Relive the story of 'Ambitions', one year on.
To celebrate the first anniversary of One Ok Rock's incredible 'Ambitions', we're revisiting their first ever Rock Sound cover feature.
Check it out right here:
It was supposed to be a night off. A chance for One OK Rock frontman Taka Moriuchi to let his hair down, have a drink and actually go out for the first time in what felt like forever. Adored, followed, hassled and instantly recognisable in his homeland of Japan, in late 2016 he headed to Jack Barakat’s bar in Los Angeles – The Riff – for some much needed R&R with the likes of Tyler Carter and Derek DiScanio from State Champs, walking with his head up without worrying about paparazzi or being recognised.
“I went with Jack [Barakat, All Time Low] and Ashton [Irwin, 5 Seconds Of Summer]. It was so fun! I was super drunk…” he chuckles. “Then we moved to the club afterwards and there were so many Japanese people!”
He’d accidentally stumbled upon what must have been the only Asian club night in Los Angeles that evening, and in a flash he’d gone from the anonymous guy in a group of stars to the centre of attention. For the millionth time in his life, all eyes were on him once again. For One OK Rock and Taka especially, adulation is normal.
The son of famous Japanese musicians Shinichi and Masako Mori, Taka was pretty much born to be a star. After a brief spell with boy band NEWS in the early 2000s and inspired by a love of The Used and Linkin Park, he joined a rock band and started to do things his way with One OK Rock.
All of that means he’s less of a celeb in the making and more of a bona fide superstar in Japan already, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he acts.
Back in Los Angeles to film a couple of music videos for songs on new album ‘Ambitions’, catch up with friends and hang out with Rock Sound for the band’s first ever magazine cover outside their home country, One OK Rock roll like a gang rather than the megastar singer-and-the-others some paint them out as.
They’ve played shows in Japan to 110,000 people (across two days), they have an entourage that numbers in the tens, and two videographers capturing their every move for Japanese TV. They made a concert movie that showed not just for one night, but four weeks in cinemas back home. They arrive at today’s photoshoot in three bulky, blacked-out cars, but they act like a much smaller, tight-knit unit.
Taka turns up later than his bandmates – tall, slim guitarist Toru, jacked bassist and youngest member Ryota and quiet, considered drummer Tomo, but makes sure to introduce himself to everyone else in the room, whether that’s the people who own the photo studio or Rock Sound’s snapper. He’s instantly the centre of attention without even trying, clutching circular sunglasses, wearing an almost permanent smile and an oversized Metallica ‘Kill ’Em All’ hoodie that drowns his stick-thin, diminutive figure. He and his bandmates ooze star quality as they reacquaint themselves with their various managers, translators and label execs.
Toru plays with the globe you see in the photo that opened this feature while a stylist tousles his hair. He turns it and hovers over Japan, while his bandmates – and their management team, and all of the other moving parts in the One OK Rock machine – do what they do best: work.
Bags are dumped on the floor, phones and laptops are opened, merch designs are pored over, video edits are scrutinised and recut, and they’ve barely been in the room for 20 minutes.
It’s a buzzing, well-oiled hive of activity (which the band are right in the thick of – you won’t find anyone buried in a MacBook with their headphones on here), and represents a work ethic that’s made them superstars in their homeland – selling millions of albums since their inception back in 2005.
“I can’t really go anywhere,” says Taka when Rock Sound chats to him about what life is like as a superstar back home. “I like it better here.”
“The big difference is in Japan you’re not supposed to be photographed with your girlfriend, and things like that. There are so many strict rules about paparazzi and what you have to be careful about, but it’s not like that in Europe and America, so it’s more of an open thing. It’s not as bad.
“In Japan I always have to look down when I walk, so it’s a simple pleasure looking up and walking around.”
But then again, being huge was the plan all along.
“We had just one dream – to reach the top of the world,” recalls Taka when we talk about the early days of his band. He speaks partly in English, partly through Jamil, the band’s translator and Stateside ‘dad’.
“Japanese bands don’t spread through the music world, and now I want to do that – I have to. I want to see everything, and make One OK Rock fans all over the world. That was our dream at the start, and it’s still that.”
To do that, they looked West, and to where pretty much every band in our scene finds out what they’re made of: Warped Tour.
Following in the footsteps of the bands they list when they talk about their favourite music – the likes of The Used, Sum 41 and Good Charlotte – they headed over to the U.S. for a run on the tour that makes and breaks bands.
“Japan is an island country. You have to be really open-minded and open to take over the world,” says Taka in a softly spoken tone that belies his mighty singing voice. “It wasn’t really in our personalities as much. We’re trying to change that.”
