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Japan Nipped in the Bud

Andrea Jones talks to David Sylvian

Juke - 20/3/82

This article was originally published online at the New Wave Complex, but is not currently available at that site.

David Sylvian is a reluctant celebrity. The charismatic leader of Japan, wlth his porcelain face, pink lipstick and retiring manner would look more at home on a Paris catwalk or preserved in the window of Yves Saint Laurent than performing to a stadium full of screaming fans. In fact, Sylvian would probaably feel more at home if he was Iocked away from the pressures of public life in glass display cabinet.

The man who has been described as the most beautiful man in the world Is a vulnerable spirit who has admitted that he surrounds himself with people who "can take care of things I can't cope with".

A rock and roll lifestyle doesn't agree with Sylvian. Ironically, just as Japan are beginning to gain substantial public and critical success with their fifth album Tin Drum (Sylvian says their audience has noticeably trebled in the past six months) the band has decided to back away from public life and call it a day.

The history of Japan is one of amazing evolution. The band began in the mid '70's as a means of keeping together a bunch of ex-school chums who were originally drawn together by their penchant for "dressing-up". None of them had studied music, but they each picked out an instrument and together produced an uninspired, second rate brand of heavy metal. Their German record label (they couldn't get an English one to sign them) dumped the band after several albums. Their last album with the company Quiet Life had suggested some inter- esting changes in Japan's musical concepts.

In 1980 the band signed the Virgin and their first album for the label Gentlemen Take Polaroids developed the themes explored on Quiet Life and caused quite a lot of interest in the boys with painted faces. Then at the end of last year came Tin Drum a seductive blend of Asian and classical textures which consolidated the transition. The change has been described as one of the most remarkable metamorphosises in modern music.

Almost by quirk of fate, the band's name has forecast their progression. in the past couple of years Japan has become the spiritual home of the band, so much so that this year the band's only tour will be of Japan. "I am the most comfortable when I'm in Japan as opposed to anywhere else," says Sylvian.

"Japan has been a big influence on us for the past two years. It hasn't actually surfaced before in what we've done. It has been there a little it's been there in some of the Iyrics, but it's definitely there on this album," says Sylvian by phone from London.

"The Chinese concept came together quite by accident. It was done over a period of about three months on and off recording. The concept came about after we recorded Canton (one of the album's highlights) which influenced the rest of the album. We decided to follow the theme and keep the Chinese influence going, but the overall effect shouldn't be Chinese-based. It's about the east as opposed to China. The music has been influenced by various types of traditional music and it didn't all come from China. It came from various places in the east. A lot of it was taken from traditional Japanese folk music. I listen to a lot of that sort of music myself. That was the main source, but It's very hard for any of us to pinpoint where we left from that and what outside influences came in.

"The past two albums were designed so the sounds wouldn't be offensive or anything. They could slip into the background and be used as muzuk. But at the same time it you wanted to listen to it, you could take it as that as well. But this album is entirely different.

Tin Drum is certainly the most commercially successful album Japan has produced to date - if commercial is a term you can apply at all to their sound. It has been in the Top 30 in England now for 13 weeks and has received unanimous critical praise.

"I'm very pleased," says Sylvian. "The reaction from the press has been unusually favourable. It's always nice to have good reviews but I've never taken any notice of what the press has said in the past. Most of it has been bad in the past and I haven't changed my opinion about what I think of the press, although I do make exceptions with some journalists. I don't think I'm cynical, I just don't understand the motivation for most of the English journalist anyway.

The band is also adamantly opposed being classified as a rock and roll band.

"People immediately assume certain things," Sylvian attempts to explain. "What we do is totally different to a mainstream rock band and I don't play the role of being a rock star.

"There are certain traditions within the rock business that you tend to get sucked into. That's what Im really talking about. You don't realise you're doing it until after a year or two of doing it and then you realise the things you're doing don't make you happy. You don't enjoy it and you wonder why you re doing it. And it's at that point that I tried to change the direction of what we were doing.

