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Friday, Sept. 8, 2006
Taking J-rock values stateside
Japan's Dir en grey join Korn on the Family Values tour
By WAYNE GABEL
Special to The Japan Times
On the eve of the longest and perhaps most important tour of their almost decade-long career, Dir en grey were putting on a brave face.
Though a guaranteed crowd-puller at home, the Tokyo-based band weren't quite sure how audiences would react to their theatrical brand of pop-metal during a eight-week trek through North America supporting California hard rockers Korn and Deftones. Their dark lyrics deal with such familiar heavy-metal themes as alienation and death, but screaming them in Japanese makes it difficult for kids who don't speak the language to connect.
What's more, the costumes and makeup that cause writers and fans alike to dub Dir en grey a "visual kei (style)" band stayed at home. That means the band has to rely on good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll swagger to make an impression during Korn's Family Values tour -- a traveling mini festival boasting two stages and nine bands.
"We're not worried. We won't even care if people start throwing PET bottles at us," guitarist Die said through an interpreter during a pretour rehearsal in Tokyo last month. "We might even enjoy it,' added bassist Toshiya, laughing. "Any reaction's better than no reaction."
Judging from the favorable responses that Dir en grey received on overseas outings earlier this year, the two musicians and their band mates -- vocalist Kyo, guitarist Kaoru and drummer Shinya -- have little to fear. The band made their U.S. debut in March at the annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin, Texas, then played sold-out gigs in New York and Los Angeles, where they caught the eye of Korn frontman Jonathan Davis.
"We had a chance to see Dir en grey perform in Los Angeles at the Wiltern Theater and have rarely seen such a strong reaction to a young band in one of their first appearances in this city," Korn manager Peter Katsis said by e-mail. "The band and their relationship with their fans are quite an exciting thing to watch."
In early June, both Korn and Dir en grey appeared on the Center Stage at Germany's Rock am Ring festival, one of Europe's largest summer music events. The Japanese band were subsequently added to the lineup of the "Family Values" tour, a semiregular event that Korn inaugurated in 1998. After a brief hiccup in mid-July, when several Osaka concerts were postponed following singer Kyo's hospitalization for a throat ailment, Dir en grey joined the "Family Values" tour on Aug. 4 in San Antonio, Texas. The band, who are playing on the main stage, will remain on the bill until the tour ends on Sept. 22 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.
The high-profile support slot offers Dir en grey more exposure than their compatriots get when headlining U.S. club dates, which tend to attract Japanophiles. Rather than playing to the converted, they're braving crowds who are mainly there to see the American bands.
If Dir en grey are to prove they're not just a novelty act appealing only to fans of such Japanese pop-culture exports as anime and manga, they have no better chance than this. Lots of Japanese musicians, including Shonen Knife, Buffalo Daughter, Melt-Banana and DMBQ, as well as a host of Sony acts signed to California-based Tofu Records, have made a minor dent in the North American and European markets. None, however, has moved beyond cult status.
No one's betting Dir en grey or any other Japanese artist will replicate the success of the late Kyu Saka- moto, who hit No. 1 on Billboard's U.S. pop chart in 1963 with "Sukiyaki," a song sung entirely in Japanese and better known here as "Ue O Muite Aruko (I Look up When I Walk)."
But there are those who believe J-rock is more than a passing fad in North America. Bob Chiappardi, co-president of Warcon Enterprises, Dir en grey's U.S. label, is one. New York-based Warcon, home to such metal and punk acts as Helmet and Bleed the Dream, released the band's "Withering to Death" album with a bonus DVD on May 16. That disc was released here in March 2005 by Free-Will Japan, an indie outfit with distribution through Sony.
"Prospects are good," Chiappardi said by e-mail. "We are actively signing J-rock bands from Free-Will and other sources if it makes sense. We have been approached by a couple of Japanese labels that are impressed with what is going on in the U.S. with Dir en grey."
Chiappardi, whose company plans to launch an entire division devoted to J-rock this winter, says U.S. music fans are increasingly willing to listen to artists who sing in languages other than English.
"Slowly but surely, America is coming around. Foreign-language acts in the United States will have to rely on one of two things: hit singles, i.e. Nena's '99 Luftballons,' " he said, referring to the mid-1980s German group whose song enjoyed widespread U.S. airplay, "or a genre-specific audience."
In the absence of a single, Chiappardi does not foresee J-rock going mainstream unless the bands involved tour to build their fan base. That's what Dir en grey are doing right now. Music industry observers say there's been no time like the present for a Japanese band to make it big, citing the high level of overseas interest in Japanese fashion, animation and video games.
For the musicians themselves, the greater awareness of Japanese pop culture around the world is a mixed blessing. They don't deny that they benefit from the popularity that Japan's cultural exports now enjoy, but they fear getting lost in the mix or being branded opportunists.
"We're not trying to jump on that bandwagon," Toshiya said. "It's great that anime and those things are popular, but we're not using them to raise our profile. We know people overseas see us as part of something bigger, but we hope they'll like us for our music."
They're also hoping fans won't pigeon-hole them as a "visual kei" band. The term doesn't cause the sort of phobic reaction that musical descriptions such as emo sometimes provoke, but it's not one that the group wants to be associated with.
"Visual kei is one of those vague terms that gives a false impression because it's so imprecise," Die said. "It's really just a marketing cliche -- one that has the effect of reining in the imagination."
Despite their jeans-and-T-shirt approach to the "Family Values" tour, both Toshiya and Die insist the band have no intention of changing their music to suit a particular market. Recording new songs or re-recording old ones with English lyrics is out of the question.
"We're not so concerned about whether the audience understands our lyrics," Die said. "What we really want is have them respond to what we're doing on stage. When people see us live, they'll know we can hold our own against any British or American band."
The language barrier hasn't stopped bands like Rammstein, who sing in German, from carving a niche for themselves in the English-speaking world. Still, Toshiya concedes that he's not getting his hopes up.
"We're not sure how to define success -- and maybe it doesn't matter if this tour is successful by any definition," Toshiya said. "What's important is that we've been given a challenge, and we've accepted it. If we try and fail, it's better than not to have tried at all."
Postings on the "Family Values" Web site and fan sites indicate they're rising to the challenge, even if there are indications not all festivalgoers are impressed.
"You've got everything a band should have. We don't need a God when we have you," a fan known as Queen of the Damned recently wrote on the band's online MySpace site.
"Many musicians, including Jonathan Davis, come to see our shows from the stage side," Die wrote in an e-mail from the road.
Warcon's Chiappardi is cautiously optimistic for Dir en grey and J-rock bands that follow in their wake. "Japanese pop acts do good here on a limited basis. I don't think they will ever reach the stadium level of success, but surely they can potentially do as well as bands in the top-90 percentile," he said. "I do not see any in the top-5 percentile. But hey, I hope I am wrong."
Dir en grey's latest single, "Ryojoku no ame," was released by Free-Will on July 26. Concerts postponed in July have been rescheduled for Oct. 9 & 10, 6:30 p.m., at Nanba Hatch in Osaka (www.flipside.co.jp). The band also appear Oct. 14 at the Loud Park festival (www.loudpark.com) at Makuhari Messe in Chiba. The band's nationwide Inward Scream tour begins Nov. 15 in Nagoya and ends Dec. 19 in Fukuoka. For more information visit www.direngrey.co.jp