by Sylvie Simmons
He was the sensitive soul who fronted south London’s dodgiest glam-rockers, the World’s Most Lovely Man who chose tortured sainthood, pop’s preening popinjay who reinvented himself as a darling of the avant-garde. “I’m damaged goods,” he tells Sylvie Simmons.
He is already there when I arrive, sitting alone on a bench at a long communal picnic table, looking decidedly not like a local: neat white shirt, black leather jacket, pale English face framed by short, dark, greying hair, the only thing to detract from the monochrome effect a scrub of reddish beard. A slim, delicate-looking man with spare, almost feminine movements, he’s feeding his cake to a flock of starlings. The sweet, pained smile adds to the effect of tortured sainthood.
Sylvian does not like interviews; he’s the first musician I’ve met who’s tried negotiating less magazine space if it would make me stop asking him questions. Especially questions about the past — plasterer’s son from Lewisham, Japan’s pin-up frontman…all the transitions that brought him to where he is today, a respected, blond-wedge-haircut-free solo musician living just down the road in the Napa Valley with his American wife and their two daughters, his guru close at hand.
It’s an extraordinary if not an entirely new story — there have always been artists who embrace the tragedy rather than the glory of pop. Nutshelled, Sylvian’s band Japan — loathed by the critics, loved by teenage girls — fought like demons to get anywhere, and when they got there and actually became good, Sylvian broke it up. He hated being “the most beautiful man in pop”, hated touring, hated having hit records. Not a great career choice, then. He chucked it in, scrubbed off the make-up and became a troubled recluse, a spiritual seeker, and re-emerged as a serious, complex solo artist with links to the art, jazz and avant-garde worlds. A musicians’ musician (counting among his fans, friends and/or collaborators Holger Czukay, Robert Fripp, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jon Hassell, Bill Nelson, Kenny Wheeler, Marc Ribot, classical composer John Tavener, artist Russell Mills) and critic’s fave. From no cred to total cred. Cf. Scott Walker.
Walker and Sylvian, oddly, once planned to collaborate. It was 1990, Sylvian had sent him a song he’d written “that I thought would suit his voice. He asked to meet up. We chatted and he said he didn’t want to record just the one song, how about recording an album together as two vocalists? It didn’t strike me as a wonderful idea and I didn’t think either of us believed for one second that anything was going to happen, and it didn’t. We tried. But Scott’s so evasive. After being in touch for a number of months I decided to get on with other work…I think we have very different mind-sets,” he uses, gazing at the birds swooping down into the valley. “But we’re probably both damaged goods.”
“I was overly sensitive,” David says, approaching the past with discomfort. “I found the environment rather brutal. I wanted to protect myself from it. I was and am very shy — cripplingly shy as a child — so I’d spend a lot of time alone. Drawing and painting were my outlet at the time. We didn’t listen to much music in the house. We didn’t have a stereo. My dad used to repair this one wireless we had — once a year it used to work for 24 hours then break down again, but I remember music coming out of that old radio: ‘Ticket To Ride’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, the first things that hit me as being just an amazing sound.
“My brother and I had these little toy guitars when we were around five or six and I would play them until I had blisters on my fingers. I just loved music, even though I really had no introduction to it. The next step in my musical education was when my sister, who’s three years older, started bringing Motown records home. Then, when I was around 12, I got a guitar. That was it for me. Straight away I started writing my own songs — pretty folky, all strummed on two chords. Steve was getting into music too, percussion, so we’d play together, non-stop.”
At Catford Boys School, David hung out with Anthony Michaelides (Mick Karn) — a virtuoso bassoonist until skinheads stole his bassoon and he switched to bass. They bonded over music — glam for the most part; the first record David bought was T.Rex’s ‘Telegram Sam’. Aged 14, David, Mick and Steve dyed their hair and turned up to school in make-up. Their classmates promptly beat the shit out of them.
