As far as unpredictable career tracks in the music world go, David Sylvian’s journey is perhaps only rivaled by that of another former pop idol turned avant-garde darling: Scott Walker. Both started their careers more popular with teenage girls than with critics only to embrace their muses, turn their backs on the pop charts, and spend the rest of their lives on a personal quest to make music that satisfies themselves first and audiences second (if at all).
Sylvian’s path has taken him far afield, but it will always be tied to some extent to Japan, both the band and the country. His career-long relationship with Japan has been both unique and ever-shifting – as his musical identity has evolved over the course of his 30-odd years in the public eye, so has Sylvian’s public face and perceived personality: first a glamtastic blonde bombshell, then a most elegant porcelain doll, and finally an unadorned artist in search of meaning.
Japan were stars in their namesake country, with a fan club 30,000 strong before their debut album was even released there.
Sylvian – born David Alan Batt in 1958 in Beckenham, Kent, England – began his musical career in earnest in 1974 alongside his younger brother and ace percussionist Steven and virtuoso bassoonist Anthony Michaelides (soon to become Mick Karn). The trio dyed their hair, donned makeup, and started to make a glam racket, all self-taught and wearing their influences on their sleeves. A year later they were joined by former schoolmate and electronics enthusiast Richard Barbieri and guitarist Rob Dean. Bearing a tangible New York Dolls influence, the Batt brothers changed their surnames to Sylvian and Jansen before signing their first record deal with Hansa.
The name Japan reportedly came from a travel brochure randomly found on the floor of the bus on the way to the band’s first gig. Sylvian says he hates the name, but he also claims now that the entire experience of being in the band was a veil of deception, something worn to show the world to avoid revealing his true self. “It was a disguise, a mask to hide behind,” Sylvian told Mojo’s Sylvie Simmons in a 1999 interview. “It was never an expression of who I was. The mask was pretty dense in the early days and the whole life of Japan could be seen as a process of me stripping it away. But it’s very unhealthy – a means of survival only, which is no way to live. The music was a mask as well. It says nothing about how I was, other than I was hiding, trying desperately to be anything but myself. Just because I thought that was the only way I could survive.”
The band’s first two albums for Hansa – Adolescent Sex and Obscure Alternatives, both released in 1978 – were hit-and-miss collections of glam-derived, guitar-based pop. A handful of excellent tunes and Karn’s remarkable bass work shone through the muddle, but for the most part, this was a band in search of an identity. Sylvian’s comments bear that out now, in retrospect. All but ignored in their native England, Japan’s manager Simon Napier-Bell tried as many angles as he could to drive up the hype behind the group. After a three-month campaign, Japan were stars in their namesake country at least, with a fan club 30,000 strong before the debut album was even released.
Through this early period, Sylvian had already shown a healthy flirtation with all things Asian. Early songs like “Communist China” and the Chairman Mao-referencing “Stateline” create a sort of chicken-or-the-egg scenario – was Sylvian writing to cater to his primarily Asian audience, either consciously or subconsciously, or was that Asian audience embracing him because he seemed to be in touch with their lives? Or was it all just about that name?
Dropped by their US label after the first two albums, Japan changed musical direction for the first (but not the last) time, embracing electronic music and collaborating with the legendary Giorgio Moroder on the disco-driving single “Life in Tokyo.” The title alone guaranteed it hit status in Japan, but it flopped everywhere else. The subsequent LP, Quiet Life, followed the dance rhythm to some critical acclaim, but hardly made a dent on the UK charts (originally peaking at #72).
Quiet Life, however, saw Sylvian taking more artistic control of the band than ever before. Japan was finding its voice, evolving musically into an elegant, electronically-enhanced sound that was at once modern and classically luxurious, and visually as well, with super-stylish modern suits, skinny ties, and hairstyles to die for. Nonetheless, Hansa finally lost its patience with the underperforming band, and so the group signed to Virgin and released what was to be their first Top 50 album, 1980’s Gentlemen Take Polaroids, buoyed by the (in)famous “Most Beautiful Man in the World” press campaign. Being lumped in with the burgeoning New Romantic movement didn’t hurt either; Duran Duran dropped Sylvian’s name, copped his style, and asked him to produce them. Sylvian declined.
