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All-American Rock Star and Tarento

Guitarist finds freedom to be eclectic in Japan

By Brandi Goode

When he moved to Tokyo in the early 2000s, Marty Friedman was just another longhaired American transplant.

The fact that he had toured the world for a decade as the lead guitarist of iconic metal band Megadeth, sharing stages with the likes of Metallica, Pantera, and Judas Priest, meant nothing to Japanese fans or musicians.

Since then, he has earned a name for himself in the domestic entertainment industry, and is a firm fixture on NHK programs as well as other media channels—all in fluent Japanese.

Friedman is launching his 12th solo album this year, and though he concedes he rarely does interviews with the English press in Japan, he took the time to speak with the ACCJ Journal ahead of his September Tokyo concerts.

Friedman’s story is a rare one, as even he admits: “There is no precedent for me.”

While most foreign musicians coming here might find work as hired hands in local acts or wind up as struggling independent artists, Friedman has built his own brand through a balance of TV, music, and even sponsorship opportunities.

A lifelong learner with immense ebullience, he began studying Japanese as a hobby.

“Everybody on the [Megadeth] tour bus would be playing video games, and I would be studying Japanese, just for fun.”

Friedman served as the group’s “tour guide” when they played in Japan, and those repeat visits helped cinch his determination to make a life here. He finally decided to move to Tokyo after playing a decade with the foursome, but not for the typical reasons.

All about J-pop
“It was the music that drew me. I was listening to only Japanese music, so at some point I had to come here and be where it was all happening.

Making domestic Japanese music is what I ultimately wanted to do,” Friedman said.

It may come as a surprise to many that the seasoned musician is an avid fan of J-pop.

But, after speaking with him at length, and watching him casually joke with high-profile stars and NHK producers, there seems no end to the surprises inherent in his personality.

Friedman belonged to what many industry professionals and metal fans alike consider the eminent incarnation of Megadeth.

He played with the thrash metal ensemble on seven of its 11 Grammy-nominated songs and albums in the 1990s, which, along with his solo work done in parallel, garnered him a solid following.

One might think this fame would kick-start his career in Japan, but it actually worked against him in some ways.

Plus, music here is completely segregated, he said. “You are either domestic or international, so I was always put in that second box, yet it was the fans of domestic music I wanted to reach.

“Megadeth meant nothing to them. In fact, it was more of a black mark because of the name—it sounded scary,” he said, roaring and pulling a face to emphasize the point.

“So I had to start as the new guy, which was very odd given my career before then. It was about making one new fan at a time.”

More than metal
All this didn’t matter much to him, though, as he didn’t want to be known as simply “the metal guy.”

“Metal guitarist … you know, this is just one side of me and my music; there is so much more I’m doing and interested in doing,” he said.

In due time Friedman earned the respect of Japanese musicians, but that wasn’t his fundamental aim. “Respect as a musician is fine, but that doesn’t get you into the home of Joe six-pack. My goal has always been to make my music available to more people,” he explained.

Since moving here, he has worked with top names in the music business, from the trending Momoiro Clover Z, to veteran boy-band SMAP and provocative AKB48.

While these artists have all impacted his work, he draws inspiration from a host of stimuli in his daily surroundings.

“Influence is a weird thing. I collaborate with so many people doing so many different things, and watching the way everybody works, from my stylist to the guy holding the cue cards, to the engineers and directors, has an impact—maybe more than the direct influence of other musicians.”

Although Friedman, on a personal level, “takes TV work with a grain of salt,” his regular gigs on Japan’s ubiquitous and wacky variety programs, and shows such as NHK World’s Asia Music Network, have been real enablers for his brand.

He believes his more than 600 Japanese TV appearances to date have allowed him more leeway in his musical career, because of the face value he gets on screen.

However, “it’s a plus and minus,” he said.

“It gets you in some doors, but some music industry professionals may harbor prejudice against me, because to some people, I am more well known for my TV work than my music.

“Sometimes I feel they take me less seriously as a musician when they see me on a variety show,” he added. “That’s the price you have to pay, I guess.”

There seems to be a method to the bicultural, bilingual musician’s madness, as he has managed to sustain an impressively prolonged career and a significantly varied fan base.

“Staying relevant is not something that you think about, especially when you have a long career. You just want to stay interesting to yourself,” he said.

A big part of that is a constant pursuit of doing “bigger, cooler things,” Friedman insists, such as his latest labor of love, Inferno.

The album, which features collaborations with artists such as Rodrigo and Gabriela, is his most ambitious solo offering yet. It enjoyed a simultaneous international release, and Friedman is touring Europe, South America, and the United States to promote it.

Reflecting on how his life has changed since coming to Japan, he said, “I’m inventing it as I go, and it’s gone extremely well for me, better than I ever imagined. My life and work now are far more challenging than the Megadeth days—that was a walk in the park!” •