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‘Heavy-metal suicide’

A suitcase full of CDs by the likes of Ayumi Hamasaki and Glay made Megadeth's ex-guitarist Marty Friedman go gaga for J-pop

by Patrick Macias

Marty Friedman looks very metal.

He arrives in the plush lounge of the Tokyo Park Hyatt dressed in leather pants, his face framed by a mane of curly hair and with myriad silver “rock star” accessories draped around his neck.

Friedman is the ex-lead guitarist of Megadeth, the all-American thrash-metal band that has sold more than 20 million records. Metal cliches being what they are, you’d half expect him to say “Duuuuuuuuude” and throw up a “devil horns” hand sign as a greeting. Instead, his first words are an extremely polite “Hajimemashite, Marty desu.” (“Nice to meet you, I’m Marty.”)

Friedman’s obsession with Japan runs so deep that he is determined to do the interview in Japanese, even though it’s neither his first language, nor mine (I am, however, an old Megadeth fan from their best-selling “Rust in Peace” days, the album that introduced the band to a worldwide audience).

Friedman, a native of Washington, D.C., is used to communicating in Japanese these days; he routinely pops up as a guest on TV shows dispensing humorous and insightful rapid-fire Japanese quips, and he even pens columns about music for a variety of magazines, including the monthly tabloid Cyzo, in his adopted tongue.

“I never really studied Japanese properly,” Friedman admits. “I’d just pick things up one phrase at a time while doing my normal music activities in Japan.”

In the wake of the global thrash-metal boom that “Rust in Peace” helped beget in 1990, Japan became a regular stop on Megadeth’s world tours. “During our visits to Japan in the ’90s, I just decided, ‘I’m going to do all my Japanese press in Japanese without a translator from now on,’ ” says Friedman. “I could barely string a sentence together, and my grammar was terrible, but putting myself in the situation of having to communicate in Japanese forced me to improve quickly.”

All manner of strange things lure foreigners to Japan: jobs, monster movies, anime, nightlife and women, to name a few. But for Friedman, the siren’s call came in the form of J-pop and J-rock music. He says, “Toward the middle of my time in Megadeth, like around the mid- to late-’90s, I started really getting into Japanese music. At first it was B’z, Zard, Hitomi, Glay and Ayumi Hamasaki. Every time we’d come to Japan for a tour, I’d go back home with a suitcase full of CDs and listen to them constantly.”

You wouldn’t normally expect a heavy metal riffmaster to fall for the slick, commercialized sound of J-pop. But for Friedman, Japan offered a picture of musical diversity that he wasn’t finding back in the United States.

“I found that you can listen to a J-pop artist in Japan and they might have one really heartfelt ballad and then a death-metal track and then a disco track or a ska sound, but it’s all the same artist on the same album, and with good songwriting all the way through. This made me think, ‘I wish I had that kind of freedom in the States,’ because if you’re a metal musician in the U.S., you can’t really step outside of that image very much. I love metal, but there are a lot of other things that I like, too, and I found that Japanese artists have way more freedom in that sense.”

After Friedman left Megadeth in 2000, he set his eyes on relocating to Japan, which he did four years ago. But making do in the country without the support of a touring machine presented new problems.

“I was worried at first, because when you come to Japan on tour, the record company staff and promoter’s staff are always around, treating you like a god, but the second you leave they completely forget about you so they can prepare for their next international artist. So when I started living here four years ago, I knew it would be very different to not have every whim catered to like I was used to.”

The worries proved unfounded, as Friedman soon found himself embraced by the Japanese entertainment industry. “Almost as soon as I got here, I met (pop/rock singer) Aikawa Nanase, of whom I had been a fan for years, and we just hit it off right away. She asked me to join her band and it was like a dream come true. . . . Now every day I’m either shooting a TV show, doing radio, recording, doing interviews, preparing for a concert or doing a concert.”

Japanese television is notorious for its use of “gaijin tarento” (non-Japanese media personalities), throwing foreigners in front of a camera to provide amusement and literal “color” for the viewing audience. Friedman’s previous career set him apart from the pack, but he’s quick to admit that doing TV in Japan is a Faustian bargain of sorts.

“I have this personal policy that I’ll do anything to get my music to people who normally wouldn’t hear it. I’ve done over 100 TV shows this past year, of all varieties and styles. I did a cooking show with Kurihara Harumi (Japan’s Martha Stewart) earlier this year. That’s like heavy-metal suicide. I’m sure some of my hardcore Megadeth fans will want to shoot me for that, but I’ve got my musical goals and I’ll do whatever it takes to get closer to those goals.

