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Tomoyasu Hotei

“My heart still pounds when I hold a guitar, and I still have the urge to ‘knock out’ anyone in front of my eyes.”

Though he had already been a big star in Japan for decades, Tomoyasu Hotei, guitarist, composer, singer, songwriter and performer, became internationally recognized for his original song, “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” featured in Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” movie in 2003. Hotei is now celebrating his 35th anniversary of his music career by having live performances worldwide. Before his performance at the Highline Ballroom in New York City on July 15, he chatted with Chopsticks NY.

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Please tell us about your live NY concert on July 15.
The live concert will have a simple, three-piece set up with a British rhythm section. I want people to enjoy modern and innovative guitar music as well as nostalgic Japanese hits; the set list will be centered on music from the album “Strangers” and guitar instrumentals like the theme from [Quentin Tarantino’s film] Kill Bill. Even people who have not heard my music will definitely enjoy the program. I’ve been granted so many dreams during my 35 year career in Japan, but worldwide, I’m still an unknown new-comer. So this NY live concert holds important meaning to me, as it is the first step for making a full-fledged approach towards the American market.

What is the ultimate aim of your new studio album Strangers? In it, you collaborate with a wide range of musicians, with backgrounds in punk, British rock, and Texas music.
I am happy to have a variety of guests and collaborators, including the rock and roll icon, Iggy Pop, Matt Tack from Bullet for My Valentine from England, Richard Z. Kruspe of Rammstein from Germany, and singer Shea Seger from Texas. Because they were invited to provide vocals, it drew out my strengths as a guitarist and composer. I was strongly influenced by 70’s glam rock, 80’s and 90’s punk and New Wave music. This is all music that has a simple rhythm, adds guitar riffs and sounds, and has a strong impact. My goal was to make ‘One and Only’ Hotei music, using the guitar sounds of the good old days mixed with the latest beats and effects – we accomplished this in the best possible way.

This is your 35th anniversary as a musician. How has your music evolved, and what has remained unchanged over time?
My guitar playing has improved over 35 years, but perhaps I can’t jump as high onstage anymore [laughs]. I definitely matured as a human being through my encounters with the many people I’ve met; what hasn’t changed since the first time I encountered a guitar at the age of 14 and fell in love with rock, is my feeling for it. My heart still pounds when I hold a guitar, and I still have the urge to ‘knock out’ anyone in front of my eyes. At the same time that I want to be a guitarist who makes people dance, I also want keep dancing with my guitar. I thank God for allowing me  to encounter the guitar.

You have performed with orchestras and traditional Japanese instruments, but “Electric” is what is associated with you. What do you think about the potential of the electric guitar? Also, do you think about playing ‘unplugged’, without the electric guitar?
Guitarists can complement the charms of vocalists, while at the same time thrilling them and exciting them. Additionally, you can share the rhythm with the drummer through riffing, and enjoy chords with the keyboard player. It’s a special existence to be able to share instruments and heart, whether it is with violins, trombones, or DJs. When I’m playing with someone, I want him or her to feel good. And I have the self-confidence to do so. This is something I learned from playing with musicians from a wide range of genres. I have the confidence to make one feel the universe through the limited six-string and 20 fret musical scale. The sound of the guitar is the voice of the soul. It is the ultimate instrument that can express sadness, laughter, shouting, whisper, and sometimes even silence. Of course acoustic guitar is great, but I want to master my path as an electric pro.

What aspects of your sound have a “Japanese sensibility”?
Just because I am Japanese, it doesn’t mean I grew up listening to the traditional music of Japan. I’m part of the generation that fell in love with, and grew up under, the influence of Western culture. I have a resistance to displaying a forced “Japanese” image that uses iconic elements like traditional music, kimonos, kabuki. However, I’ve recently been feeling that I’m surely, subconsciously,  projecting an “oriental je ne sais quoi” within the core of my presentation. Even the “Kill Bill” theme “Battle Without Honor or Humanity” has parts that makes you somehow feel the phrasing of the shamisen or the dynamism of the Japanese Taiko drums. Even when I do a Blues session with Westerners, I am often told that my phrasing is very ‘exotic’. I think it’s a valuable weapon to have in order to work in the world. Living abroad, I noticed for the first time the good aspects of Japan; from now on I’d like to study the wonders of Japan a bit more, and then convey them to people around the world.

