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Japan - Fan Club Interview, May 1978

Interviewer: Chris Carr

JAPAN - what's in a name? In this case nothing, it just sounded right. They've been together for two years, during which time they have worked on developing their own highly original sound. The tour with Blue Oyster Cult is one step further on their road to success. I interviewed them at the half-way stage of the tour.

CC: There's been a lot of confusion about you and the New York Dolls. Rob Dean was even thought to be Dave Sylvian and as such has been taken for Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls.

JAPAN: Yeah, that's right.

CC: Everybody seems to be comparing you to them. How do you react to that?

JAPAN: All you have to do is listen to the LP to convince you. There is no comparison.

CC: But even on the LP there's the same type of... there's something that Johansen would have wanted, a feel. There is this whole thing against you. Like before I came to interview you I went around asking people in the business if they knew anything about you - and there seems to be a whole backlash against you. It's to do with the posters and the whole Dolls-like appearance: it's like people are calling you a hype. How do you answer that?

DAVE: The only thing that's similar between the Dolls and ourselves is that we are both self-indulgent; we are totally into ourselves.

CC: And the hairstyles? Don't you see that?

DAVE: No. The thing is that we are constantly changing, we'll look completely different soon.

CC: It's obvious once you've met you that you're not, but people have got this feeling that you're queers.

JAPAN: Nah, none of us are poofs.

CC: What's your average age?

JAPAN: Twenty.

CC: Whereabouts do you come from?

DAVE: South London, like Lewisham. We all come from Lewisham except Rob who comes from Clapton.

CC: How did you get together?

DAVE: Well, all of us were at school together except Rob and we got him through an advert we put in Melody Maker.

CC: How was it worded?

STEVE: "Japan seek lead guitarist aged between 17 and 18" and Rob comes along - 22 - and married with two kids! Not really!

Everyone laughs.

CC: It was something quite simple then, nothing exotic.

DAVE: Well it's the only time we've ever done it cos we've always believed in only forming a band on friendship. But we just sort of had this feeling at the time and we felt the time was right.

CC: Do you get much trouble for looking the way you do?

JAPAN: Yeah, you can walk around like it in London, but not in the suburbs. We've all had some trouble at some time. In the suburbs they get really aggrivated by us, out in London they just look at you and throw a few comments at you. We walk around the streets in London but not in London.

CC: Why do you look the way you do?

DAVE: We're just individualists, and we are making a point of looking individual.

CC: It's not calculated then?

DAVE: Nah. It's hard to get people to believe it but we were turned down by every record company in England because of it. They thought our manager had hyped us into it. It's hard to tell someone that we look like this because we want to look like this, but that's thw way it is.

CC: Did you get into Ariola-Hansa through their talent competition?

DAVE: No, it wasn't like that. They saw pictures of us and became interested. We had nothing to do with the talent contest.

CC: You know, the LP really is something - you say an average age of twenty - well you don't expect an LP that good from people that age. Do you think it's a good LP?

MICK: It's the best thing since sliced bread!

CC: My first impressions were, well look at the cover, and I listened to it once and thought it was a load of rubbish, and then after listening to it again I really liked it.

DAVE: It's people that listen to it once and guage it on first impressions who don't like it. It's one of those albums that you've got to listen to, get into and try to understand what we are doing, cos we are not going to come along with what's been done already. We are trying to do something completely different.

CC: Can you go through the LP and highlight anything about tracks that you'd like people to pick up on?

DAVE: I don't like doing this, but, well, I'd say Performance is for minority groups in politics and Lovers On Main Street is about prostitutes.

CC: What's your nearest influence?

DAVE: I dunno. It's easiest for somebody else to tell us, cos we've got so many. Everyone has got their own musical influences here, everyone listens to different music.

CC: What do you listen to that's common to you all?

DAVE: A lot of American bands, Patti Smith, Television, Iggy, Richard Hell.

CC: Yet your music is nothing like it.

DAVE: No, nothing like it.

CC: To me you combine sensuality and aggression. The guitar attacks and the keyboards add sensuality.

