By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER, Rafu Staff Writer
He presents himself with the prettiness of a pop star: flawlessly made-up skin, glossy hair, feminine sweeps of eyeliner. Both he and his fans refer to him as “vampire,” a word that now conveys innocent sex appeal more than anything otherworldly or tough.
Maybe his biggest indicator of star status comes from his Twitter feed, which features re-tweets of nakedly devoted fan art: the star as lanky anime hero, the star as stumpy caricature, the star’s features drawn on Hello Kitty’s body.
But Yoshiki Hayashi —who goes by first name alone—is a rocker, a drummer of almost four decades, and the face of X Japan, the band that reached astronomical fame in the ’80s and ’90s with their power metal hits and heavy ballads. This April, he will kick off a classical piano tour.
These contradictions have struck others as incongruous—when the artist came to the U.S., an American record exec told him to pick a more coherent direction (“This may work in your country,” Yoshiki remembers him saying)—but Yoshiki doesn’t see them that way. He began playing classical piano at four years old, then began drumming at ten.
Add the makeup (which he describes as “kabuki meets punk meets new wave meets whatever”), the crystal Kawai grand piano, the mix of genres, and these elements may seem to have nothing in common, except that they all appeal to Yoshiki. For him, that’s enough. He does what he wants.
When the Japanese government approached him about composing a piece for Emperor Akihito’s 10th anniversary celebration in 1999, Yoshiki wondered which way to take the invitation. By that point, he’d already released one classical album (“Eternal Melody” in 1993), but Japan knew him chiefly as a wiry drummer, whose maniacally enthusiastic headbanging would eventually leave him in a neck brace. He decided to write a concerto anyway.
In 2005 and 2012, Yoshiki wrote two more high-profile classical pieces, for the World Expo and the 69th Golden Globes. The pressure to release all three works together on an album led him to create “Yoshiki Classical,” which was released last August. Among the producers who worked on the collection is legendary Beatles producer George Martin.
At the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live last week, Yoshiki announced the schedule for his first classical world tour, which begins April 25 at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa, and will take the star to venues in countries including Canada, Russia, Germany, France and China.
With his eclectic mix of styles, Yoshiki is reluctant to define himself or the blend he’s created. He doesn’t know who he is, he says, or who he’ll be in five years (“or if I’ll be alive in five years”), only that he’ll be making music. All that matters is now: this concert, this moment.
Despite his fame in Japan and collaborations with major American artists like Kiss and Roger Taylor of Queen, Yoshiki hasn’t become famous or even widely recognized in the United States yet. He’s still struggling to achieve that goal, but he seems to relish the romance of being both admired and unknown depending on the country. All he can do — all anyone can do, he advises — is to make great music.
The rest of the strategy, whether connections or a social media presence “or a million different things,” means very little in comparison. It would be easy to write this off as a pleasant but meaningless sound byte. But for Yoshiki, music comes from a deep, personal place.
His first exposure to records came from his father when Yoshiki (who then answered to the more typical name Yoshiki Hayashi) was a child. When his father committed suicide, Yoshiki became “a really depressed kid” and turned to music for comfort.
He formed a band with his childhood best friend, Toshimitsu Deyama, at age 12, but unlike the countless other teen boys before them, Yoshiki and Toshi refused to abandon their dreams of stardom. When their first band broke up, the two formed X Japan, and they both continue with it today. X Japan reached almost cult-like status in their home country, becoming the first rock act to sell out a show at the Tokyo Dome and becoming the group that is widely credited with originating the “visual kei” performace style of Japanese pop.
The devotion of the band’s followers became starkly evident in 1998, following what is believed to be the accidental suicide of guitarist Hideto “Hide” Matsumoto. More than 50,000 attended his funeral in Tokyo, and three teens died in “copycat” suicides within a week of the star’s death.
X Japan disbanded shortly before Hide’s death, but has performed on several occasions since then, with varying member lineups. Several singles have been released, but no new albums since 1996’s “Dahlia.”
Before he revealed the dates and cities of his upcoming tour, Yoshiki spoke about the exhibit that has been set up in the lobby of the Grammy Museum. On display are some of his scores, stage costumes and his signature crystal piano.
“I feel like I’ve come home,” he said about the exhibit, the first of its kind dedicated to an Asian artist at the museum.
Yoshiki lives most of the year in Los Angeles. “It’s nice to be here, in the center of the music,” he said, explaining that he relocated to L.A. after buying One On One Recordings, the famed recording studio previously used by the likes of Pink Floyd, Mötley Crüe, Etta James and Marvin Gaye. Yoshiki said music continues to be more than his joie de vivre, it is the essence of his life, saying, “Without music, I don’t think I’d survive.”
Whatever else changes—the genre, the costumes, the fan art— music is what truly matters.
– Rafu Arts & Entertainment Editor Mikey Hirano Culross contributed to this story