Life can present an incredible spectrum of experiences and challenges. Some challenges are welcome, while others may not. For each of us, we hopefully awaken each day and then get to face our own set of daily hurdles and pitfalls in this thing we call daily life. If you are a person that tends to think long term, you probably have a set of goals, both short and long term. While you may have a personal gauntlet to run routinely, each of your goals most likely poses some particular set of challenges to their achievement. Yoshiki, the band leader of the newly formed Japanese supergroup The Last Rockstars, with his numerous business ventures, surely has some mountains to scale. It brings to mind the old adage, “Why do people climb mountains? Because they are there.” In this specific instance, it is this new band and the range of peaks that it offers to scale.
The Last Rockstars
A mere three days after The Last Rockstars played the final show of their first mini-tour of Japan and the United States, I arrive at a photo studio somewhere in Los Angeles’ west side. I am escorted to the room where Yoshiki is currently conducting a shoot for various campaigns. I see the man himself sitting at his iconic crystal grand Kawai piano, wearing red velvet lounge pants and robe. He plays, appearing oblivious to the army, well, more like a squad, of people buzzing about him. Strobes are flashing with each depression of the shutter release of the primary photographers camera. There are technical people setting and dismantling different basic sets. There are makeup and management people milling about, all by what anyone could guess, there to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.
I go mostly unnoticed for about a half hour as the hive of activity swarms around in front of me. Yoshiki’s sense of calmness amidst the minor chaos occurring around him is in stark contrast to the last time I saw him, not yet 72 hours previously. A mere ten or so miles away, I witnessed a man pour out his entire being for over two hours at The Hollywood Palladium. After a few of the presumed officers and NCOs follow him into a dressing room for an outfit change. As they begin to emerge from the curtained doorway, I approach a person who I surmise may be in charge. I introduce myself, and it is indeed my on-site contact. I am asked if we can have our conversation after this round of photos. I watch as they complete the next round of shots. We retreat into a small VIP room, with a member of his management team and a videographer, who is chronicling all of the goings on of the evening. This is a unique experience as generally these things are done with just the artist. There was a sense from the time I crossed the threshold into the studio that this one would be a bit different.
Every ascent on Everest begins with an idea. One must decide to scale to the crest. He describes the inception, “A lot of genres, pop, hip-hop, etc., which i very much respect, they do a lot of artists featuring “artist B”, or something like that. So I thought that was a great idea. Why not rock artists do that kind of thing? I do a lot of collaborations and thought to make the band like Avengers kind of style. It may be cool.. or it could be a disaster.” It looks like at this juncture, they definitely pulled that off, Yoshiki reservedly agrees, “So far, so good.” The idea for this goes back a few years, but like so many other projects, a certain health scare took over the world, “I started talking to each one of them, but then COVID hits.” So the project is sidelined for a later time.
Yoshiki is a bit of an enigma. If you know anything about him musically, you know that he is not just this or that, he is more those. “So, I started thinking of that idea a few years ago. I also play classical music. So I’ve been playing classical music with orchestras and things like that. The last time I played in America, the show before this one, was Carnegie Hall in New York. But I am also a hard rock drummer. It’s kind of an odd combination.” He seems to be setting the expectation for the style of the band, without really saying it. So then our singer, Hyde, said, ‘I want to see you playing drums.’ I was like, Okay, let’s do this. That’s how it started.” Why was it important to have these particular musicians on the project, “We united kind of like old buddies, they have all been friends of mine. I’ve known each of them quite a while. Sugizo, he’s also a member of X Japan, my other band, so I know how amazing he is. Hyde, I did work with on Attack On Titan theme song” This is referring to Red Swan, which Yoshiki wrote and featured Hyde on vocals. This is the theme song to the Japanese anime show from 2018. “Then Miyavi, I worked with him a long time ago, several times actually, so it’s kind of very natural.”
Creating a supergroup, if you will, can be tricky, with each of the members being stars in their own right. In addition, each of the members to a large degree, have probably been very influential over the directions each of those groups have taken musically. Being seen as the founder and band leader, how does he direct the creative process? “I’m leading the creative process, but that doesn’t mean I’m exercising complete creative control. I listen to every one of them, then I take what they advise.” So The Last Rockstars is not just a Yoshiki solo project with phenomenal musicians playing on it. Although he is the primary writer, the overall feel arrived differently, “We all got together and decided a direction, kind of like a rock music train of music, something like that. Then from there, I am fulfilling other compositions.” He was still composing right up to before their first show. “At the last minute, right before the first concert, I wrote a ballad. I think a ballad makes it interesting for the show, but we’ve all been composing songs.”
