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America, meet Yoshiki

In Japan, the heavy metal drummer-pianist is so big that Hello Kitty released a likeness of him. He and his band, X Japan, play Lollapalooza next month. He wants to keep building on that.

July 25, 2010|By Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times
  • KEYS: Yoshiki and his band, X Japan, have a main-stage slot at Lollapalooza next month. He hopes to keep building momentum.
KEYS: Yoshiki and his band, X Japan, have a main-stage slot at Lollapalooza… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

The scene was one of barely controlled rock 'n' roll excess. In early January, 8,000 screaming fans mobbed the streets surrounding the Hollywood & Highland complex for a multimillion-dollar video shoot featuring one of Asia's top-selling pop acts: the hard-rocking quintet X Japan.

With helicopters circling, the feathery-haired band members ascended to a stage atop the venue to lip-sync new songs. Guitars screamed and drums pounded; pillars of fire erupted from cannons. Technicians deployed fireworks and Hollywood Boulevard traffic was brought to a standstill for more than six hours in the name of a singularly Japanese brand of heavy metal thunder.

Despite the scene's garish bombast — with its echoes of rooftop rocking by the likes of U2 and the Beatles — X Japan's drummer-pianist, Yoshiki, became choked up by the turnout, with fans traveling all the way from Japan for the event and no small amount of American J-Rock enthusiasts in tow.

"It almost made me cry," said Yoshiki, Japan's biggest rock star and a corporate pitchman for a staggering array of products, including the Yoshiki Visa card and Yoshikitty, the first product the beloved Japanese toy line Hello Kitty has ever made in the likeness of a human being.

He continued: "It was a touching moment. It gave us confidence to go forward, to tour in America and want to release an album in the U.S."

Talk about a confidence booster. X Japan will make its debut U.S. performance next month at Lollapalooza in Chicago. While the festival is known for featuring the cream of American alterna-rock, with this year's lineup including MGMT, Arcade Fire and Green Day, no J-Rock act has played the Chicago event's main stage à la X Japan. An album from the group featuring 80% to 90% English-sung lyrics is also in the works, Yoshiki said.

Never mind that acts from across the Asian pop diaspora have tried and failed to infiltrate the American mainstream — among them the singer-actor known as Rain from South Korea, Canto-pop sensation Coco Lee and Japanese singer Toshi Kubota. The plan is for X Japan to cross over, not simply as world music performers but as a legitimate pop act in the vein of Slipknot or Metallica.

Jonathan Platt, founder of the website, characterized the group's appeal in terms of other Western bands, at a time when he says the popularity of the J-Rock genre is quietly skyrocketing in the U.S.

"I would look at them like Kiss," Platt explained of X Japan. "They are the ultimate arena rock band with high style. Their music is anthemic with amazing ballads. And they have an amazingly loyal fan base who get very into the movement. It's like the Grateful Dead, where fans will travel and dedicate their whole summers to seeing X Japan as many times as they can."

X Japan's other members (mono-monikered, all) include Toshi on vocals, Pata and Sugizo on guitars and Heath on bass. But Yoshiki — who drums with the aggro-vehemence of Alex Van Halen but is also an accomplished classical pianist who composed a concerto for the emperor of Japan — is the one who remains singularly focused on making it big in America.

He's lived between Tokyo and Los Angeles for more than a decade and made significant inroads here with soundtrack contributions to such less-than-stellar American movies as " Saw IV," the 2007 horror flick "Catacombs" and " Repo! The Genetic Opera." Then there's Yoshiki's well-entrenched habit of networking with high-powered Hollywood entertainment executives (his manager Marc Geiger co-founded Lollapalooza and was instrumental in getting the band booked for the fest) and even the launch last year of Yoshiki's boutique label of Robert Mondavi-produced wines.

As a fevered multitasker and established brand unto himself in Asia, Yoshiki, 44, has also won the confidence of a number of music biz shot-callers. "He knows how to build a fan base," said Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, who has known Yoshiki for several years. "Given the sophistication of his organization and entrepreneurial spirit, as well as him having been in this country to personally experience how it works — that may give him a bit of an advantage in the American market."

But even while functioning as X Japan's co-founder and chief creative force, Yoshiki is prepared to go it alone. Asked if his band mates are as fired up as he is to win over the West, the drummer-pianist said, "Some of them are, some of them are not."

"I say, 'I'll do it with or without you guys,'" Yoshiki said at his North Hollywood recording studio recently. Attired in bondage trousers and a frilly pirate shirt, with winklepickers on his feet, he recalled leveling a hard question at his X Japan confreres: "'Are you following me or not?'"

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