“It was a disguise, a mask to hide behind,” says David, overlooking the possibility that camping it up in a south-east London comprehensive is more like hiding behind a target. “It was never an expression of who I was. The mask was pretty dense in the early days and the whole life of Japan could be seen as a process of me stripping it away. But it’s very unhealthy — a means of survival only, which is no way to live. The music was a mask as well. It says nothing about how I was, other than I was hiding, trying desperately to be anything but myself. Just because I thought that was the only way I could survive.”
The school finally suggested David might want to leave and so he did, at 16, with no qualifications and “no other option” than music. By that time the three masked men had morphed into a band, with Mick, the most musically proficient, as frontman. ‘We would spend days and days rehearsing my songs,” David recalls. “We had a place above a shop we’d go to every night. We were committed. And it was the only open door on the horizon — I knew that I had to get out of that environment and that creating music was my only means of escape. Which is no good reason for making music — there aren’t that many noble ideas in a young boy’s mind, ha ha — but at that time it didn’t matter.”
They looked like a Lewisham New York Dolls (long dyed hair, dodgy trousers, leopard-skin jackets) and sounded somewhere between Bowie, Roxy and Sweet. “We didn’t hide our influences,” David explains. “Maybe we didn’t digest them enough before they surfaced in our own work. But we were all self-taught — though that’s also the strength of the band, a greater desire to experiment to overcome one’s personal limitations as musicians.” By the end of their first public appearance — at a wedding — Mick had stepped down as singer and Avid had the job. “When we got there he was too afraid to stand up front and sing. I was completely afraid; I didn’t think I could do it. But they were my sons — I knew them, so I started singing.”
The trio expanded to a five-piece the following year after running into old schoolmate Richard Barbieri and finding lead guitarist Rob Dean through an ad in Melody Maker. Their name supposedly came from a travel brochure found on the bus on the way to their first gig. David hates it. But then, he seems to hate almost everything about Japan. “I don’t know why David wants to reject his past,” says Simon Napier-Bell, “though there are so many artist that do — look at [later client] George Michael and Wham! They have to pretend it was all awful and childish. But Japan was a fantastic group and it was a fantastic time.” They found Napier-bell through another MM classified ad.
“He walked down Wigmore Street,” Napier-Bell recalls of the first meeting, ‘and I thought, What a fantastic looking guy. Half Marilyn Monroe, half Mick Jagger. He wasn’t at all effeminate — he was really rather chunky-limbed, he just managed to make himself look very pretty. I’d been in Spain and France for years so I didn’t realise the rest of teenage London didn’t look like that. I took him into the studio and he sang some songs and I said, Brilliant, I’ll sign him. Then he said, ‘I’ve got a group and my brother’s in it and Mick’s waiting downstairs’ — Mick looked almost identical, both had orange hair down to their waist. You couldn’t meet the others and not want to sign the group.”
Their early shows “were really not good. David’s songs rambled and got nowhere. I decided the only way they’d ever get an audience was if they compromised and played other people’s songs too. We put together a 40-minute set — ‘This Old Heart Of Mine’, then one of David’s, ‘I Shot The Sheriff’, one of David’s. It was sensational — in those days David had his Road Stewart voice, his first-album voice, and they did these other numbers with fantastic style.”
The record companies didn’t agree and the band stayed deal-less. Until Hansa — the German stable that gave us Boney M — set up shop in London; you might recall all those billboards proclaiming their arrival. Hansa held a win-a-deal talent contest. According to legend, The Cure won but scared the label off with the first song they recorded on their demo money, ‘Killing An Arab’, Enter Japan. Prior to singing (part two of the “mask”) the three core members changed their names to Karn, Jansen and Sylvian (the last two allegedly not inspired by the Dolls’ Johansen and Sylvain). Japan’s early demos were a dense brew of turgid heavy rock and funk. Hansa gave them staff producer Steve Roland (Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich) who gave them female backing singers. They were swiftly ousted, as was Roland, replaced by Ray Singer (The Easybeats).
