David Lee Roth
Veteran Van Halen frontman and rock legend David Lee Roth has called Tokyo home for nearly a year. It might seem odd that an American rock star would settle in the Land of the Rising Sun—but it’s something that he ‘s done time and again in other cities over the years. His interest in Japan, though, goes way back, as Metropolis learned when we sat down with him for a lengthy session at his city residence.
One thing is clear from the start: living here is about continuing his education. “I’m in school every single day—this is Roth University, by the way,” he says, getting right to it. “I do language every day for two hours… I have a Go sensei, a professional, who comes over two times a week. I love that game.”
A long time student of the martial arts, I ask if he’s studying kendo here in Japan—and he quickly corrects me. “No, it’s not kendo. It’s kenjutsu. I’m going for my menkyo kaiden [full mastery] and I’ve been doing that since I was 12.” He explains that was the first time he held a sword in his hand. His father, an eye surgeon, had a lot of Japanese patients and Roth grew up immersed in Japanese-American culture in Pasadena—an area of California that housed internment camps during World War Two and became a strong Japanese-American community after the war. “I grew up next to Mr. Yoshida’s house—he was a kendo instructor,” he says. “Today, I’m the master of the six foot staff—it’s actually a shower curtain rod, but it looks great in the lights and I use it on stage,” he laughs, which is something that David Lee Roth does a lot, flashing his pearly whites and making you feel as if it’s the first time he’s told the joke.
“And I do sumi-e [Japanese ink painting] as well,” he continues. “I always wanted to go to art school. I always knew there was such a thing as perspective even though my parents routinely accused me of never having any.” He laughs, but then quickly gets earnest. “But now that I’m here I’ve found a very serious professional teacher. It’s shugyo. Its austere style. My sumi-e teacher is right out of the Meiji restoration. He’s got the little goatee and he’s a man of very, very few words. And now we’ve grown to become friends, ya follow? It’s part of the education. It’s part of getting to know the neighborhood, but it’s also sharpening the sword—mentally, spiritually, physically—because when I go back to show business in the United States… It’s war. It’s conflict.”
On that cue, is he working on any new music in Tokyo. “I’m in and out of the studio over in Ginza, routinely. Great studio, superb studio.” He’s recording constantly, but it’s not new music, it’s content for his HD video podcast, The Roth Show, and his radically different one-man variety radio show, Tokyo High Power Style Radio show (both available at davidleeroth.com). “I invented that title. It’s supposed to be like ‘Walkman,’ like no white guy would ever say that but when you do it seems to work for you,” he laughs. “So that’s me trying to sound Japanese-ish [he does his best salaryman-style katakana English] ‘To-ki-o Ha-i Pa-wa— Su-ta-i-ru.’”
It’s evident he’s riding a surging wave of creativity in Japan. “There’s more latitude here, ‘gap,’ I think it’s called. There’s a gap and this is one of the things [sumo champion] Konishiki has shared with me—is that folks find it ‘interesting’ if you do something that’s unexpected or incongruous.”
He feels that popular music—and show business in general—is much more restrictive back in the US where you have to be known for one thing. He cites an example: “Advertising Boss Coffee. In the US—whoa!—they’re gonna make fun of you on Saturday Night Live. Here it’s kind of expected. I’d love to do a Boss Coffee ad. Here, I’ll do it now: [he adopts low yakuza voice] ‘Who’s boss now?’” He lets out another of his big laughs. “It’s pretty simple, but it works.” For Roth, in rock, to play what he terms ‘floor’ music (“because it’s house mix, it’s dance, it’s R&B, funk, whatever… “) would be unacceptable in the US. “Well, we’re not sure. ‘Jeez you changed your hat, Bob—you’re not a cowboy anymore.’”
Roth broadcasts Tokyo High Power Style in English and Japanese along with his assistant, Etsuko. Does he bring in his famous Japanese friends as guests? “A lot of my colleagues have reached back in time, 1970s style, to replicate radio, and perhaps even more, talk show television—and it becomes a battle for guests. Whose guests are better?” He stops. “I’m not really interested in guests. I use as my template Mark Twain, who also traveled the world.” Roth’s concern is to enlighten listeners on subjects of his own mysterious choosing. “You’re gonna learn things. The last episode, Konishiki said, ‘Wow! I didn’t know the history of FM radio and why the DJs [drops to baritone voice] talk… so… slow.” It’s obvious he’s enjoying his new didactic role.
So what’s the perfect Tokyo day for Diamond Dave? “It’s not going to be perfect for most people,” he says. “Most of my day is spent is some variation of school or transition in between. It starts off at three in the morning because I’m running the show [Van Halen’s tour] from the balcony up there on my headset… Internationally we’ll probably do 50 shows outside of the United States next year. Then I go back to sleep. Then school starts for me at nine and I’m done at noon. Usually three times a week I’ll have sumi-e and three times a week when I train with the sword. Weekends my form of recreation is Go. It’s not to most people’s taste.”
So is Tokyo home ? “I’m based out of here now.”
The highly content and independent Roth says that the only thing missing is his dog, Russell. “His inoculations are just about done. He’s an Australian cattle dog—a Queensland Blue. Next time we do an interview here, you’ll see Russ. We did fifty-five cities together on the last Van Halen tour. After that, I’m happy.”
Happily, Russ won’t miss Van Halen’s dates in Japan this month. “We’re playing for two weeks, you know, it’s the devil’s rush. We’re playing Nagoya, Osaka and Tokyo.”
We end on his perceptions of day to day life in Tokyo for those of us that come to live here—how it seems to fire them up.
“It does for me. The ideas are much more myriad, and much more complex and constant here. And you know what? A lot of it comes from the interaction of people on the street. ‘Sumimasen’-style, you know, just that simple respect and the simple acknowledgement of others—it’s pretty rare in the US.”
Van Halen plays Tokyo Dome on June 21