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Dec 09

[interview] Dir en grey and the truth of being human

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Die, Kaoru, Kyo, Toshiya, Shinya

It’s Friday the thirteenth, and a miserable one at that. Thick cloud cover casts New York in a sallow, wan light, and the sky sputters icy raindrops that whisper against umbrellas the promise of a deluge. I’m walking down 23rd Street in Manhattan, and around me pedestrians are hurrying to their destinations, eager to escape the rain and cold. As unpleasant as the weather is this afternoon, not far ahead stands a large group of people who seem perfectly content to stay outside in the rain. Wrapped in plastic bags and cheap ponchos and huddling under makeshift cardboard shelters, the line of a few hundred college-aged people winds around two corners and threatens to overtake a third.

No, their ad-hoc cardboard signs proclaim, they’re not homeless. This isn’t a line for a soup kitchen. They’re here for Dir en grey.

Tonight is the second show of the Japanese rock giants’ three night booking at the Gramercy Theater. Some of these people have been sitting outside the theater since the first show let out on Wednesday night. I am personally acquainted with many of these fans: I was one of them too once, waking up at insane hours and waiting on line all day to ensure a good spot in the crowd. I say my hellos to all the familiar faces on the line, but today I’m not here to sit around on the concrete. I’m on my way to meet up with Dir en grey’s roadie-cum-translator Nora and an as-of-yet unknown member of the band for a short interview before the show.

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The mystery interviewee turns out to be bassist Toshiya, complete with fashionable black-and-white outfit and a can of Red Bull. Tall, lanky, and known for his unexpected hairstyles and vivacity on stage, Toshiya is a rare spokesperson for the band: it’s a role usually filled by “band leader” Kaoru or his fellow guitarist Die — the only member who speaks enough English for appearances and announcements.

Toshiya is cautiously friendly and even a bit shy as we greet each other, but seems more than willing to talk about the band and their music once the interview gets underway. My Japanese is only passably conversational but I make the attempt to break down the language barrier anyway — or at least poke a hole in it large enough to peer through. Dir en grey has in the past been infamously dodgy, vague, and unforthcoming with American press. Whether this is the result of uninformed interviewers, the towering language barrier, or purposeful evasion is hard to say, but from the way Toshiya addresses me throughout the interview — looking me in the eye, gesturing animatedly, his body language speaking honesty — I tend to think my efforts to communicate more intimately with him are worth the trouble.

We sit down, and after a short exchange about his impressions of New York (“It’s the opposite of Japan. Time feels like it goes quickly here.”) I ask an easy question about his favorite part of performing.

“Live shows are a way for us to express our music and the images we want to convey. It’s fun to see how the fans react to what we do on stage. Concerts are where the fans and the band become one,” he says.

It’s a promising first answer, considering this is a member of Dir en grey I’m talking to.

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All Visible Things — the name of this year’s tour — is Dir en grey’s third full-length headlining tour in America. Since their first stateside concerts in early 2006, the band has enjoyed more popularity in America than most all other Asian musicians trying to make the leap across the pond. Even mainstream pop artists like Utada Hikaru have not seen the recognition here that Dir en grey has. Their success was sudden and unexpected by just about everyone but the fans themselves. The question begs asking: what is it about them that so appeals to Western audiences? There’s gotta be some reason people are sleeping on sidewalks for these guys.

“Of course, there are lots of bands making music in Japan and in America,” Toshiya begins, “but I think the main thing that differentiates us is our will as a band.”

Dir en grey’s official website has at various points in time stated that their purpose is to “spread the feeling of hurt and sorrow caused by weakness, shallowness and egoism of humanity.” The band has made it clear through both their releases and their interviews that they don’t want to talk about happy things in their music. Happy things are easy to talk about. They want to explore the emotions that are more difficult for us to express and understand: anger, sadness, despair, fury, and hatred.

This is what the band is all about, their “will” that Toshiya speaks of, and it is obvious in everything they do: from the music itself — a rumbling and insidious brand of melodic but vicious metal — to the dimly-lit photographs of the band that grace the pages of Japanese music magazines. Their newest music video DVD, Average Blasphemy, contains ten videos that run the gamut of styles, from hand-drawn animations to your typical “here are some guys rocking out” metal videos, but all are dark, disturbing, and sometimes downright disgusting (the video for “Agitated Screams of Maggots” is exactly what one would expect it to be). A new edit of the “Vinushka” video even includes graphic imagery of war, specifically World War II and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan; it’s one of the most genuinely unsettling videos they’ve ever released.

