Underground Support Brings Dir En Grey To Forefront

Veteran Japanese metal act sees U.S. breakout, mainstream interest.

Before having released an album in America, Dir En Grey is causing a commotion here.

In March, the Japanese band ignited frenzied response with its first three U.S. shows. Dir en grey made its stateside debut with a showcase at last month's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas. That was followed by stops at the 800-capacity Avalon in New York (March 21) and the 2,000-capacity Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles (March 23), both of which sold out within hours of being announced online.

The ecstatic response has put Dir en grey in the enviable position of a likely support spot on 33 dates of Korn's summer tour, according to Bob Chiappardi, co-president of Warcon Enterprises (Dir en grey's American label/distributor), as well as another source close to the band.

The tour deal has yet to be announced. "We're in negotiations about them performing on tour with Korn this summer," says Peter Katsis of the Firm, one of Korn's day-to-day managers. "We saw a performance at the Wiltern and were blown away."

What's just as surprising as the rabid reception for Dir en grey is that the Japanese-speaking band gained its audience without singing in English. The quintet has been building in popularity in its home country for about 10 years, releasing four full-length albums through either Firewall Div or Free-Will Japan and a variety of singles and video collections.

Dir en grey has transcended the language barrier in the United States through its music -- which mixes pop elements with metal, incorporating lyrics that vocalist Kyo sings and screams -- and its appearance. In Japan, the group alternates its look with the release of each single, switching between fluorescent hair color and flamboyant apparel favored by visual kei bands (Japanese acts that use dramatic costumes and imagery) and more typical rock garb.

Dir en grey came to Chiappardi's attention when its management company, Free-Will Japan, and Warcon were discussing distributing each other's titles in their respective countries. He says some think he's crazy for giving the band's album "Withering to Death" -- which Warcon will release May 16 -- a shot, but he feels Dir en grey's melodies and visuals, plus its ability to get across its emotions, was powerful enough to overcome the language obstacle. He points to German act Rammstein as an example of a band that's been able to do just that.

"There's a lot of Cookie Monster bands, if you will; you can't understand what they're saying anyway," Chiappardi says. "It's kind of no different than that. If the music's real strong, if the emotion's there, if you feel that passion and get your blood boiling, it really doesn't matter if you don't understand."

Through the underground, Dir en grey has attracted Anglo teen and young adult fans of both genders who are knowledgeable of Japan's language and culture, and enjoy such popular entertainment as anime. The band also counts among its followers the Hot Topic crowd -- the goth, industrial, alternative and metal enthusiasts who patronize the clothing/accessory/music chain's U.S. mall stores. Harry Lo, Free-Will's representative for North and South America and Mexico, notes that fans like to investigate Dir en grey's lyrics and their translations, and that interest helps build loyalty.

"A lot of things are written in a Japanese style that when [the fans] find out [what the lyrics mean], they are real drawn into that," Lo says. "So when they hear them live or see them live, they really get into it more."

"Getting into it" is an understatement. About 100 Dir en grey fans -- who already had tickets to the sold-out concert -- camped out the night before the Avalon show to get as close to the stage as possible. The venue's special events director, Andy Griggs, says, "I've been in the business 23 years, and I've never seen anything like it. I was astounded by the loyalty... Kids arrived at 10 or 11 the night before."

Hot Topic VP of music and marketing Cindy Levitt described fans' eagerness to get their hands on the band's T-shirts at SXSW as "pretty crazy, and then the Los Angeles merch lines were really frenzied." Seeing the demand its target crowd has for the group, Hot Topic intends to soon carry "Withering to Death" and Dir en grey T-shirts.

Levitt compares the band's onstage theatrics and shock element to Marilyn Manson, recalling she was surprised when Kyo began cutting himself during the performances. She describes Dir en grey as a "good, solid band; hard; very visual to look at." The audience "was not the Fall Out Boy crowd. That's what was so fun and different about it too, that's why we were so excited... It's like, 'Oh my God, something fresh and new that looks good.'"

Lo and Chiappardi say more offers are coming the band's way, and the original March release date of "Withering to Death" was pushed back to May because of the escalating buzz. Chiappardi says Warcon is discussing creating a J-rock tour that Dir en grey would headline in the fall to capitalize on the group's burgeoning popularity and the audience that exists for such music.

"There is this culture of mostly American kids, and they're the ones that watch [Cartoon Network's] 'Adult Swim' and anime shows on that. They're the ones that shop at Hot Topic, and [many] can speak Japanese," he says. "A bunch of them just enjoy the culture, and they are really into it."