British musician and ambient pioneer David Sylvian first attained prominence as the lyricist, composer, and vocalist of the high-art pop group Japan. A restless and progressive artist who strived for perfection, Sylvian left the group in 1982 to embark on an impressive solo and collaborative career. Over the years, and in between solo projects, Sylvian worked with other notable musicians, including Ryuichi Sakamoto (composer of classical scores for the films Last Emperorand Little Buddha), German composer Holger Czukay, and rock guitarist Robert Fripp (of the group King Crimson). In 1999, Sylvian, after a long absence from solo work, resu rfaced with his first full-length album in 12 years since 1987’s Secrets of the Beehive. Critics immediately hailed Dead Bees on A Cake, a title which Sylvian, a devout follower of the Buddhist religion, said referred to the concept of egolessness, as perhaps his most important solo record to date.
David Sylvian was born in 1958 in Beckenham, Kent, England, but spent most of his childhood and young adulthood in London. He gravitated toward a career in music early in life, and at age 16, joined a band at school in Catford, South London. As a founding member of the group Japan, a band that critics define as one of the most underrated and extraordinary bands of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Sylvian served as the group’s lyricist, composer, and vocalist. Japan’s other members included bassist and bass clarinetist Mick Karn (also known as Anthony Michaelides), synthesist Richard Barbieri, and drummer Steve Jansen (Sylvian’s brother). While Japan’s first two albums resembled the glam-rock style and image found with many pop groups of the late 1970s, their music progressively moved to a unique style that included both Eastern and orchestral influences, as well as early electrónica. Consequently, Japan rose in popularity with singles such as “The Art of Parties” and “Ghost”(from the album Tin Drum ), which reached number five on the British charts in 1982.
Just as the band was gaining a wider audience and critical acclaim, Sylvian lost interest in the pop business, and the band broke up in 1982 to pursue other musical avenues. Even years later, Sylvian resisted indulging in the nostalgia of Japan, preferring instead to discuss his future plans as a solo artist and collaborator with other like-minded musicians. “I’ve come down hard on Japan, because it was difficult to break away from being perceived as part of that line-up. I realise now that I probably never will. But I haven’t heard that material since 1982, so my evaluation of it comes through memory of what I thought I’d achieved at that time,” he
For the Record…
Born in 1958 in Beckenham, Kent, England; married singer/poet Ingrid Chavez, 1992; children: two daughters.
Joined group Japan, C 1954; Japan disbanded upon the success of their first hit single, “Ghost” from Tin Dum, 1982; recorded first single with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, “BambooMusic/Bamboo Houses,” 1982; composed lyrics for Sakamoto’s theme music for award-winning film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, released first solo album, Brilliant Trees, 1984; released ambitious double album, Gone to Earth, 1986; produced jazz-inspired, more acoustic album, Secrets of the Beehive, 1987; reunited with members of Japan as Rain Tree Crow, group released self-titled album, 1991; released two albums with rock guitarist Robert Fripp, The First Day, 1993, and Damage, 1994; moved to Minneapolis, MN, 1992; relocated to Sonoma, CA, 1997; released fourth solo album, Dead Bees On A Cake, 1999.
Addresses: Record company —Virgin Records, 338 N. Foothill Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210. Manager— Richard Chadwick, Opium (Arts) Ltd., 49 Portland Rd., London, U.K., Wl 14LJ. Website —http://www.virginrecords.com.
told Chris Roberts of the Daily Telegraph. Nonetheless, Sylvian continued an ever-maturing personal as well as professional relationship with his former band mates and felt that his friendships with them grew beyond the popular success of Japan in Great Britain.
