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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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/