Interview by Laurie Lewis with David Sylvian as published in SOUNDS (UK), September 27 1986.
As DAVID SYLVIAN settles into the quiet life of solo status, CHRIS ROBERTS appraises the significant stature of his post-Japan harmonics and post-mascara beauty. Gentleman
in Polaroid by LAURIE LEWIS
“Everthing is sex. Everybody’s appreciation of form comes from an appreciation of sex.” – Henry Moore.
A BIRD OF PREY VANISHES
SOME THINGS are not instantly comprehensible (easy to understand). The dense majority of British people fear these, and lash out. They’d prefer a world without nuance, grace, flair, love. To them the word “art” is pretentious but the words “royalty”, “boss” and “television” gleam with magical connotations.
INTO A BRIGHT BLUE CLOUDLESS SKY
HERE IS where you are now. You are sitting tautly on a sofa in Kensington. The green to your left is doubtless a rubber tree. Yuka is writing, or perhaps drawing (she’s too symbolic for you to scrutinise) at a wooden desk by the wall. A human has just picked up some cushions. He arranges these efficiently on the floor opposite you, and sits there. Reclining figure. He smokes French cigarettes, would you believe, and drinks Perrier water. Actually it was you that asked for Perrier water when Yuka gave you the choice. You think this is probably one of the coolest things you ever did in your life.
“So you were unwell yesterday?” you say to the human. You know this because your meeting was postponed. It’s Saturday morning now, two jackets later.
“Oh, it’s just … they want to open up my insides.”
Because you do not shriek, No!
Don’t you dare touch him, you fools at this stage, you realise you are going to be able to be calm in the presence of.
WHEN THE ROOM IS QUIET
ANITA LOOS’ sequel to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was called But They Marry Brunettes. This is one of the most appallingly underpublicised facts in literary history.
The human is Sylvian.
You say this to yourself (but silently, in your head) every few minutes. You say, “This is Sylvian.”
The “plain” look is not plain. It’s more broad-shouldered than anticipated, more consummate and strong.
He’s not shy or paranoid. At all. He’s very relaxed. It’s like his breathing is right or something. His talking voice is glacial harmonics. Playing the tape back you can detect just a trace of Cockney running underneath the absence of accent, but that’s quite becoming. You’re told nothing more than you should know.
There are the yellow-tinted glasses and then the nose, the mouth, the jaw. All the angles are still, rest assured, angelic. If Sylvian wasn’t nonchalantly beautiful you don’t believe you’d believe the world was round. Years ago you left home singing ‘Love Is Infectious’ and never went back. Sylvian hates that song now. You don’t. This is one difference.
IT SEEMS THERE’S SOMETHING I SHOULD KNOW
“I WOULDN’T dismiss pop music. It’s easy to generalise and say it’s all superficial and meaningless or whatever, but I don’t believe it is. A great deal of it is, it’s just based on ego and image and style … but in a way a lot of people need that. Music which just lifts them up for a moment and then can be forgotten. That’s quite important.”
And of course …
“Elegance isn’t something that should be contrived. It was with Japan.”
And then …
“Yes .. to be in control is allimportant, but it’s so difficult. There are times … it’s been described by various philosophies … when the average person is asleep, and unaware that they’re asleep. To apply yourself to the spiritual is to wake up, break out of that sleep, to always be aware of what you’re doing. Being in control of your emotions … and … and – ha ha ha – of destiny, if you’re very strong.”
I wonder who this is. “This is Yuka.”
Forgive me but … I think she’s made you happy.
“There isn’t any tension, and then there is, and then there isn’t, really.
“I mean – I have a great relationship with Yuka, but I’m not complacent enough to sit back and think, Great, my world’s fine. I hope that doesn’t come over in the music because I’m always very unhappy about my current situation – I always want to strive further, whether it’s in a spiritual sense, or in work, or in relationships. I always want to get more out of it.
“People always have an idea that one day they’d like to live somewhere, they’d like to have a house somewhere. I think that’s a longing for something inside; there’s a place inside where that serenity exists. Safe and sound with yourself. I don’t say I have it, it’s something I long for. But I know it exists and I’m working towards it in the most practical way possible.”
How far have you gone?
“Well, I’ve made steps. It’s debatable whether I’ll get any further!”
