With an Exhibit featuring a replica of his iconic crystal piano the fascinating Japanese musician and composer gets the tribute his accomplishments deserve
Words by Laina Dawes
On February 19th The Grammy Awards unveiled their Yoshiki exhibit, which, just like the Japanese music composer, drummer, entrepreneur and philanthropist’s life, was full of glitz and glamour. The founder of X Japan and one of the main creators behind Visual Kei, a Japanese-originated pop culture phenomenon that includes both androgynous fashions and an eccentric musical mashup of thrash metal, pop and electronica. Hayashi (who is referred to by his first name only) was revered for not only his impressive musical contributions, but also his business acumen.
Included in the exhibit was a replica of his crystal grand piano; stage clothing; drumsticks; pieces from his jewelry line; Yoshiki branded headphones, music sheets, bottles from his partner company; a Yoshiki Visa card; a Kimono from his upcoming fashion line “Yoshikimono” and items from the Yoshiki Hello Kitty line—the first in which a product was created for an individual person. Despite X Japan never receiving a Grammy nod, Yoshiki is a longtime favorite of the organization. “I have some friends who are Grammy voting members,” he laughs. “One of my friends told me, ‘they are thinking of doing an exhibit on you,’ which I thought was interesting. They asked me if I was interested, and I said, ‘of course.’”
X Japan was primarily known as being one, if not the most successful rock bands out of Tokyo but on North American shores, Yoshiki, who started the group at 15 and is the principal songwriter, is revered for his classical compositions, but rock drumming not only led him to a successful rock career, but also saved his life. First taking piano lessons at 4, he switched from classical after the death of his father. “When I was 10 years old my father committed suicide. At that point I was a very depressed kid but I had music,” he explains. “Around that time I started playing rock drums. Because of the music I survived. If there was no music next to me I don’t know what would have happened.”
When perusing record stores with his friends, he discovered classic metal bands, which inspired him to start X Japan. “My first rock albums were KISS and Iron Maiden, “ he says, noting that one of the highlights of his career was eventually producing a cover of “Black Diamond” for the 1994 KISS tribute album, Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved. “We (X Japan) released a cover by Iron maiden, too. We’ve actually covered a lot of Iron Maiden songs in the past.”
“The band, which used to be called X [changed as not to be confused with the Los Angeles punk band] was formed when I was 15 or so,” he adds. “At that time I was really into punk, heavy metal and hard rock but because I had been playing piano for so long, incorporating it into my music composition came naturally. I always listen to the old classics rock, like Led Zeppelin. These days I listen to Metallica, and of course, I liked Nirvana. I still love heavy, heavy music.”
His childhood experiences also led him to support the Make a Wish Foundation and the Red Cross, most notably assisting children who suffered from the 2010 and 2013 Japanese earthquakes. He also created The Yoshiki Foundation, which offers children who have faced unfortunate circumstances to take music lessons. “I studied music therapy. Kids don’t have to just take rock lessons. It can be classical jazz; hip-hop or EDM, any type of music can help children. I understand the pain of children who have suffered from unfortunate causes. So, I wanted to give them some encouragement, such as the children and their parents.”
After releasing two classical solo albums in 1993 and 1994, Yoshiki, whose band always had a cult following on a global scale but never hit the North American charts, started to get noticed. In 1999 he composed a piano concerto for the 10th university of the reign of the Emperor of Japan. That experience led him to be selected as musical director for the 2005 Word Expo and conducted the orchestra during the opening ceremonies. He also wrote the opening song for the 2013 Golden Globes awards and bolstered by its success, he decided to release another album of contemporary classical music. “We released that song on iTunes in 2013, and it was later suggested that we create an album including other classical compositions, including the song I had written a song for the 2005 World Expo. So it’s a compilation of my classical work.” Yoshiki Classical debuted at #1 on the iTunes classical charts in ten countries and landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard classical chart.
This spring Yoshiki will be embarking on his first solo tour, kicking it off with a warm up show in Austin during the South by Southwest music festival. “I’m going to be performing classical compositions, such as some Tchaikovsky, but primarily I’ll be playing some of my own compositions, like the Golden Globe award theme,” he says. “I’ll be playing a lot of the X Japan music, but it will be revamped into classical arrangements.”
In addition, he also has plans to embark on X Japan’s second world tour later this year. The band has not recorded a studio album since 1996 (the band was on hiatus between 1998 – 2007) but there are definite hints that a new one might be in the works. As the only member that lives in the States, Yoshiki believes that technology has really kept the musical lines of communication flowing. “All of the members are all in Japan. I’m the only one in California, but these days with the Internet we can share our recordings online. Our music is always evolving so it is not going to be the same sound as before. It will be very heavy and with lots of melody and more contemporary than before.”
Laina Dawes is a music journalist and the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points). Follow her on Twitter @Lainad and at writingisfighting.com.