Years before he founded X Japan, drummer-pianist Yoshiki's life was saved by music. It began the night his mother took him to see his first concert — KISS at Budokan in the 1970s. He'd learned to play classical music as a young child, but rock gave him a place to get loud and face life's dramas head-on, as his band led Japan's colorful visual kei movement a decade later, with big hair and an early mix of speed metal and pop melody.
Their story was told in the acclaimed 2016 documentary We Are X, but it didn't end there. Yoshiki has been laboring over the band's long-delayed first album of all-new material since 1996's Dahlia, but says it is now essentially finished — though he doesn't blame anyone for doubting him. While the two-year pandemic didn't help, it managed to inspire Yoshiki to use his time under lockdown writing new songs and sketching out a symphony.
Yoshiki is also adding to the modern tradition of hard-rock acts who have put their names on all sorts of beverages — from Metallica's Blackened Whiskey to Mastodon's Black Tongue Beer. Yoshiki already has his own wine brand, Y by Yoshiki, but now he's releasing his first energy drinks in a collaboration with Coca-Cola Japan: Real Gold X/Y. He was hands-on in designing the drinks, he says — one with spicy "rock energy," the other an herb-based "classical energy."
He steps back out into the world as a live performer this fall, with a series of headline dates in Japan, and six nights with his friend and frequent collaborator Sarah Brightman, singer of classical hits, in Las Vegas and Mexico. More tour dates are expected to be announced soon, both in rock and classical. With or without an X Japan release this year, he will be busy.
"I stayed home two years almost straight, pretty much not meeting anyone," says Yoshiki, who was anchored in his home and studio in Los Angeles during that time. "I feel very good right at this moment."
IS THE NEW X JAPAN ALBUM ALMOST DONE?
YOSHIKI I don't think anybody's going to believe what I say [laughs] because I kept saying that. I was at the mixing studio today. Might as well just remix something and make it better, because we are not really rushing to release the album right this moment. So I'm just fine tuning a little bit. But if I had to release it next week, it's done.
HAS THE ALBUM'S DIRECTION CHANGED OVER THE YEARS YOU'VE WORKED ON IT? OR IS IT CLOSE TO THE ORIGINAL IDEAS YOU HAD?
It's pretty much the original idea. With this kind of music, sometimes there's a trend in terms of sound or mixing or sound effect. But I don't think X Japan needs to chase trends. X Japan is its own genre. So the idea of this album hasn't been changed. I'm just doing a little fine tuning up to the release date.
I KNOW THAT WHEN YOU GET BEHIND THE DRUMS, YOU PUT OUT A LOT OF ENERGY AND THERE'S A LOT OF SWEAT FLYING EVERYWHERE. HOW DO YOU PUMP YOURSELF UP FOR THOSE PERFORMANCES?
I'm a very, very, energetic person onstage. Even recording, I play drums very, very hard. Even when I play piano in the recording studio, I play like I'm onstage. Of course, that's not all about hitting keys strong, but very, very soft and very, very dynamic.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN PUTTING OUT THESE COCA-COLA ENERGY DRINKS?
I've known the president of Coca-Cola Japan for several years, and we were talking about doing something together. They came up with the idea of releasing a new energy drink and partnering with me. I thought that was very interesting, and then a year ago it started becoming more realistic. I care a lot about anything I'm doing — from fashion to music — so I'm pretty involved with the tasting and marketing.
WHAT WAS THE CONCEPT BEHIND THE X AND Y DRINKS?
X is more like a rock & roll vibe — to make you very motivated and energetic. Then Y of course makes you energetic, but also helps you concentrate more. It's a new type of a drink. I'm a big fan of energy drinks in general.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU WERE EVER APPROACHED TO ENDORSE SOMETHING?
I think a lot of the things started a little over 10 years ago. I've done a bunch of TV commercials. On top of that I have my own products and joint ventures — my wine is one of them. Also my Yoshikimono fashion line. I have a [branded] credit card in Japan, a MasterCard. I also have a Visa card.
IN THE EARLY DAYS OF X JAPAN, WAS YOUR IMAGE TOO CRAZY FOR COMPANIES TO WANT TO GET INVOLVED WITH YOU?
I think so. [Laughs] Because we were like a new genre, people couldn't define who we were — makeup on, a glam-rock David Bowie kind of look, and playing super hard. And sometimes I played classical music, so they couldn't figure out who we were.
