It’s been roughly 15 years since guitarist Marty Friedman abandoned the Megadeth ship for the greener pastures of Japan. While Friedman had spent the 1990s co-architecting some of the band’s most influential music and selling over 10 million albums worldwide, it just wasn’t enough to quench the virtuoso musician’s creative thirst or sense of adventure (this was before Dave Mustaine’s, um, unique understanding of the universe was as notoriously unique as it is today, or that might have been a good guess for the professional and geographical distance too). In Japan, Friedman became an unlikely television celebrity (600+ appearances under his belt and counting), and composer for video game, anime, and other commercial endeavors while releasing solo album after solo album to Japanese audiences. Stateside, he fell off the radar compared to his “Big Four” days, but among certain circles of technical, metal, and avant-garde rock fans, he remained a nearly unrivaled guitar hero.
This spring, Friedman has emerged from the East to unleash his latest album, Inferno, to the world stage in his first-ever multinational solo release. Unlike your typical “comeback record,” Inferno turns all expectations on their heads, revealing the characteristically melodic guitarist’s most aggressive and least polished sounds to date, kicked-up even more with contributions with some of the today’s most technically-skilled rock musicians including Rodrigo y Gabriela, Jørgen Munkeby (Shining), and Alexi Laiho (Children of Bodom), among others. He also makes his first collaboration with Jason Becker, with whom he led influential neo-classical / metal band Cacophony, since the band folded in the late 1980s and Becker began suffering from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). It’s serious guitar music, but a shared songwriting process—Friedman asked his guests to submit a song, which he then worked on and arranged—and the video for title track “Inferno,” a parody of "Zenryoku Saka,” a five-minute-long Japanese TV show in which the plot is a different girl running up a different hill each week, give a glimpse into Friedman’s down-to-earth nature and sense of humor.
I spoke with Friedman from Tokyo about the Inferno, how working in television has helped his musical creativity, and oddly enough, the different things that men and women find sexy.
Noisey: Take me back to the tail end of your time in Megadeth. It’s a difficult thing to reinvent yourself. Once the transition was over and you were in Japan, how did you go about establishing a new life in a completely different culture? Marty Friedman: It wasn’t really that difficult. Quite the opposite. On paper, it sounds weird to leave a multi-platinum band and start from ground zero, but I just knew I could reach my potential so much more by being in Japan. It was really the best decision I’ve ever made. As a musician, or anything where you’re making decisions on your own personal tastes and your creativity, you know where you need to be to make those things happen. If you’re a French chef and you’re in Boise, Idaho, you’re in the wrong place.
I looked at the Top 10 in Japan and I’d like nine of the songs, and I looked at the Top 10 in America and I’d maybe like one of them. So, I’m a musician—where should I be? It was that simple. What was happening in America, musically, wasn’t nearly as appealing as what was happening every day in Japan. I was missing out.
I read an interview where you said the concept of genre as it exists for American audiences is something that doesn’t really apply in Japan. Can you tell me a little more about that? That’s really important. Growing up and playing music in America, you know how it is… if you play heavy metal, you’re not necessarily going to make a lot of friends playing R&B. If you play hip-hop, you’re not going to make a lot of friends playing country. The borders are very strictly drawn and there’s not a lot of mixing. It’s “heavy metal or die,” or “country music or die.” The fans of all this music like to have an open mind, but I think people are afraid to share that information in front of their friends. They might act like they’re totally into metal all the time, but when they get home they listen to something else by themselves. In Japan there’s much less stigma about that. It’s better suited for me and my taste, particularly.
It seems like the lines between taste have changed a lot here with the internet age. Do you still feel there are the same types of boundaries as before? It’s better now than ever because people are seeking out different music, but still, if you look at the mainstream charts, what’s really being successful, making money, putting people in concerts and is on the Top 10, it’s not a collaboration between the genres. It’s still pretty strict.
