop­ping and drink­ing Ja­panese tea”

“At the Clas­sic Rock Awards, some­one asked me, ‘Has X Japan fi­nally come back to­gether? Why did you break up in the first place?’ I said, ‘My vo­cal­ist got brain­washed’”

How did you go from there to com­pos­ing for the Em­peror?

“I did clas­si­cal mu­sic be­fore I started do­ing rock mu­sic so clas­si­cal is my back­ground. That was quite shock­ing, that was a sur­real mo­ment. It was such an hon­our for me to do it. I was lis­ten­ing to sym­phonies all the time. I re­mem­ber that day I per­formed for the Em­peror, I think CNN or some­one said some­thing like ‘Royal Fam­ily Meets Rock’. Prob­a­bly some rock artists are against that kind of thing, but we’re not. Be­fore, I was anti-ev­ery­thing, I was a rebel against ev­ery­thing.”

How did you work with We Are X di­rec­tor Stephen Ki­jak?

“Re­gard­ing the doc­u­men­tary, I was asked to do this a long time ago, even be­fore X Japan broke up we were plan­ning on do­ing that, but af­ter Toshi the lead singer got brain­washed and joined a cult and Hide, the gui­tar player, passed away, it was too painful to go back to those mem­o­ries. So that project was stopped com­pletely, then sev­eral years ago my agent in Amer­ica asked me, ‘Why don’t we create a doc­u­men­tary film? It’s an amaz­ing true story.’ I said it’s too painful, but they con­vinced me that this story could help peo­ple’s lives. Then who should we have di­rect or pro­duce? I said, ‘I can’t do it, I can’t even watch our con­certs, it’s too painful.’ I sug­gested maybe we should hire a di­rec­tor who has zero idea about X Japan. It was pretty much im­pos­si­ble to find a di­rec­tor or pro­ducer in Japan be­cause they all knew us. My agent in­tro­duced me to sev­eral di­rec­tors around the world, then John Battsek from Eng­land, he pro­duced Search­ing For Sugar man which I thought was amaz­ing, he and I talked about look­ing for di­rec­tors and he rec­om­mended Stephen Ki­jak. He shot the Rolling Stones [ Stones In Ex­ile], I thought he was great and he had zero idea about X Japan, that’s why I thought he was per­fect.”

Did you have much ed­i­to­rial con­trol over the film or did you hand ev­ery­thing over to Stephen?

“I pretty much handed it to him. There are a bunch of scenes I did not like but since I gave it to him, it’s not my choice. It’s his choice. We’re still an on­go­ing band. If we were done, if we were dead, they could create any­thing, but we’re still do­ing it. Some of the im­ages, it was like, ‘Oh, do you want to show that?’ I didn’t even like the scene where I was fall­ing from the stage wear­ing that [body] stock­ing. I was like, ‘Can you re­move this?’ The di­rec­tor said, ‘No. You said I can use any­thing.’ We talked about it sev­eral times, but I gave up. If he thinks it’s great, it’s great. Same for Toshi. He can see the time he was brain­washed, it was very scary, so Toshi was hes­i­tat­ing, ‘Do we have to use this?’ But the di­rec­tor wrote a let­ter to Toshi say­ing how im­por­tant it is to show that brain­washed era. It was not an easy process.”

There’s a great scene when a DJ asks you why you split up and you say, ‘My singer was brain­washed’.

“Yeah, ex­actly so. I was at the Clas­sic Rock Awards here in Eng­land, that was 2015, I walked on the red car­pet. Some­one asked me, ‘Has X Japan fi­nally come back to­gether? Why did you break up in the first place?’ I said, ‘My vo­cal­ist got brain­washed.’ Then the jour­nal­ist was like, ‘Do you speak Eng­lish?’ She thought I didn’t un­der­stand the ques­tion. Peo­ple have very in­ter­est­ing re­ac­tions.”

Are you still hun­gry as a band – even af­ter all your suc­cess?

“We’re big in Japan, maybe Asia, but we’re pretty

“We wanted to shock peo­ple,” says Yoshiki of X Japan’s early years in so­cially con­ser­va­tive Japan

Yoshiki on his phys­i­cal drum­ming style: “I try to care about my health but at the same time I try to de­stroy my body”

“I was just do­ing a ses­sion with him last week in Los An­ge­les,” says Yoshiki about his mys­te­ri­ous col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mar­i­lyn Man­son. “I don’t know how it’s go­ing to turn out but as of now it’s just the two of us. We’ve been talk­ing about it for a long...

A new doc­u­men­tary, WeAreX, tells Yoshiki and X Japan’s in­cred­i­ble story

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