Marty Friedman

How Megadeth’s Guitarist Became a J-Pop Superstar

Patrick St. Michel

By Patrick St. Michel

on 08.08.14 in Features
‘I played in metal bands for my whole life. And now I’m with these 15-year-old girls, and the audience is louder than what you’d hear at a Metallica or Pantera show.’

Ten-thousand fans thrust glowsticks into the air while five teenage girls dressed like pirates sing in front of a 100-person choir. It’s December 25, 2011, and the Japanese-pop group Momoiro Clover Z are holding a special Christmas live show at Saitama Super Arena, located just outside of Tokyo. It’s their biggest concert to date, and as the evening’s end draws near, the quintet perform a new song called “Mugen no Ai.” Midway in, a guitar rips through the number, and a voice announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, the famous, the irreplaceable…Marty Friedman!”

Out of center stage rises a man whose name carries clout in heavy-metal circles, and who spent the 1990s as the lead guitarist for thrash-metal pioneers Megadeth. But he walked away from all of that and moved to Japan, where he’s spent the last decade making a name for himself in J-pop. And now he’s staring down one of the most intimidating crowds he’s ever seen. “I played in metal bands for my whole life,” he says. “And now I’m with these 15-year-old girls, and the audience is louder than what you’d hear at a Metallica or Pantera show. It was freaking me out.”

‘After seeing [KISS], I was like, ‘Wow…I probably could do that.’ The next day, I ran out and got a cheap guitar and amp.’

As surreal as it felt, it’s that same intensity that hooked the 51-year-old Friedman on J-pop in the ’90s. He loved it so much he moved to the opposite side of the globe to try to break into an industry that’s often wary of outsiders. This year, he released Inferno, his first worldwide solo album in 10 years on which the guitarist collaborates with artists from all over the world.

Before any of that, though, he was Martin Adam Friedman, a teenager living in the commuter town of Laurel, Maryland. “It was a very normal middle-class D.C. suburb,” he says. “My childhood wasn’t very musical at all.” Instead, Friedman obsessed about sports. “I was kind of a shrimpy kid and I loved football, baseball and hockey. I tried to do that stuff, but I sucked beyond belief.” Friedman turned to guitar after watching KISS play as a teenager, catching them on their 1976 Rock & Roll Over tour at the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland.

“After seeing them, I was like, ‘Wow…I probably could do that.’ The next day, I ran out and got a cheap guitar and amp.”

His mother plunked down $150 for the set. “I think the fact she bought it for me made me not want to give up,” he says. “I didn’t want to let my parents down.” He started the way most players do: with lessons. Ultimately, they didn’t take. “I didn’t want to know all the theoretical details. I just wanted to get rocking.” So he abandoned the instruction, opting to learn by ear. “It’s not rocket science,” he deadpans.

Friedman’s father worked for the United States government. “He was in the NSA. That’s topical these days, but back then it was very hush-hush,” he says. “He was involved with stopping the Russians from spying on America.” As a result, the Friedmans moved around a lot. He lived in Germany between ages 9 and 12, and then Hawaii during his later teenage years. It was on the islands where Friedman began getting attention from the metal community for his playing. Eventually, he became the guitarist for one of the state’s first notable heavy-metal outfits, the factually-named Hawaii, who would release one album on American imprint Shrapnel Records. More importantly, it was in Hawaii that Friedman had his first brush with Japanese culture, which helped his playing style evolve.

Marty Friedman

Photo by Miyama Kou for WS

“I discovered Japanese enka music,” he says. “It’s like traditional Japanese folk songs.” There were radio stations in Hawaii that primarily played the unique style, and stores that sold then-contemporary enka cassettes. “I don’t think any white people had gone into those stores before,” he says. “The shopkeepers would look at me like, ‘Do you know what you’re buying?’”

Despite the bewildered reaction, he stocked up on the tapes all the same.

“I started copying the way enka vocalists use their voice and tried making my guitar sing, instead of trying to be this ultra-classical, fancy progressive fusion guitarist.” Soon, Friedman developed a frantic, dramatic style, and moved to San Francisco to work on the solo album that Shrapnel had encouraged him to make.

‘I always got sent over to do promotional work before the [Megadeth] tour. Not many people want to go to another country to do interviews all day. But any reason to go to Japan? Send me.’

“I worked really hard on it, and when it was about 85 percent finished, Shrapnel’s president says to me, ‘You gotta meet this guy, Jason Becker.’ And I was like ‘Why? I don’t want to meet any other guitarists.’ I had a full-on ego.” Friedman did meet the 16-year-old Becker, however, and his opinion quickly changed. “He could play anything I came up with, like, immediately. And I thought up some pretty demented things.” They clicked, and formed the technically-minded speed-metal outfit Cacophony, which released two full-length albums and toured the United States.

