X Japan's Yoshiki On Pain, Loss, Prince and the Band's First Album in 20 Years

Smallz & Raskind/Getty Images for Samsung
Yoshiki photographed in the Getty Images SXSW Portrait Studio powered by Samsung at the Samsung Studio on March 13, 2016 in Austin, Texas.

At first, the story of X Japan feels familiar, almost like un-ironic stock footage left on Spinal Tap's cutting room floor. Five musicians dressed in over-the-top glam outfits with huge multi-colored hair and too much makeup ride a delicately-balanced mix of speed metal and power ballads out of the 1980s Tokyo rock scene to become the defining band of their generation, inspire legions of fans and innovate a new cultural aesthetic -- called visual kei -- on the way to selling 30 million albums and, by the mid-'90s, earning the undisputed title of the biggest band in Japan. It's a tale that could apply to many bands of the '70s and '80s in the Western Hemisphere; Kiss, Queen, Bon Jovi, Led Zeppelin and plenty more bands have had similar success.

But, at the height of its success, X Japan's story takes such a hard left turn that it seems barely believable, as if Quentin Tarantino got hold of the script and decided to turn everything upside down. In the early '90s, as massive success in its home country led to a deal in the U.S. with Atlantic Records, an awkward arrival to fizzled enthusiasm and led to an American release being kept on the shelf. In September '97, the band announced lead singer Toshi was leaving the group for a "simpler" lifestyle. More than a decade later, he would admit to being "brainwashed" by a Japanese religious cult. And in May 1998, the band's lead guitarist hide was found dead in his apartment with a towel tied around his neck, sparking an outpouring of mourning that included at least three copycat suicides before the remaining members of X pleaded with fans to stop.

Thus, in short succession, X Japan was broken. Bandleader, drummer and keyboardist Yoshiki retreated from the spotlight for years. That rise, fall and inevitable reunion -- Yoshiki got the band back together tentatively in 2007, then more officially in 2011 -- is documented in the film We Are X, which focuses on the insanity of X Japan through the eyes of its conflicted, emotional leader. Executive produced by John Battsek and directed by Stephen Kijak, the documentary has already won awards at Sundance and SXSW's Film Festival, and just yesterday locked in a deal with Mongrel International for international distribution.

And now, finally, 20 years after the release of their last album Dahlia, X Japan is on the verge of a new LP, due out this fall. Billboard speaks with Yoshiki about We Are X, the band's triumphant but emotional reunion, the influence of Prince on X's visual kei aesthetic and what to expect from X Japan's first new album in 20 years.

Why did you decide to make this film?

Yoshiki: My agent from WME, Marc Geiger, and I have been talking about the film for several years; actually, it was his idea. He knew the X Japan story was crazy and very dramatic, so he kind of told me to create the film. It was a very painful project, and at the beginning I was very hesitant because I didn't want to go back to those old memories, I didn't want to open that door. So in the past five or six years he convinced me.

Did you have any input or final say in putting it together?

Well, because we had an amazing [executive] producer -- John Battsek from London -- and also the director, Stephen Kijak, I kind of gave them pretty much everything in our archive, everything. So they just created it. I might have said, "I hate this face," or something like that, but pretty much they created it all.

What was the most difficult part of opening up for the cameras?

You know, it's like... My father committed suicide. We lost our guitar player [Hide Matsumoto], he passed away also. So whenever we're talking about X Japan's past -- and also my past -- it's not always easy to recall, easy to talk about how [my father] died or how I saw his face when I saw his dead body, stuff like that was pretty painful. Unconsciously, I'd kind of shut the door on talking about it, even though when the band reunited the media asked me, "How do you feel?" and I said I was feeling very positive, very positive. But when you talk about your entire life when you're creating a documentary, it's a different story. I kind of remember one part of my life, but if you look at pretty much everything, it's very impactful.

You said you were apprehensive to even start the project. I can only imagine what it must have been like to put everything out there to the public for the first time -- especially when you'd never done it before.

