Dark and Provocative

Japanese underground sensation Dir en grey is the very definition of a cult band.

Its albums and singles frequently chart in its homeland despite
relatively little mainstream exposure, due to a positively rabid
following that buys everything it releases on pre-order. Tickets to its
concerts sell out so fast that fans have to resort to buying them on
Yahoo auctions. Its followers in America camp out overnight in front of
concert venues just to get a spot close to the stage. More than ten
years into its career, Dir en grey still inspires a sort of hormonal
adolescent reaction that’s usually associated with boy bands —
although musically it couldn’t be further from such territory.

In terms of style they’re hard to pin down. Even guitarist and
unofficial spokesman Kaoru can’t seem to do it, stating that they’re a
hard rock band, but they’re not quite sure which specific category they
fit into. Singer Kyo writes all the lyrics, but all five members write
the music, and that clash of varying tastes and styles is a big part of
what keeps Dir en grey interesting. “We try to focus on each
individual, and we focus our minds on the tension of our performances,”
said Kaoru. “We’re putting emphasis on how we can create a mood on the
stage individually one by one.” With a back catalog that features
metal, punk, hard rock, some lovely acoustic-driven ballads, a few
pretty pop songs, and even a string section and a chorus of singing
children on “Ain’t Afraid to Die,” the band has always been
stylistically diverse and it seems to like it that way.

And then there are the visuals. Clearly influenced by the Japanese
ero-guro movement, which blends the creepy and the erotic to create
disturbingly memorable images, Dir en grey’s videos are part of what
initially brought them into the public eye. Over the last few years the
members have abandoned the cross-dressing and unnaturally bright hair
of their youth, but they continue to use imagery to complement and
enhance the mood of their songs.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Dir en grey is that it’s them, rather
than more mainstream Japanese artists like Glay or Utada Hikaru, that
have have made the biggest impact on this side of the ocean. In terms
of ticket or record sales, Dir en grey is unquestionably the
eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the J-rock scene in America. It’s an
interesting phenomenon built mostly on the backs of a devoted hardcore
audience; long before Dir en grey actually toured America, it had a
substantial presence on the Internet, created not by the band but by
its fans. While a number of other Japanese bands do small American
tours covering only a handful of cities, mostly for PR purposes and to
create goodwill among its American fans, Dir en grey does full national
tours that actually make money. Only experimental rockers Boris
experience a similar level of success.

The band itself seems to have been totally unprepared to see its
Japanese fandom replicate itself in America. “We didn’t know what the
reaction of the fans in the US would be, and once we got here we were
surprised how many dedicated fans there were,” said Kaoru. The reaction
is quite something to witness. Dir en grey’s fans are so devoted it’s
almost frightening, their relationship to the band an odd mix of
identification with dark emotions that are usually shoved politely out
of sight and sheer lust, because they are, after all, an unusually
good-looking band. That tension between the band and its mostly female
fanbase is reinforced by a savvy marketing machine that puts out a
constant stream of images and promotional videos, but never enough to
oversaturate.

As a result, America has become a regular part of Dir en grey’s
touring schedule. The band’s first full solo tour in 2007 was a shot in
the dark but ultimately paid off. Still, the members refuse to
categorize themselves and stubbornly hold to their own unique vision.
“I think each person has a different perception about our music,” said
Karou.

Dark and disturbing, weird and deliberately provocative, Dir en grey
isn’t quite like any other current band. The pretty faces don’t exactly
hurt, but it’s their uniqueness that’s really put them on the map. As
Kaoru sums it up, “If I was to explain my band, I’d say it’s a dramatic
rock band that has a lot of emotion in it.”

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