DANCING TO YOUR HEART NOW BABY, OH WHAT A WAY TO START
DAVID SYLVIAN, from Catford, once fronted a “sleazy” glam-rock band called japan, who released two albums, ‘Adolescent Sex’ and ‘Obscure Alternatives’.
Do you really hate those as much as you tend to say you do in interviews? Aren’t they at least “fun”? Youthful buoyancy, etc?
“I don’t cringe as much as I laugh! I don’t take it so seriously as to worry about it. I understand the train of thought. It doesn’t bother me.”
And whatever happened to the self-conscious “political awareness” coquettishly lilting through ‘Rhodesia’, ‘Communist China’, ‘Suburban Berlin’ … ?
“But they weren’t politically aware! Really! They were just playing with imagery. I get angry sometimes that I get letters from people who like those lyrics, and I think – how can I explain to them that they’re meaningless? But anyway, that’s not really worth covering … ”
Still, you did better than most.
DID NOBODY TELL YOU, GIRL? LOVE’S IN VOGUE AGAIN
NEXT THING you knew, and cared for, there was a Japan whose ‘Quiet Life’ anthem was raped every which way by a movement calling themselves “the new romantics”. Then ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’ and ‘Tin Drum’ achieved what had seemed distinctly improbable commercial success and respect as skilled and innovative musicians.
Popularity was undeniably precipitated by looks looks looks deluxe.
Every time I hear you sneer “Boys … ” as ‘Quiet Life’ revolves I think it’s the dawn of the ironic era …
“A lot of those things were tonguein-cheek and were taken more seriously than intended. Even ‘Red Guitar’ was. I think the humour – if you can call it humour – is so slight that it can be confused sometimes. For me ‘Cantonese Boy’ and ‘Visions Of China’ were just fun … and maybe slightly cynical. Parodying. The obviousness of the whole game annoyed me.
“With japan there was, as you say, an aesthetic ideal: the whole band was put together around – well, mainly probably more my ideals than the others’. When it spit up I felt a kind of freedom. Those ideals were superficial anyway; a gloss on a package. Whatever’s there now is more instinctively in tune with any aesthetic sense I possess. I try to put over the ideas I have in the most concise form possible.
“Of course I never think I achieve that perfection but you have to aim for it. Otherwise I’ve failed, and the music for me is worthless.
“I’m far less satisfied with my solo work than I was with japan’s. I’m less sure of it. But at the same time I feel it’s more valuable. If that makes sense.”
THE BLOOD OF THE POET
THE SOLO Sylvian has so far produced the ecstatic and embraceable ‘Brilliant Trees’, the indulgent ‘Words With The Shaman’, and now the next-togodliness-only-higher ‘Gone To Earth’ .
His next single will be ‘Silver Moon’. Paul Verlaine (1844-96) wrote a poem called ‘La Lune Blanche’. In it there are many French words with meanings like “profound”, “vast”, “starlit”, “tender”, and “willows”. But they sound sweeter in French.
Anyway, all I’m saying is, there may or may not be a link. I forget to ask, just like I forget to tell him that Liz Fraser really wants to sing with him sometime if he’d care to think about it.
I HEAR YOUR VOICE
“THE INSTRUMENTALS on ‘Gone To Earth’ are environmental music that shouldn’t really be listened to intensely. When I’ve listened to it that way I’ve become uncomfortable with it. It works best in a room where a conversation’s going on, or somebody’s working, where the concentration’s divided. The instrumentals are becoming more and more important to me. They’ll become less ambient, more positive.” .
The songs, however, dance with Eros, don’t they? As in ‘Wave’, where “I’d tear my very soul to make you mine” cuts through the understatement like thunder running scared. They’re romantic love songs, aren’t they? But the soul goes beyond being.
“Well, they are based on the romantic ballad but the idea is they should work on a much higher level. Most of the lyrics have double meanings. It’s easy to get obscure when you’re writing about things on a … (coughs) … spiritual level or … or whatever. I’ve tried to keep it basic. I persevere with ballads or love songs because that’s the most classic form in pop music, so I thought if people understood the form I could take more liberties with it. Maybe ‘Ghosts’ is still the best example. A lot of the abstract painters used the portrait as a foundation to work from: it gives everybody a way in.”
