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MUSIC | X Japan to 'focus on the rock' here

August 8, 2010

Which band in this year’s Lollapalooza lineup has accomplished all of the following?

* Sold out a 55,000-seat arena — 18 times.

* Created and popularized its own form of glam.

* Sold 30 million albums.

* Recorded a classical album with Beatles producer George Martin.

It ain’t Lady Gaga.

The band is X Japan, the biggest rock band in Japanese history. The quintet came together in 1982 (originally called just X), disbanded in 1997 and re-formed in 2007. They started as a speed metal band with delusions of grandeur and evolved into a power-ballad powerhouse. Their shows are equal parts Anthrax and Celine Dion.

In their homeland, their presence still creates Beatlesque hysteria, with screaming fans and impenetrable throngs. When the founding guitarist, Hideto “Hide” Matsumoto, died in 1998, nearly 50,000 weeping mourners crowded the funeral; last May, almost twice that number mobbed a memorial service marking the 12th anniversary of his death.

But thus far, only Asian fans have had these opportunities to go wild for X Japan — because the 4 p.m. Sunday performance at Lollapalooza in Chicago’s Grant Park will be X Japan’s U.S. debut.

“Yes, we’re a huge band in Japan, but that doesn’t mean anything here,” says Yoshiki Hayashi, usually known only by his first name. Yoshiki is the band’s drummer, songwriter and core idea man. He’s also a classically trained pianist. “We feel like a new band again, trying to make it. It’s a very pure feeling. It feels like it did when we started, which is good.”

Fitzgerald wrote that there are no second acts in American lives, but America has given plenty of second chances to foreign acts. Yoshiki — who now lives in Los Angeles, where he’s wrapping up X Japan’s first new studio album in 14 years, due this fall — hopes X Japan will live and thrive again on these shores. When he speaks, he struggles with his English, but his ambition is clear.

So is his realism. After Lollapalooza, X Japan will launch its first U.S. tour, hitting 10-15 cities. They won’t be selling out or even playing arenas like they do at home.

And that’s OK with Yoshiki.

“We’d like to play clubs or small venues. We cannot do that in Japan anymore,” he says, noticeably excited by the prospect, and maybe a little relieved. He misses the old days, pre-mobs, pre-stadiums. “When we were an indie band, right after we graduated high school, we were performing for 50 people, maybe 200. That was a great moment. By the time we were signed to Sony [in 1988], we were already performing for 10,000 people or bigger. … We weren’t supposed to make it big, you know? We were — how do I say? — the black sheep of the family. The Japanese scene was very poppy. We were playing speed metal. Nobody thought we could be mainstream. Then it got very, very big.”

Leaving the spectacle at home

The American shows will be stripped down. X Japan fills arenas like the Tokyo Dome with massive productions — lights, lasers, pyrotechnics, enormous stages with catwalks, lots of running around and dramatic performance. Yoshiki has played several times on a drum riser that not only rises above the stage, it takes off and flies around the arena, trailing smoke and neon lights.

And, oh, the costumes. X Japan pioneered a style of presentation now known as “visual kei,” meaning flamboyant outfits and hairstyles, many of which resembled Kool-Aid fountains. In other words: glam rock, hair metal.

For the U.S. jaunt, Yoshiki says X Japan will be “back to basics.”

“The bigger we got, the bigger our personalities,” he says. “We just want to go back and focus on the rock. Either way, you know, you don’t see good rock shows anymore. Rock doesn’t sound mainstream these days. We’d like to contribute something to help bring rock back. Rock doesn’t have enough drama now. Rap, R&B, dance music has taken that. Our band wants to be a part of bringing that back to rock.” He laughs. “But our band has enough drama.”

Together again

Yoshiki and X Japan’s singer, Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama, have known each other since kindergarten. When Toshi left the band in 1997, it wasn’t amicably. Yoshiki says the two didn’t speak for up to eight years. When Hide committed suicide, Yoshiki thought X Japan was dead, too.

But in that time, the Internet flourished. X Japan’s music — and especially its videos — went viral. The band that’s still only performed two concerts outside of Japan (last year in Hong Kong and Taipei) now has fans from China to France.

Meanwhile, Yoshiki pursued solo interests. He recorded a best-selling classical album in Japan, the double-CD “Eternal Melody” in 1993, co-produced and arranged by George Martin. The next year, he contributed a symphonic version of “Black Diamond” to a classical Kiss tribute record. He composed and performed a piano concerto for Japan’s emperor. And he cashed in. There’s a Yoshiki line of jewelry, a Yoshiki wine, a Yoshiki racing team, even a Yoshikitty — the only time Hello Kitty has combined another name with its famous toy brand.

Still, he missed his childhood friend.

“It’s weird, when you have that vocalist next to you all the time for many years, you take for granted how great he was,” Yoshiki says of Toshi, who spent the intervening years performing spiritually minded acoustic concerts of what he called “eco rock.” “When we started talking again, he said the same thing about me. We discovered these fans around the world, and they were demanding a return from us. It made me — I still feel like I’m dreaming. I never thought we would reunite this band. And we can’t completely.”

Fans coming from everywhere

At the first X Japan reunion shows in 2008, the band performed its 29-minute opus “Art of Life” — during which Yoshiki collapsed from the exertion — and featured a floating hologram of the late Hide playing his guitar parts. (There you go, William Gibson fans: Rei Toei lives!)

“That was too much for me,” Yoshiki says, assuring the band will not continue the stunt. “That was so real. It brought me to tears.”

But are there fans in the United States? Lollapalooza may be the band’s first ticketed performance, but on Jan. 9 X Japan filmed four new videos on the roof of Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre. Thousands crammed the streets to get a glimpse, fans who’d driven from Texas and Chicago for the occasion.

“Their music is a cross link of my generation,” says Chicago photographer and fan Nobuyoshi Fuzikawa, 38. “That’s why I’m so excited they’re still playing for a major audience after all these years.  It’s inspiring, and makes me want to try new challenges. ... Lollapalooza is [a] well-known concert around the world, so I will be happy to see a Japanese performer have a presence there.”

Takeshi Tsukawaki, 24, will be driving to Chicago from New York just for the Lollapalooza show. He’s a younger fan who discovered the band during its hiatus.

“I have two older brothers. They were always listening to X Japan,” he said. “I didn’t know they were such a big band in Asia. I just listen to them again and again. ... I have no idea what a show will be like. Maybe they can’t play very well like before, or maybe they’re better and more powerful. I never expected to be able to see them, so I’m coming. There are lots of people coming.”