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Shock-rock act Dir En Grey snub cartoons for cred

Visual- kei band chase fame via music fans, not just Japanophiles

by Daniel Robson

It’s no secret that, in recent years, certain styles of Japanese music have benefited massively from a surge of interest in anime and manga in the West. J-pop acts such as Puffy and AKB48 and visual-kei artists including Miyavi and L’Arc-En-Ciel have enjoyed exposure where before there was none. That’s in no small part thanks to the legions of dedicated fans of Japanese pop culture for whom the music itself is often secondary to the fact that it comes from Japan.

Indeed, anime events have sprung up all over the West that include music showcases, with hundreds or thousands of fans buying the CDs of whichever artist happens to be there. Some acts go on to find record deals in those countries, but many do not. While there is nothing wrong with these expos per se, some labels hinge their entire international strategy on them; and just as a specialist media has sprung up around Asian pop culture, the mainstream press often overlooks these artists by association and deems them too niche for a broader audience.

No wonder five-piece shock-rock band Dir En Grey have worked so hard to distance themselves from all this.

“When we first started playing abroad, that boom was just starting,” says bassist Toshiya, sitting on a comfortable sofa in his management company’s office in Roppongi, central Tokyo, with sunglasses and curtains of hair covering his eyes. “But we turned down nearly all invitations to play at anime expos or Japanese-culture festivals (in the West). It would be easy to ride the crest of that wave, but waves tend to wipe out pretty fast. We’d rather make our own wave than ride someone else’s. Once you perform at one of those Japan Expo-type events, it creates an image of your band that’s hard to brush off.”

That’s a subject Dir En Grey know all about. Formed in 1997 from the ashes of La:Sadie’s, the previous unit of Toshiya’s bandmates — Kyo (vocals), Kaoru (guitar), Die (guitar) and Shinya (drums), each of whom go by one name — Dir En Grey have been labeled many things. The heavy eye makeup and Gothic clothes they wore for the first few years had them lumped in with visual-kei, a rock subgenre where peacockish fashion far overshadows any definitive sound. Their gruesome music videos have had them tagged as subversives, a threat to society at large. To their fans in the States and Europe, who come out in their thousands for the band’s headline tours there, they are gods from an exotic land. But Dir En Grey know better than anyone that they are, after all, just a band.

“If people want to consider us visual-kei, that’s fine,” says Toshiya, himself a fan of visual pioneers such as X Japan. “People can think what they like. To be honest, when we first started and we were wearing a lot of makeup on stage and stuff, there were a lot of bands doing that at the time in Japan, and people thought it was cool. But not anymore, ha ha.

“The music was so unique, too — bands like X Japan. At that time, there weren’t any two bands that sounded alike; these days everyone sounds exactly the same.”

Dir En Grey, for their part, sound like a particularly violent cyclone whose destructive course changes tack with lurching unpredictably. Charged metal guitar lines morph into emo choruses or even extended prog workouts, as Kyo spits venomous, versatile vocals that range from a low roar to piercing squeals before settling into that common visual-kei singing style that always reminds this writer of Bon Jovi doing karaoke at a host club. Oh, and there are bits where he twists his voice into what sounds like a scat-off between Mike Patton and The Tasmanian Devil.

When asked about the direction of their as-yet-untitled eighth album, which they are currently in the process of writing and recording for a mooted summer 2011 release, Toshiya takes a long pause.

“Well . . . ” he finally proffers, “compared with our older albums, maybe it’s a bit more . . . difficult. It probably depends on the listener, but I think it sounds more complex or abstruse. We’ve finished recording five or six songs, though we haven’t yet decided whether or not they’ll make the album. We’re aiming for around 12 or 13.”

The five band members take an equal hand in songwriting duties, which Toshiya describes as a “democratic” process. “Sometimes we fight over it, like someone will want to add a certain riff or melody, but we never argue aside from that. Songwriting for us is like a puzzle; there are so many different pieces and patterns.”

