The expression “Big in Japan” — which refers to a musician that’s better known in that country than in the United States — can be a grand brag or subtle shade depending on the context. Bands like Bon Jovi and Cheap Trick funneled their overseas popularity into international success, while others have had those words muttered about them in jest.
American expat Marty Friedman is big in Japan. And that’s no joke.
Since the former guitarist for thrash icons Megadeth — whose decade-long tenure included performances on classic albums including Rust in Peace and Countdown to Extinction — moved there 12 years ago, he has become a media personality in the vein of Ryan Seacrest. In addition to working with top J-pop artists like Aikawa Nanase, his career encapsulates everything from TV appearances and writing books to being featured as a manga character on bottles of Fanta orange soda. Friedman is so popular that he was named an ambassador to Japan heritage for the 2020 Summer Olympics to be held in Tokyo. The mantle involves him promoting important elements of cultural heritage, such as dance and cuisine.
Friedman believes a reason he was chosen is because he can talk about Japan as an insider. “It’s one thing for a Japanese person to explain what Japan’s like,” he says. “But it’s another thing for someone who grew up in America to tell you.”
His “biggest dream” is to have his music heard or performed at the Games. Meanwhile, Friedman has achieved something else: another album. Wall of Sound, his 13th solo project, will arrive Aug. 4 on Prosthetic Records. Although his output is considerable, he remains full of ideas. But surprisingly, for a man whose name is synonymous with virtuosity, it’s not because of his love of guitar.
“I could care less about the instrument, which sounds terrible,” he admits. “It’s just the middleman in me getting my music across. I’m way into the music-making, creating, living and breathing the music. That’s all my life is about.”
For Friedman, the creative process is far more about the agony than the ecstasy. He describes Wall of Sound as “18 months dealing with the same music and hating it most of the time and throwing away things that you’ve worked on for so long because they’re not good enough.” Its final track, “The Last Lament,” expresses the sorrow he felt during the struggle, as well as the happiness that “the last tears will be shed right here and it’s smooth sailing now that this thing’s done.”
At the other end of the emotional spectrum is “Miracle.” Friedman calls it a “heartfelt” song “that’s supposed to make you feel really good after a big accomplishment, like you ran a marathon, a promotion or you fell in love with somebody.” It’s so close to his heart that, despite laboring with multiple collaborators to create spoken-word narration for it, he couldn’t come up with anything satisfying — but maybe one of his fans can.
“I’m secretly hoping that after the song is released, someone takes the liberty to do that on their own and blows my mind,” he says. He has “a Harry Chapin kind of thing, like ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’; like family, really personal, tear-jerking things” in mind. Friedman is happy to review fans’ inspirations uploaded to YouTube and is willing to retweak the track post-release if he finds a match.
Listen to “Miracle” below, which is exclusively premiering today on Billboard.com:
Friedman once again gathered friends to guest on Wall of Sound. Jorgen Munkeby, who collaborated on his 2014 album Inferno, sings on “Something to Fight,” the only track with vocals. “You’re definitely going to hear so much from them,” he says of Munkeby’s band Shining, calling it “a modern Nine Inch Nails on steroids.” He also enthuses about Black Veil Brides guitarist Jinxx joining him on “Sorrow and Madness” and Deafheaven guitarist Shiv Mehra contributing to the curiously titled “Pussy Ghost.” Billboard’s questions about the latter track sparked an entertaining conversation ranging from political correctness and social taboos to reverse culture shock and Friedman’s homesickness for Cap’n Crunch.
Black Veil Brides guitarist Jinxx plays violin on “Sorrow and Madness.” What made you want to have him on that song?
I was fan of his band. He came to one of my shows, and it turns out he’s a fan of mine, which is very flattering. We talked about him playing violin because he’s known for playing guitar, but he also plays violin. I’m like, “What kind of music would you write on violin if you were to write a melody or a piece of music or a theme?” He sent me some ideas that were a good springboard for me to flesh out this big monster of a song that really gives you something different from him and something different from me that’s never been done … His fans will be very surprised, as mine will.