DAVE: What we try to do musically is to get the bass and drums, and do something totally different with them than the tracks needs or desires. So we get the bass and drums sorted out so that they play something totally unique on their own, then we put Rob and Richard on the top so we get an emotion out of the song, to play an emotion. So when you listen to it you get into it, and you either feel aggression, happiness, sadness, you've got to get something out of it. Every track has got to give you something, and motivate you to think something.

MICK: No-one ever sort of comes in and says "this is a reggae song", so we all play reggae, it's not like that, we never all play the same thing.

ROB: Sometimes we play against eachother rather than with. We're influenced by just about every type of music there is and it comes out in our songs.

CC: Dave, you sort of have a monopoly over the band. I mean, the whole LP is credited to David Sylvian - words and music.

DAVE: Yeah, but it's not like I'm dominating the band in any way. I don't. I think I play a smaller part than the rest of the band you know. I think my part is small compared to what is actually produced in the end. I mean I write the songs and the lyrics okay, but when I come into the room it's just sort of a skeleton of a song. It's just me and a rhythm guitar.

CC: Do you write lyrics first and then the music?

DAVE: It all depends - normally it's music first then the lyrics.

CC: Is it something that comes from within you or because you've got to write a song?

DAVE: No, it comes from within me.

CC: Cos your lyrics don't tie up, they're not like stories, they are more like...

DAVE: Impressions.

CC: Yeah, images - one line sort of means something different to the next line.

DAVE: The reason is that I don't like to listen to lyrics and I don't like to sing lyrics where you just actually say one thing. If in a whole song you only say one thing, there's no point - you can say that in one line most of the time. So normally I try to put down my feeling in one line rather than the whole song.

CC: How do you think you are different live?

DAVE: On record you are trying to create an art form. The LP should be a work of art. On stage, you are not working for perfection, you are working for energy, and you are working for a feeling of energy rather than just an art form. So therefore live there is no sort of tightness, you don't play for everything to be in it's... you play for reaction, for the energy and feeling rather than for anything else. What happens is we get involved ourselves, and the audience either do or don't. It's not a compromise - you don't sort of "please come and join us in what we're doing" - we get on stage and just get involved in ourselves and if the audience wants to join in they join in. We are not out to sort of get members or fans.

MICK: We enjoy a gig just as much if the audience is booing us cos we've achieved a reaction, they are at least taking note of us.

CC: What's the smallest gig you've played, in London terms?

ROB: The Rock Garden and The Hope & Anchor are like the smallest.

CC: Where have you been recently?

DAVE: We havent played you see, we've kept out of it. We didn't want to play live unless we had a desire to do so. We wanted to get an album done. We'd rather record than play live, so we wanted to make sure that we had an LP that somebody could go and buy before we went out on the road.

ROB: We've played most of the London clubs.

CC: How long did the album take?

DAVE: It only took three weeks to record, but it took a long time mixing, a month.

CC: It's funny because it's not the type of thing I normally listen to, but I've been playing it all the time recently. I reckon the worst track on it is the non-original Don't Rain On My Parade.

DAVE: Originally we played it live because we thought we'd do a song that no band had done before, and we thought we'd stick it on the b-side of the single. So we recorded it - it was very rough - but when Hansa heard it they went overboard about it, and we didn't really give a damn about a single anyway because we are not interested in the singles market.

CC: Really, you don't reckon that as a band you havent got the chance to have a hit single and appear on Top Of The Pops?

DAVE: Yeah, but we havent really got a desire to do that. I mean, if it happens it happens. We could play demos to you of a full orchestra behind us , made especially as singles, and they'd be hits aswell, but stuff that.

CC: About Ray Singer who produced your LP. Can you tell us what else he's done? Who is he?

DAVE: He used to work with our manager years ago, and he suggested that Ray produced us.

CC: Who else has he produced?

JAPAN: Well he's done some French bloke called Michael Polnareff, Peter and Robin Sarstedt, The Easybeats, some reggae and the movies...

CC: You say you've moved forward, how?

DAVE: I can't really categorise it, like I can't really categorise this LP, very few people I've spoken to can and the next album is going to be even harder.

CC: Have you started recording it?

DAVE: No, but we have started writing it.

MICK: That's another thing that makes us different live because we do a lot of new songs: we do five tracks off the LP, three new ones and "Heartbreaker", the Stones number. It might end up as the b-side of a single.

