Best known as the lead guitarist for arguably the most successful incarnation of heavy metal act Megadeth — he was with the band for seven of their 11 total GRAMMY nominations in the '90s — Marty Friedman may seem to have vanished in the ensuing years, but the talented six-string shredder has built a massively successful music career in Japan, where he has lived for nearly a decade. Friedman has released several solo albums, played on pop, anime and soundtrack projects, and hosted or appeared on many Japanese television programs. And he loves it. Married to classical cellist Hiyori Okuda, the bilingual musician lives his life speaking Japanese, except when he is talking to family, friends or associates outside of the country.
Released May 27, Friedman's latest solo album Inferno, which he calls "the craziest thing I've ever done," intertwines his intense, lightning-fast chops and metallic sensibilities with guest appearances by numerous musicians, including Canadian rock band Danko Jones, Finnish vocalist/guitarist Alexi Laiho, drummer Gregg Bissonette, and Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo Y Gabriela. Friedman recently wrapped a brief month-long tour of Europe and the UK, and this fall he's expected to embark on his first U.S. tour since 2003.
In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, Friedman discussed his Eastern journey, crazy musical experiments and the genesis of Inferno.
What inspired your move to Japan?
It came to a point where I was listening to Japanese domestic music, the current music that was going on in Japan, 100 percent of the time. It was turning me on much more than what was happening in the States. I would look at the Top 10 in Japan, and chances are nine out of 10 songs I would really dig, then I would look at the Top 10 back home and I wouldn't purchase any of those songs. It came to the point where I just had to be where I can to make the music I want to make and be surrounded by music that I like. It was almost a no-brainer even though it was an almost insane thing to do.
The scope of what could be mainstream here in Japan is absolutely ridiculously huge. Really anything goes, as long as it's got something amazing in it [and] as long as the melody is something that people can pick up on. Your interpretation could be full-on massive death metal to sugary pop music all in the same song. I did this one song ["Moretsu"] with [Japanese idol group] Momoiro Clover[z], [who are] right now pretty much the biggest thing in Japan. The song had me playing my a** off for the whole thing. [There was] a 100-piece choir [and] the group [features] five [girls], and the music was arranged by this maniac with all these odd time signatures and strange tempos. It's like the "Bohemian Rhapsody" of idol music. [It] hit No. 3 and stayed in the top 10 for weeks. This kind of musical acceptance keeps me into it over here. Any kind of combination works. You don't have to stick within the confines of a genre, which really appeals to someone like me who doesn't really like genres.
Guitarist Jason Becker gets a credit on the song "Horrors" on Inferno. Is that him playing acoustic guitar?
That's him writing the acoustic (part). Since he has ALS he can't play it, so I had someone play in the exact style of Jason Becker. (Editor's note: Becker, who recorded multiple instrumental guitar albums with Friedman in the '80s, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1989. Though Becker is confined to a wheelchair and unable to play guitar, he still composes music.) I had a super guitarist named Ewan Dobson from Canada who could totally be Jason for those moments of acoustic parts in that song. He just did it so well it's like Jason and I are in the same room. He was just fantastic.
Rodrigo Y Gabriela appear on "Wicked Panacea." It would've been fun to watch you guys trade licks.
Hopefully we'll do that live sometime. They were the first people I asked, and they were the first people [who] jumped on. They were so enthusiastic and came up with some amazing stuff. What I did with their stuff is really kind of unorthodox because I had them send me a whole bunch of stuff that they thought was cool, and I [digitized] it, so to speak, and made loops out of things that normally wouldn't be played in a loop. I just created new things out of what they play, so it's a very modern interpretation of their playing, which is very organic. It just came out [as] something that is a complete morph of both of us together, which I think is the point of having a guest in the first place.
How did you choose the other artists who guested on Inferno?
All the people that I chose are people who have claimed to be influenced by me at some point in their career, and I wanted them to do a real collaboration, actually write a song together with me. I would produce it and arrange it and play it, but I wanted more of a commitment and more of a collaboration. For example, on "Sociopaths," that's what it would sound like if Dave Davidson from Revocation and I were in the same band. So you get that for each guest appearance. It was quite challenging to do it that way, but just to have guests playing on stuff is borderline meaningless. I mean it's fun, but I wanted to go one level deeper with that. Dave wrote the lyrics for "Sociopaths" and wrote the majority of the actual song. I arranged it, produced it and played the lead guitars on it, just like a band member would do. He's a great metal lyricist and great musician as well, so it was a wonderful collaboration. I had a blast. I was floored to know that a lot of these people were influenced by my music at all because I rarely follow what people are saying in the media.
The moody and majestic "Undertow" has a different feeling to it.
"Undertow," believe it or not, is the most natural (song) of the record for me to do. My main goal of making music is to get goose bumps or to give goose bumps or to feel some kind of emotion. It's one thing to play an instrument and play it well, that should really go without saying. My whole goal, even in the real super heavy stuff, is to feel these waves, to feel these contrasts when something happens all of a sudden. Like in the beginning of "Wicked Panacea," it starts with the acoustic guitar right after this explosion of noise. It is so unexpected and makes you feel a certain way, and "Undertow" is just the most natural way for me to do that. I don't want to say it's very typical because I don't know anybody who does this in instrumental music, especially with the guitar, but it's kind of the way you might feel when you hear a really sappy ballad that's just fantastic and that you're kind of almost embarrassed to like. That's the feeling. I usually have one song like that on every album that I do. I could do a whole album like that. It's by far the most natural and easiest thing for me to come up with.
(Bryan Reesman is a New York-based freelance writer.)