Introduction by GEOFFREY ARMES.
There's very few I've wanted to meet. A handful. To be honest, I don't necessarily find pop stars all that intriguing. People who've made lots of money out of music basically, arent they? Nothing wrong with that, and some of them have even created an interesting tune or two along the way. But not so interesting that I've wanted to hear their composer/performers speak. And let's be clear here: David at one point in his career, particularly at the early 80s peak of his group Japan's popularity, was very much the pop star. Except that, unlike so many of his generation who seemed to aspire to be bigger bigger best at whatever cost, David always expressed ambivalence about his fame.
In two decades of music-making, David has forged a signature sound of chameleon like variety. This is unusual in pop music, where many settle on a vein and mine it forever. David is taking risks with the variety of soundworlds he brings his particular sensibilities to bear on, as well as with the real quality in the (dis)guises wielded. There's a seductively poetic, spiritual twist to this music that wrestles with its own internal ambiguity. At this stage, the struggle seems to be toward consciously seeking more personal honesty in the work whilst drawing the line at starkly auto-biographical content. Running in the opposite direction of much 20th century creative impulse, David (along with a few other luminaries--author Milan Kundera comes to mind) has always wanted the work to live independently of the personality of its creator.
Theres warmth in my heart when I listen to tracks like 'Brilliant Trees,' 'Orpheus,' 'Before The Bullfight' and the like. As an earnest declaration of intent during flippant times (David's most stellar albums were all released during the eighties) I felt this music as a personal manifesto; songs speaking to ideas and feelings that I had thought secret. This uniquely quiet music was birthed during a loud era of marble-surfaced restaurants full of shouting punters, big snares, braying voices and conspicuous consumption.
David sings of a life that aspires to return to the source of that life, which is a religious thing to do really. And the result, in songs like 'Weathered Wall' and 'Bullfight,' is English pop music that combines the sonorous solemnity of great Protestant hymns with an occasional flurry of ecstatic affirmation reminiscent of Sufi musics. Indeed, Jon Hassell's trumpet on 'Brilliant Trees' and the pentatonic warblings of 'Words with the Shaman' remind me of devotional musics from the world of Islam. It's not so much the notes themselves I suspect, but the intent with which they are played. Rare, and precious, and infinitely pleasurable to hear, this music contains a soothing yet aspirational, alive quality.
To participate in an interview this way was an adventure for me. To sit on the other side of the desk and scrutinise, assess, comment, critique. I am a working musician and composer, CDs out, gigs... see my web site. Tony Fletcher, fellow South Londoner/Crystal Palace fan in New York, is an old friend. Invited to interview David upon the release of his career 'retrospective' Everything and Nothing (neither greatest hits nor rarities but a little of both), Tony suggested I come with him to meet of the few I've wanted to.
David was charming company, and a skillful conversationalist. Adroit at secreting himself away by saying a lot without giving away the innermost material. Adroit too, at saying a lot that raises further questions and interest. I would love to have drawn him out more on the experience of South London that was common to the three of us on that table. I really wanted to hear more about his spiritual searching. And finally to have heard a little about his avowed interest to return one day to the instrumental work like Words with the Shaman which seems to be a neglected strand in his oeuvre. But I will say this, despite the foregoing, I am satiated, for his work really does say it all.
[David Sylvian's resume is as complex as it is lengthy. Japan released four albums in the late 70s/early 80s. As a solo artist, David Sylvian has also released just four solo albums - Brilliant Trees (1984), Gone to Earth ('86), Secrets of the Beehive ('87) and Dead Bees on a Cake ('99) - but the twelve-year gap between the last two has hardly seen him idle. There were two albums with Can founder Holgar Czukay, two with King Crimson guitarist and Discipline Global Music pioneer Robert Fripp, and a Japan reformation of kinds under the name Rain Tree Crow, which yielded one album in 1991. Along with these collaborators, David has also worked extensively with Bill Nelson, Bill Frisell, Russell Mills and Ryuichi Sakamoto. It was during a recording session with the latter than Sylvian met his wife, Ingrid Chavez. The couple now have two daughters and, after stints in Chavez' Minneapolis hometown and Sonoma County in California, have settled in New Hampshire. Considering that our conversation returned several times to the difficulties of being a cult artist on a major label, it comes as interesting news, if no real surprise, that in February this year (2001), David parted company with Virgin Records after twenty years with the label... Tony Fletcher]
GEOFFREY ARMES: Everything and Nothing. Two separate CDs. Is there any criteria at all for why certain tracks are on Everything and others on Nothing?
David Sylvian: That question has come up several times, and it's embarrassing because no, there was none. There was purely a design element that was played up.
GA: I've always wondered, who is 'Jean the Birdman.'
DS: The name came from Cocteau, but I just applied it to my life, what was going on in my life at that time. Jean the Birdman was written just after the Rain Tree Crow sessions had come to an end, and it was like a continuation of the themes that had started out on that record, the reference to the crow being this alter ego of mine and it was very much depicting the negative aspects of my own nature, the egocentric side or the anger and frustrations that I was feeling, so I just went on and wrote quite a number of pieces along the same lines, featuring the crow as a symbol of some kind, and this song was born of that period in time.
GA: 'Weathered Wall' has also always been a personal favorite and seems to come from somewhere quite deep, so I wondered who the 'you' is being addressed in that song.
DS: I wouldn't like to pin that down, because I think it can be interpreted in a number of different ways. For me the person or the thing in question changes all the time. I like that ambiguity, I like that a song can move between being a love song to someone that's close to you, or a God, some greater higher power, so I purposefully allow the pieces to have that ambiguity so that people can still find something of themselves in the work and work it into relevant situations in their own lives.
|"I didn't feel as if I was doctoring with anything that I shouldn't be touching, I saw the material as being alive, and so all I was really doing was assisting in its longevity if you like, its potency for a greater number of years."
