MIYAVI, Japan’s most seasoned guitarist to take their music internationally, returned to London for another packed performance as part of his worldwide 15th anniversary tour.
With a music career spanning nearly 20 years, MIYAVI is known for his many different styles over the years all while keeping guitar music at the forefront of his sound, taking the medium to new levels with every release. In 2016 he released his most ambitious album to date Fire Bird, and earlier this year came out with first best of record All Time Best: Day 2.
We sat down with the samurai guitarist to talk about the state of guitar rock and the next stage in his musical evolution.
Two years ago you moved out to LA, how are you finding it compared to living in Japan?
It’s huge. In LA everything is spread out, so the tempo is different. I’m used to city vibes, like Tokyo, London and New York, where if you want to you can have five, six, seven meetings a day, but in LA two or three is the maximum because you have to drive around everywhere.
Do you find it changed you as a person?
Yeah, the tempo effects your personality and music as well. So the past two or three years have been a big learning process of the culture.
So even your music has changed from just being in LA?
Yes, it’s really interesting how much the weather and locations effects your personality and culture. Visiting and living in a country are completely different, and for me as a parent there are even more responsibilities. The education system is totally different to Japan, so that was pretty tough the moment we moved to LA, but thanks to my wife Melody, she’s from Hawaii where she also went to university, so she knows the education system in LA better than Japan.
Is the music scene itself much different?
Yeah, and so many musicians are moving to LA, even British artists because many things are happening over there. So I believe it was the right timing to move there.
The main two reasons we moved is education for my girls, and the second one is creation. In Japan, we can see what’s happening in LA, but it’s all through media, TV, radio, internet. But once you get into the city it’s happening right there, and to even just feel the vibes is really important, and then to walk with those people who have been making history is just really important. Every moment is a learning process.
So you’ve soaked in Japan’s history with music, now moving to LA and getting a fresh perspective just adds to your growth as an artist.
Yeah, but to keep my identity as a Japanese [person] is really important. I’ve got to be myself. With my latest album Firebird as a guitarist I wanted to bring back that excitement of guitar music, and thanks to great young upcoming creators in LA, I was able to find a way to sing with the guitar.
An analogy I use when I’m having writing sessions with other writers is that we’re always trying to make a California roll. It’s not sushi that a Japanese sushi chef would make, but that creation was a bridge especially for people who are not familiar with raw fish. But having that avocado made it so popular, now in my neighbourhood there are 20 or 30 Japanese restaurants. It’s crazy! But thanks to that invention Japanese food got really popular.
With my music, I think we need to create something like that to create that bridge.
You want to make the California roll of music?
Yes! I have soy sauce, I have wasabi, I have rice, but I don’t have avocado. To find the perfect amount of avocado is the key and goal of the journey.
So you just need that extra ingredient?
Right. I’ve made a bunch of mistakes, like I’ve made a California roll with bread, peanut butter (but of music), but it was all worth it. You can’t get there without any experimentation. It took time, but I feel I’m getting there.
You mention you want to be an ambassador for guitar rock, what do you think when you see bands who were famous for guitar rock like Radiohead dropping the guitar for their more recent music?
It’s the trend. The most recent big rock band is Twenty One Pilots, who don’t have a guitarist.
It’s a cycle, but as a guitarist I feel responsible. I’ve seen many guitarists who have been struggling to make music because people are not wanting a guitar. But it’s delivery, so how you deliver is really important. That’s why I keep experimenting.
We cannot be lazy or arrogant. It’s not just “oh we do rock, we’re guitarists, listen to my guitar”, if you don’t make anything new and stick to a typical format people get tired of it. People have been listing to great rock bands for ages. So as part of the younger generation of guitarists I feel responsible to make a new format so guitar can survive.
Which really shows. Last time you came over it was just you and BoBo on drums, now you’ve got a DJ on board. Is that you experimenting with the format?
I think you’ll see tonight some changes. So this tour we rocked Asia, 14 cities in America and 9 cities in Europe, then going back to Brooklyn, then a load of shows Tokyo, so there’s a transition. It’s MIYAVI’s 15th anniversary and we’re celebrating, but as a creator and the path for the next level, this is the important transition. That’s why I’m really happy to hear such a great response from the audience about the new set.
I was pretty nervous to do this set, because it’s hard to be a MIYAVI fan. It’s like going to a restaurant where there is no menu; you can’t choose the food you want to eat. You never know what’s going to happen, but they trust me.
As your sound has evolved who has been your musical inspirations? Do you have artists you keep going back to?
Not really musically, but Buddy Guy. I still love blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Johnson, and Eric Clapton. The legends. But I also loved a lot of dance music like Basement Jaxx, Daft Punk, Justice.
So you always go back to the classics?
Yeah because that’s my identity. I’m not a DJ, but I want to make something with dance, but as a guitarist. That’s the fun part. There are many people doing electro rock, but I’m doing it with the identity and pride of a guitarist. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.
How about in acting? You’ve been doing it for a few years now, do you have any inspirations?
Ange!(Angelina Jolie). But I’ve become friends with tons of great younger actors like Corey Hawkins who played Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton. I just went to see him in New York, he’s currently doing a play over there.
And I just met David Oyelowo who played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and he’s a great, great actor. But even the legendary actors like Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman are my favourites.