“They had a really good feel,” says Singer. “I tried to record what they were doing live in rehearsals — very much a rock band with that great bass sound of Mick’s; I think because his background was Greek Cyrpiot or something, you get this weird wnnn wnnn wnnn in the bass-playing — a real oriental sound, unlike anything I’d heard before. Those sessions were lots of fun — they had a great sense of humour.” Something you might not expect from their poker-faced public image, but Napier-Bell concurs: “In 35 years I’ve never managed anyone who so amused me — intimately friendly with each other and so much laughing. But David had this image for Japan that was not what they were about. He would not let them be fun in front of people or on-stage or in interviews. He was a real dictator.”
Sylvian’s memories are of feeling “very lost. We’d been signed about a year and hadn’t been given the freedom to make a record. We’d been demoing away, trying to please everybody else with what kind of music we should be making and it would change on a weekly basis — whatever was happening. Nobody was happy with anything — we weren’t, the record label weren’t. it was atrocious. When we finally were allowed to make a record, we just had this pile of material that had been kicking around for years and a lot of the good stuff had been dropped along the way because it supposedly wasn’t commercial enough. The first album ended up a mishmash, a caricature of whatever and whomever.”
Napier-Bell, meanwhile, was pulling out the stops to get the band press. He tried the lot: Oriental name angle (sumo wrestler cabs around to the rock mags delivering sake); androgynous image angle (the ad where David pulled open his jacket to reveal fake breasts); the gorgeous bloke angle. After a three-month campaign, the Japanese bit, the group were stars in their namesake country, with 30,000 girls in their fan club before the first album was even released.
A first single appeared in early ’78, a few weeks after David’s 20th birthday: a cover of Barbra Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’, performed in the style of punks with PMT. It died horribly — not a great precursor for debut album Adolescent Sex, which died too. But then the competition had been fierce: The Clash’s debut and the Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks to name just two. Critics slammed them. All “paint, powder and poofy hairdos”, said Melody Maker. “The make-up,” says Napier-Bell, “really only started a year and a half into my managing them. I think their girlfriends taught them. Before that it was just a bit of a game — slap on a bit here and there and they’d look like clowns. I took that as David just not being able to wait to be a star — putting on lipstick and eye-shadow because if you get on the train from Lewisham covered in make-up, everyone’s going to look at you.”
Booed off stage on their UK tour, bottled off opening for Blue Oyster Cult, they left for the States — where they were ignored. I met David there for the first time, 20 years ago, interviewing Japan by the roof-top pool of the Los Angeles Hyatt House — Sunset Strip’s legendary ‘Riot House’ rock’n’roll hotel. Following David’s directive to the letter, they sat far apart on separate sunloungers, exuding ennui and disdain. David looked particularly unhappy. He didn’t like America. He was already beginning to dislike touring. His white make-up was starting to run in the heat.
A follow-up, Obscure Alternatives, was released at the end of the year. “The second album, I was trying to make sense of the first album,” says David, who by now had begun writing on keyboards. “Both of them were miserable failures artistically and we were just lost. We didn’t know which way to turn. That’s when we first began to think maybe we should just call it quits, because something had gone terribly wrong and we didn’t know how to put it to rights.
“There was a lot more hard rock in the beginning — I think that was Rob Dean’s influence which we just got caught up in. Richard and I were totally into electronics.”
Ray Singer: “On the second album what David wanted was something much more electronic — this was before samples and emulators and all that. He’d heard Bowie and wanted that sound. But I was going more fore the real sound they were making at the time, which was a rock band. I think that pissed him off. I don’t think they’d really found their own direction. They were still looking for it.”
Huge in Japan, though. “They were mobbed,” says Napier-Bell. “Thirteen-year-old girls mostly, though they kept that audience for five or six years until those girls grew up, which is unusual. But, amazingly, the band stayed incredibly ordinary. They didn’t really go for the hedonistic pleasures of pop stardom at all. I suppose there was the odd drug here and there, but they stayed very down-to-earth.”
