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Hard rocking X Japan tries to crack North American market

Japan's music band X Japan members, from left: Hiroshi Morie, Tomoaki Ishizuka, Yoshiki Hayashi, Toshi Deyama and Gackt Sugizo.


Even among pros, embarking on a major North American tour can be nervous-making. Musicians will fret about all sorts of things, from how well the new songs will go over to whether the video screens will perform as expected.

But X Japan has better reason than most to be anxious. Having made its name as the biggest hard rock band in Japan, the quintent launched its first North American tour a week ago at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. (They play the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on Sunday, and Massey Hall in Toronto on Oct. 7.)

It is in some ways the culmination of a dream, and in others the biggest gamble of their career. "To be honest, we feel a bit nervous about what kind of reception we're going to get," says drummer Yoshiki, who founded the band with singer Toshi in 1982.

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"But at the same time, we feel like we're going back to basics. And it feels very liberating."

At home, the band has been enjoying a bit of a fresh start, having reformed in 2007 after a decade on hiatus. They've played to packed houses throughout Asia, where their comeback was greeted with the sort of enthusiasm North American fans exhibited when Bruce Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band.

But it was that was nothing compared to the buzz generated when the band announced it would be making its North American debut at Lollapalooza this past August.

Although Japan has long been one of the world's biggest music markets, it hasn't produced an international success since 1963, when Kyu Sakamoto topped international charts with Sukiyaki (or Ue O Muite Aruko, as it was known in his homeland).

Over the years, a number of acts have tried to crack the North American market, from the duo Pink Lady in the seventies to cartoon rockers Puffy AmiYumi in this decade. But so far, Japanese artists have been only marginally successful at adapting their sound and image to North American tastes.

X Japan almost went the same adaptive route, back in the 1990s. At the time, the band was about as "big in Japan" as it was possible to get, routinely topping the charts and selling out the country's largest arenas. They were signed to Atlantic Records in Japan, and a deal was in the works to release their music in North America as well. " We did a pretty big press conference in New York, at Rockefeller Center, the Rainbow Room," Yoshiki says, over the phone from Los Angeles. "We announced that we were going to release an American album, but we never did."

Why not? "The reason was, we didn't speak English," he says. "At all. And we didn't think we were ready."

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Also, the band's sound wasn't exactly what audiences on this side of the Pacific were used to. On up-tempo numbers, they played hard and fast, matching exuberant, glam-style vocal lines with relentless, speed metal drumming and super heavy guitar. But when they did ballads, Yoshiki abandoned his drum kit for grand piano, while Toshi's vocals were often swaddled in strings (and not the guitar kind, either).

That approach may have worked in Japan, but as the folks at Atlantic made clear, it wasn't likely to play in the U.S. or Canada. "They said [we had] to decide on a direction," Yoshiki recalls. "Either you're going to be a hard, heavy band, or [focus on]the heartbeat side. I said we should have both elements. That's what makes X Japan's music."

He hasn't changed his mind, either. "It's going to be a challenge, but we're going to do both," he says. "I mean, [most of]the music is going to be heavier than what we've been playing in Japan or Southeast Asia, but we still want to play ballads. It seems a weird combination - play really fast, almost like speed metal, and then go to a ballad. But it's kind of boring if you are listening to heavy music, just straight. I [want]to take people on a journey."

Whether X Japan can become as popular on this side of the Pacific as it is at home remains to be seen, but the reception they earned at Lollapalooza was encouraging. "In the beginning [of the set] it was die-hard fans, who we really appreciate," says Yoshiki. "They were a couple thousand there, and that increased [by the end]to more than 10,000." He laughs, and adds, "I think we did a great job!"

A Short History of X Japan

Drummer Yoshiki Hayashi and singer Toshi Deyama have been making music together since they were in middle school, and formed X Japan in 1982. In its early years, the band was known mainly for its live show, which paired elaborate costumes and make-up - an approach that heralded the visual kei movement in Japan - with a ferocious instrumental attack similar to such bands as Anthrax and Slayer.

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X Japan came to prominence in the early nineties, thanks in part to video releases, and sold out the Tokyo Dome 18 times. But 1997, Toshi announced that he was leaving music, and the group disbanded. A year later, guitarist Hide Matsumoto died in an apparent suicide. More than 50,000 attended a memorial ceremony, and there were numerous reports of copycat suicides.

Toshi and Yoshiki began working together again in 2007, and X Japan played its first reunion show in Tokyo the following year.

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