From his first song “Lovers On Backstreet” to “So Young”, and the unreleased “semi shigure”
Lovers On Backstreet
In the first song that you wrote, “Lovers On Backstreet”, where exactly did that outrageous phrase “It doesn’t even matter if you’re an ugly pig” come from?
(Yoshii) Our first vocalist originally wrote the lyrics to “Lovers”, but when I started singing I completely rewrote it. I think I was about 23 at the time and didn’t really have any preconceived notions, so I just sung whatever came to me when writing. But you know, if me as I was back then was in front of me right now, I’d probably feel like there wasn’t much to him: He was just that unpleasant of a guy. Anyway we can’t see the future and parts of our lives are beyond our control. The phrases in the lyrics that I wrote then that I have issues with are from nothing but morbid conversations that I had. And then we were playing clubs as well, so maybe that had some influence too? Maybe those songs are like mood enka or something? That may have been me showing my personal resentments in a very honest way.
Now this is a song about a prostitute who lost her family, but why do you think that so many of your lyrics from this time were written from a woman’s perspective?
(Yoshii) That’s because I wasn’t very good to women back then. This felt like borrowing their mouths and singing for them. “He’s a terrible person isn’t he!? He should be put to death!” (laughs)
(Laughs) But you have to be able to analyze yourself.
(Yoshii) I’ve written so many songs like that. “Fairy Land” is the same way. guess you could say I was proud of the phrase “I have a flower for you too” back then, I loved it. I still do.
Right. And even in “Welcome to My Doghouse” you’re depicting a very muddled situation, but the positive phrase “I just want to get out of here!” really pops. It’s very compelling.
(Yoshii) Sure, it’s like “I really can’t stand that guy! Even though he’s so rough, he’s looking for someone to help him! He pisses me off!!” (Laughs) “Don’t be such a wimp, you piece of shit!”, right? But now I think to myself that there might actually be someone in that situation who hears that song. And even though that was me at the time, I hope that it can be something of a helping hand to someone.
Pearl Light of Revolution
I think “Pearl Light of Revolution” is the perfect glitzy and sad glam rock masterpiece to represent the debut album.
(Yoshii) It feels like a lot of thought went into it, right? I wrote it right around when we made our major record label debut. I had just started feeling hopeful that I might finally be able to escape from the kind of life that I had, and I’d just met someone really wonderful. You get really excited when things like that happen all at once right!? And I think that was my feelings coming out from saying goodbye to those dark times. Things like “the syringe of oblivion that pierces the asphalt”. I didn’t really forcibly inject any of that into the song.
But the lyrics themselves describe a very beautiful world.
(Yoshii) I guess that strong sense of beauty is the first thing you notice (laughs). But there’s this song called “Tumbling Down” by an English glam rock band called Cockney Rebel that has really great lyrics! It’s a beautiful song, and I really felt that was exactly what glam rock should be. I think this was me trying to make The Yellow Monkey’s “Tumbling Down”.
The main characteristic of the third album, “Jaguar Hard Pain”, is that the lyrics were written as if they were a screenplay. But where did this idea come from?
(Yoshii) “Ziggy Stardust”! It all came completely from “Ziggy Stardust”!! I was really aspiring to create something like that album, my outlook on the rock that I liked was very narrow, and I was very fanatical about it. I’m also very fanatical about Bowie, and anyway, I was very into “Ziggy”.
Which parts of it specifically were you so emotionally attached to?
(Yoshii) Every part. That was my starting point for rock that influenced me the most in my teens, and I’ve interpreted it to myself since: As rock it isn’t just about being noisy, or being reluctant, or marijuana. The gaudiness of it comes through even when circulated as pop music. “Ziggy” stood out from my other starting points, like KISS, Queen, and Cheap Trick. It has an incredibly clear sound to it as well. With the kabuki elements due to the makeup, the words, the world within the lyrics, and just simply the nostalgia I find in it, I give it a gold star! (Laughs) I can’t give T.Rex that same gold star, even though I love them as well.
