A decade ago, guitarist Marty Friedman decided on a whim to move to Japan. No one could have guessed what happened next.
Marty Friedman has been in Japan for so long that he's lost track of what's happening back home in America. In casual conversation over a lunch of anago tempura, deep-friend tuna cheeks and myriad pieces of sushi at a restaurant in Tokyo's hip Shinjuku neighborhood – all ordered at Friedman's recommendation, selected through a remote-control hand-held console that'd be a challenge even if the instructions were in English – he expresses genuine astonishment that sushi is now so commonplace in America that it's available at convenience stores. He's also shocked that Japanese clothing giant Uniqlo now has a firm presence in the U.S. "Really?" he says. "No kidding! Uniqlo New York? Wow!"
So it goes for Friedman, who abruptly quit a plum gig as lead guitarist for thrash-metal icons Megadeth at the turn of the millennium, uprooted his entire life to Japan and never looked back. Not that Friedman's services weren't in demand Stateside – his stint in Megadeth lasted 10 years and spanned four albums, including Rust in Peace, Countdown to Extinction and Youthanasia, the band's biggest-selling and arguably best albums. He was also on board for 1999's divisive Risk, a record scorned by fans and critics alike for its tepid direction and which served as a watershed moment for Friedman and the band.
"Going into the Risk cycle, he was not terribly thrilled with the direction Megadeth were taking," recounts Clay Marshall, General Manager of Prosthetic Records, Friedman's current U.S. label home."[Friedman] wanted Megadeth to embrace the heaviness. At the end of the Nineties as the whole nü-metal thing was going up, he thought Megadeth were getting beaten at their own game by these bands that were embracing more of an aggro sound. He just wanted Megadeth to keep going that direction."
He's The Ryan Seacrest of Japan
Friedman's decision to leave Megadeth behind has worked out quite nicely. He's a highly sought-after live and studio guitar player in Japan, but in many ways that's something of an afterthought: Friedman has become a national celebrity in a way that only computes using the idiosyncratic calculus of Japanese culture. "He's a cultural celebrity over there," Marshall offers. "I tried to figure out how to explain it to people and we came up with the 'Ryan Seacrest of Japan' catch-phrase. It's not exactly accurate, but it was a much more accurate assessment of who he is and what he means to that world than 'Marty Friedman: Heavy Metal Guitar Player.'"
As Friedman walks through Shinjuku, groups of Japanese girls stop and whisper to one another when he passes by. Perhaps they recognize his curly, flowing locks from Mr. Heavy Metal and Rock Fujiyama, television shows he hosted in the mid-'00s, or maybe they're familiar with his current work, which includes regular stints on the NHK show Asia Music Network as well as his weekly NHK radio show. More likely they know him simply for being Marty Friedman the celebrity. By his own estimation, during his 11 years in Japan, Friedman has logged more than 600 TV appearances, including on Marty Friedman on a Japanese Cooking Show, news shows, political shows and as a guest on the myriad Japanese variety shows that air constantly throughout the day.
Friedman, a native of the Washington, D.C. area, describes his move to Japan as a "no-brainer," but acknowledges how difficult and risky it was to leave Megadeth, his house, cars, family and all the comforts of the only country he'd ever called home. He arrived in Tokyo in 2003 with not a single contact in the Japanese domestic music industry – which he says accounts for roughly 80 percent of all music consumed in Japan, with the very biggest international stars like Lady Gaga, U2 and Coldplay comprising the remaining 20 percent. "Even though I did tour in Japan," he qualifies, "all my connections were in the international world, so I didn't know anybody. I came to Japan and started from zero."
That might seem like an exaggeration for someone who played in one of the biggest metal acts of all time, but Marshall puts it in perspective: "He had some foundation to draw from, but it wasn't like he was in Guns N' Roses, Metallica, U2 or Bon Jovi, these international mega-superstars. Yeah, Megadeth is a successful brand, but they were never really huge in Japan. It wasn't like one of those Mr. Big sort of things where the joke goes that they're bigger in Japan than the Beatles."
Friedman is incredibly humble about the experience, attributing his new career arc to what essentially amounts to a good break. "As soon as I got here, I got very lucky. I joined a band with a singer named Aikawa Nanase, kind of a household name, a rock and J-pop singer in Japan. That got me started and on my way to doing the things that I wanted to do."
