When Marty Friedman first answers the phone some 6,000 miles away in Japan, you can immediately hear the Asian cadence in the way he speaks. It's not surprising. Friedman has been living and playing in Japan since 2003 and for the last dozen years or so, all he ever speaks in is Japanese. The ex-Cacophony and Megadeth guitarist will have to break out his English phrase book when he undertakes his first American tour in over a decade.
Beginning on September 9, the tour is the result of the phenomenal success of "Inferno," which was the first solo album released in the US in over 10 years. "I have no idea what to expect," Friedman says. "Ever since the whole 'Inferno' process got started by the American label Prosthetic, it's just been one very pleasant surprise after another. The whole idea of even doing anything in America was completely foreign to me so to speak. They said, 'Look, if there's any time to do such a thing, now is the time.' So that's how 'Inferno' got born and I put a lot of effort into that obviously and made it what I wanted it to be. I'm very happy with it and the response has just absolutely blown my mind a thousand-fold."
UG: What has the response been thus far to the tour?
MF: I couldn't believe we got the best agency and they jumped on it right away. The best agency in America: IPA. They booked a short run because I cannot really get away from Japan for too long. It's really just about one month but we're cramming 21 shows in there solidly and looking towards the future to do more shows. As of now, one month is about as long as I can get away from Japan without getting killed here by my management, hahaha.
Why didn't you try and reach out on your own to tour in the US and release an album there?
It didn't come from me. This is true. It didn't come from me because I just really didn't think there would be any kind of reaction. I don't know. I didn't really know what kind of reaction there would be. Up until the point of being offered to do "Inferno," I hadn't really kept up with what was going on in America. Not because I was disinterested in it. It's just because things got so crazy in Japan and it became such a whirlwind that I was just busy 24/7 every single day.
The truth is you've had an amazing career in Japan since moving there, right?
More and more the stuff going on in America became just kind of a distant [thing]. It didn't really affect my day-to-day life any more. So just going to America wasn't really something that was in my mind. However, had the opportunity come up, I would have definitely entertained it any time. Had it been a proper and really solid offer made by people that know what's going on in America and Prosthetic was all that and more.
Prosthetic Records was really the key to everything?
They came all the way to Japan to have a meeting with my record company here and just explained, "We want to do this, this and this." They've done every single thing from re-releasing my Japan-only records to making sure "Inferno" is what it was and getting it promoted properly. Lo and behold, it's my first charting album ever outside of Japan of course.
Photo courtesy of Miyama Kou
Fill us in on some of the other details of the tour.
The tour is looking great right off the start. We just announced it and there's so much interest in it. I've never really done as many interviews as I'm doing right now, hahaha. It's kind of blowing my mind in an extremely good way because I had no expectations of what was going on in America because people have their own lives and they're not gonna be following what I'm doing 3,000 miles away. It's all good and I do believe what I have with my band and what I have in my body of work with my solos albums is definitely something I think people in America will enjoy very much. I think it's a fantastic opportunity for me to go America and play for everybody and I just think it's really super, super exciting to put it in a nutshell.
What was it like pulling together the setlist for the tour?
It's kind of a fun process choosing the setlist for anything. I've done a lot, well, not a lot but I've done four tours of Europe since I moved to Japan and I've done tons of stuff in Japan. So choosing the setlist for each event is different. We're just about to play the Summer Sonic here in Japan and choosing the setlist for that is gonna be obviously different than what the setlist is gonna be in America. I think there's a lot of stuff people have never heard live obviously because I haven't played live in America. So I think the main order or the criteria of what I wanna choose in the setlist is the stuff that is just gonna be the most exciting.
You do have so many albums to pull songs from.
How can you say it? The show altogether as a whole has to have a flow that is really, really exciting. With no words and just hearing the words instrumental music, makes me want to run for the refreshment counter. So it's my responsibility to have not just a setlist but to have corners of the set where crazy things happen and things that keep you interested. Things that draw you into not only me obviously but the other members of the band and the other things we're gonna do aside from just playing songs.
You're talking about an entire performance presentation?
