X Japan's Yoshiki Talks Defying Expectations, Defining Success & Delivering Timeless Music

Courtesy of Billboard Japan


Yoshiki has been renowned as a musical innovator for nearly four decades as the leader and a co-founder of the heavy metal band X Japan, a classical pianist, composer, drummer and music producer. Having shaped his career contrary to conventional "success," he remembers some of his most important moments as those of disproving what anyone told him could not be done.

Billboard Japan spoke candidly with the prolific Yoshiki about what he aims to communicate through his music, discussing the what a "hit" looks like in the changing music environment and the legacy by which he hopes to be remembered. 

The Billboard Japan Hot 100 chart combines eight types of data: physical sales, downloads, streaming, radio airplay, look-up, Twitter, YouTube and GYAO...

I was just in New York for the premiere of We Are X and played piano at Billboard’s New York office.

We were actually talking about it at the Japan office and watched the performance on Facebook Live. In order to create a music chart that is relatable to consumers, we at Billboard Japan together with Billboard update our metrics to accurately reflect the market. The way in which people listen to music within the last 10 years has changed dramatically. How do you feel about this change?

I think the way we make music has changed as how we listen to music has changed. For instance, X Japan’s song “Art of Life” is over 30 minutes long, but it was created due to the invention of the CD. The song can’t fit on vinyl. Although a CD will only hold 80 minutes of music, with downloads and streaming you will be able to put out 90 to 100 minutes worth of music. A long time ago when MTV was in fashion, I wondered why all the songs only lasted three to four minutes. It was to accommodate the broadcasting format of TV. So, I feel that as music distribution platforms and broadcasting media change, it influences the way we make music.

How did you listen to music when you were young?

When I was young, I listened to classical music records my father would buy for me every month.

But your friends probably didn’t listen to classical music, right?

That’s right. I think most of them were listening to anime theme songs. I also liked anime music because I used to watch anime on TV, but I mostly listened to classical music until my father passed away.

How do you listen to music now?

When I listen to classical music, I'll go through my old CDs. I use streaming services like Apple Music when I listen to new music.

Any songs that piqued your interest recently?

Well, let's see… when an artist like Radiohead, whom I’ve liked for a long time releases a new record, I'll try to check it out.

As you said earlier, your father was instrumental when discovering new music during your teens. What about now?

Mostly through recommendations from people around me including my friends or even from social networks. If it's a song I hadn't heard of, I'll even look for it on YouTube. 

Do you keep track of any music charts?

I do check the Billboard U.S. chart.

Do you think that music charts are necessary?

Because new music is being released every day, it serves a benchmark when choosing which songs to listen to. Or rather, "used to."

What do you mean?

I think one of the roles of the music chart was to show the amount of people listening to a song. I've been living in the U.S. for about 20 years now and up until a few years ago I used to buy songs which hit the top 10 and the Now compilation albums. When you listen to Now, you would be able to pick up on trends like, "There's not much rock this year" or "EDM is getting more popular." I used to listen to the top 10 J-Pop songs too but gradually stopped. I don't mean to discard it but because more people have started to buy multiple physical copies of the same song due to artists releasing various cover designs or added bonus features, I find the charts to be ineffective. 

Nowadays, because CDs aren't the only means in which people listen to music, a music chart solely compiled from sales figures do not reflect what people are actually listening to. Like yourself, a lot of people stopped tracking the charts when they realized this.

This is why I think Billboard's combined chart is very good. As you said, data from social media and radio airplay are also included. I think the number of times a song gets played on the radio is the result of promotion done by the record company. I also think it shows their investment in your work, like, "We really want to sell this song." When I look at the Billboard charts, it really makes me wonder which metric should be used to define a "hit" and if record labels are really necessary.

People all over the world are expecting a new X Japan release, which would be the first in over 20 years.

After the major label debut from Sony, a lot of labels have taken us under their wing and at one point I even started my own label. To be a signed artist means that I have to give up certain legal rights to my music. Though I don't want to go against record companies, I have to think carefully about how much they will work on promotion in compensation and also about role management including what I can do myself.

You're going beyond your role of making music and thinking about the promotional aspect too.

I prefer to just think about making songs. I really like making eccentric compositions. I'd rather be recognized now than remembered, say, 100 years after I'm gone and have people say, "He was truly great." This is why I want to think of a way, including distribution, for my songs to be heard now. Whether I'm composing classical material or for X Japan, I don't use any musical instruments and just write sheet music. Some people think new X Japan material won’t be born after I die, but I have tons of music written and hundreds of songs can be released. When I think about these things, I start to wonder how the music I’m writing now will be heard in the future.

