Japan Nipped in the
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
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
"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 Ñ 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
"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.
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 IÕm 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
Ñ from long plaits to happy shoes Ñ into their
"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 Ñ or pretended to be
Ñ 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
"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
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.
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
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.
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
"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
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."