David Sylvian takes on improv: Manafon (Performing Musician, December 2009)

Published at December 10, 2009

After a 30-year career, David Sylvian has just released his most adventurous album yet. With a new, and largely improvisational, approach to music, he tells PM why he feels hes only just beginning to learn his craft.
By Jonathan Wingate as published in Performing Musician (december 2009) on soundonsound.com. Currently offline.

Although there is little doubt that he has already created one of the most remarkable and idiosyncratic discographies of any musician who emerged from the 70s, unlike most avant-garde artists, Sylvian started out as a pop star and was dubbed the Worlds Most Beautiful Man. In 1974, he formed Japan, a cross between Roxy Music and the New York Dolls, but within the space of a few years the group completely reinvented themselves and emerged with a sophisticated set of musical ideas, which eventually attracted an equal mix of critical acclaim and commercial success.

Japan recorded five studio albums between 1978 and 1981 before Sylvian jumped ship, seemingly hell bent on reinventing himself as the darling of experimental music. He released his achingly beautiful solo debut, Brilliant Trees, in 1984, almost welcoming the chance to shed much of his original fan base.

He has released numerous avant-garde albums since, each one seemingly reaching further and further away from the mainstream, yet it was only when he fully embraced improv music with 2003s Blemish that he finally began to feel like he was really bringing his musical vision to fruition. His new album, Manafon, sees Sylvian singing against a sparse backdrop of improvisations by the likes of saxophonist Evan Parker and pianist John Tilbury. Whilst there is no getting away from the fact that it makes for challenging listening, its rich rewards only reveal themselves with time.

Worryingly, all thoughts of conducting a straightforward interview with Sylvian turn to steam a few minutes before he is due to speak to PM from his New Hampshire home when a gentle enquiry to his management office asking if there is anything he is uncomfortable talking about is met with the following email reply: He is a little uncomfortable talking about the past (Japan for instance) as its so far removed from where he is now. If you want to ask about it, thats OK, but if you want a great interview, then Id suggest other areas would be more productive for you. As it turns out, he is only too happy to talk about his past, present and future and, in the end, he is still fizzing with enthusiasm more than two hours into a conversation that was originally scheduled to last no more than half an hour.

Sylvian is and always was a serious artist, and as he has progressed through the years his work has become increasingly uncompromising the sort of music you really need to work at in order to find its hidden beauty. There have been many left-field artists who, broadly speaking, sounded like Sylvian, but ultimately he was out there on his own, retreating further and further from mainstream music with each album he released. There are countless avant-garde musicians struggling to attract attention in the mainstream media, but how many of them started out as bona fide pop pin-ups and later walked away from the mainstream because they felt so adrift from the charts that they simply had no choice?

Performing Musician: You seem to have taken a huge creative leap with Manafon and your last album, Blemish. Would you agree that youre getting more and more adventurous at this stage in your career?
David Sylvian: As is the case with all things in life, if you dont put the effort in, youre not going to get that much out of it. The real leap for me was Blemish, and I see Manafon as a continuation of the same process that created that album. Having turned that corner I felt that anything was possible, and finding how that process worked so well for me was like a new lease of creative life. Blemish was very much an intuitive process of throwing things together very rapidly and not really understanding how it worked or what I was doing.
Id go into the studio in the morning and improvise something generally on guitar and I might do a second improv and then immediately sit down and start writing a lyric to accompany the improv. As Im writing the lyric, the melodic line is coming into shape, and after a couple of hours you have a full lyric and a melodic line with cues set up in the context of the improv. You record it there and then on the spot. I generally worked on a new composition each day until the album was pretty much there in its finished form. Writing lyrics like that, you have to let go of all of your self-consciousness as much as you possibly can, in the same way as a musician would in a free improv setup.
PM: Youve got such a distinctive and beautiful voice. Given the instinctive nature of the music you are making, is it difficult to avoid the temptation to sing in a conventionally beautiful way?
DS: Well, my voice is what it is. Its developed the way it has over the years and I guess there is a natural inclination to sing well, but I try to adapt the vocal performance to the needs of the composition as I hear it at that moment in time. There are times on Manafon where the vocal is so exposed that it begins to verge on the spoken word, and there are times when the singing is less well performed, so its more an act of not over-selling it.
If you oversell it by over-singing it, which Im quite capable of doing, then youre really not serving the work and youre not going to pull it off as well as you might if youre more aware of what the work needs from you as a performer, not just as the composer. Im sure there would be a lot of elements about my performance that Id like to revisit, but I just went with whatever decision I made at that moment in time.

