Japan Interview on the making of Tin Drum

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Japan Interview on the making of Tin Drum

Postby heartofdavid on Sun Jul 29, 2007 2:52 pm

I thought some folks might enjoy reading this.

From ZigZag magazine, December 1981.

Visions of China by Louisa Hennessy

Japan have recently released their fifth album ‘Tin Drum’ to a record buying public who have finally awakened to their existence, and true to their personal tradition of non-compromise, they have ignored all their critics and mass opinion, and moved in a direction which interests them all and which does not cater in any respect to fashion or media pressure.

Just at a time when people all over the country can pick up a copy of any teenage pop magazine and learn that Japan the band are interested in and influenced by the lifestyle, art and people of Japan the country, they have chosen to give us an album loosely based on Chinese music.

Through their recent hit single ‘Quiet Life’ and to a lesser degree through the last two albums, ‘Quiet Life’ and ‘Polaroids’, they have reached a position where they are poised on the brink of success and mass adulation and could so easily capitalize on this and the current vogue for the sort of ‘white funk’ they have been playing in one form or another for a couple of years.

I was interested in finding out more about these people who could so easily reject the certainty of stardom in favor of pursuing their own musical ideas with their typical ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, and also in discovering if they were really as pretentious as they usually appear to be in print.

Accompanied as always by Faithful Fiona The Fearless Photographer, I met all four of them at Air Studios in London where they were recording tapes to be used on their forthcoming British tour in December.

It was the hottest interview I’ve ever experienced – a temperature of approx 28593857 deg. C. in a tiny airless studio where we all (except Richard the synth player who managed to claim the only chair) sat on the floor and turned various shades of pink and sweaty.

Dave Sylvian, vocalist, synth player and guitarist, reclined politely against a stack of something-or-other. Steve Jansen, drummer and marimba player, crouched mean, moody and magnificent in a corner, chomping steadily on peanuts. Mick Karn, bass player, shuffled his little Chinese-shod feet around the floor in front of him whilst the aforementioned Richard Barbieri, surveying us all from his superior position, looked down his nose at us while we looked up his nose at him.

ZZ: Why did you do a Chinese album?
Richard: It’s not really a Chinese album but it’s got a lot of Chinese influences on it. We just like working with different atmospheres I think, obviously things that interest us aren’t always here with us and we are interested in a lot of places we haven’t as yet been to. It was just that whole period in Chinese history that seemed to interest us most, the Mao period.
Mick: The revolution. It just seemed that during the time coming up to writing the material for the album, in very small ways Chinese things kept cropping up. For example, someone would turn up with a Chairman Mao poster and we’d all think how nice it was but that would be it, just a small thing like that. Then we’d suddenly get hold of a traditional Chinese record and go mad about it and go out and buy lots more.

ZZ: It must be fairly political if you’ve chosen that particular time.
Dave: No it’s not political at all, it’s based on the image people have of China or that we have of China. To me time is irrelevant. If someone mentions China to you and you don’t know that much about it you get all different periods coming to mind, it’s hard to fit all the pieces together and that’s what it was like in the beginning. It was loosely based on the music and images, it’s nothing to do with politics.

ZZ: Has the music changed since the revolution?
Dave: Not as far as we can tell from what we’ve been listening to.
Mick: We’ve heard a lot of traditional folk music…
Richard: Chinese orchestral music which doesn’t seem to have changed.
Dave: We started with ‘Canton’ which was the first thing we recorded along with ‘Talking Drum’ and we just decided that they worked so well that we’d arrange the rest of the album around the same ideas.

ZZ: It seems to me to be a very Hollywood version of China that you’re giving us.
Dave: No, we tried to take it in two directions. Something like ‘Canton’ is based very strongly on the traditional side of the music and something like ‘Visions of China’ and ‘Cantonese Boy’ is taking the basic idea and using it as pop music, and we tried to mix that side of it with the traditional music.

ZZ: ‘Canton’ is just a 10-second phrase repeated over and over again…
Dave: We’ve always repeated things, we’ve always based a lot of the stuff we’ve done on repetition.
Mick: It seems to be something the Chinese do a Jersey of a lot. To me this album sounds a lot more commercial than anything we’ve done before because I find Chinese music very commercial, it’s very pop orientated and that’s how this album sounds to us.

