It’s no coincidence that ONE OK ROCK’s new project Luxury Disease turned out to be a genuine rock album. The raw passion that pervades the set conveys the fact that the band has returned to their roots with a clarity of meaning and mission.
The album was produced by Rob Cavallo, known for his work with Linkin Park and Green Day, and features Brendon Urie of Panic! at the Disco among other guests. In addition to this solid rock lineup, Luxury Disease also incorporates the latest pop techniques that the band fostered for their previous album Eye of the Storm, and is an updated version of ONE OK ROCK’s sound that goes beyond just a return to its roots.
Fifteen years after the release of the band’s debut album Zeitakubyo — a Japanese neologism that means the same as the title of the new album — Billboard Japan interviewed ONE OK ROCK frontman Taka about the future of the band as it begins a new era, which they regard as their second chapter.
With Luxury Disease, ONE OK ROCK has really gone back to its rock roots, hasn’t it?
Taka: When we first started trying to move into the US music scene, rock music, which we’d grown up loving, was on the verge of disappearing. We wanted to bring it back from the brink, so we tried all kinds of things. However, we figured that, honestly, as a Japanese rock band, even if we played over there, our spirit just wouldn’t come through. That’s why we saw this period as a time to learn about American culture, the local situation, and what was popular in the U.S. scene. As a result of that, on our last album, Eye of the Storm, we moved away from the rock sound, packing it with what we’d learned in America. This time, though, we had a feeling that when the album was to be released, September 2022, rock would be making a comeback in the US. That’s why we started working on the album with this spirit of really pouring our love for rock into it.
Besides that feeling about the future, was there anything else that motivated you to go back to rock?
Taka: When we were on tour supporting Eye of the Storm, we started to feel doubts about our activities in Japan. We’re a rock band, so without rivals we just don’t feel as motivated. The gap between Japan and other countries was huge. When we went to Japan, all of our shows were sold out. Of course, that made us happy, in a certain sense, but it also prompted us to reexamine our position in Japan. When you start taking a more international approach in your music activities, you inevitably feel this sense of dissatisfaction with Japan’s music industry system. The timing was right — it was the perfect time for us to bring out that anger that was smoldering inside us — so that’s where we directed ourselves as a band.
In a previous interview, you said “Rock is dead in America.” At the time, that was true. However, the situation’s been changing gradually since then, and in recent years there’s been a growing pop-punk and emo revival.
Taka: That’s right. Straight-forward punk and old-school rock are still trendy now. I look forward to seeing a more hybrid style of guitar rock making its ascendency in the future. The younger generation, the kids who followed us, have grown up without being exposed to rock.
Taka: So, in that sense, I think right now the young people that are listening to rock see it as something of a fashion statement. But once they start listening to rock, I’m sure that there will be an instinctual move among musicians to pursue it as a form of music. As a group that has experienced being on the forefront of rock, we’ll have played a valuable role in kind of passing the torch on to the new wave of rock artists that arises. I really feel like with an environment like this, rock will come back and stay for years to come.
So you want to make your band into a new role model?
Taka: I guess so. When we were in elementary school and junior high, there were bands out there like Linkin Park. The influence of bands like that stayed with us all the way through to our starting to play emo and punk ourselves. I think we’ll see that kind of environment appear again. I just think it’s going to a lot more of a hybrid than people expect.
When did you start working on your newest album?
Taka: We began before the pandemic. The first song we recorded was “Renegades.” We recorded it in the U.K., in Ed Sheeran’s studio. That’s also when we wrote “Wonder.” We wrote about four songs, and then we came back to Japan to tour. And then the pandemic hit.
What led you to work with Rob Cavallo?
Taka: He was one of the people we had in mind when we were thinking about introducing rock to the younger generation. We, ourselves, also wanted to soak up the vibes of someone who had been on the frontlines of rock for so many years. Of course, the new album isn’t just what we absorbed from him. It’s more like 20% Rob, 20% our own strengths, 20% ONE OK ROCK’s future vision…and so on, all totaling up to 100% of the new album.
