Years before founding X Japan, drummer-pianist Yoshiki’s life was saved by music. It all started the night his mother took him to see his first concert – KISS at the Budokan in the 1970s. face the dramas of life, as his group ruled colorful Japan. visual kei movement a decade later, with big hair and an early mix of speed metal and pop melody.
Their story was told in the acclaimed 2016 documentary We are X, but it didn’t stop there. Yoshiki is working on the band’s long-delayed first album of all-new material since 1996. Dahlia, but says he’s now basically done – though he doesn’t blame anyone for doubting him. Although the two-year pandemic didn’t help, it did manage to inspire Yoshiki to use his time in confinement to write new songs and sketch a symphony.
Yoshiki also adds to the modern tradition of hard-rock bands that have put their names on all kinds of drinks – from Metallica’s Blackened Whiskey to Mastodon’s Black Tongue Beer. Yoshiki already has his own wine brand, Y by Yoshiki, but he is now launching his first energy drinks in collaboration with Coca-Cola Japan: Real Gold X/Y. He was actively involved in designing the drinks, he says – one with a spicy “rock energy”, the other a herbal “classic energy”.
He returns to the world as a live performer this fall, with a series of headline dates in Japan and six nights with his friend and frequent collaborator Sarah Brightman, singer of classic hits, in Las Vegas and Mexico. More tour dates are expected to be announced soon, both rock and classical. With or without an X Japan release this year, it will be busy.
“I stayed home for almost two years straight, hardly meeting anyone,” says Yoshiki, who was grounded in his Los Angeles home and studio at the time. “I feel very good right now.”
IS THE NEW X JAPAN ALBUM ALMOST COMPLETE?
YOSHIKI I don’t think anyone’s gonna believe what I say [laughs] because I kept saying it. I was at the mixing studio today. Might as well remix something and make it better, because we’re not really rushing to release the album right now. So I’m just tweaking a bit. But if I had to release it next week, it’s done.
HAS THE DIRECTION OF THE ALBUM CHANGED OVER THE YEARS YOU WORKED ON IT? OR IS IT CLOSE TO THE ORIGINAL IDEAS YOU HAVE?
That’s pretty much the original idea. With this kind of music, sometimes there is a trend in terms of sound or mixing or sound effect. But I don’t think X Japan needs to chase trends. X Japan is its own genre. The idea of this album has not changed. I’m just doing a little tweaking until the release date.
I KNOW WHEN YOU PASS BEHIND THE DRUM, YOU EMIT A LOT OF ENERGY AND THERE IS A LOT OF SWEAT FLYING EVERYWHERE. HOW DO YOU PUMP YOURSELF FOR THESE PERFORMANCES?
I’m a very, very energetic person on stage. Even when recording, I play the drums very, very loudly. Even when I play the piano in the recording studio, I play like I’m on stage. Of course, it’s not just about hitting hard, but very, very soft and very, very dynamic.
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN THE PRODUCTION OF THESE COCA-COLA ENERGY DRINKS?
I’ve known the president of Coca-Cola Japan for several years, and we were talking about doing something together. They had the idea to release a new energy drink and partner with me. I thought that was very interesting, and then a year ago it started to get more realistic. I care a lot about everything I do – from fashion to music – so I’m quite involved in tasting and marketing.
WHAT WAS THE CONCEPT OF DRINKS X AND Y?
X is more like a rock & roll vibe – to make you highly motivated and energetic. So Y of course makes you energetic, but also helps you focus more. It’s a new kind of drink. I’m a big fan of energy drinks in general.
DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST TIME YOU WERE APPROACHED TO APPROVE SOMETHING?
I think a lot of things started a little over 10 years ago. I did a bunch of TV commercials. On top of that, I have my own products and joint ventures – my wine is one of them. Also my Yoshikimono fashion line. I have one [branded] credit card in Japan, a MasterCard. I also have a Visa card.
ON THE FIRST DAY OF X JAPAN, WAS YOUR IMAGE TOO CRAZY FOR COMPANIES TO WANT TO GET INVOLVED WITH YOU?
I think so. [Laughs] Because we were like a new genre, people couldn’t define who we were — makeup, a David Bowie-style glam-rock look, and a super tough game. And sometimes I played classical music, so they couldn’t understand who we were.
KISS HAS SAID FOR A VERY LONG TIME THEY ARE NOT JUST A BAND, BUT A MARK. GENE SIMMONS AND KISS ARE THE KINGS OF LICENSES AND APPROVALS.
