Yoshiki, glam-rocker responsible for 'changing Japan's culture,' eyes U.S. stardom with supergroup the Last Rockstars: 'It's kind of cool to break some kind of boundary again'
When Japanese musician/composer/producer Yoshiki founded seminal glam-metal band X Japan back in 1982, pounding the drums in kabuki-esque facepaint, peroxide-blond rooster hair, and lacy prom dresses with pearls — a look he says could “stop traffic” — he was ahead of his time in so many ways.
“It was pretty controversial, I guess, at that time,” the classically trained artist tells Yahoo Entertainment. “The critics hated us at the beginning. We were playing pretty heavy music back then, so some of the critics said, ‘If you play rock, then you should look tough, look like a man.’ So, the next day, I dressed up like a princess! I just wanted to piss them off. … I pretty much did everything opposite to war those critics told me to do. But the fans started growing. … Then that cultural movement grew, and it maybe started 10 bands, 20 bands. And then that became hundreds of bands. … I almost felt like we were changing Japan's culture.”
X Japan effectively launched the cultural movement known as visual kei (the term itself originated from the band’s slogan, “psychedelic violence crime of visual shock”), inspired by Japanese anime and kabuki as well as Western artists like KISS, David Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and British art-pop group Japan. And against all odds, X Japan went on to become the most successful rock group in Japanese history, selling more than 30 million records. And Yoshiki, who “just knew we were going to make it,” went on to become Japan's biggest rock star — working with the likes of George Martin, Bono, and Queen, and launching enough merchandise to rival even that of his idols KISS. (He has, among other things, his own Yoshikimono fashion line, wine, energy drink, branded credit card, and spiky-haired Sanrio character, Yoshikitty.)
However, despite a cult following in the U.S. that only grew with the advent of the internet and the release of the harrowing documentary We Are X — and despite X Japan playing Madison Square Garden in 2014 — mainstream American success has still mostly eluded Yoshiki. But that might change with the launch of his new J-rock supergroup, the Last Rockstars — Yoshiki likens them to superheroes the Avengers — in which he joins forces with artists that followed in his wake.
Along with Yoshiki on drums and piano, the Last Rockstars comprises three visual kei stars in their own right: guitarist Sugizo of Luna Sea (who has also been an official member of the reformed X Japan since 2009); lead singer Hyde, of L'Arc-en-Ciel and Vamps; and guitar virtuoso Miyavi, famous in Japan for his finger-slapping playing style. “Miyavi has such amazing dance groove… so, he's bringing not only his composition, but he's also bringing that [slap] technique, that kind of style into it, and that electric pop feeding as well. Hide has a very rock style, as well as a new wave style. … I'm amazed at how these members are so talented,” Yoshiki enthuses, speaking exclusively to Yahoo Entertainment via Zoom as he and his fellow Last Rockstars sit onstage at the Ariake Arena, where they’re set to make their live debut later that evening in the first of four sold-out Tokyo shows.
Yoshiki’s new bandmates (but longtime friends) are equally gushing as they express how honored they are to share the stage with what Miyavi calls their “leader” — but Yoshiki insists, “I never really look at it like I'm a hero or anything. I'm just a guy who loves rock ‘n’ roll, still, like a boy.”
Forming the Last Rockstars and continuing to fly the flag for rock ‘n’ roll, four decades into his career, is a true pay-it-forward moment for Yoshiki, who reveals that he’s grappled with suicidal ideation throughout his life and that without rock, he probably would not be alive today. He discovered rock ‘n’ roll around age 10, when he spotted KISS’s vivid “Love Gun” single art in a shop window shortly after his father actually died by suicide — a core memory discussed in We Are X, which also explores the suicides of X Japan members Hide and Taiji and the band’s 10-year hiatus when X Japan frontman Toshi suddenly quit to join a cult. (“It’s still hard for me to watch; I can't watch it without bunch of [tissue] paper, because I know I'm going to be crying,” Yoshiki says of the emotional rockumentary.)
Going back to his childhood epiphany sprung from tragedy, Yoshiki explains that suicide was “kind of a sensitive subject” in Japan, so as a young boy, he didn’t know how express his grief and anger in a healthy way. “I needed to scream. I needed to cry out loud. I wanted to break something,” he says. “And then, I found rock — and the reason I found rock was I found KISS. So, I started expressing my feelings through writing lyrics or banging drums, and I kind of found a place where, you know, I could live. When my father died, I couldn't find the place for me to even exist, but once I found this universe called ‘rock ‘n’ roll,’ I was like, ‘OK, let's do this.’”
Yoshiki recalls that his commitment to rock, even at age 10, was so strong that he was dyeing his hair blond and blue and an outraged teacher at his strict school “grabbed me and shaved my head.” But his mother was supportive, so when he saw a newspaper advertisement for a local KISS concert, she agreed to take him. “She had zero idea what she was getting into — all this fire,” he laughs. “I went with my brother too, who was like 4 or 5 years old. My mother was crying. She’s wearing a kimono, traditional [Japanese] clothes, and eating sushi — and here I am, screaming. It's a very memorable moment.”
And so, Yoshiki was on his way — and decades later, he contributed a classical cover of KISS’s “Black Diamond” to the tribute album Kiss My Ass, signed up with KISS manager Doc McGhee, and even became good friends with KISS’s Gene Simmons, who sang Yoshiki’s praises in We Are X. Over the years, many fans have told him that X Japan saved their lives too, and of course, Yoshiki ended up setting other young musicians — like his future Last Rockstars bandmates — on their own rock ‘n’ roll paths.
As that bring us back to the all-important topic about of timing. When X Japan first came to America in the 1980s, they “spoke zero English” and Toshi sang almost entirely in Japanese. “We [knew we were at] a disadvantage, because we were Asian,” Yoshiki admits, and in We Are X, Simmons actually theorized that X Japan would have been the biggest band in America if not for the language barrier. But nowadays, a band like Eurovision winners Måneskin can become huge Stateside rock stars while often singing in their native language, Italian. And of course, K-pop acts like BTS and Monsta X, who typically sing in Korean, enjoy massive stadium success in the States. Yoshiki even points out that while X Japan got the worst slot of Coachella 2018 weekend (“the only downside of playing the same time as Beyoncé was I couldn't see Beyoncé,” he jokes, although he confesses that he does have some “mixed feelings” about Beychella), now, only five years later, South Korea’s BLACKPINK are about to make history as the first Coachella headliner to hail from Asia — which Yoshiki says is “amazing.”
“The wall between East to West, blah, blah, blah, the language barrier. … I think the walls are getting lower and thinner,” states Yoshiki, who isn’t giving up on his long-held dream of “going global” as he looks ahead to the Last Rockstars’ tour dates at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom on Feb. 3 and 4 (tickets for the 3rd, which was added after the 4th sold out, are available here) and Los Angeles’s Hollywood Palladium on Feb. 10. “I mean, I know it's kind of a cliché, but music is a universal language. … So, basically, anything's possible. With these boundaries, in terms of music and the artistic world, we are getting closer. … And it’s kind of cool to break some kind of boundary again.”
This piece compiles quotes from two Yahoo Entertainment interviews plus Yoshiki’s appearance on SiriusXM Volume; the latter conversation can be heard in full on the SiriusXM app. The Last Rockstars’ full conversation from Tokyo’s Ariake Arena can be viewed in the top video above.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment:
Big in Japan: Visual kei all-stars rock the Visual Japan Summit
Yoshiki, Gene Simmons unite via shared love of eock, ‘We Are X’ Film, Hello Kitty dolls
X Japan and visual kei all-stars rock ‘n’ roll all nite with surprise guest Gene Simmons