The album was also significant in that it marked the first collaboration between Sylvian and the man who would be his closest collaborator and friend over the ensuing years, Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto. The pair had met through a press event in Tokyo. As Sylvian told Richard Vine of The Guardian in 2012, “I met Ryuichi in Japan when he was invited to interview us for a publication, and we got on really well. The interview itself was probably pretty damn awful – neither party speaking that much – but afterwards, once the microphones were switched off, we just got on very well.” The track “Taking Islands in Africa” had a style of its own, with a distinct sense of space and subtlety that would soon mark Japan’s musical output.
Suddenly, Japan were hot outside of Japan. Reissued and remixed tunes from the Hansa years started to chart in 1981, alternating with new Virgin releases to create an even more confused identity for the band. Guitarist Rob Dean departed, citing the old standby “musical differences,” which, given the changing musical approach of the group, may actually have been the case. Regardless, their fifth studio album, 1981’s masterful Tin Drum was the culmination of all the promise held in those early albums, the point at which the band finally realized its true potential.
It also saw them embracing Asia more explicitly than ever before, from the cover art featuring Sylvian eating a bowl of rice with chopsticks under a picture of Chairman Mao to the contents of the music itself: “Visions of China,” “Cantonese Boy,” and “Canton” which fused traditional Asian elements and melodies to the band’s already established modern electronics and Karn’s fretless bass. It remains a truly unique, utterly unforgettable LP.
The album went gold and also birthed the band’s lone Top 5 hit, one of the most remarkable and unlikely entries in British chart history. Drumless, minimalist, nearly ambient, “Ghosts” features a moody Sylvian lamenting his past with great drama. The song has remained a musical touchstone for Sylvian in the years that followed; he re-recorded it in 2000 for the solo compilation Everything and Nothing with the original backing track and a new vocal, and it continues to be the only Japan track that he seems to revisit. Sylvian has said on many occasions that “Ghosts” contains the first lyrics where he really expressed his own feelings.
With a Stockhausen-influenced single storming up the charts, a back catalog that continued to produce hits years after it was thought dead, and successful tours in the UK and the Far East, what was left for Japan to do but implode? While all involved deny that it had anything to do with the band’s demise, there were some rather complicated personal issues going on within the band, notably between Sylvian, Karn, and Japanese photographer Yuka Fujii. Fujii had been living with Karn, and (according to Simon Napier-Bell) “One day he wakes up and she’s across the road sleeping with David.”
Tabloid-worthy stuff to be sure, even if the band’s fate had already been ordained. “I’d written ‘Ghosts,’ which signalled a path for me, but that kind of material didn’t interest the band, with the exception of Richard,” Sylvian told Simmons in 1999. “Steve and Mick wanted to work with more uptempo pieces. So I thought, ‘I’m ready to move on, Mick’s ready to do his solo work, why not stop?’ Japan was a burden. There was this constant pressure on me to write a new album. I didn’t want to tour – the band loved touring. I thought I could live without all of this and just see what happens. I was quite resigned to the fact that I might stop making music completely.”
And so, in 1982, the sun set on Japan and phase II of David Sylvian’s career began. But what was a pop star who didn’t want to be a pop star to do? Sylvian took some time to plot his next move and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first notes came beside Ryuichi Sakamoto. Sakamoto’s Yellow Magic Orchestra had been a big influence on Japan’s excursions into electronica, and Sakamoto’s sensibilities were a comfortable fit for Sylvian’s new direction. The single “Bamboo Houses” echoed the sound of Tin Drum, fusing Asian-influenced melodies to modern electronics, while the majestic orchestral theme “Forbidden Colours,” from the soundtrack of the David Bowie vehicle Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, is effortlessly beautiful in a more traditional way. Side by side, the two songs show the strength of the Sylvian/Sakamoto partnership, equally at home on either side of the world thanks to the artists’ strong kinship for each other and a distinct sense of universality.
