Eric Martin’s San Rafael neighbors always have a few choice words for him, when — or if — they see him.
“I’ll be on the road for three months or something,” says the frontman for the recently-reunited Mr. Big, which plays the Fillmore on Friday, backing “What If…,” the band’s new recording.
“I’ll come home and they’ll say, ‘Hey, haven’t seen you mowing your lawn in a long time. So what is it, exactly, that you do?’” says Martin.
His answer — that he’s secretly big in Japan and has to tour and record there several times a year — might sound unbelievable.
“But I am huge over there, and I actually wear that proudly on my sleeve!” he says.
Even with his early-1980s outfit, the Eric Martin Band, the singer’s soulful, whiskey-seasoned style was an instant, inexplicable hit in the Land of the Rising Sun. Ditto for the arena-rocking Mr. Big, which he formed in 1988 with Billy Sheehan, Paul Gilbert and Pat Torpey.
“Right away, Japan just kind of locked onto us,” says Martin. “So we campaigned there for years, playing tiny clubs, making Japan a priority, and we had several live albums we put out from there — ‘Raw Like Sushi,’ ‘1, 2 & 3’ and ‘Live at Budokan.’ But hey — you play dates where people love you, and in Japan it was like a frenzy. Still is.”
When Mr. Big released its 1991 breakthrough “Lean Into It,” Tokyo theaters showed a full-length documentary of its recording in then-new HD. After their breakup in 2002, Martin joined the guitarist from Japanese supergroup B’z in TMG, the Tak Matsumoto Group. He also can be heard in various video games and Asahi commercials.
“I just did one for their new non-alcoholic beer, singing Frankie Valli’s ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,’” he says.
Naturally, when Mr. Big regrouped in 2009, Japanese radio broke the news.
Martin, a boyish 50, will soon return there, stag, in his other unusual incarnation: Mr. Vocalist. A Tokyo Sony executive thought he had the perfect pipes to reinterpret vintage No. 1 ballads by Japanese female pop stars.
“So I don’t know how this worked out, but the first album of me singing chick songs sold over 200,000 copies, and now I’ve done a trilogy, and I’ll be recording all male songs this February,” says Martin, still baffled.
English translation of said lyrics was tough “because their syllables don’t match ours,” Martin says. Nor do the sentiments.
“The premise of these Japanese heartbreak songs was, the guy leaves his girlfriend, marries somebody else, but the girl still holds a torch for him,” he says. “It’s just pathetic!”
IF YOU GO
Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Contact: (415) 346-6000, www.livenation.com