Sylvian: “The first time going to Japan and experiencing that rush as a 20-year-old guy was a lot of fun. The second time, it wore off. But it was the only place paying the bills. We could play there and eat for the rest of the year. If it wasn’t for Japan we would have broken up.” The groupies?” “I’ve never done that. I’ve always been too shy.” Coming back from a Japanese tour in ’79 he “holed up in an apartment with Richard and played around with electronics, programming synths for hours on end just to see what would happen, seeing where we could go with the next album. Because we knew that the shift had to take place if we wanted to stay together.”
Meanwhile, Hansa had come up with the idea that they meet disco producer/writer Giorgio Moroder, and David flew to LA with the demos for album number three. “I thought, Why not? We nicknamed him Clouseau because he had that [Pink Panther] persona about him. We knocked ‘Life In Tokyo’ off in a day.” The single, a change in direction, came out in May ’79 on rising-sun red vinyl — and flopped.
Exit Singer; enter Bryan Ferry’s producer John Punter. With the band now dropped by their US label, Napier-Bell was seriously in debt. The band, perversely, were quite chipper as they set to work on Quiet Life. “A turning point for the band” says David. “I took control. The doors were closed in the studio, nobody was allowed to listen to what we were doing. We were isolated — and much happier with the results. At the same time, I was feeling more comfortable, allowing more of myself to show through in the music. I don’t think we should have released those first two albums. It’s unfortunate you grow up in public.” The album flirted with the Top 50, but the band were still losing money and Hansa was quibbling about a fourth album.
Meanwhile, the band appeared live with their new image — smart togs, super-styled hair. Virgin Records, who must have thought they’d nabbed the queens of the budding New Romantic scene, signed them. The elegant Gentlemen Take Polaroids marked the first collaboration (‘Taking Islands In Africa’) between David and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto, who’d first met when the latter interviewed the former in Tokyo for a Japanese magazine. Ryuichi: “We became like longtime friends in five minutes. David is delicate, patient, deep-thinking and strong.”
At last a Top 50 album act, for the first time Japan looked less alone, with glam synth-pop bands sprouting up everywhere. Duran Duran asked Sylvian to produce their album; he declined. Determined to stay an outsider, he also distanced Japan from the New Romantics, with whom they shared a love of new technology, Berlin-era Bowie, emotional detachment and a mix of minimalism and melodrama. Meanwhile, the World’s Most Beautiful Man press campaign was launched. And the album was big in Japan.
Suddenly, in 1981, they had a Top 20 single — a remixed old Hansa song, ‘Quiet Life’. Japan found themselves on Top Of The Pops, and career schizophrenia set in. From the summer on, Japan had a string of hits — alternate Hansa and Virgin releases. “It all charted in a mismatched, non-consecutive fashion,” sighs Sylvian. “It was awful. You felt you’d left something behind and suddenly it was doing better in the charts than the thing you were working on.” That thing was fifth album Tin Drum. Produced by Penguin Café Orchestra’s Steve Nye, it heralded a new direction with its world music influences and hypnotic orchestration. The strange, beautiful ‘Ghosts’ went Top 5. The album went gold. But by this time the band didn’t care.
“The year we were the most successful we’d broken up. By the time Tin Drum was released, the decision to stop had more or less been made. There was a lot of animosity. No official announcement had been made — we’d just get together for the odd TV or photo shoot. It was very…” he reaches for the right word, “…odd. I think just about all of us would have been happy to just walk away from the whole thing.” Rob Dean had already quit over “musical differences”; there wasn’t much room now for a lead guitar.
But the biggie was the Yoko Factor. “Mick was living with [Japanese photographer] Yuka,” says Napier-Bell, “and one day he wakes up and she’s across the road sleeping with David.”
