In an exclusive Metal Hammer interview, X Japan mainman Yoshiki talks about discovering rock music, taking on the world, and inspiring a new generation of J-Rock acts, from Dir En Grey to Babymetal.
You’ve spoken before about how Kiss were the first Western rock band you fell in love with: what was it about that band that so captivated you?
“I first discovered Kiss with the Love Gun single, and then I bought the live album, Alive. Then I got the chance to see their show, and I was like ‘What the Hell is going on?’ At the time I was studying classical music, so to see Kiss play was a big shock. I encountered the band first by accident. I was in a record shop and saw this record with crazy make-up and four people standing and I thought ‘What is this?’ so I asked the people in the shop to play it. And it was like ‘Wow!’”
Did discovering this new world offer an escape from your reality at the time?
“I think so. My father committed suicide, so at the time I was very sad, crying every day and angry. When someone takes their own life there are lots of thoughts: ‘How about my mother? My brother? Our family?’ You think about those things. But rock music absorbed my anger, especially. And Kiss was my entrance to that world. I remember listening to Led Zeppelin, and when I first heard Stairway To Heaven that really affected me too. It was rock music, but it was so beautiful. And then another real big turning point for me was Iron Maiden: I bought the first album and Killers, with Paul Di’Anno, and then of course Number Of The Beast when Bruce Dickinson joined the band. Those three albums changed me: they had beautiful melodies but were still very heavy. And when we started our own band we wanted to be even faster and heavier!”
You’ve known [X Japan vocalist] Toshi since nursery school, so when you got into rock music did you try to take him with you on this new journey?
“Yes. We grew up in the Chiba prefecture, next to Tokyo, and there were no rock bars or anything, so people didn’t even know that rock music existed. Toshi was the only one, he knew about Kiss, so I thought ‘Woah, that’s cool.’ We’d played in the same brass band, so immediately we decided to create a band together.”
So there wasn’t much of a template to follow in terms of homegrown bands?
“Well, we found out about Loudness, and I thought they were really cool, and an amazing band. I had so much respect for them, but at that time we were so influenced by Iron Maiden, so we wanted to be much harder than Loudness. We wanted to be super-heavy!”
What do you remember of the early days?
“It was so much fun. Rock isn’t only about music, it’s a lifestyle, and we didn’t care about anything else but getting in front of fans and rocking the place. [Late X Japan guitarist] Hide and I were the only ones with driver licenses, so we’d drive city to city, to play anywhere. But Hide had bad eyesight, so I always had to do the driving at night… which meant I couldn’t drink so much!”
From the start the band aimed to have a striking image: did you feel more like a larger than life rock star when you dressed up?
“Yeah, I liked it. There were a lot of bands then with T-shirts and jeans, and of course I liked them too, but people like Kiss and Queen and David Bowie were always an influence.”
Was becoming an international band always part of the grand plan?
“Well, of course we had to conquer Japan first, because dreaming of overseas didn’t seem that realistic. I’d say to people ‘Some day we’ll go overseas’ and they’d be like ‘Aha, okay…’ because, Loudness aside, Japanese bands going overseas was almost unheard of, and with our style and everything people couldn’t believe we’d do it. Our first show in the US was Lollapalooza in 2010: that was an emotional and special day.”
As the band became huge in Japan, did you start becoming aware of copycat bands, or at least bands with a big X Japan influence?
“Yeah, and that was very flattering. I remember my friend who worked for a management company called me and said ‘I want you to produce a band called Dir En Grey’ and they came to my studio in America. They were talking about how they saw X Japan and how we were an influence and they were saying ‘Thank you, thank you’: I felt very lucky knowing that we had started something. And when I first got to see Dir En Grey in America it was like ‘Cool!’ It’s great too to see Japanese rock music evolving: I mean the idea of Babymetal, three cute girls with amazing choreography playing in front of death metal-style musicians, is so cool, I love it.”
Do you feel like maybe X Japan contributed to the opening up of Japanese society, showing kids that they could be different, giving them the confidence that they didn’t have to conform to the rules of what could be quite a conservative, conformist society?
“I hope so. I mean, in Japan when we started, if you had, like, blonde hair you couldn’t even grab a cab, no-one would stop for you! And you certainly couldn’t get a job! People would be like ‘What are you?’ But happily the world is changing. We always wanted to make the impossible possible, and to encourage people to go for their dreams. We had big pressure from society, but we never stopped, we always kept believing that we could make it happen. And so hopefully that gives others the confidence to follow their hearts too.”