At the beginning, it was lonely. A non-English speaking band on the most sociable, community-driven tour in our scene, there were moments when they’d have been forgiven for wondering if they should just pack up and go home. In contrast to their all-conquering celebrity-rock-superstar-and-anything-else-they-wanted-to-be status in their homeland, they were anonymous.
“You feel super alone,” Taka explains. “We couldn’t speak English, we weren’t friends with any American bands and it makes you feel sad. But music has a power, so every time we did a show the music reached more people, we made more friends with different bands and started to feel glad that we came here.”
“The touring style is so different in the West to what it is in Japan,” adds Tomo. “But the more we did it – as hard as it was [compared to what it is], we got a return from it.”
“We don’t have tour buses in Japan!” Taka jumps in. “The streets are pretty tiny, so we’re all on bullet trains and cars instead. Sometimes buses are super bumpy so I can’t sleep a lot…”
“And there’s the dry air…” shrugs a grimmacing Toru.
But slowly, surely, they put themselves out there, embraced a scene that was completely alien to them and made friends.
“Japanese people are naturally shy, so it’s really hard to have a conversation with people who speak English,” says Taka. “We’re getting used to it, but sometimes if we go back to Japan for a long time and then come back, that shyness comes back…
“A regular Japanese person is kind of inward, so if we come over we’re looked at differently,” he continues. “But our whole mindset was to come to America and be outward... When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
The first people to reach out to them when they did edge out of their comfort zone on that Warped Tour? Without missing a beat, all four members shout, “Issues!”
“The first time I met Taka and the One OK Rock bunch at Warped Tour, they were the most timid and polite group of dudes I’d ever encountered,” gushes Issues vocalist Tyler Carter. “It was my understanding that One OK Rock was a phenomenal act, but I hadn’t witnessed them personally yet. I just knew from the get go that they were good people, and though shy, they had an undeniably good energy to them. Throughout Warped Tour we became damn near inseparable. It was a way deeper connection than music. They became some of our best friends.”
It wasn’t just about hitting it off with kindred spirits though. There was a fire and determination in the band’s eyes on stage that caught Tyler’s imagination as well.
“When we saw them perform, even on a small scale stage, [you could see that] for them it was no different from playing to one hundred thousand screaming fans, which they do [at home]. I knew then, that no matter where they’ve come from, these dudes are going to reach great heights in America. Their charm is going to make sure of that, because good people deserve good things.”
Slowly, other bands and the music industry as a whole started to catch on. They were booked for Download Festival and toured the UK with We Came As Romans – even though they had no idea many fans were waiting for them until they got off the tour bus (spoiler: it was a lot).
“We went into Europe not knowing what was coming, and were really surprised with what happened,” smiles Taka.
“After seeing that [reaction], we want to reach more people here. People who really love rock music.”
And they will. For new English-language album ‘Ambitions’, they’ve recruited some of the most forward-thinking bands in (and out) of our scene in a brave, bold, unique combination of awesome Western and Japanese music.
Take guest vocalist and huge-in-Japan popstar Avril Lavigne, for example.
“We did an interview with her, and then we did some touring with 5 Seconds Of Summer. In Canada, Ashton invited her to the show and we met backstage. She realised we’d met before, and I showed her some music demos. She likes Japan, and we exchanged Instagrams and kept in touch.”
And as for fellow guest stars 5 Seconds Of Summer?
“We met at [super-producer] John Feldmann’s studios, and he introduced us all. They took us on tour, and we got really close. We’re so thankful for that. Bringing out some guys from Japan on a nationwide tour? That’s a big deal!
“For bands that are already established to take a chance on us and bring us out on tour, it’s a big step,” adds Taka. “So from day one, we have to give it our all.”
The personalities they’d so rapidly developed on Warped helped them fit in with bands like All Time Low and Sleeping With Sirens on tour as well as in the studio. A lot. Whether it was Taka’s agreeable nature, Ryota’s idiosyncratic grasp of the English language or the humbling effect of having stadium-filling superstars boarding the bus for a celebratory beer, One OK Rock blended in fast.
How? Well, they worked for it. They still do. Jamil is teaching the whole band English throughout the day we spend with them, with Taka in particular stopping him mid-flow to clarify words and pronunciation.
When Ryota speaks for a couple of sentences about how he was inspired by Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers, the rest of the quartet all gasp and chuckle – it’s the most English he’s spoken in one go.
Even English-speaking bands sometimes switch off in interviews, and it’s telling that Toru, Ryota and Tomo listen intently, even when their bandmate talks in English they can’t quite follow. They’re respectful, they’re interested and what’s more, they’re working. If they are doing as the Romans do, they’re taking it all pretty damn seriously.