"For myself, the first thing was touring. That's the first thing you get sucked into doing because when you're young and you form a band the first thing you try to do is play live. Well, that's changing now, the first thing people try to do now is get into a studio. I've never toured extensively, but I've been touring for about five years and I've never really enjoyed it that much. Although I suppose that is because we haven't really thought about our presentation.

"For the past two years we have been putting a lot into our live performances and I still don't enjoy it and so now we've taken it right down to the minimum of touring. This year we're only planning one tour and that's of Japan. The rest of the time is going to be spent in the studio.

Sylvian doesn't like work at all. "I'm not really a performer or entertainer," he argues. "I also think that the visual side of performing music limits the audience's imagination. It's like video, it's like rock films, I don't think they really work. Most of the visuals involved in rock music limit the listener's imagination as opposed to extending it."

So there is not much hope of seeing Japan perform live in Australia. Sylvian was originally supposed to come to Australia for a promotional visit early last year to promote Gentlemen Take Polaroids but opted for going back to London to record. "We wouldn't be opposed to touring Australia if it came up. But it doesn't seem very hopeful," he says.

With the shift in the band's sound has come a slight change in the band's ultra-glossy image from being the ultimate in transvestite elegance to a more off-beat kind of glamor with Sylvian sporting huge horn-rimmed glasses and the rest of the band adapting certain oriental influences from long plaits to happy shoes into their costumes.

"That's just the way things are going," Sylvian explains. "That's just the way I am. I've never tried to play up that side of it anyway although the cover of Polaroids was more fashionable or pretended to be but we've never played up on that. Normally it s the press that have picked it up.

"Like the music, those things tend to move fairly easily I think. Things tend to change direction on their own. It s an instinctive thing and it doesn't take very much effort on my part for it to happen."

Is the music Sylvian is currently writing pursuing a similar line to the music on the Tin Drum?

"Basically we re using some of the musical ideas, yeah. We wouldn't keep the actual theme going in the lyrics much longer though. We will do it for a while because there s so many ideas I could take but I wouldn't want to wear it thin. So maybe a couple more songs. After that I would try to forget it.

Much to the chagrin of their record company Japan has not seized upon their current interest in Tin Drum to actively promote the band. In fact they have effectively put the band in limbo while they pursue solo projects.

"Everyone has started on individual projects and Japan doesn't exist for the next four or five months while we get on with other work" says Sylvian. "So most of what I do and what think about revolves around what I'm going to do on my own. The first thing is to record a single with Yellow Magic Orchestra. After that I've got a couple of ideas but I'm not sure which one I'm going to take up. Actually I might make an album with our keyboard player Richard (Barbieri). We might be doing an instrumental album together.

There was also talk of Sylvian writing a film score.

"Yeah I'm still interested in doing that but not many people are interested in me at the moment Sylvian explains.

"Steve (Jansen drummer) and Mick (Karn bassist) are doing session work at the moment. They re performing with some Japanese artists who have come to England to record and Nick's then going to do a solo single and I think Steve is too."

"We have to think is it worth going back and doing another album. This is why we took the time to do what we're doing now. We think it s a good time to do it for us personally. Not from the record company point of view. At the end of it we'll know how relevant Japan is and it it s worth it and what we should be doing on the next album. Again it will be an unpredictable thing.

"Obviously after being with something for six years you don't like to see it stop. But even if Japan didn't exist we'd be working together in various ways anyway. We just wouldn't be under the name Japan.

"So it would only cease to exist as a public image."

What about David Sylvian's private life and these people he refers to who look after his life. Is that one of the trappings of success?

"I don't think that s part of success because I had that before I was successful. I guess I could be more independent but it wouldn't leave me time to enjoy the things I like doing. I don't think about things I don't have to think about. I'm in the fortunate position where I can get away with that and have people doing things for me."

So what does he do outside his musical activities?

"I don't do very much that's worth talking about. Most of my time is spent with a small group of people. I'm not really interested in going out much. I spend most of my time in- doors. I can't really talk about it because there isn't much to talk about. My life revolves around the work I do and I don't take any time off because my thoughts are always towards that."


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