Shortly after getting started with Aikawa, Friedman was approached by a major TV production company about starring in a show called Hebimetal-San ("Mr. Heavy Metal"). He was initially hesitant – he had finally established a foothold in the J-pop world and thought a heavy-metal show might be counter-productive to his musical goals – but the pitch was so specifically written with Friedman in mind that he decided to give it a shot. "They wanted me to do these skits," he says, "where I would play Japanese traditional songs on guitar and morph them with heavy metal songs in such a way that the viewers and the show guests would laugh at the 'implied similarities' of the two seemingly unrelated styles of music. Who else could do that?!"
Hebimetal-San was a hit from day one. When the show's 26-episode run drew to a close, the network created a spin-off, Rock Fujiyama, that ran for 52 episodes and allowed Friedman to develop his personality for the Japanese viewing public. His career as a TV star and general celebrity took off from there. "Once other TV production companies saw that I was interesting," he says, "and I could face off with anyone, from comedians to intellectuals, and that I had an unusual point of view, I was constantly asked to do more and more TV shows, commercials and even a couple of movies."
When Friedman arrived in Japan he was already fluent in Japanese, which he'd taught himself as a hobby, but it was the pull of a musical culture he'd long admired from afar – and as a visitor with Megadeth and his earlier band Cacophony – that compelled him to move halfway across the world. "It all comes down to the music," he emphasizes. "That's why I'm here. As much as I love Japan, I would not be living 7,000 miles away from my family and friends in America if it weren't for the great music. If you look at the Top 10 on the charts here, I can pick any day of the week and nine of those songs, I would definitely say, 'I dig that a lot.' In America, I would be very lucky if there was one song in that Top 10 that I could enjoy." Not for the only time throughout our day together, Friedman moderates that statement — he wants to make clear that he's not looking down his nose at American pop. "It has nothing to do with good or bad or valuable or not valuable," he says. "It's just my own personal taste tends to be what's going on in Japan."
"My Own Personal taste tends to be what's going on in japan"
When most Americans imagine modern Japanese music they probably conjure a vague image of bubbly Japanese teenage girls with perma-smiles performing tightly choreographed dance routines in impeccably designed, highly colorful outfits (matching, naturally). Truthfully, that image isn't too far off-base. But for a musician of Friedman's caliber there's a whole lot more going on than just the fascination factor. Friedman explains that Japanese pop music is typically much more complex than its American counterpart. He compares the structure of Japanese pop songs – which he says might contain as many as 60 chords, compared to six or so in a typical Western pop song – to that of a jazz format but with extremely strong, pop-sensible melodies. "And this is not considered progressive at all," he says admiringly, "This can be in the poppiest music you've ever heard." Put another way, "the amount of information within a song if you were to reduce it to data would be a lot more than you'd find in Western mainstream music."
Friedman is a huge fan of Babymetal, an offshoot of the Japanese idol group Sakura Gakuin that consists of three teenage girls girls dancing, singing and generally looking as adorable as their name would imply in their matching red-and-black tu-tus, all while fronting a full-on heavy metal band. Formed in 2010, Babymetal have been garnering serious worldwide attention over the past several months, performing for sold-out crowds in London and Los Angeles before five dates opening for Lady Gaga on the West Coast of the U.S., all part of the band's first-ever world tour. Takayoshi Ohmura, the guitarist in Friedman's own solo band, is also the guitarist in Babymetal, and Friedman delights in hearing advance demos of new Babymetal songs.
At their core Babymetal are a pop act wrapped in metal coating, and to Friedman the band represents the perfect embodiment of the creativity and freedom Japanese music offers that American pop so sorely lacks. "I love aggressive music, death metal and stuff like that," he says. "But the lyrics just crack me up: the satanic stuff, I mean, really?" He shrugs. "I can't get into it. I love the sound of the music so much that I'm willing to put up with [the lyrics], but why not have that same aggressive sound in something that's a little bit more realistic, you know?"
He adds that, "I love the sound of metal but I've been doing it since I was a teenager, and I [felt I needed] to do something more unique with that sound. The sound of metal is what I love about it, but the fact that you have to stay within a genre, and you have to be in this really narrow genre, really turned me off."
That Babymetal's presentation might not qualify as "realistic" isn't lost on Friedman. "Babymetal, if you strip off that heavy metal guitar stuff, all you have is your basic fun, quirky, Japanese pop stuff," he says. "But the interpretation is super-metal. To me it sounds like Meshuggah with Japanese pop on top of it. So for someone like me who's been playing metal forever, it's really fresh to hear. I mean, I can hear another Pantera song, and it's great, but we've heard it before a billion times."