Well, sort of seriously. Over to All Time Low frontman and former touring buddy Alex Gaskarth.
“I have very fond memories of learning to ride those stupid hoverboards with Ryota and Toru in a parking lot somewhere in middle America,” he chuckles. “We were probably a little bit intoxicated…”
“I was drinking with Jack from All Time Low this one time,” begins Toru, picking up the theme. “He loves Sake. We got drunk, and the next day I had the worst hangover. Fucked up.”
Even if they were so keen to ingratiate themselves that Tomo – who is the least inclined to drink out of the foursome – ended up hungover a lot of the time on that tour (which he still seems to have mixed feelings about to this day), they made friends for life and continued embracing those forward-thinking enough to see this band were going places.
“My favourite story with Taka and the boys is when we took them on our tour in America last year,” recalls Tyler. “It was Taka’s birthday, and I’m not sure if those guys had ever been day-drunk. I took them out for brunch and bottomless mimosas. I think that One OK Rock’s team, even their higher up guys, have always loved mine and Taka’s friendship, but that day may have shaken their faith in my influence! We literally had the best day of our lives though. We were just wild and fun all day. I think I even crashed their meet and greet and posed as the fifth, American member of One OK Rock!”
It seems the band’s humility, ambition and the straight-up effort that they put into everything they do is becoming impossible to ignore, though.
“I honestly feel that they’re taking the Western World by force,” says Alex Gaskarth. “Sometimes bands have a hard time crossing over from a non-English speaking country into the English speaking parts of the world, and it seems to me like One OK Rock are doing a damn good job of making the transition. In my opinion, they’re doing it the right way by getting in front of passionate crowds and building a grass-roots fan base for themselves in these ‘newer’ markets.
“All Time Low are not exactly what I’d consider a mainstream act right now, and we’ve had to do the same thing in places like Japan. I think it’s really beneficial for bands to embrace and support one another like this, and help each other grow naturally in foreign places. Their music holds up really well, whether Taka’s singing in Japanese or English, so I think that really helps.”
And now, Taka and his bandmates are becoming an integral part of a scene that’s birthed arena-beaters like All Time Low and Bring Me The Horizon, and dreaming of touring with the likes of Don Broco, Biffy Clyro and Mallory Knox. They’re not just playing to Japanese expat communities in big cities, they play big shows to people from all over.
“We’ve seen it now, we know how it’s done,” says Taka. “Now we want to do it ourselves.”
How do they do that? Well, in 2015 they released their first English language album (and seventh in total) ‘35xxxv’, which featured Sleeping With Sirens’ Kellin Quinn and Tyler Carter, to test their stock in the Western world. Then, Taka added guest vocals to Against The Current track ‘Dreaming Alone’ and the Japanese version of Sum 41’s new album ‘13 Voices’, to get their name out there further still.
That was a start, but now ‘Ambitions’ is the culmination of their work in the West, and an album that’s set to turn this band into so much more than guest vocalists and friends-of-successful bands. The best bit? It was more fun to make than ever.
“For Japan, it almost seems like a process, about how hard you work in order to make the music, and the person that works the hardest gets the most reward,” explains Taka.
“In America and Europe, it seems to come naturally. It seems like it’s more authentic.”
Holed up in the basement of their shared house in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, the band worked with producers like 5SOS collaborator Colin Brittain and the UK’s own Dan Lancaster to create ‘Ambitions’. It’s a lithe, expansive, and well, ambitious album with its sights set on catapulting the quartet to international superstardom.
And what an album it is. A big block of cohesive, commercial, arena-ready anthems that are practically begging to be plastered all over U.S. rock radio and played on bigger and bigger festival stages, thanks in no small part to a unique charm and charisma that shines through any language barrier.
“There can be a period of anything up to a few hours to several days of getting to know each other personally and creatively,” says Dan. “Ideally you want this to be over as quickly as possible and get straight into being comfortable around one another. That is when the best music starts being made. With Taka and I, we did really well. After about half an hour, great melodies started coming together and those would eventually make up the chorus to ‘Taking Off’.”
“For me, being in another country makes making music easier,” says Taka. “Sometimes you want to go out in your pyjamas, sometimes you want to go out and get drunk and yell at someone. Those small things that I can’t do in Japan, I’m able to do overseas and it helps making music easier. We’re musicians, after all…”
There’s a reason why One OK Rock have been so successful in Asia, and there’s a reason – one that pretty much everyone Rock Sound speaks to has picked up on – why they can afford to have such a huge team pushing them forward, why they’ve sold millions of albums before any of the band have reached the age of 30 and why they’re set for an equally meteoric rise in the West. Put simply, Taka, Toru, Ryota and Tomo are hell-bent on success.