KISS HAS SAID FOR A VERY LONG TIME THEY'RE NOT JUST A BAND, BUT A BRAND. GENE SIMMONS AND KISS ARE THE KINGS OF LICENSING AND ENDORSEMENTS.
I was just mixing one of the X Japan songs today, and we were talking about the music industry and about KISS. Gene Simmons is, like, a master of merchandise. He made this into a genre. Then to be a friend of his, I'm very grateful. I learned a lot from him, too.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH IT?
I'm very careful what kind of products and what kind of brand I work with. It needs to be authentic. I get asked to work in joint ventures or as ambassador for a lot of companies, but I'm pretty selective. My fans became my fans through music first, so music is still the most important and the core of my life. I think my fans understand that I'm trying to break the boundary of what artists can do.
ASIDE FROM KISS, WHAT OTHER ARTISTS GOT YOU INTERESTED IN ROCK AND METAL MUSIC?
Of course, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols and David Bowie in elementary school — and a little later Iron Maiden, when I went to junior high.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THAT MUSIC THAT CONNECTED WITH YOU?
I think it's about the freedom of how you can express your feelings. I grew up listening to and also playing classical music — I started playing piano when I was four years old. Then after my father's death, I didn't know what to do to express my sadness as well as my anger. He took his own life. When I found out about rock, it was, "Oh my God, I can express this feeling!" It's not wrong to scream. It's not wrong to beat the drums hard. That's how I got into this rock & roll world.
THAT'S CARRIED YOU FOR A LONG TIME NOW.
Still, yeah. When I'm onstage, some people may think I'm a madman. I smash the drums or I just scream my lungs out. This is part of the art on the stage. In the writing process, sometime lyrics could be dark, sad or angry, but those things become art. That kind of saved my life. I don't think I would have made it if I was not involved with creating art through the music.
WHAT IS GOING ON IN THE LARGER MUSIC WORLD THAT HAS YOUR ATTENTION?
I have enormous respect toward BTS, BLACKPINK, all those amazing artists. When I came to the U.S. for the first time around 30 years ago, when I said, "I'm a Japanese rock star," I don't know how many people cared. [Laughs] When I say that these days, I am something. So I'm grateful for what's happening. The world is opening up.
BLACKPINK AND OTHER ACTS HAVE GOT REALLY INTENSE FOLLOWINGS. YOU'VE EXPERIENCED THAT YOURSELF, SO WHAT'S IT LIKE TO BE IN THE MIDDLE OF THAT?
My fans are just amazing. I'm just so lucky to have those fans. I lost my mother a little over a month ago. I was in a really dark place right after that for three or four days. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't even turn on the light in my room. I just kept in the dark and cried. I saw a doctor. Then I just Instagram'd how I felt, and tens of thousands of people reacted to support me. It was, like, Wow! I thought social media is kind of a dangerous place to express your feelings. But it was the complete opposite.
YOU RAISED SOME MONEY FOR UKRAINE. WHAT INSPIRED THAT?
I started doing charity over 10 years ago. I also have my own foundation. Helping people actually helps me. In general, I've been donating to disaster relief and supporting various foundations such as Make a Wish and MusiCares. In terms of Ukraine, I'm only supporting the victims and refugees from the war. Then, because I stated that I donated to it, my fans jumped in and they made it a much bigger scale than what I actually donated.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO GET INVOLVED WITH?
There's a lot of things to support. When I was a child, and lost my father, I had to go through sadness. I kind of know the pain. So I started supporting those kids who lost their parents, or who had to go through some kind of illness because I also had this crazy asthma when I was kid — I was always hospitalized then — so I wanted to support that. We can do more than just donating because we can make a statement, and create more awareness of what's going on.
MOST BANDS DON'T LAST MORE THAN A FEW ALBUMS — BUT SOME, LIKE KISS AND X JAPAN, MANAGE TO KEEP A LARGE FOLLOWING FOR DECADES. WHAT MAKES THAT HAPPEN?
I know a lot about KISS' story because I'm a humongous fan. One of last shows I played was with KISS at the Tokyo Dome at the end of 2019. My first concert was KISS at Budokan when I was 11 years old. Budokan is about 10,000 capacity, then 40 years later they're playing 50,000 capacity. I think it's the dedication. Also, the songs need to be good. It's some kind of miracle.
In terms of X Japan, we went through a lot of drama. Of course, we are very fortunate to have amazing fans. Somehow the combination of all that drama and the music and who we are, made us exist all these years. We dedicated our entire life pretty much to that. Every single band who made it through so many years of fame and everything, it starts with the dedication.