Did you talk with Rob about what kind of album you wanted this to be?
Taka: One of the interesting things about Rob is that he interviews you before he starts working on your album. He prepared questions for everyone in the band. “What direction do you want to take?” “What kind of results are you looking for?” That kind of thing. Once he had a full understanding, then he started making suggestions.
So you gave a presentation on the future of ONE OK ROCK?
Taka: Right. So Rob said, “It sounds like we don’t need to put in any non-rock elements in the album, then.” Stating that clearly, right at the start, made a big difference. When you work on an album, there always comes a time when you’re not sure what to do, but thanks to this decision, we were able to work on the album without ever wasting time worried about its fundamental style. Rob’s a big-picture producer, but during recordings he’d sometimes play guitar, too, so in a sense he was like a fifth band member.
Brendon Urie from Panic! at the Disco sings on the chorus of “Neon.” It’s a theatrical song, reminiscent of My Chemical Romance’s “The Black Parade,” and to me it felt like a new departure that you put a lot of work into.
Taka: That song really reflects an appreciation for musicals that I’ve always had. I don’t usually listen to music, but I am moved by movie soundtracks and musicals. There are Disney movies, like The Greatest Showman, etc. It’d probably be going a little overboard to say that I’m better at writing music like that, but if I don’t rein myself in, that’s the direction my songwriting takes. [Laughs] In the past, though, people around me usually said “NO” if I started bringing that side out. I think Rob enjoyed seeing that part of me too. He was like, “That’s part of what makes you you, right?”
One of those types of songs is “Your Tears are Mine,” a highlight of the latter half of the album.
Taka: That song was really magical. It only took like three minutes to write. Rob started playing that opening riff, and then I was playing around and put a melody on top of it. The engineer just happened to be recording at the time. We just played it through all the way to the end, recording non-stop, and then we put lyrics on it, and we had a song.
Taka: So, we didn’t overextend ourselves. We didn’t overthink things but recognized the quality of this thing that we had created on the spot.
That intuitive approach is the exact opposite of what you did on your last album, right?
Taka: The exact opposite! On the last album, first we’d write the verse, then the bridge, then we’d work on the chorus. It was a very involved and precise process…and it was hard. [Laughs]
But I also learned about the kinds of melody lines needed for modern mainstream American pop music, and I learned about production. If I hadn’t learned as much as I did then, then I don’t think things would have gone so smoothly this time.
The first song, “Save Yourself,” is a distinctively ONE OK ROCK song.
Taka: Right, I think it has the most typical ONE OK ROCK sound.
The structure of the album — starting out with that distinctive ONE OK ROCK feel and then ending with “Your Tears are Mine,” which is unlike anything you’ve had on a previous album — really gave the album a feeling of flow from start to finish. The last album felt more like a random compilation.
Taka: We didn’t really see that far ahead when we were making the album, but I guess it turned out that way. When we were working on the album, Rob would often show us pictures and be like “What you’re trying to do is something like this, right?” We were like “Huh??” [Laughs]
What kinds of pictures?
Taka: Medieval European paintings of women bathing or color photographs of ancient Roman ruins, that kind of thing. But I knew what he was getting at. It’s abstract, but it’s like creating a story by combining images that suddenly appear. It’s precise and detailed…but at the same time not precise and detailed. I guess that’s what makes it rock and roll.
So it’s a question of how far you feel you can go.
Taka: Right. I’m a very emotion-guided person, so I really enjoyed that approach. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t really care about album titles or song titles. [Laughs] For me, what’s important is what’s in the album. My focus with how I sing or the way the album is produced is on the sensory impact when you listen, so I don’t really care about the external trappings. That’s why I thought it was interesting when he’d show me those pictures, and I was happy that we were able to make the album based on that kind of sensibility.