A lot of this stuff I learned from working with really fascinating artists here in Japan and all over Asia. There's a lot of tricks to keep things interesting even if you don't have lyrics. So I'm just trying to keep the whole show entertaining. I'm the biggest critic because I don't think I could sit through instrumental music. Even classical music it's really hard 'cause I need focal points. With my bandmembers, they're all very insane people that will certainly outshine me the entire time. That's another thing - I didn't want support people. I want people that will just take the focus off of me so I have to keep up with them. In America, I really have no idea what to expect but we're gonna frontload the thing so it's just a lotta fun any way you look at it.
Can you talk about some of the specific songs you'll be performing?
What can I say about the tracks? I've got 12 solo albums out there. "Inferno" will be well represented. "Inferno" right now is probably the most well-known of my stuff in America only because it's topical and current and I actually think it's the best of my solo stuff. I mean I would have to think because it's the most recent. I'd hate to go around thinking something I did five years is better than what I'm doing now.
The songs from "Inferno" work well live?
Yeah, the stuff actually translates live really, really well. There's enough twists and turns in there that you don't go, "Wow. I wish there was a vocalist here." There's a lot of "Inferno" stuff in the setlist. I go back to earlier in my career and stuff of the stuff that still works now. If it's exciting, I just don't want anything that will sound dated. So when you choose setlists for like a European tour, that's really the only time I go back and listen to my stuff. I can listen to it with a really fair judgment. "Does this still sound cool in 2015?" If there's any question whatsoever, it gets the axe right away.
Did you have to go back and listen to the original recordings to reacquaint yourself with your older songs?
Absolutely. I always do before any tour. That's the really the only time I hear my work except for when I'm actually recording it. It's kind of been the same way forever 'cause when I'm recording something, I'm so insanely into every little detail that I really, really wanna get away from it. So once it's done and once I know I'm completely pleased with it, then it's out of my hands. I really don't go back and listen too much because I know it's exactly what I want it to be.
So going back and listening to some of these songs must be an interesting experience.
It's kinda fun to go back and listen to it preparing for a tour and to see how it really stands up with time. 'Cause stuff always sounds great when you just finish it and then five or ten years or more later, you listen to it and go, "What the hell was I thinking?" But a lot of it stands up pretty good so it's kinda fun listening back to it every once in a while.
In the last 10 years since you previously played in the US, the metal scene has definitely changed. Are you aware of any of those changes?
Everything I've become aware of has been kind of force fed through Prosthetic Records. Not through their artists but through the people at the record company there and only for practical reasons. For example, choosing opening bands [Exmortus] and people that I should know and people I should hear. Some things I found on my own.
What did you find?
This band called Deafheaven. I totally recommend them. It's fresh and it's mindblowing. I love these guys. And of course I'm good friends with Sky Harbor and I'm a big fan of theirs. Just the sheer amount of guitar music that has come out in the last couple of years is very encouraging. I have to be thankful that a lot of these people are so kind to cite me as an influence.
That must feel great.
It blows my mind that people are going back and listening to stuff I've done in Cacophony now, hahaha. I really had no idea people would care about it. It's sure a pleasant thing and it's definitely shined a lot of light on my recent stuff like "Inferno," which I would much prefer to keep the light on. 'Cause sometimes when you dig up the old stuff, you find some weird things.
Photo courtesy of Miyama Kou
Have you ever found any weird things in your older catalog?
I've never really released anything I'm not proud of so it's all good.
You recently did a European tour with Arch Enemy so you were out there with Michal Amott and Jeff Loomis. Do you feel an affinity with those types of players?
Certainly and I can certainly be happy for the fact that they are playing and people are listening. There was a period of time where any kind of intense guitar was severely frowned on and there wasn't very much interest in it. But people rode that out and kept at what they were doing and they kept playing well. I think there's always going to be somewhat of a market that's done well and done with true dedication to the craft and true love of the music that is being played. It doesn't mean it has to be this kind of difficult, technical music or a mathematical genius type of thing. But I always think there will be an audience for people who play music very, very well that is good, interesting music.
Certainly what Arch Enemy is doing has value and with the inclusion of Jeff Loomis, they're doing some really interesting guitar stuff.
A lot of really accomplished guitar players have found a way to ride out the storm when guitar was out of fashion and they found a way to craft their abilities into something that is listenable to many people. Just because someone is great at playing an instrument means pretty much zero in the amount of attraction it has to people. What it has to be is you have to take your abilities and you have to take your love of music and create it into something that makes people happy. It cannot just be a show of what you're able to do because every single musician on every CD or every song that's on Spotify is a great musician.
