Guitarist Tomoyasu Hotei calls on his pals for ‘Strangers’

by

Special To The Japan Times

Recalling his first encounter with rocker Iggy Pop, a huge grin flashes across the face of Tomoyasu Hotei. It occurred at Berlin airport around 30 years ago when he was recording in Germany with former band Boøwy. Despite being one of the most famous musicians in Japan, the guitarist was too shy to approach the man known as the “Godfather of Punk.”

“He had such an aura,” Hotei tells The Japan Times. “I really wanted to go up and shake his hand, but I was so nervous. Fortunately his wife at the time was Japanese (Suchi Asano) and happened to be a big fan of mine so he actually came up and asked for my autograph. I couldn’t believe it. This was someone I grew up idolizing and he wanted my signature. I spoke to him about it recently and he told me he remembers it.”

The two men were reunited last year when Hotei — through a mutual friend — asked the frontman of Iggy and the Stooges to put his vocals and lyrics to two songs he’d been working on. Together they produced “How the Cookie Crumbles,” an edgy track, bursting with attitude, and “Walking Through the Night,” which Pop says is about a lonely night he spent in Shinjuku while feeling horny. Both songs feature on the upcoming album “Strangers,” Hotei’s first international LP with Spinefarm Records.

“I had the music for ‘How the Cookie Crumbles’ and I thought it sounded great. I just needed a strong vocalist to complete it,” the 53-year-old says. “I played the demo to Noko from the group Apollo 440. He’s a good friend who sings on another song on the album, “Barrel of My Own Gun.” Anyway after hearing the demo he just said, ‘How about Iggy Pop?’ I didn’t have to think about it for another second. I knew he would be the perfect choice.

“After an agonizing wait we eventually managed to get him in the studio and he was even better than I’d expected. You want to learn from the masters so I observed him closely. The two tracks sounded autobiographical — it was like watching a movie or something. He’s such an intelligent guy and a real gentleman, but he’s still got that wild look. Going around with him in Miami was a surreal experience, particularly seeing him driving jacket-less in his convertible Rolls-Royce.”

The 68-year-old Pop (who was born James Newell Osterberg, Jr.) is one of a number of Western artists that Hotei called upon to collaborate with on the record. As well as the aforementioned Noko, there is also Richard Z. Kruspe from heavy metal band Rammstein performing “Move It,” Shea Seger lending her smoky vocals to the song “Texas Groove” and Bullet for My Valentine frontman Matt Tuck singing “Kill to Love You,” one of the standout tracks on the album.

“Matt was actually recording at the same studio as me with Bullet for My Valentine and a guy from Spinefarm Records said I should have a listen,” Hotei says. “The sound was a lot heavier than my own work, but I liked it. Matt’s a guitarist who loves rock music so he was immediately interested in working together. His idea was to make a song that would fit a spy or suspense film. I pictured James Bond directed by Quentin Tarantino.

“We were in the studio for three days, which is quite short for a collaboration. I loved how it turned out and think it could be a big hit. It’s a similar feeling to the one I had after I’d finished recording “Battle Without Honor or Humanity.” That was made for a movie and I think this one could be used in one, too.”

The closing track on “Strangers” and Hotei’s biggest hit, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” was initially called “Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai no Tema” (“Another Battle”) the title of the film for which it was originally recorded. Tarantino — a big fan of Japanese cinema — saw Junji Sakamoto’s movie, which also starred Hotei, and decided to speak to the guitarist’s management about using the track in his upcoming film “Kill Bill Vol. 1.” He needed a powerful tune prior to the pivotal fight scene between Uma Thurman’s character and villain O-Ren Ishii’s personal army, The Crazy 88.

“I heard he was thinking of using a Metallica song for it, but thankfully when he saw ‘Another Battle’ he changed his mind,” Hotei says. “I told him I could write something new, but he insisted it had to be ‘Shin Jingi Naki Tatakai,’ which he later renamed ‘Battle Without Honor or Humanity.’

“He’s a real punk — like the Sid Vicious of filmmaking — and I think that is reflected in his work. ‘Kill Bill’ is crazy, but at the same time it’s a movie of the highest quality. I’m delighted that I was given the opportunity to play a small part in it and so grateful that it has given my song such widespread exposure.”

Since “Kill Bill,” “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” has been used in a number of Hollywood flicks including “Transformers,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Team America: World Police.” It is featured in numerous commercials, computer games and TV shows. Sports teams Bayern Munich and the New York Giants also play it before games. Despite all of this, Hotei — who also wrote three tracks for the Terry Gilliam film “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” — remains a relative unknown outside of Japan.

“It’s funny, wherever I go around the world everyone seems to know that song, but usually they never have a clue who I am,” he says, smiling. “I’ve played it a lot at festivals and bars in the U.K. over the past couple of years and people often come up after and tell me how much they enjoyed hearing the ‘Kill Bill’ cover. I don’t mind though. I just love the fact that my music is getting recognized outside of Japan.”

Leaving the comforts of his own country — where he has sold more than 40 million records — Hotei decided to move to London in 2012 with pop star wife Miki Imai. Aged 50 at the time he felt he “needed a new challenge,” and where better to go than a city he considers “the home of rock ‘n’ roll.”

During his youth, most of Hotei’s record collection consisted of British bands and artists like The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music and T. Rex. It was a black-and-white poster of T. Rex frontman Marc Bolan outside of a music shop that first piqued his interest in the guitar at the age of 14. He rushed home, “borrowed” some money from his mother’s purse and bought a Stratocaster, putting an end to his years of piano lessons.

In 1981, together with Kyosuke Himuro, he formed the band Boøwy — one of Japan’s most successful rock groups — which he named after David Bowie. Fifteen years later as a solo artist, he had the opportunity to perform “All the Young Dudes” with his hero during Bowie’s Japan tour.

“It’s a night I’ll never forget,” Hotei says. “The thought of going on stage with David Bowie petrified me, but he actually helped calm me down. He’s such a charming guy. I love all his music, including his most recent album, “The Next Day.” “Where Are We Now?” is my favorite. It sounds amazing. I know he is a good friend of Iggy’s so I am hoping he’ll listen to ‘Strangers.’ I’m sure he will.”

As well as Bowie, Hotei has played with a number of other huge acts including The Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, INXS and Joni Mitchell. So if he had the choice of putting a dream group together who would he hire?

“Bowie’s a must of course,” he says, without missing a beat. “Prince would be another, he’s someone I’ve always wanted to work with. The only problem is both of them are quite small, whereas I’m 187 cm tall so it might look a little strange. The height thing aside though, they would be my top two choices. Can you imagine them together? It would be like something from another planet.”

“Strangers” is in stores on Oct. 16. For more information, visit www.hotei.com. Tomoyasu Hotei will play Islington Assembly Hall in London on Oct. 21 (8 p.m. start).