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X Japan

Godfathers of Japanese Rock

Given how many of X Japan’s spiritual offspring have already stuck their toes into the American market, it’s only fitting that the originals are finally going to follow.

The band, which has sold 30 million CDs and DVDs since its debut in 1982, kicks off its first North American tour at the Fox Theater on September 28th.

The original members of X are the godfathers of the Japanese musical scene known as visual kei. An amalgamation of power metal and hard rock with strong classical influences, and a look that’s part goth, part glam rock, and part French Baroque. It’s a quite distinctly Japanese phenomenon that has picked up followers from all over the world.

Fans from X’s early days might barely recognize drummer Yoshiki, who spoke to us in English from his home in LA, where he’s lived for a decade now. Long gone is the guy who looked like Marie Antoinette’s cross-dressing brother, rolling around on the floor in a wedding dress and sky-high hair (though his stylistic influence lives on in bands like Versailles). In fact, all of the members of X have gotten a modern update — they’re sleeker now, more streamlined, and they’re ready to relaunch for real.

“I think there’s a reason we got reunited,” Yoshiki says. “The vocalist and I, we grew up together, and then we went our separate ways about 10 years ago. A few years ago we started talking to each other again. It was also partly demand from our fans.”

Those fans never forgot about X, even during all the long years they were gone. Last month’s Tokyo shows drew a combined audience of more 100,000 people over two nights, and it wasn’t all fans from the old days either.

“I would say more than 50% of the people were a new generation,” Yoshiki says.

The band was also a big draw at Lollapalooza this year. “At the beginning there were maybe 3,000 or 5,000 people, and towards the end I’d say maybe 15,000,” Yoshiki says. “They were all jumping and screaming our band name. It seems like we attracted some people who don’t really know us, but somehow we connected.”

There’s a definite sense that X finally making its American debut is a milestone of sorts. The big question is how long it will last, given Yoshiki’s ongoing health issues (he played the Lollapalooza show in a neck brace) and the reality that the band couldn’t possibly exist without him.

“Physically I’m not in that good a condition because I had neck surgery about a year ago,” he says. He also has a herniated disk and constant numbness in his left hand to contend with, but so far it doesn’t seem to be quashing his determination.

“I knew that it would be coming”, he says. “I played very hard, banging the drum set, for a long time. I had this problem almost ten years ago. I don’t know how to feel about that to be honest with you. It may seem silly, but hopefully I’ll last for the next five years or so.”

This new revamped version of X also features guitarist Sugizo from Luna Sea and Juno Reactor, perhaps the only man brave enough to step into the shoes of former X guitarist Hide. Although there was bound to be some kickback from fans about whoever was selected for the role, given how beloved Hide was — multiple X fans in Japan committed suicide upon hearing the news of his death — they seem to have accepted Sugizo as the best possible replacement.

The only question now is how are they going to find time to get anything done? In addition to X, Yoshiki is composing tracks for two movies and working with side project Violet UK, as well as writing classical music.

“Well, we’re not doing 365 days a year,” Yoshiki says. “Also, I’m doing some things as a producer, so I have a lot of things going on as well, so it kind of works. I think it’s kind of healthy rather than doing only one thing. Think about it, there are a lot of rap artists who do collaborations featuring somebody.”

If there’s one thing you can say about Yoshiki it’s that he’s versatile. He produced the first album for metal underground sensation Dir en grey, one of the few Japanese bands to really be making inroads into the American market, and he knows just about all of the younger visual kei bands who’ve been tentatively dipping their toes into the American market.

“They’re kind of like my family,” he says. With a sweet, engaging personality and a face that’s still disconcertingly youthful, it’s easy to forget just how important this man is to the Japanese music industry, but make no mistake — in terms of the visual kei, there’s no one more influential or well respected. Anyone who’s at all interested in the status of Japanese rock in the U.S. will be paying very close attention to how this tour goes.

“We’re going to do a tour next year, so right now, in the beginning, we’re just kind of experimenting,” he says. If this initial experiment goes well you can expect to hear a lot more about X Japan, and the general public’s willingness to accept them may well provide a very interesting gauge of what the future holds for Japanese bands in America.

X Japan performs at the Fox Theater on September 28th. Tickets are $37.50 and the show starts at 8pm.