Interview by Billy Donald, originally posted on his unofficial Steve Jansen tribute site (geocities.com, defunct since 2009)
Billy Donald’s Exclusive Interview with Steve Jansen – July 2003
It was around this time last year that I interviewed Steve Jansen for the first time, and looking back on that previous encounter, I realize now just how unprepared and unversed I was into the musical genius of Steve Jansen. True, I was a longtime fan of Japan going into that interview, and my questions were naturally heavy on the Japan side. After that interview, I wanted to explore all of the other creative venues of Steve Jansen, so I ventured out to find many of the Jansen/Barbieri/Karn collaborations, the Dolphin Brothers, No-Man, solo work of David Sylvian, and basically anything I could get my hands on. Although Steve was always one of my favorite drummers, when I heard his work outside of Japan, I realized that he was much more than a drummer. He is a musical artist, creating music that was deeply textured and colorful. Not only is Steve my favorite drummer now, he is my favorite musician. I have found great musical inspiration from his work which has only been a completely positive influence on my own drumming and musicianship. Through Steve’s music, I have learned that being an effective drummer isn’t completely about rhythm or how hard you hit the drums. It is also knowing when and how to create atmosphere and to tell a story through the music. It has really opened my eyes. Knowing that Steve is a very busy man at all times with two record labels on his plate (Medium and Samadhi), it is an honor that he took time from his schedule to sit down for a new interview with me. This time, the questions were more abundant and more thought-provoking perhaps. Steve was more than up to the challenge! Q: Steve, it is a great honor to have you as my guest here once again, and it is even more of a thrill for me because it is going to be an exclusive feature to The Unofficial Steve Jansen site, which I am very proud of.
A: Thanks for your interest and for dedicating some webspace to me. I appreciate the time and energy you’ve put into it.
Q: You have lots of interesting things keeping you busy, as usual, especially with the launching of the new Samadhi Sound label with your brother, and new music being produced. What can you tell us about the music that you are working on right now?
A: David and I want to push our boundaries somewhat. It’s the first time for the two of us to co-write an album together and our objective is to steer clear of familiar compositional structures. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It means that quite a bit of material is put aside and the overall process
is stretched out. I can’t really go into any specific detail as to the content except to say that we’re exploring a different field and hope that it results in something engaging.
Q: I’m sure that everybody is thrilled that Yourself and Davidhave collaborated to create the Samadhi Sound label, and it can only mean that we will be treated to some great new music in the near future. Do you hope to expand the label to welcome other artists who are looking for a vehicle
in which to produce and distribute their music that would normally be shunned by the major labels?
A: The very survival of an artist owned label with only modest sales is in itself a bit of a task and therefore the idea of developing other artists and fulfilling their expectations would be quite an undertaking. However, it’s possible to expand the forum through personal contact and shared
Q: I interviewed David for my Rock Interviews site some time back, and he was very excited to talk about you, and he stated that he thought that you and he were closer now than you have ever been in your lives. Has this helped the creative process in the studio, having that brotherly bond again?
A: Certainly. It’s a comfortable and exciting environment to be working in. The fact that we share a history that goes right back to the very beginning of our musicality means that there’s an underlying unity that provides us with a great level of intuitiveness towards one another’s musical output today.
Q: Is it too early to ask when your collaboration album might be released on
A: Yes, it is a bit too early. We won’t be releasing it this year as we plan to tour in September / October to promote Blemish and November to February is not a good time for releasing albums. We can aim for the spring or summer of next year.
Q: Turning to working in the studio, on most of your recordings under the Medium Label, I have found that you really do seem to have a nice mix of acoustic drums and programmed drums. Although I have always appreciated the tasteful ways that you have used drum programming to anchor down your music, nothing warms my ears more than hearing the dynamics of your
inimitable acoustic drumming filling out a song. How important is it to you to have acoustic drums in your music?
A: It depends upon the nature of the project. It’s always pleasing to have made a good performance that carries the recording to the next level, however in some circumstances that human element of live performance may be a distracting one i.e. if the direction leans towards electronica. I enjoy electronic music a great deal and the versatility that it offers. At times it can accommodate acoustic drums, performances but not as a rule, (Flanger being a great exception…. listen to ‘Templates’).
Q: I know that You are always on top of the latest musical technology through producing and programming, and it really is amazing what can be done these days through such software as Pro Tools, Cakewalk, etc… , especially when it is in the hands of an experienced and esteemed artist
such as yourself, but there is that inherent danger that more and more musicians and producers become too dependant on the tools available to them. Do you personally feel that it is almost too easy to let technology take over the whole creative process of making music, and is there really any way of knowing where to draw the line on how much emphasis should be placed on the technology?
A: I feel that technology is continually providing exciting new tools to work with and offers great potential to musicians and non-musicians alike – the key factor is, and always will be, the creative individual, not the technology in hand.
Q: Are you still using Digital Performer in your own personal Studiofobia studio for most of your recording needs, or have you gone the way of Pro Tools yet? How user-friendly have you found Pro Tools as compared to Digital Performer?
A: I find DP much more user friendly and also better at handling MIDI data, but PT is the best HD recording system and that’s mainly what we are using at Samadhi Sound.
Q: You have been a longtime endorser of Tama Drums since your very early days in Japan. The acoustic drum market is seemingly becoming saturated these days with many independent drums makers, as well as subsidiaries of the larger drum manufacturers (such as Pacific drums under the parent company of DW drums). What has kept you in the Tama drum “family” after all of these years?