David on recording new vocals for selected tracks on Everything And Nothing.
TONY FLETCHER: That's something I've always appreciated. I love the idea that a songwriter says "This song means what you want it too mean."
DS: Yeah, it's very important that a piece of work becomes integrated into a listener's life and not seen as a snippet of biography so that they're constantly relating it to the performer's life. It has to become relevant to their own otherwise it will have no longevity at all. So when I'm writing a piece of music you can read biographical elements into it by all means, but that's really not the aim here. The aim is that it will take on a greater relevance in the lives of the listeners.
TF: Have you ever have to trim certain elements out, because of that?
DS: In earlier days I had trouble allowing that degree of vulnerability to come through in the work, it was often masked. I didn't feel comfortable opening my self to that extent. But once I had a breakthrough, and 'Ghosts' was a pivotal piece in that sense, it was a breakthrough in which I thought I was able to talk somewhat directly about personal experiences, but in such a fashion that people could identify with it and have it be relevant in their own lives. And once I reached that stage it was a matter of just trying to stay on that path, and there was a struggle between completing a piece like Ghosts and then starting out on a new venture like 'Brilliant Trees': I wrote material and scrapped it, wrote and scrapped it, until something clicked with me. I think 'Forbidden Colors' was the next piece that clicked.
TF: What criteria have you applied for going back and effectively changing some of your past work for this retrospective album? 'Ghosts' [for which David recorded a new vocal] is going to be the most discussed example.
DS: There's a number of reasons. There's a very simple matter that Virgin owns all this material, and if I part ways with Virgin I may not always have access to it, so having the opportunity to do it was a big draw. Secondly, I'm not that fond of compilation or best of albums, because of the lack of continuity one finds: you're not drawn into a whole experience, you're just moving piecemeal through the individual pieces, and generally that's down to production values from different periods in time. So I wanted to address that problem, and once I decided "I'll have to remix Ghosts, I'll have to remix this that nd the other," there would be jarring transitions between songs I've been doing in recent years and the early ones where the vocal style is radically different. So again I thought why not? I felt if I could go back to the material and feel rejuvenated by it to the point where I could immerse myself in it and give a committed performance it would be justifiable, just as if I was giving a live performance. So I didn't feel as if I was doctoring with anything that I shouldn't be touching, I saw the material as being alive, and so all I was really doing was assisting in its longevity if you like, its potency for a greater number of years.
TF: What about the other Japan members who may have felt "well my bass playing could be better these days"? Did you offer the others the chance to change their parts?
DS: That would have got very complicated! I think the aspects that dated a piece like Ghosts was the vocal styling, the mannered performance, and the production values of that time. There's lavish amounts of outboard effects, reverbs and plates, which distanced me from the material when I heard it again. So I thought I could bring it up to date...I didn't fool around with the rest of the material. And I didn't bring in all this outdoor gear, I kept it pure, very clean, in a sense far purer to the original recording than the mix on Tin Drum would appear. I thought about 'Some Kind of Fool', which wasn't released up until now, and it crossed my mind, would everybody be happy with their performance? But everyone knew I was working on the material and no one objected.
GA: Obviously over time the vocal style evolves and I just wondered, for you, how much of this is conscious and how much of this is dictated by the fact that your instrument changes anyway. As years go by, things happen to voices and one's physicality changes and you have to work with it.
DS: A lot of it has been conscious. Once the band broke up in 82, there was this massive change in outlook and approach to the work I was creating, trying to write more directly from my own experience meant I was trying to pare away all mannerism or declaration from the work, trying to pare it down. So I was trying to develop a vocal style that also was true to that philosophy. I was trying to find my true voice. I was trying to perform in a very unmannered way, I was trying to find means of just letting the song come out, and that meant just letting go, relaxing,
GA: That's what I was wondering. Whether just because you were going to a different place to sing from, it would dictate your voice.
DS: that had a lot to do with it. Just as giving up drinking and cigarettes had a lot to do with it. There are physical changes and there are the changes that I try and bring to bear on the performance, trying to hone in on what I feel is the emotional intensity of a piece, and how I can best put that across as a vocalist. For me it's a very unmelodramatic performance, I'm looking for something as understated as I can perform.
TF: You refer to doing these mixes because virgin own the masters, and I've seen other comments elsewhere, so there's obviously something weighing on your mind about how long you will be on Virgin. Why is that weighing on your mind?
DS: Because the industry has changed so much in the past few years. I think it's in the most deplorable state I've witnessed since I've been working in the industry. It really hit home when EMI bought into Virgin, kicked out a lot of good people, the atmosphere in the company changed overnight, there was a element of fear brought in, everyone looking over their shoulders, how long would they be in the position that they're in? There was no one person sitting there who could give me a clear answer to any request. If I said, "I would like to make this kind of music," they'd be like, "We'll see, we'll get back to you." Whereas before I was always dealing with one person who would say "Go ahead, here's the money." And ever since that time I've just felt this great sense of insecurity within the label, within the employees within the label, and I'm sure this isn't only true of Virgin. And obviously they've dropped an enormous number of artists over the years, and I'm just surprised I've hung in there! I tend to think of it only being a matter of time, it's not something I'm necessarily afraid of, it's just being aware that it could happen any day. There is no security for artists or employees at these major labels and this fearful atmosphere where nobody is really secure of their future doesn't make for a healthy environment to nurture talent. In fact I don't see any nurturing going on at all.
Continue to PART 2