Sitting side by side at X Japan founder Yoshiki Hayashi’s Los Angeles recording studio to discuss the new X Japan rockumentary We Are X, Yoshiki and KISS bassist/mouthpiece Gene Simmons don’t seem to have much in common. Yoshiki is sweet, serious, and slight; Gene is loud, brash, and 6’2” even sans his signature platform-footed dragon boots. But the two are in many ways kindred spirits, united by their unwavering belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll. They’re also two of the only rock stars to ever be immortalized by Sanrio as Hello Kitty dolls — which says a great deal about Yoshiki’s international superstar status, even if the classically trained Japanese rocker still isn’t a KISS-level household name in the States.
“It’s amazing. Miracles can happen,” grins Yoshiki, seated beside Simmons and a cluster of Hello Kitty figurines at one of his deluxe studio’s many grand pianos. “I’m sitting next to Gene Simmons, and he’s talking about my band. It’s like, that’s unbelievable.”
Simmons first became a fan of X Japan when Yoshiki arranged and wrote a symphony based on KISS’s “Black Diamond,” which became the majestic closing track on KISS’s 1994 all-star tribute album, Kiss My Ass. “It was so big and so impressive that I literally couldn’t figure out where to stick it in the track[listing],” Simmons says. “After Garth Brooks? No, that’s not going to work. We had to stick it on the end, because if you start off with that, everything else will look like a popcorn fart… It had to have its own breath, because when it ends, it feels like…’and then there was light… on the seventh day…’ I mean, it felt Biblical.”
For Yoshiki, getting to pay tribute to KISS was a career highlight — in an amazing career that has included recording with Beatles producer Sir George Martin, pioneering Japan’s glam-rock “visual kei” movement, composing a classical song for the 10th anniversary of Emperor Akihito’s enthronement, performing a live duet with a hologram of himself, creating the official Hello Kitty theme song, and selling more than 30 million records with his band. Why? Because KISS was the band that introduced him to rock ‘n’ roll in the first place.
“I was only listening to classical music,” Yoshiki recalls of his boyhood. “I started playing piano when I was 4 years old — just classical piano — and my father passed away when I was 10 years old. My father used to buy me classical albums, on vinyl of course. Then, after my father passed away, I decided to go to the record shop. Then, usually I buy like Schubert, Mozart, Chopin, or something like that. Then, I just passed one section and there’s the rock ‘n’ roll section. I found the KISS — I think it was the single ‘Love Gun’ — and I was like, ‘What is this?’” Later, Yoshiki asked his mother to take him and his 5-year-old brother to a KISS concert at Tokyo’s famous Budokan arena. “That was my first KISS experience, as well as my first rock experience. It changed my life.”
Simmons makes a brief but memorable cameo in We Are X, in U.S. theaters Oct. 21, rightfully griping about X Japan’s lack of Western success due to the language barrier. “The truth is, for many bands around the world that are enormous in their own countries and do very good music, that’s something you should be listening to,” Simmons tells Yahoo Music. “There are a lot of very good bands that just don’t sing in English. Look — when you go to see opera, aren’t they singing in German or Italian? You don’t understand what the words are, but you’re amazed by the music. I understand English is the predominant form for rock and blues and classical and country, rap and jazz and all that, because it was invented in America. OK. But get over yourselves. There’s some amazing musicians and groups and personalities.”
However, X Japan’s failure to become U.S. rock stars was always the least of the band’s worries. We Are X chronicles multiple tragedies that befell them over the years, including the fragile Yoshiki’s health issues, a breakup after frontman Toshi was “brainwashed” by a cult and denounced X Japan’s music, and the suicides of two other band members. Most tragic of all: another suicide, that of Yoshiki’s father, when Yoshiki was just a little boy.
Somehow, however, Yoshiki survived, and he says he has rock ‘n’ roll to thank.
“Without music, I don’t even think [I would be] here,” Yoshiki reveals. “I mean, you know, my father killed himself. I didn’t know what to do. Seriously. Like, just wash it out of you. When you’re 10 years old, you kind of know what life is, but you still don’t know what life is. So then, I was playing classical music. That was good too, but it was not enough. I needed to scream. I needed to cry out loud. I wanted to break something. Then I found rock. The reason I found rock was, I found KISS. So then I started expressing my feelings through even writing lyrics, or banging drums. So I kind of found a place where I can, you know, live. When my father died, I couldn’t find the place for me to even exist. So once I found this universe called rock ‘n’ roll, I was like, ‘OK, let’s do this.’”