“We feel that as long as humans exist, there will always be war and fighting,” Toshiya explains. “Even though we didn’t personally experience it, Japan was hit by an atomic bomb. If these things are going to continue to happen, we should continue to talk about it.”

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He continues in the same vein when asked about the influence of religion on Dir en grey’s music. “Above all else, we are interested in humans, the truth of being human,” he says. As he speaks, I notice for the first time the crucifix hanging among the silver charms on his necklace. “Of all the living beings that exist, humans are the only ones who feel emotion, and we’re very interested in this. Because out of these things called “emotions” comes everything that happens around us — war, chaos, and human belief too.”

Uroboros, their latest album, is infused with Eastern religious tradition, from the instrumentation and the lyrics to the album artwork and the band’s performances. The significance of the title has been explained as being a representation of the past, present, and future of their music. The themes of rebirth and reincarnation inherent in the image of the mythical uroboros — a snake eating its own tail and creating an infinite loop — apply to Dir en grey’s propensity for self-reinvention. When I ask about the theme for the next album, Toshiya gives a tantalizing answer.

“At this point there is no theme yet. But, the thing called the “uroboros” is a snake that swallows its own tail, creating a circle,” he says, drawing a circle and the symbol for infinity in the air with his hands, painting his ideas in the space above the small table between us. “Whatever comes out from the inside of this circle, this is my thought for the theme of the next album.”

Although all their albums thus far have been produced in Japan, Toshiya reports that the band does have an interest in recording an album in America. Although they do not have any particular producers in mind, working with outside people motivates and inspires them, and they would jump at any chance offered to them to do so.

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Different band members have given different answers as to the reasoning behind their initial decision to come to America. Today, Toshiya tells me that they looked up to the music industry in U.S., and wanted to challenge themselves to try and play their music here. Their tours with Family Values in 2006 and The Deftones in 2007 seemed at the time like attempts to break into the American metal scene, but while making it big would be nice, the band mostly just wants people to hear their music and understand their message.

Dir en grey hasn’t topped the charts here in the U.S. just yet, but they’re rock heros in Japan, where being a musician is a very different experience. “In Japan a schedule is decided, and you’re told to make music according to it. Everything is pre-scheduled. You release albums here, here, here. But in America you make an album first and then decide what you want to do with it,” Toshiya explains.

Usually when asked about the differences between Dir en grey’s Japanese and Western fans, the band says that there are none. But the demands that fans make on their idols are undoubtedly dictated in some sense by culture, and while Japanese audiences seem content with the aloof and distant rock star, Americans want our music-makers to be friendly and approachable, and to acknowledge fans often and eagerly. The dissonance between Dir en grey’s usual detachedness and the expectations of their American fans has been noted by observant Jrock aficionados.

“Well, there’s American culture and there’s Japanese culture…” Toshiya describes. He holds up his hands to represent the two, and glances back and forth across the wide space he has put between them. “Well…” he mutters, tilting his head and twisting his lips into a perplexed but amused grin. We both laugh at the implications, and with his long, knobby bassist fingers he draws a bridge over the gap between his hands. “The cultures are different, but the emotions of the fans and the feelings that they have for Dir en grey are probably the same.”

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With twelve years of music-making behind them, Dir en grey has a long and storied history. From their origins in the visual kei movement to their current, more subdued and international image, the band’s past has become a favorite topic of American interviewers who weren’t around to experience it. The band has in turn been tight-lipped about it, giving short, one-sentence or even one-word answers to any questions on the subject. Their attitude conveys a desire to leave the past in the past, but their recent re-recordings and performances of older songs say otherwise. When asked about their decision to include older songs like 1999′s “Akuro no Oka” in their setlists, Toshiya says that they simply want the audience to have fun, and choose their sets from a catalog of songs that they like to play and that they know the audience will enjoy.

I ask if the band has any regrets about their music or career. He flashes a coy smile. “We do not regret, but sometimes we reflect.”

Trying to coax some insight from him, I pose another question. “Is there anything you would like to do over, or try again?”

