By Fiona Russell Powell. Published in The Face, October 1982.
David Sylvian had agreed to do only three interviews when he returned to England from a month’s stay in Japan. The first was for the Sunday Times, the second for THE FACE, and he had yet to decide what the third would be. Sylvian is a very private and serious person; quiet, unassuming, sensitive and shy to the extreme. Because he feels he has “nothing to say” he rarely does interviews and has often regretted them afterwards. To avoid any misrepresentation or confusion, I have taped the words right out of his mouth, adding no insights or judgements of my own. He is also a non-consumerist, ironic when you consider that the country he adores thrives on consumerism. During the weeks that Japan were in the charts with their pre-Virgin version of “I Second That Emotion”, dug out by Hansa to keep the revenue rolling, and while David enjoyed fair success with”Bamboo Music”, his record with Riuichi Sakamoto, he chose to spend the entire month on holiday in Japan.
FRP: What brand of make-up do you use and what have you got on now?
Sylvian: Clinique. At the moment I’m wearing foundation, mascara, eyeshadow and powder.
Do you ever go out without wearing make-up?
Sometimes, not often though. It’s a real habit now. You must appreciate the fact that if you’re so used to wearing make-up it’s really difficult to step outdoors without it.
Where are you living at the moment?
In Kensington, just off Gloucester Road.
Did you buy your flat?
No, I never buy anything. I rent the flat because I feel that if you buy a place then you’ve actually made a decision to stay somewhere for a long period of time. I just rent a very small apartment, it’s horrible actually. When I moved in there was just one sofa and one bed and that was it and I haven’t really bothered to do much else with it, I just threw my belongings on the floor. I never got round to decorating it. I don’t think of it as a permanent place, it’s not got any character. Besides, I’m planning to move next week -a furnished flat, probably still in Kensington. However, I’m not sure if I want to stay in this country so when I decide where I’m going to live I’ll think about buying a flat.
What’s the truth behind that famous quote of yours, the one about every member of Japan except for one having had a love affair with a man?
It must have been a long time ago that I said something like that. I was thinking about that the other day actually, when we first started doing interviews for all the big dailies, every single interviewer came along and asked me if I was bisexual.
Well, are you?
No. Once I was really honest about my sex life, I said all the things that I believed, that I didn’t enjoy sex and so on, but all that ever happened was that I’d be the Quote Of The Month in Cosmopolitan or something. It really doesn’t get you anywhere.
Everybody heard about how you pinched Mick Karn’s girlfriend and you were cast in a very bad light, as a cad etc. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen your side of the story in print.
Well, we still live together on and off. But that whole thing with the Press should never have happened. It seems to me that somebody took advantage of Mick when he was in a very unstable frame of mind. That interview in ZigZag -it was so obvious that the guy was upset and the girl who did the interview knew Mick really well and should have taken his feelings into consideration. I can’t explain the whole situation completely because it would mean delving very deeply into Mick’s private life and I don’t see that I’ve got the right to do that.
What is your attitude towards groupies and how do you deal with them?
I normally try to stop that from happening although there’s different types. You get the hard-core groupie who would follow nearly any band around the country, those types I feel nothing for. But it’s sad really, the girls get dragged into it in some way, they idolise somebody and then they start following them around and end up being involved in the groupie side of it. In Japan especially, with some of the American bands, they’ll pick up any Japanese girl that seems to be slightly interested in them at all and they get dragged into it without realising what’s happened.
I don’t believe they can be that naive.
They are because Japanese women have a different attitude to sex.
Do you get girls writing to you proposing marriage?
Oh yes, and the Japanese ones normally want to have my baby.
So in general you find Japanese women infinitely more attractive?
Yes, I find Asian faces more beautiful to look at. I also prefer the Japanese nature and mentality.
How do you think I’d go down with Japanese men, having pale skin and all that?
They’d like you, they like anyone blond and pale with blue eyes. They like blond hair because it’s so unusual, they don’t see it that often.
Where do you stay when you go to Japan?
This time I stayed in an area called Shinjuku, there’s like a batch of about eight very tall skyscraper buildings all on the top of the hill and they are the only ones in Tokyo -one of them is a hotel and I stayed there. The last time I went to Kyoto I stayed in a traditional Japanese hotel and that was pretty nice.
Do you wear aftershave?
What sort of music were you brought up on?
There were three albums in the house; and they were “The Flight Of The Bumble Bee”, “South Pacific” and “The King And I”. And that was all I heard until later on when I heard some Motown and that was the first music I actually got interested in.
What was the last record you bought?
I bought a whole batch of records in Japan and a lot of them were by famous ‘chanson’ singers like Pierre Barouh.
God, I simply adore him, he’s so romantic. I’ve got a great record of his -the soundtrack album to “A Man And A Woman”.