The era in which Yoshiki grew up was extremely conservative — “When I was 10, 11 years old, it’s so strict, if my hair touched the ear, the teacher would come and grab me and shave my head in school. I was crying, crying; it was that strict,” he recalls. And not everyone understood was X Japan was trying to do when they debuted in 1982, ambitiously fusing glam, metal, theater, and orchestral elements.
“When we first showed up, [critics] hated us,” Yoshiki says. “Because people couldn’t define us… We were playing heavy music but all of a sudden play softer music. Like, ‘Who are you guys? What is this rock band?’ People even say, ‘Is this even a rock band? What is this?’… When X Japan showed up, people say, ‘Rock needs to be like that, punk needs to be that.’ And we’re like, ‘F— that,’ you know? We just want to express our feelings, and then music.”
In some ways, the heartbreaking loss Yoshiki experienced so early in life gave him the fearlessness he needed to forge on despite X Japan’s many detractors.
“For some reason, I had a confidence. I just knew: ‘I’m going to make it.’ Very strange,” Yoshiki muses. “But maybe that confidence came from my commitment. Because, you know, I was very suicidal. So, worst comes to worst, you die… So [if you have no fear of death], you can pretty much do anything. Critics hated us in the beginning, but fans started growing.
“What kept me going? Because if I stop, I couldn’t even exist. So I just have to move forward. Also you know, I met amazing band members. I told them, ‘Just give me everything, and I’ll make it happen.’ It’s very strange. From the very beginning of doing anything, nothing — I just had a confidence.”
Yoshiki admits, however, that revisiting the tragedies of his life — including temporarily losing band member and friend Toshi — in We Are X “was really, really hard.” He remembers that after X Japan played one last farewell show with Toshi, “The Last Live,” at the Tokyo Dome in 1997, he was resistant to even review that concert footage at the time. “I said, ‘I can’t even look at it, I can’t even watch it’… I couldn’t pass past five minutes. I just broke into tears. So can you imagine, just this one show, our history, 90 minutes of our history — it was very hard, so when my agent in America asked me, ‘You should create this [We Are X] film,’ I said, ‘No way, I cannot do this. If I can’t editone concert, how can we do the entire history of X Japan?’
“Eventually, they convinced me. The people around me said, ‘This is very important for you to spread this story. This story can give people courage to move forward — somebody who’s going through pain, depression, something like this.’ I go, ‘OK, let’s try to do this.’ Once I decided, I just opened the door all the way. I just let it happen.”
We Are X, the making of which Yoshiki says has a been a “therapeutic” experience, has a happy ending, however — with the reformed band triumphantly headlining New York’s Madison Square Garden after a long hiatus — and it looks like the American success that eluded them for so long is finally within reach. (Yoshiki will be playing two solo classical shows at another legendary New York venue, Carnegie Hall, in January 2017.)
“So our band became really big in Japan, but it broke up, because the vocalist joined a cult. Then the following year, several months later, our [lead] guitar player [Hide] passed away. So I never even thought our band would get reunited,” says Yoshiki. “So we had almost 10 years with — blank. During those 10 years, the Internet became pretty popular throughout the world. Then 10 years later, when we got reunited, there’s fans all over the world [because of the Web]. What happened? It was 10 years with a ‘blank,’ and we gain a fanbase around the world. It’s just a miracle.”
And Simmons is pleased to witness that miracle. “I’m here to tell you that I’m here [at this interview] not because I’m getting anything out of it, but because I’m a fan of X Japan — specifically Yoshiki,” Simmons asserts. “I mean, I can play a little bass, a little guitar, but he’s a monster on piano and drums, an enormous stage persona, arranges material, amazing performer. You gotta check it out to see it.”
Yoshiki smiles, clearly humbled in the presence of his childhood rock ‘n’ roll hero even after a two-decade friendship. As for his own rock-icon status, he shrugs and says, “I never really look at it like I’m a ‘hero.’ I’m still just a guy who loves rock n’ roll. I’m still like a boy.”
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This article originally ran on Yahoo Music.