Yoshiki prepares for classical tour amid a new appreciation for his legacy

by

Special To The Japan Times

Not many musicians are able to say that they’ve taken the stage at both New York City’s Madison Square Garden and Carnegie Hall, two of the most prestigious venues in rock and classical music, respectively. Drummer, pianist and songwriter Yoshiki Hayashi, however, is stepping up to take claim of that title.

“At this point, I still feel an enormous amount of pressure,” he says with a laugh. “(Playing Carnegie is) definitely one of the goals of being a classical artist, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

Known by his fans around the world as simply Yoshiki, the globally recognized musician is the founder and leader of one of Japan’s most popular rock bands, X Japan. Coming off a string of successful overseas screenings of his band’s new documentary film, “We Are X,” he speaks candidly with The Japan Times at a recording studio at Sony Music in Tokyo’s Nogizaka area. Here, Yoshiki is preparing for his upcoming solo classical tour, “Yoshiki Classical,” which launches in Osaka on Dec. 5. Other dates include three days at the Tokyo International Forum, a performance at Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Expo and, last but not least, Carnegie Hall. Those New York shows, which are on Jan. 12 and 13, will also feature the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. This will be Yoshiki’s second solo classical tour.

“I did a showcase at the Grammy Museum in America in 2013. Afterward, my agent comes up to me and asks if I could do a world tour. I was taken aback and hesitant at first; I wasn’t confident enough!” he says with a laugh. “But ultimately they convinced me and I went around about 10 countries. Looking back, it was good advice.

“After the tour, I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if we did Carnegie Hall in 2017?’ Only half-joking at the time. But then my agent came back with a date. I thought if we got it, we had to do it.”

Despite having performed at such storied Japanese venues as the Nippon Budokan and Tokyo Dome numerous times, for Yoshiki, the upcoming Carnegie Hall performances represent a different kind of milestone.

“Carnegie Hall has a history of more than a century,” he says. “I thought the same thing when I played at Madison Square Garden, but those venues all have some special force dwelling in them; they bring out something very special in the concerts they host.

“I used to live next to Carnegie Hall actually. It was literally the building next door, in New York. You’d ask cab drivers, ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ and of course they’d joke with that saying of ‘Practice, practice, practice!’ I’m finally able to play there now, after all these years.”

Yoshiki, who says he began playing the piano at age 4, showed an early interest and aptitude for classical music, which was introduced to him by his father. His father committed suicide when Yoshiki was 10, which put him on a path of constant questioning and turmoil, coming face to face with death on more than one occasion.

“When my father died, it left a big question mark for me,” he says. “I wanted to throw my anger and pain against something, and that’s when I discovered rock music. I think it’s because of rock that I’ve been able to survive. I had been suicidal for the longest time. But rock music is about freedom. You can scream, you can break things. So I decided to throw myself into it.”

X Japan, who pioneered the visual-kei movement of the early 1990s, was known for its members’ extreme makeup and loud and fast, thrash-metal-inspired glam rock, as well as its ability to write beautiful, heartfelt ballads, including “Forever Love,” the band’s 1996 hit. The two-sided aesthetic comes from Yoshiki himself, who plays both drums and piano, wanting to incorporate his love of both rock and classical into his music.

“I first listened to Kiss and Led Zeppelin. Afterward I got into the Sex Pistols and David Bowie. We were mixing all of that together,” he explains. “At the time, people told us that our music didn’t fit anywhere, and not as a compliment either. Even when we first went to America, they told us that if we’re loud and heavy, we can’t be soft and quiet. But I knew there was a way to do both, and afterward words like ‘visual-kei’ started to come up to describe what we do.

“I think both rock and classical are similar in terms of emotional range. With classical, you have a wide range of dynamics and there are parts where you feel a sense of insanity.”

For the upcoming tour, Yoshiki will perform orchestral arrangements of X Japan hits, along with compositions by Beethoven, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. He will also perform solo pieces he has composed over the years, including “Anniversary,” which was commissioned to celebrate Emperor Akihito’s 10th anniversary on the throne, as well as the theme song composed for the 69th Golden Globe Awards. The concerts will also utilize LED projection, giving the show a slightly different atmosphere from a standard classical concert.

The tour comes at the end of a year filled with both highs and lows for X Japan. The band was scheduled to release its new album, the first since “Dahlia” in 1996, earlier this March. With a concert scheduled at London’s Wembley Arena to coincide with the release, the band seemed all good to go for its long awaited full-scale comeback. Tragedy befell the band unfortunately, when guitarist Tomoaki “Pata” Ishizuka suddenly faced life-threatening health conditions, and was rushed into an ICU in January. Plans for the album and show were scrapped. (The band has since rescheduled its Wembley show to March of 2017, while the release date of the album is still pending.)

“When I heard Pata had fallen ill, I just wanted him to be OK. He was in the ICU for a while, and after he got out he asked what we should do about the Wembley concert,” Yoshiki says. “I told him to just forget about it for now. I’ve already lost too many members in this band. I didn’t want anyone else to die.”

The band, as documented in director Stephen Kijak’s “We Are X,” is no stranger to tragedy; lead singer Toshimitsu “Toshl” Deyama quit in 1997 after being brainwashed by a religious cult, leading to the band’s demise (he returned to the group when it reunited in 2007). Two other members, guitarist Hideto “hide” Matsumoto and former bassist Taiji Sawada, committed suicide in 1998 and 2011 respectively (though many fans doubt the veracity of Matsumoto’s suicide report and believe the musician’s death was an accident).

However, “We Are X” has also put forth a positive new perspective of the band, particularly from Western music critics who may not have been familiar with X Japan’s epic back story. While fans here are eager to see the documentary, there are currently no concrete plans to release “We Are X” in Japan.

With Pata fully recovered, making his return to the stage at the X Japan-curated festival Visual Japan Summit in October, and “We Are X” receiving rave reviews and awards around the world, including at the Sundance and South by Southwest film festivals, things for Yoshiki and his group seem to be looking up again. Yet after a career of many such successes and turmoil, at this point Yoshiki says he is simply focused on playing music as much as he can and for as long as possible.

“I know that the world probably won’t change even if X Japan plays at Madison Square Garden or if I do two days at Carnegie Hall, so I think it’s about how to keep doing it. Can we play at these places again? I think that’s the challenge. I feel a sense of mission,” he says.

Known as one of the most driven musicians in the industry, Yoshiki’s sense of mission has often come at the expense of his physical well-being; he has undergone surgery on his neck and wears a neck brace when performing drums, and has recently been told that he also needs surgery on his wrist. But it seems that nothing will stop him at this point, as he takes nothing for granted.

“When X Japan broke up and hide died, my life was over,” he says. “But my fans kept supporting me, and we were able to get back together. I feel like I’ve been given a second chance at life. Sure, sometimes the schedule is very hectic and tiring, but it’s better than those 10 years in between when the band was gone, when I had nothing.”

Yoshiki looks up and flashes a smile. “Every day when I wake up, I’m just that little kid that loves music, excited to play drums and piano again. We all die eventually. In that limited lifespan, I want to do as much as I can. I want to be able to tell myself when I die that, at least I tried everything.”

Yoshiki’s Classical Special takes place at Osaka Castle Hall on Dec. 5 (06-6341-4506) and at Tokyo International Forum Hall A from Dec. 6-8 (03-3402-5999). Concerts begin at 7 p.m. and tickets cost ¥10,800. The show then moves to Hong Kong on Dec. 29, New York on Jan. 12 and 13, 2017. For more information, visit www.yoshiki.net.