Kyoji Yamamoto leaves all inhibitions behind

Rocker breaks free of cultural bonds to jam with the world's best

by Wilson Whyte

Kyoji Yamamoto is probably the most famous rock guitarist in Japan. As leader of the groups Bowwow and Vow Wow, he has performed around the world, lived in the U.K. and the United States and played with some of the best musicians on the planet. Of course, hard rock in Japan struggles to compete with the saccharin dross that is J-pop, but there are very few J-pop artists who are sought out by their Western peers.

Six years ago, when Metallica visited Japan, drummer Lars Ulrich had one thing on his mind: to find Kyoji Yamamoto. Ulrich instructed his staff to track down Yamamoto and set up a meeting. They had crossed paths before.

“The first time I came across Metallica was 1987 or ’88 at The Marquee Club in London,” Yamamoto explained in a Tokyo cafe. “We were playing there and all the members of Metallica came backstage to see us. They were singing ‘Silver Lightning,’ which is a song of mine from 1977. I asked them why they were singing it and Lars told me they used to copy all my songs.”

Unfortunately, none of them made their way onto Metallica’s 1987 covers album, “Garage, Inc.,” which would have brought Yamamoto a healthy retirement fund. Still, Ulrich has found a way to get a few royalties to Yamamoto.

“Lars told me he sometimes does a radio program and he always plays Bowwow songs,” Yamamoto says. “Last time, he said he played the whole of one side of the ‘Signal Fire’ album from start to finish.”

After Ulrich and Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo tracked down Yamamoto, they headed for a Roppongi music club and jammed until the early hours of the morning — before an audience of 10 people.

Yamamoto is a big fan of the jam. When he’s touring, he likes to wind down with a jam session and he produces concerts in Japan that bring together great Japanese guitarists and other like-minded musicians. The problem is that in Japan there aren’t that many like-minded musicians.

“Overseas, I’ve played with artists such as (ex-Scorpions guitarist) Uli Jon Roth and (Whitesnake drummer) Tommy Aldridge, and I’ve found that it’s easier playing with foreign artists — they tend to be more open-minded,” Yamamoto notes.

“Japanese musicians — especially rock musicians — are very shy, like Japanese people, so there’s always some hesitation in really rocking out. They tend to stick rigidly to their style of playing; they don’t have the confidence to play in a free session. But I love jamming and it seems foreign artists just love to play any time.”

Bowwow and Vow Wow — the name was modified when the lineup changed and they brought in vocalist Hitomi Genki — were produced by big names such as John Whetton (ex-Asia, King Crimson, etc.) and Bob Ezrin (Alice Cooper, Kiss) and Yamamoto says it was a great experience.

“I learned a lot from American and British producers,” Yamamoto admits. “When I produce other artists, I try to do things in a similar style and musicians here often say I’m a different kind of producer from what they are used to.”

Yamamoto’s first steps to rock ‘n’ roll were on a mandolin, trying to imitate Alvin Lee’s frenetic guitar on “I’m Going Home” from the Woodstock movie, which he had seen with his girlfriend in his hometown of Matsue, Shimane Prefecture. His sister used to wake him up playing classical music on the violin, but she also introduced him to The Beatles.

“The first rock song I heard was ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Music’ by The Beatles, so I was influenced by them and classical music,” Yamamoto recalls.

“I was into British music and used to listen to the radio — stuff like Mary Hopkin and Cliff Richard. Then my girlfriend took me to see ‘Woodstock’ and it was total culture shock.

“Up to that point, I hadn’t had a chance to listen to real rock music, so when I saw people smoking dope and running around naked, and musicians like Alvin Lee and Keith Moon in ‘Woodstock,’ it was like a spark going off in my head.”

The first song Yamamoto learned was “Love Like a Man” by 10 Years After (” ‘Going Home’ was way too fast”) and he was also influenced by Jeff Beck, Ritchie Blackmore and Jimi Hendrix. He put together a band at school and gradually music took over his life.

He moved to Tokyo to attend the Yamaha Music School and quickly put together a band, which he named Bowwow. Victor Records signed them up and gave them a bunch of money, which they spent on a truck that could double as a stage.

“We got interviewed by all the mags and TV shows because of the truck,” Yamamoto points out. Victor released their first album in 1976 and in 1977 the band found itself supporting Aerosmith and Kiss on tours of Japan.

“I was 20 and we learned a lot about professionalism,” Yamamoto says. “We stayed in the same hotels as them and watched what they got up to. But with Kiss, even if they played around all night, all their shows were perfect every time. To see their presentation was incredible.

“Aerosmith was sometimes very bad and sometimes very good — like a real rock ‘n’ roll band — but when they were very good, they were just amazing, especially the way they built up the tension and brought everything to a climax. They were incredible and we learned a lot from their stagecraft and the way they planned shows. The two bands were very good to us and were really nice people.”

Bowwow toured with Kiss again in 1978 and also played overseas in Hong Kong, at the Montreux Jazz Festival and in the U.K.

“In 1982, we had a chance to play at the Reading Festival. We were going to be the second band of the day and all the Japanese journalists said that it was a waste of time because at that time of the day, everyone is still sleeping or just drinking.

“At first, it seemed they were right, but then I saw people starting to stand up and clap along, and by the end of our set everyone was standing and applauding. We went off stage and there was a lot of noise, so we thought the next band had gone on. But the festival boss came back and said we had to do an encore. Unfortunately, all our equipment had been taken down. He said I had to do something, so I just went back and thanked the audience and they went wild. It was the most exciting day of my life.”

On the back of their Reading success, they earned a support slot with Hanoi Rocks, but guitarist Mitsuhiro Saito decided to quit the band. Yamamoto had a re-think and brought in a keyboard player and vocalist (replacing himself). Because the sound was different, he also changed the name of the band. Backed by success in Japan, Vow Wow set up shop in London and became regulars at The Marquee Club. In 1988, they again played the Reading Festival, where an emotional Yamamoto met and was praised by his hero Alvin Lee.

After three and a half years in the U.K., the band moved on to Los Angeles, where they hooked up with Ezrin for the climactic “Mountain Top” album. It was a great production, but the hard rock boom was about to be taken over by grunge and the band members weren’t getting along. The band imploded and Vow Wow was no more.

“We just lost our enthusiasm, vision and purpose,” Yamamoto recalls. “It was a shock but also a relief.” Yamamoto went on to form a power trio (Wild Flag), record a number of solo projects and produce other artists, while continuing his close relationship with Yamaha guitars. He recently released a classy acoustic album of covers — “Rock Legends Reborn” — with top Japanese musicians and he still gets together to perform with Bowwow.

Yamamoto has been married for 24 years and has a 16-year-old son, Maoki, who is turning into an even more prolific musician (drums, keyboards, composer) than his father. Meanwhile, Yamamoto’s own father has changed his opinion that rock music is only made by “bad people,” and at 90 still goes to watch his son live on stage.

“He just wanted me to be a regular guy with a normal life and income,” Yamamoto says.

Well, maybe Yamamoto always was a “normal” guy, but put a guitar in his hand and he will never be mistaken for anything but a rock god. And if you don’t believe me, just ask Metallica.

Bowwow plays at Shibuya Boxx on April 18 and at Shimokitazawa Garden on July 4. Wild Flag plays at Kyoji Yamamoto’s Pure Music Festival in Matsue on April 26-28. Kyoji Yamamoto will play a solo concert at Blues Alley in Meguro on May 17.