Labors of Love: Marty Friedman’s All-Consuming Musical Endeavors

Thinking outside of the box is far from being a necessity, but in this day and age, it is welcomed with open arms. The evolution of art and expression has put forth a narrative that allows creatives with any and all interests to dive into whatever they feel like. For one acclaimed guitarist, that meant packing their bag, moving to Tokyo, and thinking far past the edge of any musical, cultural, or societal box.

Since walking away from Megadeth, one of metal’s most iconic and prodigious bands of all time, Marty Friedman has soared to new heights. As a solo artist with a profound rock background and a breathtaking amount of skill on the guitar, he has released tens of records, including his beloved instrumental covers series, Tokyo Jukebox – of whose third release drops Friday. In his own words, Tokyo Jukebox 3 was, and is, a labor of love.

At his core, Friedman is a musician. With a catalog as extensive as his, it is clear that there are few things he wants to put as much devotion, adoration, time, and effort into as he does music. Spanning four decades, multiple genres, and a variety of cultures, Friedman remains knee deep in an artistry that he is proud to keep working in – something fans around the globe are equally as appreciative for. (Including myself, whose ringtone was Friedman’s “Butterfly” for a solid two years…. Something that warmed my heart to share with the rockstar.)

Tokyo Jukebox 3 is, as the name states, the third installment of this ridiculously infectious and globally successful J-pop cover series. When you started this project over a decade ago, did you think it would last this long and have you continuing to cover songs well into a third full length record?

I didn’t. Truly no idea. It was actually just an idea from a magazine in Japan where they had this feature every month, ‘What was I listening to that month?’ So I would just basically talk about what I was listening to – and that feature ran in for such a long time that a lot of readers wrote in and said, “Why don’t you play some of these songs? We want to hear what you would do with these songs.” That’s how it started, really. The first one did really, really well here in Japan. Then when it came time to do the second one, we started putting it out worldwide and I was playing the music on worldwide tours. A lot of people thought it was my music, which is not a bad thing. They thought it was mine because by the time I’m done with the songs, it sounds like my music. I introduced a lot of people to Japanese music through my music, so I was very happy about that. Have you heard the original version of butterfly? 

I haven’t. I would love to now, though.

That’s amazing, you know? My version, you’ve heard. You haven’t heard the original, which is by Japanese star Kaela Kimura. When you get the chance to listen to it, you’ll see that it’s way longer than I expected it to be in comparison. It’s just such a fun thing to do. It’s very much a labor of love. The first project was such a big ordeal. It turns out that it’s a lot of work to do this kind of stuff because I really, really enjoyed the songs as they are, so it was difficult to make them into something completely different. Most of the original songs aren’t even rock at all. They’re mostly just pop ballads and they’re really light. To take it from what they used to be into what I made them into was a crazy amount of work, but by the time it’s done, it’s very satisfying and really fun to play live. So I will keep doing them, doing them as long as people enjoy them.

I do – I enjoy it so much. You just mentioned that this is quite the long process and I know the process of utilizing and covering other people’s songs for your own record is not an easy task over in Japan. When diligently curating the tracklist for these records, like I know you have, what do you look for – or listen for – most in a song?

There’s no way to tell whether it’s going to work until I start actually rewriting it and making a demo of it. I love so many songs, so I’ll listen to one and think, “I’m going to try to work on it,” but then I realized that there is just nothing I can do with it. There’s nothing I would change in some songs. There’s nothing I can do, because it just doesn’t spark any new ideas. I just love it as it is – and sometimes I love the song the same, but once I start fiddling around with it, I say, “Oh, I can make it into this kind of interpretation and still love it. I can change the tempo or change the key.” I get a lot of ideas. Some songs you just get lucky to get an idea to build on. Others, absolutely nothing. So there’s really no way to know anything until I physically try it.

That is very precise and makes a lot of sense. Now, like you said earlier, when you’re done with these songs, they sound like you. Each cover sounds like an original Marty Friedman track. How important is that aspect for you – to kind of have your own voice shine throughout these songs that aren’t necessarily yours?