“It has absolutely nothing to do with that,” says Sylvian, more weary than angry. “Her relationship with Mick was already over. We were recording Tin Drum and Mick just wasn’t turning up for those sessions — he was demo’ing work for a solo career, which was OK but we hadn’t talked it over as a band. We had this common agreement that we’d put all our energies into the group, so I gave Mick the ultimatum: if you want a solo career, let’s break the band up. He said, ‘I’d like to keep the group going as well’ — a safety net, and that didn’t feel right.
“I’d written ‘Ghosts’, which signalled a path for me, but that kind of material didn’t interest the band, with the exception of Richard. Steve and Mick wanted to work with more uptempo pieces. So I thought, I’m ready to move on, Mick’s ready to do his solo work, why not stop? Japan was a burden. There was this constant pressure on me to write a new album, I didn’t want to tour — the band loved touring. I thought I could live without all of this and just see what happens. I was quite resigned to the fact that I might stop making music completely.”
It was, says Napier-Bell, “devastating. After six years I’d finally broken this group — and they’re breaking up. I called them together and said that if they all wanted solo careers the best way of doing it was as a member of a group, and not to say they were breaking up. After six months of not recording since they were not talking, I persuaded them — I suppose because they’d run out of money — to do one more tour and they agreed. I was convinced that if they did the tour the music and the original companionship would have a stronger hold than the fight, and they’d come back together again. The tour sold out. On the opening night I went backstage and David had brought Yuka into the dressing room. And I thought, That really is a way of saying I don’t want to go on. Yet they played fantastically, better than ever — even up ‘til the last night I thought, They can’t break up, it has to go on. The last show in Japan [December ‘82] we even dropped pingpong balls on the stage in the last number — the opposite to anything David would ever accept — but he laughed and smiled. It was extraordinary.”
Thus Japan — a band whose career was never so becoming as when they knocked it on the head.
This was when the Sylvian Becomes Recluse stories began. With Japan still in the news in ’83 (Virgin and Hansa continued to release records), Sylvian found his face blazed over The Sun after a minor car accident with the headline, “World’s Most Lovely Man In Scar Horror”. The real reason for the low profile was a necessary period of artistic hibernation: “I was trying to find a means of writing that was more direct, less coded, and that took a while. After ‘Ghosts’ I didn’t want to hide behind anything anymore, but it didn’t come naturally to open up and make myself that vulnerable. So I was writing and abandoning material for a year or so.” Then Ryuichi Sakamoto sent him some film music he’d written for Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence that needed lyrics. “It opened a door. I thought OK, I’m ready, and I started writing Brilliant Trees.”
Released in June 1984 (and later to go Top 5), this accomplished, lovely album featured former Stockhausen student/Can member Holger Czukay, double-bassist Danny Thompson, Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler — not names you’d expect in a pop pin-up’s address book. “I was kind of naive. I just didn’t want to work with session pros who spend their life giving rather sterile performances and I thought the only solution was to draw on the references from my own listening pleasure. When I wrote Brilliant Trees I heard Jon’s trumpet in there so it was, Can somebody contact Jon Hassell and ask if he would do that? And he said yes.” The jazz input was Yuka’s influence. “She had an enormous collection. It opened my eyes and became an obsession.”
Holger Czukay didn’t know much about Sylvian when he got his call. “I thought Japan was a group of beauties searching for a hit by fashionable hairstyles. Wasn’t too much of a fascination at the beginning, I must admit. I preferred them later. They seemed to prefer playing in an integrative way and not so much as solo heroes, allowing the music to develop its secrets.” He was intrigued enough to participate. “The more I worked with David the more I found out I had a real versatile artist as a partner, and on top of it one with true human character.”
“I wasn’t looking for credibility through working with these musicians or trying to live off the glory of their names,” says Sylvian. He continued to collaborate — with Ryuichi, Czukay, Wheeler, Jansen and Robert Fripp on a documentary soundtrack, Steel Cathedrals; with Czukay, Hassell, Jansen and Percy Jones on Alchemy: An Index of Possibilities; with Hassell under the title Words With The Shanman, hypnotic, experimental music, not made for burning up the charts. But Sylvian liked experimenting.