As he mentioned in his idea for the band, “It could be cool or it could be a disaster.” If you’re wondering about just when he knew that this would be something to which people would respond, he shares, “We played four arena shows. One month ago, we did not know where we were going. They were rehearsing in japan, the three of them, I was in Los Angeles and then flew back to Japan. When I arrived I said Okay, we only have a few weeks to play an entire show. We were so worried about that, whether we were going to be able to do this or not.” Apparently, even when you’ve had incredible success, the specter of insecurity still looms. “I was working on composing and arranging right up to the morning of the day of the first show. After we finished the show, the thought occurred to me, well, we may have something special here.”
Composing music for an American audience means that one must have a command of the English language. Learning the language has been a long road for him, “We all learn English in Japan, but that didn’t help at all. When I came here for the first time, in my late twenties or something, I realized I spoke zero English. English is not very common in japan, people know some of the words, but to have a conversation might be a different story.” So he set out to counter that by immersing himself in it, “So the first year and a half, I had a teacher come to my house like six hours a day or something, it was intense.” Over the years, that immersion has paid dividends in his writing. “So I was thinking in Japanese before, then translating in English, exactly rhyming. For the past maybe ten years or something like that, I think in English. Sometimes I have to write Japanese lyrics for Japanese artists, or when I produce some of the artists, I think in English and I have to translate it to Japanese.” If you think that is impressive, he adds one final thought, “I have been told that I even sleep talk in English.”
Yoshiki has reached an age where generally maturity shines light on your past and helps illuminate the future, as well as helps you appreciate the present. The years of playing drums like a madman have taken their toll on him, “I have had neck surgery twice, there is an artificial disk in my neck. I was playing drums more like a suicidal way. I kind of had a death wish thing. I was very suicidal, it’s very contradicting. I study a lot, but at the same time, I’m like, ‘No, fuck everything’.” Thank goodness he did not act on those feelings. He has a reason for persevering now. “I try to live for my fans and my friends.” He used to play with a reckless abandon, “I played like this is the last day I play. I just go for it.” He has had to learn to play the drums in a manner that does not stress his neck anymore. “I was wearing a neck brace to learn how to stop the headbanging, I’m still playing really hard but more practical.” He adds one last thought, “Headbanging is very unhealthy.”
Another thing that age provides is a sense of accomplishment, that couples with it a desire to accomplish more. “It’s interesting, I think we, each one of them including myself, I think we climbed the mountain a long time ago. Then instead of just enjoying being on top of the mountain, we saw, “Oh, man, look at that, the U.S., look at that, the U.K. One more mountain there we didn’t see at the beginning so we decided to go climb those mountains.” Just because you have experience climbing one mountain, that does not mean you can climb the next. You need to familiarize yourself with the terrain of the specific apex you wish to reach. “We had to learn culture. When I first came here, I was trying to learn the culture. I was actually reading the Bible, not trying to be a Christian, but everyone here read the the Bible, and I wanted to understand the culture.” There is another saying that goes ‘Know your audience.’ “I read a lot about lyrics, ‘Why do people say this? Why do people say that?’ If you don’t know the culture how do you understand that?”
As Yoshiki prepares to resume his ascent up the mountain, he offers some final thoughts on why the climb is important to him. “We and I exist because of our fans. Being rockstars, we’re very grateful to be in this position, it’s not a usual thing, but our fans have always supported us, so that’s why we’re here.” The contrast of the man who pounds those drums on stage and the man sitting two feet away on the same couch is very perplexing. Yoshiki explains it this way, “I think I have a lot of doors you can open, or i can explain like this. I think I’m still just a kid that loves rock and roll. No matter what I do, business, fashion, there’s a heartbeat, that’s why we can keep on going.” In addition he feels a special mission to keep going. “A few of the members of X Japan passed away, killed themselves.” Presumably referring to Hideto Matsumoto and Sawada Taiji. “So I feel like I’m responsible to how you say, spread their legacy. So as long as I’m doing it, people are going to find out who I am, who X Japan is.” It looks like Yoshiki has many reasons to keep climbing; The Last Rockstars and keeping the spirit of his former bandmembers alive are two really good ones.
*This article has been corrected and updated.