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Sat July 5, 2014
Music

A Former Megadeth Guitarist's Journey To Japanese Pop

Originally published on Sun July 6, 2014 9:51 pm

Are there genres of music that are simply too far apart for any one musician to hold onto them both at same time?

If anyone knows, it might be Marty Friedman.

He made a name for himself in the early 1990s when he became the guitarist for the platinum-selling thrash metal band Megadeth. And remember, this was at a time when thrash metal still got booked on mainstream TV like Letterman.

David Ellefson, Megadeth's bassist, says Friedman was hired because he fit the part perfectly: requisite shoulder-length hair and lightning-quick fingers.

"He just had the right spirit and the right look and the right heart," he says. "It was like, wow, this guy's like a real metal guitar player. And he's also a real shredder."

But by the mid-'90s there was a problem. Friedman was quickly losing interest in heavy metal.

For instance, one of Megadeth's biggest hits, "À Tout le Monde," just bored him.

"The melody's like duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh. It's kind of the same thing over and over again," he says. "I'd go play the show at night with Megadeth. And I'd be like, you know, what what I'm listening to is just so much more exciting than what I'm playing as my gig."

So in 1999 Friedman quit his gig to make the kind of music that he was passionate about. Which, it turns out, was arguably the opposite of heavy metal: Japanese pop music, or J-Pop. It's high-pitched, desperately catchy and what Friedman calls "embarrassingly happy."

That, he says, was the point.

"There's not a whole lot of happy music going on," he says. "Especially in the heavy metal world, where everybody's just trying to out-lame each other, you know, with darkness and monsters and crap like that."

The other thing that drew him to the music was its hidden complexity. Friedman says the best J-pop songs are far more daring in terms of chord choices, song structure and key changes compared to Megadeth's hits. And yet, you'd never know it on first listen.

"If you want to hear difficult stuff, just listen to any jazz music," he says. "But to do that and make it palatable for anyone — that's the challenge. That's what I love about this."

In 2003, Friedman moved permanently to Japan, and the J-Pop scene welcomed him relatively quickly. He was still shredding on his guitar, but now he was accompanying Japanese pop, country and rock stars. He started writing a weekly opinion column on J-Pop. Over the years, Friedman says he's appeared on over 600 TV shows, movies and ads.

"I just turned up the TV and saw him, and I was like, 'Oh my god, it's Marty Friedman!' " says Satsuki Heguri, who lives in Tokyo and was a Megadeth fan when she was younger.

She was not expecting Friedman to become a sort of low-level Ryan Seacrest for Japan. But she estimates you could walk into any busy part of Tokyo packed with young people, and about three in four will know his face.

And here's the latest twist in the Friedman genre story. After 14 years away from Megadeth, he feels he's established the new Marty Friedman persona enough to reward his oldest fans, the ones who still beg him to come back to Megadeth.

He's not rejoining the band, but he calls his latest album, Inferno, "by far the most intense, sickest album I've ever done." It's his purest, heaviest guitar work in many years.

With it, he seems to be affirming that a musician can be two very different things at once. He never really stopped being what his former bandmate called a "real shredder."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

This next story is about what happens when a musician falls out of and then into love with two very different styles of music. The musician in question is a guitarist named Marty Friedman. He got his new - he's new album out called "Inferno." But before we go any further - a warning - this story features music rarely heard on public radio. NPR's Chris Benderev reports.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: In the 1990s, this was Marty Friedman's gig, and it was a good one. He was the guitarist for the band Megadeth, one of the gods of thrash metal. And keep in mind, this was when thrash metal bands still got booked on TV shows everyone watches like Letterman. The bassist for Megadeth, David Ellefson - he says Marty Friedman totally fit the part - that absurdly long hair and those absurdly fast fingers.

DAVID ELLEFSON: He just had the right spirit and the right look and the right heart and it was like, wow, this guy's like a real metal guitar player, and he's also a real shredder.

BENDEREV: But as the '90s went on, Marty Friedman stopped caring about metal, the music that had made him a star. This Megadeth classic, for instance, totally bored him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEGADETH SONG)

MARTY FRIEDMAN: And the melodies - dadda da da, dadda da da, dadda da - it's like kind of the same thing over and over again.

ELLEFSON: So we were very much a divided band. And it was - you could feel it on the tour bus. You could feel it when we were in the studio, and it was really - 1999 was a very long, painful year.

FRIEDMAN: I'd go play the show at night with Megadeth. I'm like, you know, what I'm listening to is just so much more exciting than when I'm actually playing as my gig.

BENDEREV: So Marty Friedman quit his gig to make music that excited him, which sounded like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BENDEREV: See, Marty Friedman had spent the late '90's immersing himself in Japanese pop music, which most people call J-pop. He taught himself Japanese. He'd flown to Tokyo to make record deals.

FRIEDMAN: I went over there and negotiated all my contracts in Japanese. And so...

BENDEREV: By yourself?

FRIEDMAN: ...By myself, yeah. I didn't have a lawyer or anything.

BENDEREV: He did all that, he says, because the music just spoke to him.

FRIEDMAN: And this is one of the big songs that got me hooked on it.

BENDEREV: How this song hooked one of most respected guitarists in heavy metal - that just did not make sense to me. But Marty Friedman had a surprising explanation. Compared to that simple repetitive Megadeth song we heard before, he says, J-pop is musically much more daring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

FRIEDMAN: That line right there that we're talking over right now is a strange, chromatic dissonant sounding thing, and it gets to the chorus and it's a whole different key from what we've heard before. This - already, in 10 seconds, we've done a bunch of insane musical things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

FRIEDMAN: And yet, it all sounds like fun and happiness. And particularly in America, there's not a whole lot of happy music going on, especially in the heavy metal world where everybody's just trying to out-lame each other, you know, with darkness and monsters and crap like that.

BENDEREV: In 2003, Marty Friedman moved permanently to Japan and the J-pop scene welcomed him. He was still shredding on his guitar, but now he was accompanying Japanese pop, country and rock stars. He started writing a weekly opinion column on J-pop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: (Japanese spoken).

BENDEREV: Over the years, Marty Friedman says he's appeared on over 600 TV shows, movies and ads. Here he is at a judge on Japan's version of American Idol, called "Uta Star."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UTA STAR")

FRIEDMAN: (Japanese spoken).

SATSUKI HEGURI: I, you know, just turned on the TV, and I saw him. I was like oh my God, it's Marty Friedman.

BENDEREV: Satsuki Heguri lives in Tokyo, and was a Megadeth fan when she was younger. So she was not expecting Marty Freidman to become this sort of low-level Ryan Seacrest for Japan. But now, she says you could walk into any busy part of Tokyo packed with young people and about three quarters of them will know who Marty Friedman is. And here's maybe the strangest part of the Marty Friedman story. After 14 years away from Megadeth, he feels he's finally established the new Marty Friedman enough to reward those old fans, the ones who still beg him to come back to Megadeth. He's not rejoining the band. But his latest album...

FRIEDMAN: It's by far, the most intense, sickest album I've ever done.

BENDEREV: A musician, he says, can be two very different things at the same time. He never stopped being a real shredder. Chris Benderev, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.