Did you empathize somewhat with the theme of being “the rock n’ roll messiah”, for example?
(Yoshii) I actually liked it even more when I saw that he didn’t take that messiah stuff seriously at all. It was totally David Bowie just sticking his tongue out at everyone, back then. But people won’t follow you with just blind ambition, it’s giving love to people along with that ambition. The balance between those two things was just perfect. It’s like Ken Shimura shouting “I’m the messiah, ahhh!” (Laughs) I got used to it when it was conveyed so directly. I love that there’s those little jabs being put in there as well. I’m sure fans of The Yellow Monkey feel that same way. Because we all like a bit of comedy, right? Ziggy was the mischievous type after all.
At this point did you want to hammer out your own unique perspective on rock?
(Yoshii) Yeah. You could say that the state of our band at that time was still pretty different from what I was thinking it should be, and we still had a lot of conflicting opinions about it. We were like glam rock not interpreted through Bowie, but through the movie “Velvet Goldmine” (Laughs). I felt like “I’m not performing Takarazuka here, I’m performing rock ‘n’ roll!”, and I was annoyed that it wasn’t really coming across. So when I thought about it with all of that in mind, I was pretty happy with the concept of Jaguar. Because we were just called “weird visual kei” no matter what we did anyway, ha ha ha. Even though visual kei was weird in of itself, we were too terrible to look at?! On top of that, what I had been going for was something more alternative anyway.
So along with your own perspective on rock, why is it that your own feelings toward your mother and your own personal version of Japan in 1965 came through as well?
(Yoshii) I’ve really come to feel that there are definitely some things that are the way they are because of your upbringing. Blood relatives, fetishism as a child, or being abused…those sorts of things
make for a very fanciful imagination. With movie directors for example, those types of things always end up appearing in their work. At first I just hid my true self away and sung about the crazy life I was leading at the time. I was at a loss for how to bring out that true self, so I could only think of singing about my own upbringing and blood. Maybe partly because we already had the name The Yellow Monkey (“yellow monkey” was a derogatory American term for a Japanese soldier during World War II), and so in thinking about a lot different things…I’m not really sure why, but it all came out in the form of a soldier!
During interviews that you gave at the time, you said “Rock is full of sentimentality for both sides in situations of war”. “Crossing the sea of evil and arriving in a foreign country, I look at the moon and think of you. But the next day I have to kill people – That’s the moment when rock and sentimentality come together”. When rock is themed around war, it runs toward the political aspects or cruel parts of it. I was very impressed by the statement that this might be the first time that it reached out toward the sentimental side of things.
(Yoshii) Ahh, I see. Yukio Mishima was also around during that same time period. A lot of people like reading books written about him, but hardly anyone has actually read the books that he himself wrote. The Yukio Mishima written about in those books is probably not all that truthful of a depiction of him. Anyway, others read objectively about things that he saw, and his own aesthetic senses and narcissism up until that point…this is a little off topic, but I actually recognized my own narcissism because I knew about Yukio Mishima. I don’t know if that means I had right-wing tendencies or what (Mishima was a nationalist that founded his own right-wing militia), but I got really into it! I shaved my head, bought a bunch of records of old war songs, and recorded them onto tape. I then proceeded to roll down the windows of the vehicle we use to carry instruments in and blasted that tape as it was moving, after which the staff finally told me “Please stop! Please stop!” (Laughs) All at once I just suddenly shied away from the European things that I’d liked up until then.
So from the outside it was a style thing, but mentally it was you being narcissistic?
(Yoshii) Right, right!