CC: Who are you aiming for as an audience?

DAVE/MICK: Anybody, anybody who likes to listen.

DAVE: I mean like you said yourself, it's not the type of music you thought you'd get into, si I can't sort of say, it's not like we're looking for anybody. It's like we stand outside of everything that the media and music business stand for. We'd rather stand outside and observe and criticise it, than be part of it; we just don't want to be part of the music industry, we're just going to create works of art as single albums. And I'm not just saying that as we are the only ones because I can see that a lot of albums are works of art. But a lot of people don't treat it that way.

CC: You don't reckon that you could be setting yourselves up as the Barclay James Harvest of the 70's and 80's?

JAPAN: No, ah no, no thanks.

CC: It's just like the whole standing outside and creating bit is like...

DAVE: No it's like not wanting to be involved with a style or a phase that's going aound already. We want to stand outside of that. So like the punk phase or whatever comes next, we are not going to be part of it, we are determined to stand outside of it. If people into punk or whatever is next to get into us, well that's OK.

CC: Have any of you been in bands before?

JAPAN: No we all taught ourselves.

DAVE: Well the thing is, we are all friends right and the reason we are together is because of the way we look.

CC: Like Richard rehearsing for five months and then joining the band?

RICH: (laughing) That's right, I still can't play now!

CC: You mean you can't play?

RICH: There's nothing technical about what I do.

DAVE: None of us can play a set style, a set way. What we are saying is you donb't have to be technically proficient to make good music.

MICK: Rob's been playing a long time, but the rest of us, we can't sort of play rock 'n' roll or blues or anything like that cos ever since we started the band, we've always made our own type of music.

DAVE: The thing is, we got together right, and I could only play a little bit of rhythm guitar right and Steve could play a few percussion instruments. We said "Mick why don't you try bass?", you know and that's how it came about. None of us have been taught, none of us know a technique , we only know exactly what we do now. That's why we'll be progressing for a long time.

CC: Who designed the album cover?

JAPAN: We don't know, when we saw it we got a shock. The picture on the back was meant to be on the front.

CC: Whose idea was the cock-eyed lyric sheet?

DAVE: I dunno. We just wanted the lyrics on the album, but we didn't see the album ourselves until it was out, so we had no say in it.

CC: Why don't you have a say in it?

DAVE: We do have a say in it, but the thing was, at the very end it became really rushed - so we had no choice. We could either delay the whole thing or just say "release it".

CC: Are you going to take more control in the future?

DAVE/MICK: Oh yeah, well it was meant to be out in January and then in February, and if we had insisted on having it our way it would have been delayed so much - so in the end we'd just rather put it out.

CC: Have you been featured in any of the kids mags like "16", "Pink" and all that?

DAVE: Yeah, we've been in "Pink", "Look Now" and a couple of others. There's no point in refusing any audience. Of course there are going to be little girls who are going to come up and say "ah they're a bunch of pretty boys" and go out and buy the album. Like if you've got an audience of 14 year olds who listen to the band because of their looks - in the end the music will get through to them because they've got to listen to the LP if they've bought it. That will help them progress and that's good.

CC: Your whole attitude on the album about sex. Do you really find it boring?

DAVE: Yeah, I don't enjoy sex. The album has got three songs that are specifically about sex.

CC: But nearly all of them have some mention of sex.

DAVE: Yes, but it's only the way you read it. It's like someone came in the other day who thought "Wish You Were Black" was a love song. It's not - it's a protest song about the National Front.

CC: What!

DAVE: Yeah, but because of the way I write people think it's a love song, and that surprises me.

CC: Hell, I'm surprised, because I really thought it was, I thought it was a Lou Reed type thing - it's really danceable, and I dunno, I thought it was about some girl.

MICK: Yeah, but what we told you about it being a National Front protest is our own interpretation.

DAVE: The thing is I don't want to spoil it for other people. I wrote it for the anti-fascist reason, but anyone can interpret it how they want, if they think it's a love song then that's OK.

CC: What are you writing now?

DAVE: Well I've written Suburban Berlin which is like comparing pre-war Germany with the nazi thing around now in England and there's Automatic Gun which is about Vietnam and other boring places!