Right…. Good question. It’s not that it’s important to do, but more that it just turns out that way, because whatever I wind up doing, it sounds like my own thing. For whatever reason, that’s the way I end up making music; it just sounds like me regardless. When I’m working on a piece of music, it all almost automatically morphs into something that would be equally at home on one of my albums. It winds up sounding like me, I guess because I take things out of the songs that I relate to the most and keep the essence of those, to me, essential things. Then, I work around it. The things I tend to choose from each song are like the melodies that I tend to like personally, whether it’s melancholy melodies or even kind of uplifting. Like in “Butterfly,” it’s a very happy melody, but it has kind of a bit of sadness weaved into it. Somehow those kinds of magical things are what I am attracted to. I tend to take those melodies, get rid of everything else, and then the rest of the interpretation is different. There’s often no guitar in the original songs. It’s just like a basic little pop song or a sweet song, but I always take what I like from it (which is often a melody), and then put a whole new picture frame around it.

Wow, so you are just organically gravitating towards these songs, and your covers, with the mindset of both a musician and as a fan.

Yes, exactly. As a fan, when you listen to music and you love that piece of music, there’s certain parts of it that you really love and certain parts that you don’t even notice go by. But when a certain part comes up, for whatever reason, that part resonates with you more than any song. Those are the parts that I really dial into and keep. The other things that pass by are a little bit more negotiable. I can change those things around a bit to be more ‘me.’

Absolutely. I also know that this stellar record includes a very special track – an original of yours that not only was featured in a pretty prominent Netflix series, but also includes vocals. I love the song and find it such an immersive experience to listen to. I was wondering, why did you decide to give “The Perfect World” a moment on this record and not just let it stand alone in your catalog of music as it had previously?

Great question. I’m glad you like it. It was the record label’s idea to be completely frank. They said “We want one self cover on the record,” and so that was a perfect candidate because I like the song. It was still fresh, it was still new, but nobody had heard it with the female vocalist before. I thought that would be a really interesting way to see how different it would be from the original. The original was a male vocalist with a real deep voice, so I wanted to start this version by putting a female in. There was a ripple effect and that changed the rest. I had to change the key. I changed the guitar parts. I had to change a lot of things, change-based-change. Just by adding a female vocalist, it affected a lot of the other aspects of the song. I like being able to cover my own song that way. It was a relatively simple thing to do, because I knew the song much better than I know other people’s songs.

I believe that! I can also understand how a female vocalist could bring a different aura to the song. 

Yeah. I mean, I’m actually a much bigger fan of female vocals than male vocals in the music I listen to. So as for myself as a fan, I wanted to bring it even more into what I want to hear, you know?

Absolutely! You want to be a fan of your own work. I think that’s something that needs to be widespread, because I feel like I hear a lot of music and it’s like, “Yeah, I put it out because I thought my fans would like it or I thought it would do well.” But that’s not always the case, as fans often resonate more with something the artist clearly put their heart into.

Very true. The best thing about that thinking that way is it doesn’t really matter what people think afterwards, because if you like it and you’re happy with it, then you’re completely at peace with it. If people join the party, that’s all the better. If people don’t like something, but you like it, you’re still okay. If you have fears about it and then people don’t like it, then they’re right for not liking it. You’ll say, “They’re right. They’re right. I messed up. This is not really great.” As long as you’re happy with your work, other people’s opinions don’t really affect you that much. It just makes you happy when they like it, but if they don’t, you can say “Well, it’s the best I could do. I love it. We don’t have the same taste. It’s all good.”

That’s exactly true. Music is an art, a form of expression. You can’t quite fight people on that.

True. You really can’t please everyone. I like Coke. You like Pepsi. People get upset when others don’t share their opinions. You know, “Why didn’t you like the song? It’s great. Can’t you hear? It’s pretty.” It might be, but it’s just different than my taste. I like pizza. You like hamburgers. That’s your taste to have.

That perfectly leads into something I want to ask you. You’ve been expertly blending different genres, cultures, and styles of music for many years now and it’s something the mainstream audience is slowly but surely getting on board with. Why do you think it’s important to, for lack of a better word, color outside the lines and force your art to be more than the box the public wants to put it in?

