X Japan is a band that defy genre. Formed in 1982 by drummer Yoshiki and vocalist Toshi, this was an outfit that could have been described as Heavy Metal. However, this is a band that moves beyond music, and became a cultural phenomenon that has to be experienced to be believed. With the release of We Are X, the documentary about the lives and deaths, the band are placed under a loving microscope and shared with die-hard fans and new audiences who have yet to experience the fever-pitched brilliance of a movement that defined an entire generation of Japanese music lovers.
In celebration of the movie, and with a view to a pair of concerts happening with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in January 2017, founding member Yoshiki sat down with ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann to discuss the music, the memories, heartbreak and hopes that have been shared by the band and their extraordinary fans.
Christopher Friedmann: We’re speaking because you’ve just premiered your movie We Are X. It has been a long time since X Japan released new music, so why is now the right time to make, and release this film?
Yoshiki: It just happened organically. I didn’t really plan it. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t want to make the film. It was too painful to touch the subject, so it took us a few years to even get started. So my agent in America approached me a few years ago and told me, “We should tell your story to the world because your story is amazing.” I said, “I can’t open that door, it’s too painful.” So a few years later a few people encouraged me to get involved, almost like, “This film could save people’s lives,” something like that. And I thought that’s a great reason. So then it started almost two years ago, started shooting. We just finished editing a few months ago.
CF: I understand it was a tough door for you to open because the film shows how hard playing music and being in the band has been for you, both physically and emotionally – so can you tell us something about your emotions when viewing the film?
Y: It’s not like a normal rock doc. It’s kind of more like a drama-life story. It’s almost too creative a story.
CF: You worked with director Stephen Kijak on the movie. Can you tell us how you chose Stephen to work on the project, and what about his previous work made him the right candidate for the job?
Y: My agent in America introduced me to the producer, he’s a producer for cinema. I talked to him and he was really good, so then he mentioned a couple of directors and Stephen was one of them, which he strongly recommended. Then I saw the Rolling Stones film (Stones in Exile), and it was beautifully done, so then I thought he was the perfect director, so that’s how I met Steve.
CF: Stephen has said that he watched thousands of hours of footage to find the pieces included in the film. Which piece that he found gave you the most joy?
Y: I’m filming always, pretty much every time I do anything. The reason is my mother thought I wasn’t going to live long, so when I was at Sony Records, a long time ago, she told the label people, “Try to capture Yoshiki as much as you can while you can.” So I gave Stephen access to every single footage we have archived. He had to pretty much find it for himself.
CF: Your fans are so passionate about you as a person and as a musician – at one of the LA screenings, both the fans trying to ask questions could barely speak from crying: Can you tell us how it feels to be back in a position where you’re speaking directly with such passionate fans of the band?
Y: We broke up one time, then Toshi broke away, then hide passed away around that time I almost wanted to quit being a musician, quit music, but our fans kept supporting us, unconditionally. We are here because of our fan support. It’s really kind of nice to talk to the fans, even on social media. I think our fans gave us a second chance, without our fans we are nothing. X Japan right now wouldn’t have existed. They are our family.
CF: Is there one story that you can share that shows the dedication of your fans – an event that reinforced the dialogue between artist and audience?
Y: That’s also a sad story as well. When hide passed away some of our fans tried to kill themselves, so I had to do press almost every day in Japan to say, “Please don’t do this.” Because they are so passionate it’s a sad story.
I’ve been travelling a lot, so every country I go to, sometimes I tweet, “I’m on my to Hong Kong. I’m on my way to France or Paris or Moscow.” People just show up at the airport and they try to give me something, maybe their country’s food or their country’s clothes, I’ve been travelling a lot but it’s almost like every country I go to, I am essentially home.
CF: The stories that you share in the movie are so wide ranging, and so honest in emotional content – was there any story that you hesitated to include and share?
Y: Actually, I didn’t open my heart at the beginning. I was kind of avoiding the subject at the beginning. But eventually I realized, without talking about this ‘death’, my father’s suicide and everything, this film won’t make any sense. So they said, “Just start talking about it,” my friend’s death, my father’s death. It was kind of therapeutic. For me to move on, I had to open that door. It took several interviews for me to start really talking about the past, those memories, but eventually I talked about pretty much everything.
CF: We Are X really details the band’s struggles after re-locating to the US in the 1990’s to challenge yourselves and expand beyond Japan. You are still based here, despite those struggles. What made you stay?
Y: Because I didn’t want to give up. At the same time, I kept believing in our music that someday it’s going to make its way through whatever separates the East and the West.
I just kept writing songs and also, in the film you see the Rockefeller Center, first time we were here, I pretty much spoke no English, so I wanted to learn English.
CF: You’re premiering the movie in Brooklyn, NYC – can you tell us why your American fans are so important to you?
Y: First of all I’ve been living in America for a long time, almost 20 years. Also when you make it in any country, including Asia, including Japan, I think America is still the center of the entertainment world. In order for me to have an American audience to support us because America is number one when it comes to music industry. It’s the number one market. You can’t avoid America, nobody can, if you are thinking of a worldwide market. If you want your music to go around the world you have to have America.
CF: You’re a classically trained, multi-instrumentalist, who then channeled that training into rock music and back again. What does classical music bring to your rock compositions and vice versa?
Y: Before my father took his own life, I only did classical music. Pretty much every single music theory comes from classical music. I recommend anybody, whether you are doing EDM or jazz or punk rock, you should learn classical music first. It’s like when you learn English, you learn A, B, C, D, that kind of thing. Also it gives me a similar approach to when I compose rock. When I compose music I don’t use instruments at all, pretty much. I just write a score, so I compose it in my head then start writing the score.
When I compose songs, I write everything in a score, guitar, drums, everything so that’s my craft approach. Then also when my father died I didn’t know what to do. I was really struggling, with anger and everything, but rock was a perfect music for me to express my inner feelings, emotions, everything, so rock saved me, my life.
CF: The history of the band, shown in the film, is full of joys and dramas and heartbreaks – but is there something in your personal history that reminds you why you keep coming back to the life of an artist – something that keeps you humble and grounded?
Y: My audience keeps forgiving us, and they gave me a second chance, a third chance, a fourth chance. Our audience has never given up on us. They just keep supporting us, keep supporting me, so I don’t want to give up either. I started watching the film, it was strange, but I thought, “I’m stronger than I thought before, before this film was made.” I don’t know how long I can be around, how long I can be paying drums that hard, but I want to dedicate my life to the music because it gave me a chance. I’m so lucky to have my fans, and I’m so lucky to have music around me.