Soon after the breakup of Japan, Sylvian met and began collaborating with musician Ryuichi Sakamoto, and their professional and personal relationship endured throughout Sylvian’s career.”Ryuichi has a wealth of knowledge of music of all genres,”Sylvian said to John L. Walters in an interview for Independent. ”He’s one of the few people who can apply that knowledge [clicks fingers] like that. You can be sitting in a room with him, working out an arrangement and say ’elements of Debussy would be nice, ’ and suddenly there they are; and then say, ’not Debussy, Bill Evans, ’ and there it is. That’s very rare, and it all has his signature.”In 1982, the two musicians recorded their first single together,”Bamboo Music/Bamboo Houses.”Then in 1984, Sylvian joined his friend for another joint effort when Sakamoto invited him to write and record the lyrics to the theme music from the award-winning film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, released in a vocal version as Forbidden Colours. Later, in 1992, Sylvian wrote the lyrics for Sakamoto’s single”Heartbeat.”Another long-standing relationship, this time with German composer Holger Czukay, resulted in the duo producing two albums together, Plight and Premonition in 1988 and Flux + Mutability in 1989. Both recordings featured long, lulling instrumentals.
Meanwhile, Sylvian also started to write music of his own. During thef irst stage of his solo career, he revisited what remained of Japan’s dreamy, pop-oriented explorations for 1984’s Brilliant Trees (which included contributions by Jon Hassell and Holger Czukay), but infused the songs with jazz and world music. In addition, he drew from the inspiration he had recently discovered through Buddhist teachings during his first visit to Tibet. This religion and love for the Tibetan people would influence the artist’s musical and personal direction for years to come. Sylvian then explored ambient music with Alchemy—An Index of Possibilities, released in 1985 on cassette only, and Words With Shaman, an EP drawn from Alchemy. His next undertaking, the ambitious double album Gone to Earth, arrived in 1986 and included contributors Robert Fripp and Bill Nelson. This work consisted of”semi-conventional songs and languid instrumentals,”according to the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock. Also in 1986, Sylvian released a body of previously unreleased songs entitled Gone to Earth. Following this, Sylvian produced a more jazz-inspired and acoustic album entitled Secrets of the Beehive in 1987. In 1989, all of these recording became available in one five-CD set called Weatherbox.
The next phase of Sylvian’s musical career saw a retreat from solo work that spanned over a decade. During this time, Sylvian”felt the need to move away from familiar forms, to stretch as a performer and writer,”as he explained to A.D. Amorosi in an interview for Magnet magazine.”Simultaneously, I went through an experience that was very difficult to get to grips with—one where I couldn’t comprehend it as I was going through it, so I couldn’t contend with it in my writing,”Sylvian continued.”I though collaboration would provoke a response through which I would recognize what I was living through.”Thus, he proceeded to call on the members of his former band for a reunion. However, he declined to record again under the name Japan and settled on calling the cast of musicians Rain Tree Crow. In the studio, the foursome improvised the unrestrained yet highly structured music reminiscent of Japan, exemplified in tracks such as the ethereal”New Moon at Red Deer Wallow,”as well as in the illusionary, flowing songs”Every Colour You Are,””Boat’s for Burning,””Blackwater,”and”Pocket Full of Change.”The group released the collection of workf rom their session in 1991 entitled Rain Tree Crow.
Following his work with Rain Tree Crow, Sylvian accepted an offerto collaborate again with Fripp, joined also by stick player Trey Gunn (who would later join King Crimson), drummer Jerry Marotta, and co-producerand programmer David Bottrill. They released the album The First Day in 1993, which the TrouserGuide to ’90s Rock described as”a fascinating and rewarding dialectic between Fripp’s searing, rhythmically intense physicality and Sylvian’s cerebral nonchalance”and”an engrossing, invigorating and mind-expanding adventure of sharp teeth and smooth skin.”Sylvian and Fripp then teamed again in 1994 to record Damage, an album with a quieter overall mood. Whereas the first album centered primarily around Fripp’s guitar playing, Damage more closely focused on Sylvian’s placid keyboard playing and vocals.
Personal difficulties further prevented Sylvian from taking on his next solo album.”It was a debilitating four-year period where I had to work through rather traumatic emotional experiences. A lot came to the surface,”he admitted to Amorosi.”I went into analysis… This breakthrough came at the same time I started working with Fripp, which is the same time I met my wife. It was strange because it felt like profound depression. Yet I couldn’t pinpoint it to any particular subject matter.”
