Interview: At home with Kiyoshi

In these times with no gigs to go to, Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson checked in with fab Japanese artist Kiyoshi, perhaps best known as the fierce bassist in Marty Friedman’s band, to see what she’s up to. 

Kiyoshi with Roppongi Rocks’ Stefan Nilsson in Tokyo in 2018.

In normal times, you are very busy with tours and gigs with Marty Friedman, as a solo artist and with your other bands and projects. What are you spending time on now when you can’t perform live gigs in the short term? “It’s not much different than usual. To most people, we musicians may seem busy only when we’re doing tours and performing live gigs. But it’s just one part of our musical activities, it’s not everything. Of course, I miss the stage so much though. My main work is to make my own musical creations, so I’m actually busier off-stage than on-stage. I’ve been writing songs, learning about equipment and software for music and trying out new ideas for designs and videos. There’s a lot to do.” 

Some artists are doing virtual performances or Q&As for their fans. Are you doing something like that while you’re stuck at home? “Yes, a little bit. I posted a couple of long blogs and uploaded videos for my fans to enjoy. I also participated in the virtual jam, but it’s no match for the fun of the real jam.”

Are you worried about the future of touring musicians, crew members, live house/venue operators? Do you think that things can go back to normal touring or will things never be the same after the coronavirus? “I’m very worried, especially about the tour crew and the people working at the venue. Musicians can’t have live shows without them. We definitely need their help. I’m always deeply grateful for their support. It would be very sad if we lost our place to perform after this pandemic had passed. I think the world will never be the same as it was before. It will take a very long time to be able to do normal touring again, I guess.”

You have released several great solo albums in recent years. Are you already working on new solo material? “Yeah, of course! Composing all the time. But I’m not in a hurry to release it. I’m concerned that I may not be able to record in the studio smoothly with the same scheduling as before. It’s a good time to look for new and better ways to do things.”

Kiyoshi backing up Marty Friedman in Tokyo in 2018. Photo: Stefan Nilsson, Roppongi Rocks

As a solo artist, you have focused on you playing bass and singing and only backing that up with a drummer. It is amazing what you have been able to do without any guitarist. Where did this idea come from? “It’s very natural for me. The only instruments I can play are the bass and piano so I’ve always made songs by humming along with playing them. Making rhythm tracks and over-dubbing some basses on it, that’s enough to make the sound gorgeous. What I want in my music is very simple, I don’t need too many sounds. There are a lot of cool two-piece bands in the world – like The White Stripes, Death From Above 1979, Blood Red Shoes and Royal Blood – that inspire me. Guitar is cool and would be nice if I could play it, but I’m not interested in practising guitar. I don’t know why…”

In your career so far, you have covered many different musical styles and excelled at all of them. What kind of music do you prefer to listen to for inspiration? “I listen to so many kinds of music. Something old/new, intense/quiet, famous/minor, whatever. Lately, I’ve been listening to overseas indie artists a lot. Their unique ideas are very interesting. I prefer works that feel the power of DIY to works that are over-produced by someone else.”

Which bass players have had the biggest influence on you as a musician? “It’s hard to pick one person, but Les Claypool! He is my God. He is very original. The lead in the music he makes is always the bass. I’m very influenced by him as a bassist-vocalist and songwriter. When I was a beginner, I wanted to get the chord stroke skills he used to do, so I practised it over and over again. His music is a different style than mine, but you can find a lot of his influences in my music.”

You are one of my absolute favourite bass players. You have such a fierce and powerful way of playing. When you play in another artist’s band like you do with Marty Friedman, do you sometimes have to hold back in order not to take over too much or do you always approach your playing and performances the same way? “Thank you for saying that. Fortunately, all the musicians I work with say to me, ‘Don’t hold yourself back. Just be yourself.’ So I don’t hold back to anyone on any stage and I can perform like a beast whenever I want to. But I don’t really want to stand out on stage at all times. It may seem surprising… The bass is the “base”. I’m a bass player, so the most important job is to support the base of the songs. There is a little difference between me as a solo artist and just as a bass player. Bassist Kiyoshi is a player and solo artist Kiyoshi is like a player-manager. It’s very hard to be in front of the mic the whole time and have to control the bass line and the melody at the same time, but it’s super fun. Seeing the audience swing to my music is the greatest happiness. Either way, the initiative is always in music. I believe that music will teach me everything I need to do.”