Yoshiki on drums

The Japanese Bono’s Bonzai Beat

Pop-metal juggernaut X Japan has sold 30 million records in its native Japan. Yoshiki Hayashi, the band’s founder, has his own Visa—issued credit cards, a line of jewelry, bottled his own wine, authored a best-selling autobiography, endorses RockStar Energy Drink, and counts the former Japanese prime minister among his fans. Oh, and he is the only person ever to get his own Hello! Kitty doll, the YoshiKitty.

So how come no one outside the Pacific Rim has ever heard of the guy?

With plans to release a double disc of X Japan’s hit songs from the late-’80s to mid-’90s and a full CD of new material, this will surely change.

Yoshiki, a designer-jean-clad J-pop icon who never removes his sunglasses, is lounging on the sofa in the penthouse suite of a San Francisco hotel. Seated at a table directly behind us are two assistants on Blackberrys and a stone-faced bodyguard. “Japanese melodies are different than American ones,” he says in thickly accented English. “I’m rewriting entire lyrics to keep the same message. But the other 50 percent are new songs, so I wrote it in English from the get-go.”

Deliberately or subconsciously, Yoshiki was influenced by the contemporary crop of U.S. groove metal bands (think Slipknot) for the album’s new material. “It’s a little edgier,” he says. “It’s heavier, but not that fast.” Call it a deliberate attempt to get away from the thrash-oriented sound that defined ’80s metal, a scene X Japan turned on its head with Visual Kei, a movement that combines stunning visuals, a broader range of pop styles, and outlandish dress.

Asked what kind of drummer he considers himself to be, he responds “groove player.” Yoshiki religiously warms up his lower limbs before performances in steadily faster five-minute increments (he demonstrates from his current sitting position in motorcycle-booted feet). Judging from the way he stomps the two bass drums of a giant clear-acrylic kit later at a one-off performance at Oakland’s Fox Theater, the practice regimen has paid off. He also sports a neck brace, a necessity after years of what he unironically calls “head banging.” A numbness in two fingers on his left hand does not effect stick grip, he says, but it does make it more difficult to play the piano during ballad-type numbers.

A typical move for Yoshiki-san is to play the opening bars of some war-horse (tonight it’s Beethoven’s “Für Elise”) and then slam an elbow on the keys before stalking away in diva fit. The crowd eats it up. Singer Toshimitsu “Toshi” Deyama may be front and center, but there is no mistaking who leads the band. “Drums are a very flashy instrument, so I can be a frontman while being the drummer,” he explains. “I’m also a classical composer. I do conducting as well. So some people say, ’To be a drummer and leader is a struggle,’ but it’s the same thing. So when I’m playing drums I’m kind of conducting.”

So why did Yoshiki break up the band at its peak in 1995 and make the trans-Pacific leap? To live in America was a longtime dream. Another reason was the unrelenting glare of Japanese tabloid media. “It was in a good and bad way,” he explains. “It’s just we became way too popular a long time ago.” Before X Japan dissolved in 1996, the band was showing cracks as the relationship between Toshi and Yoshiki became strained. Six months after the breakup, guitarist Hide Matsumoto was dead. Yoshiki demurs on the topic but hints that drugs were involved.

Settled in Los Angeles by the early 2000s, the clamor from fans to reunite got increasingly loud, but as far as Yoshiki was concerned X Japan was done. That is until Toshi called him out of nowhere after eight years of not speaking. “We had to fix our friendship first before we started doing the reunion,” he says. “We grew up together so it was a great feeling to have my friend back.” Deceased guitarist Hide was back, too, if only via hologram for a reunion concert in 2005 to tear-filled rejoicing from the crowd.

Ever since the ministry of culture commissioned the conservatory-trained musician to write a symphony for the Emperor of Japan’s birthday in 2007, Yoshiki has been on a tear. Recent projects include scoring the film Repo: The Genetic Opera, a film in the Saw franchise, an animated feature later this year, and producing Japanese cult-metal sensation Dir En Grey. Where does he get the energy? “Red Bull pumping through these veins,” he cracks. “Oh wait. I’m supposed to say, ’RockStar.’”

Yoshiki will spend every available moment toiling away on the new X Japan album, scheduled for a spring 2011 release. The L.A. studio he owns, stocked with vintage Neve 1073 pres and other cool gear, is the spot where Metallica recorded the “Black Album,” so there’s plenty of good rock and roll karma on his side.

Will the endless production details and other musical duties squander his percussive mojo?

“I don’t think so,” he says with unflappable cool. “I mean, I’m always a drummer.”