“L’Arc-en-Ciel is all about the musicianship. But Vamps are obsessed with rock music, and that’s basically our watchword: ‘rock.’ “

Japanese megastar Hyde is weighing up the differences between his two bands. L’Arc-en-Ciel, the multimillion-selling extrovert outfit with whom he rose to fame as the singer, have for 19 years been one of visual-kei’s hottest acts, even if the band themselves reject the genre label. Vamps, on the other hand, are a newer and more straightforward concern. Formed in 2008 to make music designed for the stage rather than the studio, they draw from a palette of hard rock, grunge, glam and emo.

“I guess there’s some overlap,” he says of the two bands’ fans. “L’Arc-en-Ciel are more like an ‘idol’ band — I think the fans like the fact that we look pretty. But in Vamps we don’t care so much about looks. Of course we want to look good, but it’s not the top priority, so I think L’Arc’s core fans probably don’t like Vamps that much. We’re not beautiful.”

Hyde put Vamps together with K.A.Z, originally a member of the band Oblivion Dust but also a collaborator on Hyde’s solo albums and a member of his live band. While Hyde writes the songs and dictates the band’s direction, K.A.Z plays the dual roles of guitarist and producer; as Hyde speaks to The Japan Times in a Tokyo recording studio, K.A.Z is in New York mixing songs for their as-yet- untitled second album, due this summer.

Hyde, 41, says the new material has a more direct sound. This is probably partly because the musicians on the forthcoming album have spent the last year or so touring with Vamps, whereas their eponymous 2009 debut used various players. Also, Hyde feels the band’s explosive live performances have influenced their new songs. After all, the band have already released more live DVDs than albums.

“We’ve really focused on writing songs that will sound great live,” he says. “I hate the recording process, and I always want to finish up quickly, but I’m looking forward to playing these songs on stage. I think we managed on our last tour to make the shows feel really intimate, even in arenas like the Budokan. We never have seating at our shows — it’s all standing, and people really respond to that. So that’s the basic concept (of the new album).”

In many ways it seems natural that a big rock star such as Hyde might start a project like Vamps. He says he was a shy child, an introvert with a love for drawing and creating. And yet his success with L’Arc-en-Ciel is such that he is unable to leave the house without his hat and sunglasses, lest his soft locks and delicate features give him away instantly. While Vamps are undoubtedly successful — their debut album reached No. 3 when it was released last year — their profile is lower than that of Hyde’s other band, and that clearly affords him a comfort zone.

For similar reasons, Hyde is grateful for the popularity his various ventures have found abroad. He has toured the United States several times with L’Arc-en-Ciel, Vamps and his solo project (L’Arc have also played in Europe), and although the documentary DVD “Vamps Live 2009 USA,” released in March this year, shows him being mobbed by U.S. fans outside music venues in 10 cities, he says he has more freedom there than in Japan.

“When I go to America, I only need my sunglasses when the sun’s too bright; they’re not something to hide behind,” he says. “I love Japan and I don’t have any desire to live abroad, but it’s nice to be able to breathe normally when I go to the U.S.”

Watching the Stateside tour DVD, it becomes clear how enamored Hyde is of his fans. He spends a lot of time watching them — from the Vamps’ tour bus, out of venue windows, and so on — and appears to be deep in thought as he does so. He says that while in Japan he attracts a lot of female fans, in the West there is more of a balance, and that American fans express themselves “more directly” than in Japan.

“I do like watching the fans,” he admits. “I wonder what kind of people have come to see us, what kind of people like our music. And I want to check whether there are any cute girls.”

Vamps’ music carries an obvious Western influence — they’re a rock band, after all. The production is straight out of a Smashing Pumpkins album, but actually Hyde feels more affinity for British artists such as David Sylvian, Depeche Mode and the New Romantic artists of the 1980s. “I think we’re more like a British band who’ve been recorded in the U.S.,” he says.

He has yet to play a live show in Britain, though he recalls a recording session in London. “When we had time off I would go to relax in Hyde Park, like every day,” he says. “One day I was just chilling out when a group of Thai or Chinese or Korean tourists came past and said, ‘Oh, it’s Hyde!’ And I was thinking that when they go back to their own country and tell their friends, ‘We saw Hyde in Hyde Park!’ that no one would believe them, haha.”

Vamps’ music is released by Hyde’s own label, Vamprose, which is also home to multiethnic postgrunge duo Monoral. Hyde says that he keeps a general overview of the business side of his label but mainly focuses on the creative elements relating to Vamps. In Monoral’s case, he listens to their demos and offers advice but leaves the rest up to Vamprose’s staff.

“I discovered Monoral when we did a show together, and I really loved them,” he says. “I’d love to sign another band if I found a good one.”

Hyde has even tried his hand at acting, in the mid-2000s movies “Moon Child” and “Kagen no Tsuki—Last Quarter.” In the former, a gang movie with a vampire twist, Hyde starred opposite fellow musician Gackt; while in the latter, a manga adaptation, he played an English-speaking rock star alongside Chiaki Kuriyama to a mixed reception. He says he was never particularly interested in acting, though he has promised to eventually make one more film. Since vampire flicks are currently all the rage, he says he’d even entertain an appearance in the next “Twilight” movie, “if the chance arose.”

For now, he has plenty on his plate. Vamps will release their new album in July, as well as a clutch of singles throughout the year (the bombastic “Devil Side” was released this week, along with another live DVD) and a world tour that will start in Japan before taking in the U.S., China, Spain, France and Chile. Then in 2011, L’Arc-en-Ciel will celebrate their 20th anniversary, and Hyde promises “something amazing,” likely to include a major tour and possibly a new album.

He insists that balancing two busy bands serves as a help, not a hindrance: “It actually makes things easier in a way. When I’m working with one band, I can look objectively at the other, spot the good and bad things and learn from them. And that means that both bands can keep getting better.”

The single “Devil Side” and the DVD “Vamps Live 2009” are out now; another single will follow in June and an album in July. Vamps tour Japan from June through September, then head abroad in October. For full details, visit www.vampsxxx.com

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