Classical Import: How Yoshiki Went From Stadiums to Concert Halls

Yoshiki Hayashi, the drummer, pianist, and principal composer of X Japan, is a genuine rarity: a flashy rock star who's also a classically trained pianist with serious chops and the ability to shift seamlessly between genres. Arguably the most influential rock group in Japanese history, X Japan took heavy metal mainstream and sold out the massive Tokyo Dome 13 times prior to disbanding in 1997. (It subsequently reformed in 2007.) With a performance at Davies Symphony Hall coming up next week, we spoke with Hayashi — known publicly as Yoshiki — about what audiences might expect from his first full classical tour.

SF Weekly: Why did you decide to do a classical tour, and is it the first time you've done an actual tour as a classical performer rather than just individual events?

Yoshiki: I think so. This was sort of an accident. I composed the theme song for the Golden Globes in 2012, and then last year I released that song. Some of my friends said, “Why don't you release an album?” I'd composed the theme song for the World Expo in 2005 [held in Aichi, Japan], and also a song for the Japanese emperor's 10-year anniversary, so I decided to combine all of my symphonic and orchestral work into one album and then release it worldwide. That happened in August, and since I'd released an album, my friends asked me if I was interested in doing a showcase. I was like, “Okay.” It was just one small showcase at the Grammy museum in August. Then my agent said, “You should do a world tour,” and I was like, “No, I'm not doing it” [laughs]. I had just finished my X Japan album, and then I was doing a rock tour. But he kept saying “You should do this.” I said no three or four times, but he convinced me a few months later.

You're in an unusual situation, being so heavily involved with both classical and rock music. Can you give us a brief history of how that happened?

I started playing classical piano when I was 5 years old, and started playing drums when I was 10. I always liked classical music, so when we debuted as a rock band, I also released a selection of classical tunes, like Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, and people were kind of intrigued by that. At that time people didn't think of rock artists releasing classical music.

How are the performances on this tour going to be arranged?

Of course I'm playing piano, and I'm also going to bring several strings. Depending on the specific performance, sometimes there will be, say, two cellos and a viola, something like that. I'll be playing classical versions of some X Japan songs, the Golden Globe theme, the emperor's theme song. Also depending on the venue, I'm thinking, if I'm going to Moscow, then probably I'm going to play Tchaikovsky there; for Germany, I was thinking maybe I might create a piano version of the Scorpions' “Winds of Change,” since it became a theme for the Berlin Wall falling. I'm also going to bring the vocalist from Violet UK [Katie Fitzgerald], she's going to sing on two or three songs.

Are you going to have a choir or is it just going to be her?

Just her, but for some shows, the X Japan vocalist [Toshi] might join us, too. It's going to be very organic, not really a big setup. I'm also bringing a video screen to every venue, so each song will have some kind of visual effects as well. It's going to be kind of a classical concert meets rock and then EDM.

Before the album last year it had been a while since you'd released any classical music, right?

It was maybe 10 years ago? It's crazy that I'm doing a classical tour at this moment, because now I'm feeling really inspired. The album last year was kind of an accident, but I really enjoyed the process so now I'm writing a few classical tunes as well as some X Japan tunes.

At what age did you start composing?

I started composing when I was 9 or 10, kind of classical wannabe tunes.

Do you compose on piano?

Well, my composition style is kind of strange. I compose directly to a score. I usually don't use any instruments, I just write, and then after I've written the score I play it on the piano to make sure that it's right. Even for my rock band, I write every single line as a score. I used to give scores to the members and they didn't understand why I was doing it that way.

Does it feel different playing the songs that were specifically written as classical pieces this way, as opposed to X songs that you've reworked as classical pieces?

Good question. For some reason, some of the X songs can transition into classical music very smoothly. Probably because of my classical background I wrote those melodies like classical melodies, so it's not that different. I've thought about it, too, like some X songs are super heavy, but if you play them on the piano there's a classical vibe.

Have you decided yet what song you're going to add for the San Francisco show?

Well, I've been asking around, so if you have any suggestions….

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