I really love his music, I met him recently in Japan where he was recording an album. I guess he’s about 47 and he’s such a wonderful person, he’s so interesting and I’ve never met such a gentle, open person. I mean he doesn’t care about who you are, what you do or what you’ve done, he just meets you and talks to you and you can really feel the warmth coming from him.
Do you believe in ectoplasm?
I’m not sure really. I think I do because in some photographs that were taken of Harry Hosono (bass player with the Yellow Magic Orchestra) you can see this strange smoke stuff coming out of his ear. It’s really weird because no-one knows what it is and it only shows on photographs. It’s been’suggested that it could be ectoplasm.
When you first started Japan did you ever think that you might become the sex symbol that you are today?
I thought there were a lot of things that were inevitable about what I was doing and that was one of them. I always knew I’d be successful.
Do you consider yourself good-looking?
No, I’ve never had that confidence and I would certainly not set out to promote that side of things.
I hear that you like Nina Simone.
Yes, she’s one of my favourites too. Well, she was. Recently her concerts have got worse and worse, she’s really deteriorating. She comes on and plays about two songs completely and with the rest she just sort of meanders around and talks to the audience and caters to the gay following that she has. The last time I saw her even the audience got bored and started slowhand clapping. It’s such a shame because she made some wonderful music.
Are you at all frightened or tempted by the power that you have to influence young people?
I’m not frightened by it. You see, it’s very easy to manipulate people and a lot of people in my position do. But that’s not necessary, you only have to do it if you’ve got an ego that needs to feel that power. I’m told that I influence people by what I say and it upsets me to think that with everything I say, somebody somewhere might be taking it down as gospel. I remember I did an interview with the NME at the beginning of the year, with this bloke who I’ve remembered never to do an interview with again, and we were talking about war and things, then everything I said was totally pulled out of context. A few weeks later I had a guy blaming me for influencing kids because I’d said that war was healthy and it should happen. Now that disturbed me, I will always try to avoid influencing young people, I think it’s important to follow your own intuition.
If you could come back as anything or anybody, whom or what would you choose to be?
A Buddhist priest. I’m not deeply religious, I suppose I’m interested in Buddhism in a superficial way, but their lifestyle really fascinates me.
Have you worked out a spectacular stage show for your imminent tour?
At the moment we’re designing the stage set which is made up of three kites, not Japanese in style but Japapese in arrangement.
Do you enjoy touring?
No, normally I don’t like touring because I think it’s just in the way, I’d rather be doing something more interesting and creative. But this one I’m looking forward to because I haven’t really been working this year and so touring doesn’t interfere with my life anymore. It should be quite fun. The support band, Sandii and the Sunsets, are a good band, and the guitarist is a Japanese one out of Ipu Do As we haven’t worked together as a group for so long it should be quite fresh.
Were you satisfied with “Bamboo Music” and will you continue your collaboration with Riuichi Sakamoto?
It was the first time that I had worked with Riuichi Sakamoto properly, we both went into the studio and started writing there and then and the idea was to come up with something interesting. But there’s always a chance that it isn’t going to turn out exactly as you planned it. When I finished “Bamboo Music” I couldn’t say that I was 100% pleased with it, but that was partly because of the circumstances, we were only together for about six days and it took me ages to finish the thing after Sakamoto left. As time goes by, I enjoy it more and more simply because the song has so many things about it that I would like to improve on. I always find that songs that I’m pleased with at the time of finishing -I never go back and listen to again- there’s no point, but with something that you’re not totally sure about you find that you get more attached to it as time goes by.
If you don’t mind me saying so, I don’t think “Bamboo Music” is much of a step forward. It sounds very much like Japan and I thought the whole point of branching out on your own was to satisfy creative urges that can’t be fulfilled within the confines of the group.
I’ve always written the stuff for Japan and normally I’ve directed it as well, so obviously something that I did is going to sound close to Japan even if it’s a solo project; I don’t think that’s a bad thing although I suppose it’s true that you should try to get away from what you were doing previously. However, that single was planned while Japan still existed, Sakamoto and I had wanted to work together for over a year. I’m in no hurry to break away and prove myself as a capable solo artist, I still relate to things I did with Japan, probably more strongly than any of the others do, because it’s all my material. I don’t actually differentiate between that single and Japan’s stuff.
Have you ever met Bryan Ferry?
Do you get annoyed when people accuse you of having modelled yourself on him?
No, of course I didn’t model myself on him, my conscience wouldn’t allow it although I’m not really insulted by the comparison. I take so little notice of what people say or write about me, it’s so unimportant. I’m extremely sensitive about what people say but only if they’re people whose opinions I value.
Do you bother reading the music press?
Not often. I read THE FACE, I think it’s probably the most interesting music magazine around and I like the artwork in it.
Do you think Mick Karn’s single deserved to do as well as yours?
