On Friday the 13th under a moon just 19 hours shy of full, a line snaked down the block to New York’s Gramercy Theatre. There were gothic lolitas in pigtails and lace, men and women decked out in full PVC fetishwear, and one self-described Metal Dad with a flowing mane and two daughters at home. White and red color contacts were popular, as were pieces of swag from previous concerts emblazoned with the name Dir En Grey.
“I’ve seen them five times,” said one office worker in an overcoat who hadn’t had time to change. “But had to buy these tickets off a scalper. It sold out in, like, two hours.”
While plenty of bands dwindle with time or grow more cautious with age, Dir En Grey has just gotten bigger, more extreme, and harder to categorize over the course of more than two decades. The Japanese avant-garde prog metal band jumped onto the scene with eye-liner, neon hair, and their first full-length studio album in 1999—which is full of upbeat songs like a nine-minute ballad describing abortion from the perspective of a fetus.
Since then, they’ve gone on to produce nine additional albums and tour the world, playing alongside bands like Rammstein and Iron Maiden and beating the band Death in the Extreme Metal Olympics. In the process, they’ve developed a reputation for over-the-top stunts—vocalist Kyo has occasionally spewed blood from his mouth on stage—and occasionally getting banned by Japanese television channels for videos featuring "abrasive visuals including baby-eating, murder, [and] gore."
An hour before the auditorium descended into a frenzied moshpit, the band was in their dressing room quietly preparing for the mayhem. Drummer Shinya hunkered before a mirror adjusting his eyeliner, while Kyo retreated behind a closed door to touch up his Joker-esque clown makeup and rest his vocal cords, which have sustained a number of injuries over the years under the strain of producing the necessary guttural growls and shrieks.
Kaoru, the band’s rhythm guitarist and leader, sat sipping water on a couch in a leopard-print hoodie. I managed to catch up with him for a conversation about life on the road, beer, and what’s next for him.
You’ve been performing together as a band for over 20 years. How has that experience and the band itself evolved over time?
Of course, 20 years is a very long time and I can’t say that it has always been easy. It doesn’t mean there was never a point when somebody said, “I’m out! I’m quitting!” But when we looked back on everything we’ve accomplished, I think we all realized on some level that we could never do anything else that superseded Dir En Grey. There was a lot of hardship as well, but we just continued, knowing that what we do is the best for all of us.
You’ve crossed over into an international audience. How has playing with bands like Rammstein influenced your music over time?
We were definitely influenced by some of these acts, but we were also inspired by a lot of foreign acts growing up in Japan.
How did Dir En Grey come to be? What got you into this style of music?
What made us want to do music was looking up to all of these other bands that we were listening to when we were younger. That was the biggest influence. As the years passed by, everything that we experienced in our daily lives influenced our writing style and the world we try to present. All of this is an overlapping of different things we get from just existing.
I drink beer every day.”
Your latest album is quite dark and pretty experimental, even by your standards. Where did that come from?
This album came after 20 years of being together. Every album is not planned, but there’s always a sense of seeking perfection. For this last album, we decided to really put everything that we’ve felt into this. It was like vomiting, or maybe I should say pushing everything out from within.
Let’s talk about beer.
Oh good, this is the part I was looking forward to!
So I’m guessing you drink it.
I drink beer every day.
Coming from overseas, I always like to try the local brews, as much as I can.
Do you have any favorites here?
Corona. I guess that’s technically not American, but I drink a lot of it.
What about back at home?
You just released a new single. What’s in the pipeline for you right now?
We’re in the process of writing new songs already, but when we go back in 2020, we’ll tour around Japan and we have a big show at Pia Arena MM. I don’t know how long it will take to complete the album, but hopefully by 2021.
Some of your videos have a pretty extreme aesthetic. Could you walk me through the creative process there?
As a band, we’re very involved in the music and the album covers. When it comes to videos, it’s more about our director’s vision. We’ve worked with the same director for the last 20 years and we have a very strong relationship. We’re very inspired by directors and cinematographers, though, so one day I’d like to think we could produce something of our own.
You’re about to embark on a pretty serious tour. What are some of the toughest or best parts of touring?
The difficult part is living on the bus. Sometimes you feel like you just want to go back to your own bed. But the good side is we’re forced to be together, which is usually when we start talking. Usually, that’s when ideas start coming together.
Thank you for speaking with me.