Guitarist Marty Friedman is a rock musician who truly follows his own muse. After playing with Megadeth during their most successful period in the ’90s, he went on to a successful solo career in Japan, where he has lived for over 10 years. Not content to just be a metal axeman — although his latest solo album Inferno, which has been reissued digitally with two bonus tracks, is often a heavy, lightning speed affair — he has embarked on a number of other musical projects, one of his most recent being an Astor Piazzola concert with Argentine tango-jazz group Escalandrum down in Buenos Aires. Married to classical cellist Hiyori Okuda, Friedman speaks Japanese in his adopted home, but he breaks out the English for interviews, chats with friends and family, and his current U.S. solo tour, his first in over a decade, which begins tomorrow night in Baltimore.
A.D.D. spoke with Friedman about his latest work and tour, his wild musical adventures in the East, and his approach to six-string playing.
What can fans expect from your U.S. shows in terms of material? Beyond the new album, is there any period you’ll be focusing on?
I have 12 solo albums, so aside from a bunch of new Inferno material, I`ll be drawing from my whole collection. If I`m feeling randy, I may dip into a few things from my previous bands. The most exciting thing for me is the arrangements of all the things I`ll play. There will be tons of left turns and surprises, very little will be exactly like the CD versions. It`s instrumental so the new arrangements have optimized the excitement factor for the concert setting.
You’ve been in Japan for a little over a decade now. I’m assuming you like the culture there as well?
Of course I do. But I like the culture of a lot of different places, but I wouldn’t ever consider moving there.
Was it like when you first moved there? Did you learn a lot of Japanese right away? How did you adjust?
I was actually already fluent before I moved over here. Speaking Japanese was always a hobby of mine, so I was pretty fluent when I got here. I’m completely bilingual. It was always just a hobby, but I never thought it would lead me to actually live here. It just came to the point where I was completely immersed in Japanese music in America. It was like, what am I doing here? I need to be in Japan.
You’ve worked with Sound Horizon on anime and videogame music.
I do so much stuff on the side. Most people in America don’t even know Sound Horizon, but over here it’s a big deal. I get a lot of things like that that I do aside from my own music too.
Inferno definitely returns to your thrashier roots with Cacophony and Megadeth. You also have guest stars like Rodrigo y Gabriela and some crazy sax work from Jorgen on “Meat Hook”. My favorite track on the album is “Undertow” because it’s got a lot more space.
That’s one of my favorites too.
I imagine a lot of these tracks were done with Pro Tools and sending things back and forth via e-mail?
Some of it was, but on some of them we’re all in the studio at the same time.
Which tracks actually had people in the studio with you?
I had Danko Jones come in the studio and do stuff with me. Jorgen came into the studio with me. I couple of the other guys were in their own separate studios and I wasn’t there, but they did their own thing. Then I got their tracks, rearranged things, and reproduced things. It was a very, very long process, but the point was to not have a situation where anything didn’t belong.
You seem to be very well-known in Japan. You’ve been on a number of TV shows now, haven’t you?
And you’ve hosted some too?
Yeah, when I first moved here I hadn’t intended to be on TV, and I was asked to do this one show, this one-off, a pilot, and it became a hit. All of a sudden we did 26 episodes of this one show and it spun off into the show with Kerry King that you saw, and we did another 52 weeks of that. The company that has managed me ever since then is the biggest TV production company in Japan, so they’re constantly pushing me onto TV. As a result, I’ve literally done 600 television programs in every possible genre and style, from politics to cooking to music to comedy games. I love doing it. Just having a life outside the actual music I make is a great musical influence because if you just record and tour, record and tour every year, I could see getting burned out. I need constant new stimulus to keep my writing fresh, I think.
“Tokyo is like New York on steroids. There’s so much stimulus coming in that in the entertainment world you can’t just have these soul-searching lyrics like Adele or something like that. There’s a small group of people who really like that, but for the mainstream in Japan there’s got to be some kind of trick to it, there’s got to be something new.”
You’ve done metal, anime music, video games scores — is there some sort of crazy project you’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance to?
I think Inferno is the craziest thing I’ve ever done. It’s by far the most ambitious and most well constructed. There’s not a single stone left unturned in what I intended to do on the record and no compromises. I usually take three months to do a record and work my total ass off and there are very, very few compromises, but this time I took over a year. I was living with demos for a long time, so I knew it was great by the time I got to recording it. This is one that I definitely have the most pride in being able to play for people outside of Japan and the whole world. I always wind up doing so many crazy projects anyway that there’s nothing I can think of right now that I would rather do.