Toshiya seems humble and down to earth. He says that when strangers ask what he does for a living, he replies that he’s an office worker; in fact, he grew up wanting to be a salaryman, just like his father. He says he was a shy child, but also an attention-seeker. “I was the type who wanted to find one thing and be the best at it,” he reveals. “The rest of the time I wanted to be left alone.”

Toshiya says he hated school, and would bunk off at any opportunity. Born in the late-1970s, he grew up watching anime like everyone else, and only developed an interest in music when he hit puberty and realized that if he didn’t know about the latest pop groups he would never get laid.

“I hated music at first,” he says softly. “We had music class and we had to sing in front of everyone while the teacher played piano. I’m tone-deaf — seriously. I really can’t sing. It was so embarrassing, so I hated music. But when you reach puberty, you want to be able to keep up with what the girls are talking about; which pop stars are good looking or whatever. So I started to listen to music just to get girls.

“I was mad about Michael Jackson in primary school though. Once a year they’d wax the varnish on the floors of the corridors, and we’d all do the Moonwalk on it, ha ha.”

His passion grew, and he eventually decided he wanted to clamber on stage and become a rock star. Knowing that his nonexistent singing ability would keep him from fronting a band himself, he shot for second-best: guitar, just to the left of the limelight. But here again he was thwarted by lack of ability, as the skills of his friends overtook his own. He was left with a choice between the drums, which require serious coordination, and bass. “Bass seemed easier — it only has four strings,” he laughs.

Dir En Grey was not Toshiya’s first band, but it’s the one that finally delivered him the attention he’d craved as a kid. Most of Dir En Grey’s previous seven albums have gone Top 10 in Japan, and they’ve played several shows at the Budokan — though the unassuming bassist insists he has no trouble walking down to the local convenience store “and flicking through the porno mags,” just like anyone else.

“But sometimes when I’m doing that I think about how awful it would be if someone started talking to me, ha ha. I’d pretend to be someone else.”

The band have also toured the United States, Europe and Britain regularly since 2005. At first, they shared the stage with heavy hitters including Korn, Deftones, Iron Maiden and Linkin Park. Nowadays, they play headline tours and major festivals in the West, and fans not only turn out in their droves but even sing along — in Japanese — to the band’s songs.

“To us it feels like when The Beatles first came to Japan,” says Toshiya. “Their lyrics were in English and no one understood what they were singing, but people learned the lyrics and sang along. So it’s the same for us, right?”

They have at times been as controversial as the Fab Four, too. Many of their promo videos have been banned from Japanese television, with abrasive visuals including baby-eating, murder, gore and — yuck! — cigarettes. But the biggest disappointment for Toshiya was the refusal by Japanese TV to screen the video to their 2008 track “Vinushka,” a nine-minute epic about the horrors of war. Laced with stock footage from World War II of the Japanese Imperial Army and American newspaper headlines that followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it never stood a chance in play-it-safe Japan.

“One of the bad things about Japan — and maybe some other countries are the same — is that you can’t say anything (in public) but positive things,” laments Toshiya. “Anything negative is buried; (unfavorable historical information) is not allowed to be included in textbooks, and so on.”

(Toshiya’s point is ironically proven — and augmented — when, after the interview, his management requests that we omit certain comments from our article, including the next part of our conversation. This common practice among larger Japanese management companies and labels shows that while the media may be all-too complicit, revisionism can often start closer to home.)

When “Vinushka” was refused airplay, how did Toshiya feel?

“Well . . . I thought ‘Again?!’ It wasn’t the first time. We’ve had that problem so many times before. I could understand it when we made videos that were really obscene, but for a video that had such a broad message to be refused was really disappointing. The Japanese media?” he laughs. “It’s s-it, isn’t it?”

Dir En Grey play several shows in Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya in late December and early January. For more information, visit www.direngrey.co.jp.