Big in Japan

Ahead of his Tel Aviv show, ex-Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman says the decision to move to Tokyo, was the ‘best thing I ever did.’

Marty Friedman Megadeth 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Marty Friedman Megadeth 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
The first clue that Marty Friedman isn’t your ordinary single-minded metal guitarist is the “moshi moshi” salutation when he picks up the phone. The second is the knowledge that in 2000, at the peak of worldwide fame as the lead guitarist for American metal superstars Megadeth, Friedman simply walked away.
He ended up two years later in Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, and aside from regular touring in support of a successful solo career, he hasn’t left since.
Being a tall, Jewish, long-haired, white guy – not to mention one of the fastest, flashiest guitar players on the globe, may set him apart on the streets of Tokyo, but the 48-year-old Maryland native said that Japan is a perfect fit for him.
“I feel very integrated here. I was already fluent before I moved here which definitely helped, and the culture seems to fit well with the way I live, so there was never much of a culture shock,” Friedman said earlier this month, ahead of his show on May 31 at Reading 3 in Tel Aviv.
“I really got into Japanese pop music when I was with Megadeth in the mid-1990s, and for a while it was pretty much what I listened to exclusively. It got to the point where I wasn’t interested in Western music anymore, and I figured if I wanted to dive into the domestic Japanese music scene, I had to live there. It’s the best thing I ever did,” he said.
Besides enjoying a thriving post-Megadeth music career, encompassing eight solo albums and numerous collaborations with top hard rock Japanese musicians, Friedman has become a local celebrity over his decade in Tokyo through hosting his own television programs, Rock Fujiyama and Jukebox English, as well as regularly appearing as a guest on talk shows and current events reports.
“I’ve done every possible kind of thing, from music related to politics to cooking, tourism and English,” he said. “It’s been the best influence on me since I’ve moved here, because it’s opened a life for me outside of writing, recording and touring.”
Music was pretty much Friedman’s life since he first picked up a guitar as a young man, inspired by the punk rock of The Ramones and raucous sounds of Kiss and Black Sabbath. He quickly surpassed his teacher in technique and taught himself customized scales and his unique way of playing, including a very unorthodox right hand picking technique. It’s enabled him to follow his lifelong pursuit of incorporating the heaviest of heavy metal guitar into every type of musical style he tackles.
“Once I was hooked on metal, it’s been my quest to make things heavier all the time. Even my first band, which was kind of a mix of punk and metal, had more energy than anyone else. I was really into the power of music,” he said.
During his early years as a musician, Friedman formed and played lead guitar in several bands, including Deuce, Hawaii and Cacophony, without breaking through. When the latter band broke up in 1989, he lined up two auditions – one with Megadeth, by then already a top draw in the thrash metal world, and the other – as a guitarist for Madonna.
“I was just about homeless at the time, and I would have taken either job, but the Megadeth audition was earlier in the week than Madonna, so I didn’t even end up going to her’s,” said Friedman, adding with a laugh, “My life might have been a bit different.”
Friedman immediately felt comfortable with the Dave Mustaine-led headbangers, and felt that he had a major contribution to make to their sound.
“When I heard them, I thought they were an awesome band, but to be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the solos on their records,” he said.
“I thought that if there’s anything I could do for this band, it would be to give them a different taste in the guitar solo department. The guitarists before were great, but they weren’t as rad as they possibly could be.”
“Some of the solos were too jazzy and others sounded like Kiss riffs on speed – cool, but I thought that they were the weakest link in a band that had the best lyrics ever, the best rhythm and drum parts and the coolest ideas and concepts. So it worked out kind of perfectly. I knew what I had to do and they accepted me right away.”
Over the next decade, Friedman played on five Megadeth albums that sold a total of more than 10 million copies, including Rust in Peace, considered a classic thrash metal album. But while still committed to the music, Friedman began to tire of the trappings and attitudes of the metal scene.
“To be honest, by the time I joined Megadeth, I had played so much metal already, that as a genre, it was already done for me. I love the metal sound in music, but the metal attitude of ‘We’re a metal band raising the gauntlet for all to see’ really bummed me out,” he said.
Friedman said that at the time he was listening to “the extremes,” heavier and poppier music than what the band was making.
“I was telling the guys, Look, there are bands that are kicking our asses all over the place – like Marilyn Manson and Korn. There were all these bands broadening the musical horizon and we were still carrying the torch for the 1980s. I loved the guys and wanted to stick it out as long as I could, but I had enough – our musical directions were too different.”
Freed of the Megadeth brand, Friedman has been able to indulge in whatever musical direction his muse has taken him – whether it be performing with psychedelic trance musician Takeomi Matsuura (known by the alias Zeta), collaborating with Mutsuhiko Izumi, a video game composer, recording with punk-pop artist Nana Kitade and techno pop singer Nami Tamaki, or fronting his own metal quartet.
And his Megadeth connection still comes in handy. Shortly after March 11’s Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Friedman auctioned off all of his Megadeth-era guitars to raise money for the GlobalGiving foundation, in an effort to help those whose livelihood had been wiped out by the disasters.
“I sold them all, and actually tomorrow the guitars clear customs and I can deposit the money into the charity’s account,” he said. “There were buyers from all over the world, and I was happy about how well the auction went. People bid high and hopefully, the money will help a bit. There’s only so much you can do, but you want to do something for those in really bad shape.”
Friedman acknowledged that people are still walking around on eggshells as the country attempts to get back on its feet.
“It’s been a big blow, with us not knowing what the nuclear fallout will lead to down the line. Everyone’s on edge wondering and worrying about whether there’ll be another quake – there’s lots of paranoia,” he said.
“At the same time, things are relatively normal. If this had happened in America, there would have been a much bigger panic. A lot of people take what the government says with a grain of salt, because they’ve been trying to play things down, but over all people are calm.”
Friedman left the rehabilitation process to launch a month-long tour of Europe and Asia at the beginning of the month, culminating in the Tel Aviv show, his third visit to Israel. He performed with Megadeth here in the late ’90s and returned with his own band in 2007.
“Of all of my family, I’m probably the least religious, even though I did have a bar mitzva. But I’m the only one since my grandparents to ever visit Israel, and now it will be three times. That increases the bragging rights in my family,” he said.
Joining the super guitarist will be a three-piece band consisting of a second guitarist, a drummer and a bassist whom Friedman called “a super young and lean, mean killing machine.
“You’ll be shocked to see these guys – they’re just monster, out of their minds. They’re on fire and just waiting to get to Israel.”