Hiroshi Yamaguchi of the group Heatwave looks like any other worker at his manager’s office when I arrive for his interview. He sits at a desk, busily working away on a computer. After a few words however, it’s clear he could never be just any other worker. “I hate it here”, he half confesses, half jokes. “I’ve never had to come to an office before. You know, I can’t belong to anyone or anything”. Yamaguchi explained he’s only there temporarily to write a diary / essay style book on his latest trip to Donegal, Ireland, and the story of the recording of his new album ‘Hibi Naru Chokkan’, and needs to be in ear shot of his editor.He describes himself as a ‘struggling, nowhere man’, Nowhere Man also the title of Heatwave’s latest single.
While something of an outsider, I would choose to describe him and his music in rather different terms. Words like passionate, gutsy, charismatic and honest spring to mind. He plays his brand of potent folk rock with a conviction and gusto all too rare in the Japanese music world. A clue to his music sense can be found in his heroes, a list that include Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed and Van Morrison. Elsewhere he draws inspiration from characters such as American author Charles Bukowsky and actors Dennis Hopper and Sean Penn. Somewhat dark characters maybe, although Yamaguchi’s outlook is actually on the bright side, but like his heroes he’s uncompromising in his beliefs.
He grew up in Fukuoka, received a guitar for his fourteenth birthday and formed Heatwave when he was sixteen. “I found school boring, and went off the rails a bit back then” he says. “My father was a drunk Mathematics Professor, my mother an English teacher, my sister pretty normal and me an outlaw.” He stayed with Heatwave for 10 years in Fukuoka, the group recorded 4 CDs, became ‘local heroes’ while Yamaguchi survived financially by doing construction work. “I was going to make my own label to release our albums, but I have no business acumen, so the three of us in Heatwave got into a truck and drove to Tokyo, and became nobodies again.” However it didn’t take long to strike a record deal with the major label Epic Sony. “The President of Epic said to me, just play the music you want to, because we’re not expecting to make any money.” A forecast that proved totally accurate as Heatwave released five albums in as many years, all of which achieved relatively low sales.
Undeterred, Polydor picked up the Heatwave mantle. Englishman Mick Glossop, who had worked with Van Morrison, was brought in to mix the band’s first two albums, which garnered great reviews, an ever increasing fan base and an upturn in sales, but failed to gain the band the kind of popularity to match the undoubted talent. This sense of underachievement under-pins Yamaguchi’s career, much like his musical peers overseas Mike Scott of the Waterboys and Liam O’ Manlai of Hothouse Flowers, with whom his music is often compared. Both of these bands were at one time tipped for world domination to follow groups such as U2 onto the world stadium circuit. But something led them astray from taking that last step, and instead they went sideways to explore less known styles such as Irish traditional music.
Yamaguchi has taken a similar path on ‘Hibbi Naru Chokkan’- roughly meaning, ‘Inspiration of These Days’. His love of Irish music has steadily grown, first playing with visiting Irish musicians in Japan such as Dolores Keane, Altan and Donal Lunny Coolfin and climaxing with Lunny being brought in as producer for three songs on the new album. “The roots of rock in Japan are from America, and the roots of American rock are in Irish and African music, so I went the opposite way and ended up in Ireland. But there’s no theme or method to the album, I have always just written songs as it’s happened naturally.” He’s now visited Donegal, his favorite area of Ireland ten times, has ‘an Irish mother’ there, met Donegal natives Altan and played with vocalist Maighread’s father Francie O Maoinaigh in the local pub. They sang the traditional song, ‘The Homes of Donegal’ to which Yamaguchi wrote Japanese lyrics, a song that ended up on the album and is the title of his soon to be published book. The recording additionally features his friends from Kansai’s Soul Flower Union, Takashi Nakagawa and Hideko Itami, themselves Donal Lunny collaborators.
Packed with strong songs, some of the album’s best moments are the meetings of Japanese and Irish musicians and musicians such as on the glorious ‘Guardian Angel’, – according to Yamaguchi, his guardian angel being Donal Lunny. Yamaguchi hopes his lyrics “can give inspiration to the ‘silent majority’ to go forward in a positive frame of mind and to survive all the bad things about Japan, especially the politicians. The lyrics are quite simple to understand, but whoever listens can interpret the meaning in a different way. I’m not an agitator or a spokesman though, I would just like to give inspiration through the music.’
His live shows go against the grain of the usual precisely rehearsed affairs in Japan. “I don’t want to play the same songs in the same order every time. I don’t even know what song I’m playing next! Each venue has it’s own atmosphere, each audience reacts differently, I feel different every night, so I tailor each show for that particular night.” He admits this causes problems for sound and lighting crew, and can make for the occasional poor show, “but it’s live after all and it’s more thrilling that way”.
Originally published in the Japan Times 1999