PM: Given that you are working with improvisatory musicians, would you say you have to completely trust their instincts rather than tell them exactly what you are looking for from them?
DS: With free-improv guys youre not really going to lay out a blueprint for them or steer them in any particular direction. If you make the right decisions about who should be in that particular room, you can then anticipate what might happen. Once everyone starts to improvise, whatever surfaces is bound to be amazing simply because Im working with the best musicians.
Its just about a general direction, so everything after that comes down to the integrity of the improvisation itself, and the musicians may or may not take or even remember the direction that they were given prior to that particular take. You kind of have to nudge and cajole to a certain extent, but also to know what youre looking for and then to really be able to narrow that field down once the ensemble settles into playing together.

PM: How quickly did you know whether this method was going to work?
DS: I had no idea if this approach was going to work until the seventh day of the Vienna session, which is when we struck gold and I knew what I wasnt looking for, so I then had to strip things away. What theyre doing may not serve my purpose, so I might suggest somebody leaves the room or somebody plays more melodically or more percussively, because the improvs were initially too dense and it was a very rich sound, but I was looking for something very sparse. I guess Id got the balance wrong by having too many people in the room at any given time, and the natural desire is to simply play with whoever is in the room at that particular moment. The musicians have to be able to recognise what the ultimate aim is.

Falling into place

Sylvians most recent collaborations have been with improvisational musicans. Though he admits that it does not have mainstream appeal, he is far happier with the creative scope it affords him.

PM: Would you say that you are the only person who knows what it is you are looking to achieve?
DS: Im mining for a kind of gold that only Im going to recognise, so although there was all this beautiful work being produced, it didnt serve my purpose. As the group is improvising, I can recognise what Im looking for immediately, although it can sometimes take a while to get there.

I knew who I wanted to work with and I knew the background of each of the musicians involved because Id done my research as a listener, but on the first day, I had absolutely nothing written at all. Nothing was played to the musicians before each session in London, Tokyo or Vienna. Most of the musicians had heard Blemish, so they kind of knew what I was trying to do. The challenge lies in the fact that one musician can change the piece dramatically in an instant by shifting sonically in any way they choose. How do I respond to that and how will I make it work? I find that fascinating, and thats when I get excited about what I can do with the material.

PM: When you play this music live, how much room do you leave for improvisation?
DS: I didnt know how we could perform Blemish live. Ultimately, there was a certain amount of electronics that remained flexible, but the bulk of the work was fixed. I eventually realised that was a mistake, so we should have left the whole setup open with a lot more variables. It was just myself and my brother, Steve, performing, and I think it would have been more satisfying to have had a larger ensemble with more variables involved. I thought I was done with live performance, but the only thing that could tempt me back is if I can find an ensemble that could perform this work with the free-improv elements at the heart of the performance.

PM: Is it difficult to translate this sort of music onto the live stage without actually losing focus?
DS: As a writer and as a musician, youre very aware of your limitations and you want to see how far you can push those parameters for yourself, so I find it very inspiring working without a safety net. The whole idea of collaboration is really to put yourself in a context in which you feel uncomfortable, so youre not quite sure how youre going to respond to what youre listening to.
It would be impossible to reproduce the album as it is, so it would be nice to find myself in the middle of a phrase and literally feel the work just begin to sort of dissipate beneath my feet as I grapple for the next line. I think that would be interesting and beautiful, because it would recreate the challenge that I have when Im working in the studio.

PM: That reminds me of that Paul Simon song, Everything Put Together Falls Apart.
DS: Yes, something exactly like that would be gorgeous, because it would keep you on your toes the whole time, and night after night the work would evolve and hopefully move and develop in interesting directions. At the end of a tour you might have a completely different-sounding set of compositions than what you started out with. I find it more and more difficult to enter into the spirit of the pieces when you know exactly how everythings going to fall into place. The problem for me with live performance is that I dont settle into repetition very comfortably, so it just begins to irk me after a while.

