In Coachella debut, Japan megastars try anew to conquer US

Japan's musician, songwriter, composer and record producer Yoshiki Hayashi, aka Yoshiki, is bringing his heavy metal band X Japan to the US music festival Coachella (Photo:AFP)
More than 25 years after X Japan first attempted to conquer the US market, the metalheads are trying again -- and recent events, at first glance, would not appear auspicious.

Yoshiki, the fiercely energetic drummer and principal songwriter of the rockers who were superstars in 1980s Japan, last year urgently underwent surgery on a neck severely damaged from years of headbanging.

But Yoshiki is doggedly persistent, and this weekend he brings X Japan to Coachella, the most famous US music festival -- a prelude to the band's first studio album since 1996.

In perhaps the worst possible luck of the draw for an act playing the party in the California desert, X Japan will take a smaller stage Saturday night at the same moment as headliner Beyonce.

The set-time will likely mean an unusually small crowd for the rockers who still enjoy a fanatical fan base at home and have played arenas in New York and London.

"I'm very excited but at the same time I'm wondering what kind of reaction we're going to get," Yoshiki Hayashi, who goes by only his first name, told AFP by telephone.

Yoshiki said that the yet-untitled album, to come out sometime in 2018, will also be the band's first that is almost entirely in English and geared primarily to an international audience.

Describing the new music recorded at his studio in his adopted home of Los Angeles, Yoshiki said "it's kind of a challenging sound -- I would say it's even much edgier."

- New opening for foreign acts? -

Yoshiki, a classically trained pianist, blended symphonic structure into the teased-hair, high-octane world of glam metal, with the frail drummer pounding with such ferocity that he would writhe on the floor in pain by the end of shows.

In 1992, the group gave a news conference in New York to announce a US record deal after hastily learning some English, but the attempt to break into the world's largest music market flopped.

Yoshiki, 52, says times have changed. A small number of artists from South Korea's Psy to Puerto Rico's Luis Fonsi have gone viral with non-English songs, always a rare presence on the US charts and radio.

"Twenty years later, now we have the internet, YouTube and social media and everything, so it's almost a different world," Yoshiki said.

On the flip side, rock has arguably faded from its dominance. Coachella for the first time has no rock band on the top of the bill.

Yoshiki, however, voiced optimism, saying the younger generation is more fluid in enjoying music across genres.

Yoshiki feels comfortable in English but he acknowledged that he was the exception in the band, fronted by the intense vocals of Toshi.

"I started thinking that you don't have to pronounce perfectly. We are from Japan. Maybe some kind of accent will be cool," he said with a laugh.

- Assist from Manson -

Since moving to Los Angeles, Yoshiki -- who has played before Emperor Akihito and in leading concert halls -- struck up an unlikely friendship with the ever-controversial goth prince Marilyn Manson.

The two bonded over a shared passion for David Bowie.

Yoshiki said he found Manson to be musically "inspirational" and that he joined X Japan in the studio, although it was unclear to what extent Manson will appear on the album.

The studio album will be the first without X Japan guitarist hide, who died in 1998 in a suspected suicide.

Yoshiki said he arranged the new music as if hide were on guitar. "His spirit is in the album," Yoshiki said.

Yoshiki himself had to halt touring a year ago when he lost feeling in one hand. The emergency surgery implanted an artificial cervical disc.

Yoshiki said he has refused to water down his "super heavy" drum style. But in one concession to his health, he no longer headbangs.

"I would say to any rock artist who does headbanging, please don't do it that much. It's really dangerous," Yoshiki said.