Well that’s a super question. I’m really impressed. You know, Debra, I’ve been playing music ever since I was in my early teens. I just enjoy doing things that are new to me now – and you never know what people are going to pick up on. I’ve been in a lot of heavy rock bands and made heavy music and they’ve all done well. People then associate you with that and it’s natural for them to literally – or subconsciously – put you in that box because they see you that way. They might not know that at the very same time, I was probably playing banjo music with my feet or who knows what! But that just didn’t take off, so no one knew about that. When something becomes well known, people naturally put you in that genre box. In reality there’s so much that I enjoy doing. You never know what it’s going to be and what people are going to pick up on, so the longer you play, the more you decide that – like we were saying before – the only opinion that really matters is your own. As long as I enjoy making something, I’m happy. I feel free to put all these weird things together now because I see the thing that I like coming out. I dig it, and if people come to that party, then I’ll know they’re on the same page as I am. It’s really satisfying. I think when you’re much younger than I am, you tend to go wherever you’re told to or suspected to. A management or label might want you to go in a certain way, so then you go there and you do well. Then that’s good. I think when you’re kind of a lifer in music, at some point you have to really think “What is exactly what I want? Why am I doing this? What am I exactly? What am I working for? What sound do I want to put out and put my name on it?” Then regardless of whether it’s trendy or whether it’s too weird or not weird enough, or regardless of anything else, that’s exactly what I want to say. You come to a point where you start feeling that way. I think that’s why I’ve gone on certain journeys in my career to do just that. I hope that makes sense.

Completely and utterly – that answers my question perfectly. Like I said earlier, I am a fan. I am mesmerized by all that you do, so I think it’s important for fans, like myself, to know that you’re just taking the path that means something to you. It’s always exhilarating to know that an artist is really enjoying what they are doing, whatever that may be.

Great. Well, thanks. I appreciate that. I mean, you have to enjoy iy, because it’s so much work and you have no guarantee of success. If you’re going to do the work, you might as well do it as a labor of love, because that’s what you love to do. Not because, “Well, if I do this, this, this and that, I might catch this trend that’s happening right now and it might take off.” Believe me, there’s a lot of that going on in the music business and a lot of it succeeds. Of course, most of it doesn’t, but there’s a lot of it in the business – like any other business. You really have to do all kinds of business things as a musician, like trend watching and trying to create trends and trying to fit in where you can move units and sell these things. It’s a big, hard guessing game that requires a lot of research and work. Personally, I’m just not wired really for that. Luckily, managements and labels do what they can with that. Also luckily, they’ve allowed me to do whatever it is that I want to do. Sure, we don’t sell as many copies as Ed Sheeran or anything like that. We’re not selling those kinds of units, but at least they believe in what I want to do and it’s enough to continue to release things… so I cannot complain.

It’s an amazing thing to have behind you. This is a little sidetrack, but I interviewed someone a couple of years ago who was very desperate to make a song that would go viral. They were like, “I love making music, but I think I’ll only make it big if I have a viral song.” I was kind of taken aback by that, because I rarely meet musicians whose goal was not to express themselves, but to kind of find some sort of Internet success. It’s always refreshing to hear someone like you who had pretty much the complete opposite mindset.

Wow. Well, hearing your story, it makes a ton of sense because that’s a big thing. Everyone wants to move units and be successful and be in the business. The business people are thinking that way now because they’ve got to do something that attracts a lot of people. It’s only natural, but that’s very much a business mindset. I’ve been in the music business so long probably because I’m not really in that mindset, but in kind of like what you said, the artistic mindset. I’ve just been very lucky to kind of survive. There’ve been some up spikes, some downs spikes, all that kind of stuff, but at least I’m still doing it because I put the same amount of energy and work into it. I’ve always done that. Even before the internet, it’s been the same exact way. Those things, it’s the lottery. When you hit, you hit big and you do well, but it’s kind of a different process than what I do. Of course, if I were to ever have something lucky that could happen like that, I would be very happy about it, but I’m not smart enough to make that happen. There’s a lot of algorithms that people follow to do that type of thing. I don’t have that brain, you know, I’m more wired for music than for that, but like God bless those people. Sometimes really funny and exciting things go viral, and it’s often because of people doing the work behind it. But as a fan, I tend to gravitate to more natural things, like you. I totally see both sides, though, and hearing your story makes a lot of sense.

Photo by: Susumu Miyawaki

Me, as well. There’s a very fine line between the two. Like you said, the natural aspect, the organic aspect… I think music that has that resonates well.

