David Sylvian - Biography
By Scott Feemster
David Sylvian is an artist who has taken a long journey that has led him down different paths. He started as the painted and bleached androgynous frontman of Japan and has ended up a respected solo artist with his own label who has released work taking in various influences including jazz, electronica, world, progressive rock and improvisational musics. He has continually taken chances both commercially and artistically and continues to push himself into collaborations with other artists that challenge and expand his breadth and scope.
David Sylvian was born David Alan Batt in Beckinham, Kent, England on February 23, 1958. Young David and his brother Steven were both interested in music from a young age, and for Christmas in 1973, the Batt's parents got them musical instruments, a guitar for David and drums for Steven. Soon the pair were bashing out minimal chord tunes with some of their friends, which included Anthony Michaelides, (soon to be known as Mick Karn), on bass, Rob Dean on guitar and Richard Barbieri on keyboards. By 1974, the band called themselves Japan and David Batt became David Sylvian and brother Steven became Steve Jansen. Early Japan was very much in the mold of edgy glam rock bands of the time, looking and sounding very much like influential artists such as The New York Dolls, David Bowie, The Sweet and T. Rex. The band spent several years gigging and getting their sound together before releasing their debut album, Adolescent Sex (Hansa) in 1977, followed by Obscure Alternatives in 1978 (Hansa). The band garnered a following in the Netherlands and (ironically) Japan, but found that the rise of punk in it's native U.K. Made their glam rock sound and image obsolete. By 1979, the band had changed their sound to a more streamlined electronic sound, based around Jansen's more nuanced percussion, Barbieri's warm analogue synthesizers and Karn's distinctive fretless bass sound. The result was the album Quiet Life (Hansa). Sylvian's vocals had also dropped down to a distinctive baritone croon for which he would become known. The band's visual image changed during this period as well, with the band losing the long hair and stack heels of their first two albums and adopting a more European cosmopolitan image of ties and silk suits.
By the time of Japan's final two albums, 1980's Gentlemen Take Polaroids (Virgin) and 1981's Tin Drum (Virgin), guitarist Rob Dean had left the band and the remaining quartet had streamlined their sound down further to include vaguely Asian influences and Satie-esque piano ruminations. The band even had a hit single with the sparsely minimalistic song “Ghosts” off of Tin Drum, seeing the single rise to #5 in the British charts. Interpersonal relationships within the band were starting to get strained, especially due to Sylvian's new relationship with artist, photographer and designer Yuka Fujii, bassist Mick Karn's ex-girlfriend. Fujii became an important figure in Sylvian's post-Japan life, introducing him many forms of music and art that he had not been previously exposed to. Japan embarked on a final worldwide farewell tour in late 1982, culminating in a six-night sell-out stand at the Hammersmith Apollo theatre in London. The band recorded portions of the Hammersmith shows and released the live album and video Oil On Canvas in 1983. Around the time of Tin Drum, Sylvian began working with Japanese keyboardist/composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, then of synth-pop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, and the pair started what would be a long-standing on-again off-again working relationship with each other with the single Bamboo Houses/Bamboo Music. At around the same time Sakamoto was starring in and writing the soundtrack to Nagisa Oshima's 1983 Pacific World War II drama “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence”, and Sakamoto tapped Sylvian to sing the title track, resulting in a worldwide single and minor hit for the duo.
The David Sylvian who appeared on the cover of his debut solo album Brilliant Trees (Virgin) in 1984 was no longer the make-up wearing enigmatic dandy of Japan, and the music contained inside was further proof of Sylvian's movement away from the pop world to a musical world of his own construct. With such guest musicians such as former Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson, former Can member Holger Czukay, trumpeter Jon Hassell, Sakamoto and Japan alumni Jansen and Barbieri, the album was a natural bridge between pop and jazz and more open-ended ambient compositions. The album also showed that Sylvian could still garner interest from the more general music buying public, as it peaked at #4 in the British charts and had the single “Red Guitar” which reached #17 on the U.K. Singles chart. A continuation of some of the ideas started on Brilliant Trees came in the entirely instrumental next release Alchemy: An Index Of Possibilities (Virgin) in 1985. The album was a series of ambient textures and seemingly random radio noises, (thanks to Czukay's influence), set on top of slowly intricate rhythms that showed African and Asian influences. During this same period Sylvian also published a book of his impressionistic polaroids called Perspectives: Polaroids 82/84 and completed an impressionistic video documentary called Preparations For A Journey utilizing some of the music from the Alchemy sessions.