“What I love most about them is how down to Earth and focused they all are,” confirms Alex Gaskarth. “They’re a really big, really well established band in many parts of the world, but when they come to the UK, or the States, they do an amazing job of adapting and realising that there’s still some work to be done and room to grow. It’s not often that you see a band able to make that transition, and I think it says a lot about who they are as people.”
It certainly does, and every member stresses that they want to pay forward the kindness that the likes of All Time Low, 5SOS and Issues have shown them.
“The guys have always been extremely humble considering that in Japan, and much of the world, the band is absolutely massive. They’re also really kind, sweet dudes,” Alex adds.
“We had an absolute blast with them on our tour in the States, and they were always inviting us onto their bus for a beer after the show. When we opened up for them in Japan the tables were turned, and they showed us the best time, taking us to a bunch of places we’d never been before, and really taking great care of us.”
“Taka and I have become closer since he has been spending more time in Los Angeles,” says his All Time Low cohort, Jack Barakat. “It’s been rad getting to know him better!”
That love-in is a two-way street and speaks to a bond that’s only going to grow stronger the more this band push themselves to the top of their game.
“We don’t just want to get things from other bands and say goodbye. We want to reciprocate it – even more than what we’ve been given, if we can. That’s the Japanese style,” nods Taka.
“There’s not so many people in Japan the same age and trying the same thing as us, so we want to do as much as we can.”
It’s a cliché, but it really is nice to be nice, and respecting others regardless of who is a household name in their home country is paying off for One OK Rock, and Taka in particular. They’re respected by their peers, and that respect has already started paying off in the form of tours, partnerships and widespread attention.
“Taka is honestly like a brother to me,” adds Tyler Carter. “And it’s hard to find true friends in this industry. When you meet someone who you connect with on a level that surpasses the language barrier, or music, or business, and it just boils down to a pure understanding of the other person in regards to life, compassion, honesty, and heart... it’s not a friendship that can ever be torn. Taka and I mentor each other like we are blood, and One OK Rock’s legacy is one that should be noticed by all cultures of the world.”
It’s a legacy that in relative terms is only just being created in the Western world, but its impact is already impossible to deny.
“There comes a point where you just can’t ignore the fanbase,” says Dan Lancaster. “We are talking about something quite colossal in Asia for One OK Rock. Their success so far over there has forced the Western music industry to sit up and take notice, and when the music is as good as this, it makes sense.”
They’re not just motivated by success outside of their native Japan however. By replicating their achievements at home across the globe, One OK Rock aim to take great pride in helping to establish that there’s more where they came from, and for the rest of the world to finally catch on.
“We want it to be known that there’s a Japanese rock scene,” insists Taka, brow furrowed and more animated than he’s been all day. “If you ask someone if they know a Japanese rock band, there’s not a lot of people who could give you a name. We want to create knowledge that there is good music coming out of Japan.”
‘Out of Japan’ is an interesting way of phrasing it. With his band about to take on the wider world – even playing their album release shows in the U.S. rather than their homeland – are they at risk of alienating their original fans?
“At our most recent shows in Japan we played to 110,000 people across two days,” says Taka. “If they’re real fans, they’ll be back. Even if we go away, we let them know what we’re doing, and when we go back a core of fans will still be there. For the people that say, ‘We’re not your fans any more’, we want to make them regret missing out.”
So what happens if (and more than likely when) their masterplan works? When One OK Rock blow up across the globe, can Taka cope with never being able to have a quiet life, wherever he’s living? Revelling in the current, relative anonymity of Los Angeles, he doesn’t sound like he wants to go back to looking at the ground whenever he leaves the house again. But as he explains, he wouldn’t have to. In fact, he’d be walking with his head held higher than ever.
“For me, the focus isn’t the fame, it’s what the fame is for,” he says. “If the way that I live matches the lifestyle I have, that’s what’s important.”
And in case you think One OK Rock (and Rock Sound, for that matter) are all talk, know that they’re taking cues from the very best.
“I was in a shoe store in Hawaii, and a Twenty One Pilots’ music video came on,” says Taka. “I was like, ‘Who is this?’ This was before they got really big. As soon as I saw the music video, I was like, ‘These guys are going to be huge.’ We totally respect Tyler [Joseph] and Josh [Dun] as artists, so we brought them out to open for us in Japan.
“Because they’ve gotten big, it gave me confidence that I know what people like and what’s able to sell.”
He pauses, looks around at each of his bandmates and smiles.
“Now it’s our turn.”
'Ambitions' is out now via Fueled By Ramen.
This feature is taken from Issue 223 of Rock Sound magazine. Get back issues over at shop.rocksound.tv.