PM: Did you find that to be the case when you were touring with Japan?
DS: Oh yeah… for sure. My aims were different at the time, because it was a pop band and it was designed so that the material should be performed as closely to what one heard on the records as possible. I didnt really enjoy performing live very much back then, which was always an area of conflict between myself and the other guys whose lifeblood was live performance. For me, it was the least important element of being in that particular group.
Theres always been that conflict within me, and I never felt particularly comfortable as a live performer until I started performing much later with Robert Fripp. The best aspect of the work we did together was produced on stage, not in the studio, because its all about the live performance for Robert and the studio is more less the place for documenting the live work. I learned so much from being on stage with him.

PM: Thats a true jazz attitude, isnt it?
DS: It really is. Obviously for anybody who grew up in the 60s, that would have been their approach to creating the work because you didnt have the luxury of sitting around in the studio for months at a time. For people of my generation, the studio has always been a creative place where you develop and explore ideas.
I dont suppose theres actually an enormous difference between my approach in the studio and on stage. Maybe theres a little more freedom in the live performance because Ive lived with it for that much longer so I have a greater awareness of its melodic potential. The material can come alive on stage and you can fool around with it and try to draw more out of it.


Sylian maintains that he was never entirely comfortable performing during his Japan days. He feels that, for him, performing is his least favourite part of being a musican.

PM: Do you feel that modern recording technology can present musicians with too many options in the studio?
DS: Its so easy to answer that question in the affirmative, but I welcome the liberties that all the new technology affords me. Working with Pro Tools gives me far more choices and ways of editing a work compared to working with analogue tape. The only issue arises when you dont know what youre looking for.

Its all too easy to over-produce the work because you need never stop working on the material until youve polished every single aspect of it. You can only polish improvised music so much before you begin to lose something. Theres something pleasing about being about to just let it go whilst its still got a rawness thats very much a part of what was recorded on that day.

PM: Are conventional pop or rock structures of any remote interest to you now?
DS: As a writer theyve become less interesting, but thats not to say that will always be the case because its always interesting at some point to return to certain given limitations and see how well you cope within the confines of those parameters. Id been working with those forms for so many years and Id begun to feel hemmed in by conventional song structures, scales and chords. There wasnt enough out there that would challenge me as a singer, I really needed things to open up for me and I didnt know how to go about it. I wanted Blemish to be completely open and erratic with no sections, and I knew Id have to make sense of improvisation both as a vocalist and as a composer.

PM: When Japan split up, were you at all aware just how far out there your music would become?
DS: Oh, I couldnt have foreseen where it would lead, but you could see the seed of what was to come in the composition, Ghosts. It was a long way away from what I went on to do, but we should cover a span of 30 years and recognise an evolution and a maturity, shouldnt we? Sadly, youre not allowed to develop as an artist if you want to keep a massive audience at your side.
If you do away with the notion that what you do has to please everyone that bought the last album, then youre completely liberated. If your priority lies with the notion of commercial success, then youll only make so many ventures into unknown territory. It was fairly obvious that once my first solo record had hit the market then I was going to lose more and more of the commercial audience, but I was also aware that there were people who wanted to go on that journey with me, and it proved to be true.


PM: Now that you are releasing your records through your own label and you have complete artistic control, how much of a tangible difference has that made to your music?
DS: Well, you just dont even think about labels or intermediaries anymore. You go into the studio and you do what you feel you ought to be doing. There was a certain amount of self-censorship that went with being involved with a major label. When you delivered a particular kind of album, a couple of people at the top might say, Oh, thats wonderful, David. But by the time it reached the hands of the people who were actually going to work on the album, theyre saying, What the f*ck is this and what do you expect us to do with it? After that, it would just get lost. I think that being liberated from that kind of dinosaur of an industry had the effect of creating a sense of artistic and mental liberation.

PM: Didnt you wonder why you hadnt taken the great leap for creative freedom years ago?
DS: Well, I know why I didnt do it because I was signed to Virgin… in blood [laughs]. There were a number of people at Virgin who were very supportive of me, so I was afforded a lot of freedom to do what I wanted to do, although there were certain contractual compromises I had to make. The Virgin contract never seemed to end and I was forever adding more albums to the number that Id originally agreed to make for them. Theyd allow me to do what I wanted to do, and thats all I really cared about, but I had to pay the price.
I was liberated by the idea of starting my own label, and running Samadhisound isnt really a financial struggle. Virgin could reach all the corners of the world that we couldnt possibly reach with Samadhisound, but the overheads are so much lower. I was always in debt to Virgin, so Id earn very little from record sales. This way I earn money from every copy sold. So, although the sales are much smaller, Im financially better off.

