By Carl Begai
No matter what he does musically, vocalist Minoru Niihara will forever be known first and foremost as the singer for Loudness. Even when Obsession’s Michael Vescera and ex-EZO frontman Masaki Yamada took his place (between 1988 – 2001) Niihara was still regarded as the band’s one true voice. Two years prior to Loudness’ official reunion Niihara launched XYZ-A, perhaps best described as a bare bones garage metal band, arguably the most successful venture under his belt outside the Loudness camp. Like any long time band, however, XYZ-A’s appeal seemed to wane with back-to-back ho-hum albums I.V. (2004) and Wings (2006); neither was particularly bad but both were far from memorable a dozen spins later. Their ten year anniversary record, Learn From Yesterday! Live For Today! Hope For Tomorrow! – a take on Albert Einstein’s famous quote – is a much different and aptly titled story, as Niihara and his bandmates have made a welcome return to the devil-may-care attitude of their earlier records. Top that off with a new major label deal in Japan with Toy’s Factory – former home to Arch Enemy – and XYZ-A are primed for another decade at the very least. Loudness, meanwhile, figures as prominently as ever in Niihara’s life.
“This time we didn’t think about old songs we made before or new trends in music,” Niihara says of XYZ-A’s new baby. “All we cared about was making the best music we can at this point of our lives. Right after I finished Loudness’ latest album, The Everlasting, we started to work on this one. It wasn’t hard to make it since all the members write music. Also, our drummer Funky Sueyoshi has a recording studio right in his house, so we were able to make music anytime we wanted. We would get together at his studio and make a couple of songs a month and finished the album in about 10 months. I think we had all the time we needed to come up with a good album.”
XYZ-A is often seen as Niihara’s “fun” band, something to kill the downtime with when his Loudness duties are complete for another year. He agrees this is more or less the case 10 years on.
“Yeah, you can probably say that Loudness projects take priority. When I don’t have any Loudness projects I’m working on XYZ-A stuff. Loudness is more like an Akira Takasaki Band and he is pretty much in control, but in XYZ-A all the members are very active in the songwriting. Balance-wise, I think I’m always pouring the same amount of energy into the both bands. If we are talking about varieties of music, in XYZ-A we can try different types of music and we may have more fun because of that.”
Exposure for XYZ-A outside of Japan has come strictly through word-of-mouth off and online. The band managed to secure a US deal for the Wings album – something that has eluded Loudness for years – but failed to make any significant noise. This may be due in part to the fact the band name was changed from XYZ-A to Asian Typhoon (the title of their 1999 debut) for the release in order to avoid being confused with the ‘80s hair band XYZ.
“We were supposed to tour in North America last year, but unfortunately it fell through,” Niihara reveals. “I’m afraid the American market is not ideal for XYZ-A and I have no idea if we will have another album under Nightmare Records label. However, we are always prepared to market our music anywhere in the world if somebody is interested in releasing our album.”
It’s worth noting that XYZ-A’s new album was written and recorded over the last year in the wake of Loudness drummer Munetaka Higuchi’s passing on November 30th, 2008. In spite of the circumstances it’s an upbeat record, suggesting that Niihara was able to work through his grief through the music. He speaks fondly of his fallen bandmate, who tragically lost his battle with liver cancer, and Learn From Yesterday! Live For Today! Hope For Tomorrow! can be seen as something of a tribute to Higuchi’s spirit.
“On November 14th (2009) we had a memorial live show for Munetaka. Not only Loudness, but his musician friends all gathered together, and we had a great time. We had live performance footage of Munetaka and the rest of us played along with it. Fans cried and the event was very emotional and touched everybody’s heart. The void made by his passing will never go away and we will miss him dearly for the rest of our time, but we all have to go someday. We just have to come to terms with his passing and go on with our lives. I’m sure that’s what he wants us to do.”
A second tribute show to Higuchi was held on the one year anniversary of his death, opening the next chapter of Loudness’ career. Former Saber Tiger drummer Masayuki “Ampan” Suzuki was formally introduced as Higuchi’s successor after a year of playing with the band on and off. Suzuki expressed having mixed feelings about taking Higuchi’s place, but according to Niihara all the pieces are now in place for the next round. The band’s last album, The Everlasting, and subsequent tour was the test and they managed to make it through relatively unscathed.
“The Everlasting turned out to be a very good album. As you know, we made it with all the recordings Munetaka had done, and it took time to edit those recordings, but writing music and recording went very smoothly. However, I had to stop in the middle of a song at times since I got very emotional, remembering Munetaka. It was a very hard experience, needless to say. I hope we will never have to do this kind of recording again. It was too much.”
At press time Loudness had been confirmed for the Bang Your Head Festival in Balingen, Germany in July 2010. It will be their first appearance in Europe since 2005, when they played a one-off at the Earthshaker Festival.
“We are planning on a short tour in Europe either before or after the festival,” Niihara reveals. “At that time we’ll be able to introduce our new drummer to all the fans. We’re looking forward to touring in Europe very much. I hope everything will go as planned. We’ll resume our Classic Loudness tour in the spring; we will be performing all the songs from the Lightning Strikes and Hurricane Eyes albums. We are hoping to tour in North America as well. As for XYZ-A, we’ll be touring with our new album in Japan in May next year.”
– XYZ-A party photo courtesy of Minoru Niihara. All rights reserved.
– big thanks to Minoru for the pictures and his time, and Takashi Kanazawa for his continued support.