Blowing Hearts and Minds Wide Open
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2005 Anil Prasad.
David Sylvian’s musical journey is one of soul-searching and constant change. The British singer-songwriter’s career began in 1974 with the group Japan. Comprised of Sylvian, his brother and drummer Steve Jansen, keyboardist Richard Barbieri and bassist Mick Karn, the band’s sound was initially inspired by glam-rock icons such as David Bowie and the New York Dolls. The group eventually took on iconic status itself with 1981’s Tin Drum, its fifth and final studio album. The record saw the completion of Japan’s transformation into a synth-based, adventurous pop act full of world music influences and vivid textures.
Sylvian quickly established a remarkable solo career after Japan’s demise. His debut album, 1983’s Brilliant Trees, occupied a middle ground between pop sensibilities and a genuine desire to head into more cerebral territory. It also saw the falsetto vocals of his Japan years evolving into the deep, aural charcoal that is his natural range. Many impressive records followed, including 1985’s Gone To Earth, 1987’s Secrets Of The Beehive and 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake. Each offers a delicate combination of flickering atmospheres, subtle orchestration and intricate imagery. Sylvian’s choice of remarkable guitarists including Robert Fripp, Bill Frisell, Bill Nelson, Marc Ribot, and David Torn also helped ensure each record possessed a distinct identity.
Sylvian’s most recent studio album Blemish is without question his most challenging. The improvisation-based disc was recorded at his home studio in New Hampshire and released on his own independent label Samadhi Sound. Half of the record features entirely solo performances, with Sylvian taking on all of the vocals, guitar work and electronic treatments. Experimental guitarists Derek Bailey and Christian Fennesz contribute to the disc’s other tracks. The album’s songs are as evocative and fragile as any of Sylvian’s prior work, but housed in fractured structures that include disquieting buzzes, hums and clicks designed to provoke listeners to go beyond the act of complacent listening. Blemish also features Sylvian’s most stark, intense and emotionally distressed pieces to date. His latest disc, The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter, takes Blemish’s material and turns it on its head via a series of remixes by avant-garde musicians and producers including Ryoji Ikeda, Burnt Friedman and Yoshihiro Hanno.
Describe your creative process.
For me, the starting point is having a very tangible sense that something is coming through, ideas are beginning to form or there’s a wealth of emotion that needs to find a voice. It’s a sensation I don’t analyze but take for granted when it’s beginning to surface. I think of it as a gestation period in which you carry the sensation around for a certain period of time, let it grow and clarify itself. The means of doing this can be through listening to music or experimenting with my own compositions, but not actually getting into writing the material. It’s more about working with sound and what seems to reflect well on the notion of the material that wants to come through. When this material is rising, there is a period in which I go into sponge mode and selectively absorb other material that can be derived from things like novels, poetry or travel. I tend to create a receptive space within my own psyche in which I feel the possibility of this material coming to a point of fruition or readiness. Once I’ve reached that level, I know that at any given point I can give the work some form or structure. From that period forward, there’s a greater sense of rapidity in terms of the development of that material. I’ll sit down at a guitar, keyboard or laptop and the material will begin to take shape very, very quickly. The reason that happens is because I’ve allowed the period of gestation to happen which can last from weeks to months to a year. For instance, I had the notion of Blemish kicking around for about a year prior to actually sitting down and writing the material. But the whole album from writing to completion of mixes was done in a period of six weeks.
What tend to be the biggest challenges you face when creating music?
My limited abilities as a musician represent the greatest frustration, but they are also the source of creative solutions. The notion of craftsmanship is something that tends to alienate me somewhat. I’m not a craftsman in the way some songwriters are. I don’t aim to find formulas that work for me. I always try to write from a very impulsive and intuitive standpoint. When it actually comes to the process of writing material, I’m usually trying to write on a guitar or keyboard, but I only have a limited capacity as a player and sometimes I want to go further afield than my technical abilities allow. That sometimes leads to interesting solutions and it can mean moving away from traditional instruments and using synthesizers, samplers and laptops. For Blemish, I also played down my ability as a guitarist and tried to find fresh ways of approaching the instrument. I would hit the guitar instead of playing it. I would strike the strings in different ways and treat the sound after the fact. That’s another example of how I overcame my limitations. I’m not doing anything new for guitarists in general, but I’m trying to move away from my previous approaches to the instrument whether it’s through those methods, radical retuning or using feedback. That’s what created the possibility of producing Blemish as quickly as I did. I would just sit down with the guitar and amp and try to get sounds out of the instrument without necessarily strumming the guitar. It facilitated the whole improvisational aspect of the compositional process.
What’s your overall philosophy as a guitarist?
