In 1992, the million-selling Japanese rock band X Japan signed a deal with Atlantic Records and prepared to storm the American market with an unorthodox amalgam of galloping metal and grandiloquent ballads.
Except it never happened: Though the group put out two more albums, neither saw commercial release in the U.S. The band split in 1997, around the time their lead singer Toshi claims he was "brainwashed" by a cult. Not long after, lead guitarist Hide died — the band claims it was accidental, the police ruled it a suicide — seemingly closing the door on X Japan and their continental crossover dreams.
But under the leadership of the group's founder, drummer and piano player Yoshiki, X Japan is back and once again maneuvering to penetrate the American market. "We were not ready 20 years ago," Yoshiki tells Revolver. "Maybe the world was not ready. But in those 20 years, everything changed."
"In America, people are so fickle," says Wes Borland, best known as Limp Bizkit's guitarist and for side project like Big Dumb Face, though he also played with Yoshiki during X Japan's 2008 reunion shows in Tokyo. "Japan and the U.K. are easier markets to conquer — they're tighter, smaller, and the U.K. has national radio, which we don't have here. Breaking a band in the U.S. is so hard to do. But I'm sure if anyone can do it, Yoshiki can do it."
The drummer's efforts began in earnest with the documentary We Are X, which premiered at Sundance last year, distilling the band's history — both massive commercial success and heart-wrenching personal tragedies — into an easily digestible package for English speakers. The film led to a slew of Stateside press and the first commercial acknowledgements of X Japan in the West: The We Are X soundtrack debuted at No. 27 on the U.K. albums chart, and their song "La Venus" made the long-list for Best Original Song at the Oscars.
The band hopes to take advantage of this new visibility by releasing a long-gestating, several-times-delayed new record that's "99 percent in English." "This album is going to change our lives," Yoshiki says. He is sitting on the couch, clad in multiple shades of black, in a 50th floor suite of a hotel in midtown Manhattan with handsome views west to the Hudson river. Various assistants and publicists work quietly — there are roughly 10 people in the apartment besides Yoshiki — with half-full Starbucks cups nearby. Moments before our interview, Yoshiki read take after take of promotional messages while being filmed by two cameramen. "I don't even know if it's good," one videographer admits, after Yoshiki delivers yet another another pronouncement in Japanese. Those duties finally dispensed with, the drummer asks for a glass of red wine. He has his own line of wine, but doesn't bring those bottles on the road with him. "It's good," an assistant assures him as she hands over the glass. "I tried it."
The night before, one of the same videographers also shadowed Yoshiki as he attended a small screening of We Are X at the Bryant Park Hotel. Following our interview, he is scheduled to fly to Berlin to promote the documentary in Europe. "We were talking about making the film almost 10 years ago," Yoshiki explains. "But I was almost afraid to open that door. After Hide passed away, I was seeing a psychiatrist because I was very suicidal. Then I basically shut the door completely. Creating this film was slowly opening up, revitalizing, almost like a rebirth mentally."
The movie grounds Yoshiki's high-flying rock career in an early childhood trauma — the suicide of his father, who killed himself when Yoshiki was 10. He discovered Kiss, channeled his frustration and angst into rock drumming and started a band with his childhood friend Toshi. That group eventually settled on the name X and released a well-received independent album. Next they incorporated titanic piano ballads into their drubbing rock — Borland likens the mixture to "Neil Diamond meets speed metal" — and exploded in Japan, helping to start a musical movement in the country known as "visual kei," which Yoshiki describes in We Are X as "crazy outfit, crazy makeup and everything." (Also, crazy hair.)
"What a child would have thought Mötley Crüe's life was like, their life is actually like," Borland says, explaining their stratospheric success in Japan. "It's so outrageous, it's amazing."
But trouble came knocking. The bassist, Taiji, was kicked out of the band for unknown reasons; in We Are X, Yoshiki refuses to reveal the nature of the split, even though it took place 25 years ago. (Heath replaced him on bass.) Years later, Taiji killed himself. Toshi started a relationship with a woman whom he claimed was a cult member; the cult "brainwashed" and abused him until he left the band, which dissolved at the time. (This episode could perhaps be the basis for its own future film — there are more questions than answers in We Are X.) Hide died or killed himself, reason unknown.
In the film, these events are directly correlated with the band's pivot towards America — "we started aiming at the music market outside of Japan. That's the time everything started falling apart," Yoshiki says in a voiceover — which begs the question, why is he trying to break his group in the U.S. once again? "We were all listening to music from U.S. and England, especially Taiji and Hide," Yoshiki explains. "From the get-go, they were talking about wanting to go to America. I never thought I would lose them. As long as I'm doing it, I think I have to achieve what we dreamed of."
In We Are X, Kiss' Gene Simmons suggests that the prejudice of English-speaking listeners — and perhaps English-speaking executives at record labels, since Atlantic never released an X Japan record over here — is the primary obstacle between the band and American success. "If those guys were born in either America or England and sang in English, they might be the biggest band in the world," he declares.
Yoshiki isn't so sure. "I didn't think it was prejudice against us," he says. "I think the music world is very open. But maybe I didn't understand English?"
He's more inclined to believe that the band just wasn't ready to adjust to drastically different circumstances — they walked on water in Japan, but in the U.S., he says, "we were nobody." "Some of the band members couldn't take that gap," he adds, graciously not naming any names.
Band member deaths and Yoshiki's time away from the group have obviated those concerns. "I learned a lot during those 10 years [before the band re-formed with Sugizo on lead guitar]," Yoshiki says. "When we started recording again, I almost felt like it was necessary to have this break. When you keep going on and on, you take everything for granted. We learned the very hard way how lucky it was for us to be playing music together."
Since reuniting, the band has released a smattering of singles and faced a few accusations that they are straying from their roots. "Some old fans say it's a little different than what we used to play," Yoshiki says. This is not the first time the group has faced this kind of criticism. "Twenty-something years ago, we were just trying to play as heavy as we can, as fast as we can," he notes. "But then we said, are we creating music, or trying to create an Olympic athlete record? And we realized, why don't we create music." He hopes the album will quell any criticisms. "It has the answer to every single question you had in the last 20 years," he says.
If there's one last hurdle in X Japan's way, it's their medium: In the Nineties, rock was on the radio and vying for cultural dominance with hip-hop. Today, rock is much more of a fringe enterprise. This doesn't faze Yoshiki. "It doesn't mean we can't make rock mainstream again," he says. "And I would love to contribute to that."
He returns to a lesson he learned early in his career. "[When we started], rock in Japan was very small, not the mainstream at all," he notes. "Somehow I had confidence: If we do something interesting, we can break that wall."