That leads into Inferno. You aren’t opting to go with the mainstream; you’re going with an independent label. Was this part of your decision making process? I was really close to just doing my activities in Japan and not worrying about the rest of the world—there are more than enough activities for me to be happy with here—but Prosthetic was so enthusiastic about me doing a worldwide record. They laid it all on the table, “You can take as long as you want and do it however you want. Every single decision can be yours, creatively, what’s inside the record, who’s on it… ” I couldn’t turn down those conditions. Everything I’ve done up to now has been released in Japan and then reissued [elsewhere]. It’s quite different, and it means I don’t do much promotion outside Japan. This time I’m going to be touring all over the world and I’m doing press outside of Japan a whole lot more, so it’s a different kind of commitment.
With a worldwide release, I couldn’t help but notice the special guests you chose for each track is a sampling of guitarists from all over the world. Are these just people whose work you admire or did geography play a part in your decisions? You’re right about the geography; there’s Finland, there’s Norway, there’s India, there’s Cyprus, there’s Canada, there’s Japan. The record company put together this whole list of people who had said nice things about me in the press, people who said they were influenced by me and stuff like that. I don’t necessarily follow what’s happening outside Japan, and I was embarrassingly in the dark. I knew some of them, and I didn’t know others, but I started to do some research and I reached out to some of them and said, “I really appreciate what you said about me. Maybe we can work on a song together on my record.” The enthusiasm just blew my mind, and it was something I wanted to include on the record. It was so impressive to me when I heard their stuff it was, “Wow, you’re doing something totally different than what I do, yet you say you’re impressed with what I do.” I was touched by it, and I thought it would be a nice way to get that enthusiasm on my record.
The creative process for this album was really unique. I’ve never heard of anyone saying, “Hey, you write a song for my record, and I’m going to go back and do my thing with it.” Had you worked like that before? You’re the first person to ever notice how weird that is. I totally think it was essential for the record. I didn’t want a bunch of guys blasting solos on it. That’s nice and fun, but this is a lot more commitment from both of us, and this way the fans get to hear what it would be like if I were actually in a band with these people. “What would it be like if Marty and Alexi, or Marty and Rodrigo y Gabriela were in a band together?” It’s a deeper experience, and I figured I have as much time as I want to make the record so I can go all out. Let’s make it that way. I didn’t want to do anything half-assed.
Outside of music, you’re very busy with television in Japan. Was that ever a career option you’d thought of back in the states? No way. I was never interested in doing it. It seemed like so much work and I thought it might take away from my music. When I was first offered some television work, I did it reluctantly, but it went really well from the first day and it became the great stimulus for my music. When you just record and tour all the time, you just get in that habit, but doing a different TV show every week or whatever, there is so much preparation and brainwork, there’s so much stimulation that when I go back to making music, it’s just fresher. I can definitely look at my musical output since I started doing television and say, “This blows away what I’ve done before.” I don’t think I’m that good at TV. It’s not something I aspire to do, but I love doing it, it’s fun, and it helps my music. Sometimes you don’t have to prepare much, but sometimes you have to be prepared to talk about a subject you might not have a lot of knowledge of, and you have to do a lot of research to be prepared to come up with something to say off the top of your head. It’s just really simulating.
In America, most of the clips we see from Japanese television are the crazy game shows. Have you ever had to do anything completely nuts? You do so much stuff that none of it stands out any more. Some of the Japanese things that make their way to American TV are completely off-the-wall, but not everything in Japan is like that. I’ve done some crazy stuff, but I have a manager who is pretty strict about making sure I don’t go on anything that makes me look like an idiot.
Back to Inferno. It sounds more raw than your other solo records. Was that something you were going for with this album? Raw is a good word for it. It’s rough. Brutal is an overused word, but it is the more violent side of my music, so to speak. It’s violently romantic. It’s an orgy of guitar, or an orgy of sound. I didn’t want to have anything halfway or middle of the road about it. There’s nothing on there attempting to be a commercial rock track. It’s pretty much the most violent side of my music that I could come up with.