PM: Who would you say have been your biggest musical influences?
DS: Certain artists seem to play an important part for a period of time and then that influence wanes and somebody else comes along that seems to be far more pivotal as an influence in your musical development. Then there are those who you return to again and again. Its odd, because when I look at the evergreen artists, Im not sure how much of their work you hear in my own. Growing up, I was very influenced by everything from Bowie to Roxy, but then there are other artists that Ive continued to listen to such as Nick Drake, John Martyn, Tim Buckley, Robert Wyatt and Scott Walker.
In terms of artists who have informed my more recent work, I really dont know anyone whos covering this kind of territory as a vocalist. All I can say is thank heavens that some of the musicians that Im currently working with, such as Evan Parker and Keith Rowe, are doing what they do, because without them these creative options wouldnt be presented.

PM: When you look back on the music you made with Japan, does that seem like the work of a totally different artist and a totally different man?
DS: Of course, there are links and theres continuity there, but it does seem like its lifetimes away. I dont even recognise that I was the person who created the work, and I think Im just fooling around with the material at that point. If Ive sat on stage in the past decade and sung anything from that time, I almost feel like an imposter. I dont know whether I have made a conscious effort to push that stuff behind me and go off on a different tangent entirely in terms of purpose and motivation, but since then Ive not thought about the work that I did with Japan. Its just something that I did as a keen young 20-something man.

PM: You really had to do your growing up in public, didnt you?
DS: Yes. I certainly had to do my growing up in public and I really dont advise it [laughs]. Give yourself a few more years. I dont mind talking about past work in the light of current work, but Ive got no desire to really delve into the past and talk about what I was thinking when I was 16. To have the public focus on Japans work is ironic to me, because its been relatively unimportant in terms of my development as an artist. What it did do was set up a platform for me from which to work, and it was a fantastic education, but not much more than that for me.

Musical maturity

PM: Would you say that Tin Drum (2007) was the first album that you can loosely link to what you went on to pursue as a solo artist?
DS: Yes, mainly because of the presence of Ghosts on that album, and because of the sonic exploration that we were into at that point. Richard Barbieri and myself produced the majority of the electronic sounds on that album using two or three keyboards, and it was very laborious work. It would send producers, engineers and musicians into states of complete boredom [laughs]. They had to take long breaks because wed be in the studio tapping away at keyboards, programming and looking for these elusive sounds that we wanted to get to. What was enjoyable was delving into the sonic nature of what we were working with and really breaking up those arrangements into these kinds of mini-electronic scores, although Im not sure how much of it I took into the work immediately following on from Japan.

PM: Did you find that way of working too laborious?
DS: Yes, I wanted a break from that kind of microscopic approach to creating sound. I began to loosen up and I wanted to work with more proficient musicians who could feel more fluent in their ability to improvise with my compositions; people who could bring in the unexpected sonic surprises. Initially there was a desire to get into working with more acoustic sounds, because for the last three Japan albums, it had all been about programming sounds.
The recording process was very restrictive and incredibly laborious, but it was a very exciting period, because thats when synthesizers had become much more affordable. On Tin Drum there was no musician interaction at all, so when Steve played the drum kit, he had to play each drum individually. I really had to loosen things up in the studio and begin to enjoy the interaction between musicians again. It was incredibly liberating, so thats where I continued to go for some time after the disbanding of Japan.

PM: Would you say you had to find a completely new way of writing after Japan?
DS: I just thought that was the right time to move on in so many ways. I didnt know how I was going to develop my writing following on from Ghosts, so my relationship with Ryuchi Sakomoto was pivotal. I was beginning to allow myself to appear a little less masked in my work. I felt that I needed to be able to write material that had a greater profundity to it, so there were personal turning points that had to be made prior to making the shift that became Brilliant Trees. The album opened the dam and allowed the creativity to flow again, because I had felt quite stifled and I really didnt know how I was going to move forward.
The material accompanies you on a journey through life, so for the work to reflect those changes, it has to evolve and mature. I just feel that I have to be true to my work and myself. Throughout my career, all I am ever trying to do is service the work, because the work is all youve got to stand by.

PM: Do you feel as if you are able to bring your ideas to fruition quicker as you get older?
DS: Maybe as you get older, you feel that theres a certain confidence and eloquence there, so youre not beating around the bush quite so much. You know exactly how to find what youre looking for. I think the intuitive aspect of what I do is the heart of the work. There can be a lot of conceptualising about the work, but when youre actually in the act of creating the music, its just a matter of trusting in the creative process.

