While transcending the lost-in-translation syndrome Japan can inspire is one thing, it's another to become a staple of Japanese pop culture. Friedman, whose been there since 2003, has logged more than 600 TV appearances; landed major endorsements with such companies as Coca-Cola (Fanta), Sumitomo Bank and Suntory; written a monthly J-pop column and two best-selling books; acted in a feature film; become a manga comic and performed with some of J-pop’s biggest stars. It’s an incredibly long way from rocking a million faces with Dave Mustaine and Megadeth in their 1990s heyday.
Most interesting of all, is that the metal guitarist-turned-Japanophile is returning to his roots and releasing his 12th solo album, the super-heavy “Inferno,” on Prosthetic Records (Universal Music in Japan). And this time the 51-year-old virtuoso shredder is teaming with a generation of musicians he's influenced: Rodrigo y Gabriella, Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho, Skyharbor’s Keshav Dhar and Revocation’s David Davidson are among the platoon of metal youth joining him on "Inferno"'s dozen epic metal tracks. He also reunited with Jason Becker his former Cacophony bandmate.
“This is the absolute ultimate music of my entire career,” says Friedman.
The collaborators were brought together in part by L.A.-based Prosthetic (Lamb of God, Animals As Leaders, All That Remains), who compiled a list of people who cited Friedman as an inspiration. “I was taken aback by all these wonderful things people were saying about me and how I shaped their music identities and whatnot,” says Friedman, citing his own experience of working with German metal guitarist Michael Schenker (Scorpions, UFO). “When I was a kid I looked up to him unbelievably.”
The metal project, however, required Friedman to pull back from his Japanese TV and J-pop duties over the past 14 months while he woodshedded in the studio. “I've basically only done the most important television and musical things that I needed to do,” he says. Now the question is, Can Friedman retain or even regain the fans he once had while he zig-zags between shredder, J-popper and Japanese TV personality?
"For better or for worse, there is a lot of fans who’ve supported me through everything and a lot of fans who loved what I did until I went to Japan,” says Friedman. “But the thing is, I always knew that at one time I was going to do something for all those people and just blow their minds."
It is all but inconceivable to imagine a hessian metallurgist like Friedman as a staple of Japanese prime-time TV, which is littered with all manner of variety shows. Here music competitions rub up against wacky comedy programs and bizarre quiz shows and Friedman, during his hundreds of appearances, has graced many of them. He’s been a “presentah” (host), panelist and guest — and sometimes several roles simultaneously. On one show he bunked with a K-pop boy band for four days; on another he solved geographical quizzes; and he played searing metal guitar while ordinary Japanese acted out their metal alter-ego's fantasies. All of which raises the salient question: Huh?
“Marty is a very good balance between the two cultures,” says Minori Takao, an NHK news anchor who has watched Friedman's career evolve over the past ten years. “He brings knowledge of the American music scene, of course, because he was in it. And the Japanese audience has a lot of respect for the American music scene. But he is also really down to earth, kind of a guy next door.” That may be true now, but there’s also the fact that for ten years he was in one of the most fearsome thrash metal bands of all time formed and fronted by a lightning rod of a lead singer.
Megadeth: Dave Mustaine, Nick Menza, David Ellefson, Marty Friedman
Dave Mustaine formed Megadeth in 1983 after he was unceremoniously booted from Metallica. The group sold 9.2 million albums in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, including 1992's Grammy-nominated album "Countdown to Extinction," which featured Mustaine, Friedman, David Ellefson and Nick Menza and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 (thanks to Miley Cyrus' dad Billy blocking the No. 1 spot). That Friedman lasted a decade in a band where interpersonal relations, chemical dependencies and at least one very strong personality (Mustaine) caused many a musician to rotate in and out is a testament to Friedman's ability to adapt.
“Dave and I got along just great,” Friedman says. “We were both very focused on getting our work done and making great music. The problem comes up when somebody gets that rap for being a jerk to someone who deserves being a jerk to and it gets taken out of context. I can't speak for [Mustaine], but I certainly had no problem with him whatsoever.” Friedman's ability to get along with Mustaine certainly improved both his financial situation and his professional stature (throughout his years with Megadeth he released solo albums), but more than that, Megadeth helped feed his fascination with — and ultimately his move to — Japan.