A: To be honest, my endorsement with TAMA was only renewed about a year ago. Prior to that, my last contact with them was back in the late eighties when I switched to Sonor Snares during the Rain Tree Crow recording. After my last visit to Nagoya (where the TAMA factory is situated) in 2001 I was impressed with many of the choices and so hooked up with them again. The overall standard of top manufacturers is pretty comparable, so although you can find a general consistency easily enough, I really think that the thrill is in variety (this mainly refers to the studio environment) and the unique qualities that might be discovered by experimenting with various drum characteristics i.e. quality, age, condition, mic position, tuning, treatments, placement in room.
Q: Much like me, you have had an affinity for using an array of “China” cymbals throughout your career, and to me, they are just the greatest, most accentuating cymbals in the world! Which China cymbal do you consider to have the best, trashiest sound, in your opinion?
A: I still haven’t really heard any as good as those handmade in china. Many, many years ago I bought a whole set that ranged from 10″ to 18″ that were imported by a store called Ray Man’s in London’s Covent Garden who specialise in Indian and Chinese instruments. The cymbals eventually split around the centre as the metal is so thin and trashy, and I’ve returned many
times to buy replacements, but that’s what makes them sound so great. I’ve used them since the Polaroids recording (or perhaps even Quiet Life).
Q: I have always enjoyed your singing on many of the various JBK albums as well as Dolphin Brothers’ Catch The Fall. Many reviewers have described you as taking a somewhat “bashful” approach towards doing vocals for a song, but I think you have a great, under-rated voice. How would you characterize yourself as a vocalist?
A: A dabbler, in much the same way as Eno or Sakamoto might be considered. Let’s just say that I know my limitations.
Q: In 1987, you collaborated for the first time as a duo with Richard Barbieri under the guise of The Dolphin Brothers, and released Catch The Fall. To this day, Catch The Fall continues to be
labeled as somewhat commercial or radio-friendly and is sadly written off by a lot of fans, however, I think that there were a lot of very strong melodies and bits on that album. Was there a conscious effort to create something that would appeal to a wider audience, or were Richard and yourself simply writing what felt appropriate to you at that time?
A: We both felt it a challenge to write song material that wasn’t going in too obscure a direction. We worked incredibly intensely on completing that album in a relatively short period of time. The engineer that was with us had a very ‘punchy’ approach to recording which I think made the music sound a lot more commercial or ‘radio-friendly’ than we’d anticipated – but nonetheless we were pleased with that type of production as it was fresh for us.
Q: In our previous interview together, I posed a question to you where I asked you what, in your opinion, was the most definitive Japan album, and your answer was Rain Tree Crow. Initially, I found that answer a bit surprising, but the more familiar I became with your various other
works, it made perfect sense. Rain Tree Crow seems to have molded the path that you continue to follow to this day. When David, Rich, Mick and Yourself got together to begin work on Rain Tree Crow, were the songs already pre-arranged, or did you just go into the studio and feel each other out musically to see what happened?
A: The latter. It set out initially as an improvised work – rolling the tape and just playing anything that felt appropriate. Interesting events were then captured and followed through with many months of overdubbing work to develop the pieces. In hindsight I think that after so many years of working together as a four piece, although the intention was to create a new work ethic between us, ultimately it resorted to the same set of conditions.
Q: I had heard from various sources that after David finished the final mixes of Rain Tree Crow in your absence, Rich, Mick, & Yourself had stated that the material was far “rockier” or heavier” before David mixed the album. Is this a true assessment, and if so, can you explain what kind of things were mixed down by David, so to speak?
A: I seem to remember that that comment was mainly referring to David’s guitar parts. I think that during the recording process we had become used to hearing the electric guitar parts a lot louder in the monitor mixes than they were in the final mixes. This flattened some of the dynamics and perhaps tamed the rawness or edge to some of the tracks.
Q: Did you feel a sense of closure on the career of Japan with the release of Rain Tree Crow, or was there a sense of closure even before that?
A: I’ve not had a sense of closure with Japan – it’s like family – always a part of your life, your history. It’s not about the group image (as the public sees it) but about the people, who are still a part of my life today and that a sense of closure would constitute a closure to friendship which,
more than 25 years on, still remains.
Q: Although you have clearly taken your own musical path since the mid 80’s and have done such great work within the JBK fold, and with so many varied artists, do you find it frustrating that your name seems to always be preceded by “Ex-Japan drummer”? It seems like virtually every review or article I find, no matter how highly they praise your current work, they cannot refrain from bringing up Japan.
A: It’s naturally going to happen because it’s the most popular work I’ve been associated with, however it can become a bit tiresome. For example, the fact that Q magazine had me in their list of top drummers because of Oil On Canvas and not for anything more recent was both a compliment and a source of frustration.
Q: Are you looking to do any more work with Yukihiro Takahashi in the near future?
A: We’ve not discussed collaborating for some time now. I know that he is working very closely with Hosono for their new unit ‘Sketchshow’ and I’m certain that he’s extremely happy with this situation at the moment as he has a great respect for Hosono (as do I). We keep in touch via email.
Q: Steve, I thank you so much for your time to be here for this interview, and to wrap up, I want to thank you for all of the inspiration your personally have given me as a drummer and musician. That is why I have created this fan site about you, to get your name out there and let people recognize your great achievements as a musician, producer, and writer, and I am excited to hear the great music that you will be making for many years to come. It has been an honor.
A: Thanks Billy – your kind words are graciously received but I feel I’ve not done nearly enough to warrant such compliments.