X Japan’s Yoshiki talks new album, new film and exorcising old demons
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“People say rock is dead. It’s not dead. I think it’s about to come back – as long as there are some people like me, somebody crazy, still doing it.”
Fresh from a live show at London’s Wembley Arena, and days after the release in Japan of a documentary charting the rise of his band, X Japan, drummer and band leader Yoshiki Hayashi says he has no intention of taking things easy, despite having been at it for well more than 30 years.
“I’m afraid of stopping. I was suicidal after my father took his own life ... the only way to keep living was not stopping,” says the 51-year-old, usually known simply by his stage name, Yoshiki. “In order for me to exist, I need to just keep on moving forward, to keep on challenging.”
X Japan boasts sales of more than 30 million records in Japan, making the band the most successful domestic heavy metal act in the country. For Yoshiki, however, conquering Japan has given way to the lure of foreign markets, in terms of goals for the band.
While London fell under X Japan’s spell earlier this month, Yoshiki has his sights firmly set on the United States, his home for the past 20 years.
“We are not doing this band to break the American market, but since we are doing it, we might as well just break that,” he says, while acknowledging that, as a foreign act, his aim may be even harder to achieve. “I still have confidence. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Yoshiki, however, says the show in London felt like the band “just opened the door” to making a name for themselves abroad, after years of being household names in Japan.
X Japan started in the early 1980s, and the band saw more than its share of upset in the years that followed.
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A series of farewell shows marked the breakup of the group at the end of 1997, with vocalist Toshi opting for a life with a cult, and guitarist Hide dying a few months later, ostensibly having taken his own life.
Nearly a decade after the band reunited in 2007, a documentary film, We Are X, released in Japan.
“More than 20 years ago, we were planning on releasing a documentary at some point, but eventually our band disbanded, we broke up, and our member Hide passed away. At that point, everything stopped,” Yoshiki says, explaining the timing of the film.
After the group reunited, he says, people again began asking about a documentary telling the story of X Japan’s rise to fame and subsequent drama.
“At the beginning, it was very painful, but eventually it became very therapeutic ... like talking to a psychiatrist,” Yoshiki says of the interview process for the film. “It was kind of awkward ... but eventually I opened the door, pretty much all the way.”
Despite having much of the creative control of the band, the drummer says his only input into the documentary was its premise: “Please do not make this a horror film ... please make this film positive, somehow.”
He says he wanted the film to help people, and as such, he let the director decide what was used and what was left on the cutting-room floor.
The film will soon give way to the band’s next endeavour – their first studio album in 20 years.
“It’s going to be done in the next few months ... it’s just a matter of time,” Yoshiki says. “All the songs are pretty much ready – just have to do mixing, mastering.”
As to whether the album will mark a change of direction, or offer the same mix of fast-paced metal and slower rock ballads, he says, “It’s going to be recognisable, but at the same time the sound needs to evolve. Some of the songs fans may like; some of the songs may be too experimental.”
He adds that a conscious effort was made to ignore demands, particularly on social media, that the band follow one direction or another.
Despite the band and its music having aged 20 years since the last album’s release, Yoshiki isn’t particularly nervous about the reception the record will receive on its release. “I was, but now (I am) pretty confident,” he says.
The album’s groundwork began to be laid when the band reunited in 2007. As time went on, the idea of a new project that was half new songs, half old songs reworked with English lyrics, was discussed. Yoshiki says work progressed in that direction but didn’t feel right, so the plan was scrapped in favour of an album of entirely new material.
When asked how long the band could keep going, he said it was impossible to tell.
“If we were sports athletes, of course we might have passed the peak ... but Paul McCartney is still around. Mick Jagger’s lifespan is getting longer and longer. We’ll see,” he says.
“We are still singing the same high notes, [playing at] the same speed. ... I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but so far, so good,” he adds, before confidently claiming: “I think we are better than before.”
But whatever happens, it seems clear that X Japan, and certainly Yoshiki, will continue “existing” and making music long after the completion of the next album, however it is received.
As Yoshiki puts it: “Rock is not only just a music format, it’s more like a lifestyle.”