CC: What's your next release?

MICK: There's no plans for a single yet.

DAVE: We are recording half of the album in June and we're doing the other half at the end of the year. But maybe a single will come out before then.

CC: Have you got any money back from the LP yet?

DAVE: No, we won't get anything back for at least six months, maybe a year. It's selling well for an unknown band though.

CC: The NME gave you a bad LP review. Were you expecting a backlash from the whole publicity campaign? You know, people calling you a hype.

DAVE: No.

CC: You don't think so? It's like that NME review - I could have predicted that - it's like I've been waiting for it.

DAVE: But the cunt can't have listened to the LP. What he said was that the LP went along at a funeral march pace, which means he must have listened to either Transmission or Television and missed all the other tracks.

CC: And Melody Maker, what have they done?

DAVE: Nothing yet, they were rather shocked by our poster and wouldn't print it!

CC: Going back to your looks, where do you get your clothes from?

DAVE: We just go to girls shops.

CC: Tell us why particulalrly girls shops?

DAVE: Because male shops don't make good clothing. Men have been wearing the same things for years and years. Men have got no idea of fashion anyway.

CC: What do you think about being a threat to people's masculinity?

DAVE: People are only offended if they see someone homo or bisexual because they are afraid. I mean if a straight bloke sees someone he thinks is a woman and finds her attractive and then finds out she's a man he feels guilty and a bit shocked at homself for thinking he could have fancied a boy.

CC: You wouldn't feel shocked in the same way?

DAVE: No. I think a lot of boys are very good looking - a lot better looking than girls. It's up to the individual - they shouldn't feel inhibited. Nothing to do with the sexual side of anything - if you like a boy - you think he's really good looking - there's nothing wrong with saying it. I'm not asking everyone to go out and wear make-up - just wear it if you want and don't feel inhibited by the people around you.

CC: You say you are going to change appearance wise. Is there a feeling in the group as to when the change is going to happen and what it's going to be?

DAVE: We've all got our own ideas but you won't find out till the time.

CC: Well, the only thing that's changed in the last two years is the length and colour of your hair. Is the change going to be something radically different?

DAVE: I mean don't make it into a big deal, it's just that we are bored with the way we look and want to find some other way of looking.

STEVE: It's really boring when people start dressing like and imitating other people.

CC: What's your relationship with your manager? Is he a svengali? Do you have conflicts with him?

DAVE: Oh yeah, loads. He's got such mad ideas at times - we have to shout him down!

CC: Is he in touch with the scene?

DAVE: Well not directly but he's been in the business for a long time. He used to manage the Yardbirds and he wrote Dusty Springfield's first hit.

STEVE: He just tries to make us the best of ourselves. If he sees us onstage and sees that one of us is not making the best of ourselves, he tells us. He won't enforce any ideas on us. He'll only do things that we all agree to.

DAVE: We won't do anything outside of our own characters. He's just a manager, he does what a manager does. Everything we do we do our own way - it's not like anyone dictates or tells us to do anything.

CC: Have you sat down as a group and worked out a strategy? Like Patti Smith who says that being in a band is like being in the military. She works out everything.

DAVE: I think it's a shame that you have to do things like that. It's either there or it ain't - and it's there for us. Everything we believe in is similar to eachother's beliefs. We don't have to sit down and do it, like we're talking now. None of it's rehearsed - it's all part of our personality.

MICK: We've never done that you know - sit down as a band and talk about what we are going to do and stuff, because we know that we are all heading in the same direction.

CC: Success - what will it mean to you? You say it doesn't interest you.

DAVE: I didn't say I wasn't interested. What I said was that it doesn't bother us; we're not trying to get success. We are just artists, and if a lot of people like what we do it will make us all successful. That's all it is.

CC: What will success mean to you individually?

ROB: I can buy Spiderman No1!

DAVE: Cut that one out!

ROB: No, put it in - it will just mean that we can we can do a lot more things - support ourselves.

CC: Will you stay in this country?

JAPAN: No.

CC: Where will you go?

DAVE: That all depends on which country we like when we go there. We'll find that out as we go around.

STEVE: We've got places we think we might like.

DAVE: We want to go to the States, Japan and back to Germany again.

 

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