Just prior to initiating his albums with Fripp, Sylvian met his wife Ingrid Chavez while recording with Sakamoto in 1992. Chavez, a singer and poet, co-star of pop singer Prince’s 1990 film Graffiti Bridge, and co-author of entertainer Madonna’s hit single”Justify My Love,”had sent Sylvian a tape of her work with the hopes of one day working with the talented musician. Then, when his lyrics written for Sakamoto’s single required female vocals, he remembered Chavez’s tape. Within two months after their meeting, Sylvian relocated from London to Minneapolis, Minnesota, and the couple married. They later had two daughters and moved to the town of Sonoma, located in California’s Napa Valley. Sylvian attributed much of his recovery and ability to progress creatively with Dead Bees On A Cake to moving to the United States, discovering his wife, and raising a family. After leaving London, Sylvian told Amorosi,”I felt more comfortable with my sense of alienation… In Minneapolis, I didn’t participate in the culture much. It’s a very isolated existence, which is easy to do there. I just hung out with the family and the studio I had built into the house. And the new work was borne of that life.”
However, the actual making of his solo project would not progress so easily for Sylvian, known for his slow work rate. In all, the album took about eight years to complete; roughly five years of writing the songs and almost three years of recording and studio work. Originally, Sakamato joined Sylvian as co-producer, but as the music went through numerous transformations and time dragged on, Sylvian found himself producing alone. His studio bill grew out of control, and when the money ran out, Sylvian was forced to mix the album (with engineer Dave Kent) in a barn studio in California. While at times Sylvian felt totally defeated, his perseverance paid off with the release of Dead Bees on A Cake in the spring of 1999.”For all of that,”he told Amorosi,”it became a far more personal album and all the richer for it. In the future, I won’t be so quick to hand over the reins.”
Like Sylvian, critics also agreed that Dead Bees On A Cake extended far beyond his previous solo work. Chris Roberts in the Daily Telegraph, for example, concluded that ”Dead Bees On A Cake is a lush, compelling and poignant a record as diehard fans might have hoped….”The album explored jazz and rhythm and blues alongside more ambient pieces, and lyrically, the songs represented a journey of self-discovery. In addition, Sylvian used samples for the first time during the finishing process. In one instance, he sampled legendary blues guitarist John Lee Hooker for the song”Midnight Sun.”Upon the positive reception of Sylvian’s 1999 solo project, the musician planned to continue working alone, as well as with other artists”After I’ve finished working on Ingrid’s album, that’s actually my next project,”he told Martin James of Future Music magazine.
Brilliant Trees, U.K. Virgin, 1984.
Alchemy—An Index of Possibilities, U.K. Virgin, 1985.
Words With the Saman EP, U.K. Virgin, 1985.
Gone to Earth, Virgin, 1986.
Secrets of the Beehive, Virgin, 1987.
(With Holger Czukay) Plight & Premonition, Venture/Virgin, 1988.
(With Holger Czukay) Flux+Mutability, Venture/Virgin, 1989.
Weatherbox, Virgin, 1989.
Brilliant Trees/Words With the Saman, Blue Plate, 1991.
(With Rain Tree Crow) Rain Tree Crow, Virgin, 1991.
(With Robert Fripp) The First Day, Virgin, 1993.
(With Robert Fripp) Damage, Virgin, 1994.
Dead Bees On A Cake, Virgin, 1999.
Robbins, Ira A., editor, Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Calgary Sun, April 4, 1999, p. 42; April 14, 1999, p. 66.
Daily Telegraph, March 27, 1999; April 3, 1999.
Independent, March 26, 1999, p. 11.
Future Music, August 1999, pp. 64-5.
Magnet, June/July 1999, p. 26.
Newsday, November 4, 1993, p. 83.
Reuters, August 23, 1996.
”Sylvian Remains One of Music’s Innovators,”Virgin Records, http://www.virginrecords.com (August 23, 1999).
”Years of Memories: an Interview with David Sylvian,”Weath-erbox website, http://web.nl.net/users/K.vanBunningen/music/sylvian/publications/articles/dboac/index.html(August 23, 1999).
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