Go on, just say his name

While J-pop hides at home, guitarist Miyavi takes J-rock abroad

by Steve McClure

Miyavi is a guy you can read like a book — literally.

The vocalist/guitarist’s arms and torso are liberally decorated with tattoos that express his personal philosophy. His upper right arm, for example, bears the inscription “Tenjou tenka yuiga dokuson” (I am the one and only. In heaven and on Earth).” One on his left arm informs us that “Isshougai bonzin nari” (All my life I’m just a man).”

Most impressive, however, is Miyavi’s back, which is almost completely covered by the Buddhist “Heart of Perfect Wisdom Sutra.”

Since in Japan tattoos are associated with low-life, punch-permed types who may be missing the odd pinky finger, Miyavi is sending out a pretty clear message that he’s not afraid to buck convention, nor to be seen doing it openly.

That confident, individualistic take on life is the consistent thread running through Miyavi’s career. Having established a cult following in Japan first with visual-kei band Due le Quartz and then as a solo act, he wants to build on his growing international fan base with another European tour in March. Miyavi sees himself as a kind of cultural ambassador for Japan, and while that might sound pretentious coming from any other artist, he emits an intense sincerity that makes you believe him.

Although you’d never guess it from his passionate live shows, music wasn’t Miyavi’s first love. In junior high school, he played center half on a local soccer team in his native Osaka. After an injury forced him to abandon any hope of a soccer career, Miyavi (whose real name is Takamasa Ishihara) turned his attention to music.

“It (the injury) was really positive for me,” Miyavi explains in fluent English, “because otherwise I wouldn’t have played the guitar.” And, he adds, pursuing his interest in music prevented him from doing unspecified “bad things” after he’d become tired and bored with daily life.

Miyavi’s restless spirit caused him to leave Osaka and hit the road for Tokyo, where in 1999 he formed Due le Quartz. For Miyavi, visual-kei’s attraction was that it offered a sense of freedom by allowing him to express himself through a stage persona.

“Then, over the years, being in the industry started restricting me,” he says, as he takes off his sweater and more tattoos become visible on his tank top-clad torso. “It was really stressful. I felt depressed, like my head and body were apart. So I decided to break up the band, because as a musician it wasn’t enough for me. And putting on makeup is not the only way of expressing yourself.”

Miyavi has followed his own musical path since Due le Quartz broke up in 2002. Instead of performing with a band, he plays a Taylor T5 acoustic guitar with pickups and contact mikes that is hooked up to a regular amp and a bass amp. That combination creates a sharp, but full-bodied sound. Miyavi switches back and forth between fast-paced finger-picking, aggressive strumming and using the guitar as a percussion instrument.

One of his trademarks is to use banks of effects pedals to set up series of riff-based loops over which he plays lead and/or sings. Miyavi’s intense musical attack is boosted by drummer Bobo, who plays a stripped-down kit alongside the guitarist.

Miyavi is one of those rare artists whose infectious natural charisma and energy lets him connect with audiences either in a big venue such as Saitama Super Arena or a more intimate one like Tokyo’s Club Quattro, both of which he’s played recently.

His musical influences, like his playing style, are decidedly eclectic. Miyavi’s musical idols include Metallica, Guns ‘N Roses, X Japan (he played with that band’s drummer, Yoshiki, as part of visual-kei supergroup S.K.I.N. in Long Beach, California, back in 2007), Michael Hedges and Elvis Presley.

Consistent with his determination to go against the grain, Miyavi has established his own management company (he’s the president) instead of entrusting his affairs to one of Japan’s paternalistic — and often exploitative — “talent” agencies. He’s now signed to (foreign-owned) EMI Music Japan, which released his superlative album in October.

The “What’s My Name” album has been released in various Asian territories, and EMI Japan says it hopes it will come out in Europe and North America later this year.

“I want to release it all over the world,” Miyavi says, noting that while his previous record label didn’t want him to sing in English, writing songs in that language makes it easier to connect with his overseas fans.

Unlike the many J-pop artists for whom overseas tours are usually pro forma exercises whose real purpose is to impress their fans back home, Miyavi is clearly hungry for acceptance by international audiences, beyond his core overseas fan base of anime/manga obsessives.

“I want to blow them away,” he says. As Miyavi sings in the title song of his latest album: “Yellow, blue, black and white, borderless party overnight / It’s gonna be tight, let’s feel the vibe / World peace through good music, right? / I don’t care what they may say this is my way / Today’s the day to break away / Hey, by the way, you guys know my name?

Miyavi plays Drum Be-1 in Fukuoka on Feb. 19 ([092] 737-5300); darwin in Sendai on Feb. 24 ([022] 714-6107); cube garden in Sapporo on Feb. 26 ([011] 210-9500); Liquidroom in Tokyo on March 9 ([03] 5464-0800). All shows start at 7 p.m. and cost ¥4,500 in advance. Miyavi tours Europe March 16 till April 16. For more information, visit www.myv382tokyo.com.