Yoshiki of X Japan

With more than 30 million records sold over its 18-year career, X Japan is, quite literally, huge in Japan. Yoshiki, the drummer-pianist/de facto spokesman of the prog-metal quintet, has not only his own line of jewelry, brand of wine, and auto racing team, but also his very own YoshiKitty—the only official Hello Kitty line made in the likeness of a person.

That fame doesn’t always translate, though. The band has sold out the Tokyo Dome 18 times, but only just debuted in the U.S. at this year’s Lollapalooza. While the group had only played two shows outside Japan before this year, it has gotten huge on the Internet, thrilling metal and anime fans worldwide with its “Visual Kei” rock style (a cross between glam rock and electro-pop, with strong roots in speed metal and punk).

The A.V. Club caught up with Yoshiki—just Yoshiki—before X Japan embarked on its first U.S. tour, stopping at the Riviera Theatre tonight.

A.V. Club: You guys have obviously had a ton of success in Japan, but only just played here for the first time this summer. What took you so long, when bands like Dir En Grey have been doing so well?

Yoshiki: We were planning on touring America in the ’90s, but we had internal issues. The band members were just not getting along, so we broke up about 10 years ago. I really never thought about reuniting in the interim, but then we started talking about two years ago and did a reunion concert in Japan. We didn’t know if that would be a one-time thing, but then we played in Hong Kong and Taipei. Then I had neck surgery and that sort of stalled things.

When I was better, we just wanted to go to outside of Asia. We talked to our manager, who works with Lollapalooza, and he thought we should debut there.

AVC: In an interview, you said you don’t want to stop touring America until you get “to a certain point” with the band. What would you consider a successful run here?

Y: I’d like people to at least know our band name. When you say “Yoshiki” in Japan, people from 8 years old to 80 know who you’re talking about. We’re a household name there. At the same time, we’d like to become famous in the U.S. as musicians, and not just be a household name for no reason. I guess we’d just like to fill a stadium some day.

AVC: This tour’s a little scaled back from what you guys normally do, but I read that you’re stoked to get back to just playing some solid rock, whether it be for 50 people or 200. Is that true?

Y: In Japan we play for 50,000 people in stadiums, and that’s exciting. But, at the same time, we want to play in a club to a couple thousand people. That’s very special for us too. We started out doing that, a long, long time ago. It’s going to be very nice and intimate. We’ll probably be able to see everyone’s faces.

AVC: What can fans expect on this tour? Any hope of seeing the famed 29-minute-long song “Art Of Life”?

Y: We want to try and play as much as we can, but at the same time the show’s not going to be three hours long, like we do in Japan. We will probably play a part of “Art Of Life,” just not the whole song. X Japan songs are already long enough, and people want to hear different songs. It’ll be edgier and harder than our normal set list, I think.

AVC: How do you mean?

Y: We really want to rock the place. We’re still going to bring pyro, like we do to our stadium shows, and depending on the theater, a ton of lighting and our big projection screens. But this tour really is back-to-basics. It’s good, strong music, a little heavier than some of our ballads, though we’re going to play ballads as well.

AVC: From the style of your music to the respect you have for your fans, it seems like you have almost a spiritual approach to music in general. Do you think that’s true?

Y: At our concerts, we don’t just play to the audience and they sit, listening to us. They participate. We create the show together. I don’t know if you’d call it spiritual, but it’s always a very special moment. It’s going to be very different, this tour. Fans in each city are going to change the show each night.

You know, we’re excited to come to Chicago. That’s where we first performed in the U.S., so that’s very special for us. Is it going to be cold there?

AVC: Probably not that cold, no.

Y: Good.

AVC: You live in Los Angeles most of the time now, right? How did that happen?

Y: It’s kind of an accident I ended up living here. A while ago, the band was talking about going outside Japan to record, and I said I wanted to go to London or New York. The other members said L.A., so we ended up coming here. I bought the studio after we recorded there, and everyone else left, so I was stuck. So I bought a house in L.A., and it’s not like I really planned to live here.

At the same time, I work on movie soundtracks, so this is a good place for me. There are more movie projects.

AVC: You and [vocalist] Toshi first started a band when you were 10 or 11. What was your very first show ever like?

Y: I met Toshi when I was 4. We went to the same kindergarten. Our first show was when we were 11, yes. We played Kiss and Led Zeppelin at our school. People freaked out, then we freaked out. We knew that somehow we wanted to do shows outside school, even though we were super young. We became pretty popular in school after we performed. We liked that.

AVC: You’ve got a Cirque-style show in the works with Stan Lee, right?

Y: It’s still in the very early stages. It’s just all ideas right now.

I think Stan Lee is very inspirational, though. We go to dinner and lunch, and talk about a lot of different things. We’ve become good friends.

He’s just appeared in one of our new music videos, “Born To Be Free.” He plays the devil.

AVC: Why do you think you guys got so popular when you did in Japan? Before you guys, it was really all just pop music, right?

Y: I don’t know how it happened, really. We just tried to be true to ourselves. It’s not that hard to get popular.

What’s that Annie Hall saying? Everyone’s entitled to 15 minutes of fame? The difficult thing, I think, is to say at that level of popularity. I think we’re still popular because we’re true musicians, and we’re true to our fans.

AVC: You’ve done quite a bit of classical music as well, even performing with various symphonies around the world. How do you think your classical background relates to your metal-ness now?

Y: Before I started doing hard rock, I was only listening to classical music. So, to me, they’re not very different. It’s all just music to me.

Sometimes classical music can be very rebellious as well. A long time ago, Mozart and Beethoven were full of anger, and I can feel it in the music. It’s all very similar to me, punk, hard rock, classical.

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