The ways in which people listen to music will keep changing for sure. At what point did you feel like you were a "hit"?

I've felt it several times throughout my career. The first time was when I was touring smaller venues. I was very confident but because of our hardcore outfit and make-up, critics didn't take the music seriously and dismissed us by saying, "They aren’t playing music" or "It's some kind of show or costume party." But as the audience grew and shows started selling out everywhere we went, I realized what I had been doing was right. This was the first time.  

After our debut, we wanted to be on the television, but people told us not to because "rock musicians appearing on TV would mean they were weirdos." If that will make people think we're weird, then I'd rather just get it over with. More importantly, I had so much confidence in the music. When we got our big break through on TV, I thought to myself, "We were right." This was the second time. So it's more a constant reminder of "we were right" rather than "this is when we had our big break."

After that, we performed at Tokyo Dome and sold millions of CDs and we finally made our way across the pond. At the time, people were telling me, "You won't make it abroad, don't waste your money" or "You already have a solid career in Japan." It's been 20 years since then and we are able to tour abroad, which proves that I wasn't wrong at all. 

It seems like people constantly telling you that you are wrong but you disproving them makes you who you are.

Classical music is the art of how faithfully you can interpret a composer's work. I lost my father when I was still young. I cried all day long and didn't know how to express my anger and sadness because his death was caused by suicide. That's when I met rock music. And I found out that rock gives you the freedom to shout and break things. But when we launched our career, people told me, "Hard rock has to be this" or "We’re not too sure if X is hard rock or punk." I thought, "Wait, isn’t rock music supposed to be about freedom?" I think my career is built on this feeling of why do people want to create a wall, why do they want to put us in a box? So, when people tell me, "You need to do this," I want to destroy it. To an extent, that's why we went abroad. Even when I'm abroad, if there is a wall between East and West, I want to break the wall. 

The second leg of your Yoshiki Classical Special World Tour will run through December 2016.

On my previous tour in 2014, I toured about 10 countries starting from Costa Mesa in the U.S. and went around Mexico, Moscow and Europe. I changed the set list every night as a challenge as well as an experiment. I started to gain confidence around the Berlin show and a lot of audience members were crying because they were so moved.

On the last tour, you played popular songs tailored to that country like Edith Piaf's "L'Hymne à l'amour" in Paris and Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" in London, is that right?

Because it livens up the audience when we play a popular song from that country. I am also going to Hong Kong on this tour and at the press conference a reporter asked whether I would play any music from Hong Kong. I answered, "If there any requests, I would think about it." But I'm not sure how much I can honor those requests since I'll be playing with an orchestra. 

I heard that the entire crowd was singing along to the final song "Endless Rain."

It could be a problem if they sing along to all of the songs [laughs], but I'd definitely want everyone to sing along to “Endless Rain.”

On the previous tour, you played with a string ensemble but this time around you'll be playing with an orchestra.

On the previous tour, the emphasis was on my role as a composer. This time, I want the audience to see me as a pianist since I put a lot of effort into practicing the piano after the previous tour. So, I am going to be playing some classical pieces too.

Do you plan on having any special guests?

I am actually thinking about it right now -- including vocalists, so please look forward to it. I also plan on playing a new song but I do want to make the focus classical music, so I'll be doing some experimenting during the four Japanese dates. For the New York show, I'm thinking of adding a little Japanese flavor. I'm trying to decide on what to do, since I have a lot of ideas floating around but it'll be super exciting for sure.

Lastly, what message do you want to deliver through your music?

?I don't think I would be alive if I didn't have music because my suicidal desire was so strong. Music has saved my life. I think everyone has a soundtrack to their lives. People lead different kinds of lives, listening to different kinds of music and I hope my music can serve as a soundtrack to as many people's lives as possible. In terms of classical music, whether it's Mozart and Beethoven, we are still playing these songs which were written hundreds of years ago. I'm not sure what Earth will look like in a 100 or in 200 years, but I'm composing music in the hope that someone will play it in the future.


Yoshiki Classical Special Tour Dates:

Dec. 5 - Osaka, Osaka-j? Hall (w/ Orchestra)
Dec. 6 - Tokyo, Tokyo International Forum Hall A
Dec. 7 - Tokyo, Tokyo International Forum Hall A
Dec 8. - Tokyo, Tokyo International Forum Hall A
Dec. 29 - Hong Kong, AsiaWorld–Expo
Jan. 12 - New York, Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage w/ Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra
Jan. 13 - New York, Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage w/ Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra