Welcome back to our conversation with guitar legend Marty Friedman! For those who missed the first half, you can find part 1 here.
In part 2 on the interview, Marty delves into the prominence of female-led Jrock bands, the emphasis on musical literacy in Japan, the wonders of self-produced Japanese artists, and more. Read on to find out just how all these sonic forces made the heavy metal icon fall in love with Jpop time and time again!
We’ve noticed a surge of women-led Jrock, like BABYMETAL, BAND-MAID, LOVEBITES, NEMOPHILA, and SCANDAL, signaling a renaissance of female empowerment in a field historically dominated by men. Why is this a thing in Japan?
Female empowerment… It’s really not nearly as political as that [laughs]! You’re in America, and everybody thinks in those terms. It’s not. In America, people who get involved in making music are 90% male. It’s guys because we want to get girls. It’s that simple. That’s why I got into it.
I found in Japan that people who get into music are almost 50-50 guys and girls. All music, all styles, all genres. This comes from a deep emphasis on musical education and participating in music at a young age for just about everybody. You get into a taxi, and the driver says, “I played guitar in college”. You go to a store and the clerk says, “Yeah, I saw your TV show. I used to play drums in high school”. Everybody has touched an instrument here. Normal people!
In America, it was people like me: misfits, outsiders, kids with long hair. People like [rock band Nirvana singer and guitarist] Kurt Cobain. People on the fringe of society played music. Football players and smart kids were not interested in playing music. And girls were definitely not interested in playing music.
In Japan, I noticed that very “regular” people get into music. Even popular, good-looking guys who can get girls with no music try to play music. Girls play music. It’s not a male-versus-female dynamic like it is in America.
If you’re a girl band in America, that really stands out. One of my favorite girl bands was The Donnas. I was just like, “Wow! This is so cool that these girls are rocking so hard”. But here, you can see people walking around in Shinjuku with their instruments strapped to their backs all the time. Girls and guys are equal. Everybody makes music, and that’s how it should be.
Also, the female-led bands you listed couldn’t be more different in their styles, and I think the fans of each of these bands are completely separate. Maybe outside Japan it’s different. I’ve worked with most of them in some capacity, and they’re all absolutely fantastic, but I don’t think they would be lumped together in Japan even for a moment. The Japanese music scene is so wide and diverse, with so many great things to discover. I really don’t like to lump them into “female or male”, because there’s so much more to say good things about them rather than, “They’re girls making a band”, you know?
Totally. To conclude that their prevalence is the effect of “female empowerment” sounds like a view that’s very much through an American lens. First of all, this isn’t the reality in Japan, where it’s more of a level playing field. Secondly, lumping everyone together as “girl bands” is a bias in and of itself, because then you’re not listening to the music but rather defining the artists based on their gender.
In America, the fanbase for these bands do tend to overlap. Fans who go to a BAND-MAID show will also follow “HANABIE.“ and NEMOPHILA as they tour through the States. That might lead to a bias when identifying Japanese music from a non-Japanese point of view.
That’s a good point, but I wouldn’t paint that necessarily as a bad thing. A lot of people at those shows are just interested in Japan and in the Japanese music scene. They’re just happy that these bands make the effort to come to America and play.
In Japan, we have the luxury of having the entire scene, so we can pick and choose exactly the ones that we like. But I can tell you for a fact that before I moved to Japan, I would’ve gone to every single show. I totally get and support that, and I’m very happy to see the trend of more Japanese bands going to America and to other countries. I know that PassCode was just there, and they’re one of my favorites.
It’s just very important that we build bridges not only to Japan but to other countries as well. That’s the way you enjoy music to the fullest. So you don’t understand the lyrics. So what? You’re going to discover new things, and the more that happens, the better for music all over.
If we’re understanding correctly, this largely seems to boil down to an emphasis on education in music to make it an integral part of life in Japan.
Yes. I kind of wish I had that when I was growing up in America. When I grew up, the music system in school was terrible. When I started playing guitar in junior high, of course, I was learning on my own. I then took a guitar class at school because it was an “easy A”. But the teacher said, “There’s no way you’re taking this class and just scooting through it. You’re gonna have to teach the class”. You have a class in school. Isn’t the teacher supposed to be the one teaching and making it inspiring for the students? There was something wrong with this whole system.
Here in Japan, they have “bukatsu” [extracurricular activity clubs], like music clubs in school, where you actually make bands. You’re in bands and in band competitions and in after-school band events. They really make it appealing for kids to have a hobby of music. I was so jealous watching that.
The music scene itself seems more encouraging. There are these small “live house” clubhouse venues in Japan. We don’t have as many in other countries. Even if you’re proactively learning music, you can’t really put yourself out there as easily.
This is an excellent point. In Japan, there are millions of little live houses. In America, I guess the closest thing would be a rock club, but there are fewer rock clubs than ever. It’s just a hard way to make money. But since the number of musicians in Japan per capita is so much higher than in America, there’s always a little place for young bands to play. Even established bands play these live houses to have an intimate experience for a small group or to try new material.
Like you said, people might learn how to play music or make a band, but then there’s no place to play! That’s very frustrating and limits the music scene to those who can afford to rent a big building. It’s just a harder climate. Having these live house venues of all sizes—there are venues down to 30 people, often used for private parties—and then going anywhere to 100 seaters, 200, 500… That’s very encouraging.
I never really thought about how we take this for granted here in Japan. Playing in front of people is the most important part of developing yourself as a musician. Japanese live houses let bands see the work that it takes to get to the next level. It’s a very healthy musical climate.
This discussion on musical climate leads right into the next question: Our staff follows a lot of niche scenes, like self-published “doujin” music. We were happy to see your collaboration with “Alfakyun.” on the song The Perfect World. What sparked this collaboration?
As a fan of Japanese music, my ears are always open. Let’s face it: That’s kind of rare when you’re a grown-up. When you’re in your teens, you’re hungry to find new music. But once you hit 20 and 30, especially if you’re a professional musician, you’re pretty much cooked. You’re done with new influences. You’ve created yourself as an artist. Once I discovered Japanese music, I kind of felt like a teenager. I always find new stuff that I get excited about.
With Alfakyun.’s The Perfect World, the original version was a male voice with Jean-Ken Johnny from MAN WITH A MISSION. I wanted to experiment with a female voice, just because I thought it was an interesting idea, and the record company got excited. It was really just like that. I found a bunch of Alfakyun. songs and thought she was a different category than the heta-uma I talked about before. She’s just a super singer!
When we did the song, I wondered which key she wanted to do it in. And she says, “Any key”. Any key? I’ve never heard a singer say that before!
In the studio, we tried it in every key—and that song is very difficult; there’s a big range—and she just nailed it in all sorts of different keys.
Now, she can sing it in every key, but which is the most delicious key? If it was the key that I originally recorded with Jean-Ken Johnny, that would’ve been easy. I would’ve just removed the vocals and had her sing over it. But she sang it even better in a different key. I had to re-record the entire song, but it was worth it. It just made it her. She put her stamp on it.
I do a lot of collaborations like that. I like to take the best of what an artist is and see if I can fit my own thing into it. Alfakyun. was great.
At a past Comiket, Alfakyun. had one of the longest lines for her booth. This was very eye-opening in regard to the doujin scene. Do you have any thoughts on the self-produced doujin culture?
The amount of talent and ability to do it on a big level is fascinating. This also gets into Japanese culture, because there are a lot of people here who are quite shy, and they don’t necessarily have that “outgoing skill”. The networking skills. The collaboration skills. They’re more comfortable creating everything from the ground-up themselves.
I don’t like working by myself. I love to work with other musicians and create new things that are a symbol of our collaboration. If it’s only me by myself, I could do it… But some people are really, really good at it, like Alfakyun. My bassist Wakazemon is another fantastic example. She can do so many things by herself. There are a lot of people in Japan like that. It’s a talent that I don’t really have, and I admire.
Several Japanese artists have successfully toured overseas, yet some feel they still face barriers, especially when it comes to the language. Experts such as yourself who can liaise with audiences across the two sides are still rare.
What can Japanese artists do to create a bigger presence in the world? What would you tell listeners who haven’t been exposed to Jpop or Jrock to pull them closer to Japanese music?
There’s no science to breaking into another country from the start. Of course, once things are moving, there are great strategies to build on that. But you never know what’s going to make that first connection, and that’s the most important thing. Without that first connection, there’s nothing you can plan from it.
The language is the biggest hurdle, but at the same time, I personally don’t think that Japanese artists should try to “Americanize” their lyrics or sing in English or try to make their English lyrics understandable. I just don’t think it’s going to work. What might work is Japanese Katakana-English.
One of the first bands that got attention in America was Shonen Knife, Nirvana’s favorite band. They kept all their Japanese things intact. The English they used was very simple, with very Katakana-English pronunciation. It wasn’t like they went to a language coach to try to make their words understandable. Katakana-English is one of the most adorable things about Japanese music. I’m sure that’s what Lady Gaga found interesting about BABYMETAL, among other things. But when Japanese artists try to Americanize themselves and be hip or cool or R&B, I don’t think that’s going to work.
In America, there’s a big association between White people trying to be Black and trying to be cool and edgy. To me, it sounds very funny and forced. For an Asian person trying to be White being Black, it’s just one step removed. It could be successful, only because it’s hilarious.
For me, when Japanese artists are exactly the way they are as an artist and don’t try to change for America or for Europe, that’s when they have the biggest chances. All these bands you mentioned who go to America to work are just being their normal selves. If it catches on, it’s because they’re actually good at what they do, not because they’re trying to fit into some kind of mold to appeal to Americans [smiles].
It’s my take on it. I’m very open to hearing other people’s takes on it. Otherwise, the biggest things are a) having a super quality project and b) having a lot of luck.
Speaking with Dream Theater’s John Petrucci recently, he described the power of music as “an emotional connection” in bringing people of all cultures together.
You’ve played with such a broad range of Japanese acts, like Aikawa Nanase, Momoiro Clover Z, Ohmura Takayoshi, and Suzuki Ami. How would you describe your emotional connection with different Japanese musicians? And what is your own philosophy for bridging people together through music?
I’m this weird entity who came to Japan because I just love Japanese music and wanted to be part of it in any possible way. Right now, I’m doing festivals with Momoiro Clover Z. It’s like a fan saying, “Oh, I’d love to play with these people sometime”, and then having it actually happen! It’s the biggest treat, and it does nothing but help me in every way with my musical dreams.
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been asked by a lot of my favorite artists to do things with them. When I’m a fan of something, I really bring that out in my collaboration with that artist. That’s a little different from a studio musician or a support player getting a gig, learning the music, and playing two months on a tour. I have a personal investment as an admirer of their art. What can Marty Friedman do to make an artist something that I would love even more?
I just get so lucky with these things. I’ve played with so many of my idols. I’ve worked with Yoshiki on a couple of occasions. There was that Judas Priest movie Rock Star about a fan who ended up playing with the band. I get to do that in small doses with a lot of different artists. As a fan, I just can’t say no to the offers that I get.
For the listeners, Jpop music is such a deep well of a lot of different things and sub-genres that once you find yourself in it, it’s like a big labyrinth of fun things. Once you get over not understanding the lyrics, you can just enjoy the music. It might spark you to learn the language a little, like it did for me. Even if it doesn’t, you’re still going to enjoy its musical merits, which are so deep and rich with things that are unlike what we grew up with outside of Japan.
Thank you so much for sharing your passion with us today! There were so many things we didn’t have time for during this session, like your installation at Haneda Airport as the Official Ambassador of Japan Heritage or the successful completion of your recent world tour.
As a closing remark, can you tease us with what you’ll be working on next?
I am working on my next record for the last couple of months. The new album, like every album, is an absolute labor of love. It’s kind of based on an album I had before called Scenes, the album that I hear the most from the fans about doing another record like it.
When I hear something like that, it’s like, “Well, I don’t want to go into the past and redo something that’s already been done”, but Scenes is conceptually in such a way that I could do a “2044 version”. It will not sound like the original album at all, but it will have the same effect and feeling. I’m taking the elements they enjoyed about it and doing a much more evolved and updated version with so many more musical things that I’ve brought to the party since then.
I’m kind of pinching myself with doing it because it’s really coming along. It’ll be early spring next year. Everything people liked about Scenes are on steroids and coming through the lens of someone who now adds all the things I talked about for the last hour. I can’t wait to play it for everyone [smiles].
Thank you very much!
JROCK NEWS deeply thanks Marty Friedman and his staff at Avex for the interview opportunity.
Have a suggestion on who to interview next for the Breaking Barriers series? Let us know in the comments below!
- MAKENAIDE / MARTY FRIEDMAN負けないで / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- SENBONZAKURA / MARTY FRIEDMAN千本桜 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- GURENGE / MARTY FRIEDMAN紅蓮華 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- KAZE GA FUITEIRU / MARTY FRIEDMAN風が吹いている / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- ECHO / MARTY FRIEDMANECHO / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- THE PERFECT WORLD / MARTY FRIEDMANThe Perfect World (feat.+α/あるふぁきゅん。) / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- U.S.A. / MARTY FRIEDMANU.S.A. / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- SHUKUMEI / MARTY FRIEDMAN宿命 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- IKUZE! KAITOU-SHOUJO / MARTY FRIEDMAN行くぜっ!怪盗少女 / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- SAZANKA / MARTY FRIEDMANサザンカ / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- TIME GOES BY / MARTY FRIEDMANTime goes by / MARTY FRIEDMAN
- JAPAN HERITAGE OFFICIAL THEME SONG / MARTY FRIEDMANJAPAN HERITAGE OFFICIAL THEME SONG / MARTY FRIEDMAN