It's kind of like something you have to conquer. I can't ignore those things for the rest of my life. It's just... you just have to conquer it. I thought this was a very good opportunity to face it. I think I've seen the film like five times so far; every time I've seen it I've cried over 10 times.

The film depicts your health issues and the injury to your arm, which was forcing you to choose between a surgery that would allow you to continue playing drums and one that would allow you to continue playing piano. Have you decided what you're going to do?

Yes, actually, I just saw a doctor again. That thing is still going on, even after all this time. [Laughs] Actually, I was in Tokyo last week and saw the best doctor in Tokyo. Then I got back to Los Angeles and I'm going to see a doctor next week. I'm looking at some kind of a small surgery, and I'm still trying to find some alternative treatment as well. So it's still going on. I can play, it's just really painful; I [play] through the pain. I can move my fingers and play drums, it's just still really painful.

At the height of X Japan, did you ever get a sense that things had gotten too big?

You know, at the height of it I didn't really think about that. At that time we took everything for granted. I think every rock star starts to feel, when they're at the height of the mountain or something, you don't really think -- it's almost like anything is possible. At that moment we didn't really think that much, we just took everything for granted. I mean, we thought that moment would keep going on and on and on. Then, you know, we started losing members; our vocalist got brainwashed, then our guitar player passed away. And there was that feeling like, "Whoa... what happened?" And at that moment we started thinking, you know, we shouldn't take anything for granted. Especially now, I just appreciate everything happening in my life.

How important was it for you to get the band back together -- and how difficult was it after everything that had happened?

To be honest, it's still a mixed feeling, because every time I play on stage I'm thinking about the old members [of the band]. So it's painful. But at the same time, I'm looking at fans' faces and realizing that I'm still playing on stage... So it's a mixed feeling. But I would say it's positive. But I do cry on stage every time I play.

Visual Kei's aesthetic is very much influenced by David Bowie, but did Prince influence you guys in any way?

Completely. I mean, we were into David Bowie, all sorts of hard rock bands. But Prince, his guitar technique and everything gave off a very hard rock vibe. He had like a very new wave-ish, innovative music style. Yeah, Prince, especially a song like "Purple Rain," that's a [great] music style. So yeah, Prince was one of our biggest influences as well. I never met Prince; he was the one I always wanted to meet.

You guys haven't put out an album of new material since 1996. How does you feel about coming back with a new album now? Rock music has changed so much.

Right... That's a good question. I have some pressure because some X Japan fans may expect for us to create something like a continuous version, a new version of our previous album. But at the same time in this industry we've seen change. I would say it's still very edgy, still very hard -- I would say even edgier -- but somehow a little experimental as well. I just didn't want to do the same speed metal and classic vibe on top of it, I just wanted to make it even edgier. So there's more of an electronic music element. We already had that 20 years ago, but I added more, more strings. It's hard to explain. [Laughs] I always have a problem explaining music... People ask me what I do and I say, "I play piano, I play drums. What do you mean?"

When is the album coming out? I think I've seen you mention this fall.

Yes, as of now -- and we're going to the studio tonight, too, so we're working very hard. If everything goes well, I would say this fall, like October or something like that.

How do you feel about the current state of rock music?

You know, these things kind of cycle around. So rock music was huge, then R&B and rap took over, then EDM became huge -- I think it's about time that rock comes back. Rock needs to come back. I'm pretty positive about the scene, so I think if there are a bunch of rock artists then hopefully our album can [become] a little part of this [current] rock scene.

What else do you guys have coming up?

We were supposed to play Wembley Arena in March, but one of our members, our guitar player Pata, got really sick; I think he went to the ICU and I couldn't even reach him for over two weeks. But he survived. So we had to postpone the Wembley show, so it's going to be happening next March 4. Then meanwhile we're finishing the album, so I'd say starting around this fall we're going to start being more active.

When you look back at the legacy of X Japan to this point, what do you think?

You know, people always say rock is not just music, it's a lifestyle. X Japan is my life. I don't know... Not only the music parts, but I'm really glad I'm still alive, I'm still doing music, I'm still on stage. Our fans always supported us. I don't know. It's not over yet. [Laughs]

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