It seems like everywhere you turn, there's some new guitarist playing incredibly well.
It's not enough. You have to do something that makes people happy and that takes a lot more time than just developing abilities on the instrument. For all the guitar players and guys like Jeff Loomis and all these guys who are really, really good, they've been for around for a while and it's taken a while to get their stuff to the people. I applaud all these guys who have taken their abilities and shaped them in such a way that many more people can enjoy them rather than just beginning guitar players.
Has your challenge always been crafting your music in terms of bringing happiness to your fans?
That's never really been a challenge because it's kind of been something I take for granted. I'm not really an instrument fan. I'm not really a guitar fan or a trombone or a bass fan. I could really care less about how good someone is on an instrument.
That sounds like such a strange statement for you to make.
I'm very lucky in that fashion because once you start getting really impressed by the mechanics of how someone works an instrument, then you're pretty much done when it comes to just playing old music. It's really easy as a young guitarist to be impressed by people's abilities. It's really easy because you can't do it and so it's, "How does he do that?" But in the real world, people listen to music not because they have the reaction of "How does he do that?" They listen to the music because it makes them fell a certain way: it makes them feel happy or excited or sad.
That is absolutely true.
It gives you feelings and emotions. So I've been very, very lucky that I've always had that criteria. At the same time, I like to challenge myself musically so there's probably some quite challenging factors in my music but they've always taken a definite backseat role to the final effect of hopefully just making something is enjoyable. That people can enjoy without saying, "Oh, he's a good guitarist." I really wouldn't mind if I didn't hear those compliments anymore. I'd like to hear, "I really love this music. It helps me through the day. I love cranking this in the car. This is just awesome music. I love it. It makes me feel good."
That's a hard thing to create with instrumental guitar music.
It's a funny story. I did this TV show in Japan and I was in the room where you're getting ready and stuff. The make-up girl didn't know I was a musician. She only knew I was doing the TV show. So there was a guitar there and I just picked it up and kind of plunked around on it and she says, "Wow, man. You're really good." All the other people in the room suddenly jumped on this chick and got so p-ssed off at her. "I can't believe you said that to him. The guy's a master of the guitar. That's such a rude thing to say," hahaha. The point is that's what it is. I don't think any musician or any musician who's a lifer so to speak where their life is to play music, if they hear, "Wow, you're good at that," I think it's not an intentional insult but it's certainly not the thing anyone really wants to hear. It's funny because it is a compliment but it's a compliment that people don't want to hear. I guess that was kind of rambling off the point.
Not at all. I talked to Joe Satriani a while ago and asked him about his best moment. He said something similar when he talked about people listening to his music when they were sad and how it made them feel better or people playing his music at weddings.
That's what it's all about, man.
You spoke earlier about having this moments in the show to draw people in. Did you learn anything about that from being with Megadeth?
Certainly. I learned a lot about playing for big audiences with Megadeth. But I learned much more about showmanship from the things that happened subsequently. Doing a lot of TV definitely teaches you a lot of strange things. Also I played tons of tours with really, really major artists here in Asia and when you see every single thing that goes into each song, it's like each song is a different theater production. With different stage marks and things you have to do and places you have to be and lighting keys you have to much. Ways to get the audience into it and audience participation and just ways to keep the audience interested. Even if the music I was playing was not the same genre as I play in my solo music, there are so many little things that you can pick up that just get people involved and keep 'em entertained. Because I really am not a guy who cares about how good someone is on an instrument. Thankfully a lot of my fans enjoy my playing for its uniqueness and things like that. That's really a wonderful thing to have but I'm also really trying to play for the people who really don't care about guitar and they don't care about my past career and don't care about any of those things. All they care about is having a good time in that 90 minutes or 110 minutes that I'm gonna be playing. That's the real challenge and that's why you gotta keep a lot of action going on.
What are your feelings now looking back on Megadeth?