Sylvian’s solo career has since been marked by a willing embrace of the avant-garde as much as it has been a rejection of his former pop star status. Even so, there have been hits along the way: “Red Guitar,” the first single from his solo debut, 1984’s Brilliant Trees, cracked the UK top 20, while the album peaked at number four. The writing, however, was on the wall: The likes of Can's Holger Czukay and avant-garde horn player Jon Hassell were guest stars, for instance. Sylvian's solo years have since been marked by a constant quest for musical identity and/or satisfaction, and an exhaustive search around the globe to find it. The “mask” he felt compelled to wear throughout the Japan years had fallen to the floor, and he had no intention of putting it back on.
While he continues to come back to familiar touchstones on occasion – his collaborations with Sakamoto, for instance, which extend beyond Brilliant Trees to 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive, 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, and the dual-billed 2003 World Citizen EP – Sylvian has come to rely more and more on Japan, and the Far East in general, as a sort of spiritual home. Sylvian has had a hand in creating a number of art installations in Japan over the years, such as 1990’s Ember Glance with Russell Mills (Tokyo), 1994’s Redemption – Approaching Silence with Robert Fripp (Shinjuku, Tokyo), and 2007’s When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima (Naoshima). There have also been a number of gallery shows featuring Sylvian’s photography. Clearly, Japan is a place where this man - who seems genuinely uncomfortable with any level of stardom - feels that he can be himself.
While albums like Dead Bees on a Cake and Gone to Earth may not have been typical chart material, Sylvian’s output since founding his own Samadhi Sound label in 2003 has turned even further afield. Blemish, an album released in 2003, is a spare, experimental record of extremities - featuring avant-guitar legend Derek Bailey and electronics whiz Christian Fennesz - that deals with the decay of his relationship with his wife, Ingrid Chavez. Stark, harrowing, a bundle of raw nerves, Blemish is an audio bruise, impossible to ignore. His 2009 release Manafon was a free improvisation project recorded in Vienna, Tokyo, and London over the course of three years with a different cast of players in each.
Both Blemish and Manafon were later supplemented by remix versions of the album, featuring contributions from other modern Japanese experimental musicians such as Ryoji Ikeda, Yoshihiro Hanno, Tatsuhiko Asano, and Dai Fujikura, among others. Sylvian may have left Japan the pop band behind decades ago, but he continues to mine Japan the country for musical influences and collaborators.
“It's affected me in ways that have been so completely absorbed and assimilated that it’s hard for me to comprehend the degree to which I’ve been influenced," said Sylvian of Eastern culture in the interview A Solitary Life. “I might point to the influence of Zen Buddhism and, to a lesser extent, Shintoism and the guiding roles they’ve played in my personal evolution. The beautiful artifice of popular culture and the mutability of persona. The embrace of one’s masculinity and femininity on equal terms, without conflict. Then there are the friendships which grew over time with Japanese artists, musicians, composers, all of whom hold an important place in my heart... I found a community of contemporaries in Japan which I failed to find in my own homeland.”
“Ghosts,” for whatever reason, seems to have been the break, the sea-change which saw him begin to truly understand that many of his Western contemporaries – certainly the ones in Japan – weren’t on the same wavelength. Ever since, his work has seen him further and further strip away any semblance of the pop song that might be buried beneath the surface. It recalls the Japanese concept of Kaizen, Japanese for “good change.” The idea is one of continuous improvement, based on a process based on improved efficiency and an elimination of all unneeded pieces in the chain. As Sylvian once told Keith Rowe in BOMB Magazine, “Since the early ‘80s I’ve been interested in deconstructing the familiar forms of popular song, in retaining the structure but removing the pillars of support. My work continually returns to this question: how much of the framework can you remove while still being able to identify what is, after all, a familiar form?”
Will it eventually lead him to total silence? Only if Sylvian thinks it has something to say to him. Maybe it does.