Haruka na Sekai (A Distant World)
(Yoshii) I think of “Haruka na Sekai” as being different from the eccentric and ephemeral love songs I’d written up until then: For the first time I wrote lyrics about extremely “pure love”. You could say that “Jaguar Hard Pain” was an album that was very carefully made. Of course in terms of music as well, but with the lyrics in particular. I’m not sure if I’d think of it as poetry or what nowadays, but I’ve come to realize that I can’t go back to the way I wrote then. There are times when you have delusions that something that started out as a joke is actually real. So I think people will follow along with this, but there’s that moment where you think “This might actually be real”. Making “Jaguar” was that moment for me. I felt especially strongly that it was important at the time, so I knew I had to do it right. That’s why the story behind everything from the first song to the last song “Merry Christmas”, was very carefully crafted.
So this love song was born from the seriousness you’ve just been talking about.
(Yoshii) In general, Jaguar is me reflecting on the bad things that I’ve done. And even though I blame them on the times or on society, there are still things that are important to me. And this was me saying “I’m sorry!”. I think that I really just had to have that sort of a moment. Even so, I took things too far. I once said something like “What if I crushed my genitals with a rock?” to someone. Even though they called my bluff with “As if you could!”, I wasn’t able to bring myself to do it (Laughs)
From Four Seasons onward, your lyrics suddenly changed to be much more straightforward. Looking back on it now, what do you think the reason for that was?
(Yoshii) Just about all of the lyrics on the Four Seasons album were written in London, and that was the first time we went out to a London suburb. It was something right out of Led Zeppelin footage or something, the countryside in England is completely different than it is in Japan! We all stayed in this place that was like some kind of mountain shack, and apparently a bunch of spirits inhabited it. There was also this pitch black tree that I guess had been there for thousands of years. That’s where the lyrics for that album were written, throughout the course of many afternoons. And the sunshine during those afternoons…it made me really happy. Or maybe I should say that it sparkled in a way that you usually would only imagine. And I don’t know if it was a reaction from everything that had happened up until then, but I felt very thankful. Even though I went a little overboard with “Father” (Laughs)
You could probably say that rediscovering your love of the sun and sunsets was a really big turning point in your abilities of expression.
(Yoshii) It made me want to sing about the joys of living. I think that up until then, somewhere deep down inside I felt like I had to be the victim. Because it was rock that was there to encourage me when I was feeling weak or sad. But then I started wanting to sing songs about living life more than ones about all of that.
But at the same time there are lyrics like “But I’m not brave enough, not strong enough, don’t have enough time. I don’t have enough money, enough air, enough life. So I’m going to break it all apart, because there’s not enough of anything. I’m going to break it all apart, because I want it all.” in the song Four Seasons that are full of anger and intensity.
(Yoshii) The thing I’m talking about breaking here is probably the weird shell I kept myself in up until then. That’s why I think Four Seasons was a huge step forward for me. It still surprises me quite a bit, I wonder if that all comes through.
What do you mean when you say the shell that you kept yourself in?
(Yoshii) I didn’t end up feeling very satisfied with Smile, in the end. It’s not that I wasn’t satisfied with it as an album: I was, and there are plenty of things about it that I like. But when it came to the lyrics, it just wasn’t that fun to make. Writing them was…well really hard! Up through the second album it was a lot of songs we’d been working on since our indie days…jeez how many years did we spend writing those songs? But by the time Smile came around, we had hardly any of those songs left! We had “Nageku Nari Waga Yoru no Fantasy”, and everything else had to be written from scratch. And also…I was really busy. But I figured there was nothing to do about writing being tough, and I just had to deal with it. There are also a lot of things I like about the lyrics I wrote up through Jaguar, I couldn’t put that aside. But when it came to not being able to get by with those alone, I realized I didn’t like what I was doing because I tried to make them simple without putting that aside. So then I wondered what would happen if I just tried doing it in an overly straightforward way. For example, not trying to strike this weird balance between that and singing in a way that old men and kids can understand, and just singing in a straightforward way about happy things when I’m happy. I really learned the joy of doing that this time around, and I kind of like myself when I go to extremes in those ways. I think Four Seasons is the ultimate expression of that.
