How Ex-Megadeth Guitarist Marty Friedman Became a Superstar in Japan
Marty Friedman recording his new solo album at Dave Grohl's Studio 606
Courtesy Marty Friedman
As I take refuge from the hot August sun and enter Dave Grohl’s Studio 606 in Northridge, heavy metal guitarist Marty Friedman is taking a break from recording his new solo record. Friedman is conversing with a fellow band member and analyzing playback of tracks recorded that day. The conversation is being conducted in fluent Japanese.
“Every time I come back to America is like a Twilight Zone episode,” says Friedman during our interview later that day. “I don’t know the topics people here are talking about. I turn on the TV and I don’t know who the faces on it are. It’s a strange thing because I’m American, but I haven’t been in the country much.”
Friedman has been living and recording music in Japan since leaving heavy metal icons Megadeth in 2000. His shredding guitar style had been an integral part of Megadeth’s commercial peak, most notably on 1990’s Rust in Peace and 1992’s Countdown to Extinction. But by the turn of the millennium, Friedman’s own tastes had drifted away towards a sound far removed from the groove-laden thrash metal that propelled Megadeth to its success.
“I would go on stage and play American heavy metal, but then at the end of the night in my hotel room I would listen to nothing but Japanese pop music,” Friedman says. “I decided that I would rather play the music that I was listening to.”
In conversation, Friedman is more likely to talk about female J-pop idol groups such as AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z — both of whom he has performed live with — than any current Western heavy metal band. Despite having found fame and earning a living with Megadeth, Friedman’s obsession with Japanese music led him to learn the Japanese language, and restart his career abroad.
Friedman’s break in the Japanese music market came through guest appearances on Japanese television shows aimed at fans of rock music. These appearances and his mastery of the native language led to a co-host position on the network series Rock Fujiyama in 2006. Friedman’s television work kickstarted his music career in Japan, leading to five Japan-only solo albums between 2006 and 2011, and numerous guest appearances with rock and pop artists throughout the Japanese music scene.
“A lot of people in Japan still only know me from TV,” Friedman says. “At first I resented it. My attitude was that I had done all of this music, but now I do this one TV show, everyone knew me from that. But I eventually realized that was the best thing ever, and enjoyed everything that came from doing the TV show.”
Friedman's celebrity within Japan has crossed over to the point where earlier this month, he was named a Japan Heritage ambassador — alongside six native Japanese celebrities, including former New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui — by the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs to promote Japanese tourism leading into the 2020 Olympics.
As Friedman made in-roads in the Japanese music scene, word of his success started spreading back home to American heavy metal fans. His newer solo albums — now finding a comfortable middle ground between the guitar histrionics of his youth and the Japanese pop influences of his recent years — did not have strong distribution in the United States. Friedman had zero intention of ever focusing on the American music market again until he was contacted by Los Angeles heavy metal label Prosthetic Records three years ago about reissuing his Japanese albums in America.
After those reissues went well, Friedman’s re-introduction to American heavy metal audiences was completed with the release of his 2014 album, Inferno, followed by a 35-date club tour with his Japanese band, his largest ever in America and first since 2003.
During our discussion, the topic turns to the growing acceptance of Japanese pop culture by American audiences. A July performance by Japanese heavy metal act Babymetal sold out the Wiltern months in advance. Anime streaming service Crunchyroll is one of the most popular subscription services in internet TV. A recent sold-out WWE NXT wrestling show at the Hollywood Palladium featured Shinsuke Nakamura, a Japanese wrestler who had spent his decade-long career in his homeland before signing with WWE less than a year ago. Friedman also noticed this growing acceptance of Japanese culture on his most recent American tour.
“When fans came to my meet-and-greets, they used to only talk about how they were influenced by my guitar playing,” says Friedman. “Now, that happens about half the time, but the other half of the time, I have people say, ‘Because of you, I speak Japanese now,’ [then they] try to speak Japanese with my band members. It makes me really happy to see that.”
As he returned to American heavy metal circles, Friedman began fielding the inevitable questions of whether he would ever consider returning to Megadeth. But despite rumors of a possible Rust in Peace-era reunion, Friedman sounds skeptical.
“I think anyone that has something as good as Rust In Peace in their history doesn’t want to revisit it unless you are going to top it,” he says. “I didn’t see any reason to mess with that. I didn’t see a reunion being what it could be and what the fans deserved. If I were to revisit that, there would have to be a reason for me to do that beyond, ‘Let’s go back and do it again.’ That’s not a good enough reason.”
In the meantime, Friedman is working on a new solo album, set for a spring 2017 release. In the last three years, he has toured the world multiple times, performed at Nippon Budokan in Japan with AKB48, at the Tokyo Dome with New Japan Pro Wrestling, at the Hollywood Bowl with Rodrigo y Gabriela, and in Argentina with the grandson of Argentinian tango legend Astor Piazzolla. Life after Megadeth for this ex-pat guitarist seems to be going pretty well.
“I don’t know if the kid that signed the Shrapnel Records contract in ’87 could pull it off,” says Friedman of his diverse array of gigs. “But this guy can.”
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.