They also trekked out to Japan in 1989, Friedman’s first trip to the country. “We played three or four cities. It was well promoted, heavily anticipated, and the shows went over great. It left a big impression on me,” Friedman says. “We came over here and everyone was listening to our music and analyzing it and talking about it, and properly arranging our gigs. These guys are really on the ball when it comes to music.” At the time, Friedman was not a fan of Japanese pop (“it sounded like bad Billy Joel covers”) and, moreover, he couldn’t speak the language. “Some guys were trying to teach me some stuff, starting with the curses. That got me into a little trouble. I wanted to compliment the promoter’s wife on taking us out to a nice dinner. But instead, I told her how much I like to perform oral sex on women. It was like the air was sucked out of the room.”

Marty Friedman

Photo by Miyama Kou for WS

Later in 1989, the members of Cacophony decided to strike out on their own. Becker joined David Lee Roth’s band, and Friedman’s break came soon after, when a friend tipped him off to the fact Megadeth were auditioning for a new guitarist after losing their fourth since 1983. “I was borderline homeless in Hollywood. I had no dreams of being in a band that actually suited me. I had an audition with Madonna the same week as Megadeth.” He impressed the band, though, and landed the job. “Up until that day was kind of weird, because they sent me some songs to learn, and then they kept changing them. I had learned like 15 songs and I knew I only had to do like three or four in the audition. I was kinda pissed at having to waste all that time.”

The incarnation of Megadeth in which Friedman played ended up being the band’s commercial peak. They hit the platinum-sales mark on Rust in Peace, Youthanasia and Cryptic Writings and went double platinum on 1992′s Countdown to Extinction. They also played festivals all over the globe. It was a decade of Learjets and limousines, and it gave Friedman a chance to return to Japan, “Usually once or twice every two years.”

“I always got sent over to do promotional work before the tour. Not many people want to go to another country to do interviews all day. But any reason to go to Japan? Send me.” He also started studying Japanese seriously. “Fans would give me books and study tools. I didn’t want to let them down, since they went out and bought me stuff.” As his grasp on the language improved, Friedman decided to do all of his interviews in Japanese. He eventually enrolled in a Japanese correspondence course with the University of Oklahoma, “the only American college doing it, believe it or not.” And while his Megadeth bandmates unwound backstage with books and video games, Friedman studied.

Marty Friedman

Photo by Miyama Kou for WS

‘Making money from fans who want to see you play when you’re not into it didn’t really sit right with me.’

He was also becoming fascinated by Japanese music. His frequent trips to the country coincided with a shift in the music’s aesthetic. Before the ’90s, Japanese pop was referred to as “kayokyoku,” and was defined by the way singers sang in traditional Japanese, rather than pronouncing it in a more Western way (a distinction which became more common during the J-pop era). In the ’90s, styles such as dance, R&B and hip hop began bleeding into Japanese sounds. “It was starting to get really futuristic. It was the golden era of Japanese pop in my opinion.” Friedman started buying CDs from rising Japanese acts such as Globe, Namie Amuro and Zard, artists branded with a description that hadn’t existed before: J-Pop.

“I found myself touring with Megadeth, and in my hotel room I’d be blasting this Japanese music all the time. What’s wrong with this picture?”

As his interest in J-pop grew, Friedman started enjoying Megadeth less. “I thought I was doing myself a disservice just playing the same old stuff and not really enjoying it. Making money from fans who want to see you play when you’re not into it didn’t really sit right with me.” That, plus the fact that Friedman was feeling bummed out by the overall “negativity” of American hard-rock of the ’90s (” I was just way more into what was happening in Japan. It’s way more uplifting”) caused Friedman to tell his bandmates that he’d be leaving Megadeth at the conclusion of a 16-month-long tour. But even that became impossible.

“I only stayed three more months. It was just too much. I’m the kind of guy who can’t fake it that well. It wasn’t very nice, but I just couldn’t go on anymore.”

For the next few years, Friedman worked on a series of projects. He took part in a documentary about KISS for Japan’s national-broadcasting-network NHK. He built a recording studio and made a new solo album, Music for Speeding, which garnered heavy industry interest. (“Because I left Megadeth and this is what I came up with, there was, like, a bidding war for it.”) And he started plotting a move to Japan, doing whatever he could to get attention from the music industry. “On the international side, I was already in a major band, but that means almost zero [in Japan] domestically. Any action I could get on the domestic side, I would try to cultivate.”

In 2003, Friedman decided to have a “test run” at living in Tokyo for six months. He stayed in a tiny apartment on the west side of the capital, and spent his time making whatever inroads he could. A friend introduced him to the J-pop performer Nanase Aikawa, and she suggested they go out for dinner at a Korean restaurant.

“We just got along like gangbusters. We weren’t talking shop or any career goals or any crap like that. It was just a very casual evening. She wasn’t a Megadeth fan, but she’d heard Music for Speeding, and she said she liked that. A couple days later, I got a call from her manager asking if I wanted to join her band.”