Up until this point you’d sung about a lot of different aspects of your own internal world. But Jam was the first time you’d sung about society around you: This hopeless society your connection to it.
(Yoshii) We released the single “Taiyou ga Moeteiru” around Four Seasons, but it would have been boring for all of our songs to just fall into that same pattern. And this is the “enka” that I was talking about earlier: The versions of Mott the Hoople’s “All The Young Dudes” and Cockney Rebel’s “Tumbling Down” that were inside of me. No, actually it was just me trying to write a Japanese version of a passionate rock ballad. And for some reason only then did I start writing a lot on this coarse straw paper made by Muji. Anyway, I was writing down everything that came to mind. There’s the “a plane crashed somewhere in a foreign country” lyric, but that was originally much more expanded to all of the absurdities found on society. But singing all of that would have taken like 10 minutes, so I showed that part to the head of our management company. The first half with “There’s a cold wind blowing outside…”, and the second half with the parts about the absurdities of society, and told him that this was the kind of rock ballad I wanted to write. But if I’m being honest, I didn’t really finish the lyrics properly until the day I was singing it for recording! (Laughs) The second half was done, but not the first half. So I finished it right there in the studio lobby, showed it to the director and asked what he thought! (Laughs) It was probably the start of my awareness that I had to fight against society. Before that I didn’t really care what politicians were doing or what crimes were happening where, as long as none of it impacted me. And that’s because I was young. I’m not sure why, but when I was able to actually make direct contact with people who support me through various campaigns or programs, I felt like I couldn’t help but write songs that were full of these kinds of themes. I wondered if I couldn’t write more songs that spoke to younger people, or would inspire courage in people when they heard them. Because that’s exactly what “All The Young Dudes” was to me. I ended up writing this kind of a song even though I liked that kind of journalistic style rock from a more desperate time. I guess that’s the moment I turned into what I am now!
I feel like you started engaging in Japanese language specific wordplay like that found in “Mishite Mishite” and “Nai”, starting with your adventures in Punch Drunkard.
(Yoshii) I really like the lyrics in “Nai”. I was thinking that maybe it’s alright to bask in the limelight just a little bit more, with this one. “Nai” and “So Young” go together in my mind. From Sicks onward I started pulling pieces of lyrics out of a sort of lyrics diary that I kept, and that made writing a lot of fun. This was right in the prime of me doing that, when it was so ridiculously fun to write. This was also the start of my pattern of obscuring my use of obsolete phrases, like “suman nou” and “gozansu”, behind English! (Laughs) I got a lot of complaints about “gozansu” in particular: Yoshii, you use “gozansu” way too much. This was after I started writing most of my lyrics overseas. I was pretty fine with whatever I wrote there, since everyone around me was speaking English! (Laughs)
At the same time that “Kyuukon” explodes in simple words that convey an overwhelming desire to be connected to someone, it also gives off a desperate feeling of loneliness. It’s absolutely a masterpiece that could be called the origins of your self expression, but certainly you were aware of all of this when writing the lyrics?
(Yoshii) This was the first song I started writing for Punch Drunkard. It was originally a much more gentle song, both in terms of the music and lyrics. I’m not really sure how it turned into what it did. It didn’t have this kind of a ceremonial feel to it, it had more of a city-boy feel! (Laughs)
(Yoshii) But I really liked the song, so I didn’t want to include any lyrics that would ruin it. It just naturally turned into what it did.
Does singing it make you aware of your own desire and depth of love?
(Yoshii) Yeah, it’s my strongest song when it comes to that sort of thing. It’s like it screams out “You’re my destiny!”. That kind of desire is a driving force in rock.
It has a phrase in it: “the world has gone to pieces”. That kind of imagery appears pretty frequently in the love songs that you write.