NEXT PAGE: "I look at my musical output since I came to Japan compared to what I did before and it's not even in the same ballpark"
Friedman’s enchantment with the land of the rising sun may have begun with his first trip in 1989, but subsequent Megadeth’s regular tours of that country reinforced his interest. While still in the band the lead guitarist enrolled in a correspondence school with the University of Oklahoma studying for his Japanese language exams on tour buses and jets.
"Halfway through my ten years in Megadeth I got decent enough to do my interviews in Japanese," he says. "When you start doing live radio and television programs in Japanese, you have no crutches and you have to make something interesting happen and you have to get your information across, so that revved up any kind of Japanese lesson you could ever want.” By then, Friedman was listening almost exclusively to J-pop and its various permutations. "In Japan there are so many strange hybrids that can be mainstream — which is so liberating. I'd look at the top ten on Billboard and I wouldn't even like one of the songs; I'd look at the top ten on Oricon [a Japanese chart] and I'd like nine of the songs. I was like, 'I'm living in the wrong country.'"
Marty Friedman (second from left) in a Japanese low-calorie beverage ad.
In his final years with Megadeth, Friedman says he was on “auto pilot” even though the group was still selling records and mounting massive tours. He left in 2000.
The problem with breaking into the Japanese music scene, as Friedman explains it, is that roughly 80 percent of the music there is local repertoire and the rest is international, led by superstars on the level of Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and Maroon 5. "I was starting from zero when I moved to Japan and I couldn't rest on my international laurels," he explains. "The audience I was trying to get into doesn’t follow international music, so they might have heard the name Megadeth but they had no idea what the music was about and had even less interest."
Within months, however, a friend introduced Friedman to one of J-pop’s biggest artists: Aikawa Nanase, whom he had dinner with. It was more of a social meeting than business, as Friedman describes it: "I was a huge fan of hers and my heart was beating a mile a minute. I was like, 'This is so awesome! I'm having dinner with one of my favorite singers!' And she’s hot on top of that. I was really excited. So we had an awesome dinner and the topic of music didn't even come up once." A day or two later, Friedman got a call from Nanase's manager asking if he wanted to be in her band. "I'm like, 'Finally — this is the first step!'"
“I got an offer to host a TV show called "Hebimeta-San" ("Mr. Heavy Metal") — a comedy variety show that takes the piss out of heavy metal and Japanese celebrities with secret heavy metal lives.” Apparently a significant number of Japanese are closeted metal heads. The show's premise was for Friedman to create live metal skits on guitar in collaboration with the guests, in which he would play traditional Japanese songs and mix them with heavy metal riffs. While the show did well, it was a biproduct that inextricably change Friedman's career.
“From day one the biggest management companies in Japan picked me up to manage because the first taping went so well,” Friedman says. The company, How Fulls, is primarily a Japanese TV production company not known for managing musicians. “As I result I've done a lot more television programs than I ever expected,” says Friedman who works with How Fulls' Kinya Takano.
Exceeding 600 appearances may sound like a ridiculous amount, but the way Friedman explains it, he could have done more. “['Hebimeta-San'] was supposed to go for one season that lasted 13 weeks, but it went for two. And then a spinoff called ‘Rock Fujiyama’ went for 52 weeks — so right there that's close to 80 and that was just when I first started. Since then I've been a regular guest on a show or a co-host or a special guest.”
Manga Marty: The Marty Friedman Fanta soda can wrap and manga character.
In the process Friedman has become a celebrity in Japan. But whether he’s actually the Ryan Seacrest of the country, as his PR claims, may be something of an overstatement.
“He's getting there,” says NHK’s Takao when asked if his popularity is on par with the “American Idol” host. “When he walks down the street people go up to him and are like, ‘Marty! Marty!’ The thing about him is that he always says ‘hi’ and is real casual about it. And that just increases his fan base here.”
But celebrity is not what matters to Friedman. "TV facilitated the ability for me to do exactly what I wanted to do musically without having to compromise,” he says. ”It’s allowed me so much freedom musically. I look at my musical output since I came to Japan compared to what I did before and it's not even in the same ballpark with how much satisfaction I have as a musician now. It's much deeper and so much better and richer, and I have TV to thank for all of that.”