Oh and Samuel L. Jackson. Thanks to working on Kong I was able to meet him, and he loves Japanese culture- he even produced the Japanese anime Afro Samurai.
I’ve heard he’s pretty open about his love of anime.
Yeah he loves it! He even knew me as a musician. We had a great talk and at the end of the conversation I really wanted to take a picture with him, then he was like, “can I take a picture with you?”. That was a great moment.
So it was because of Angelina you got into acting and your first role in Unbroken, which was a pretty major role for your first film.
She opened the door for me and I’m still learning from her. She’s a fighter. She has a mission. She just made her film First They Killed My Father in Cambodia, where she also held the premiere. As an actress she’s great but as a mum, as a woman, as a creator, she keeps moving forward and keeps making something good for the future. Which is why I started working for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).
You’ve got quite a lot of ink, how was it covering up your tattoos while you were on set?
It was a good time to take a nap, every morning I get an extra hour sleep. But that’s the reason I don’t do so many roles, because it takes time, though I usually have a costume or a uniform to cover them up.
While we’re on it, which of your tattoos holds the most meaning for you?
My Korean name on my back, the biggest one. It used to be hard to be Korean in Japan, and when I was a kid I didn’t even know I was half Korean. But now I play shows in Korea, I have many Korean fans, and I’m really proud of that legacy from my dad’s side. I feel that’s where I get my more aggressive personality from.
Does your Korean heritage appear in your music?
Koreans are strong. Real aggressive. But it’s from weather, location, and food. They eat red meat more than Japanese people, who usually eat carbs and fish. And especially location wise they have more cooperation, more unity, as they face more countries in such a big continent. So they’re always under pressure to stand out within those tribes. But I do my thing as a Japanese [person].
On the topic of films will we be seeing you in any more films soon?
I’ll be in one American film which is coming out maybe this year, and one Japanese film next year.
Will that be your first Japanese film you’ve been in?
Yeah, it’s going to be a fun one. It’s not public news yet though!
Do you have any Japanese director that you would really want to work with?
Oh yeah, I want to work with Takashi Miike as well. I just made a track for his film Blade Of The Immortal, which is going to be played in the US, Germany, and Australia. It’ll also be at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
It’s a big film! It’s just started playing in Japan and it’s been great. There are many great actors in it, and it’s a samurai film, so I feel like I joined them with my guitar rather than katana.
How is acting compared to playing music? Is it like having two different personas?
Quite fun actually. It’s all about expression once you get into the role. I’ve been doing MIYAVI for 15 years, a long time, and it’s a fun and interesting experience getting into another character. It took time to get out of the character when I did Unbroken because it took so much time to get in, then while shooting I was in character for the whole time. That was pretty tough.
Was it quite hard watching that film on the big screen?
As a story based on actual people, that was pretty tough at first, but as an actor, you cannot be objective about your acting or your performance. Like the first time you hear your voice, you feel weird. It’s different from your perspective, your point of view. But I got a great response from people in the audience as well as people in the movie industry, so that was great.
You’ve performed in London many times over the years, what is it that keeps you coming back?
It’s one of the biggest cities, and it’s one of the most difficult compared to other countries. People in London know music and have an experience with music. Now I feel good about being in this city. We just went to Camden, and the first time I went there I was not able to speak English. Now I feel the vibes and have communication with people there. It’s a really important and significant thing to be able to understand what people are saying. It makes the entire tour different.
We had a show in Paris the other night, and that was great, then I stayed in Paris for a photoshoot while the rest of the crew went to London. The next day I came to London via the EuroStar, and then the moment we arrived here and I heard people speaking English I was excited to be here.
To wrap this up, is there anything you want to say to your UK fans?
First of all I really appreciate your strong support, and as I’m always saying on stage thanks to you I can keep creating and moving forward, because it’s not a thing I can do by myself. Without the trust of my fans I cannot experiment with new things, so I feel responsible to keep making something new, so we can share the excitement.
Now, the UK is not going to be part of the EU… I’ve been working with the UNHCR and I’ve seen you’ve been facing the refugee crisis more than us, and there are so many things that are happening here. But I think the key is in how to share, how to cooperate, how to unite. Every single night we’re proving that we can unite through music, and we’re feeling the power of music. I cannot make the show by myself, I need your support, I need your energy, and that power is for the future.
I’m so happy to be able to keep coming back to this city, and hopefully next time, we rock more.
That’s great to hear as in the US and the UK it seems like everyone is at each other’s throats politically, everything feels quite separated.
The thing is in the crowd you see so many people from many different countries. Even today I had an interview with girls from Bulgaria. While you’re enjoying music it doesn’t matter where you’re born or where you’re from. Culture, movies, music- there’s a strong message there.
Also in politics, I think more women should be there working equally with men, then there would be a better balance. Men are not as smart and women. We keep making mistakes. Sometimes I feel if the president or prime minister is a male, I think a female needs to be the support, like the vice president, and vice versa. In Germany the leader is a woman, then the male politicians support her. That’s the first thing we should do and we should make it happen!
That balance is important. Men are good at being offensive, we fight to protect our families, that’s our role. But women are really good at cooperating with people and making communities. That’s why they don’t stop talking, and that’s a great and strong skill. They are much more passive, in a good way! Maybe that’s what I should talk to the UNHCR about, and make that happen!
ALL TIME BEST “DAY 2”
Live photographs by Charles at Room.C Photography