(Yoshii) But I typically only use phrases like that when I feel some sort of shock. For example, the moment I sober up from being drunk. It’s that feeling of recovering from it. So I wasn’t thinking about anything like Nostradamus or the end of the century in “Kyuukon”. I don’t really care about things like that at all. I don’t think about things like bulbs at all. I mean I think about the earth…like I think about the Great Hanshin Earthquake, but I’m the kind of cold-hearted person that says “If a comet falls down from the sky and splits the earth in two, there’s nothing we can really do!”. Because there really isn’t! Maybe we could ask Bruce Willis to do something about it! (Laughs)
Semi shigure (A Chorus of Cicadas)
I’d also like to ask you some questions about the unreleased song “semi shigure”…
(Yoshii) Huh?! “semi shigure”? I didn’t think you’d ask anything about that!
Well it’s a good piece of poetry, isn’t it? Was this homage to a bad runaway kid you actually settling something within yourself? Why did you decide not to release it?
(Yoshii) I guess the timing was just never right. I was thinking of announcing it at our stadium tour last year (1997). It was about 80 percent to the point where it could be performed, but it just wasn’t good enough. And the timing was just before Punch Drunkard, so you could say I was in my first pessimistic period in a long time. At that point I was constantly taking jabs at myself like “Who do you think you are, you asshole”. I was under the delusion that we’d come so far in terms of Japanese rock. But at the same time when I’d think something like “Eh just quit while you’re ahead and retire”, I’d compulsively react with “No, no, no, no!”. Those strange feelings aren’t really evident in the song, but they’re the circumstances under which it was made. I was drinking a lot too. And the whole time I was wondering if this was me. Did I need to kill off this bad kid? Those are the kinds of things you sometimes think when you get into your thirties, at least that’s what friends of the same age told me. I think rock is full of harsh people who end up not knowing where they belong when they’re not so harsh anymore. But as people get older, they don’t like the idea of being weirdly harsh forever (Laughs) Do I kill him off, do I let him live, or do I just do nothing and let time pass. So I just ended up scrapping the song, and just decided to myself that there was nothing I could do about it at this point. I think it ended up being because I just wasn’t emotionally invested in it. If you ever want to hear it there’s one tape left of it from rehearsal, so you can just go in and steal it (Laughs)
Do you think the kid that you sing about in “semi shigure” is still somewhere inside of you?
(Yoshii) I wonder if he’s still being executed? I think he still has a machine gun though too. Anyway, I think I found the answer to that in “So Young”. That’s why I feel so relieved.
Has your method for holding onto “youth” within yourself changed?
(Yoshii) It may have changed. But I’ve come to not regret things that I’ve done, but rather I think that I’m glad I did them when I was young. But that might all come back again. Repeti~tion! (Laughs)
Just what was this new sense of youth that you experienced during the Punch Drunkard tour?
(Yoshii) ……I think people who don’t repeat the same mistakes are really amazing. That makes me wonder why it is that I repeat my own mistakes. It might just be my personality. I think of it as being similar to when I go fishing and don’t catch a thing, then still go out fishing again next time. There people who would say “You don’t need to go fishing if you don’t catch anything”, but what if I do catch something…Something like that. But the second time I go fishing and don’t catch anything, I’m improving from the first time that I didn’t. I’m gaining something…my examples have just turned into me talking about fishing, ha-ha-ha! And here I meant to make it sound so cool, oh well! “Jam”, “Second Cry”, and “Pearl Light of Revolution” were all songs that punctuated making a single mistake by saying “You made a mistake you idiot, but…”. “So Young” is a song about the mistakes I’ve repeated for 32 years of my life, but the idea that there might be still something left to gain from it.
In other words, to you “So Young” represents the inevitability and hope to keep on living that you’ve found, in ballad form?
(Yoshii) Yeah. I think the phrase “That’s youth for you” is one that I was able to write from having done the Punch Drunkard tour. And even though it’s the same sort of feeling, it’s expressed in a very different way than it was in “Four Seasons”. Anyway, my desire to sing this song has grown pretty string since finishing the Punch Drunkard tour.