“As a result of TV appearances appealing to a wide variety of people with a wide variety of musical tastes, not only rock, my latest solo album, ‘Loudspeaker,’ charted high in Japan. If people call that selling out, then that is fine by me.”

If the worldwide demand for heavy-metal music has dimmed since Megadeth’s million-selling heyday in the ’90s, the genre has, like Spinal Tap in the movie of the same name, managed to find a comfortable niche in Japan. Friedman’s recent eminence in the media has coincided with a Japanese air-guitar craze and the rise of all-metal music festivals such as Loud Park.

“In the States, you either love heavy metal or hate it,” says Friedman. “The mainstream pretty much avoids it. The sound of distorted guitars turns some people off. But here in Japan, everyone is kind of used to it. In the enka music that older people listen to, there are distorted guitars and twin lead guitar solos, just like Iron Maiden use. But people’s grandparents here sing along to it! And there’s some metal that goes out to the mainstream, but in small doses. Japanese bands like Orange Range, Asian Kung-Fu Generation or even Glay have riffs that are straightup metal, but they don’t overdo it. They take metal but homogenize it in a way that mainstream people can dig it. They take the lameness out of it.”

Now that Friedman is firmly entrenched in the Japanese music scene, he’s able to explore the kind of music he was never able to make with Megadeth. But it may not be quite what his fans are expecting.

“I just finished a single with a J-pop singer named Kotoko. I wrote the song ‘Kirei Na Senritsu’ [Beautiful Melody) and it debuted on the charts at No. 18; it’s my first top-20 single anywhere. As a song, it couldn’t be farther from what my fans think my music is. It’s not metal at all, but it’s exactly what I myself would go out and buy. It’s a very sweet ballad and very, very suited to a female J-pop singer. I’m really proud of it.”

Friedman may be a world-class guitar virtuoso, but he doesn’t hesitate to show admiration for the likes of Aya Matsuura and Morning Musume — cute girl idol singers who many music lovers are quick to write off as talentless.

“You always think that, until you go behind the scenes into that world and see what’s actually there,” says Friedman. “There are hundreds of people with talent in specified areas making that final product so incredibly bitchin’ that you want to spend your money on it. The top makeup people and the top photographers and the top stylists are all in complete harmony in making that one person look great. Then they have the 20 best songwriters in Japan competing to write the song. Then once the song is decided on, you have the top players put together to play it. And the idol herself may not be able to sing all that well — many Japanese female singers have a voice that seems out of tune half the time — but it’s cute because she’s out of tune. That adds to her charm as well as her charisma.”

Japanese record companies such as Sony Music Entertainment and Avex are increasingly eager to introduce acts on their rosters to the foreign market, but Friedman thinks there are some major cultural barriers to cross before his favorite J-pop acts can scale the charts abroad.

“Here is a point that the West might never get about idol singers: in Japanese they call it ‘heta-uma.’ It’s bad but good at the same time. I love heta-uma when it’s done right. Instead of honing their craft to become great operatic singers, it’s about having their own personality and having their own voice. They don’t have to be the next Mariah Carey.

“Also, if someone is too good, it kind of makes them seem distant from their audience, which is not a good thing in Japan. If you are at a U2 concert, it’s not like you are in the same room with Bono: he’s on Mars and you are in the audience. But in Japan, it doesn’t matter how big you get, the artists are trying to close the gap between the stage and the audience.”

Still, Friedman admits that there is a tradeoff in how musicians are treated in each country. “For better or worse, I think the artist has more power in America,” he says. “The press in Japan is generated by the artist’s own staff and they can make or break people easily. They could easily make up a scandal and take someone down.”

Japan has its perils, but it’s also a place where a foreign artist into both pop and heavy metal can prosper, or even become a media star. No wonder Friedman is glad to be where he is.

“I love America and I’m a huge fan of it, but every time I go back, I get bummed out on it as a country. And when I’m in Japan, I’m happy, so it’s real simple to say where I’d rather be. I think TV in America is too negative and mean-spirited, and it’s also very jimi (dull). In Japan it’s very upbeat and colorful and the music is happy.

“The music in America is depressing now. I don’t like it when rich people make angry music. It’s not convincing to me. One thing that bummed me out about Megadeth was that we were acting like we were angry all the time, and I’m not that good of an actor. I’ve found that in Japan you can play hard, heavy and aggressive music and it can still be uplifting.”

Marty Friedman’s new CD/DVD “Exhibit B: Live in Japan” will be released on Aug. 22. “Otakool” is a monthly exploration of the worlds of anime, manga and other Japanese obsessions. Patrick Macias, author of “Otaku in USA” and “TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion,” can be found online at www.patrickmacias.blogs.com