Sylvian continued to expand the circle of musicians and friends with which he collaborated with on his next release, the double album Gone To Earth (1986) (Virgin), including King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp and former Be Bop Deluxe guitarist Bill Nelson. The first record in the set was a series of jazz-influenced vocal pop songs, the second record was ambient soundscapes and instrumentals especially influenced by Fripp's use of his “Frippertronics” system of delays and sound processing he had developed in his previous work with Brian Eno. Sylvian's next album in 1987, Secrets Of The Beehive, was a more acoustic-instrument based set that utilized beautiful string arrangements courtesy of Brian Gascoigne and Ryuichi Sakamoto. After completing the album, Sylvian set out on his first solo concert tour called “In Praise Of Shamans” in 1988 which included noted jazz trumpeter and film composer Mark Isham, avant-jazz guitarist David Torn and second guitarist Robbie Aceto, bassist Ian Maidman, and Sylvian's old bandmates Richard Barbieri on keyboards and brother Steve Jansen on drums and percussion.
After a busy few years establishing his solo identity, Sylvian seemed to pull back a bit and explore other avenues of musical expression with two albums in collaboration with Holger Czukay, 1988's Plight And Premonition (Venture) and the following year's Flux + Mutability (Venture), which also included contributions from other former Can members Michael Karoli and Jaki Liebezeit. Both albums were free-form instrumental albums, focusing on improvisation and found sound as building blocks for open-ended compositions. After completing the albums, Sylvian was asked by his record company, Virgin, to compile his four vocal albums done for them in the 80's into an elaborate box set release called Weatherbox (Virgin) (1989), which included a new track called “Pop Song”, a dry comment on the pop music world which Sylvian seemed ever more eager to leave behind. In this spirit, Sylvian continued to expand his varied interests and collaborated with artists Ian Walton and Russell Mills in 1990 in an installation utilizing sculpture, light and sound called Ember Glance-The Permanence Of Memory. The installation was staged at the Temporary Museum on Tokyo Bay, Shinagawa, Japan, and the companion album of two ambient pieces was issued on the Virgin sub-label Venture the following year.
Though David Sylvian had continued working with his former Japan bandmates Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri on his solo efforts, and had even performed vocals on two songs for his other former bandmate Mick Karn's solo debut, the quartet had not played together for nearly eight years. Sylvian pitched the idea of working together again as a band, but with the new influences and ways of working he and the other band members had picked up during the years away from Japan, including bringing in outside musicians such as Bill Nelson and Canadian guitarist Michael Brook. The other members of the band and their record company, Virgin, were all under the impression that this project would be under the Japan name, but Sylvian insisted that this be a project separate from the baggage of the past and wanted to call the band Rain Tree Crow. Virgin refused to fund the project past the initial recording process if the Japan name wasn't going to be used, and so Sylvian payed any subsequent costs out of his own pocket, and, by the time mixing and mastering were done for the album, had taken over complete control of the project and had shut the other members of the band out of the process. By the time the self-titled Rain Tree Crow (Virgin) came out in 1991, the other members of the band were not speaking or working with Sylvian any more. After the turmoil of the Rain Tree Crow sessions, Sylvian was asked if he wanted to contribute to an album being put together by French composer/musician Hector Zazou as a tribute to 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud. Originally tapped to read Rimbaud's text over Zazou's musical backing, Sylvian ended up composing material as well as singing and playing guitar and keyboard. For some reason, Zazou's label, Made To Measure, didn't get the necessary permission from Sylvian's label, Virgin, to use his name on the credits of the album, entitled Sahara Blue (1992), and only listed Sylvian as “Mr. X.” After legal wrangling between the two labels, subsequent copies of the album left off two tracks featuring Sylvian's vocals.