I think I feel the same way that Mick feels about it. I don’t think Mick particularly liked the single very much but it was something he had to do, it’s the first thing he’s written and it was done at a time when he was very confused. It wasn’t exactly a truthful statement.
Do you like children?
I hate children. Children in airplanes is my biggest hate, I just cannot stand having children in such close contact and not being able to get away from them.
What do you like to watch on your video?
I haven’t got one, I haven’t even got a colour TV, I’ve still got a black and white TV. I prefer to watch in black and white, I’m romantic that way. I think that if you watch something in black and white, you can fantasise about it, you can’t with colour as it’s too real.
Is there anyone you admire and would especially like to meet?
Andy Warhol was on the top of my list until I met him recently in New York when I did an interview for Interview magazine plus an interview for Andy’s cable TV show. You know that image he portrays, that of banality, like going along with everything that you say, everything’s great and wonderful? Well he’s not really like that, you can tell that there’s something deeper than that. Most people have the impression that he doesn’t speak very much, that he just responds to people’s questions in that ‘Yeah great’ manner, but really he talks quite a lot and he’s a very interesting person.
What’s your idea of luxury?
I enjoy being driven. In cars you can dream a lot -you can get a lot of thinking done.
Have you ever considered committing suicide?
Yes, when I was younger, when I was about 14 or 15. When I came to the conclusion that I can kill myself tomorrow, I thought ‘Why bother?’ With that sort of attitude -you can do anything, there’s nothing to stop you from doing absolutely anything with your life. If you develop that attitude at a very young age then you can make decisions about your life that normal people wouldn’t do, because if you can accept death or the fact that you can kill yourself at any time, every day is an extra day. Anything you do -there’s always a point where you can say ‘I could finish tonight, but then tomorrow I could maybe find or do something interesting to keep me going’. At a very early age I really felt that I understood myself and that there was little that anyone could tell me about myself that I wouldn’t already know, and from that stage on it seemed interesting to put myself into different situations and see how I could cope with them. I completely follow my instincts. It’s like a game really. I enjoy life now because of my lifestyle, I couldn’t bear to do anything that I didn’t enjoy. I don’t know if I’ve even got the guts to kill myself but I think I could, so now it doesn’t even enter my mind because I’ve accepted it already.
Do you believe in Fate?
I believe that you are equipped with the best mentality or the sensitivity or whatever to cope with your particular way of life, your direction. I’m not saying that it’s all destiny or fate, but it all goes in one direction. To some extent you choose the way yourself when you’re young, but there is a line that you will follow, that you are best equipped to cope with. For example, I’m incapable of doing all the things that most normal people would do, whether it’s vacuuming the house, washing the pots, or going to the supermarket. I’m physically incapable of doing that, it’s too much of a strain. Now most people value that sort of routine in their life, they find it very important to get up each morning and do those things for themselves, and those people are equipped to do that, they have the mentality and the lack of sensitivity, whichever it is, to cope with that lifestyle. There’s worse things, if there’s some old man sleeping in the street, yet again, he’s equipped to manage his situation, but if you or I were in that situation we’d probably not be alive because we’re not meant to be like that. I don’t believe that everything is planned for you, I believe that every day there are about ten directions that you can choose to go in that will alter your life. Every couple of years you can make a drastic change in your life by one small act and that choice is always there but you never have more than is necessary. Because of your mentality you cannot help but go in the direction given to you. You can’t go and work in Boots Chemist for the rest of your life, your mentality won’t allow it, but there are many people that will do because they haven’t got the strength to move on or get out of that situation. I’ve always had the fear of becoming a tramp, you know, just losing control over everything. I have no friends of my own age. They’re all older, betwen 30 and 50. I’ve been really down lately because I’ve met nobody who can teach me anything new. That’s why I’we’ been reading a lot, in that vague hope that I can learn something from someone who is far more intelligent than I. I’ve been wondering why do intelligent people in the later stages of their lives turn to religion? When you’re that old, who do you look to for influence and learning? I read Hermann Hesse’s Siddartha recently, it’s such a simple but amazing book. You really should read it.
On Fiona’s site, there’s also an interview with Andy Warhol who is mentioning David Sylvian:
DY: Are you still working on some lyrics for the group Japan or did that all fall through?
Oh, what is his name? … David something…
FRP & DY: Sylvian!
Yeah, oh, what happened to him?
FRP: He hasn’t done very much for ages.
Oh really, why? He was so cute. God, he was so cute. I really liked him a lot. He’s not doing anything? Why not? Does he wear make-up?
DY: God, yes, he wears tons!
FRP: What did happen to the lyrics?
Well, because he went back to England and then he went to Japan so it was sort of hard for us to get together. Anyway, it was only going to be one line.
FRP: What was the line?
That’s what we were having trouble deciding.