He doesn’t have to think hard about his answer to this one. “Learn English!” He laughs.

Fair enough. In closing, I ask what Dir en grey hopes to accomplish through their music. Toshiya looks distant for a moment, glancing away and pursing his lips before answering.

“In my opinion, music can’t save the world,” he says, “but I think it can change a person’s life. So just for someone to listen to our music and understand us is already something amazing.”

Thanks to Emily Rosenberg and April Goehrke for translation help.
Dir en grey Official Website – http://www.direngrey.co.jp/
The End Records Official Website – http://www.theendrecords.com/

17 comments

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  1. Hector Hernandez

    I really enjoyed this interview. Unlike many others, this one has a great insight of the band.

    I have a question, and I hope you can answer it. Are they focusing on creating more songs in 2010?

    1. Catherine Catanzaro

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      They spoke about their plans for 2010 at the Kinokuniya event. Kaoru said that they will concentrate on writing and recording new songs to hopefully release a new album in 2011. They don’t have any tours planned yet except the January Budokan dates in Japan.

  2. sadie

    A very insightful interview. Dir En Grey is hoping to record in the U.S.? Any indication of when this might be? Was this something they seemed pretty sure about or just a thought that had crossed their minds? thanks for sharing this with everyone.

    1. Catherine Catanzaro

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      My specific question was whether the band had an interest in recording in the US, and his answer simply was that they did have an interest in it. He didn’t elaborate any further. Unless he was hiding something from me, it seemed more like something that they had thought about but had no concrete plans to do — especially considering he couldn’t name any specific people/producers they’d like to work with.

      1. KB

        Whoops… didn’t see that Kytrax was actually talking about -this- and not The Diva Review interview. I had navigated to the post about the Kinokuniya NYC Event via google and wasn’t aware anyone from PurpleSky actually did an interview with them. The interview was indeed extensive, although it still leaves me wishing more of the folks who get to speak with them would bring up the possibility of re-releasing a few pre-WtD albums and DVD’s through The End so that a wider group of fans could afford them, or the possibility of a Full Length U.S. tour DVD. Kytrax says such things have been asked, but I can never find anything like this in the interviews I’ve seen, perhaps I’m not googling hard enough. Oh well, someone will eventually ask this… maybe FullMetalJackie will.

        1. Catherine Catanzaro

          I didn’t ask questions about the possibility of releasing older albums or full-length DVDs not because they’ve been asked before (although I’m pretty sure at least the first one has) but because, frankly, they’re boring questions. Many interviewers seem perfectly content to ask them obvious, boring questions, but I’m not going to waste my precious time with anything that I know won’t give me any insight into the band.

          Purple SKY is not your personal messenger to the band, and neither is any other magazine, blog, news outlet, radio show, etc. Journalists and interviewers do not exist for the purpose of conveying fans’ messages or promoting their campaigns. We’re not advocates and we’re not here to help you with your causes and agendas. Again, many interviewers seem content to do all of this — but we’re not.

          This is the second time you’ve posted here asking us to ask this question. You’re of course free to post as long as you don’t spam, but I’m afraid your efforts are wasted on us.

          1. KB

            If such questions have been asked (about the possibility of U.S. re-prints of older albums through there current American lable) and you or Kytrax or anyone -know- of the interviews where they’ve been asked about it and gave an answer to it, providing a link should be an easy request to meet.

            I have looked and have still found no interviews where they have been asked about it, leading me to believe that no one has asked yet (and if no one has asked yet, how is it a recycled question?). And I’m sorry if I take a “nothing can hurt and anything has the potential to do some good” approach to fandom.

            If someone can influence them to play Akura no Oka, a song I wouldn’t have imagined them playing ever again especially not in America, due to its association with their VK past that they seemed so bent on putting behind them, just by asking about it at a public interview, then that gives me pretty high hopes that if someone were to bring up U.S. re-prints of a few of their pre-WtD albums through The End Records, that they might listen to that as well.

            And even if they don’t and they just shrug it off or say “we can’t/won’t do that,” well atleast it got asked (and if it -has- been asked before and answered elsewhere, why not just provide me with a link so I’ll stfu about it?)