David Sylvian ended his romantic relationship with Yuka Fujii after the Rain Tree Crow and Hector Zazou projects, though the two would remain friends and collaboraters. At around the same time, Sylvian began working with Sakamoto on an album he was developing, and came across a release by the American singer and Prince protege Ingrid Chavez. Sylvian thought her voice would work perfectly for the project, and after working together, Chavez and Sylvian became romantically involved , eventually marrying in 1992 and settling down in the U.S., first in Minnesota, then in California's Napa Valley. The pair eventually had two daughters together.
Sylvian's friend Robert Fripp approached him in 1991 about possibly becoming the new vocalist for a revitalized King Crimson, but Sylvian declined and instead the two worked on new material together with Chapman Stick player Trey Gunn. After a tour in 1992 through Japan and Italy, the trio recruited percussionists Jerry Marotta and Marc Anderson and went into the studio to record the album The First Day (Virgin). Fans of David Sylvian were surprised at the aggressive guitar textures and funk feel of the album, though fans of Robert Fripp weren't as shocked. The trio of Gunn, Fripp and Sylvian went back out on the road with Michael Brook and drummer Pat Mastelotto for what was called “The Road To Graceland” tour. A live album documenting the tour called Damage (Virgin) was released in 1994. Feeling better and better about performing live, Sylvian set out on a solo tour in 1995, accompanying himself on keyboards or acoustic guitar through songs written during his various working collaborations and groups.
The next few years, Sylvian concentrated on family life and pursuing his interest in Eastern religion. By the time of his next solo record in 1999, Dead Bees On A Cake (Virgin), Sylvian had absorbed even more influences into his musical vocabulary, drawing on blues, soul and Eastern Indian musical idioms. The album's collaborators also reflected the diversity, including British tabla player Talvin Singh, avant-jazz guitarists Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot, jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and long-time friend Ryuichi Sakamoto. His Virgin contract nearing an end, Sylvian released the double-disc retrospective Everything And Nothing in 2000, bringing together sometimes re-worked vocal oriented material from throughout his career. He also released an instrumental collection called Camphor. He set out on a short tour in 2001 to promote the collections with his brother Steve back on drums, Matt Cooper on keyboards, Tim Young on guitar and Keith Lowe on bass.
His Virgin contract over, Sylvian decided he wanted to opt out of doing things on the schedule of a major record company, and set up his own label, Samadhi Sound. The label was set up to release projects by Sylvian and his wide swath of musical compatriots. The first release was to be a project involving himself and brother Steve, but the going was slow and Sylvian found himself in the middle of a painful divorce from his wife Ingrid. The result of the turmoil and down-time was an extremely stark and experimental album released in 2003 called blemish. The musical backing was minimal, and involved new collaborators in experimental guitarists Christian Fennesz and Derek Bailey. Strong critical response to the album prompted the pair of Sylvian and Jansen to embark on a tour with musician and visual artist Masakatsu Takagi. An album of remixes of the tracks on blemish also appeared on Samadhi Sound later in 2005, called The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter.
After the tour promoting blemish, Sylvian and Jansen resumed work on their collaborative project, bringing in keyboardist/programmer Burnt Friedman as a third member. The trio chose the group name Nine Horses and released the album Snow Borne Sorrow (Samadhi Sound) in October of 2005. The album was a mix of glitchy electronica, jazz and trip-hop and featured such guests as Swedish vocalist Stina Nordenstam, trumpeter Arve Henriksen and frequent collaborator Sakamoto. The group released an EP of remixes and new material in 2007 called Money For All (Samadhi Sound).
Sylvian also completed a project in 2007 called When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima (Samadhi Sound), a long seventy-minute environmental track for a festival held on the Japanese island of Naoshima. Contributors to the project included Fennesz, Henriksen, flautist Clive Bell and samples from Akira Rabelais.
David Sylvian embarked on a tour in late 2007, called “The World Is Everything” with Jansen on drums, Keith Lowe on bass and Takuma Watanabe on keyboards. Sylvian saw it as a way to let some of his old material breathe again and to feature newer material done with Nine Horses and a newer solo album by his brother Steve called Slope (Samadhi Sound)(2007). Sylvian continues to release his own projects on his label, as well as noted releases by Harold Budd and Derek Bailey. As of this writing, David Sylvian is working on new solo material for a release slated for late 2008.