I’m self-taught, so I’ve always invented my own chords and had wonderful experiences confusing guitarists by showing them shapes that I play and getting them to work out what the hell they might be. My approach has to do with what I’m familiar with. There’s a wealth of guitars and pedals out there. The trick for me is to learn one or two of them really well and try to get them to speak for me. I use an old Ampeg amp, a few pedals, and a handful of guitars, including a Steinberger and a Klein. I try to get what I need out of them. I think you become more inventive that way. I think familiarity is so much an important part of facility. The last thing you want to do when you’re getting to grips with writing or recording a piece of music is to sit there and open a manual. Nothing’s going to kill the creative spirit faster than that. I’m also not really a fantastic soloist. I still struggle to find the right chords on a guitar. I kind of relearn the instrument every time I pick it up. There are a lot of musicians like me out there—people who tend to be composers more than they are musicians.
What qualities do you look for in guitarists you collaborate with?
I’m interested in players that take the instrument that extra mile to develop a vocabulary that’s entirely their own. I tend to listen to a lot of guitarists and they’re often in my frame of reference. In terms of who I collaborate with, it depends on the nature of the composition. Typically, the compositions cry out for a particular voice. For “Midnight Sun” on Dead Bees On a Cake, it was just obvious that it needed Marc Ribot. It screamed out for him. I was trying to be true to the composition by having him play on it. Having said that, I’ve worked with guitarists in other ways too. For Blemish, I asked Derek Bailey to present me with a musical challenge that I could respond to as a vocalist. I didn’t give him a composition to which I wanted him to make a contribution. There was a similar set-up when I worked with Bill Frisell on the dobro pieces we did together for Dead Bees On a Cake.
Blemish was a radical departure from the more traditional songwriting territory of your previous efforts. What motivated you to go that route?
What I was feeling as a listener as much as a writer is that the old forms just weren’t working anymore. I found my previous work wasn’t resonating with me as much as it once did. I felt it was time to find new ways in which to express myself and that these forms would be somewhat more challenging by nature. I believe on the whole that the old forms we’ve been working with for so many years have grown somewhat tired and therefore they’re too comfortable and don’t necessarily touch us emotionally as deeply as they once could. They’re speaking with a language that’s overly familiar and we have to redefine that language in terms of musical composition and that was what I was trying get to grips with on Blemish. When making the record, I sidestepped the issue of structure to some degree to explore and have greater freedom lyrically. There was a certain sense of immediacy in that the lyrics were written on the spot. Before they had really taken form, I was singing them into a microphone. From that point onwards, it was a process of piecing the songs together by editing from a series of performances. The rough lyrics meant there wasn’t time to ask “Is this a good line?” or “Is this line appropriate here?” I was really just winging it. Whatever surfaced is what I what I went with in order to allow the full potency of the idea to come through. It really wasn’t until the end of the work day or the next morning that I’d get a clear comprehension of the potential of the piece or whether it had worked or not. But I didn’t allow myself to rework anything. Everything had to stand on its own at the end of the session. So, the discipline was to avoid refining and leave everything in a rather raw state.
What appealed to you about having other musicians remix Blemish material for The Good Son vs. The Only Daughter?
I think a lot of musicians feel the same way I do in that remixes are more often than not unsuccessful in reevaluating a piece of music and putting a new light on a composition. To be honest, I’ve been very reluctant to delve too deeply into remix culture just because for the most part the people remixing the work would rather be creating their own work. Often, they’re really just doing this on the basis of a commission, so it’s a paid job and therefore you’re only getting so much commitment. Very rarely do these remixes improve or elaborate on the originals or further the emotional content. Having said that, I felt the Blemish material offered a unique opportunity for certain individuals to get to grips with and really rework the compositions in a rather elaborate manner. I felt the tracks were particularly malleable in that way. For the most part, the material on Blemish was recorded over drones or two-chord pieces, with the exception of the Derek Bailey-related compositions. So, I felt there was a great deal of freedom for those that might want to get involved with the material. On top of that, there was the notion of working with artists that I have come into contact with over the past year or so. I kind of used the remixes as a way of testing the waters for possible future collaborations.
How would you characterize your core motivations as a musician today?
My interests lie in the idea of songs for the 21st Century. It’s the desire to speak to now in a way that is somewhat provocative and not exactly easy listening. The rewards of being confronted by this kind of material is a sense of being alive within the creation of the work. It’s similar to when you walk into an art gallery and there’s a new and powerful piece of art there on which the paint is hardly dry. The piece is speaking to now and you can somehow connect with that work on an equal footing. It’s very much alive and of its time. I think it’s an enormous and valuable challenge to attempt to create work that embodies its time and speaks to it with a new vocabulary. We’ve become numb and complacent in the way we approach music. You could just explore the past, but does it really speak to you in the same way as something created in your time with the intention of getting across very complex emotions? It’s time for renewal. We’re saturated with the past and familiar forms. We need to cleanse the system and reinvent it so we can really feel again. We need to go the other way to find and create work that is provocative and can steal up on us where we’re relatively unaware and really blow our hearts and minds wide open.