ZZ: ‘Canton’ seems to be repeated over and over again to no effect…
Dave: That all depends. If you don’t like it, it will be to no effect, it will bore you, same as ‘Sons of Pioneers’ is just a bass line over and over again with just a few things thrown on top. It will bore you if you don’t like the feel of it, if you don’t (for want of a better phrase) get into it but that applies to all of our music.

ZZ: I think ‘Canton’ is actually an exception – it seemed too trite.
Dave: Because you’re walking on a thin line when you deal with something like Chinese traditional music. So many times it’s been interpreted by Western people that it’s become trite. The idea of working on Chinese based music has been done so many times that everything has come over cheaply, the ideas have never been pushed that far which is probably what you think about ‘Canton’ but for us it’s worked well and Japanese and Chinese people who have heard it actually thought it was taken from original music so it must have worked to some extent.

ZZ: Why did you use Chinese music rather than Japanese?
Dave: I personally prefer Chinese music. I like the orchestration, I like the harmonies they use, but the tapes we used are all Japanese voices because I prefer the Japanese language.
Mick: But then again it all depends on the time you do the album. If we’d done the album six months ago it might have been more Japanese than Chinese, it just happened to come at this time when we were building up towards a Chinese phase.

ZZ: Don’t you feel guilty about plundering other people’s music?
Dave: As far as we’re concerned, we haven’t taken anything directly from Chinese music, we’ve used the influences. Steve’s playing at times sounds traditional, the drum patterns and so on, but we’ve no idea how authentic they really sound.
Mick: Most of the things we listened to didn’t have drums or bass in them.
Dave: They’re out of our own minds. I don’t think Steve’s ever listened in depth to traditional playing.
Steve: In traditional music it’s mostly a physical thing, it’s the sort of music people dance around campfires t, I mean traditional traditional music, and it’s just a case of taking that sort of feel and using it.
Dave: Yes, I’d agree with that, this music is far more physical than anything else we’ve done, even the sounds on the synths are more acoustic than they are synthetic.

ZZ: Do you think a lot of your music is spontaneous?
Dave: The original inspiration is.
Steve: We usually have a certain amount of the songs arranged before we go into the studio and once we get into the studio that’s usually the most spontaneous part.
Dave: We worked much harder on these arrangements simply because they’re so sparse, everything had to have the perfect sound for that line and it had to do just the right amount and no more because we wanted to leave it as barren as possible. We didn’t want to clutter it up like ‘Polaroids’ where there were so many underlying things you don’t actually hear that just work as texture.

ZZ: The ‘Nightporter’ song on ‘Polaroids’ is very Erik Satie.
Dave: Yes.
Richard: Exactly the same.
ZZ: If I’d written it I’d be highly embarrassed…
Dave: Why?
ZZ: Because it’s so similar.
Dave: It’s more a tribute to him.
ZZ: Up to a certain point it’s a compliment and after that it’s total plunder.
Richard: We’d be the first ones not to want to make a hash of something Erik Satie stood for and that’s why we’re pleased with it because it’s so close.
Dave: We could have just taken one of his actual tracks and put vocals to it but then we’re destroying something that maybe wasn’t his original intention so the idea was to do something quite close. Someone was saying the other day that people compare us all the time to different things because we’re not influenced by normal sources so if we took a normal rock ’n’ roll riff people wouldn’t say “well don’t you think you’re really stealing from so and so?”
ZZ: Of course they would.
Dave: They don’t.
ZZ: They do.
Dave: No, they don’t, they never do. There are so many albums released each week and you don’t get criticism so much of the style of the music as the content of the songs.
Richard: It’s because the songs have been influenced by something relatively untouched that they notice that.

ZZ: The singing seems slightly different on the new album.
Dave: There’s a style that I’ve kept to obviously but the voice is just like an instrument, for instance if you use synths you’ve got so many variations of sound you can use but you have to develop a sound that becomes your character so that when people hear it they just don’t hear a synth, they heard something they relate immediately to you. I think the voice works on this album, I could have changed the style and gone for something different but I don’t think it was necessary.

ZZ: But is has changed since ‘Polaroids’, hasn’t it?
Dave: Maybe a little but then that’s a quite natural progression. I haven’t noticed it myself, to be honest I haven’t concentrated on my vocals at all, I’ve been much more interested in playing.