I wouldn't have wanted to bypass any of the Megadeth stuff. It was wonderful. The music was important but it was also much more important to be able to, like they say in kindergarten, play well with others. A lot of people qualities: a lot of learning about how to deal with people; deal with situations; deal with people from different cultures; and every possible situation completely unrelated to music happened in Megadeth. So it was such a great life rewarding experience that it can only help to grow as a musician from that. I strongly believe that people who practice their instrument a lot and study music may become good at it but they'll have a narrow palette of phrases and things to emote to other people. They'll be able to play a symphony or whatever but when it comes to taking music from their soul and bringing it from themselves to people listening, it really is quite narrow.
Dave Mustaine is a very talented guitar player but he's probably not the easiest person to play alongside.
Yeah, well, you know, in some ways, I'm the same way when it comes to my music. That's what I kind of liked about him; there was no bs when it comes to making music; there was no compromises and I'm the same way. So we got along just great. As far as music is concerned, nobody is more of a perfectionist than I am so I like being around people like that.
When you talk about the actual theater element of a live show, nobody did that better than KISS. You've been a huge KISS fan forever, right?
There are so many guitar players that started from KISS. The great thing about music is everybody has the right to their own opinion and that's what makes it interesting. I used to play with Jason Becker and he was the biggest Bob Dylan fan in the world. And to me, I'd rather chew glass than listen to Bob Dylan. But that was fine. You've got to have those differences in opinions. There are certainly no good and no bad in music. It's all what it means to you. It has nothing to do with tonality or pitch or talent or tone or any of those things. It everything to do with the experiences in your life around this music.
What kind of music don't you like?
I'm not a huge fan of hardcore rap and stuff, but then at the same time, you have to respect any artist or anybody who can make hundreds and thousands and millions of people happy with what they do. Here's one that will get ya. There are so many guitar players that started from Hendrix? I'd rather chew glass than listen to Hendrix.
That is so weird to hear you say that. I don't know if I've ever talked to a guitarist who didn't love Jimi.
I never got Hendrix. When I think of Hendrix, an image comes in my mind about a lot of hippies rolling around in mud tripping on acid and it just doesn't turn me on at all. And all that noise and feedback and I'm like, "Play in tune." I'm a big tuning guy and that's probably why I don't like Dylan because things go out of tune and it kills me. But then again, all of my favorite guitarists hail Hendrix: I'm a big Uli Jon Roth fan and he's the most beautiful guitarist. He probably loves Hendrix as much as Hendrix's own mother does. All the guys I respect love Hendrix so I know there's something there. It's just that I never got it because it never fit into my experiences.
There have been a few bands from Japan like Loudness who made a splash in America but not many. Why do you think that is?
I can tell you it's the language. And the reason why these Scandinavian bands, and they're mostly extreme metal bands, when they sing it's indiscernible what they're saying. And that's very important because when those bands sing where you can understand the words? It's stupid. We're American so when we hear people singing lyrics when English isn't their first language, it's dumb. So, that's why Americans don't like to listen to any English other than American English. But I think with globalization and the Internet, people are more interested in foreign music than ever before. Soon, there's gonna be some representation from Japan because there's so much incredibly great music over here. Hopefully I'll be a part of bringing it over in some form.
There are some great astonishing guitar players in Japan?
I'm not really a big fan of astonishing guitar players to be honest with you. I'm really not. I'm more a fan of music in general. Often I'll say, "Wow, that's a great phrase" or "That's great playing" but I don't think I've ever gone out of my way to listen to astonishing players. I never really did.
Your tour starts on September 9 in Baltimore at the Baltimore Soundstage. Baltimore is your hometown, right?
It's gonna be great. It was an accident that it happened. More of a very lucky accident that I made sure didn't get unraveled. That's where I grew up and it's just gonna be an amazing reunion. I haven't been back to my hometown for quite some time. A lot of my friends are gonna be there from high school and stuff like that. It's gonna be a very cool show. The whole tour is really something I'm looking forward to. There's a lot of cities where I have a lot of very fond memories. I hope that I don't wind up seeing any 15-year old curly-haired, long-haired kids come up there thought. That would be kind of worrisome, hahaha. A lot of things happen on the road and you never know.
I understand what you mean.
Although a lot of my fans do tend to somewhat look like me and have long hair. They could just about be the age, hahaha.
Thank you very much. Nice talking to you again, Steve.
Interview by Steven Rosen Ultimate-Guitar.com (C) 2015