The theme song of the film Kill Bill is famous in the United States. Even without knowing the name HOTEI, everyone recognizes the sound of that adrenaline pumping intro. Please tell us more about how this all came to be.
This song was something I composed for the famous Yakuza movie “New Battles Without Honor or Humanity”. I wasn’t just a musician for it, I actually also act in the movie. When I received the offer, many of the people around me were opposed to it. Perhaps they did not want me to feed into the image of the ‘outlaw’. But I listened to my instincts and took the job. I really didn’t believe my decision would bring about a big change in my life. But Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, both of whom are interested in the alternative culture of Japan, saw this movie and both of them immediately liked this song, wanted to use it, and even competed for it. Tarantino, being the ‘big brother’, won and sent me an offer.

I wanted to compose for him a new song, but he stubbornly insisted on this song. Supposedly, before finding it, he was going to use music by Metallica for “Kill Bill”. Sorry, Metallica. And Tarantino, your choice was right [laughs]. The song title was also thanks to him. When I do this song at overseas festivals, everyone turns around to pay attention. But unfortunately this is what they say to me afterwards – “Your Kill Bill cover was the best”. It’s a little mortifying, but I’m grateful that I have a ‘golden business card’ in music. I am sincerely grateful to Tarantino.

Since Kill Bill, has there been a big change in your overseas appeal and work opportunities?
I know the song has been used around the world, like the Super Bowl, the World Cup, sports channels, commercials and even ringtones. Having one’s song become so beloved around the world means a musician’s luck has been exhausted. But this is a great strength when introducing myself to the world. In fact, without even knowing my name, a lot of collaborators – when they realize that I’m the author and composer of this song – say, “Oh, that song! He’d be interesting.” And then they start showing me interest. I’d definitely accept another offer to do film music.

You have been the opening act or guest artist for David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Lee Ritenour, and Chicago. Why do you think your music has so easily fit with such a wide range of styles?
I must be the only guitarist in the world with so many wonderful experiences! Of course I’ve been blessed with luck, but I didn’t just wait for luck – I am aware of how much I had to do to make it happen by myself. I love bringing happiness to others with my guitar. I think every musician who has shared the stage with me has also enjoyed our sessions. My style of playing guitar while dancing is showy, but it also combines the modesty that is uniquely Japanese. Also, I grew up listening to all genres of music like film scores, jazz, classical and avant-garde music – not just rock. I think my strength is being adaptable for any type of music.

You will be going to Tohoku in August to visit the areas affected by the earthquake. What do you feel is the significance of such charity concerts?
There are still people suffering in areas of Tohoku where rebuilding has not moved forward. After large earthquakes have caused damage in Kumamoto and Oita this year, Japan is now facing a harsh reality. As musicians, the thing that we can do is to, through music, send positive power to those whose emotions have been worn down. It may just be a temporary solution, but I do believe in the power of music. I’m very much looking forward to it.

Are there artists you would like to collaborate with in the future, or do you have projects on the horizon? The 2020 Olympics may be fun, perhaps that is in your sights?
I definitely want to share the stage with Iggy Pop someday. I want to collaborate with Beyoncé. An artist I enjoy is St. Vincent – I think she has tremendous talent as a guitarist. I also want to collaborate with talented unknown artists, not just famous people. The Olympics in Brazil is starting soon, so perhaps we will hear “Battle” being played again here and there. The Tokyo Olympics? Of course I will help if I am asked, but there are so many people lined up so I think my chances are slim [Laughs].

Chopsticks NY readers are non-Japanese who are interested in Japan, and many of them wish to travel there. Please give us your recommendations for destinations, attractions or events.
The big cities like Tokyo or Osaka are fun, of course, but I think Japan’s charm lies in its remote countryside. I’d want you to stretch your feet out and experience the rich nature. The fall, in particular, offers so many things, from autumn leaves to aromas, so make sure to look for more information about it. This year, my Japan tour begins in September, so if you are in Japan at that time, please come see me. I want you to enjoy my shows with the world’s most passionate audience. I’m looking forward to meeting you all.

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HOTEI ~Live in USA~

Celebrating his 35th anniversary as a musician, Hotei is currently touring worldwide. He will perform in Los Angeles for the first time and return to New York City.

July 13: Troubadour, Los Angeles
July 15: Highline Ballroom, New York

Look for his upcoming worldwide live performance schedule at  www.hotei.com.