Czukay recalls working on David’s second album, Gone To Earth. “We were in Pete Townshend’s studio, and I set up my ‘dictatorphone’, an old humming IBM device from the ‘50s. David and the engineer were sitting for about one hour in the control room — silent. I tried to get that machine to work properly but didn’t succeed. At the end I said, I think we should change my instrument, and over the intercom they said, ‘No, Holger, we want that.’ They were not only British gentlemen, they even understood the quality of garbage in a digital age.”
After two more solo albums in a similar vein, Sylvian stopped. “In 1988 I started having some problems that took me away from music. I lost my focus. I stopped writing. I’d never really suffered from depression, but I found myself in a trough — the ending of certain relationships in my life, the beginning of new ones — and it took me a long time to see my way out. I threw myself into collaboration to get a different perspective. I went through analysis as well — something I had to be talked into, but it really did help. Everything began to fall into place.” Collaborations during the next three years included singles/EPs with Ryuichi, Robert Fripp, Virginia Astley and, somewhat surprisingly, Mick Karn, music for the ballet The Stigma Of Childhood (Kin), plus two albums with Czukay, and with Russell Mills, the artist-musician he first met in ’83.
Mills, who’d done sleeves for Eno and Harold Budd, recalls dragging an apprehensive-looking Sylvian down to his local (“You have to remember he’d been in a pop band since he was about 15 and had subsequently led a relatively sheltered, unreal life”) and discussing cultural favourites over a pint, “Seamus Heaney, Joseph Beuys, Kurosawa, Arvo Part, Beckett, Eno, Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler, etc.” Ember Glance, an art installation, was staged in a huge Tokyo warehouse. “The build-up to it was an incredibly intense period. For David, who was also going through some major personal sea-changes in his life, I guess it almost became an avenue of therapy which was brutally self-analytical. David recorded a beautiful soundpiece for it, which we later released. He was a very meticulous but simultaneously open artist, self-critical, capable of great humour and totally honest.”
Then Sylvian decided to collaborate with his old band. He talked of an “improvised project”, and — maybe since none had made a fortune on solo projects, or maybe they were intrigued — Japan (minus Dean) reunited. “I was thinking about putting together a group for improvisation with a flexible line-up that would change from album to album. As time went on it seemed natural to ask the guys from Japan — because they were great players, and because I’d written for them for years. You get used to framing your pieces around the musicians who are going to perform them, and you can never really regain that with other people that you haven’t grown up with. I know I never have. So we spent a few months hanging out — we’d only talk about the work indirectly — and went into the studio cold. We hadn’t played together since the last Japan tour. Spirits were high. It was a really good time, so much laughter.” Meditative, beautifully played, it was the best album Japan had made. Only David (who took it off by himself to remix it) decided the band would be called Rain Tree Crow. Reduced sales maybe, but you can see his point (even if his former bandmates didn’t): “There is no continuity between that band and what it embodied and what Rain Tree Crow did, so to call it a Japan album would have been cynical. You can’t escape your past. But you can live with a certain integrity now.”
The year of its release David got a tape in the post from singer/actress Ingrid Chavez, a Prince associate (the “love interest” in Graffiti Bridge, also renowned for her successful lawsuit against Lenny Kravitz over authorship of Madonna’s ‘Justify My Love’). Impressed, he went to the States to meet her and in two months they were married, with David moving to Soul City, Minneapolis. In September ’93 Sylvian became a father, and began “the most eventful and enriching period of my life.” A second daughter followed in ’96. The family travelled round the States following various “saints and holy people”; current guru and Napa resident Shree Maa is their reason for moving West.
An employee comes over to tell us it’s time to go home. “Three albums,” David chuckles softly. “Not too bad.”