What was it like to collaborate with Jason again? As you know, he’s got ALS, and he’s definitely not in an easy situation to sit around writing songs, but he does. He’s so inspiring and he has a lot of musical ideas constantly coming out. He gave me a bunch of ideas, and I worked with them and wrote my song around them and we collaborated exactly the way we did in Cacophony, where I had been the producer, and I arranged the music as well. It was the same process, but we’ve both grown big time since then, so it was the most intense version of Cacophony, the most intense version of what Jason and I are able to do together. I’m ecstatic about it. The moment it was done I sent it to Jason. I wanted to make him proud and bring a tear to his eye. I didn’t want to let them down in the slightest. I wanted to exceed any expectations he might have. I’m so excited to please him on it. He got right back to me and told me he loved it.
It’s very bittersweet. We’ve made the ultimate collaboration on this song, but at the same time I’m sad that what happened to him prevented us from playing together all that time. More importantly it has prevented him from getting to the millions of people who would really love to hear his music. He’s getting to them one by one, and he’s even more influential and inspiring now than ever, so things happen in a weird way.
Do you have the sense that you might work on new tracks together down the line? I’d be happy to. He’s doing a project and he asked me to join him. I’d do anything for him. If it comes to reality I’m the first person in line.
Without the description, I would have thought the video for “Inferno” was a take off of that German movie, Run Lola Run, where this girl with fire engine red hair spends most of the movie running. When I hear “Inferno,” it sounds like a big chase scene in a movie, and the director wanted to do a chase scene to go with it. I thought you’d need a story to go with it, but then I remembered this show that I like in Japan. I thought that would be more interesting for me than a chase scene for no reason. I think a lot of people are going to dislike it, “What the hell is this?,” but it cracks me up every time. Having girls wear bikinis and do really sexy stuff like they have in rap videos is really obvious stuff. It’s great, guys love it, but it’s not something that I’d ever intend to do. I find that overly sexual kind of stuff not as sexy than stuff that is less overly sexual. I find that so much more exciting. I don’t know why, it’s a strange way to think.
I think it makes sense. Does it make sense? Maybe you can explain it to me.
I mean, I’m a woman, and sometimes the things women think are sexy are very different than what men find sexy. Less overt, more sensual, right? More mystery. Can you give me an example?
Well, that’s why there’s more porn for men that’s of stark naked women, where women might find words or thoughts more sexy or erotic than just a bunch of naked guys in a magazine. I totally get that. This is very lightly sexual. It’s almost not sexual at all, but if you watch it a lot, it’s more erotic than seeing your typical naked girls and stuff. It’s more interesting and you don’t have to be grotesque about it. It’s entertaining in a very odd way. I’m anxious to see what people in Japan are going to think about it. People in America will just think it’s weird, but people in Japan will immediately know it’s a parody. The show is not that well-known, it’s a little underground, and I’m looking forward to that reaction.
Different reactions from different markets is sort of a sub-story of this entire project, isn’t it? Is that something you think more artists should take into consideration? A lot of artists, myself included, usually say, “I want to do exactly whatever the fuck I want to do. I don’t care about pleasing one other person but myself.” I say that, and I mean it. At the same time, the most successful artists in the world are very in tune with what they think their fans want from them. This time I wanted to please myself 100%, but I thought in really serious terms about what people around the world really want from a Marty Friedman record. I know there’s a certain number that want to hear some abstract, avant-garde Japanese experimental stuff, but the majority of people want to hear me play my ass off in a metal taste. This is the fact. I’m fine doing that, and I’ve come to terms with it, but at the same time, I’m doing it 100% my way, so I’m pleasing myself and the majority of listeners at the same time. This way, I feel very happy about presenting this thing to everyone.
Inferno is one record, but you could do the avant-garde Japanese thing next year. Maybe that’s something that with your set of skills versus another artist? Maybe some artists only have one statement to make. It’s frustrating for record companies because I happen to have a lot of musical statements I want to make, but that makes it really hard to sell as an artist, and it’s confusing for everyone. This time the company is a very metal record company, and a very modern company, and it’s just what I needed to direct my music to the people who are going to want to hear it and haven’t heard from me since I’ve been in Japan. And there are a lot of people like that. I’m very thankful for their support in doing it.
Jamie Ludwig is on Twitter – @unlistenmusicTags: concert, director, movie, music, producer, release, television, tour, tv