What track is Deafheaven guitarist Shiv Mehra appearing on?
He plays on a track called “Pussy Ghost.”
What’s behind the name on that one?
The nice answer is there’s a part in that song that when I was recording it, I couldn’t get it out of my mind that it sounded like a cat.
Where is your mind at?
Well, you said “the nice answer” …
I’m talking to a lady here.
I appreciate that. If you want to supply the real answer, that’s fine.
That is the real answer. America is getting really PC. I’m getting kind of afraid to talk to American people anymore (laughs), because everybody tells me America’s going crazy with this PC stuff. [But] I wanted to have a title that made people at least think, “What’s that song sound like?”
… A section when I was playing it, and we were working on it in the studio, he was like, “Do that cat thing again.” So actually, the guitar is saying, “Meow.”
You made an interesting observation: the sensitivity people have in America. What is it like in Japan when it comes to that?
Absolutely nothing. I’m hearing that PC stuff secondhand. I really haven’t experienced it, and I really haven’t seen it. All I’ve heard is from people that I’m working with in America that are mentioning things that are going on, and I’m kind of oblivious to it.
In Japan, it’s a different animal all together. It’s a one-race society. Ninety-three percent of people in the entire country are Japanese. And the other 7 percent is everything else. The challenge in Japan is not the same challenge in America. America has all these different people that are living together, and I think it’s fantastic to have a melting pot like that.
… In Japan, the plus side is we don’t have that, “You can’t step on people’s toes. You can’t say this. You can’t say that.” There’s absolutely none of that PC-ism here, and I love that, because I think that there’s no room to be offended by things like that. There’s much more important things in life to be offended about (laughs) than things that you have no control over, so I’m very comfortable here. In Japan, the only thing that’s really censored or taboo are things having to do with mental health and mental illness.
Do you mean it’s something they feel it’s more polite not to discuss?
Absolutely. They’re very, very, very careful talking about it, if it all. I made the mistake one of the very first times I came to Japan and speaking Japanese, I said something to the effect of, “The audience at the show last night, they went crazy.” And the word I used for crazy [translated] to, literally, “crazy.” It was a live broadcast on the radio, and the air was completely sucked out of the room. I was like, “Did I say something?” They explained it to me afterward that you absolutely cannot say that word on radio or TV.
What reverse culture shock do you experience when you return to the United States?
I have no idea [about] the latest American TV shows … It’s a little like The Twilight Zone when I go back. It’s fun. (laughs) I remember a couple years ago, when I toured America, everybody’s talking about the Kardashians, and I was like, “Who are the Kardashians everybody’s talking about?” They said, “You’re lucky you don’t know.”
What things do you miss about the States that you do while you’re here?
My family all come to Japan, but it’s definitely not the same as being able to come every month or every couple months. It’s a big deal. So family’s number one, and friends. The main thing that I always say is “breakfast cereal.” Breakfast cereal sucks in Japan. There’s three kinds, and they’re all the kind that you would never buy in America. Because I grew up in America, I need to have that food coloring, red dye, purple-, yellow-dyed cereal. It’s a definite mood booster to have that, so I buy crateloads of it and bring it back to Japan. That’s a must.
What brands do you buy?
How can you live without Capt’n Crunch? I mean, how can you not have that in any country?
What other bright, sugary cereals do you get?
Fruity Pebbles. Fruit Loops. And anything that’s a limited variety, like when a movie comes out and they make a cereal for it. All of those cereals are just rip-offs of Lucky Charms anyway. But I still love it. [Having it] once a day is not that bad. I’m healthy as a horse, so I think that’s the key.
Friedman will restock on cereal when he returns to the United States on Aug. 2 to tour behind Wall of Sound. For dates and tickets, visit martyfriedman.com.