I was just mixing one of X Japan’s songs today, and we were talking about the music industry and KISS. Gene Simmons is, like, a master of merchandise. He made it a kind. So to be a friend of his, I’m very grateful to him. I also learned a lot from him.
HOW DO YOU APPROACH IT?
I am very careful about the type of products and the type of brand I work with. It must be authentic. I am asked to work in joint ventures or as an ambassador for many companies, but I am quite selective. My fans became my fans through music first, so music is always the most important and the heart of my life. I think my fans understand that I’m trying to break the boundaries of what artists can do.
Aside from KISS, WHAT OTHER ARTISTS ARE YOU INTERESTED IN ROCK AND METAL MUSIC?
Of course, Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols and David Bowie in elementary school – and a bit later Iron Maiden, when I went to college.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THIS MUSIC THAT CONNECTED YOU?
I think it’s about the freedom to express your feelings. I grew up listening to and playing classical music – I started playing the piano when I was four years old. Then after the death of my father, I did not know what to do to express my sadness as well as my anger. He committed suicide. When I discovered rock, it was “Oh my God, I can express this feeling!” It’s not wrong to shout. It’s not bad to beat the drums hard. That’s how I got into this rock & roll world.
IT HAS BEEN CARRYING YOU FOR A LONG TIME NOW.
Yet, yeah. When I’m on stage, some people may think I’m crazy. I break the battery or I scream at the top of my lungs. It’s part of the art on stage. In the writing process, the lyrics can sometimes be dark, sad or angry, but these things become art. This kind of saved my life. I don’t think I would have succeeded if I hadn’t been involved in creating art through music.
WHAT IS HAPPENING IN THE WIDER WORLD OF MUSIC THAT HAS YOUR ATTENTION?
I have huge respect for BTS, BLACKPINK, all these incredible artists. When I first came to the United States about 30 years ago, when I said, “I’m a Japanese rock star,” I don’t know how many people cared. [Laughs] When I say that these days I a m Something. So I’m grateful for what’s happening. The world is opening up.
NOIRPINK AND OTHER ACTS GOT REALLY INTENSE FOLLOW-UPS. YOU HAVE EXPERIENCED THIS YOURSELF, SO WHAT IS IT TO BE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT?
My fans are just amazing. I’m so lucky to have these fans. I lost my mother a little over a month ago. I was in a really dark place right after that for three or four days. I could not do anything. I couldn’t even turn on the light in my room. I stayed in the dark and cried. I saw a doctor. Then I just posted on Instagram how I felt, and tens of thousands of people responded in support. It was, like, Wow! I thought social media was a dangerous place to express feelings. But it was quite the opposite.
YOU COLLECTED MONEY FOR UKRAINE. WHAT INSPIRED THIS?
I started doing charity over 10 years ago. I also have my own foundation. Helping people really helps me. In general, I donated to disaster relief and supported various foundations such as Make a Wish and MusiCares. As far as Ukraine is concerned, I only support victims and refugees of war. Then, because I said I donated, my fans jumped in and they donated on a much larger scale than I actually donated.
HOW DO YOU DECIDE WHAT TO GET INVOLVED IN?
There are many things to support. When I was a child and lost my father, I had to go through sadness. I know a little about pain. So I started supporting those kids who lost their parents or had to go through some kind of illness because I also had this crazy asthma when I was a kid – I was still hospitalized then – so I wanted to support that. We can do more than just donate, because we can make a statement and create greater awareness of what is happening.
MOST BAND DON’T LAST MORE THAN A FEW ALBUMS – BUT SOME, LIKE KISS AND X JAPAN, MANAGE TO KEEP A BIG FOLLOWER FOR DECADES. WHAT MAKES THIS HAPPEN?
I know a lot about the history of KISS because I’m a huge fan. One of the last gigs I played was with KISS at Tokyo Dome at the end of 2019. My first gig was KISS at Budokan when I was 11. Budokan has a capacity of around 10,000, then 40 years later they’re playing 50,000. I think that’s dedication. Also, the songs have to be good. It’s kind of a miracle.
When it comes to X Japan, we’ve been through a lot of drama. Of course, we are very lucky to have amazing fans. Somehow, the combination of all this drama, music, and who we are, has made us exist all these years. We have devoted almost our entire life to this. Every band that’s been through so many years of glory and everything, it starts with dedication.