Friedman moonlights as a songwriter for Japanese idol groups like the one from which Babymetal was born, manufactured boy or girl pop groups that are the most popular musical acts in Japan. When he gets the call from Johnny's Jimusho, the top management company for male idol groups in Japan, he'll be one of 40 or 50 songwriters to take a crack at whatever concept is presented. During a lecture to visiting American songwriting students, Friedman gave a peek behind the curtain. "It's a big, big process," he shared. "It starts with the company, as a concept, with what they want to do." The powers that be might demand "a song that's going to allow the girls to do something with a 'sailing on the open seas' theme, or, 'The girls have a theme of hair curlers,' or whatever. You've got to have a lot of concepts before you even get to the song."
The official YouTube description for "Infinite Love," a song by a band called Momoiro Clover Z, underscores Friedman's points about the complexity of Japanese pop: It's hard to imagine an American pop act earnestly describing its music as a "furious space-seventh symphony movement." Yet Momoiro Clover Z are consistently one of the top-grossing acts in Japan, and "Infinite Love," on which Friedman played guitar, hit Number Three on the pop singles chart. "It's five 15-year-old girls dancing around, like Britney Spears, but the music is so much cooler than American Idol music," Friedman says. "It's really technical and progressive and unique. There's a 100-piece chorus singing along, with me playing guitar – and I'm playing my ass off – and the five girls are singing and dancing. There are time signature changes, there are tempo changes, there's all kinds of crazy stuff and the song is six minutes long. It's like the 'Bohemian Rhapsody' of idol music."
Just as Friedman expressed genuine surprise at the popularity of Japanese food in America, he is startlingly forthright about having no idea of what'd been going on in American heavy metal prior to embarking on his new Inferno project.
So how and why does a national Japanese celebrity as successful and content as Friedman decide to return to his solo guitar record roots in 2014, eight whole years after his most recent American release?
Turns out it wasn't even his idea. With the resurgence in appreciation for virtuosity and technicality in heavy metal, Marshall, of Prosthetic Records – a label that paved the way in the genre by breaking bands such as Animals as Leaders and Scale the Summit – sensed the time might be right to reintroduce Friedman to the Stateside metal scene.
"It sounded like he really understood the inside world of heavy metal in the U.S. and Europe, which I really had zero knowledge of since I moved here," Friedman says of Marshall's initial pitch. "So when [Marshall] told me there was an interest in what I was doing I believed him. His record company was totally behind whatever I wanted to do."
"I wouldn't even know what to do in america"
The past half-decade's resurgence of guitar-oriented metal provided the perfect opportunity for Marshall to sign one of his heroes — Marshall remembers meeting Friedman as a 14-year-old fan — first by testing the waters with a series of five reissued albums that had previously only been available in Japan (or, in one case, very sparsely in America). From there, plans materialized to record a brand new full-length for release on Prosthetic, but only on Friedman's own terms: that it'd be truly modern and not a rehash of his work with Megadeth, Cacophony or any of his prior solo albums, that it be made on his own timeframe (which ended up being 16 months), and that, according to Friedman, it be "absolutely mind boggling, blowing away anything I've ever done."
Friedman would also rather his new music not be called "shred," or otherwise defined by mere virtuosity. "I never liked that term," he says, "but if you want to put that term on me and sell records, I'll be fine with it. Hopefully I'm doing something more substantial than just playing amazing guitar solos, but whatever people pick up on is fine with me."
Inferno's 12 tracks are rich with complex melodies, nuanced arrangements and "adult chords," much like the Japanese pop that he's now so familiar with, but the music is filtered through the instrumental metal of Friedman's past solo work. The album includes contributions from the acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, Norwegian jazz-metal saxophonist Jørgen Munkeby of Shining and guitarist Dave Davidson of death-thrash maniacs Revocation, all of whom cite Friedman as an influence.
Friedman is prouder of Inferno than anything else he's done. "It's been absolutely the best-received solo album of my career," he humbly boasts. "The first album ever to go on Billboard. Now it's starting a whole new thing for me worldwide and it's kind of cutting into my Japan stuff, which is actually a nice change."
Would Friedman considering moving back to the States after more than a decade in Japan? Maybe. "This is my home," he says, "but I would love to be in L.A. My mom's there, the weather's good, the music's good. I can barely get away long enough to tour for four or five weeks, so, living there." He pauses. "I wouldn't even know what to do in America."