            I loved PurpleSky as a magazine when it was still around, and I had always thought you folks were all about helping make information more available to fans and helping to make the fandom better for all. I’m sorry if the things I desire would do too much damage to the already perfect hierarchy set in place and ”cheapen the whole jrock experience to the point it isn’t cool anymore.”

          2. Catherine Catanzaro

            I don’t want to argue with you or draw out this discussion any further, but in response to you I can only repeat what I said above, as you failed to address it at all in your reply: it is not our job to advocate for fans. It’s a boring question that we have no reason or responsibility to ask. That’s what it comes down to, and there’s not much more I can say about it.

            Also, who influenced them to play “Akuro no Oka”? What they played in New York were their Japanese setlists that they had played on the Japanese leg of this tour earlier in the year. They weren’t arbitrary, and many of us knew before the concerts exactly what songs were going to be played, on which days, and where in the set.

          3. Kathy Chee

            I normally do not answer posts such as KB’s, but there seems to be confusion as to what purple SKY is.

            Purple SKY is a publication, the same as NYT or Village Voice or Prefix. Our contributors work in various creative industries and the media.

            While our contributors all enjoy aspects of Japanese music and report on it, they are not here to “make the fandom better.” They are here to write about Japanese music, to deliver original content and explore their creative boundaries.

            —————————
            To answer KB’s question is simple. It’s strictly a business decision. It is not up to the band when it comes to licensing older albums in the USA. A contract must be made between the original label that first published the album and the US label wishing to license and distribute it. Usually there are fees involved.

            JapanFiles is a prime example. You will see some newer albums in their catalog for a specific band, but you might not see the older albums(or vice versa). It’s because albums were recorded on a different label and that label has not agreed to license them in the USA or for digital release.

            Dir en grey was asked whether they wanted to release old music and they were also asked why they don’t play as much of the old stuff. They’ve been asked this several times in Japanese publications. Their consistent answer was that they wanted to focus on new music and continue exploring their concepts on humanity.

            Please don’t thank me or write a reply.

  3. Sarah

    This is awesome. It seems like you managed to get things out of Toshiya that most interviewers would be shy to even ask. This might be even better than what could’ve happened with the whole band. 

    1. Catherine Catanzaro

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I agree that talking to Toshiya alone was probably more revealing than talking to multiple members or the entire band at once would have been. I’m very glad that it was him I had the opportunity to interview.

  4. boo

    That was excellent and extremely well structured. I love that you pointed out how Toshiya was a rare spokesman for the band, it gave the article a forbidden quality, as if it were conducted in secret and Kaoru’s assassin brigade could end it at any moment. You did an excellent job of capturing Toshiya’s personality without resorting to cliche.

    Purple sky 2.0 has come alive with all this fresh blood feeding it. You guys are putting the old dogs to shame. Keep up the good work!

    1. Catherine Catanzaro

      Thanks so much, boo!

      Kaoru was actually in the next room on his laptop. I suspect he was monitoring the conversation, ready to intervene at any moment lest Toshiya reveal the secret that they aren’t actually Japanese zombie heroes.

  5. Babs

    Amazing interview. Well done. :)

  6. Tora

    I REALLY liked the interview…good job!!

  7. Kathy Chee

    I was a little apprehensive when we finally got this interview. We’d been lobbying for years for an interview with Dir en grey and it really surprised me when we finally got it. I was worried they’d give us the same canned answers you see in all their American interviews. The video interviews make me cringe with their awkward silences, umming and ahhing, and spotty translating.

    pSKY was incredibly lucky to have Catherine around to conduct this article. As someone who loves the music and takes my job seriously I believe it’s possible to mix your appreciation of an artist with honest journalism. I love reading this article. It has these little gems showing an actual thinking person behind the band facade and mixes in bits of history for newer fans.

    1. Catherine Catanzaro

      Thanks so much, Kathy! I am in turn honored that you would trust such a big task to little ol’ me. It was a wonderful opportunity that I really had fun with.

      Going into the interview I wasn’t sure who exactly I would be talking to… one member or multiple members, and which ones, on top of that. I tried to choose questions that could be used in different situations, and I was pleasantly surprised that Toshiya responded to several of them with his own personal opinions. Even if it was only for a brief time, it was great being able to meet the real, actual person named Toshiya, rather than just a band member with an image to uphold. I wanted that to come across in the article, so I’m glad to hear my efforts were successful!

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