ZZ: It sounds more strained on ‘Tin Drum.’
Steve: That is due to production, the production on the last album was done in such a way that the voice was set into the track, in a lot of cases we used echo and made the track sound washed out, but on this album things are obtruding more.
Dave: That’s one of our criticisms of ‘Polaroids’ that it is too perfect in its production and layout.

ZZ: Is this your new crude image? The new wild Japan?
Dave: It’ll never be wild, it’s just something you have to do, it gets to the point where you’ve been working together for such a long time that you get to a point where every time it’s got to be better than last time, production-wise, your personal input has to be better than last time.
Steve: Your attitude has to be different as well.
Dave: If you don’t do that it becomes so polished that it becomes numb to listen to which is the state we were reaching with ‘Polaroids’. I never listen to that album for that reason.

ZZ: You don’t do a lot of your instrumental pieces on stage do you?
Dave: No, it’s difficult to do too many in a show. We do still plan to do a show where it will be all that kind of music.
Mick: We’ve always wanted to do that but it’s difficult enough where we have a part in the show where it lulls down and relaxes. You end up somewhere like The Lyceum doing it which is absolute chaos because nobody can sit down and relax and listen to it because they’re all being shoved round in a crowd.

ZZ: You update a lot of your stuff when you play live, don’t you?
Mick: We usually do every time we tour, we try and change some of the old ones that don’t sound right.
Richard: It’s just so hard to work up a feeling for songs on the first two albums so we try to make them more interesting but there won’t be any on the next tour.

ZZ: Don’t you think people still want to hear them?
Dave: It’s not what people want, it’s what we want to do. If you can’t play them with any feeling there’s no point in playing them at all.
Richard: It’s very hard to think of what people want all the time, you can only think of what you want and then after that maybe give consideration to what other people want. It sounds selfish but it’s the only way you can do it.
Dave: I don’t think you should ever compromise. We compromise between the four of us and the producer, and that’s as far as it should go, and we have real problems ‘cos everyone has their own ideas about how they want to hear something so if you start thinking about the audience as well…obviously a lot of people who liked the last two albums aren’t going to like this one but then it wasn’t designed to be listened to by the same people, it was just for our own benefit – we wanted to do it.

ZZ: You always seem as if when you’re on stage you’re doing us a big favor in condescending to play to us.
Dave: That’s your paranoia. It would have to be because that isn’t our attitude.
Steve: We enjoy it, we can only disagree, it must be your paranoia.

Fiona: I often feel that when you come off stage, Dave, you must have an aching jaw from your plastic smile and that you’re thinking, “Oh I hate doing this.”
Dave: I wouldn’t smile if I didn’t want to. I never smile falsely. If I had to act I wouldn’t do it, that’s why I don’t do tours for a long period of time. There are nights when we play and I don’t do anything except just stand there and sing, I feel the audience might be getting a bit bored but then I might be a bit bored doing it so what would they prefer to see, me putting on an act just to please them or me singing the songs as I feel them that night. I can do exactly what I feel. So many people misinterpret the way we do things, they feel it might be a bit pompous but it never is.

ZZ: You don’t project your personality into the performance?
Dave: Into the music yes, but like you say about the smile, I don’t project myself to the audience and say “here I am, aren’t you glad to see me?”, I’m not that kind of person. I just stand there and play and when I’m excited by what’s happened then maybe I get excited by it, but I can only do what I feel at that time. I don’t know why people have that feeling. I know you’re not the only person that feels that way. I can’t understand it.
Richard: (the voice of reason) It’s simple, they wouldn’t come and see it if they didn’t want to see it and we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t want to do it.
Fiona: But are you sure? You wouldn’t prefer just recording?
Dave: If we don’t tour, like we didn’t tour with ‘Quiet Life’, we live with the album but you don’t get it out of your system so you can’t move on. When we started ‘Polaroids’ we hadn’t moved on, we were still trapped, so by touring after ‘Polaroids” we managed to get it all out of our systems and do something different. I prefer to enjoy music for myself in there (pointing to brain) as opposed to anything physical or enjoy it with a group of people and share it, so as that is my attitude that ‘s obviously how I’m going to be on stage. I think that most of the people think like I do. There again I might be wrong but I’m catering for the people who think like me because as Richard says you can only do what you want to do, so you have to believe that you’re not an oddball and that there are other people out there who feel the same way as you do. You have to take that chance.