What is one crazy musical event you have played in Japan?
When you do so much crazy stuff, nothing stands out anymore. I guess for people in the States who don’t know me from what I’m doing in Japan, they might think the majority of what I do here in Japan is pretty crazy. I don’t know if you know who Momoiro Clover Z is, but it’s a five girl unit, and the music is arranged by this maniac with all these odd time signatures and strange tempos. Me, those five girls, and a 100-piece choir in this insane musical track, and we did it in an arena. It was just an absolutely out of body type experience if you’re a metal guitar player, but the music itself was so aggressive, powerful, and complex. It’s weird because there are five girls who are 15 or 16 singing their little parts and doing their dance formations, and I’m headbanging my ass off and playing like crazy. Then there’s this choir in the back singing, and the audience was going apeshit. I do a lot of stuff like that. If you stop and think about it, it’s a really cool thing. It’s really weird, I guess, but I’ve been here for 10 years and nothing really seems weird anymore.
There’s a Japanese trio called Babymetal that combine death metal with sugary pop music. What inspires such crazy musical mashups in Japan?
That’s just a testament to the kind of open-mindedness towards music that exists here in Japan. Not only that, it’s the pursuit of something that’s exciting and interesting. That’s the biggest thing. That’s why television in Japan seems so crazy, wild, and colorful. There’s so much stimulus. Tokyo is like New York on steroids. There’s so much stimulus coming in that in the entertainment world you can’t just have these soul-searching lyrics like Adele or something like that. There’s a small group of people who really like that, but for the mainstream in Japan there’s got to be some kind of trick to it, there’s got to be something new. It can’t just be this toned down, drab, quiet, low-key, really personal intimate kind of stuff. Of course there’s a place for that, but in the case of Babymetal or a lot of the Japanese music that I work on, it’s just the pursuit of something totally new and fresh, strange combinations of things, beautiful combinations of things, things that you would never, ever imagine. The guitarist in Babymetal is actually the guitarist in my solo band, so when I go on tour he plays with me. It’s really kind of a small world here in Japan actually. But Babymetal is a great example of the great, great possibilities in Japan. The key is the stuff has to be amazing. If it’s not amazing, people are not going to like it no matter how crazy it looks or how insane it might be. Stuff really has to hold your attention and has to have quality at the base of it. I think that’s a decent explanation of why crazy stuff comes out of Japan. People don’t want to be bored.
It’s been said your guitar playing is unusual because you use upstrokes on the guitar rather than downstrokes.
I wouldn’t know about that at all. You’d be totally surprised how little I know when it comes to technical explanations or terminology. I just do what I need to get the song from here to where it needs to be and really make it right. I’m definitely not a terminology guy in the slightest.
You’re a very technical player with a clean tone. You can hear the notes.
Notes are by far the most important thing. I don’t know what the term technical really means. It’s probably quite difficult to approach what I’m doing. It’s just what I do so it just comes naturally to me just like any musician’s output is what comes natural to them. I wouldn’t want to compare it to anybody else.
A lot of shred stuff is not known for being emotional but far more technical, which is probably why it died out at a certain point in the mainstream.
I would hate to be lumped in with that type of thing ever.
Some fans thought you might return to Megadeth, but that didn’t happen. Would you ever feel comfortable in a long-term band setting again, or do you prefer your situation as it is now?
I would consider any situation. If I loved the music, I could be in a long term band setting, no problem. I’ve guested with every possible Japanese artist and band since I’ve been here in Tokyo. It’s like I’m the eternal guest. [laughs] I love that but a long term band setting is still also attractive to me. The closest thing to that is my solo band. We tour quite a bit now, and I love that too.
Are there any young guitarists that you admire that you think will follow in the footsteps of the classic guitar players and shredders of the ‘70s and ‘80s?
There are plenty of fantastic guitarists out there. My eye is on Keshav Dhar from the band Skyharbor. He is the real deal, doing something new, fresh, and way exciting. We have done a bunch of work together on my solo albums. You can really hear him shine on “Steroidhead” from Inferno.
You obviously know how to shred and also be more melodic and slow things down. What is the key to finding the right balance in your playing?
If you love it, play it. If you can fill an album with music that you love every single note of, that is pretty much the main mission. If you play an instrument to impress others, you will not ever become a real artist. This is an easy trap to fall into because the guitar has an “okay, impress me” stigma to it. Once you get over that, then you can go on and make real music.