The ensuing nationwide tour convinced Friedman to stay in Japan, where his fame grew even larger as a television personality on a program called Heavy Metal San. “At first, I sorta balked at it, because it was a silly TV show. It was kinda like a parody of heavy metal. I did the first show, and it was such a smash, I got top management from that day forward. At first, it was an out-of-body experience, but since then, I’ve done 600 TV shows.” Friedman eventually stretched beyond music-centric shows, venturing into political roundtables and cooking. “To some degree, it has eclipsed them — a lot of people know me more from television than music.”

Friedman’s J-pop contributions have taken many forms. He’s worked with Japanese heavy-metal acts, pop singers and, most surprisingly, idol groups — outfits usually made up of teenage girls singing up-tempo numbers who often are given some kind of unifying theme. There are heavy-metal idols, and idol groups featuring members from the same city. AKB48, the most popular idol outfit — and the most extreme — features 140 members, and has spawned several spin-offs. Friedman worked with them when they were just starting out, as some of the singers in the huge group contributed vocals to a theme song Friedman was commissioned to write for a cartoon called Death Panda.

via YouTube

Friedman becomes especially excited when talking about idol groups of all sorts, especially the ones with the most distinct images. He speaks most enthusiastically about his work with Momoiro Clover Z. “I was already a fan, so when I got the word about working with them, I said ‘drop everything, I’m doing this.’” His first contribution, on the 2012 single “Mugen no Ai,” became one of the outfit’s most well-known songs. “When I was [listening to it], I said, ‘I have never heard anything like this.’ It was like the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ of idol music.”

Friedman went on to perform with the group live numerous times, including at Momoiro’s massive Christmas-day bash in 2011. “Playing with them was like being in a futuristic version of heavy music. Musically, it’s quite complex — lots of tempo changes and [shifting] time signatures, stuff like that.” Last month, he appeared on Momoiro’s “Moon Pride,” which serves as the opening theme for the new Sailor Moon cartoon.

Marty Friedman

Photo by Miyama Kou for WS

He’s worked with other idol outfits, such as the Okinawa duo the Do-Nuts, who didn’t attract much attention but were right up Friedman’s alley. “It was really pinballish, lots of crazy guitar.” He recorded two albums worth of heavy-metal covers of popular J-pop songs, Tokyo Jukebox and Tokyo Jukebox 2, featuring his versions of songs by everyone from the hard-rock Maximum the Hormone to the Yellow-Magic-Orchestra-influenced techno-pop of Perfume. “It was very challenging, but it was a labor of love. I really wanted to destroy those songs and make them something completely new and blow away the people who wrote them.”

‘There might be 40, 50 people on a set, all Japanese…and one foreigner. I don’t notice that, but sometimes I’ll think, ‘I’m the only American in this room, and nobody is batting an eye.’ It couldn’t feel more comfortable and simple.’

He’s also been active in the country’s metal scene. Friedman collaborated with members of famous Japanese rock groups X Japan and Luna Sea in 2005, and has since hooked up with the popular band Linked Horizon and Toshihiko Takamizawa of the group the Alfee. It was through his TV shows Mr. Heavy Metal (2005) and Rock Fujiyama (2006-07), however, that he interacted most with Japanese musicians, along with notable Western performers such as Andrew W.K. and Kerry King of Slayer.

It has been just over a decade since Friedman moved to Japan, and he spends so much time making music, appearing on TV and writing columns for various Japanese magazines that he rarely speaks English anymore. While talking, he apologizes several times for mispronouncing words, and when he stops to think over a question, he fills the silence with Japanese words. His new solo album, Inferno, offered him a chance to step outside of Japan; it also offered him a chance to reconnect to his past — he and Becker wrote a song together for the first time since the Cacophony days. It was an especially meaningful collaboration for Friedman, as Becker developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the early ’90s. The condition, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, eventually caused Becker to lose his ability to move and speak, and today he composes music with the aid of a computer. Of their collaboration, Friedman says, “It wasn’t too unlike what we did originally. I didn’t want it to be some nostalgic bullshit, though — I wanted it to be the ultimate atomic-powered version of what Cacophony.”

He had to put many of his Japanese commitments on hold, but “the monetary loss” was worth it to record Inferno. And he’s been pleased with the reception — he toured Europe this May to generally positive reviews, and in June, Inferno became Friedman’s first solo album to land on the Billboard Rock charts in America (It placed at an impressive No. 10.) Still, he’s enjoying his life in Japan.

“There might be 40 or 50 people on a [television] set, all Japanese…and one foreigner. I don’t notice that, but sometimes I’ll think, ‘I’m the only American in this room, and nobody is batting an eye.’ It couldn’t feel more comfortable and simple.”