They rock out in frocks, leather and lipstick. They fill stadiums routinely, and count Emperor Akihito as a patron. They are X Japan -- megastars in much of the world -- and their sights are set on the American market. Ahead of the glam rock band’s Oct. 11 appearance at Madison Square Garden, its leader Yoshiki chatted with HuffPost about the grand plan to conquer the West.
This isn’t the band’s first trip stateside. In 1992, you tried to make a big splash, and it didn’t exactly happen.
We were signed to Atlantic Records and we had a big press conference, at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center. Hundreds of press people were there. They asked us, "Why did you come here? You guys don’t speak English." That was so right. None of us spoke English. I thought, learning English is not difficult compared to composing. So I said, "I’ll learn."
And here you are. How would you describe X Japan to someone who knows nothing about it?
Ours is a very, very, how you say...flamboyant, crazy style. A little bit more punk than metal -- new age, something like that. We play hard rock as well as soft, classically influenced [music]. Even though I do rock, I also composed the piano concert for the ten year anniversary of the Japanese emperor’s reign, the theme song for the World Expo in 2005, and in America, the Golden Globe theme song in 2013. I started playing piano when I was four years old, and drums when I was 10. The vocalist [Toshi] and I met when we were four years old, in kindergarten. We’ve been together since then.
Yoshiki duels a hologram of himself on the piano at this year's South by Southwest festival.
In Japan, that undefinable style of yours has a name, right?
People call us "visual kei" because critics need to define. When a band plays something super hard they play only super hard music. Somebody who plays pop, they only play pop. We combine pretty much everything -- sometimes string, some piano, sometimes [music] harder than Metallica. It’s a combination.
We’ve been influenced by a lot of Western bands. I liked Kiss, I liked David Bowie. My mother was into kabuki [so I got into it]. [We wear] tons of makeup and spike the hair. We started dressing like that because we didn’t know the rules. When we debuted, critics said rock should be this way, punk rock should be that way. We didn’t actually care though. Playing music should be about freedom.
X Japan in concert last month at Japan's largest venue, Yokohama Arena.
How do you reconcile the aesthetic contrasts of classical and rock?
I need that actually. I need some way to express my anger or my sadness or whatever. But sometimes I’m very mellow -- I play something soft. I think anybody has that kind of side.
Your stage act is reliably extreme. Are you pretending to be someone else when you’re on stage?
Yes and no. A long time ago, I had interviewed David Bowie. I asked him, "Where do you draw the line between your real life and your persona on stage?” He couldn’t answer. Same here. I’m not really trying to create another personality on stage. Just when I’m on stage, I absorb all the energy and love and everything. I’m not saying this because I’m working with Stan Lee, but I become a superhero on stage.
What prompted this return to New York?
In 2010 we toured North America, seven places. In 2011, we toured 15 countries in Europe, Southeast Asia and Latin America. We had to take a little break. But we decided to come back. We’re thinking, "Where should we start?" The last stop [on the last] North American tour was a place called Roseland Ballroom. It was so good, we just wanted to come back. It’s in our DNA now.
You’re also the subjects of an upcoming documentary.
The producer from "Searching For Sugarman" just joined our team. [The doc is] about the band, because we have a lot of drama.
In what way?
I mean, my father passed away, committed suicide when I was ten years old. That’s the time I started rocking. Before that, I was only playing classical music. Our band broke up in 1998. The guitar player passed away, then the vocalist got brainwashed for 12 years by some kind of a cult leader, a scam [artist]. He eventually, I don’t know how you say, woke up from that. In 2010 our original bass player committed suicide. So our band has had drama almost too crazy to be true. It’s very painful.
You mentioned David Bowie as a hero. Is creating a Bowie-like aura of mystery around yourselves important?
I think so. He’s a real rock star. He’s almost coming from a different planet. I like that. Some people are fascinated by vampires. I’m interested in creatures from out of this world.