You created the album during the pandemic. Did that turn out to be more of a negative or a positive?
Taka: Both. While we were working on the album, someone I knew passed away. It made me think more deeply about life. I think it’s my mission, as a musician, to take all of those elements — the positive and the negative — and give them shape. While we were working on the album, we were also thinking about what we should do, so there were hard times, but we hoped that by the time the album was released, the world would have taken a turn for the better. We didn’t take a measured, strategic approach to making the album, but instead focused on our instinctive approaches as musicians.
Is the title of the album, Luxury Disease, a reference to your debut album, Zeitakubyo (Japanese for “a disease of affluence,” it literally translates as “luxury disease”), which came out 15 years ago?
Taka: Our label said “The release date is coming up fast! What do you want to do about the title?” So, I talked with a friend about it one day as we drove around. They asked a lot about the spirit of the album and what Japan was like. I told them “I want this to be another breakthrough album in the US and I said that our first album was called “Zeitakubyo.” They said, “Zeitakubyo? What’s that?” I didn’t know the English for it, so I checked on my smartphone and it said “luxury disease.” I showed them and they said “That’s great!” [Laughs] Apparently in English that means something like “diseases that the children of the rich people get,” but they said “It sounds really punk.” So that was that.
So the title came from your desire for a breakthrough in the U.S., a restarting point.
Taka: Right. Belonging to a US label, having independent management, and working overseas — it was all a huge change. I was really focused on making a new start.
Were those changes a weight off your shoulders? Or did you see them more as challenges that you had to take on, despite the risk?
Taka: Needless to say, part of my personality is that I have to take risks to get really motivated, but I think a fundamental part of being creative is that you can’t just go with the systems that are already in place. I think, in Japan, creative work involves going from 1 to 10. The amount of individuality involved is so different then in the US, where you go from 0 to 1. We came up in a “1-to-10” environment, so, at least with the way I live my life, I wanted to start from 0. I want us to build that kind of sensibility in the U.S. and take it back with us to Japan. It’s almost like a kind of “samurai spirit” within me, of taking on challenges on behalf of all of Japan. There would be no point without it. That’s why there was never any hesitation for us.
So ONE OK ROCK is now in the position of passing on the torch to newer bands.
Taka: Exactly. New musicians need to do all kinds of creative new things and lead the Japanese music scene into the future. Japan has such an excellent culture and material to work with and I think it has unique perspectives and mentalities regarding rock that are unlike those in the rest of the world. I hope that the Japanese artists of the future will confidently and boldly share that with the world.
ONE OK ROCK has provided the theme songs for the Rurouni Kenshin films, and when the final film came out, you said that it was time for ONE OK ROCK to begin the second chapter of its own history. If you were to represent Luxury Disease, the start of Chapter 2, as a Rob Cavallo-style picture, what would it be?
Taka: Oh, that’s a tough one…but, and I realize this might be surprising, I think it would be a black and white picture. I don’t think it would be colorful. It would be like going back to our roots. Like we’ve gotten tired of decorative flourishes. Our approach right now is focused on the essence of our music, which is really fun. As an artist — as someone who has decided to live my life through creative endeavors — I think that’s probably what the next ten years will be like. Universal, and monochromatic. Getting rid of everything that’s not necessary. I think our most colorful and excessive period was during the period of our album Ambitions. At the time, it felt like we could see the end drawing near. In a sense, there was a sense of despair.
So the monochrome of the future is the result of coming to terms with that despair?
Taka: Yes, I think so. That sense of discomfort is like an aspect of fashion. When you look at things through the lens of fashion, you end up living a really uncomfortable life. But when you grow up, you just can’t take that anymore. I think this is true for every field, but when things reach that point, you think about where you should go in the future. If you can, you should get rid of what you don’t need — which includes hesitancy and doubt — and live your life.
This interview by Shino Kokawa first appeared on Billboard Japan.