PM: Is it true that when you went through your cocaine period, you didnt use the drug for inspiration but because you couldnt actually stay awake for more than four hours at a time, so it enabled you to be productive?
DS: Well, for that period, cocaine was a facilitator. It didnt bring out the best work in me and it certainly affected the tone of my voice when I sang. I did use coke just to enable me to stay awake for long enough to produce work and to fulfill a days commitments in the studio. As soon as I no longer had the requirement for it, I had to overcome the addiction, which took a little while. Once I was over it, I never touched cocaine again.

The sound of surprise

PM: How do you get into the zone, creatively?
DS: Its fairly automatic. Its not a matter of gearing myself up, its a matter of knowing that theres something there that needs to be addressed. Right now, Im quite happy to be divorced from my working life while theres nothing that needs to be addressed, and thats why Ive stayed away from music for the past few months. I dont get a sense that something is on its way, so I dont try to make music, and I dont listen to it very much either.
Ill know when something is coming and thats when Ill feel the gears shift and there will be a kind of anticipation and then a gestation period. Its like something sitting in the farthest reaches of ones own mind, and it starts gently asking for your attention. Once thats made its presence felt, youll know that somethings on its way, and then its time to start thinking about it seriously.

PM: Do you find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated by the limitations of using the same set of conventional notes and scales?
DS: I feel as if this ground has been covered too many times, and were always faced with this problem of working with the same scales and the same notes, so its a question of how we loosen that up. Obviously none of the material on Manafon was written with an instrument, and I find the idea of writing at an instrument extremely limiting right now. At some point I know Im going to find the idea of being faced with the same limitations as once before quite uplifting.
When I made Blemish and Manafon, it did feel like a new beginning for me in so many ways because it was a completely new process of creating the work. Youre not afforded those new beginnings that many times in life. I felt that this is really something that gets me fired up in a way that I havent felt in years.

PM: Would you say you have always felt like an outsider as an artist?
DS: Yes, but I wasnt always comfortable being outside. I always seem to have stayed on the periphery of things, both in my life and my work, and I didnt like that. I sort of wanted to be at the heart of things, I wanted to be welcomed into the family, but that never quite happened. Once I began to embrace where I stood, I felt very comfortable where I was and I began to work more practically there.

PM: Although youve always embraced what Whitney Balliett, the famous American jazz critic, called the sound of surprise, the music youre making now is the most adventurous of your entire career.
DS: Well, I really appreciate you vocalising that, because the people who are close to me that have heard the album took an immediate dislike to it, and although I knew it wasnt going to be for everyone and that its very challenging, I didnt know how to take it. I think that this music is like listening to somebody speaking in a foreign language. First of all you just cant make out anything that theyre saying, but if you listen carefully enough, youve just got to begin to try and absorb it on a different level and then things start making sense. When I hear Derek Bailey its easy listening for me, and I think thats just a matter of opening up to his language and then absorbing it.

PM: Would you say that music is something that you can over-think?
DS: Oh, absolutely. If you start over-intellectualising, youre disrupting the process and the fluidity of the work itself, and the work is not an intellectual process, its just an intuitive one. To a certain degree that has got to get checked at the door prior to entering the studio.
As a free-improviser youre not working with the composition until that moment youre in a room with other people, so the most you can do to prepare is to practice. To back it up with a rigorous intellectual notion of why youre doing what youre doing takes away the element of the unknown. Of course, the unknown is what everybody is in search of and without it youve got nothing. Youre probably not going to get that attitude from someone like Keith Richards, but you are going to get it from most of the free-improv guys.

PM: Dont you think that for most people, avant-garde music is perceived to be utterly inaccessible by the mainstream, a bit like modern art?
DS: I think theres that awful thing that sometimes applies to modern art where people feel like theyre being conned. Are you kidding me? A child could do that. You should be able to look at a painting in a gallery without reading the little bit of blurb next to it to explain it to you. If you take those defences down and just open up intuitively to music, you get much better rewards than if you approach it critically and sceptically.
I think we should try and open everything up and say This isnt as difficult as you think it is. Just give it a go. Its like somebody explaining what a fairground ride is going to do to you while youre up there. All you have to do is get in your seat and do it, and then its like, Well, that was easy. I enjoyed that.


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