Interview: The second life of Yoshiki and X Japan


Last week, I had the chance to speak to Japanese X Japan’s drummer, pianist and band leader – and visual kei superstar – Yoshiki. He was in Amsterdam to promote the new documentary about his band, ‘We Are X’. What follows here is a translation of the article I have written in Dutch for The Sushi Times. If you can read Dutch, I would strongly recommend you to read the original version right here. All pictures are courtesy of Drafthouse Films.

Since their breakthrough in the mid-eighties, X Japan became one of the biggest and most influential bands in Japan. How big? That goes well beyond what we can imagine, but the brand new documentary ‘We Are X’ now also gives the rest of the world a look into the crazy and at times dramatic history of the band. Prior to the showing at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), we spoke to drummer, pianist and band leader Yoshiki about the past and the future of X Japan.

The vast majority of the thirty million albums that X Japan sold went over the counter in Japan. That’s why it may seem strange that ‘We Are X’ is presented to the whole world, but the history of the band is at times stranger than some fiction. Not only was the band there for the genesis of the extravagant visual kei scene and does Yoshiki possess an enormous archive with spectacular pictures, according to director Stephen Kijak, but with a singer who left the band under the influence of a cult leader and two dubious suicides among their band members, the band had to endure its share of drama.
My agent in America approached me to do a documentary a couple of years ago, because the story is crazy“, Yoshiki explains. “But I said: no way, it’s too painful for me to even revisit my memories, that kind of nightmare. But eventually, people around me started convincing me that the story of X Japan may help people.
The timing seems ideal, because there’s a new album coming; their first in twenty years. ‘We Are X’ seems like the perfect way to promote the band’s new international ambitions. According to the band leader himself, this is a coincidence: “We didn’t have any plan anyway. Everything has happened organically and naturally. Coincidentally, the film is going to be out when we are about to finish the album. We have one show already scheduled at Wembley Arena on March 4th, 2017. That could be the beginning of a new world tour. I’m actually talking about it.

Miracle

That album was supposed to be released early this year. However, the release was slowed down due to unforeseen circumstances, among which serious health issues for guitarist Pata. “He is fully recovered“, Yoshiki reassures. “It’s almost a miracle. I thought he was not going to survive. Early this year, we were actually recording in Los Angeles with our vocalist and our guitar player – Toshi and Sugizo – when we heard the knews that Pata was in ICU. I said: can I talk to him? But they said: no, nobody can even talk to him. I tried to find out how bad it was.
His doctor said that he’s conscious, but he’s not eating anything. He didn’t know if he was going to survive. A few weeks later, I finally talked to Pata. I asked him if he would fully recover, but he didn’t even know. That took several months. We stopped recording, but at some point, we had to move on. There is a song Sugizo and I played his parts to.

Meanwhile, the as of yet untitled album is almost finished. “The recording part is nearly done“, Yoshiki states. “There’s a few more piano parts left, but otherwise, the drums, guitars and vocals for every single song are done. It’s going to be really edgy. There’s going to be some heavy songs, some ballads as well. We don’t want to be just repeating the same thing. So I’ll say it’s a new era of X Japan.
While Yoshiki was the main composer in the heyday of the band, he was often supported by guitarist hide and bassist Taiji, both of whom have passed away in the meantime. “There is an amazing song on it from our new guitar player Sugizo“, he explains. “So not the whole album is written by me, but the majority is.

Self expression

In their early days, X Japan – still under the name X at the time – was there for the birth of the visual kei scene, known for their flamboyant outfits and hairdos and a complete disregard for musical boundaries. “I came from a classical background“, Yoshiki explains. “When I was playing Beethoven or Mozart, it was all about how you could get close to what Beethoven or Mozart was thinking. I thought that was cool too, but I wanted to create something of my own. When I found rock, I thought: this is complete freedom, you can do anything. Complete freedom for describing yourself. When we started playing live, we played punk rock, heavy metal and soft ballads. Then all the critics told us we had to decide on one direction. I was shocked; I thought rock meant that you could do anything.
As a result, we couldn’t belong anywhere. When we were playing club shows, we were having a hard time finding other bands to play with. Nobody wanted to play with X, because they couldn’t categorize us. We just kept doing what we wanted and eventually the audience started growing. Visual kei doesn’t have to be one specific sound, it’s more like a freedom of how you can express yourself.

In Japan, there is very little overlap between the visual kei audience and the “regular” metal audience. Much to Yoshiki’s joy, there is an overlap in Europe: “When we toured Europe in 2011, both audiences came. I think that’s really cool. I live in America; when you go to Ozzfest or something, there are the heavy metal people, but when you go to a visual kei band, there are really cool fashinable Japanese Harajuku people or animation cosplayers. I love both of them. The cool thing about X Japan shows is that we have both kinds of people coming. We enjoy that.

Nightmare

X Japan’s rush was ended quite abruptly in the mid-nineties when singer Toshi announced he would play his last show with the band on New Year’s Eve of 1997. He claimed no longer being able to get any satisfaction from his rock star existence, but later admitted being pressured by the leader of the Home Of Heart cult. His departure meant the end of the band and less than half a year later, the immensely popular guitarist hide died. Officially by suicide, but people close to him suspect that it was an accident.
According to many, the death of hide also meant the end of visual kei. “Everybody died when hide died“, Yoshiki agrees. “I died as well. I don’t remember that time that much, because I was kind of blacked out. I didn’t even want to be in this world. I think you can say that the entire scene kind of died, but the younger generation of bands kept going with the visual kei spirit. I actually should thank them; because of a lot of new bands, we kind of woke up several years later and realized that visual kei is not only a one-time thing.
In the late nineties, Dir En Grey came to my studio in Los Angeles, where we were recording a part of their first album. At that time, I couldn’t even talk about X Japan without crying. After hide passed away, I didn’t even want to touch the subject. But Dir En Grey were talking about going to see X Japan shows. Kaoru, their guitar player, loved hide and Shinya, their drummer, complimented my performances. I couldn’t avoid the X Japan subject. Actually, I started thinking of doing something on my own – not even with X Japan, but a new band or something – when I started producing Dir En Grey.

Break

Remarkable in ‘We Are X’ is the large amount of attention for the physical pain Yoshiki has caught due to years of headbanging and playing with the wrong technique. According to Yoshiki himself, he’s been suffering that pain “pretty much from the get-go”. “In the beginning, I didn’t think of drums as a musical instrument“, he explains. “When my father took his own life, I was so angry, I was breaking things, punching the wall and everything. So when my mother bought me a drum set, I was basically punching drums. Kicking drums. When people saw me doing this, they said: Yoshiki, your body is going to break if you keep playing like this. I didn’t care. I had so much pain inside, I almost wanted to do something physically to compensate for my mental pain.
Many years and several surgeries later, he is still playing. Hard. “When hide died, I died“, he emphasizes once again. “But our fans around the world actually kept supporting us. Almost unconditionally. So basically, I still exist because of our fans. Our fans gave us a second life, a second chance. So I just want to thank them. And for me to thank them, I just have to keep on rocking, keep on breaking all those walls. We don’t have a specific plan, but I hope that the show at the Wembley Arena will be the beginning of a world tour.

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  1. October 20th, 2017

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