I don’t know if reading this has enabled anyone to reach a greater understanding of Japan’s music and attitudes. Talking to them certainly helped me to reach some sort of appreciation of the way they go about things. It appeared to me that David Sylvian in particular enjoys music, whether listening to it or playing it, in a different way to (probably) most people in that the pleasure he gains from it seems to be on an intellectual level rather than on an emotional, physical level. This would explain the feeling a lot of people get from seeing them play live that there is a barrier between band and audience, each side expecting something from the other that is not in their nature to give.

As far as being pretentious goes, they struck me as being amongst the least pretentious band I’ve met – they seem totally sincere in their beliefs and are prepared to submit themselves to periodic interrogations in order to try and clarify their views to a disbelieving public who can see no further than a fictitious image created by the music press. Sophistication does not automatically mean superficiality.
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Postby Bridget on Sun Jul 29, 2007 3:06 pm

Thank you so much heartofdavid!

You're sharing so many articles with us, thank you :-)
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Postby sisterlondon on Sun Jul 29, 2007 6:41 pm

Thanks for that one hon! Very interesting. And Rich managed to get the chair, LOL! :P
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Postby heartofdavid on Sun Jul 29, 2007 8:07 pm

sisterlondon wrote:And Rich managed to get the chair, LOL! :P

King Richard took the throne! I think Steve chomping peanuts is hysterical - wonder if he offered to share them. :lol:
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Postby sisterlondon on Sun Jul 29, 2007 8:23 pm

I can imagine him sitting there and looking from above to the ones on the floor, LOL!
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Postby krausy on Sun Jul 29, 2007 9:32 pm

That is a great article and I appreciate you bringing it over here, because many of us would have never found this and/or been able to read something like this.

I for one am glad of some of the questions and topics that were brought up. I think it was very important to ask them not only for the answers and the attempts at clarification, but just to let the band know that the questions were being raised in the first place.
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Postby heartofdavid on Sun Jul 29, 2007 9:43 pm

You're welcome. :-) I like the pointed questioning as well.

If I have the time I'll get some more in. I'm still looking for the ZigZag with a Mick Karn interview, but I have another with him that's fairly interesting, a translation from a Japanese magazine, done just before Japan's final tour. The only one I have right now available to post is one I posted in my LJ journal - Steve remembering his childhood, done like an essay rather than an interview. Cute and fun, but nothing insightful, lol.
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Postby ellyn sylvian on Mon Jul 30, 2007 4:22 am

Wonderful read!! Thanks!! :D
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Postby camphorvan on Mon Jul 30, 2007 12:31 pm

Funniest Sylvian interview I'e ever read. Thanks! The interviewer seems to be bating them. How this person escaped unharmed is a mystery.

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Postby japanfan on Mon Jul 30, 2007 2:16 pm

It seems to me that the interviewer is being really cheeky. Im surprised the band didnt react to it and tell the interviewer where to go!
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Postby BeehiveSecrets on Fri Oct 05, 2007 5:57 pm

can i kill those ladies? David is being patient as Jersey. thanks for sharing!
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Postby Melaszka on Mon Oct 08, 2007 1:32 pm

This is a brilliant find. Thank you so, so much for sharing it.

Yes, the interviewer gave them a really hard time, but to her credit she concluded by saying they'd shattered her preconceptions of them being pretentious poseurs and she seemed really impressed- I think that says far more than an interviewer being sycophantic the whole way through and writing something insincere and bland. And by pressing them so aggressively, she got them to reveal a heck of a lot.

I'm amazed at how much of what they say still rings true today - the whole "take it or leave it" attitude and David's comments about not faking emotion he doesn't feel when he plays live would be incredibly apt responses to criticisms of Blemish or his latest tour.
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Postby BeehiveSecrets on Tue Oct 09, 2007 12:34 pm

since when h/ell is a swear word or what is the reason it's been changed to "Jersey" lmao?
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Postby Astronaut on Tue Feb 19, 2008 12:28 pm

Heart of David thank you for sharing this with us. I'd never read it before and it was very informative. It goes to show how little people really change over the years. David, for example despite all his attempts at personal change and spiritual growth and development, appears to be fundamentally the same guy he was back in 1981 (of course I'm not suggesting he hasn't changed at all - that would be ridiculous and also improbable) but his innate reticence is still intact. He's still very much a 'take it or leave it' kind of guy! And Richard is still 'the voice of reason'. Thanks once again I enjoyed reading this.
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Postby Trantor on Thu May 08, 2008 7:25 am

Nice interview.
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