Listen to ‘Ghosts’ again sometime and try to imagine it “making” the Top Five and being performed on Top Of The Pops. Because that’s what happened. And that’s subversion. Darling.
THERE’S STRENGTH INSIDE LIKE I’VE NEVER KNOWN
ISN’T IT strange we’re discussing “spirituality” in the context of promoting a record?
“I know what you mean, but I’m quite willing to talk about it: it just becomes very abstract. Everybody has a different idea of what ‘the spirit’ is. My own experiences probably wouldn’t enlighten anybody else in any way. I can only emphasise how important it is to me; it’s my major interest and it sets my values and morals. That hopefully reflects in my work.”
Has it fostered a greater self-love?
“I hope it does the opposite! Selfunderstanding and self-love are very different. I found it very difficult, having worked in the pop world for so long, to overcome vanity. Often I worry in case I’ve lapsed.”
So you’ve toned down your visual image to stress that point?
“That happened naturally. I just became less interested in it. It’s more comfortable not being recognised, not being bothered at home or in the street.”
But can’t glamour be an art form in itself?
“It’s something you have to live out. You can’t just dip into it while you’re on TV being lightentertainment. If you do live the whole fantasy, become it – then yes, it can be an art form. And I don’t think it’s totally vacuous. It’s necessary for some. I enjoy it as much as anybody but it’s not important for me now in my work.”
RELAX AND SWING
DO YOU ever do anything completely out of character? Betray the persona?
“‘Let your hair down’? Ha ha, what a question. Hmm. Not as a rule, no.”
“But I do sometimes, yes. It depends … there are times when I need to relax, just let go. That normally happens just after I finish an album. I need to forget myself and just get drunk for a week or something. Just lose myself. And yeah, then I do. And I don’t normally regret those periods.”
Do they teach you things?
“No. No, I think you find out more about yourself under totally different circumstances. When you’re put into situations you have no control over.”
“Well, I used to travel to be inspired, to tip the balance so ideas would overflow. I can now get to that stage without needing to travel, which is … I’m pleased about that. It makes me a stronger person. I can tap a source within.”
So indulgence is just a safety valve?
“A release, to stop you from breaking up inside. You need it, everybody needs it.”
WHY AM I THE LAST TO KNOW?
“I can’t imagine who my audience are now. The age group or whatever. If you had an audience in mind you’d either by playing down to it or playing up to your pretensions. You have to do it blind, be guided by instinct.”
What do you do when things go wrong?
“I go through periods when I’m very in control of the anxieties and pressures inside. But there’s other times when it’s just a jumble, just confusion, and I’m totally lost. But I have a joy of life which goes beyond my own circumstances, so therefore if I’m suffering in some way whether it’s health or work problems or relationships, whatever – I love the life which goes beyond all that, beyond surroundings. This is new for me. It was quite a revelation. I opened up to … nature, for example. Before that, I looked at it like a picture postcard. I didn’t feel it.
“There’s no easy way out. You have to really apply yourself. And it can be frustrating … nobody can make-changes in themself before it’s their time.
“‘Gone To Earth’ is a very optimistic record. For me it has a lightness, an exuberance.”
What’s your reaction to, say, slobbery football fans stomping along the road?
“Normally, anger. But it helps not to just reject things, which it’s in my nature to do. I would be very flippant and arrogant, through ignorance. At least now I can understand a little more, criticise less easily.”
You’re not competitive?
“I have no real ambitions careerwise. Number One albums and hits in the States … these things already seemed unimportant when Japan split up, I’d already lost that.”
“Music is all-important now. The Polaroids and drawings served as an education, it was a naive pleasure to move into other areas. I’m not sure I was justified in thrusting it on the public. I was weak at the time.”
THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET GIVES ME SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO (or: WE’LL FACE THE DAYS TOGETHER)
” … TO BUILD up a feeling/emotion/atmosphere through the lyrics and chord changes and really just let the tail end of the music … allow the listener to find themselves somewhere in it.
“Yes, that’s something I enjoy doing.”
BUT ONLY YOU COULD KNOW
“I SUPPOSE the people who say the music’s depressing are people who are uncomfortable with themselves. The kind of people who don’t like to be alone. I think my music helps people to reflect upon themselves and a lot don’t like that. They don’t like to be forced into that position.”
THIS LIGHT INSIDE CAN NEVER DIE
“Without art nothing happens.”