You have a very good point. Let me tell you what I think. I think you are a true fan and true listener of music because you don’t hear the song “Butterfly” on the Top 10 radio every day. You had to seek it out. You had to find it. The fact that it resonated with you means that you’re in a different category than Joe Public, who is going to only find those viral hits. Now, when you’re talking about numbers and big masses of people, those people find a couple of viral videos. The videos that everybody knows the songs to. But in a case like yours, of course, the artist would much rather play to you because you’re finding it and you’re appreciating it. You’re hearing the details in it and loving it; not because every single person knows it and it’s right in your face all the time. This is the real thing. What we’d like to do is have more people enjoy music in the way that you enjoy it. You know what I’m saying? That maybe wouldn’t make the data counters happy, but for me, on a one-on-one thing, that’s what I’m in it for.

Thank you, Marty. That is so genuine and true on all sides of the coin, but especially the artistic one. You know, one of the things I want to ask you, was how the past year or so has been a roller coaster. It was like that for everyone, but especially creatives who are really used to sharing their work with the world and in live, intimate, and captivating settings. When you look back at this time, what do you hope to have taken away? Both as a person and as a musician?

The most simple thing that comes to mind is just appreciating what we had when we were playing live for people. I think people will appreciate that a whole lot more when things get back to normal because we all miss it so incredibly much. I’m going to be touring Japan this April and I’m so incredibly excited about it. I’m just shaking because I’m so excited about it. Even rehearsals. I can’t wait to start rehearsing. Usually rehearsing is a chore. I hate rehearsing, I’m always like “Let’s get on with the show!” but I’m all excited just for the rehearsal. That’s the main thing as this was such a big hiccup in the history of music. We’ll come back with more appreciation for artists, hopefully, because it’s not easy to play music for people. It’s all consuming. It takes all of your energy. People see major artists on their private planes and then they see artists in a van on tour around the country. They’re both working 24/7to just play their music for people. It’s completely all encompassing. To have that outlet gone, it leaves a lot of people, us musicians, really in a weird place because not all of us can do anything else. I’m not really wired for anything other than music. A lot of other musicians are in the same situation: they do music, but they can’t do music now. Because of that, I just can’t wait to start playing again.

That perfectly leads me into my last question, because I know that you’ve got these live shows coming up – finally, so well deserved after all this time. What does performing live mean to you? Because as an impeccable guitarist with an extensive catalog and a very passionate fan base, connecting with your audience must mean falling in love with music over and over again… at least in my perspective.

That’s a very sweet thing to say. Of course, that’s the whole entire reason why we’re doing this. I mean, imagine doing something for this long of a time. Even when I first started, I was playing gigs. Even though I could barely play, I was playing in front of people. That’s just the normal give and take, you know? You play something, hopefully that person feels good, and then I get the feeling of, “I did something nice today.” Nobody gets a chance to do nice things everyday, like walking ladies across the street or anything like that. You feel like you’ve accomplished something nice when you perform. Hopefully if I played for a couple hours, those people enjoyed those couple hours. You get a feeling of accomplishment from that. That’s pretty much it. It’s just something for me that is very normal to do and it’s one thing that I really love doing the most: playing for people. I just can’t wait to get back out there. 

There really is such a give and take between the audience and an artist. The electricity in a concert setting is so magical. I know I can’t wait to get back, so I can’t imagine how you feel.

Yes, like you said, it’s a definite electricity, because if you think about it, I wouldn’t leave my house for anything unless it was important. To go out of your house, to get dressed, go and park, get to the venue, and then hang out, you’re taking a lot of energy to go listen to somebody. Already by doing that, you’ve got expectations going. You naturally give the artists the benefit of the doubt. You want it to be good. That energy, we receive it when we’re playing, because for these people it’s their night. They came out, people with kids got a babysitter, people who have little kids beg come out, and parents let them come to the show. It’s a big night to go to any kind of show, so all of those people’s energy winds up on the stage. Then, I get to use that energy to play and it works. Sometimes you can even be sick. I’ve had the flu – and you know how you feel when you have the flu, you’re dead! But the second you get on the stage, all of those people’s combined energy just comes in there like a shot for those two and a half hours you play. It’s completely normal. Of course, the second you step off the stage, you’re done, but it’s really wild how those people’s energy benefits you. It really means something because to them, they spend time, money, energy, and thought on it. “What’s the show going to be like? What am I going to wear?” Not that my shows are any kind of fashion event in the slightest, but you know what I’m saying. It’s like they have all this thought about it and they’re spending their time being there. I really appreciate that. I’ve received that energy and I cannot wait to feel it again.